The UK’s freight forwarders’ association, BIFA, has warned that the government had failed to recognise the practical constraints to building sufficient post-Brexit customs agent capacity in the industry which was still reeling from coronavirus.
Industry experts agree that the proposed £50 millon funding to hire 50,000 custom brokers, to cope with an estimated 215 million additional customs declarations, is not enough and the scope is too narrow for the huge logistical challenge that will ensue, after Brexit transition ends.
Richard Burnett, chief executive of the Road Haulage Association, says the terms to access the funding is simply too narrowly focused. “The government is completely complacent on this issue. It takes six months to a year to train one person properly and as it stands today we have five months to do this.
“Whatever the framework that is announced on Wednesday it will not support speeding this up to the degree that is required. No matter which way you turn this is flawed,” he said.
Bosses have also raised alarm over whether companies which have hit the EU’s state-aid limits of €200,000 over three years as a result of the Covid-19 crisis will still be able to access the grant funding.
They also said the scheme only covers 600 businesses and should be extended to general traders and not just customs intermediaries.
Robert Windsor, executive director at BIFA, said money was not an instant panacea warning that £50m million – or £1,000 for each new agent – would have “little impact” on the problem.
He said the government had failed to recognise the practical constraints to building capacity in the industry which was still reeling from coronavirus. It was also still waiting to see how much EU trade would actually survive after the transition period ends given the additional bureaucratic costs.
Many BIFA members have frozen recruitment because of the Covid-19 crisis, and others were reluctant to accept new clients that had no experience of customs procedures, because the risks and liabilities could be too large. The association’s current training in-take is running at about 50 enrolments a month because of the pandemic.
The Institute for Export and International Trade (IOE) believe the government’s messaging that the £50m funding was purely for intermediaries firms had caused confusion.
“We have three generations of business leaders who have not had to complete a customs form to do trade with Europe. There has to be flexibility not just for business, but also for individuals. We’ve got to build capacity because there is going to be a lack of capacity come January 1 for sure,” he said.
The government will have invested a total of £84m to boost customs training, including a new online customs academy. This has completed some 3,000 courses, with BIFA training another 1,700 intermediaries since 2019, leaving a huge shortfall.
Although industry has estimated 50,000 new customs agents will be required, liability for the declarations will remain with importers and exporters, meaning companies will also need to build in-house customs expertise.
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