When dealing with the delicate matter of finally exiting the EU we might imagine government would seek the input of experts in the field before drawing up plans.
Sadly, according to the body which represents its native freight forwarders, the UK authorities seem to be pursuing a course which is likely to end in a fractious outcome of delays and expense for all concerned unless a changed tack is considered.
The government’s planning for Brexit has certainly shown its vulnerability to its own lack of competence before now, hence the ‘failing’ Grayling ferry debacle. Now, amidst rumours that it aims to open a new customs academy in Kent without consulting the professional organisations which deal with such niceties as training the new generation of Customs agents, the Johnson government seems set on a dubious end to such matters with the passing of the transition period at the end of the year.
In a piece in the Financial Times today Robert Keen, Director General of the British International Freight Association (BIFA) said the government is falling short in its ambition to have 50,000 new Customs agents in place by the deadline and demanded a rethink after his organisation, which represents companies that are on the front line in the management of the UK’s visible imports and exports, conducted a survey in response to the UK government’s insistence that it will not ask to extend the transition period.
The survey revealed considerable concerns regarding the recruitment of staff qualified and experienced in Customs procedures and the lack of available time to train them. With no extension to the transition period, 50% of respondents felt they would not have sufficient staff to undertake the additional Customs-related work that will be required from January 1st 2021, whilst 60% felt they would not have time for comprehensive training of new recruits.
Keen commented: “This is not a political comment from our members. They are a pragmatic group. They understand that the UK has left the EU. It is a clear message to Government that BIFA members and the clients that they serve have great reservations over whether they will have the capacity to handle the major changes to the UK’s trading relationship at the start of 2021, such as new customs documentation and procedures.”
In a recent letter to the parliamentary committee responsible for the UK’s future relationship with the EU, BIFA raised ongoing concerns over potentially misleading and ambiguous comments from politicians and government regarding Customs matters.
Now, while reiterating his call for an extension, the talk of an academy being set up seemingly without any consultation with the industry experts, particularly as BIFA provides the largest tranche of the country’s Customs training services, has caused Keen to speak up again, saying: “Sadly, it is a further example of the lack of meaningful consultation with UK trade regarding the policies and procedures required in order to ensure that trade with the EU can continue relatively uninterrupted post December 31st 2020. With very little progress to date on key negotiating points in the formal talks and with many of the civil service resources previously assigned to support negotiations reallocated to deal with the coronavirus emergency response, it would be very risky and unwise not to seek an extension.
“Even before the pandemic, our members were concerned that the 11-month transition wouldn’t leave enough time to prepare for a potential no deal. Having had their businesses affected badly by the effects of the pandemic, I really do wonder whether they, and the clients they serve, will have the capacity to increase readiness for a sharp change in trading practices and conditions from the start of next year.
“We know that the Government is capable of listening to advice from business. Last Friday’s announcement that workers within the haulage and freight industry are exempt from the government’s new measures concerning travellers entering the country, resulted from much lobbying by BIFA amongst others.
“When 72% of the 400 BIFA member companies which completed the survey, and are actively involved day-to-day in managing the UK’s visible imports and exports, call for an extension of the transition period, we can only hope that the Government will again be listening.”