Industry’s concerns mount over new customs agent arrangements post-Brexit

London, UK: The government has called into question the road haulage industry’s estimate that 50,000 new customs agents will be needed post-Brexit.

The Road Haulage Association (RHA) has estimated that, under a Canada-style trade deal between the EU and UK, which would eliminate most tariffs but still involve customs declarations, an extra 200m forms could be generated each year. According to the RHA, a fully-trained and experience customs agent can handle around 20 customs declarations a day – meaning 50,000 agents would be required to deal with the expected workload.

However, a spokesman for HMRC told Cold Chain News: “The 50,000 isn’t a government figure, it’s an industry estimate so it’s not a target we are working towards.”

Industry bodies fear that the amount of new customs agents needed will not be ready by January 1 next year.

An article in the Financial Times included comments by Richard Burnett, chief executive of the RHA, who said: “It is impossible to think we can train this number of people, get them ready and processes in place to be ready on the first of January.”

Shane Brennan, chief executive of the Cold Chain Federation, said politicians were showing “wilful ignorance” about how “hopelessly ill-prepared both sides are to operate a functioning customs border” in January.

“We didn’t have enough time to put in place the infrastructure, people and systems we needed before Covid-19, (and) we certainly don’t now,” he said.
Robert Keen, director-general of the British International Freight Association (BIFA), has written a letter to the parliamentary committee responsible for the UK’s future relationship with the EU. In his letter, Keen warned that it took “at least a year” to train a customs agent to handle “routine inquiries” given the complexity of the forms.

But with just six months to go until the new customs regime comes into force, concerns are now growing across the haulage industry about the levels of preparedness.

The spokesman for HMRC said: “We already have a well established industry of customs intermediaries who serve British businesses trading outside the EU, and we’ve injected £34m into growing the intermediary sector to support trade after the end of the transition period. This support is going towards recruitment and training of agents as well as improved software and hardware for businesses.

“This funding has led to almost 20,000 applications for customs training courses with providers. These courses will teach all the necessary skills required to handle customs declarations, and includes the online UK Customs Academy founded by HMRC.

“We do already have an online UK Customs Academy – which HMRC is a founder of – that provides accredited online courses that give learners the skills and knowledge to understand customs processes and requirements. Training is structured, starting from basic knowledge, all the way up to Masters-level qualification.

“HMRC’s grant scheme supports the cost of training courses offered by any provider which provides individuals with a working-level knowledge of customs requirements. These courses are online, so there is no practical limit to spaces available, or number of courses that can be undertaken. The Customs Academy is just one of several companies providing training for customs intermediaries in the UK.”

Cabinet minister Michael Gove told MPs last month that the government was in discussions about creating a new customs agent academy, possibly in Kent, while working with industry “to ensure that they have the capacity required”.

The spokesman said that “it’s something on the table” but did not have any further information about it.

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