Customs agents not ready for Brexit trade with EU, survey shows

Almost two-thirds of customs brokers do not have enough staff to handle the extra paperwork needed to trade across the EU-UK border after January 1, a survey by Britain’s leading customs and logistics trade association has found.

The British International Freight Association said that its membership’s capacity to manage the extra workload had contracted over the summer due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the lack of clear guidance from the government on new customs processes. 

The findings come as industry analysts warn of a growing risk that EU and UK negotiators will not reach a trade agreement this year amid a stand-off between Brussels and London over the Northern Ireland protocol.

HM Revenue & Customs has estimated that British businesses will have to fill out an additional 260m customs forms a year as a result of Brexit, and many will need the expertise of the intermediaries that make up Bifa’s membership. 

An additional 50,000 new customs agents could be required to meet the extra demand, according to industry estimates, but despite a £50m government scheme to support training, the numbers have fallen far short.

Robert Keen, the director-general of Bifa, said the survey showed that much greater clarity was needed from the government on the Border Operating Model that was published in July but which left many operational questions unanswered.

“The results indicate that the recent publication of the Border Operating Model has not greatly assisted members’ understanding of procedures regarding imports and exports between the EU and UK, and GB and Northern Ireland, respectively,” he said.

The government has launched a multimillion-pound advertising campaign with the slogan “Check, Change, Go” to warn businesses that they needed to prepare for the new EU-UK trade border, but the Bifa survey found that the message was not cutting through.

More than 50 per cent of the 267 respondents said they had not received direct communication from the government on the EU exit, and less than 40 per cent of those that had found the materials clear and accurate.

Over half also said they were unfamiliar with the government’s two new IT systems for trade with the EU after January 1 — the Goods Vehicle Management System (GVMS) and the Smart Freight Service.

Mr Keen said the survey showed that the capacity of members to deal with the extra paperwork had actually contracted since May, when 50 per cent of respondents had felt they would not have enough staff by the January 1 2021 deadline.

“In the latest survey that has increased to 64 per cent of respondents, which makes sense in light of the fact that 69 per cent of respondents in our latest survey said the Covid-19 pandemic had impacted on their ability to prepare for the end of the transition period,” he said.

The findings echo concerns raised by independent customs consultants. Anna Jerzewska, a leading trade consultant, last week warned MPs on the select committee for the Future Relationship with the EU that companies were still awaiting guidance on basic issues, such as duty deferment schemes and simplified customs procedures.

She said that for the border to function, a complex web of providers needed to be ready: this meant not only hauliers and customs brokers, but all the relevant government departments, port authorities and traders, along with getting to grips with three new UK government IT systems, and up to 10 across the EU.

“Border readiness should be measured by the weakest link in this chain — if one of the elements isn’t ready the entire process slows down. At the moment none of the parties are ready for January 1,” she said.

Richard Burnett, chief executive of the Road Haulage Association, said the Bifa survey echoed the concerns of his members.

He added that chaos around Dover and Kent would also risk deterring EU lorry drivers — who currently make up 85 per cent of truck drivers crossing the Channel — from coming to the UK, or it could result in them demanding large premiums, driving up prices for consumers and retailers.

“This survey by Bifa just reinforces the scale of the challenge we face, given the time we have left before the new border comes into force. We are not going to be ready,” he warned.

A Cabinet Office spokesperson said the government’s campaign clearly set out the actions people and businesses needed to take to prepare for the end of the transition period. 

“We have published easy to use step-by-step guides on importing and exporting, written to more than 200,000 traders and published the border operating model which sets out in detail the border processes for the end of the year. We also meet with Bifa and other industry groups on a regular basis.”

The spokesperson said they would be intensifying engagement with businesses over the coming week.

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