U.K. Fund for Brexit Customs Agents Runs Dry Amid Border Chaos

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A government fund set up to help companies process customs paperwork after Brexit is running dry, leaving Britain at risk of a shortage of trained professionals to keep trade flowing.

Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs,the U.K.’s tax-collecting agency, said it has allocated almost all the money from the Customs Grant Scheme, an 84 million-pound ($112 million) program to fund staff training and setting up new IT systems.

“If applications cannot be fulfilled due to funding, applicants will be placed on a waiting list to have funds allocated if and when funds are returned,” HMRC said in a statement. “Businesses may also want to look into support available through government-backed loans schemes like the coronavirus business interruption loan scheme.”

Trade between the U.K. and EU faces severe disruption if the post-Brexit paperwork burden cannot be managed: trucks arriving at the border risk being held up by customs officials for having the wrong documents, risking 7,000-truck-long queues at the border. The Port of Dover, Britain’s busiest crossing point with the EU, is already in chaos after France closed the border to prevent the spread of a new strain of the coronavirus.

The logistics industry estimates U.K. companies will need as many as 50,000 extra customs agents when Britain leaves the EU’s single market and customs union on Dec. 31, because freight moving across the border will be need to be accompanied by a customs declaration. An extra 400 million of them are expected to be filed annually, at a cost of about 13 billion pounds, even if the U.K. and European Union reach a trade deal.

The number of customs agents in the U.K. was about 15,000 a year ago, according to evidence given by Logistics U.K., a trade body, to Parliament in November. In September, a survey by the British International Freight Association found that 64% of respondents didn’t think they’d have sufficient staff to handle the post-Brexit workload.

HMRC said the sector expects to see a near fourfold increase in its capacity to process customs declarations, and that Britain is “well prepared” to deal with the changes at the end of the year.

“We are very concerned that any delays that arise because we have not got the right people in the right place at the right time will make it harder for U.K. businesses to trade with our European neighbors,” a panel of U.K. lawmakers led by Hilary Benn, chair of the Future Relationship with the European Union Committee, said in a report last week. “The government must stand ready to address any shortages in personnel.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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