Virus Hits U.K. Bid to Hire 50,000 Post-Brexit Customs Staff
(Bloomberg) -- The U.K. risks failing to recruit the 50,000 customs agents the logistics industry says are needed before Britain’s final parting with the European Union, spelling potential chaos at the country’s busiest border.
The coronavirus has hampered efforts to train staff to handle the extra paperwork firms will need to complete after the U.K. exits the EU’s customs union at the year-end, according to industry bodies involved with the process. One lobby group says its offer to help plug the shortage of recruits has met with silence from Whitehall.
Without enough agents, goods traveling to and from the EU, the U.K.’s single biggest trading partner, risk being delayed at ports, disrupting supply chains and heaping more pain on companies reeling from coronavirus. Even if the two sides strike a trade deal by December, agents will still be needed to process an additional 200 million customs declarations, according to estimates by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs.
“This is all blown out the water by the virus,” said Robert Keen, director-general of the British International Freight Association, which is helping to train workers to process the new paperwork with funding from a 34 million-pound ($43 million) government program. “Everybody is fighting to keep their businesses going.”
Keen’s industry group has postponed its classroom training until at least June. The number of monthly registrations for its online learning course has dropped by 80% since February.
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Asked by lawmakers on April 27 how many agents have been recruited so far, Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove said he didn’t know.
He told members of Parliament the government had been in talks with the logistics industry about creating a training school. Such an initiative already exists -- the U.K. Customs Academy was started in September with the Institute of Export. 876 courses have been initiated or completed since the academy opened, according to KGH Customs, which helps run the program.
“There is a significantly long way to go,” said Marco Forgione, director-general of the Institute for Export. According to him, the 50,000 figure is almost certainly a conservative estimate of how many agents will be needed. He is calling on the government to encourage people who have lost their jobs because of the virus to re-train as customs officials.
In a sign of how the virus has sapped attention away from Brexit in Whitehall, the Freight Transport Association submitted a proposal to the Treasury on March 17 about how to set up a mass education program to train up agents. More than a month later, the lobby group hasn’t received a reply.
“My impression is it has come to a full stop,” said Rod McKenzie, managing director of policy and public affairs at the Road Haulage Association. He expressed surprised he hadn’t seen any job ads for customs agents. “Nothing is happening.”
Talks to seal a trade deal between Britain and the EU have been disrupted by the virus. The U.K. is seeking a Canada-style accord which would eliminate tariffs on goods but create new non-tariff barriers like customs declarations and rules-of-origin paperwork. Without a deal, the U.K. would trade with the EU on terms set by the World Trade Organization, meaning steep duties on products from cars to beef.
Need to Prepare
The two sides have until the end of June to extend the standstill period Britain entered after Brexit on Jan. 31 -- but the government has repeatedly ruled out seeking a delay. Business groups such as BIFA and the FTA have called for an extension, arguing firms shouldn’t have to face the double whammy of higher trade costs while still recovering from the negative effects of coronavirus.
A government spokesman said thousands of agents, freight forwarders and parcel operators had used the 34 million-pound fund to improve their IT hardware and train staff.
“The U.K. has a well-established industry of customs intermediaries who serve British businesses trading outside the EU,” the spokesman added.
Even if firms are able to divert resources into training later in the year, by when the virus might have abated, companies will still need time to prepare, said Arne Mielken, founder of Customs Manager, an advisory firm for importers and exporters.
“You can’t hammer in customs knowledge overnight,” he said. “We urge companies not to neglect the fact that Brexit is still happening.”
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