Freight concern over post-Brexit border arrangements


Freight representatives have responded cautiously to yesterday’s UK government announcements about its plans for post-Brexit border arrangements, expressing concern that the late publication of the planned Border Operating Model and a lack of progress towards recruiting new customs agents give little time for companies to prepare.

With the role of customs intermediaries highlighted in the government plans, the British International Freight Association (BIFA) welcomed the fact that yesterday’s announcement by the UK government of its Border Operating Model recognised the vital role of freight forwarders in preparing for the end of the UK’s transition period from EU membership after 31 December. BIFA said it “is keeping its fingers crossed that its members, the companies that manage cross-border trade between the UK and EU, will have enough time to make the necessary preparations to facilitate the revised arrangements”.

BIFA director general Robert Keen said that the information contained in the documentation published yesterday “suggests a more cohesive approach to managing the UK’s trade flows and regulatory procedures with the EU” was finally beginning to emerge, but expressed concern that there was little time to make the needed preparations.

He said the announcement yesterday “makes it very clear that importers/exporters, in particular those that have previously only traded with the EU, really need to consider what they need to do, collect data, appoint someone to act on their behalf, and give the intermediary the necessary information.

Customs wake-up
“Government appears to have woken up to the fact that Customs procedures are complicated and are not simply about ticking a few boxes. Perhaps it is evidence that the freight forwarding sector, which manages many of those customs procedures, is finally getting some welcome recognition from government for its crucial role in the UK’s international trade.

“However, we remain concerned that the information delivered today was not made available to trade earlier and that some of the details appear to be at the conceptual stage, with detail lacking. This will make the time frames for consultation and then devising the appropriate IT systems extremely challenging.  

“Even with a phased transition that comes with the new Border Operating Model, and yesterday’s commitment to a further £705 million investment to fund new infrastructure, jobs and technology at the GB-EU border, we remain concerned on a number of issues, including the recruitment of staff qualified and experienced in Customs procedures, and the lack of available time to train newcomers, which is not a five-minute job.”

Road Haulage Association (RHA) chief executive, Richard Burnett also expressed concern about the time available to prepare. Commenting on the launch yesterday of a new government Brexit campaign that accompanies the publication of the new border plan, he said he was concerned that the campaign “fails to address the magnitude of what is needed to manage customs complexities as businesses race to ensure their ‘border readiness’ ahead of post-transition trading”.

Timescales extremely short

He commented: “This campaign will prepare Britain for the ‘significant opportunities’ of Brexit. But I am completely at a loss to understand how this framework can be achieved by 1 January 2021. UK businesses will have to employ the services of 50,000 customs intermediaries to handle the complex new processes allowing them to move goods across borders. The recruitment of this team alone will be a long process as will their necessary training.

“Time is running out and it’s still not clear if there will be the sufficient support needed to keep the cross-border supply chains moving. There remains a vast amount of work to be done and the timescales are extremely short.”

The RHA last week highlighted that the EU’s decision to impose full border customs checks from 1 January 2021 highlights the need for urgent action from the UK government. It said that although the UK has announced that it will not be introducing complete customs checks on goods arriving from the EU, EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier had “confirmed that from 1 January 2021, every UK product imported into the EU will face checks, regardless of whether or not a trade deal is reached”.

The RHA noted that the EU has hired and trained hundreds of additional customs agents to handle the additional customs paperwork which will be generated, adding: “By contrast, the UK government is still a long way from their stated target of having 50,000 additional customs agents trained up by 31 December 2020. Earlier this year Michael Gove, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, offered no challenge to the RHA’s estimate that the new customs procedures with the EU will generate around 200,000,000 new pieces of paperwork, which will in turn require 50,000 new customs agents to be trained.” 

Burnett commented: “RHA members, and traders in general, need clarity on how they will be expected to run their businesses from January 2021. What worries us is that at the moment, the UK hasn’t hired anything like the number of customs agents needed to process the new form-filling.

Slow off the starting blocks

“The UK is very slow off the starting blocks on hiring thousands of staff to do this vital work. If we don’t tackle this fast, it’s a recipe for disruption to the supply chain post-transition which affects us all.”

The RHA stressed that even if the new agents are hired and trained by 31 December, “firms still don’t know what forms will be required, how they should be completed, who should complete which forms, or where they will need to be sent. This is vital information that firms need to have as soon as possible, and should already have received if they're to have enough time to prepare for the new trading arrangements with the EU.

“The RHA is again repeating its demands for clarity from the Government, who simply must provide this vital information if the UK supply chain is to continue to operate smoothly from 1 January 2021.”

The Freight Transport Association has also highlighted the urgency of the situation, especially with traders and their logistics representatives having to prepare for EU checks from 1 January. In response to the statement yesterday afternoon in the House of Commons by Michael Gove MP about post-Brexit border arrangements, FTA’s Head of International Policy Alex Veitch said: “Logistics as an industry is highly flexible and can adapt quickly to changing circumstances, as we have seen throughout the COVID-19 crisis; but nevertheless it is good to have confirmation of a large proportion of the detail of how goods are expected to move between the UK and EU from the start of next year. 

“We are advising our members to do all they can to get ‘Brexit-ready’ – for example, adapting their systems to produce the right border documentation, working with customers to understand the requirements for each party in the supply chain, and enrolling in trusted trader schemes like CTC Transit.  These will all be needed whether or not the UK government strikes a deal with the EU.   

“However, logistics businesses are also urging the government to continue pursuing a deal with their EU counterparts as an urgent priority. This will make it simpler to trade, ensure trucks and planes from the UK have access to the EU, and minimise economic disruption.  Logistics is committed to making the new relationship with the EU work – we now need government to do the same and strike a deal.”