On September 3rd, 2019 the UK government announced a commitment of £16 million to support its business community in the event of a no-deal Brexit. Specifically, the programme is designed to pay training costs for businesses that make customs declarations (or who will be compelled to in the future) and fund IT improvement for small and medium sized businesses who act as trade intermediaries.
At first glance this appears to be a generous and strategic offer. But considering the complexity of customs compliance and the looming Brexit deadline, the amount is far too little, and the timing is way too late.
Based on the government’s own estimate that 188,000 UK companies will have to complete an import declaration for the first time on November 1st (assuming the deadline is not extended again), the training and IT improvement grants will amount to £88 per company – basically the cost to ride the London Eye for a family of three. Doesn’t sound so generous anymore, eh?
Most newly minted UK importers are expected to outsource the task to a service provider such as a customs broker or clearing agent (rather than file their own paperwork with customs). However, serious questions remain about the capacity of both customs and the customs brokerage industry to handle the surge in demand for import compliance expertise. (See “As the Brexit Clock Runs Down the Shortage of Customs Expertise has Become a Major Concern in the UK”.)
The government’s solution for this problem is to expand the pool of knowledge through training. The newly formed, UK Customs Academy is one place that has been touted by the government as part of the solution. A mere 40 hours (and £250) is all that it takes to obtain a “Level 2” qualification (the lowest level offered). The course covers such mission critical areas as “Customs Processes and Procedures”, “Calculating Import Duty”, “Customs Declarations” and “Export and Import Controls”. I have no doubt that the course covers a lot of important ground, but is a week really enough time to convey, and more importantly for the trader, absorb the knowledge required to become proficient in customs compliance?
According to surveys of various EU member states, it takes anywhere from 6 months to 3 years to properly train a trade compliance expert. The World Customs Organization Academy offers 5 sector-specific courses on Harmonized System (HS) commodity classification alone totaling 58 hours.
There is no substitute for deep domain expertise. Still, opting for a long-term solution to an immediate and dire problem is confounding to say the least. Proven technologies that can eliminate complexity and deliver expertise immediately are available now. The UK government should be promoting them.