HM Treasury building, London, UK
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The effectiveness of a new round of funding announced this week by the UK government to train staff to make customs declarations has been called into question by representatives of the freight industry.

This week, the UK Treasury announced an extra £16m in funds to train staff to make customs declarations that are likely to be increase dramatically after Brexit takes place.

The announcement followed £8m made available last December and another £8m round announced in July.

“Brexit takes place on 31 October and we urge all businesses to make the necessary preparations to be fully ready. The government has doubled the support available, so that thousands more customs experts are on hand to help businesses on and after Brexit day,” said financial secretary to the Treasury Jesse Norman.

However, the British International Freight Association (BIFA) said the new funding was unlikely to overcome the twin challenges of being able to recruit such a large number of staff as well as train them in such a short space of time.

“While we welcome the additional funding, we query whether it will lead to thousands of more customs experts being on hand to help businesses on and after Brexit day,” said BIFA director general Robert Keen.

“During our meetings with both HM Treasury and HMRC, BIFA highlighted the concerns of our members regarding the capability of the customs brokerage sector to increase capacity, at a time when that sector already faces a huge shortage of staff of suitable quality.

“We emphasised that it could take up to a year to train staff to be fully conversant to prepare a range of basic customs declarations, even if there was a sufficient number of trainers to train those staff, as well as relevant courses for them to attend,” he said.

According to a report from the BBC last month, of the 240,000-odd UK firms that currently trade with the EU, “less than 1,000 had applied for the grants made available in the first round of funding”.

Mr Keen added: “Worryingly, an analysis of the latest funding by Yahoo Finance UK suggests that the applications process may mean that any finance from the latest range of funding may not be received until after the UK has already left and customs rules change on October 31.

Yahoo Finance UK’s analysis suggests that the timescale of the application process seems to indicate that only companies which are able to source a quote for training and submit their applications by next Tuesday can be confident of receiving their actual funding before UK’s scheduled departure date.

“That just adds to the enormous uncertainty and pressure that BIFA members, which are responsible for managing the movement of a large proportion of the UK’s visible international trade, have faced since the result of the Brexit referendum in June 2016,” he said.

And as if to further confuse the issue, the latest Brexit timetable appears to have been thrown off course once more by this week’s developments in Westminster, which saw MPs vote against the government pursuing a no-deal Brexit on 31 October, potentially delaying Brexit at least until January.

That vote remains to be ratified by the House of Lords, which is set to vote tomorrow.

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