Border Force hit Brexit recruitment target – but only with agency staff

Officials accused of playing down impact of post-EU changes on goods heading to Northern Ireland
Border Force director general Paul Lincoln

By Jim Dunton

22 Jan 2021

UK Border Force hit its recruitment target for extra staff to carry out customs-compliance work and and manage transit arrangements after the EU transition period – but needed agency staff to do it, MPs have been told.

Last November, the National Audit Office said Border Force was around 300 staff short of its recruitment target to hire 1,570 extra officials to cope with the new arrangements between the UK and the EU from January 1. The target was risk rated “amber-green”.

Border Force director general Paul Lincoln confirmed to members of parliament’s Public Accounts Committee yesterday that the target had been hit and suggested a further 400 staff could be hired by July.

“Some of those were contingency staff which we took from agencies, which is a deliberate decision which we took earlier in the year,” Lincoln said of the latest recruits.

“But we had exactly the number of resources, plus some contingency staff, 100% trained to do the roles which they were expected to do.”

Lincoln said the staff had been brought in from the Brook Street agency and were conducting transit checks at inland border facility sites. He added that the training required for the processing work was “relatively short” and conducted by Border Force trainers.

“All of the people that we have put through that training are to our satisfaction able to do the job to which we have assigned them,” he said.

Lincoln told MPs that Border Force expected to recruit additional staff and the 1,570 hired so far could reach 2,000 by July when full import controls will be put in place.

In 2019, full-time Border Force officials voiced concerns that proposals to use contingency labour to boost staff numbers ahead of Brexit was a potential security risk.

Also giving evidence at the PAC session on the nation's borders since the end of the EU transition period were HM Revenue and Customs permanent secretary Jim Harra, Cabinet Office permanent secretary Alex Chisholm and Department for Transport permanent secretary Bernadette Kelly.

Perm secs accused of ‘playing down’ Northern Ireland problems

Witnesses were asked about reports that lorries bringing goods to Great Britain from Northern Ireland were returning empty because of new requirements for import declarations for goods travelling in the opposite direction.

HMRC’s Harra said there were “no barriers in place” and there was a commitment to continuing the situation. 

“I don’t have data on that imbalance from HMRC’s point of view,” he said. “We have no controls on the movements from Northern Ireland to Great Britain because they are unfettered.

“As far as movements from Great Britain to Northern Ireland are concerned, our processes are working smoothly and are not causing any delays for loads that people want to move.”

Chisholm said: “The scale of the issues are not significant but we do want to make sure absolutely that flows continue to operate very smoothly in both directions and any issues we will resolve as best we can.”

Committee member Bernard Jenkin said he believed Harra and Chisholm had given an unduly rosy assessment of a system that appeared to have introduced a “massive deterrent” for GB exporters to Northern Ireland.

“I’m afraid I do think you’re rather playing down the problems they’re experiencing,” he said.

“The problem of returning vehicles empty – and I gather it’s around 30% or 40% of vehicles are returning empty – is simply an additional cost to exporters because they have to pay the additional costs of haulage which are not being paid to GB exporters to Northern Ireland because they’ve given up.”

Coronavirus border shutdown was ‘healthy workout’ for DfT

DfT perm sec Bernadette Kelly said France’s decision to close its borders to traffic from the UK without notice on December 20 had been a “healthy workout” for the department’s preparations for port gridlock after the end of the EU transition period.

“It certainly gave us the opportunity to test in a very real way how our systems were working,” she said of the move, which was driven by fears about the new strain of coronavirus in the south east.

“I would argue they demonstrated that the traffic-management systems were operating very effectively. We were able to immediately activate Kent traffic-management preparations that we’d been working on for a period of years in anticipation of the end of the transition arrangements.

“As a consequence of that we were able to stand lorries up in Manston, we were able to put into place Operation Stack [a procedure to park lorries on the M20 motorway] and Operation Brock [a traffic-management scheme in Kent] very rapidly.”

Kelly accepted that the situation had been “extremely challenging” and not one that had been prepared for. But she said it had been possible to manage things on the ground in conjunction with the Kent Resilience Form, Kent Police, the military.

“By December 27, we had entirely cleared the backlog of HGVs stuck in Kent and we were getting flows moving again,” she said.

“It was a tough test of our preparations, but what I think it showed was that they worked very effectively when presented with a threat that was outside of our normal planning expectations.”

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