Sevington gives cause for concern

Importers face unpredictable bills from HMRC

There are no redeeming features of the purpose-built customs inspection facility close to the Eurotunnel terminal. Sevington will be remembered for its brutally sparse amenities, more an abandoned building site rather than a conduit of international trade. Even though the British taxpayer poured at least 120 million pounds into the place, there is no way that any of it went into amenities for lorry drivers, such as a food outlet for those kept on site for a day or more. An Italian driver was given directions for a MacDonalds takeaway more than a mile away, when he asked about catering arrangements during a 55-hour wait. Water is available for lorry drivers, but neither tea nor the continental working beverage of choice, coffee, is anywhere to be seen. 

The purpose of the visit is food inspection, but Sevingdon has a growing catalogue of problems.  There are no guarantees that having waited four hours or more to have goods inspected the goods will still be saleable at the end of the process. There is no way that HMRC will take any form of liability for breakages and rough handling of fragile goods, particularly plants. Retailers are refusing damaged consignments, in one case estimated at EUR 40,000 (GBP 37,700). 

Over the past six weeks since the second phase of BTOM, 2,500 Dutch lorries have travelled to the UK, with 125 being “turned out” in HMRC slang. The Dutch haulage industry body Transport en Logistiek Nederland (TLN), remains supportive of Britain’s BTOM plan, with a polite but firm report outlining the Dutch hauliers’ reservations  with the status quo, making tactful suggestions for improvements. At this point it should be made clear that while most people would assume that the Border Transfer Operating Model is an administrative framework to manage the flow of goods efficiently. There is a more sinister, or cynical view that runs through the British establishment from its very origin. Had the government spent £120 million or more on a state of the art logistical platform, eyebrows might have been raised. But spending on that scale to create an environment that brutalises all those who come into contact with it and pitilessly crushes any possible interest in wanting to move to Britain was fine. Publishing under his pen name George Orwell, journalist Eric Blair captured this elusive maverick mindset writing under the setting sun of a crumbling empire. Orwell’s accounts of such incidents as the shooting of a working elephant juxtaposes the credentials of the imperialist administrators and the lives of those they exploited. Only we wouldn’t say exploited if we could get out of it: Orwell saw to it that we can’t.

What today’s generation of administrators is doing would make sense to a commentator like Orwell. He would understand the previous government’s obsession with small boats: the symbolism of inbound asylum seekers; the fear and loathing of exotic languages; the lingering smell of spices that grow in crowded corners which are ill-suited to mechanised agriculture. These are the roots of racism and prejudice, tinged with guilt for the massacres that were carried out in the name of civilisation. We must first slay the ghosts of oppression that our ancestors pretended to ignore, hardening their hearts and blocking their ears the while.

It is against this backdrop that we need to look at the operational shortcomings of BTOM. Start with the inspection processes and the sketchy way they operate. EU sampling rates, for instance, would normally start at 100% for new third country businesses (Brexit assumes tabla rasa.) easing off  over a period of time to, say, 35% after a year so of solid compliance. Sevington is sampling 5% at most, and struggling with it. There is no way a long term target of 100% could be achieved, nor would it serve any useful purpose once compliance levels have been established. TNL is concerned by wide variations in prices for testing at privately-owned facilities, citing fees ranging from £300 to £750, with additional surcharges for weekends and bank holidays. This leads to uncertainty for costings, resulting in financial losses and operational constraints. What is more, any non-food consignments that are travelling on the same trailer as food products selected for testing face an average surcharge of £13. Go figure.There are also issues with the flow and quality of information coming back from BCP. The Dutch hauliers urged the British authorities to communicate in real time, since saving messages sent as an overnight email is not a lot of help in the real world. Likewise, linking the Common Health Entry Document for Plants and Plant Products (CHED-PP) with the Goods Movement Reference number (GMR) would make it easier to identify consignments that will undergo  testing later on. As for handling standards, TNL was scathing. Not least because HMRC does not take any liability for damage caused during product checks. The Dutch hauliers would like to see staff trained to a higher standard and suggest that drivers would be well-qualified to advise on reloading fragile plants after inspection. While on the subject of drivers, none of them took on the job to spend hours in a sensory deprivation decor, often for hours on end. They are routinely barred from leaving the site or are required to surrender the keys to their vehicles as a condition of going outside for a breath of fresh air. TNL is receiving calls from members who have lost money due to rough handling of fragile goods. There have also been cases of inspectors not turning up or being taken off one inspection to attend another. The lack of any form of product liability on the HMRC inspectors is a recurring theme, but the tone of the TNL assessment is constructive and polite, as the industry body offers to help to resolve some of the issues the HMRC faces. It has published a four-page report on the subject. Expect the temperature to rise in July, when the first batch of invoices go out for Common User Charge payments from April 30 onwards. There are suggestions that it will be tricky to match up consignments, locations and testing in a coherent narrative adding up to some serious money. Watch this space.

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