Monday, 27 July 2015

Is Britain Open for Business?

Not if the United Kingdom Borders Agency has its way.

This is the organisation which creates the queues when you try to enter or leave the UK. It also - rather surprisingly - controls the entry of goods into the country. It now does the job which Customs and Excise used to do. As a result, there are queues and I'm not the first person to remark upon them.

Recently, a large and well-known Swiss auction house, David Feldman, sent me a parcel of material I had successfully bid for in a Geneva auction and for which I had paid. It was fully documented, since this is what Swiss Customs requires, and as a result transited Swiss customs in 29 minutes - that's the kind of information which Swiss Post's online tracking data give you.

On the 5th of July the parcel arrived at Coventry Airport, a major "hub" for air freight, and was "Handed to Customs" - that is to say, the Borders Agency, at 17.27pm. It remained with them until 9.49 am on 22nd July when the "Handover to Domestic Sorting" occurred. That's over 16 days later. The handover entrusted Parcelforce with the task of collecting the 5% Import duty levied (correctly and fully expected) on the parcel plus their own fee for doing the work of Customs. On 25 July, after paying an extra fee for Saturday delivery, I got my parcel. Interestingly, it no longer had its accompanying documentation - it had been removed from the packet strapped to the package.

What does UKBA think it is doing? Does it think that delaying commercial freight for 16 days is acceptable? Why did it take Swiss Customs - not noted for laxness - 29 minutes and British UKBA-doing-the-job-of-Customs 16 days? Are they trying to beat the Existing World Record still held by the Soviet Union?

What was UKBA up to? Remember they got hold of this parcel on 5th July. In a letter dated 10th July they wrote to me asking me to provide documentation (the Invoice I had been emailed and against which I had paid for the goods) and an HMRC Import code - you can look that up on line nowadays - and to declare whether the import was a Trade or Private affair. Dire consequences were threatened for wrong answers. This letter I received on the 14th and replied by return of post, incidentally pointing out that the parcel would probably be documented with the information they required. My first class letter probably got to them on the 15th or, let's say, the 16th. It then took until the 22nd for them to digest it, work out the tax due and pass the parcel to Parcelforce.

Interestingly, while browsing online I discovered a report by John Vine, former Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration, dealing with Border Force operations at Stansted Airport. Incidentally to his main themes, he remarks that goods held by Customs for examination at Stansted are not held in secure areas. That means that someone who has paid a shipper for secure handling of their parcel does not get it - and there is nothing the shipper can do about it since they have no control over UKBA activities. Whether they have secure storage at Coventry, I don't know.

What causes the kind of delay to which my parcel was subject? I doubt it's staff shortage. It might be lack of staff training. Most likely (and I am inferring this partly from John Vine's Stansted report) is lack of clear aims and methodology. It's the result of pulling out parcels in transit more or less at random and then not really knowing what to do with them. Except sit on them and send out the Usual Letters.

They must have a lot of storage space at Coventry if they are routinely delaying parcels for a fortnight or more. Storage space costs money and secure storage even more. Sending out piddling letters also costs. My guess is that the Treasury will see no income accruing from the Import Duty I paid. If UKBA achieved Swiss levels of efficiency, it surely would have.

I will be sending a copy of this to Sajid Javid, the UKs Business Secretary. He's the man who wants Britain to be Open for Business.

This becomes legible if you Click on Image to Magnify

Added 17 August 2015: And here is Mr Javid's Reply; click on Image to make it legible:

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