An error in the U.K.’s post-Brexit IT border system disrupted companies bringing goods in from the European Union, raising costs, adding bureaucracy and snarling deliveries.
A change to the government’s Customs Declaration Service — which businesses use to generate forms for imports from the EU — prevented some traders acquiring necessary paperwork on Tuesday. Trucks were held up at customs depots due to incorrect documentation and firms incurred extra expense seeking fixes.
The government “pulled the rug out from under us,” said Steve Cock, a consultant at The Customs House, a Kent, southeast England-based customs broker which helps facilitate U.K.-EU trade. “Basically, they had screwed up.”
The episode highlights the reality of post-Brexit EU trade for British firms, which were promised “frictionless” commerce by former Prime Minister Boris Johnson but instead have been hit by extra paperwork and delays since the end of 2020.
His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC), the U.K.’s tax authority, acknowledged in a statement that there had been “some disruption” in the CDS system, and apologized “for any inconvenience caused.”
The issue arose November 1, when HMRC introduced an overnight change to the tariff code required to qualify for duty-free imports from the EU. Many traders were unaware of the change and even using the new tariff code led to customs forms being rejected.
A logistics operator for a major fast-fashion brand, speaking on condition of anonymity, said they’d had to change tens of thousands of entries on customs forms because of the system error. Customs agents typically charge businesses about £50 ($57) per declaration. Traders realized they could get around the issue on November 1 if they put both the old and new tariff codes on their customs forms, Cock said.
However, HMRC then reversed the requirement for the new tariff code on November 2, meaning companies that had used the fix from the day before would have to generate new customs forms using the old tariff codes.
Ben Carr, owner of OmniCustomsProducts, an agent that also helps companies move goods between the U.K. and EU, said the situation was “incompetence of the highest order” and said the HMRC reversal had made the situation worse.
Timely, incisive articles delivered directly to your inbox.