The infrastructure at the airport arrivals lounge is the most worrying aspect of Brexit for the director general of the Customs Department, with most of the other bases already well covered.
The department has been slowly but surely building up its resources over the past few years, with the priority being the creation of an IT system that could handle the extra workload at the ports.
But with 12 flights arriving and 12 leaving every day from the UK on average – each with 160 people on board – that will put considerable pressure on the red and green Customs gates, as they will no longer be entitled to use the blue channel and will have to indicate whether they have anything to declare.
“And that is the average over the whole year. There are periods in summer when there might be three times that amount!” director-general Joseph Chetcuti said.
The Budget allocation was always based on a workforce of 400
Negotiations are already underway with Malta International Airport on ways to avoid the fear of queues that are giving Mr Chetcuti headaches.
“This is a commercial entity, which has to consider every centimetre to generate revenue,” he admitted.
“But I envisage that we would need another red and another green channel.”
There are other aspects to do with the shift of all the passengers onto a ‘third country’ status – including the huge amount of additional VAT refund applications this will entail, currently mostly received from Maltese emigrants living in Australia, Russians and Japanese, Africans and Swiss.
A new luggage scanner van is also being purchased, with European Union funding, which will be in place by around September, screening bags before they are even put onto the conveyor belts – which will take pressure off the red and green Customs gates.
“But we would still need to be vigilant for hand luggage and things concealed in people’s clothing. In fact, we are considering introducing a full body scanner in the future, which would check for arms, narcotics and cash,” he said.
Mr Chetcuti took over the department three years ago after having worked his way up the ranks for three decades. When he took over, there were 200 operational staff. This has now gone up to nearly 400, with a 25 per cent increase at the airport which will be boosted by a further 15 per cent in the coming weeks, and a 10 per cent increase at the cargo ports, which may not be enough.
The increase may pale into in-significance compared to the 900 officers added in France and 700 in the Netherlands, but it is none-theless a considerable leap.
“The Budget allocation was always based on a workforce of 400 but until now half of that money was returned. Now, we will be using it all,” he said, noting that the department had not recruited significantly for 25 years.
With British MPs scheduled to vote tonight on amendments to Prime Minister Theresa May’s plan, the department has had to operate on the assumption that there will be no deal.
One thing that many overlook, he said, was that even if the eventual deal is for the UK to join a Customs union, the department will have to deal with all the additional declaration documentation, data management and processing that a third country consignment would entail – but without the revenue that would come in from import tariffs.
“If there is no deal, we get the extra work but at least we get extra revenue. If there is a deal, we will get the extra work but with no revenue.
“As we say in Maltese, we get the bone but with no meat on it,” he said, pointing out that Malta only retains 20 per cent of the revenue as the rest goes to the European Commission.
Passengers are just one aspect. The department also handles 25 groupage trailers a week from the UK – each of which would have some 10 consignees. When all the consignments come from within the EU – including those that arrive via Italy – then the trailers would be released.
Now, if even one of them is from the UK, they will need to be processed at Ħal-Far.
There are also 30 full loads a week via the sea ports, not to mention the 100 that come by airfreight, and 5,500 consignments a week that come by express mail and the as-yet unquantified amount that come via parcel post (although the majority are worth under €22 and would not fall under Customs scrutiny).
“We would have to handle some 6,000 to 7,000 declarations a week more,” Mr Chetcuti said.
At the moment, although everything is in limbo, high-level meetings will be held in Brussels next week and the Customs Department is ready to roll out roadshows for the business community explaining things as they stand.
“Fortunately, some 90 per cent of the business community already deals with third countries so they know what this entails. For the rest, we are organising training,” he said.
“We are as ready as we can be in the circumstances. My only concern is that there might be queues at the airport as that would be a major inconvenience for tourists. If we do not prepare from now, we won’t be ready by the end of March.”
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