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UK companies nervous over deadline for new customs system

UK companies nervous over deadline for new customs system

LONDON: Paul Williams has been in the business of moving goods through customs for more than 20 years. And as the 47-year-old Welshman contemplates the challenges of the year ahead, few things worry him more than a plan by HM Revenue & Customs to introduce, this time next year, a new computer system for making customs declarations. If it all goes as planned, the new £157m Customs Declaration Service (CDS) will go live just three months before Britain leaves the EU and will have to manage an external border with the bloc. “HMRC is introducing a massive new programme at what is already a critical time,” said Mr Williams, commercial director of Horizon International Cargo. “It would be a complex undertaking at the best of times but proceeding with it at this very moment feels like a high stakes gamble.” UK companies that export goods outside the EU currently use an ageing computer system called Chief (Customs Handling of Import and Export Freight) to make their declarations. “Once we know we have to ship an item, we can input the product codes and tariff codes into Chief in no more than 10 minutes,” said Mr Williams. Although it has been in place since 1989, ”it’s a system we know and it works,” he added. Now Mr Williams and other freight handlers are facing uncertainty. In 2013, HMRC announced that it would be retiring and replacing Chief. Three years later, the Brexit referendum added significant new pressures to the project. CDS was originally due to go live in 2020 but after the UK voted to leave the EU HMRC announced it would need to bring forward the deadline to January 2019. Because of Brexit, CDS will also have to cope with a greater-than-expected number of customs declarations. It was originally designed to manage around 100m each year but will have to cope with an estimated 250m once the UK leaves Europe’s single market and customs union. “The specification changed and the timeline changed, and, as anyone can tell you, that is one of the most dangerous things that can happen with IT projects,” said Joe Owen of the Institute for Government, a think-tank. “As a result HMRC has been left facing a very tough challenge.”