Taxation (Cross-border Trade) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 11:30 am on 25th January 2018.
Clause 3 does two important things: first, it establishes an obligation to declare goods that are imported into the United Kingdom; and, secondly, it introduces the concept of declaring goods for a specific customs procedure. Those are the basic building blocks of the UK’s new import duty regime.
The need to declare goods for a customs procedure is fundamental to any import duty regime. The procedure for which goods are declared determines when liability to import duty arises. The clause goes on to introduce another fundamental part of a customs regime—the customs procedures for which chargeable goods may be declared.
The purpose of importing goods may be to make them available for use in the UK, in which case they can be declared for a procedure known as free circulation, at which point they incur a charge to import duty. However, it is not always the intention to make goods freely available when they are imported into the United Kingdom. Goods are often brought to the UK for different reasons, such as to put them into customs warehouses for the time being, or to transport them through the UK on the way to another destination outside the country. In situations such as those, a business may declare the goods for a special customs procedure.
Special procedures either defer when a liability to import duty is incurred, or reduce the rate of import duty applicable to goods, provided of course the relevant conditions have been satisfied. Without those procedures, a business would have no option but to declare imported goods for the free circulation procedure and incur any import duty up front.
UK businesses currently rely extensively on special procedures, which together provide reliefs worth hundreds of millions of pounds each month. The provision made by the clause is supplemented by the detailed rules set out in schedules 1 and 2, to which I shall now turn.
Schedule 1 sets out the obligations to present and declare goods to customs on import. Many of the matters covered are of an administrative nature, such as the information that a declaration must contain or the time limits for when it must be made. I am sure that the Committee would not wish me to explain all those matters in detail, but I should highlight one important matter in which I think the Committee will be interested.
Paragraph 3 of the schedule enables Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to specify when goods must be declared before they are imported into the UK. That is an important point. Steps might be needed to reduce the risk of disrupting the flow of traffic at locations where goods need to be cleared quickly through customs. An obvious case in point is a port such as Dover, where significant amounts of goods arrive on roll-on roll-off ferries. It would clearly be of great help, in a situation such as that, to require the goods in question to be declared before their arrival at the port. That situation is therefore addressed by the schedule.
Schedule 2 deals with special customs procedures. There are five in all, namely: storage, transit, inward processing, authorised use and temporary admission. I will briefly describe their purpose.
A storage procedure allows imported goods to be stored without incurring liability to import duty. The goods must be kept in an approved facility, such as a customs warehouse or a free zone. There are currently no free zones in the UK, but should an area be so designated, provision may be made under the Bill for its operation.
A transit procedure allows goods to move between two places in the UK without incurring import duty. For example, goods from another country can pass through the UK en route to another destination, or goods within the UK can move from a customs warehouse to a port for re-export without needing to be declared for free circulation.
An inward processing procedure allows goods to be imported into the UK with the purpose of undergoing a qualifying processing activity without incurring a charge to import duty at that point. Once the procedure is discharged, goods may be exported without any import duty being due. Alternatively, a business may decide to declare the processed goods for free circulation in the UK and incur duty at that point.
An authorised use procedure is designed to assist certain industries by allowing a zero or reduced rate of import duty to apply to goods brought to the UK for a specific use. Finally, a temporary admission procedure allows for a relief from import duty for goods that enter the UK temporarily and for a particular reason. For example, that procedure applies when artworks situated overseas are brought to the UK on loan for display in a public gallery.
Taken together, the special procedures I have outlined exist to support trade fluidity and facilitate the movement of goods into the UK. Provision made by and under schedule 2 will allow HMRC to operate these special procedures. The obligation to declare imported goods is essential to an effective customs regime, and an effective customs regime must include special procedures that offer businesses in the UK the simplifications and reliefs that they rely on.
It is a pleasure to serve on the Committee, and to take part in the scrutiny of this important piece of legislation.
The Minister is right to talk about the administrative nature of the clause and its associated schedules. It appears to be the Government’s position that the UK will choose to leave the customs union. We are not yet clear whether they will pursue another form of customs union with the EU, but if they do not, or if they do not manage to get a customs union with the EU, it is likely that significantly more customs declarations will be required because we will not have those coming from the EU.
My concern about the clause arises from Tuesday’s oral evidence sessions, and it would be useful for the Minister to provide an update on that. Various organisations expressed concerns about the resourcing of HMRC and Border Force. Border Force is the first line for many imports, ensuring that customs declarations are made appropriately and that all appropriate processes are followed.
On HMRC, the concern was that no customs officers will be based north of Glasgow or Edinburgh. If goods are coming in to places such as Inverness, it is a three-hour drive for people to get there and look at those goods. What assessment has the Minister made of the extra resourcing that HMRC will need to fulfil the obligations in the clause and the schedules? Reasonable concerns have been expressed by businesses and organisations.
I welcome the hon. Lady to the Committee and thank her for that initial contribution.
In terms of where the final deal with the European Union lands, whether we have a form of customs union with the remaining 27 members is subject to negotiation. The Government have made it clear that we wish the end point to be the facilitation of trade between ourselves and the remaining 27 members of the customs union. The Bill provides for that end point to be as close as possible to the existing rules and regulations around the Union customs code; that is very much what the Bill seeks to achieve. At the same time, the Bill retains the flexibility to ensure that we can put into effect the necessary and appropriate measures no matter where the deal lands—or, indeed, if there were to be no deal at all with the European Union, as we certainly do not expect.
The hon. Lady raised the important issue of HMRC resourcing. As we move towards our day one scenario—whatever that may finally look like—I assure her that the Government are vigorously engaged not just with issues around HMRC’s human resource requirements, but with other infrastructure requirements, whether for hard infrastructure or information technology systems such as the Customs Declaration Service, which will be important.
To address her particular issue, the head of HMRC has made it clear that his feeling is that we will need between 3,000 and 5,000 additional staff across HMRC to ensure that we cover off, wherever the day one deal lands. For an organisation of well in excess of 50,000 personnel, such an increment in staffing, particularly given that some will be reallocated rather than entirely new recruits, is perfectly manageable.
In terms of the money required to ensure that we are ready, in the Budget the Chancellor allocated £3 billion—£1.5 billion for each of the next two years—to ensure that we are sufficiently resourced. We are currently in conversation with HMRC to establish what further additional financial assistance it requires.
I am grateful to you for being in the Chair, Ms Buck. If I may, I will question the Minister on his explanation. I am grateful for it, but on Tuesday we learned that after HMRC’s ongoing restructuring programme there will not be a single HMRC hub north of Edinburgh and Glasgow, nor will there be one anywhere along the south coast, including Dover. We heard ample evidence in the witness sessions that that is the busiest and most concerning port from the point of view of customs procedures going wrong. In the light of that evidence, should we reconsider that HMRC reorganisation programme?
I welcome the hon. Lady to the Committee. She mentions the location of the new HMRC hubs as they are rolled out, and I will make two important points. First, Border Force, which is very much part of the frontline, is in the Home Office’s remit, not HMRC’s. Secondly, proximity to the hubs or otherwise is not critical in determining whether HMRC provides the support that Border Force and other agencies require. The absence of a hub close to a need does not mean that HMRC staff cannot be in proximity to that point; they do not need to be based constantly at any one hub.
May I pick up on that? I will not repeat what my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford East said, but try to reinforce the seriousness of the evidence witnesses gave on Tuesday. Mr Runswick said:
“HMRC is closing offices in places such as Southampton…So we think that there will be a real struggle to deliver the work that HMRC does with Border Force in that situation. My union believes that HMRC should pause the office closure programme until it is clear what the Government will need HMRC to do in a post-Brexit situation.”––[Official Report, Taxation (Cross-Border Trade) Public Bill Committee,
I want to tease out a little more from the Minister. Does he recognise that argument at all? It seems to be business as usual.
I welcome the hon. Gentleman to the Committee. He reiterates the point that the hon. Lady just made, so I will spare the Committee a repeat of every element of my answer. However, specifically with relation to the points made in the evidence session by Mr Runswick, the trade unions have been resistant to the changes to HMRC wholesale, right across the piece. Therefore, when it comes to arguments about whether HMRC can be effective in clamping down on avoidance, evasion and non-compliance, bringing in tax yield and so on, the argument has been run that we need a number of offices in multiple locations to do that.
The critical answer is that the very nature of running an efficient tax system and customs regime needs technology, the right skills and the right people. That lends itself to having a concentration of such individuals in hubs, where skills and IT can be developed and brought in to be effective. Without repeating my answer to the hon. Gentleman’s hon. Friend, the Government and HMRC are clear that the configurations of the new hubs will lend themselves to appropriately support the new customs regime.
Other than the resourcing, which the Minister has fully addressed, I am concerned about the geographical issue. We do not want people to be a number of hours’ drive from the customs officials. Can the Minister give us some comfort that even though there might not be hubs in the area, there will be customs officers based closely and able to respond on a 24-hour basis?
I can certainly assure the hon. Lady that the situation as it will pertain when we move to the new hubs—we are making some assumptions about what exactly the end point of the negotiations will be—will be sufficient to make sure we have a customs regime that works, that is low friction, and keeps trade moving and raises revenues on the duties that we may or may not apply.
On resourcing, to add to the points already made, I want to double-check this because the first time I saw it I did not believe it was true, but it is. In December you asked for volunteers to be deployed to help plug the gaps in the UK’s Border Force. There had already been an acknowledgment that it did not have the number of people needed and you called for volunteers, which was opposed by Conservative MPs, who said they did not want to see a return to a Dad’s Army protecting the UK. Are you still planning to plug the gap with volunteers or will people be employed?
I will take the hon. Lady’s references to “you” as not meaning the Chair of this Committee, but me. The issue that she has raised, which ran in the press a few weeks ago, relates to an issue for the Home Office and Border Force, not HMRC. It is outside the immediate scope of this Bill. I know that at least one Minister in the Home Office was able to refute those suggestions, but I will not dwell on that in this Committee.
The other thing that came out in the evidence was the concern about the loss of experience at a critical time. Is the Minister giving us a strong assurance—I think he is—that there will not be any problems as we move forward? If there are any problems, the Minister and HMRC will be jointly and severally responsible.
I thank the hon. Member for his very helpful intervention. Of course Ministers have responsibilities for the areas that they oversee. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that I have had discussions with HMRC staff, including the head of HMRC, and we have looked specifically at the right mix of skills and people, so I am confident that we will have the right team in place to meet the challenges ahead.