The number of UK customs officials has been boosted by just 16, Labour analysis has suggested, as the country teeters on the brink of a no-deal Brexit.
The Prime Minister chaired a meeting on Friday afternoon to take stock of no-deal plans with Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove, who has been in charge of Brexit preparations, and other senior officials after declaring that trade talks with the European Union were likely to end without agreement.
Labour has warned that since the Brexit vote, staffing levels in the Government’s tax and customs agency have barely been scaled up despite widespread customs changes expected, even if the UK secures a deal at the 11th hour.
According to Opposition analysis, in October 2020, HMRC had 58,397 employees in total covering both tax collection and customs – just 16 more than the 58,381 it employed eight months before the 2016 referendum.
3,000 to 5,000 extra
The party said the figures had been revealed despite a pledge from ministers in 2018 to recruit between 3,000 and 5,000 extra customs officials to cope with increased demand on customs procedures and border checks after Brexit.
The Government has been unwilling to indicate how many additional customs officials had been taken on since the 2016 vote, Labour added.
The UK is only 18 days away from leaving the European Union’s single market and there is a cross-Channel agreement that a firm decision should be made on Sunday on the future of the talks.
The Prime Minister and European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen have both warned their respective sides that a no-deal outcome looks more likely than an agreement in the negotiations, which have been deadlocked for months.
Shadow chancellor Anneliese Dodds said: “The Government has known for years that customs rules were going to change, deal or no deal.
“Government ministers promised me two years ago that they would double the number of customs officials to prepare for Brexit.
“However, HMRC only has 16 more staff today than it did in 2015 and businesses still don’t know what rules they will be trading under in just 18 days’ time.
“British business has been working incredibly hard to keep trading, but they’ve been let down by the Government’s irresponsible approach.
“The Chancellor needs to come out of hiding and explain to the British public how he will protect British trade.”
A Government spokesman said: “It is misleading to suggest that HMRC’s overall staff number is insufficient – the department has hired over 5,000 officials specifically to support Brexit.
“The Government has also invested £705 million in infrastructure, staffing and technology at the border, providing £84 million in grants to boost the customs intermediaries sector, as well as implementing border controls in stages so traders have sufficient time to prepare for the changes and opportunities on January 1.”
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