Councillors warn Whitehall over Brexit skills shortages

Local government’s attempts to prepare for Brexit are being hampered by staff shortages and concerns over the government’s failure to provide training on new IT systems, senior councillors have warned Whitehall.

With less than four weeks to go until the end of the transition period, the government is anticipating that 70% of hauliers will not have correct paperwork and work is still yet to begin on a customs agency building in Portsmouth required to handle additional checks on lorries from the EU.

Although the exact details of the arrangements between Britain and the EU are yet to be agreed, whatever the outcome of negotiations additional customs checks will be required with more staff needed to deliver them, particularly in port health authorities

A report to the LGA’s executive advisory board on Thursday warned that the EU transition period will take place amid “multiple pressures” on councils over the winter months, with environmental health officers and trading standards officers already overstretched enforcing Covid regulations.

“I want to make it absolutely clear we will not be found wanting because we have been doing a lot of asking.”

Kevin Bentley

Councils are reporting “severe difficulties” in recruiting new regulatory staff and “skills shortages cannot be addressed by January 2021,” it said.

It is also still unclear how many council regulatory staff have been properly trained up to use the new systems they will be expected to handle.

Defra, which is responsible for delivering the training, has still not provided answers on how many council regulatory staff have received it, despite being called on to do so for several months by the LGA which has been sharing councils’ multiple Brexit concerns with Defra ministers through its EU Exit Taskforce.

The LGA’s own assessments are understood to show a mixed picture, with some councils’ regulatory teams being fully trained while others are lagging behind.

The Local Government Association’s Brexit taskforce chairman Kevin Bentley (Con) said training “can’t be patchy, it’s got to be everyone… A lot of the day to day work after Brexit will fall on the shoulders of local government.

“I want to make it absolutely clear we will not be found wanting because we have been doing a lot of asking.”

There is also concern that the funding Defra has provided for port health authorities is only available until March 2021 whereas the key impact on them will be felt from July 2021 when physical checks on EU imports not currently subject to inspection will begin.

According to the LGA report, this leaves councils facing a “significant financial risk” in recruiting more officers.

Last month, port health authorities were handed £10m to aid them in their preparations. Hampshire and the Isle of Wight local resilience forum received £2.5m to help deal with lorry bottlenecks.

Portsmouth City Council leader Gerald Vernon-Jackson (Lib Dem) told the board meeting on Thursday that the government’s expectation is that 70% of hauliers will not have the correct paperwork. “We think that is probably a bit pessimistic…but they’re very behind.”

When LGC asked the Department for Transport if the 70% figure is correct, they did not deny it, responding that preparations are “well underway to ensure the free flow of freight across our borders”.

Cllr Vernon-Jackson said that the government wants a customs building to be erected in Portsmouth, but has just delayed awarding money for the project until next week. “So the chances of being able to build things to be able to check food that comes into Britain, to see if it is ok or not, is zero.”

He also warned that the government needs the council to build infrastructure to look after the 9,000 racehorses that go through Portsmouth every year. “I think the government is doing a little bit better but it is still a complete mess,” he said.

However, Portsmouth may stand to benefit financially from Brexit, as it owns a company, Portico customs agency, which helps businesses navigate the new customs arrangements.

“We have people flocking to us to try to help them get it sorted out so we will probably make quite a lot of money out of these British companies,” said Cllr Vernon-Jackson. “But [Brexit] will make our companies less competitive when exporting which is a pity.”

Meanwhile The LGA report also says there have been 4.1 million applications to the EU settlement scheme enabling EU citizens to remain in the UK after Brexit but there is no data to understand if this is reflective of actual populations of EU nationals in the UK.

The Home Office’s attention is now on the most vulnerable EU nationals and the LGA have continued to ask for government guidance if vulnerable people miss the deadline to apply.

Cllr Bentley said the government has made an initial agreement that all EU nationals could vote in 2021 local elections, stand, and remain in office which he said was “critically important for democracy”.







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