Minister of Finance Colm Imbert, delivers his presentation at the TTMA’s Post Budget Presentation, Hyatt Hotel, Port of Spain on Tuesday. – Photo by Angelo Marcelle
FINANCE Minister Colm Imbert said on Tuesday that customs officers – often diverted from their usual duties – were working late nights to clear 150,000 packages imported this month. He was replying to an urgent question by Opposition Senator Wade Mark in the Senate.
Imbert otherwise disclosed that two sheds had been closed due to security breaches, which likely facilitated the import of illegal firearms.
Mark had asked, “Given extended delays in clearing goods at the ports due to staff shortages and operational changes, what measures are being taken by the Customs and Excise Division to allow citizens to clear their goods in time for Christmas?”
Imbert said the Comptroller of Customs had just told him that backlog challenges had arisen with courier cargo brought in by air, not general air cargo nor sea cargo.
“There needs to be a proper understanding of this situation. The private transit sheds have limited space to perform examinations.”
He said courier services typically accumulated many packages in places like Miami to be sent to TT in one shipment.
“These packages are then cleared at transit sheds, which have limited space.”
He also lamented the recurring problem of couriers not providing advance information on their consignments.
“But notwithstanding all of that, the working hours have been extended at the transit sheds to 11 pm.”
He said additional customs officers have been deployed.
“In fact, the Customs and Excise Division has had to deploy customs officers that would normally work in the baggage hall at Piarco Airport to the transit sheds to deal with these courier packages, which, in itself, is creating some issues.”
He said he had learnt this earlier via WhatsApp from Minister of Works and Transport Rohan Sinanan.
“It’s a complex situation, but customs, as I said, have extended their working hours.
“They are working around the clock and also deploying all available customs officers.”
Mark asked for a time frame for customs officers to clear the backlog of goods.
Imbert, in reply, called for a proper understanding of the magnitude of the situation.
“We are talking about 150,000 packages expected during this month, perhaps more. In November, there were 167,000 packages.”
Imbert then lamented “particular problems” with certain transit sheds.
“One transit shed was closed down because its security systems were totally non-functional.
“Unknown persons broke in and tampered with packages and removed items which we suspect were illegal items such as guns and ammunition.
He said the shed’s operators did not even know someone had broken in to remove items, as their security systems were not working.
A similar case had occurred in another transit shed, he said.
“The customs was tracking packages ‘of interest’, identified by international law enforcement to contain illegal weapons.
“Those packages disappeared from that transit shed. They still cannot be found. That (shed) was shut down as well.”
He said despite security considerations, he thought this information should be publicly disclosed.
“One hand can’t clap. The Government is doing the best it can. But the couriers do not wish to provide advanced package information, and their security systems are not of the best. So we are trying our best, but understand you are dealing with 150,000 packages, some of which could contain arms and ammunition.”
Independent Senator Anthony Vieira noted more use of Amazon for personal imports and asked more sheds would be used and more customs officers supplied for inspections.
Imbert replied, “In the case of those two transit sheds, it has taken a very long time for the owners to achieve compliance. We are talking about CCTV systems not working.
“We are talking about people entering a transit shed, a bonded warehouse as it were, and removing items.
“We are talking about packages that disappeared, and the owners of the transit shed cannot locate them up to now.
“We are talking three months later, and they cannot locate the packages, and these are packages of interest to international law enforcement.
He said the solution to these matters lay in the TT Revenue Authority.
“It is ironic the Opposition opposed the Revenue Authority bitterly but wants improvements in the efficiency at customs.”