JSC points to chronic staff shortage at Customs & Excise

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

In this file photo, Customs and Excise officers use a portable shipping container scanner at the Port of Point Lisas. – Lincoln Holder

THERE is a severe shortage of staff at the Customs and Excise Division (CED) to effectively carry out its function, the Joint Select Committee (JSC) on National Security noted in a report laid in the House of Representatives on Friday.

The JSC is chaired by Port of Spain South MP Keith Scotland.

“The major challenge for the Customs and Excise Division is the shortage of personnel to carry out its mission in an effective manner,” the report said.

The report also noted that the bulk of illegal guns are imported through legal ports fuelling a lucrative firearms industry ranging from $56 million to $144 million.

Noting that the Customs Act requirement of 700 employees predates the “explosion of containerised cargo that occurred after 1990,” the committee, in its report, found that current staffing is only 50 per cent (352 employees) of that obsolete requirement.

“In real words, a shortage of more than 50% of personnel needed to fulfil its mandate with satisfaction is more a staffing crisis.”

The committee said the CED contracted 80 new personnel in June 2022. The group had two weeks of induction training, which finished on November 25, 2022.

“However, these trained officers will not be fully competent until after three years of experience in the fulfilment of their duties. Even if we can consider that, under the current situation of a severe shortage of personnel and shortage of specially trained screening officers, certain fatigue and loss of concentration after several hours of screening can happen. The fact that CED personnel has not detected any illicit firearms through screening in two years is not an encouraging result.”

The report also found that scanning and the process to acquire new scanners remains a challenge.

It said as at November 30, 2022, the CED noted that based on an Inter-American Development Bank Non-Intrusive Inspection Needs Report, the present fleet of Mobile VACIS (Vehicle and Cargo Inspection System) scanners are “all and have been determined to be not fit for purpose” and as such, “Due to their emission source, they cannot be upgraded.”

The committee found that containers were being checked primarily through physical examination. However, it learned that inadequate staffing does not permit efficient and timely physical examinations, with only three of 14 bays being utilised by officers at the Port of Port of Spain.

The CED currently utilises four fixed scanners: two at Piarco International Airport; one at the Port of Port of Spain; and one at the ANR Robinson International Airport, Tobago.

The report said for the period January-August 2022, the CED scanned 3,998 containers out of 23,000.

“The issues of limited scanner usage and a lengthy procurement process for replacements have severely impacted the functions of the CED, creating an evident correlation between inefficient technological capabilities and the prevalence of illegal firearms in recent years.”

It said while the CED has made numerous proposals to bolster their staff, “As a division and not a department, they can only make recommendations to their line ministry, the Ministry of Finance, to enhance their staff complement or procure tools and equipment in order to augment their operation.”

The JSC, in its report, also said it was informed during a visit to the port premises that most importers who have brought in contraband utilise fake names and fake addresses in the customs documentation.

“Moreover, there are instances when cargo with contraband is never collected from the port. This certainly shows that somebody working inside the port facilities has warned the consignee that the contraband had been uncovered.”

The committee said it questioned the CED about mechanisms used to regulate the conduct of Customs and Excise personnel to avoid corrupt activities in the execution of their duty.

It said in instances where it is required, the division resorts to triggering the mechanism for disciplinary proceedings in accordance with provisions of the Public Service Commission regulation.

The committee noted the US Customs Border Patrol (BCP) is assisting the CED to develop an “Integrity/Anti-Corruption Strategy” as well as an internal affairs unit.

To minimise or eliminate the likelihood of illegal drugs and guns entering the country, the JSC, in its report, recommended the use of technology to increase transparency and encourage honesty and integrity.

It said technology can be used in the ports via the outfitting of gate access systems that capture an image (or copy of identification) of all visitors to the facility for record keeping.

“Facial recognition/biometric data usage may be a future consideration if such technology can be acquired.”

The report also said priority should be given to the swift procurement of modern scanning facilities to abet officers in performing their functions effectively. It said these should include mobile scanners, additional fixed scanners and portable scanners attached to vehicles for patrols.

As most interdictions of firearms and other illicit items have been discovered at bonded warehouses and transit sheds, the report said immediate attention must be paid to the acquisition and deployment of effective cabin x-ray equipment, trace detection and chemical identification systems, as outlined by the Minister of Finance.

A comprehensive database of those employed at all transit sheds and bonded warehouses should also be developed, containing names, addresses and fingerprints (or other forms of identification) for all company officers and other employees that can access recordkeeping information, it added.

Insisting that the border protection and security function of the CED is necessary for achieving greater safety and security within the country, the committee said it supports the Strategic Services Agency’s (SSA’s) position that the duties and taxation regime be separated from its border security function.

“Law enforcement/security function should be considered separate and apart from revenue collection.”

It recommended that the border protection and security function of the CED should be separated into a new agency and fall under the purview of the Ministry of National Security – as the issues of border protection and security are essentially national security concerns.

“Placing this agency under the MNS’s remit will ease the security burden misplaced on the CED’s current form, whilst affording the CED a singular focus on the customs and excise function.”

The committee also contends that the CED operate exclusively as a financial and administrative division tasked solely with revenue collection and protection, the correct application of trade policy and collecting and disseminating accurate trade related information and statistics.

It said under the stewardship of the Ministry of National Security, the new border protection and security agency (BPSA) should be vested with the powers, capabilities and status required to perform its functions effectively.

The committee suggested that the BPSA be charged with conducting specialised screening, examination and inspection of received barrels and containers for illicit cargo; interdiction of illicit items and/or persons at any national location upon intelligence received from the Strategic Services Agency, Coast Guard or other related entity; and collaboration with relevant law enforcement agencies on the development of strategies geared towards the interception, retrieval and destruction of contraband and the charging and arrest of people involved.

Suggesting that a task force be established to formalise the roles of the BPSA, the committee also proposed an organisational structure that mirrors already established local law enforcement agencies.

In such a set-up, a commissioner will be appointed as the head of the agency, reporting to the Minister of National Security.

The committee said deputy commissioners will be attached to divisions created by geographical placement. Border protection and security agency officers, separated into varied units (and divisions), will also be created specifically for the agency or absorbed from other law enforcement agencies, it added.