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$357m in overtime paid to Customs 'drain' on Treasury

Customs officers received $357 million in overtime payments between 2002 and 2010, Trade Minister Vasant Bharath said yesterday.

"The cause is really the inefficiencies in the system we've operated (the) last 20 years. Cargo is cleared after hours. The current Comptroller of Customs (Fitzroy John) is working to get these occurrences minimised because it is a significant drain on the Treasury and an additional cost to the consumer. When the private sector has to pay for these costs, they pass it on to a consumer. At a time where we are looking to reduce the cost of food items and other consumer items, it is something we have to look at," Bharath told reporters at a breakfast meeting for RBC Royal Bank clients at the Queen's Park Oval, Port of Spain.

Hinting at another problem, he said the current system could lead to "flexibilities" when people tried to get cargo cleared faster, and Customs officers obliged to meet this "opportunity".

He said since assuming his dual portfolio as Trade Minister and Minister in the Ministry of Finance, he has held meetings with Customs to make the agency more efficient but had met resistance, especially regarding information sharing with other agencies required for clearing cargo, including the ministries of Finance and Trade, the Bureau of Standards and Plant Quarantine. As of Monday, he said, an agreement was reached whereby all agencies will be legally mandated to share relevant information for faster processing. He added that he will be taking a note to Cabinet today to discuss the issue.

Ships coming into dock at the country's ports will also have to present their manifests before coming into harbour so Customs can clear them faster, with no reason for delay unless there is a major security issue, he said. —Carla Bridglal

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