The Solomon Islands Customs and Excise Division is on a drive to modernise its operations, make transparent and develop its human resource which will subsequently improve revenue collection and services provided.
The man at forefront of driving this modernisation process is the country’s Customs Comptroller, Mr Jim Sutton, who has been a Customs Officer in Australia and an International Advisor for 43 years.
Mr. Sutton presented some of his plans for the Customs Division, talked about trade facilitation and challenges going forward to members of the business community and private sector during Solomon Islands Chamber of Commerce and Industry’s (SICCI) Business After 5 (BA5) networking event on Friday 14th February 2020, where he was guest speaker.
During his six months in office, Mr Sutton has developed a blueprint for the modernization of Customs, which is currently with the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Finance and Treasury for consideration.
He said Customs ended 2019 with $1.08 billion collected which exceeded their target by nine percent.
“We have reset the targets for this year. We need to keep the revenue up because the Government is not in a good position with fiscal flow at the moment and there’s all sorts of different reasons for this.”
According to Mr Sutton, the Customs Division at the moment is understaffed with 74 officers operational, as such, he is proposing to go from that number to 174 actual staff over a three-year period.
“The Ministry [of Finance and Treasury] will let us know how many we can have but I’m hoping for at least 50 people this year.
“We are also planning to bring graduates in at lower levels and then train them so that after a 5 to 10-year period we have this succession planning start to come through,” the Customs Comptroller said.
Currently Solomon Islands is not a member of the World Customs Organisation (WCO) and Mr Sutton is pleased to note that the Government had made the decision to join, as benefits of being a member are quite profound.
“Bottom line is, we have to get ourselves organised, realign our business processes to the most efficient best available and we have to merge some units and demerge others so that they become complementary and sequential in the business process,” he said.
“We have some people inside Customs that do not agree with the modernisation that we are bringing about and bringing forward, and that is something to deal with.
“I’m going to focus initially on enforcing the code of conduct and I’m very strict on that. I expect the highest level of integrity and I will accept nothing lower. Moving forward, I’m trying to create an organisation where there is a career path for the next twenty years, if you choose to stay in Customs,” he added.
Mr Sutton said one of the main objectives is to do away with using cash or cheques when dealing with Customs officers as everything will be done electronically. He also said this makes it easier to catch non-compliant activities.
“We are bringing in new models especially for the logging industry so that we know straight away who the loggers are, we can see their licenses when they expire and when there’s a problem with ships going out of the country, we will be strict with those in this industry,” he said.
Included in this year’ budget is an ASYCUDA specialist from Fiji to introduce the full-blown latest version of Asycuda in the Customs Division.
Asycuda is an integrated customs management system for international trade and transport operations in a modern automated environment.
SICCI, on behalf of its member businesses, agrees that Solomon Islands’ economy depends on the continued improvement of trade facilitation. The Customs Department plays a vital role in facilitating movement of legitimate international trade whilst, at the same time, identifying and responding to non-compliance within the laws of Solomon Islands.
SICCI CEO, Ms Atenasi Ata is keen to see that the Customs Comptroller realises his plans.
“Businesses present that night appreciated the Comptroller’s frank sharing of the reforms he is pursuing to build Customs as befitting its key role in raising revenue for government.
“SICCI welcomes plans to make full use of the ASYCUDA platform as there are potential gains there not only for government but also for businesses.
“The proposal to include additional functionalities such as allowing competition-based intelligence to initiate more targeted screening of goods, this would be good one to look into as increasingly one of the issues brought to our attention by our members, is reputational harm and market share being hurt by illicit, or counterfeit goods,” Ms Ata said.
One of the SICCI members on the night also asked about trainings on ASYCUDA and so it was good to hear that the Customs Comptroller intends for the trainings to be ongoing.
“This will help reduce non-compliance through incomplete or bad documentation,” the SICCI CEO said.
Other questions and comments raised during the networking event emphasized too the interlinkage these plans have with parallel discussions led by other government ministries such as on PACER Plus, and the country’s proposed graduation from Least Developed Country (LDC) status.
“The session therefore reinforced that an informed private sector will actively participate in reforms by government, by relaying business experiences and by working together to identify solutions.
“We were further encouraged as Mr Sutton recognises the importance of succession planning in terms of recruitments to get to the desired number of staff, and then training and capacity development with clear career pathways,” Ms Ata said.
The SICCI CEO added: “From business’ point of view, if these reforms result in a well-staffed organisation implementing clear processes, in a transparent and fair manner, this means that flow of documents and goods at our ports is efficient and business confidence improves.”
SICCI, as the peak body representing the private sector, looks forward to bringing its members closer to the Customs Department and have extended an invitation for the Comptroller to update everyone again in quarter 3 this year.