How the green lane can lead to ruin

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The Independent Online
PETER does not look like a smuggler. Yet the respectable middle-aged professional became one after he recently took a diamond ring through the green 'no goods to declare' lane at Heathrow airport. He comments: 'It did not feel as if I was committing an offence.'

Peter's attitude to what he did is not uncommon. Nevertheless, it is an offence, with a range of penalties: goods can be confiscated, fines levied and prison sentences imposed.

Broadly speaking, excise duty is levied on tobacco and alcohol while customs duty is charged on other goods imported. Every visitor to the United Kingdom is allowed to import some tobacco and alcohol free of excise duty. The alcohol allowance is two litres of still wine, a litre of spirits or two litres of fortified wine, or a further four bottles of still wine. Smokers are allowed 200 cigarettes, or 100 cigarillos or 50 cigars or 250g of tobacco.

Visitors from the EU can buy up to pounds 71 of goods in duty- free shops. Those arriving from outside the EU can import goods worth up to pounds 136 from duty-free shops or elsewhere.

Since the arrival of the single European market, goods bought in ordinary shops with local taxes paid are no longer subject to duty. Drinkers can each import up to 110 crates of beer, 20 litres of fortified wine and a further 90 litres of still wine. This quota can be exceeded if the Customs officials are convinced it is for personal use.

Those trying to sell goods on to a third party risk prosecution. In the year to March 1993, according to a Customs & Excise spokesman, 1,588 people were detained in connection with attempts to avoid excise duty. Customs duty is levied at between 4 and 34 per cent on various categories of goods.

If the pounds 71 or pounds 136 allowance is exceeded, duty is charged on the entire value of the goods, not just the portion which exceeds the allowance. VAT is then levied on the combined value of the goods and the duty paid. This toll can be paid immediately by credit card.

Duty is assessed on the price actually paid for the goods. Customs & Excise officials will normally request a receipt as proof of purchase. A Customs & Excise spokesmen comments: 'Some receipts are treated with caution. We usually know the real value of the goods imported. We know, for example, that if you buy a carpet in Turkey often the first thing the trader asks, is 'what price do you want on the receipt?' The same tactic is often used by those buying electrical goods in the Far East.'

The Customs & Excise department uses specialists to value unusual or difficult items. Andrew, a solicitor, considers himself lucky. 'I remember bringing a very heavy silver bowl into the country. When I declared it, the Customs officials refused to believe it was anything more than plated silver because of its weight. They concluded it was of little value and did not levy any duty.' Antiques, although exempt from duty, are subject to VAT.

The Customs officers keep an eye out for regular travellers they consider to be potential smugglers. Simon, a management consultant, comments: 'I was flying regularly to New York and decided when I was there to stock up with CDs, which are about half the price they are in this country. I was stopped by a Customs officer in the green zone. I was carrying dollars 160 ( pounds 100) worth of CDs. Luckily, I was only made to pay the duty owing. But they did caution that they would keep an eye out for me in future.'

Simon was one of the fortunate ones. It is open to the Customs officers - as an alternative to merely levying duty - to inflict more serious financial penalties. Smuggled goods can be confiscated and then become the property of the Crown. As an alternative to taking the smugglers to court, the Customs officials may impose a financial penalty by a process known as compounding. The penalty levied is related to the price of the goods seized, and the duty and VAT which should have been paid if the goods had been declared. Once the on-the-spot fine has been paid, the goods are returned to the smuggler.

More serious cases can end up in the magistrates' court where a fine equal to the greater of three times the value of the goods seized or pounds 5,000 can be imposed. The very serious 'bootlegging' cases can end up in the Crown Court, where those convicted face an unlimited fine or imprisonment.

(Photograph omitted)