Hoverspeed sues 'heavy-handed' customs

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The Independent Online

Cross-Channel company Hoverspeed today announced it had filed a High Court claim for £50 million against Customs and Excise.

The claim follows a civil hearing brought over what Hoverspeed saw as heavy-handed action by Customs officials in searching passengers.

The company, which operates Dover-Calais and Newhaven-Dieppe services, were victorious in the civil action when it was ruled that officials were acting unlawfully in conducting random searches.

Hoverspeed had taken the experiences of two particular passengers to make its case.

A preliminary hearing on the new claim is fixed for 25 November.

The announcement by Hoverspeed came as the threat of European legal action still hung over the Government despite last-minute talks designed to resolve a wrangle over cheap alcohol and cigarettes.

British Customs officials spent two and a half hours at the European Commission headquarters in Brussels yesterday, explaining their policy of targeting cross-channel smugglers abusing the right to bring in large quantities of booze and cigarettes.

The Commission says innocent shoppers are being caught up in over-zealous checks and face hefty fines, the seizure of goods and even the confiscation of their cars.

Usually their only offence is to exceed ill-defined and informal limits on how much drink and alcohol they can bring back from the continent for personal use without being subject to UK excise duties.

Yesterday's meeting came as a Saturday deadline loomed to either ease "disproportionate" penalties or be taken to court for alleged breaches of EU rules on the free movement of goods and people.

In reality no more action is likely until early next week - but there was little sign after the latest talks of any breakthrough that would resolve the dispute.

Both sides issued an agreed statement saying the meeting had been "good and constructive".

A Commission spokesman added: "We await with interest the UK's response."

Government sources said the Customs delegation told Eurocrats its aim is to crackdown on the smuggling of goods which cheats the treasury out of around £3 billion pounds every year.

That is not disputed - but the Commission says Customs staff are too heavy-handed when dealing with shoppers who bring in goods for family and friends on a not-for-profit basis.

Many cross-channel trippers do not realise that the free-market rules on drink and tobacco relate only to items for personal use - and bringing in supplies for friends either as gifts or simply on recovery of the cost price is not allowed without paying UK excise duties.

According to EU guidelines, anything up to 800 cigarettes, 400 cigarillos, 90 litres of wine (including a maximum of 60 litres of sparkling wine) and 110 litres of beer should be considered to be for personal use, and therefore not subject to domestic excise duties.

Above these "indicative" levels, shoppers can expect to be asked to pay excise duty, and possibly fined with the loss of the goods, if stopped by Customs staff.

But British duty is also supposed to be paid on all amounts of alcohol and cigarettes goods being brought in for someone else - friends or family - even if it is on a not-for-profit basis.