Buyer Beware: Rules of the booze cruise

A recent EU ruling seemed to give the green light to limitless cross-channel shopping. But, says Mark MacKenzie, the new regulations are being widely misunderstood

Earlier this month the European Commission issued a ruling that will have caused Britons up and down the country to raise a glass or two in thanks. After five years of wrangling, Brussels had, it seemed, withdrawn the right of UK customs officers to impound the vehicles of day-trippers in possession of more than the legal amount of tax-free goods.

Reports of the ruling suggested it was now "open season" for so-called "booze cruisers"; in future, the sight of family cars straining under the weight of contraband would become increasingly familiar on the roads heading out of Dover.

But before you rent that Transit van with the extra-long wheelbase, it's worth pointing out that the rule change is not as accommodating as it first appears.

"The new ruling is really aimed at first-time offenders," explained Aidan Close of Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs (HMRC). "But the coverage seemed to suggest you can now bring back as much as you like and HMRC won't do anything about it." This is not, it seems, quite the case.

"Even if you're bringing home a few bottles of wine for Mrs Smith next door," said Mr Close, "if she's paying you for them they are regarded as commercial goods. We will still seize goods until you pay the duty, but we won't seize the vehicle."

In reality, the EU ruling is a guideline rather than a hard-and-fast law, and the key phrase in the debate is "personal use", how much alcohol and nicotine the average person might reasonably consume. "In terms of what you can fit into the back of a car," said Mr Close, "the limits are quite generous." For the record, they are: 3,200 cigarettes, 200 cigars, three kilograms of tobacco, 110 litres of beer, 90 litres of wine, 10 litres of spirits and 20 litres of fortified wine.

"Despite what may have been indicated to the contrary," said Mr Close, "this allowance didn't actually change on 9 May [the date the ruling took effect]; if we're not satisfied the goods are for personal use, we will act."

Mr Close was at pains to point out that despite the tough reputation of UK Customs officers, proceedings against recreational day-trippers affects "less than 1 per cent of those stopped". Not much comfort if you happen to be one of the unlucky few. "The temptation to throw in a few extra cartons of cigarettes at the hypermarket is understandable," said Mr Close, "but getting caught can be an expensive business."

Indeed, if you fail to convince customs officers that goods are not for personal use, you will be charged both the duty (17.5 per cent of the purchase price) and, in all probability, a fine. In addition to several hundred pounds' worth of penalties, you may also be looking at an official caution, with your details then stored on a database.

"In most cases it's a genuine mistake," said Mr Close, "but ignorance is no excuse. If we do issue a caution and you reoffend, then your vehicle is liable to be seized."

For persistent offenders - what HMRC refers to as "professional smugglers" - large-scale fraud carries a maximum seven-year jail term. Commercial smuggling remains a serious problem with the bulk of goods entering the country as maritime freight. According to selected figures from its most recent annual report, for example, HMRC seized two billion cigarettes in 2004-05, which was 200 million more than in the previous year. It also uncovered 68 gangs.

Mr Close suggested the Brussels ruling may have originated from appeals by those who have had vehicles impounded. "If you're carrying goods in the back of a Ford Escort, you're probably not going to be costing the Government that much in lost revenue," added Mr Close. "Nevertheless, it's a good idea to acquaint yourself with the rules before you travel."

For more information, go to: www.hmrc.gov.uk

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