Leading Article: How Customs can be the traveller's friend

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The Independent Online
THE NEW YEAR brings good news for travellers. From now on, people returning to Britain from holidays outside Europe will be allowed to bring home duty-free goods worth pounds 136, compared with the present pounds 36. This increase will go some way towards reducing irritation caused by the new airport tax imposed in Kenneth Clarke's November Budget.

Her Majesty's Customs & Excise, traditionally the least friendly and most powerful government department, has been trying to win friends. For the past two years, for instance, travellers have been able to pay duty on goods with Visa and Mastercard (but not, unfortunately, American Express). The new Traveller's Charter lists holidaymakers' rights and responsibilities. 'The law says you must open, unpack and repack your bags if we need to examine them,' it says soothingly, 'but we will offer to help you with this.'

Customs officers in the arrivals halls of British airports have two jobs: to protect the country from drugs and guns; and collect bits and bobs of duty (imports in commercial quantities are dealt with separately). Whether the sums collected from passengers justify the distraction from the more important job of keeping out drugs and weapons is hard to tell, since statistics are not made public.

Import duties are the most visible form of tax. In British shops, VAT and duty are bundled into the prices shown on tags; and income tax, for most people, is deducted from their pay packets by the Chancellor before they see it. In comparison, tax of a few pounds payable on goods bought on holiday causes disproportionate pain.

The pain appears excessive when compared with that inflicted by other countries, too. Americans can take home goods worth dollars 400 (pounds 275) duty-free, while the Japanese are entitled to a handsome 200,000 yen (pounds 1,200). Yet Britain cannot raise its limits unilaterally, since the money is collected on behalf of the European Union, and changes to the rules have to be agreed in Brussels. But Customs could make life happier for travellers through a simple device. At the moment, officers are told to turn a blind eye to passengers who are due to pay duty of less than pounds 5. If that informal limit were raised to pounds 50 (equivalent to a further pounds 250 duty-free allowance in some cases), travellers would cheer.