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22nd August
2009
  

Fake Crimes...

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France and Italy fine returning tourists with fake goods
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Copy DVDs Holidaymakers could be fined thousands of pounds - or even jailed - for buying fake designer goods when abroad, copyright lawyers are warning.

Authorities in France and Italy are not just targeting those who produce and sell fakes but also those who buy them. In France, the maximum fine is 300,000 euro (£260,000) or three years in jail.

The UK government has decided against criminalising consumers. Instead it has launched an information campaign aimed at people using markets and boot sales.

Seizures of counterfeit goods on the continent more than doubled in 2008, with customs authorities seizing 178 million fake items - mostly imported from China.

The European Commission is supposedly concerned about the growing involvement of organised international criminal gangs. It says: Without doubt, one of the principal methods of dispersing counterfeits is the 'ant-like' traffic of tourists returning home from holiday, bringing back souvenirs.

Intellectual property lawyer Simon Tracey said anyone tempted to bring back items such as fake designer sunglasses, a football top or handbag from their holidays should beware. He said lots of people have already been fined thousands of euros for owning a fake, and France seemed a little bit harsher than Italy. But he said it was hard to persuade people that owning a fake was a bad thing.

 

25th July
2009
  

CustImms...

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Immigration and Customs merge to become the UK Border Agency
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Uk Border Agency logo UK border control arrangements have just changed as thousands of customs and immigration officers, sharing wide ranging powers, created a new unified force at the border following Royal Assent of the Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Act 2009.

Frontline customs and immigration officers now work together as the UK Border Agency, with the power to quiz passengers on immigration and customs matters. This means many passengers will face just one primary check point when coming in to the UK.

Since the creation of the UK Border Agency in April 2008, bringing together immigration, customs and visa checks, more than 3,500 officers have already been trained to carry out passport and customs checks.

From 5 August 2009, 4,500 HM Revenue and Customs staff will formally become part of the UK Border Agency.

The Border and Immigration Minister Phil Woolas said:

This is part of the biggest transformation of our border controls in a generation. A unified force at the border with the powers to carry out customs and immigration checks allows us to continue the crack down on illegal immigration and the smuggling of drugs and weapons.

'I am determined that Britain's border remains one of the strongest in the world. This Act is an important part of ensuring it stays that way.'

The Act also ensures that migrants who want to become British citizens earn the right to stay by speaking English, paying taxes and obeying the law.

It will speed up the path to citizenship for those who contribute to the community by being active citizens. Under the new system full access to benefits and social housing will be reserved for citizens and permanent residents — a route that can take up to ten years.

'This new Act ensures that those who want to stay earn the right to do so, learn to speak English and play by the rules. Those that don't will not be allowed to become citizens, making our system both firmer and fairer.

 

19th November
2008
  

Duty to Pay...

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Small concession for international mail order
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HMRC logo Internet shoppers will not have to pay customs duty on items they have bought for less than £105 from outside the EU. VAT will still be charged on most items that cost more than £18. (£30 for gifts)

The change, which comes into force on 1 December, extends the duty-free limit for goods bought online from £18, HM Revenue and Customs says.

Whether you are looking to get your hands on the latest computer game, designer clothes or DVDs, it is important to be aware of the law on customs charges, especially as this is about to change, said Doug Tweddle, of HMRC.

Import duties vary and are not charged on all goods, but are charged on items such as CD players (import duty rate of 9.5%), DVD players (14%), silver or gold jewellery (2.5%), or imitation silver and gold jewellery (4%).

Items such as mobile phones and books are already free from import duty charges set by the EU.

From Dec 1st 2008

  • total price 0-£18 no VAT and no duty
  • £18.01-£105 VAT payable but no duty
  • £105.01+ VAT and duty payable

 

27th October
2008
  

Britain's Duty to Criminalise Millions...

Small improvement in customs duty paid allowance on 1st December
Link Here

HMRC logo Millions of British travellers, unwittingly or otherwise, break the permitted limit for overseas purchases of £145.

Customs officials regularly conduct sweeps on flights arriving from New York, Dubai and the Far East.

Some old lags ditch the receipts for their new clobber before coming back through Customs, and even snip the labels out of clothes to make their provenance harder to determine.

Others are genuinely appalled to learn that retail therapy on Fifth Avenue or along Singapore's Orchard Road can land them with a hefty bill for duty and VAT.

From 1 December, though, life becomes easier for big spenders. While duty-free allowances for tobacco, alcohol and fragrances stay the same, the limit for "other goods" is to rise from £145 to £340 – just in time for that Christmas shopping trip you promised yourself.

 

10th September
2008
  

Arrested...

Warning of increased arrests at UK Customs
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I am involved work-wise with 'Prisoners/Custodies' at a major Court. Over the last 2 months, I am seeing people being arrested at the Airport for bringing goods back that, in the past, you
may have been 'OK' with! Well, you might want to re-think if your bringing back items such as....

  • Cigarettes - If your over your allowance by a small/fair bit, you will now be ARRESTED!
  • Souveneir Knives - Any type really. UK is knife crazy at the moment - ARRESTED!
  • Knuckledusters - Might only be for novelty purposes - ARRESTED!
  • Stun Gun/Zappers - DON'T EVEN THINK ABOUT IT! You WILL go to JAIL!
  • Even items such as quantities of Fake Watches or Football Tops have caused our 'Boyz In Blue' to dish out Warrants of Arrest!
  • As for Copy DVD's and the likes - you will get Nicked!
  • Fake Clothing seems ok if not in any great quantities. But a wad of Man United tops
    will get you huckled for sure. The Sponsors/Club will always prosecute.

Now, before some of you rush to reply with 'nothing happened to me when I was searched' and all that...take it from me. I KNOW what's going down! My Court is full of suitcases with people getting arrested and going straight to the Cop Shop for an appearance at the Court the next day!

Now, if you don't have a major criminal record, you will likely get a fine. One guy got a £500 fine for bringing back one of those wee dagger/knives! It was safely in his stored luggage - doesn't matter - Arrested!

If you DO have a wee bit of a criminal past - you will likely get 3 months in Jail! And for your Zapper/Stun Guns, you will likely go to Trial for a heftier sentence!

 

26th July
2008
  

Less Duty...

Customs duty allowance for imported packages increases but VAT still payable
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HMRC logo Question to Customs :

I have read recently that the threshold for importing goods will increase from €22 (£18)* to €150* does that mean that all goods under that value will free of all duties?

Reply from Customs:

No, these changes will apply only to Customs duty.

VAT and Excise duties will remain unaffected.

Other charges eg handling fees made by Royal Mail, Parcelforce Worldwide and charges made by other carriers will also remain unaffected.

For example, you will no longer be required to pay Customs duty from 1 December 2008 for goods up to a value of €150 ECU when ordered from outside the EU. However you will still have to pay import VAT on goods that are over the current €22 (£18)* threshold as well as any Excise duty that may be applicable.

* This rate of exchange will be subject to annual adjustment and is announced in the European Commission Official Journal in the first working day in October to take effect from 1 January.

 

20th May
2008
  

Update: Travel Safe...

Protect your laptop against HM Customs and Data Thieves
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HM Customs & Data Thieves logoLast month a US court ruled that border agents can search your laptop, or any other electronic device, when you're entering the country. But the US is not alone. British customs agents search laptops for pornography. And there are reports on the internet of this sort of thing happening at other borders, too. You might not like it, but it's a fact. So how do you protect yourself?

Encrypting your entire hard drive, something you should certainly do for security in case your computer is lost or stolen, won't work here. The border agent is likely to start this whole process with a please type in your password . Of course you can refuse, but the agent can search you further, detain you longer, refuse you entry into the country and otherwise ruin your day.

You're going to have to hide your data. Set a portion of your hard drive to be encrypted with a different key - even if you also encrypt your entire hard drive - and keep your sensitive data there. Lots of programs allow you to do this. I use PGP Disk (from pgp.com). TrueCrypt (truecrypt.org) is also good, and free.

While customs agents might poke around on your laptop, they're unlikely to find the encrypted partition. (You can make the icon invisible, for some added protection.) And if they download the contents of your hard drive to examine later, you won't care.

Be sure to choose a strong encryption password. Unfortunately, this isn't a perfect solution. Your computer might have left a copy of the password on the disk somewhere, and smart forensic software will find it.

So your best defence is to clean up your laptop. A customs agent can't read what you don't have. You don't need five years' worth of email and client data. You don't need your old love letters and those photos (you know the ones I'm talking about). Delete everything you don't absolutely need. And use a secure file erasure program to do it. While you're at it, delete your browser's cookies, cache and browsing history. It's nobody's business what websites you've visited. And turn your computer off - don't just put it to sleep - before you go through customs; that deletes other things. Think of all this as the last thing to do before you stow your electronic devices for landing. Some companies now give their employees forensically clean laptops for travel, and have them download any sensitive data over a virtual private network once they've entered the country. They send any work back the same way, and delete everything again before crossing the border to go home. This is a good idea if you can do it.

Lastly, don't forget your phone and PDA. Customs agents can search those too: emails, your phone book, your calendar. Unfortunately, there's nothing you can do here except delete things.

I know this all sounds like work, and that it's easier to just ignore everything here and hope you don't get searched. Today, the odds are in your favour. But new forensic tools are making automatic searches easier and easier, and the recent US court ruling is likely to embolden other countries. It's better to be safe than sorry.

 

26th April
2008
  

Customary Bollox...

HM Thieves and exercise refuse to reveal reasons for seizure of DVDs
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HMRC logo Thank you for your e-mail dated 12 March 2008 asking for information under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

You asked for:

I would like a list of all of the DVDs that have been stopped by Customs and Excise in the years 2006-2007. I would also like the reasons for the stoppages. So, I would like the DVD title, reason for the stoppage for the years 2006-2007

With regard to part one of your request we can provide the total number of DVDs stopped for the period 2006-2007 which is 121,102.

We are unable to provide you with a list of the DVDs that have been seized as we do not hold that information. The title of DVDs seized are also not necessarily recorded and we do not therefore hold that information. To answer this part of your request would involve either new analysis or the exceeding of the appropriate cost limit, which is specified in regulations and for central government is set at £600.

You also requested reasons for stoppages. This information falls within the provisions of the Freedom of Information act that may exempt it from disclosure. The exemption in question is section 31(1).

As far as section 31 (1) is concerned you have asked for data relating to reasons for stoppage of DVDs. That is directly related to our anti-smuggling activities. Criminals are known to research carefully UK Law Enforcement capabilities and border controls. Releasing this type of information might enable those intent on wrongdoing to subvert our operational effectiveness thus putting at risk law enforcement. Because of that s31 (1) (a) (b) and (d) are engaged.

These are qualified exemptions and we are required to weigh the public interest in maintaining the exemption against the public interest in disclosing the information.

Turning to the exemption in section 31 (1) I accept that there is a public interest in HMRC being accountable for the way it enforces the law and being open about results and practices. There is also a public interest in ensuring that the public understand that our operations provide value for money and are carried out fairly and effectively. These factors would favour disclosure. However, HMRC already publishes national seizure results, along with other statistical information such as operating costs, receipts etc in its Annual Report. That report is published to enable public scrutiny of the Department, including but not limited to its operational effectiveness. The fact that we publish annual seizure figures in our annual report meets our obligations to be accountable for our performance. You can see the Annual Report by going to the following link www.hmrc.gov.uk.

There is however also a very strong public interest in protecting society from illegal imports and tax and duty evasion, and to do this we need to keep our risk assessment and operational procedures confidential in order to preserve the integrity of our systems for tackling smuggling and protecting the revenue. Providing the detailed criteria of what we are looking for would assist smugglers to evade our controls, and this would not be in the public interest.

In my view it is not in the public interest to set aside the section 31 exemption and release the information you have requested.

Mr. Sanjay Aeri
HM Revenue & Customs

 

10th March
2008
  

Update Seizure Set Pieces...

Murder Set Pieces stolen by UK Customs
Link Here  full story: Murder Set Pieces...BBFC ban Murder Set Pieces

Murder Set Pieces DVD cover Sergio wrote to the BBFC regarding import of the banned Murder Set Pieces , a 2004 US horror film by Nick Palumbo

The BBFC replied:

By supplying an unclassified work to a customer based in the UK, technically an illegal transaction has been committed under the Video Recordings Act 1984.

However, it is not a customs offence to import an unclassified work unless it contains material which may breach UK criminal law, such as the Obscene Publications Acts and The Protection of Children Act 1978. In addition, UK customers purchasing DVDs from abroad must ensure that the works are for their own personal use, and should be able to prove this if challenged.

You may like to know that we received a couple of reports from members of the public who tried to import MURDER SET PIECES last year, and their copies were seized by HM Revenue & Customs. This action was taken by customs long before our decision to refuse the work a certificate.

 

 

29th January
2008
  

Seeing Red Channel...

Customs find Brown in possession of obscene bullshit
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EU logoThose keen on popping over to the Continent for a spot of shopping may remember the 2005 (pre-election) budget, and the resulting gushing newspaper headlines when Gordon Brown declared: I have today written to the European Commission proposing that a tax free limit on goods brought into the UK should rise from £145 to £1,000.

The proposal was so good – and popular – that Mr Brown kindly repeated the proposal in his 2006 budget, and many Britons are already thought to have begun filling their boots. However, alarm bells may have rung when no mention was made of the scheme in the 2007 budget.

Today, we learnt why. There will actually be no increase to £1,000 but actually a more modest rise to 430 euros (about £320) agreed by EU finance ministers. And, the increased limit will only apply from this December – almost four years after Brown’s fanfare announcement.

In the House of Lords, Labour are trying to defend the climb-down by claiming that budgets merely set out "aspirations". Nonsense, say former Tory Chancellors. Lord Lawson of Blaby said: Statements made by the Chancellor of the Exchequer in a budget statement are not just any old aspiration. They have a much more important standing constitutionally and always have done.

Many are now calling for hapless travellers pulled up at customs who may have been misled by the "aspirations" of the 2005 and 2006 budget to be shown leniency.



31st July 2007   Customs Caught Stealing Cars...

Adjournment Debate
House of Commons
26th July 2007

   
HM Revenue and Car Thieves logoAnd are reported to parliament

From Hansard see full article

Keith Vaz: Mr. Abder Razak Filali-Tomouh is a British citizen who went abroad for a weekend trip to the continent. He came back with the legal limit of tobacco in his car, with his whole family. There was no question of his being above the limit provided for by the Treasury and mentioned by the Customs and Excise people. He was within the limit, but he was stopped on his arrival and asked why he had brought that amount of tobacco in. He explained that it was for his use and that of his family for the foreseeable future. Having committed no crime, he found that the contents were impounded and that, worse for him, so was his car—the car in which he had driven to and from the country. He came back and lost everything, but no criminal offence was committed.

My constituent has not admitted to doing anything wrong and no evidence has been found that he has done anything wrong. He just had a lot of tobacco with him, but within the legal limit. This gentleman has lost his car and can no longer go about his normal business in Leicester. No real explanation has been given for what has happened, which, as I found out from a letter from the Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury, is standard practice—that is, that HM Revenue and Customs has the power to take people's cars away from them, even though no offence has been committed. That is draconian and bizarre. There ought to be a right of appeal, allowing people the opportunity to challenge the decision.

My constituent cannot afford legal representation—as we know, the Government have cut legal aid over the past few years for people in same position as my constituent—so his only recourse is to come to his Member of Parliament. I have written on his behalf, I have received a standard reply from the Exchequer Secretary and apparently that is the end of the matter—he cannot do anything to get his car back. We need to look at the situation, which would never have come to my attention but for my constituent coming to me at my ordinary weekly surgery, because I do not regard myself as an expert in such matters.

Please let us look at the law, and in particular at people's rights of appeal in such circumstances, especially for citizens who are not experts in that area of law and who become totally bewildered when one day they have a car to drive and the next they do not, and there seems to have been no court process in between. I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will give me some reassurance that at the very least that case will be examined again and that at most we will examine the law to see whether we can exercise rights of appeal.

 

15th Nov 2006
Updated to
27th November
 Cheers to Europe

European Court of JusticeIt does seem a bit whacky that you can buy goods with VAT levied at the local rate yet because a levy is called duty rather than VAT then free trade suddenly ceases to exist. Without the new ruling the Government could theoretically opt out of free trade by simply adding a 1% duty to all goods

From The Telegraph

British shoppers will soon be able to buy cut-price alcohol and cigarettes from the Continent without leaving home, as a result of an extraordinary legal test case that threatens to blow a multi-billion pound hole in the Treasury's coffers.

The European Court of Justice is expected to rule next week that goods can be bought in other EU states and delivered to the door while only the duty levied in the country of origin is paid. This is often a fraction of that charged in Britain.

If, as appears likely, the court rubber-stamps a previous adjudication by its advocate general, shoppers will be free to use the internet or mail order companies to find the best bargains around Europe and have them shipped home for their own consumption.

The potential savings are huge: 200 cigarettes purchased in Latvia cost only £7.20, a saving of about £43, while several European countries charge no duty on wine.

Businesses across Europe are gearing up for the changes, but the British Retail Confederation warns that UK businesses will lose unless action is taken to harmonise duty rates across the Continent.

Tax experts believe the ruling, due on November 23, will hasten moves towards single rates of tax across the EU.

 

27th Nov 2006 Update: No Cheers to Europe

European Court of JusticePerhaps protectionist Governments should now simply add 1% duty to all goods and then they can opt out of free trade

From The Telegraph

British drinkers and smokers who hoped that a court ruling this morning would allow online shoppers to import cheap alcohol and tobacco from other European countries were disappointed when judges ruled against a Dutch wine-lover.

The European Court of Justice agreed that people could still escape high taxes in Britain by buying cigarettes and drink in EU countries where excise duties are lower — but only if the items were brought back personally by the purchaser.

It was a victory for the British Government and five other EU states that opposed the claim. The ruling was also welcomed by British shopkeepers and the anti-smoking campaign ASH.

The ruling came as a surprise only to commentators who assumed that the judges would follow an opinion given last year by Sir Francis Jacobs, QC, who was then an advocate general at the court.

Sir Francis had said a purchaser who bought goods from another EU country and personally arranged for their transport did not come within the scope of an EU directive imposing duty in the destination state.

The court disagreed with this. In their view, the exemption covering "products acquired by private individuals and transported by them" did not mean "transported on their behalf". This was particularly clear from the Danish and Greek versions of the directive.

 

15th May 2006   FedEx Dog Shit

That's all you want, a courier that snitches on its own customers.

From Pocket-Lint

Federation Against Copyright Theft (FACT), express delivery company FedEx and HM Revenue & Customs, has joined forces train two black Labradors named Lucky and Flo to sniff out illegal DVDs.

As part of a project promoted by the Motion Picture Association of America, Inc. (MPAA), FACT instigated the training of the two pups over an eight month period to identify DVDs that may be located in boxes, envelopes or other packaging, as well as discs concealed amongst other goods which could be sold illegally in the UK.

With the DVD piracy industry worth £278m in 2005 in the UK, DVDs are often smuggled by criminal networks involved in large scale piracy operations from around the world.

The dogs are trained to be able to detect the smell of different chemicals that are used in the manufacture and production of optical CDs

While the dogs can't distinguish between pirated discs and genuine ones, they do make it easier for investigators to find the right package to examine.

For their first major live test, Lucky and Flo were put to work at FedEx’s UK hub at Stansted Airport and were immediately successful in identifying packages and parcels containing DVDs for destinations in the UK.

 

12th May 2006  Car Thieves Apprehended

Based on an article from The Telegraph

Shoppers returning from "booze cruise" trips to the Continent will no longer have their vehicles systematically seized if customs officers believe they are smuggling drink and tobacco, the Government said yesterday.

HM Revenue and Customs has been forced to back down from its zero-tolerance policy on suspected smugglers after pressure from Brussels.

The U-turn follows a five-year dispute between the Government and the European Commission over Britain's tough stance.

Under the new policy shoppers bringing back excessive amounts of alcohol and tobacco will be offered the chance to keep them in return for payment of UK duty and a penalty fine, unless there are "aggravating circumstances". They will also be warned that their vehicle could be seized in the event of a similar incident.

 

3rd March 2006
updated to
2nd December 2006
 Duty Free Limit to be Raised to £340

EU logoFor goods brought back into Europe

Based on an article from The Times

Travellers will be able to take home more shopping duty-free from outside the European Union under a directive announced by Brussels yesterday.

The increase in the duty-free allowance from €175 to €500 (£120 to £340) will be welcomed by those who buy clothes or electronics in New York, Dubai or Hong Kong but face stringent fines and tax bills if caught bringing in goods worth more than the limit.

It is a disappointment for Gordon Brown, who had campaigned to raise it to £1,000. He denounced the old limit as “unfair” at last year’s Budget, wrote to the European Commission demanding the increase and lobbied fellow finance ministers.

The Chancellor was stymied by an alliance of Western European states worried about losing too much tax income, and Eastern European countries, such as Poland and Hungary, worried about people importing van-loads of cheap duty-free goods across the border from countries even further east, such as Ukraine.

Under Brussels law all EU countries have to comply by the same rules on travel allowances, and cannot unilaterally set their duty-free limits.

The current limit of €175, set in 1994, has been widely derided in Britain as ridiculously low, being little more than the price of two quality shirts or an ordinary watch. Even the limit of €500, which is set to be introduced from January 1 next year, is not likely to be enough for international shoppers who spend far more.

A government spokeswoman said: It is clearly not as much as we wanted, but it is a step forward. This only changed because the UK called for it.

To discourage cross-border shopping trips in Eastern Europe, the European Commission has introduced a two-tier set of allowances, with the €500 limit applying only to those who travel by air. For those travelling by boat or car, the limit will only be increased to €220.

Under the new rules duty-free limits on the amount of perfume or eau de toilette that can be brought back to Britain will be scrapped, and the limit on wine will be doubled from two litres to four litres.

A 16-litre limit on beer is also to be introduced, aimed at deterring cross-border shoppers in Eastern Europe.

 

2nd December 2006 Update: Duty Free Limit to be Raised to £290

EU logoFor goods brought back into Europe

From the Daily Mail

EU finance ministers have agreed new limits for travellers' duty free allowances, setting a new higher ceiling of 300 euros (£200) for people entering the EU by land or sea and 430 euros (£290) for air passengers.

It replaces the current 175 euros (£118) limit for the amount of goods travels can bring with them without facing EU customs duty.

The increases are designed to match inflation since levels were last calculated in 1994, with lower levels for land borders to limit cross-border booze shopping.

 

21st November 2005  Beware of Barcodes

From PattayaTalk

We were talking to someone in Thailand who is making a good living sending cigarettes and tobacco into the UK.

He just posts it, to various addresses across Britain. However, he covers the Bar code on the side of the cartons with tin foil before packing them into what ever container he uses for shipping. He says that a scanner can pick up the presence of a bar code INSIDE the package. Can this be right?

It would explain why I get stopped in customs at Heathrow when I have tobacco and cigarettes in my case. And don't get stopped when I have nothing. Does anyone know anything about this?

 

17th November 2005  Adding to the Climate of Fear

This is an absolute nightmare. Note the use of the word indecent, this is a much milder legal adjective than obscene. Many perfectly legal films with 15/18/R18 rated sex scenes can be considered as indecent even if they would never be considered anywhere near obscene.

This is seriously worrying. The problem is that the courageous decision to fight the case as far as Crown Court has proved counter-productive. We now have a judicial ruling constituting a legal precedent which will hold until it is overruled by a higher court. Since the importer isn`t going to lay out further money on an appeal, the only ways to get this nonsense stopped will be a challenge by an importer big enough to fight a future case to the Court of Appeal or above or to find some MP prepared to introduce primary legislation to amend the law. Not easy!

By Littleman from Inquisition 21st Century

A landmark decision taken by judges at Maidstone Crown Court on the 9th of November 2005 has created a legal precedent that even if a DVD, video, magazine or whatever was legally obtained in the UK, but in your possession while traveling, Customs can seize it, if it contains a single image that they consider to be indecent. This could mean that you lose your home because you own something you bought legally in a high street shop.

Let us imagine for one second a typical scene. You are going on holiday to the continent in your car with your family. In order to while away the journey, your teenaged (18+) children have brought along a portable DVD player with a DVD of, say, 9 songs, which they intend to play on the way. This DVD was bought quite legally in the UK high street and has been classified (censored) by the BBFC and your children are old enough to watch it legally. On the way back you get stopped by customs officers at Dover and, having seen the DVD, they decide that it contains a scene (or even a single image) that could be regarded as indecent. They quote the Customs and Excise Management Act of 1876 to you as justification for its seizure, but then they also quote the Customs and Excise Management Act of 1979 as justification for seizing your car and all its contents. They even strip search you and your family. You all now find yourself standing at the side of the road in Dover with just the clothes you stand up in trying to get home.

You naturally contest the seizure, but you have to travel to over Magistrates at Penchester Road Magistrates Court, which must rate as one of the worst run courts in the whole British Legal system – they have no staff except a security guard and, crucially, no law books or knowledge of the law; even the clerk of the court admits that he has no knowledge of condemnation proceedings so they just wing it based on ‘advise’ tendered by the Customs Barrister. You have to go here, because even though CEMA 1979 allows Customs to move the hearing to a court nearer your home they won’t. They want to cause you the maximum inconvenience in order to try and provoke you into dropping the case.

But you don’t drop it, because (a) you feel you are legally in the right, as the DVD was legally obtained in the UK and (b) your car and all its contents are at stake, which can be worth many thousands of pounds. You find yourself confronted by a barrister in court, who shows a still of the indecent image from the video and asks the magistrate to judge whether or not it is indecent (not obscene note – just indecent which is a VERY low hurdle to cross and one that Customs have previously said they wouldn’t be using in future: in other words they lied). Dover magistrates almost invariably find in favour of Customs (I’ve never heard of a single case where an appellant – i.e. you – has ever won). So not only do you lose your car and contents, but you also get hit with thousands of pounds in costs (Customs Barristers charge 150 pounds for each letter they read).

You could of course challenge the magistrate’s court decision and appeal to the Crown Court. But by now you are aware that you have to provide a barrister of your own at a cost of thousands of pounds, and of course if you lose then Customs will heap on extra costs so you could end up tens of thousands of pounds out of pocket: indeed you could even lose your home because Customs will obtain a court order within 14 days of the hearing to send the bailiffs in to recover their debt. You could end up financially ruined and living in a hostel.

Sounds a bit far fetched doesn’t it? Britain is (was) the envy of the world in that its legal system is fair and if you bought the DVD in a high street shop then you assume its legal to own and re-import.

Well you’d be wrong.

In a landmark decision taken by judges at Maidstone Crown Court on the 9th of November they have created a legal precedent that even if the DVD (video, magazine or whatever) was legally available in the UK, Customs can still seize it if it contains a single image that could be considered to be indecent.

So what is the legal definition of indecent? A leading barrister is quoted as saying:

“No easy definition of indecency exists. The courts have said that this is something that 'offends against the modesty of the average man, offending against recognized standards of propriety at the lower end of the scale'. It depends on the circumstances and current - and in some cases local -
standards. This vagueness is dangerous. Posters for causes such as animal rights, which are deliberately intended to shock their audience, have sometimes had to contend with indecency prosecutions. Indecency is easier to prove than obscenity because there is no defense of public good, there is no need to consider the article as a whole and there is no need to satisfy the 'deprave and corrupt' test.”

In other words, it can mean anything that the Customs Officer decides offends his standards of propriety and ultimately it is him (or her) who decides that it is indecent, and you have to appeal against that decision. And what is more, the case is decided on the balance of probabilities (in other words the subjective prejudices of the officer and the magistrate) as to whether it is indeed indecent. Do you still think you’d win if they showed a single still image from the DVD (which is what the judge at Maidstone allowed) completely out of context? Particularly as there is absolutely no defense: you can’t quote public good or the fact you bought it from WH Smiths, so the article and the fate of your car and possessions and indeed even your future are weighted on whether the magistrate finds that single image indecent. That, in my opinion, is a huge miscarriage of justice.

Now it is possible that Customs will not use this legal precedent in future cases, but I wouldn’t bank on it. They have not shown themselves to be wooly minded liberals in the past and they are going to glory in their new found powers, which are over and above their already draconian powers.

For instance, they could use it not only to confiscate your car but also in order to obtain a search warrant to search your home and computer and who knows what they might find there - there is a lot of child porn going round at present primarily distributed by the FBI and the LAPD (who brazenly admitted that they now control the cp market), so there could well be a CP image lurking on your system that you didn’t know about. The next thing you know you are branded a pervert and appear on the violent sex offenders register. Now that’s a cheery thought isn’t it?

The judge himself had misgivings about his ruling, that much is clear, as he said:

“Mr. Jones [Customs Barrister] submitted that the fact that items were lawfully available in the UK did not mean that they could be necessarily imported and it is this aspect of the case that caused us the most trouble. Although we are satisfied that broadly comparable movies are available in the UK, Parliament has seen fit to maintain the prohibition on the importation of indecent or obscene articles which, of course, include the DVDs in question. Since it is an offence under Section 170(2) of the 1979 Act [CEMA] to be knowingly concerned in attempting to evade the prohibition on the importation of indecent or obscene articles imposed by section 42 of the 1876 [the original Customs and Excise Management Act] we are driven to conclude there is no lawful trade in existence in the UK with regard to articles which are judged to be indecent or obscene and that, accordingly, section 42 is saved by the exemption provided by article 36. It, therefore, follows that this appeal must be dismissed although we recognize that this decision may cause some surprise to the proprietors of the many licensed sex shops in the United Kingdom.”

‘Surprise’ is in my opinion a judicial understatement and it is not only licensed sex shops that will be ‘surprised’. The majority of 18 and R18 rated DVDs are pressed overseas, primarily in the Far East where costs are cheaper and they have spent vast sums on automation. Under this ruling the Customs can seize a consignment of these DVDs (or Video Cassettes) if they contain a single frame that Customs consider to be indecent. And it could be months before, assuming the importer/distributor wins the appeal against the seizure, they get them back which could end up breaking the smaller distributors in court costs alone never mind the loss of trade.

But at least they have a trade association which may or may not provide legal/financial backing to fight the case. The individual, i.e. you, has no recourse to such backing and must fight this alone, in court, against a very experienced barrister that knows every trick in the book to make you lose. No blame attaches to him, he is just doing his job; it’s the system that is unfair and so archaic in the 21st century. This law was brought in as a result of a moral panic in the late 1800s, led by the tabloid rag of the time the Pall Mall Gazette, that was worried about the importation of smutty images from the continent (Belgium mainly for some reason – the Pall Mall Gazette contended that Belgium was a hotbed of white slavery, which was the moral panic at that time). It has very little relevance to the modern day where the public (but not it seems our political masters) have become a lot more tolerant towards adult material. Customs still inhabit this bygone world and see anything that smacks of smut as being a danger to society. Indeed if you query them on their nonsensical application of this law they say they are ‘protecting the public’. Against what exactly? Broadmindedness? Tolerance? A deeper understanding of their own sexuality?

The ramifications attaching to this judgment are immense, particularly in the civil liberties front and as such you’d have thought that there was some sort of legal precedent that actually allowed you to import material that had been classified (censored) by the BBFC. There is of course the case of Conegate V Customs and Excise (2WLR39). This case was brought by David Sullivan (of Asian Babes fame) against a seizure of inflatable sex toys which were considered obscene by Customs. He had to fight his way all the way to the High Court before (after a ruling by the ECHR) he won the case on the basis that the prohibition meant a restraint of the free passage of goods contrary to the Treaty of Rome on the basis that similar articles were legally manufactured and/or available in the UK. However the Customs Barrister successfully claimed that a later ruling in Noncyp heard by Bow Street Stipendiary Magistrate (1989 2WLR39) stated that the prohibition on the importation of obscene/indecent articles was permitted under the Treaty of Rome (in that a state could decide to ban the importation on the basis of protecting public morals) and that Conegate referred to sex toys and could not be applied to this case. The judge decided that even though the articles had been passed by the BBFC there still couldn’t be a lawful trade in indecent material in the UK.

The case in question was appealed by an artist who wanted to import certain videos so he could use them as models for a series of drawings he had been commissioned to produce. The videos were recommended to him by the commissioning editor. He checked to see if the videos (which were about spanking) were likely to be seized and was confident that they wouldn’t be. The legal advice he got was that they’d be covered by Article 12 of the Human Rights Act as they were to be used in the production of artistic works and anyway there was no sex in them (they were deemed obscene on the basis of a 10 second long piece of footage). The judge ruled out the application of the HRA in customs cases. Customs are evidently above the Human Rights Act, which is bizarre and very worrying. And it also calls into doubt the very future of the BBFC. Do they, in future have to get Customs clearance before they can issue a certificate or will they just issue a warning that you could be held legally liable if you are dumb enough to try and re-import a video you legally purchased in the UK which they passed (censored)?

So what can be done about it? Well it could be appealed, but the appellant does not have the legal expertise or the finances to appeal it (he did well to get that far as a private individual and indeed was praised by the judge for the submission he made) and the reason for him wanting this material has long since gone and he didn’t want to get hit with more costs (the judge in this case reduced the costs claimed by Customs by a considerable amount) and no-one in the video distribution industry or any Human Rights Group seem interested so it is doubtful whether it will be. So we are stuck with it.

So the next time you find yourself standing in your holiday clothes at the side of a wet and rainy road on the outskirts of Dover, together with your granny and screaming kids, trying to hitch a ride while Customs are rummaging through your house, then praise the Almighty that you are a citizen of the ‘most tolerant nation in Europe’.

You can contact the appellant via the www.inquisition21.com website.

Report from an observer in court

Further to the above account of the Customs trial, I have a number of additional notes by way of appendage as it would be nice to include just one of the most blatant absurdities in this case.

A twist in the tail

As Customs had seized the material, the artist duly notified the party who had commissioned his work to say there was a problem. No doubt aware of the strange practices by UK customs, uninvited, they simply made a new shipment. The video in question was intercepted and viewed by Customs and this time cleared for onward delivery to the artist.

The artist therefore presented the video to the judge as part of his legal case against Customs & Excise together with the original packaging which indicated it had been duly approved for importation by Customs & Excise.

At the end of the trial, the judge ruled that Customs & Excise made a lawful seizure, and that if any part of any article was deemed indecent, the entire shipment is subject to confiscation. These goods were therefore not given to the artist. The judge, gave back the video the artist had submitted as evidence, as it was entirely lawful, knowing this was the very same video that Customs & Excise had objected to and had just been seized.

It would seem the legal precedent that had just been set had been based on a contradiction, as the judge had ruled one video to be indecent and therefore unlawful and withheld it, and judged the other video to be lawful and returned it to the artist. The two videos were the same; this was known to the court, which rather begs a question or two!

There may yet be a sting in the tale as I observed that Customs & Excise made a note of the artist's license plate as he set off on his long journey home.

Court witness

Second report from an observer in court

Comedy in court

The Bench consisted of a judge flanked by two magistrates. The judge who was normally a barrister had no idea as to what the law actually was and kept asking the Customs Barrister what he should rule on.

The Customs Barrister was none the wiser, and despite quoting some criminal laws that did not directly apply to the case in question and he admitted as much, he attempted to look up the law during one of the breaks from court by
borrowing a book from the bench. Nevertheless, the judge seemed to always follow the directions of the barrister, despite the fact they were not based on the actual laws that applied to this case. The barrister even said he was happy for the judge to use the ordinary dictionary in deciding what was
obscene or indecent. It appeared there wasn't a dictionary in the court.

There were many breaks in court proceedings, primarily due to the fact that the Customs censor, a young girl called Sarah, could not either find the right video or find the frames of the video she wanted to show. In the case of the third video, it would not play at all and when something was shown in its place, even the Judge noticed this was the first video being played again.

After most of the time had been wasted while Sarah was playing with the video machine, the Judge simply requested the Customs censor take the stand and asked her if she had reviewed all the material to which she responded with a rather unconvincing yes. He then said he presumed that Customs had shown the worst material to start with which Sarah agreed with. The video with what was deemed to contain the worst scene was the same as the video
the judge gave back to the artist as perfectly legal, that is, presuming the judge did not break the law.

What was most bizarre of all was the fact that it all appeared to be done with with a splash of comedy. Some Hungarian history videos included some spanking and most of the time in court was spent looking for the spanking. No one in court looked either entertained or disturbed by the video, though
the judge was too disturbed by the descriptions of videos readily available in the shops to want to see them, despite the fact that one of them was simply rated 18. The Customs Barrister was unable to define any relevant law, the Bench did not have a clue, but the defendant quoted relevant law, provided supporting evidence, had taken every precaution not to break the law, and despite Customs & Excise suggesting that he had not quoted the Customs & Excise website that made rather a strong case against them, a
printed copy was presented by the artist to the judge and read out in court.

It all appeared to be a one off victory for the little man against the power of the state, but from what unfolded in court, it was as if the judge had ruled that white was black. Customs & Excise changed its website and an artist had a bill with menaces for £1500. What had he done wrong?

Absolutely nothing. What had Customs & Excise done wrong? According to the judge, absolutely nothing.

 

June 10th 2005
 European Protection Against Her Majesty's Car Thieves
 
 Based on an article from the BBC
UK drinkers who go to the continent to buy cheap alcohol may soon find it easier to bring back large amounts, thanks to the European Parliament.

MEPs have voted in favour of a proposal to abolish guidelines on the levels of alcohol and tobacco that people can bring back to the UK for personal use. The current guidelines are 90 litres of wine and 110 litres of beer. These personal usage limits - which apply to all member states of the EU and not just the UK - are, however, only advisory. As the EU is a single market, people can in theory buy as much alcohol and tobacco as they want on a cross-border shopping trip, or so-called 'booze cruise', as long as it is for their personal use.

At present, HM Revenue & Customs can and do confiscate large purchases if it even vaguely suspects they are going to be re-sold.

The European Commission has already threatened the UK government with court action for being too heavy-handed in its application of the guideline. In a number of cases people have had their cars impounded, in addition to having their drink confiscated, on their return to Britain from the continent.
 
The MEPs were asked for their opinion as part of the Commission's ongoing consultation process on the matter.
They said the guideline limits are both non-binding and hard to enforce, and therefore should now be scrapped.

In response, the UK Government has argued that such heavy handed confiscation actions are necessary to prevent the black market sale of alcohol and tobacco.

Conservative MEP John Purvis welcomed the result of the parliament's vote.
If we live in a single market, we should be allowed to take advantage of it without a cloud of suspicion hanging over us.

 

March 21st 2005  Rare Good News
 
I sometimes scan the crowds in the customs hall at Heathrow and wonder how many of them are aware that they are almost certainly bringing more than the pitiful limit of £145  worth of goods. Probably best to retain innocence as they are probably less likely to attract the attention of those who are are a law unto themselves.
 

The Chancellor Gordon Brown wants to get rid of unfair and outdated rules by raising the allowance from £145 to £1,000 for products being brought into the UK from outside the EU.

It will be a major boost for the tens of thousands of Britons who fly to the US to take advantage of the strong pound. It means that shoppers will be able to bring back many more clothes and electrical goods without being hit by huge duty and VAT bills.

A Treasury source said: We want to see a big increase in the limit. Tourists should be able to buy a reasonable amount on shopping trips to the States without worrying about being hit by customs."At present if shoppers try to get through the 'nothing to declare' channel they can be hit with duty and VAT. In some cases they can even face an additional penalty or have the goods confiscated.

The so-called travellers' allowances were first agreed in 1969. The threshold is fixed by EU law but the current £145 limit has not been touched since 1994. Brown wants all EU member states to agree to the rise by the end of this year. A Treasury official said:
It would be a popular move for shoppers and would show Europe is serious about becoming more global in its outlook.

 

February 27th 2005  Thieves Called to Account
 
Press release from ACCESS (Action for Casualties of Customs and Excise Shoppers' Seizures). From  www.day-tripper.net a web magazine for channel shoppers.

On the 10th of February, the European Taxation and Customs Commissioner László Kovács met the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, the Paymaster General Dawn Primarolo and the Economic Secretary to the Treasury John Healey, to discuss a range of EU tax issues in the light of the forthcoming UK Presidency.
 
David Ash, ACCESS Co-ordinator said;

"No doubt they will have some explaining to do about the draconian penalties imposed on British shoppers who shop in other EU member states for tobacco and alcohol, and the effective lack of a fair right of appeal. Tens of thousands of vehicles have been seized on grounds such as frequency of travel, and many hundreds of thousands have had goods seized, with travellers even being told “we don’t like the way you answered the questions” as evidence of smuggling. Many more, like me, who neither smoke nor buy tobacco, resent being stopped coming back to the U.K. and even before we leave, to be asked where we are going shopping and how much money we have on us. Coach companies have scaled down, or done away with altogether, shopping trips to Europe as the delays Customs routinely inflict on them make such trips uneconomic.

It is worth reminding readers that a smuggler to the UK Government is someone who deprives the Exchequer of money, whereas to the Commission and the rest of us, a smuggler is someone who profits from illegal trade.

99% of victims who appeal, lose when they finally get to the Magistrates Court. Having already lost their goods and vehicles, they then suffer a further penalty of costs from £750 each, even if they drop the appeal having started it (it is now virtually impossible to find a solicitor to represent you, such is the one sidedness of the appeals process). The 1% who succeed at Magistrates Court find their agony prolonged as Customs invariably appeal, necessitating a visit to the Crown Court. Even if you win again, Customs will then make you a derisory offer, or the value of the goods seized at the prices pertaining two or three years ago where you bought them, and not at current UK prices. It is fair to say, that even when you win, you lose.

Of course these experiences put people off travelling to other EU member states.

And its not worth appealing. In one notable case I dealt with, which got as far as the High Court (Customs lost), the victim was stopped and detained when he next went abroad. Anyone vigorously challenging Customs (and winning) will find the Inland Revenue suddenly appearing or raids on their homes “because they have a had a tip off tobacco is being sold illegally”.

Tribunals (why are there two routes of appeal?) have proved remarkably selective in the evidence they use when finding in favour of Customs, and even a vigorous and costly defence will inevitably fall apart for the most pathetic of reasons. It seems odd to read of cases where the loss of a car is described as “not causing hardship”. A customs Officer will be able to rely on his notes “ as it was a long time ago”, whereas the victim will be challenged by Customs and described as devious, obviously dodgy etc. when they cannot remember the exact time something took place.

Appellants don’t qualify for legal aid as the prosecution is under the civil head, even though Customs send along a Barrister and a Customs Officer when the condemnation hearing is heard (described by the Government as an appeal). This hearing is necessary for the goods to be legally condemned, and is the second part of the seizure process, which begins with the seizure at the port by a Customs Officer. This all costs tens of thousands of pounds in legal fees and Customs time, and all for a few hundred pounds worth of tobacco which an individual had bought where it is cheapest.

The previous Commissioner Mr Bolkestein, did sterling work defending the right of British shoppers to shop in other EU member states and after being given the run around by HM Government finally announced the Commission would be taking the UK Government to the European Court of Justice last October. One hopes the new one will be as vigorous.

The Government had engaged in a P.R. blitz from September 2004, assuring us that firm proposals to satisfy the Commission would be put forward “within two weeks”. I understand the Commission is still waiting.

With many of those involved in this unhappy affair now acting pro bono such is their outrage at the impossibility of getting a case referred to the European Court of Justice (all national processes must be exhausted first), and with cases pending about the lack of a fair right of appeal (which will see this issue come before the European Court of Human Rights), notwithstanding the dramatic decline in cross channel travel despite historically low fares (it is Customs who are to blame), it is time for the Commissioner to pursue with vigour the case against the British Government.

This is an issue which is important for all European citizens and must be solved sensibly. With counterfeit tobacco now accounting for over 40% of tobacco consumed it is time to accept the Governments policy has failed.

In an age where innocent shoppers who have dared to shop where it is cheapest lose their vehicles, goods and suffer large costs should they dare to appeal, sit side by side in the same Court as muggers and thieves, who walk free with a community order and a Probation Officer to help them, it is fair to suggest that this Government has got its priorities hopelessly wrong.

I re-iterate my call for a full EU Parliamentary enquiry into cross border shopping."

 

October 20th 2004  Customs Prosecuted for Abuse of their Powers

Based on an article from the BBC

The European Commission is taking legal action against Britain over cross-Channel shoppers, despite a last minute concession from the government.

The EC says British Customs officers are too tough in their treatment of consumers bringing cheap alcohol and cigarettes into the country. Goods are confiscated if the officers believe they have not been bought for personal consumption. Dozens of people every year have goods and even their cars seized by customs.

Under EU rules, shoppers can buy beer, wine and cigarettes abroad, where taxes are lower, and bring them into Britain without paying British excise duties. Customs officers have seized goods and impounded cars when shoppers come back with large amounts of goods to sell to friends and family.

The Treasury, which says it loses about £3bn every year in excise duty revenue, insists the government is only targeting smugglers.

In a statement announcing its decision to take the UK to court, the commission said: The UK's practices jeopardise the right of all EU consumers to buy goods in other member states, excise duty paid, and bring these products home for their 'own use' without any formalities and without having to pay taxes a second time. In particular, the commission considers the UK's policy of seizing goods and sometimes cars even for minor offences is disproportionate. The latest action follows on earlier letters and a formal request to the UK to change its law.

EU commissioner for taxation and customs Frits Bolkestein said he "understood any member state's need to fight fraud" but the commission "simply cannot accept" such disproportionate penalties.

On Tuesday Chancellor Gordon Brown agreed Customs should let first-time offenders keep their cars and goods but pay evaded UK duty and a fine. It is accepted that we are talking about just 28 to 30 cases a year and we are very close to a deal with the commission, a government spokesman said. The chancellor has shown he is willing to make concessions and there is not a lot more to be done.

Treasury Minister John Healey said the government would continue fighting its case with Mr Bolkestein's successor, Latvian Ingrida Udre, who takes over responsibility for customs and tax on 1 November. And he hoped court action could be halted if the government re-submitted its case.

 

October 19th 2004  Thugs Brought to Heal

Customs have been caught abusing their powers. Its about time someone brought this shameful episode to a close. I think we should redeploy this untrustworthy bunch of thugs to go and help Warmonger Bush in Iraq. I am sure Iraqi borders are in desperate need of undie sifters whose number one aim in life is to check people's duty free.

Based on an article from the BBC

The chancellor could back down in a row with the European Commission over the tough penalties on "booze-cruisers". Gordon Brown is believed to be ready to agree first-time offenders who import goods for friends for no profit will no longer have their cars seized.

And such shoppers will not now have their goods seized, but instead made to pay the duty evaded plus a fine. A climbdown could avert court action by the European Commission which has dubbed the rules "disproportionate".

EU single market rules state that shoppers can buy any amount of drink and cigarettes abroad and bring it into Britain without paying British excise duties, as long as it is for themselves and not for commercial sale.

Duties are supposed to be paid if the goods are bought for someone else - friends or family - even if it is not for profit.

UK customs has confiscated goods or imposed fines where people have broken trumped up law. In some cases people who have been accused of smuggling have had their cars impounded and even crushed.

The European Commission has branded the sanctions too severe in cases where people would not profit from selling the goods to family and friends. It has said taking property amounts to a "severe and intrusive" sanction when applied to "minor fiscal offences of a not-for-profit character".

The commission had ordered UK customs to change its stance, and threatened to refer the matter to the European Court of Justice. Talks between the commission and HM Customs and Excise held earlier this month reportedly failed to resolve the issue.

HM Customs and Excise says officers only seize goods and impound vehicles if they suspect the rules are being exploited by people bringing in vast quantities of alcohol and tobacco which cannot possibly be only for their own use.

The right to purchase tobacco and alcohol abroad for "non-commercial" use was agreed by EU governments in 1992 as part of the opening up of the European single market.

Cross-channel shopping is an attractive option for many as it is a way of by-passing high British tax rates on cigarettes and alcohol.

 

October 8th 2004   HM Customs & Heavy Handed Thugs

Melon Farmers wish Hoverspeed well with their case against those that take the law into their own hands. Customs cause misery and fear without due respect for justice and human rights.

From the Daily Mail

Cross-Channel company Hoverspeed has 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 November 25.

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.

Thursday'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.

 

October 3rd 2004  Customs and Car Thieves

Based on an article from the BBC

British customs officials will meet the European Commission in a bid to avoid court action for penalising shoppers importing cheap alcohol and tobacco.

Customs and Excise bosses face talks in Brussels on Thursday to justify or change "disproportionate" penalties at ports for people who import too much.

Customs chiefs were meant to justify the penalties by 9 September, but the deadline was extended by a month. A Commission spokesman said current customs practices "have to change".

EU single market rules state that shoppers can buy any amount of drink and cigarettes abroad and bring it into Britain without paying British excise duties, as long as it is for their themselves and not for commercial sale. Duties are supposed to be paid if the goods are bought for someone else - friends or family - even if it is not for profit.

Penalties for those believed to be breaking these rules at Channel ports have included the seizure of cars in some cases.

A Commission spokesman said: We are looking forward to the UK authorities clarifying precisely how they are going to change their practices as regards penalties for people bringing in large quantities of alcohol and tobacco and selling it on a non-profit basis to their friends and families. We have told the UK that the current penalties - not only the payment of fines but also the seizure of the goods and their cars - are disproportionate. We have told them they have to change".

Customs officers say they are only seizing goods and impounding vehicles if they suspect the rules are being exploited by people bringing in vast quantities of alcohol and tobacco which cannot possibly be only for their own use.

But the Commission says taking property amounts to a "severe and intrusive" sanction when applied to "minor fiscal offences of a not-for-profit character", even if it is justified in some cases. Failure to ease the measures could mean European court action for breaching rules on the free movement of goods across EU borders.

The right to purchase tobacco and alcohol abroad for "non-commercial" use was agreed by EU governments in 1992 as part of the opening up of the European single market.

EU guidelines state that 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.

However, national authorities should consider "individual circumstances" when carrying out checks.

Frits Bolkestein, the European Commissioner for Taxation and Customs Union, said: I recognise and support strongly member states' efforts to fight excise duty fraud - but this must not be at the expense citizens' rights to take full advantage of the Internal Market. Bolkestein has warned: Cross-border shopping is a fundamental right under EU law and should not be regarded as a form of tax evasion - even if it does give rise to revenue losses for the UK exchequer.

 

July 10th 2004  Car Thieves and that's Official

Based on an article from the BBC

Brussels has accused British Customs of disproportionate tactics in tackling people bringing excessive amounts of alcohol and tobacco into the UK. The UK Government has been told it has two months to satisfy the commission its approach is not in breach of EU or face legal action. They say people can bring in any amount of booze and tobacco for personal use.

UK Customs have been seizing alcohol and tobacco and stealing vehicles if they think goods will be sold. The Treasury says it is loosing huge amounts of tax revenue as people bring in cigarettes and alcohol from across the Channel, where duty tends to be lower.

The commission has already formally told the government to justify the tactics. Now it has gone further and warned that Britain could be taken to the European Court of Justice for breaching EU rules on the free movement of good and cross-border shopping.

A statement said: The commission has decided to send the UK a formal request to amend its policies relating to excise duties and cross-border shopping for tobacco and alcohol. The commission's request concerns the policy of seizing goods and sometimes cars even for minor offences. The commission considers that such seizures are disproportionate to the gravity of the offence in some situations and represent an obstacle to the free movement of goods subject to excise duties in the internal market. If there is no satisfactory response to the reasoned opinion within two months the commission may refer the matter to the Court of Justice.

European Commissioner Frits Bolkestein, who overseas taxation and customs, has said: Cross-border shopping is a fundamental right under EU law and should not be regarded as a form of tax evasion - even if it does give rise to revenue losses for the UK Exchequer. A spokesman for the Treasury said the UK Government would not be "lectured" by someone "pretending to be a friend of the British tourist". We fully support British shoppers' rights to bring back as much tobacco and alcohol as they like from the Continent for their own consumption. Our sanctions regime is designed to protect those rights while deterring people from breaking the law - and it is entirely proportionate to a smuggling problem that funds organised crime and costs the British taxpayer £4bn a year.

 

June 6th 2000  Is it time to call in Customs and Excise?

John Cooper, criminal barrister, looks at HM Customs and Excise's astonishing range of power and the conflict that it entails with the police

From The Times

The influence and range of Customs and Excise are meant to frighten the wrongdoer. It has been doing that since medieval times. But in the 21st century, has the lawabiding citizen reason to feel uneasy about how its powers are exercised?

This week the first full-scale inquiry into how Customs goes about its work will be published. The retired judge, Gerald Butler, will report to the Attorney-General on the collapse of a trial that followed an 18-month investigation and a seizure of £34 million of cocaine. Five alleged drug smugglers had charges against them thrown out because investigators had failed to follow correct procedures. The allegation was that the customs surveillance operation was illegal. Mr Justice Turner described the collapse of the trial as a "debacle" and he expressed "a deep sense of judicial concern". Customs officials faced the possibility of disciplinary action.

The powers and extent of influence exercised by Customs and Excise are wide-reaching and were recognised as such in 1985 when Mr Justice Forbes observed in the case of R v HM Customs & Excise Ex Parte Haworth that "the powers entrusted to Her Majesty's Customs and Excise are in themselves astonishing".

Only the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) initiates more prosecutions in England and Wales and has a wider armoury of criminal offences than Customs and Excise. A momentary trawl through transgressions that can incur the wrath of customs prosecutors reveals sanctions and offences such as confiscation of assets, smuggling, drug importation, importation of indecent or obscene material, VAT offences and the draconian Customs and Excise Management Act catch-all section. This states that any person who is "in any way knowingly concerned in carrying, removing, depositing, harbouring, keeping or concealing or in any manner dealing with (specified goods) and does so with intent to defraud Her Majesty of any duty payable on goods or to evade prohibition or restrictions with respect to those goods" shall be guilty of an offence.

Sometimes Customs does not even have to prove guilt: an innocent individual can find his money forfeited if Customs convinces a court that it represents proceeds of drug trafficking whether or not a successful prosecution has been brought. Its job is made even easier by having to prove its case only on the lower civil standard of proof. As a matter of practice, magistrates rarely have the instinct to deny the Duty men.

Even when customs and police responsibilities overlap, Customs can find its powers far more wide-ranging. For example, its power to prosecute importation of indecent or obscene material is significantly wider than that given to the police, because it extends to indecent material not subject to a tendency to deprave and corrupt.

Upon conviction, a defendant prosecuted by Customs can face lengthy and severe sentences. Under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, defendants can face life sentences and one regularly hears of judges delivering imprisonment of up to 15 years even for a defendant of previous good character.

There is even the possibility that minor criminal offences currently considered for prosecution by Customs will be decriminalised with the introduction of parallel civil penalties. This has already been done in relation to VAT and moves to extend this power are imminent. This will result in an agency having far-reaching powers not only to prosecute but also to sue. For this to be done the agency about to take on this responsibility must be beyond reproach.

There have always been degrees of animosity between the police and Customs. Operations involving the two forces can be fraught with difficulty. This can only be intensified after the Government's recent announcement that complaints against the police will be investigated by "independent" bodies. One such body will be Customs and Excise. Quite how happy the police force will be with Customs acting in a judicial capacity over their activities can only be assessed with time but some may point to recent history to bring into doubt the credentials of Customs to judge another law enforcement agency.

One does not have to go further than the Crown Court which overlooks the House of Commons, Middlesex Guildhall, to see why the police may doubt the Government's wisdom to trust Customs with such wide-ranging powers.

In October 1999, a £15 million cannabis prosecution mounted by Customs and Excise was dropped, costing the taxpayer more than £1 million. One of the defendant's solicitors observed that no reason had been given for Customs' decision to offer no evidence but customs officers were involved in an undercover operation accompanied by the Special Boat Service and indulged in "some highly questionable activities".

Why should Customs be given such "astonishing" powers? Could it be because it is a revenue collection agency?

Unlike the police, Customs and Excise is responsible for the collection of taxes and duties. The Government of the day has a very focused intent to provide the revenue protection agency with as much power as it legitimately can. But the distinction between Customs and police on the collection of revenue is beginning to blur. Mo Mowlam, Minister for the Cabinet Office, has just announced plans to encourage courts to make use of their discretion to confiscate the proceeds of serious crime and then rechannel it into crimefighting initiatives. As such, the role of the police becomes closer and closer to that of Customs not only as a body instigating prosecutions but also in playing a crucial role in the collection of money to be put to public use. Soon people may start to ask, with force, why Customs should continue to be treated as an elite and privileged organisation.

 

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