UK snoozes on EU ‘booze cruises’

Court action looms as cross-channel shoppers petition European Parliament

The European Commission has begun legal action against the British government in a bid to stop HM Customs and Excise’s heavy-handed treatment of cross-channel shoppers, Sir Robert Atkins MEP, deputy leader of Conservative MEPs and EPP-ED Group leader on the petitions committee, said today.

Sir Robert said the Commission’s legal action, currently stayed, was intended to enable consumers to bring back alcohol and tobacco for their private use without impediment. Sir Robert said the Commission’s exasperation came from the fact that customs officers in UK ports appeared to operate on a ‘guilty until proven innocent’ basis - suspecting people importing substantial amounts of alcohol and tobacco for private consumption of actually intending to sell the goods.

Sir Robert also said that irate British cross-channel shoppers had submitted ten petitions to the European Parliament complaining about customs officers’ behaviour. Many people have had their cars impounded and been detained for hours on re-entering the UK.

In June 2005, the European Parliament voted to support a Commission proposal that would totally abolish the guidelines on the amounts of alcohol and tobacco that can be brought into one member state from another for private consumption. Labour MEPs and the Labour government opposed this move, which would have guaranteed the rights of consumers in the EU’s internal market.

The government’s support for maintaining the limits is being challenged by Scottish Conservative MEP, John Purvis. He has tabled a question to the Council of Ministers - of which Britain holds the presidency - asking what efforts the Council is making to abolish the guidelines which, despite being for guidance only, are apparently considered as fixed limits in many cases.

Sir Robert said:

“Ordinary people bringing back cigarettes and drink for their own consumption are being treated very badly and sometimes have their goods and cars confiscated arbitrarily on the whim of a customs officer.

“This is unfair, unnecessary and totally against the spirit of the single market in European goods and services.”

John Purvis said:

“The European Parliament and the Commission have sent a clear signal to the government that if customs officers cannot interpret guidelines loosely the guidelines should be lifted.

“The government has opposed measures to give cross-channel shoppers their rights in the single market. Perhaps this is because the revenues Gordon Brown receives from alcohol and tobacco duties are propping up his reckless spending plans.

“People should be able to exercise their rights within the European Union without a cloud of suspicion hanging over their head. What kind of free market do with live in when cross-channel shoppers are finding goods bought legitimately are being destroyed without any evidence that they would be resold illegally?”

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