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Booze cruisers win right to shop with impunity

UK citizens who go abroad to stock up on drink and tobacco are to be considered innocent until proven guilty.

A re-think by the Government means it will now be up to customs officers to prove that cigarettes or alcohol are being brought in for illegal sale instead of own-consumption.

In the past year the hard-line tactics of customs officers with so-called booze cruisers have resulted in more than 10,000 cars being confiscated and millions of pounds of drink and tobacco seized. Many of the vehicles have never been returned to their owners.

There is no limit to the amount one person can bring in to the country, but EU guidelines advise on amounts ‘considered reasonable’.

Up to now this has been interpreted by UK Customs as about as much as will fill a large estate car – 90 litres of wine, 110 litres of beer, 10 of spirits, 20 of fortified wine, and 800 cigarettes.

Officers can stop a car on suspicion of smuggling. The owner has always had to prove the goods are not going to be sold.

But in the face of mounting criticism, the Treasury minister responsible for Customs and Excise, John Healy, today announced a series of clarifications and changes that include a softer line with shoppers.

He also promised a review of the much-criticised appeals procedure, and said that any cars seized during searches would be returned to first-time offenders once duty had been paid. The new package has also boosted the cigarette ‘threshold’ level – above which Customs is justified in taking investigative action – from 800 to 3200.

Pressure from disgruntled customers, mounting criticism from British and European courts – and the possibility of compensation claims – is believed to have prompted the Government climbdown.

Genuine smugglers, however, can expect greater and more severe penalties in the future, Healy indicated.

Written by Liz Hughes and agencies29 October 2002

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