I’M sure Health Secretary Matt Hancock has our best interests at heart when his government department publishes advice to stop smoking and to drink only moderately.
But honestly, does he need to be such a killjoy in objecting to Chancellor Sajid Javid’s plan to reintroduce duty free for passengers travelling between Britain and EU countries after a No-Deal Brexit?
Javid’s announcement was a little shaft of light amid an onslaught of negative news stories this week.
We keep being spun far-fetched predictions about how our ports will seize up in the event of a No-Deal Brexit, how there will be protests on the street and shortages of lettuce.
But here, surely, was a piece of news to which even the most miserable Remainers could raise their half-empty glasses.
From October 31 we will be able to fly, sail or take the train back to Britain from an EU country with a wee dram in our suitcase.
We will be able to bring back up to four litres of wine, saving £2.23 in duty on a typical bottle.
Bring back a bottle of gin and we will be able to save £7.54. For a packet of 20 cigarettes the saving will be as much as £6. But Hancock, it appears, will not be celebrating.
He has complained that he wasn’t consulted about the Chancellor’s plan to reintroduce duty free on trips from EU countries, and that it will help to undermine the Department of Health’s campaigns to persuade us to smoke and drink less.
Obviously, that is good advice. But is anyone really going to take up smoking or go on a drinking binge just because it becomes a little cheaper to buy cigarettes and alcohol at an airport?
Duty free is a harmless little treat for returning holiday- makers — something to ensure we remain in good cheer for a few weeks after we return from holiday, or a little in the way of compensation if it rained all week on our Spanish beach.
Duty free, as anyone over 40 will remember, used to be a staple part of a foreign holiday. The concept arose because once we have passed through security at a port or airport, we are deemed for tax purposes already to have left the country.
Customs and Excise authorities concluded, there- fore, that they had no right to charge us duties designed to capture taxes from domestic consumption.
We are theoretically still liable to pay duty on goods when we are entering a country. But in practice most countries will waive duty on small quantities of alcoholic drinks and tobacco products brought in by arriving passengers.
From October 31 we will be able to fly, sail or take the train back to Britain with a wee dram in our suitcase
As a result, passengers arriving in Britain from non-EU countries are currently allowed to bring back up to four litres of still wine, a litre of spirits, 16 litres of beer and 200 cigarettes without paying duty.
For passengers arriving in Britain from other EU countries, however, the rules changed in 1999 — seven years after the creation of the single market.
Duty free was abolished for people travelling between EU countries. In some ways, the single market was more generous than the previous duty-free regime.
Rather than just four litres of wine, for example, we are now allowed to bring unlimited quantities of wine without paying UK duty, so long as it is only for personal consumption.
Given that the duty on wine is a lot lower in France than in Britain, we can save a small fortune by stocking up in a French hypermarket.
What the EU single market did stop, however, was our ability to travel, say, from France to Britain without paying duty in either country. What Sajid Javid wants to do is to give us the best of both worlds.
From October 31 — assuming we leave the EU without continuing to be subject to the rules of the single market — we will regain our duty-free allowances.
But, in addition, we will continue to be allowed to bring unlimited quantities of alcohol and tobacco which we bought in France and which we intend to use only for personal consumption.
The main beneficiaries of duty free, needless to say, are smokers and drinkers. But you don’t have to smoke or drink in order to benefit from its existence.
The profits from duty free allow airlines and ferry operators to keep their ticket prices down. When the EU proposed to abolish duty free in the 1990s, the travel industry calculated that 35,000 jobs in the UK were dependent on its existence.
That was no doubt exaggerated for effect, and of course the budget airline industry has grown hugely in the past 20 years.
But if we want to be able to continue to fly to Spain for a tenner (if we are lucky), the reintroduction of duty free is going to be a significant influence on what airlines can offer by way of cheap tickets.
The profits from duty free allow airlines and ferry operators to keep their ticket prices down
The fuss over Sajid Javid’s proposal has reopened divisions in the Government over so-called “sin taxes” on booze and fags.
For some, like Matt Hancock, who this week praised the sugar levy on fizzy drinks, sin taxes are a useful instrument for persuading us to lead healthier lives. Others, the Prime Minister included, are more guarded.
The problem with slapping taxes on alcohol, cigarettes and unhealthy food is that they are regressive taxes which impact disproportionately on the poor.
I would say to Matt Hancock: Give us all the advice on healthy living that you can. And I don’t object to proportionate taxes which reflect the cost of medical care for smokers and excessive drinkers.
But leave it to us to decide how we want to lead our lives — and don’t deny us a small pleasure like being able to buy a small duty-free treat on our way home.
- Ross Clark writes for The Spectator.
WHAT WE’LL SAVE
SO how much could we save with duty free on a trip home from an EU country after a No-Deal Brexit?
- BOTTLE OF WINE: The UK charges duty of £2.23 per standard 75cl bottle. Given that we could bring four litres home (which allows five bottles) we could save a total of £11.15
- GORDON’S GIN: The UK charges £7.54 per 70cl bottle. We would be allowed to bring in a litre of spirits duty-free. If we can find a full litre bottle we could save £10.77.
- CIGARETTES:The UK charges duty equivalent to £4.57 per pack of 20, plus 16.5 per cent of the retail price. With a pack of cigarettes costing around £10, that adds up to a total of £6.22 of duty per pack. We would be able to bring in 200 cigarettes duty free – ten packs – so we could save a total of £62.20