Abu Dhabi, 2010. I receive a speeding fine - not an unusual occurrence when I lived in the Middle East, I confess - but on this occasion, there is no way that my car could have been caught on a camera at 2am on an Abu Dhabi road travelling at 100km/h in an 80 zone. On the date of the supposed offence, my car was safely parked in the car park of Volkswagen's UAE head office in Dubai. This is because I was testing one of their cars for a review during that particular week.
The only way it could possibly have been my car was if someone broke into it without damaging the lock, hot-wired it, again without doing any noticeable damage, drove it from Dubai to Abu Dhabi in the middle of the night, got snapped by a speed camera, and then drove it back to the Volkswagen office car park, parked it in the exact same spot, and returned my driver's seat and mirrors to the positions favoured by my 5'1", corgi-legged self.
Still, I paid the fine. Compared to Australian or British speeding fines, it wasn't too expensive, I was well-paid, the points system for traffic offences was way more generous than Australia or Britain, and the process for appealing vexatious speeding fines is a bureaucratic palaver for which I had neither the time or energy.
I know I am not the only person to have lived in the UAE and paid a phantom speeding fine. The governments of the seven emirates probably do pretty well out of these fines.
But before anyone outside the UAE dismisses my phantom fine as part and parcel of life in a country that is not a fully fledged democracy or writing it off as the result of corruption in a far-off land, ask yourself if you think such a thing could ever happen in your own country. Would your government find ways, either by accident or design, to get their hand in your pocket for some extra revenue, above and beyond what you legitimately pay via such things as income tax or VAT?
I fear this is happening in Britain right now. This is not the fear of a paranoid, conspiracy theorist. Let me give you an example of what happened to me over Christmas.
My parents and my sister and brother-in-law, all living in Australia, sent Christmas presents to the UK for my husband and I. The gifts were items of clothing and jewellery, not ivory furniture, weapons or hard drugs, so hardly the sort of thing that would ring alarm bells for HM Revenue and Customs. But instead of these parcels, which would have fitted through our letterbox, being delivered to our house, we got red cards from the Royal Mail informing us to collect the parcels from the nearest mail collection centre.
On two brisk Saturday mornings, we walked across the park and on both occasions, could only collect the parcels after paying £17 in "customs duty and/or import VAT" for receiving goods from outside the European Union. This struck us as bizarre, especially as the customs forms that our loved ones filled out in Australia clearly had a tick in the "Gift" box. I am hardly likely to go into business by trying to sell on the Wonder Woman apron my sister gave me, rather than exporting it to me, for Christmas. At the same time as this farce, a friend posted us some novelties from Cyprus, a fellow EU member state for now. The parcel came through the letterbox, it didn't cost us a penny.
Somewhat miffed about being £34 poorer for the privilege of receiving Christmas presents, we looked into the matter and found out that you can try to claim back incorrectly charged customs duty. We now have to fill in a form for each parcel and provide a load of documentation. This includes (and I am looking at the form as I write this):
● Customs black and white charge label
● Customs declaration form
● invoice/receipt or other evidence of value (such as eBay page or Paypal receipt) of the goods
● for returned goods - evidence of refund on goods returned, certificate of posting, cost of repair etc
● for overseas students - confirmation from University/College of course details and permanent address outside the European Community
● for antiques - verifiable evidence of age
If the parcel contains one or more personal/private gift(s) from someone abroad, please provide written confirmation from the sender, including details of the gift(s), its/their value and the intended recipient(s).
Rather like appealing a phantom fine in the UAE, this is a palaver but we're going to go through with it and hopefully recoup the £34. It's a matter of principle.
But I do wonder how many other people who received Christmas presents from outside the EU got a similar festive surprise this year? And it's not as if people only receive gifts from outside the EU at Christmas - I am now looking forward to paying needless tax on any birthday presents from Australia in a few months time.
According to www.gov.uk, you do need to pay 2.5% customs duty on gifts worth between £135 and £630, and there are special rates for gifts worth more than this, depending on what they are or where they came from. But for most of us, we are not expecting or receiving gifts worth more than £135. That would be a very expensive T-shirt and apron from my sister and brother-in-law.
And of the people who received a bill for customs duty on Christmas presents from outside the EU, how many simply paid up without question? How many people were aware that you don't have to pay customs duty on gifts? And of those, how many knew how to go about claiming the money back? It's not as if this was advertised at Christmas. You do need to go digging around online to find the information you need and then download the form, print it, fill it in and post it, along with the aforementioned documentation, to a sinister-sounding government department called "Border Force", located in Coventry.
For people without internet access, for people with literacy issues, for people who need to get letters from relatives abroad who might struggle to write letters in English, for people who simply didn't think to question this charge, it's not hard to see why many people wouldn't try to claim the money back. It just goes straight into the government coffers, unchallenged.
And if a hard Brexit goes ahead, it does not take a great leap of imagination to picture more and more people getting a red card from Royal Mail and bill to pay for presents from friends and family across the Channel. Can anyone seriously imagine this government going out of their way to inform people about their rights in regard to gifts from Europe?
Consider this a warning. If you have received a bill for customs duty on a gift, click here for the link you need to download the form and obtain the information you need about the rules on this matter.
Photography by Petr Kratochvil