Conservative MPs have lauded the “return of the booze cruise” as a “Brexit boost” to areas which support ferry services to Europe.
From January 1, the regime covering what goods could be brought into the UK from overseas duty-free was applied to EU countries for the first time since 1999.
At the same time, the Government increased personal allowances so that passengers coming to Great Britain can now bring in, for example, three crates of beer, two cases of still wine and one case of sparkling wine duty-free.
However, as part of the changes, VAT-free shopping for non-EU international travellers came to an end.
An SNP-bid to revoke the measure was defeated by a majority of 279 – ayes 74, noes 353.
During a debate on regulations relating to the changes, Conservative MP for Dover Natalie Elphicke said she “makes no apology for being delighted about the return of duty-free”, adding that a ferry trip “is nothing less than a mini-cruise”.
She told the Commons: “From ball pits and play areas for the little ones to video games, one-armed bandits and bars for the grown-ups There’s something for everyone to enjoy.”
She added: “As a young woman there was perhaps nothing more exciting than putting on my dotted, spotted ra-ra dress and dancing across the sea on the ferry disco.
“An introduction to exotic foreign climes, while nothing could quite beat sashaying up and ordering your ‘frites et mayonnaise’ on the chip van in France and Belgium.
“Shopping at Costco is but nothing compared to the delights of a Calais supermarche. From fancy liqueurs to the rather disgusting, but vibrantly-coloured sweets – it was a proper day out.”
Conservative MP Katherine Fletcher (South Ribble) said the changes mean “the return of the booze cruise”.
She said: “Much planning was put in place in our family for the annual, or bi-annual trip, to France to go and gain some wonderful wine, some sparkling wines, some beer.
“This was a military logistic operation with months of planning, including considerations as deep as how many adults can you fit in the car, which of the smaller adults to fit the acquired goods around.”
Labour’s shadow Treasury minister James Murray, however, struck a more cautious tone and warned the end of VAT-free shopping for international travellers would be a “body blow” to airport retailers, and he called for the Chancellor to review the impact of the changes on jobs ahead of the Budget.
He said: “We accept that in order to comply with World Trade Organisation rules, the Government needed to make changes to the regime covering VAT-free shopping.
“The Government had to amend the approach to VAT-free shopping and to duty-free shopping as well so that the same rules would apply to both EU and non-EU visitors.
“As the UK can no longer distinguish between EU and non-EU visitors to Great Britain, the Government had a choice of two options for VAT-free shopping.
“Ministers could amend the VAT and retail exports scheme and VAT-free retail at airports by extending it or abolishing it for all travellers, and they chose the latter.
“This decision has come as a body blow to jobs across the country, in sectors desperately hoping they might be able to start recovering from the impact of Covid later this year.”
Conservative Anthony Browne (South Cambridgeshire) said of duty-free: “It’s a tax break that may not be that economically efficient in traditional measures, but it is really popular and great fun.
“It’s a tax break for the many, not the few, and I think the Treasury should introduce not a benefit-cost ratio, which it normally does, but a fun-cost ratio.”
But SNP MP Richard Thomson (Gordon) said he found some of the contributions in the debate to be “utterly bizarre”, noting: “As if the impacts of these changes was all a bit of a jolly laugh extending no further than the ability to stagger off the return leg of a cross-Channel booze cruise armed with nothing more than a blue Brexit passport and a clinking tote bag of bottles to take home with you.
“The businesses and those who work in them who understand the issues at stake and whose jobs are at risk through this change are, I’m certain, looking on aghast.”
Conservative MP Felicity Buchan (Kensington) said: “I am concerned that if we disincentive these visitors from coming to the UK, we materially affect other areas of our economy and potentially also Treasury’s tax takes.”
She added: “My concern is that these shoppers, who are a very distinct group of people, are very highly mobile. The risk is that if we are no longer competitive and we will be the only European country not offering tax-free shopping, that they will simply go to Paris or to Milan.”
Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross said: “I am representing Moray, this is a local issue for me, it’s not a party issue, this is a local issue as a local representative and for the jobs at risk as a result of this SI, I will be voting to annul it tonight because I think that is the right thing to do, to represent my constituents, to stand up for their concerns and the concerns of employers in this area.”
Responding for the Government, Treasury minister Kemi Badenoch told MPs: “I do take the point made by (Ms Buchan), she and I have had several discussions on this issue, and I have had extensive representations from (Mr Ross). However, they will both know that the Treasury disagrees with their assessments.”