People preparing to send Christmas parcels to family and friends in Europe face being caught out by post-Brexit red tape and charges that threaten to take some of the joy out of gift-giving.
A warning has also been sounded that some of those who have sent gifts to the EU this year have encountered problems ranging from delays and unexpected charges to items going missing.
This will be the first time most people have encountered rules that came in this year relating to VAT and customs charges applying to items being posted to the EU.
The consumer organisation Which? told the Observer that its research indicates the vast majority of people know little or nothing about the new rules. “The changes brought about by Brexit have created a greater burden of customs paperwork for consumers and couriers alike,” said Adam French, Which? consumer rights expert. “You now have to attach customs declaration forms to anything you send, very clearly describing what it is and where it has originated from.”
As part of the raft of Brexit changes that came in on 1 January this year, the EU now treats postal items from the UK as it did non-EU items before. Further changes relating to VAT took effect on 1 July this year.
As a result, customs forms are now mandatory for all gifts and goods sent to a country outside the UK, except when sending items from Northern Ireland to the EU.
In some cases, the recipient may have to pay customs or VAT charges and a handling fee before they can claim the parcel. While general items imported to the EU with a value of €22 (£18) or less are now no longer exempt from VAT, the good news for UK consumers – and for those receiving presents from them – is that gifts under €45 (£38) that are being sent to Europe remain free of VAT or charges.
According to the parcel firm DPD, a gift is an item given by one individual to another where no payment is exchanged. Goods bought from a website such as Amazon or eBay and marked as a gift would not be classified as a gift under the new regulations, it added. The Post Office said people needed to make sure the “gift” box was ticked in the contents section of the customs form. It added: “For gifts over €45, any charges will be collected from the recipient on delivery as normal.”
With so many new regulations in place, it is perhaps not surprising that when Which? recently surveyed some of its members, it found that half (51%) of those quizzed who were planning to send a gift to someone in the EU said they did not know anything at all about the new rules, and almost as many again (48%) felt they knew only a little.
“Incredibly, only one respondent to our survey told us they feel confident in their knowledge of the new rules,” said the organisation.
Worryingly, Which? found that of the 7% of its members who had sent a gift to the EU since January, 34% had experienced delays, 30% were hit by unexpected charges and 8% said their gift went missing.
In early September, Joanna Harry sent six packages from her home in South Wales to her property in Andalusia in southern Spain. She booked the delivery with Parcelforce using the broker website ParcelHero.
One package was returned to her a week after posting, but the remaining five were, at the time of writing, being held at Spanish customs.
“I have telephoned customs numerous times, but I’ve been hung up on due to language barriers, and most of my emails – both in Spanish and English – are getting no response,” she said.
“ParcelHero also avoided responsibility, saying I needed to speak to Parcelforce.”
She added: “I paid more than £100 for this so-called service. My boxes contained some items of sentimental value and I’ve been failed by couriers I trusted.”
A ParcelHero spokesperson told Which?: “Our customer services team is working to return all the parcels to the UK.” It has subsequently given Harry £25 credit.
A Parcelforce Worldwide spokesperson told the consumer organisation: “We are currently experiencing delays to some items being delivered in Spain. Items are leaving the UK on time but are subject to some delay when being processed through Spanish customs.”
The Spanish postal service ADT Postales advises that the delivery of shipments containing goods from the UK, apart from Northern Ireland, will need to be presented to Spanish customs for clearance.
ADT Postales confirmed that Harry’s five remaining parcels were now in the process of being returned to her UK address.