Spilling the beans or it’s a mug’s game

Coffee sack
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Since getting back from a holiday in Costa Rica in 2005 I have been ordering my coffee beans from Café Milagro in Quepos. Over the years I must have received at least ten parcels without a hitch.

My latest consignment, however, was intercepted by the UK Border Agency (acting on behalf of HMRC) despite the parcel being clearly marked ‘Finca Rosa Blanca Eco Estate Coffee – Whole Bean’ and the Customs Declaration describing the contents as ‘Costa Rican Organic Coffee’. Even though the coffee didn’t come from Colombia, Parcel Force (aka FARC) refused to deliver until I paid £21.55 in VAT plus an £8 handling fee to help ‘cover the cost of additional handling, administration, collection of monies and provision of facilities for Customs clearance of packages’.

I wasn’t sure I really wanted the coffee after Parcel Farce had handled it, but my reputation as a VAT expert was on the line and the scalding steam from my Gaggia would no doubt have a sterilising effect.

Having ransomed my beans (which were being held hostage by Parcel Force at their Camden Town depot/hideout), I settled in to phone the ‘UKBA Team’ in Coventry whose contact number had obligingly been stamped on the outside of the parcel. I expected that this would take time, certainly long enough to make a macchiato or two. After the phone had rung out about ten times, a woman who sounded uncannily like Mrs Overall picked up.

The conversation then went something like this:

[Heavy breathing]

“Is that the UK Border Agency?”


“I’ve been trying to get through to you for an hour. Haven’t you got voicemail?”

“There’s only six of us here and we’ve been very busy. We wouldn’t have time to listen to messages.”

“You’ve charged me £21.55 in VAT on coffee beans sent from Costa Rica. Coffee is zero-rated.”

“Oh. We’ll send you a full refund then.”

“But why did you charge it in the first place? There’s no VAT on coffee.”

“We’re under-staffed. We don’t have time to look at all the parcels we charge tax on.”

“But it clearly says coffee beans on the Customs Declaration.”

“Well we can’t have noticed that. We’ll send you a full refund.”

“What about the Parcel Force handling charge?”

“Send a copy of the green TFR which we’ll send you with your full refund to Parcel Force’s Worldwide Correspondence Team in Wakefield and they’ll send you a cheque.”

“How do I know this won’t happen again? Shall I get the sender to increase the font size on the word ‘coffee’ to 56 point?”

[Dial tone]

I’ve got the money back now, including the £8. It only took around two hours.

By the way, HMRC’s mantra is ‘The right tax at the right time’.

Tax lawyer specialising in business tax, SDLT and VAT

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  1. Anonymous

    Thanks for posting this. I just got charged for my coffee bean delivery, which I have received for years without a hitch. I now know what to do! kind regards, Clare


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