The Customs Service
|A brief history of the customs|
The first customs duties
The English customs system was created by Edward I, although there had been earlier taxes on goods moving through the ports.
His 'Great Custom' of 1275 imposed duties on wool, leather and hides exported through London and 13 other ports. Controllers and local officials oversaw the collection of the dues.
Elizabeth also reformed the system, introducing a Book of Instructions in 1564 and the Port Books - the first proper register of ships and cargoes - in the following year.
The system at its peak
The 18th century saw the expansion of the customs into a complicated system, with more than 2000 dutiable goods. The customs provided between one quarter and one third of the total tax revenue. However, the price of high tariffs was increased smuggling.
As governments became more concerned with the country's economic development, customs duties were increasingly used for purposes other than to raise revenue.
Protectionism meant the imposition of heavy duties on certain imported goods to encourage their production at home.
The duties made the imports more expensive - and therefore less attractive - than the local product.
The Free Trade movement
Support for free trade also followed the introduction of the most hated of all the protectionist tariffs - the notorious Corn Laws of 1816-19. The duties on foreign wheat were condemned as a 'bread tax' that punished the poor.
The move towards Free Trade
In the 1840s and 1850s, successive governments abolished most customs duties and the hated duties on corn, and only a handful of tariffs were kept. These included the lucrative duties on goods such as tea and tobacco.
To make up for the drop in customs revenue, income tax - first used during the wars with Napoleon - was reintroduced.
Although Free Trade has long gone and the customs still provide valuable revenue for governments, Britain never returned to the system of the 18th century. Today's Customs Service is as much about protecting society as it is about collecting taxes.
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