Trading standards and police officers have raided souvenir toy and sweet shops on Oxford Street suspected of dealing in counterfeit goods.
The stores on London‘s landmark stretch have been accused of being at the centre of a tax-evasion scandal.
Yesterday a joint operation staffed by investigators from HMRC and Westminster City Council, alongside local police, targeted seven shops.
They included the American-themed stores that have dogged the area for months.
Oxford Street based Met officers proudly showed off a picture of items seized, declaring: ‘Playtime’s over.’
The council said it seized more than 14,000 items yesterday with an estimated value of £215,000 from two shops.
Some stores – which have been accused of evading £8million in business rates – have been found flogging fake Wonka chocolate bars and Rolexes.
Bags of suspected counterfeit items were displayed by the police who said ‘playtime’s over’
Bagged and tagged: the items confiscated during the Tuesday afternoon operation in London
Westminster council said it was worried ‘unscrupulous operators’ were running the businesses
Cllr Adam Hug, leader of Westminster City Council, said: ‘The latest raid on candy and souvenir stores has netted £215,000 of suspected fake and unsafe goods – from illegally strong vapes to designer fakes. It is part of an ongoing campaign by the City Council to ensure people on Oxford Street get what they pay for. This was one of a series of multi-agency operations supported by the Metropolitan police which allows us as a local authority to keep taking effective action.
‘We all know there has been an explosion of these stores on Oxford Street. We are currently investigating 30 candy and souvenir stores for what we believe is business rates evasion in the region of £8 million. The reality is these stores are a threat to the status and value of what is supposed to be the nation’s premier shopping street.
‘We have just launched a new vision for Oxford Street to make it more attractive to visitors. That means attracting high value retail tenants, giving a chance to entrepreneurs through pop up business spots on Oxford Street and cracking down on dodgy sweet shops which leave a sour taste in the mouth for people who go in them.
‘The Council has also recently thrown the spotlight onto dirty money and the opaque ownership structures which allow many candy and souvenir shops to spring up and close without being accountable. We want to see HMRC and the National Crime Agency get the resources they need and have pressed for this in the Economic Crime Bill. We also need to see urgent reform of Companies House as it is all too easy at present to set up a company with very little detail on who is really running them – something which allow unscrupulous operators to flourish.’
In one shop, named Gifts and Luggage, the focus appeared to be on a wall of cigarettes containing more nicotine than the level allowed in the UK.
More were found in a cupboard in a room at the back of the shop.
Director-general of the UK Vaping Industry Association John Dunne was at the site and remarked: ‘They are starting to get wise and they are hiding them.’
MailOnline revealed in June the huge £7.9million tax scam investigation had been launched into scores of the themed shops on Oxford Street and the West End.
Westminster Council has seized £100,000 of fake and dodgy goods from Oxford Street American Candy stores including these Wonka Bars
What did officials take in the raids?
Vapes – 8069 Disposable vapes which are suspected to contained excessive levels of nicotine, tank sizes above the permitted level and products which had not been authorised by the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency/ Counterfeit.
Toys -256 warning/Safety labelling
Snuz (tobacco product) – 411 no English warning/safety labelling
Mobile phone covers – 3534 suspected Counterfeit
Hoodies – 11 suspected Counterfeit
Apple/Samsung ipods – 112 suspected Counterfeit
Chargers/Adaptors – 1137 No safety labelling/Uk company details
Play Station controllers- 11 suspected Counterfeit
Power Banks – 279 No safety labelling/Uk company details
Shisha Products – 183 No health warning
Watches (Rolex) – 25 suspected Counterfeit
Jewellery(rings)- 826 suspected Counterfeit/Hallmark Act offences
These stores have been branded ‘the modern day childcatcher’ amid calls for an investigation into similar stores that have cropped up on high streets across the country.
Some London candy shops are also selling sweets that are so sweet they would be illegal to manufacture in the UK.
Nickie Aiken, Tory MP for the Cities of London and Westminster – which includes Oxford Street – branded the stores ‘sinister’. She told MailOnline: ‘I think they are wrong on a number of levels – what they’re offering and the way they entice young people and children into their stores with these bizarre marketing strategies. They are a bit like the modern day childcatcher.
‘I think the other point to make is the landlords on Oxford Street obviously want to keep their premises open with tenants. But these shops don’t really do much for the ambiance of Oxford Street. They bring it down really.
‘So it is a bit of short termism by landlords I would suggest. They really want to be investing in their buildings and investing in the type of tenants that will draw more people in the long term.’
Ms Aiken said she was sure there were similar issues in other parts of the country, but the ‘concentration’ in Oxford Street made it obvious.
Campaign group Action On Sugar said the stores are exploiting a loophole that means imported US chocolates and candy do not face the same restrictions on sugar content as UK-made products. It means the American-themed superstores sell products containing almost treble the amount of sugar a British child should consume daily, even in a small single serving. Action On Sugar called the targeting of children ‘appalling’.
Wera Hobhouse, Lib Dem MP for Bath, said there were three American candy stores in her city, and called for the government to investigate the ‘loophole’ that allowed super-sweet US candy to be imported into Britain.
Officials probing retailers’ tax affairs are understood to be concerned about a purported tactic whereby bosses using a single store name set up numerous limited companies to serve as its legal owner, before closing the companies prior to them being liable for business rates. Two companies which share directors with Kingdom of Sweets – Croftray Limited and Old Green Limited – have already been wound up owing £2million in rates.
The council is also understood to be concerned about another alleged tactic used by rivals of Kingdom of Sweets which sees shops set up in empty buildings to avoid the landlord having to pay business rates on an empty premises, before closing and leaving before the shopkeepers become liable for the tax themselves. There is no suggestion Kingdom of Sweets has been doing this.
A spokesman for Kingdom of Sweets said: ‘We are a respectable business paying all relevant taxes and business rates. The issue of rival stores opening and then closing without paying business rates has had a detrimental impact on our trading in an extremely difficult environment.
‘As a responsible business we support plans to clamp down on this practice and will continue working with Westminster Council.’