A BLACKBURN coach full of women bingo players was stopped by customs officers in France trying to bring 700,000 cigarettes into the country - five times the allowed limit for the number of passengers on board.

Today Paul Critchley, director of Dreamline Travel, the operator that laid on the trip for 45 bingo fans from Rochdale, was told UK Customs will not let him have his £140,000 coach back until he has paid £21,000 - the equivalent of half the duty that should have been paid on the seized tobacco.

Mr Critchley, 43, who has been a director of the Mill Hill-based company since 1993, faces the bill because it is the second incident involving his firm.

Individuals are only allowed to bring in 3,200 cigarettes for personal use. The total seized is equal to 15,500 per person.

The news came on the day it was announced the European Commission was taking the UK government to court over cross-border shopping. The EU claims the government is being too heavy handed with 'booze cruisers'.

The passengers, made up mostly of women from a Rochdale bingo club, were returning from a shopping trip in Adinkerke, Belgium, on Saturday. They had to wait for eight hours in France before they could continue their journey.

It is believed customs officials seized the coach at Coquelles because more than 50 per cent of the passengers were carrying undeclared goods.

A passenger, who did not wish to be named, said: "Some people were allowed to keep their goods, others came home with nothing after being interviewed at length.

"I can't believe it has happened. It was organised as an innocent pre-Christmas shopping trip for cigarettes and champagne. We felt so sorry for the driver and the company, it was not their fault. There is no way the coach should have been seized."

Mr Critchley said: "I was contacted to see if we could take a party of passengers on a shopping trip in France. On the way back the coach was stopped in Coquelles. Some passengers were carrying more tobacco than was allowed.

"That is my newest and most expensive coach - £140,000 worth - I've lost 25 per cent of my fleet.

"My job is to take people on holiday and bring them back. I'm not allowed to go through bags. Why should I be penalised? If it was the drivers then I would take full responsibility, but how was I to know how much the passengers were carrying? It's scandalous."

Customs hired a coach from a company in Kent to bring the passengers home.

Goods and vehicles can be confiscated by customs if officers believe they have not been bought for personal consumption. Mr Critchley has now been asked to attend a meeting with customs officers in Dover where he will be told how to manifest passengers.

A spokesman for customs said they could not comment on individual cases.