Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Nanny George taxes our sugar

The sugar levy, the bouncing dead cat announcement by George Osborne in his latest budget, has had a curious gestation period. Despite being consistently called for by the health lobby for several years the government has been lukewarm at best towards the proposal. Here’s a quick rundown of the last couple of years:

In March 2014, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman made it clear David Cameron was opposed any plan to control the contents of food and drink.

‘What we are doing is working with the industry. You have already seen commitments from retailers and food manufacturers to reduce levels of salt, to remove calorie content and improve labelling, as well as public health campaigns by local authorities and the NHS.’

In May of the same year, despite the National Obesity Forum claiming a 'revolutionary' levy of 25 per cent slapped on fizzy drinks, chocolate and biscuits was needed to help the NHS - backed by Conservative life sciences minister George Freeman - Healthy Secretary Jeremy Hunt made it known no such charge would be applied as it would push up the cost of the weekly shop.

A Public Health England report, details of which leaked in October last year, said:

‘there is a role for a fiscal approach in reducing sugary drink consumption’.

But several papers reported that David Cameron had again blocked such a tax apparently after being ‘got at’ by interested parties in the food and drinks industry.

According to The Sun on October 22, 2015:

‘Sources say the PM sees it as a "blunt weapon” that would hit struggling families.
'But it emerged that last year Mr Cameron hosted lobbyists from Mars, Coca-Cola, Nestle and the major supermarkets.
‘Tam Fry, from the National Obesity Forum, called it a "stitch-up". She claimed “You have to think he has been got at by an industry that does not want him to ‘tax its products’”.'

Then, in January this year The Times suddenly reported the tax was ‘back on the table’ only for it to be shelved again in February as food and drinks firms were apparently going to be given ‘one last chance to slash calories and portion sizes voluntarily’.

So, it rather begs the question why it has fallen to George Osborne - the Chancellor of the Exchequer and not the Health Secretary - to announce this latest u-turn in national health policy.

While the most obvious purposes of the plans may indeed be to tackle public health concerns and, more immediately, to distract from the grim growth forecasts revealed in today's Budget, could there be any other thoughts on Mr Osborne's mind?

I suppose it can't have had anything to do with wanting to reassert his potential leadership credentials after Boris Johnson stole a march unveiling his own 10p charge on all added-sugar soft drinks sold at City Hall's cafe in January this year. In a pointed speech, which didn't pay too much heed to any of the usual 'nanny state' klaxons, Mr Johnson said:

'I hope this initiative will allow us to raise awareness of the problem and encourage people to think about their diets'.

It is noticeable that duty on the adult vices of alcohol, despite the health problems it causes, remained frozen in Osborne's budget, but when it comes to the health of the country's children, Nanny George steps in. In caring terms, much to the delight of the health lobby and especially Jamie Oliver, George Osborne said:

'I am not prepared to look back at my time here in this Parliament, doing this job and say to my children's generation: I'm sorry. We knew there was a problem with sugary drinks. We knew it caused disease. But we ducked the difficult decisions and we did nothing.'

Your turn Boris.

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