Ministers have rejected demands to introduce a new sugar and salt levy on food amid fears it would have been “tone deaf” to slap consumers with increased taxes in the midst of a cost of living crisis.
Environment Secretary George Eustice also insisted the Government would not “lecture” people on what they should eat, as he dismissed calls to reduce meat consumption by a third.
The Government has come under sustained criticism over its Food Strategy, published on Monday, after it refused to take up a raft of recommendations set out by Henry Dimbleby, co-founder of the Leon restaurant chain.
Mr Dimbleby, the Government’s “food tsar”, said that while ministers had taken on more than half of his recommendations, “it hasn’t been done with one vision across the whole system” and the Government’s proposals lacked too much detail to be considered a policy.
The original strategy was published in July 2020, with a firmer set of proposals published a year later. However, since then, the rise in food costs, the war in Ukraine, and Boris Johnson’s desire to appease rebellious MPs with a return to more traditional Conservatism has led to the strategy being heavily watered down.
A Cabinet source told i: “We’ve accepted the majority of recommendations, but there were some, such as the salt and sugar tax, that we were clear we would not accept. There is even more of a case given we’re now in a cost of living crisis and it would just be tone deaf to slap people with new taxes on food.”
The comments were echoed by the Prime Minister during a visit to a farm in Cornwall, when he stated: “What we don’t want to do right now is start whacking new taxes on [people] that will just push up the cost of food.
“Of course, you’ve got to champion healthy eating, you’ve got to help people to lose weight, there all sorts of ways of doing that. The best way to lose weight, believe me, is to eat less.”
Insiders added that there had been a “reframing” of the strategy in light of the war in Ukraine, which meant that food security was “front and centre” in the report.
As such, the document spells out how the UK will increase its food resilience in key areas of crop farming by increasing the use of industrial-scale glasshouses to enable the country to grow more produce, such as tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers.
The pledge to invest £270m to utilise greater innovation in agriculture and increase more sustainable farming practices was welcomed by the National Farmers’ Union, which described the document as a “milestone”.
Plans to increase the number of seasonal worker visas by 10,000, focused mainly on the poultry sector, were also welcomed, but MPs warned that not enough people were coming to the UK under the scheme to pick fruit and vegetables.
The decision to reject calls for a salt and sugar tax was criticised by some Tory MPs in the Commons chamber yesterday. They warned a failure to tackle the looming health crisis caused by junk food would end up costing the country more.
Former health minister Steve Brine said he was a “wee bit disappointed” by the Government’s decision, insisting that the soft drink levy “didn’t push up cost [for] the consumer because the industry reformulated their products.
“We can kick this into the long grass, and many will be pleased that we have done, but we are storing up obesity, type two diabetes and stroke – we are increasingly seeing that in younger people – for the future.
“So, surely as a publicly funded health system, we have a right, and I would argue a responsibility to not kick this into the long grass,” he said.
Tory backbencher Jo Gideon said the strategy was “not bold enough” on the issue of junk foods.
There are also concerns among MPs over the decision not to accept the recommendation to extend the eligibility of free school meals to a greater number of children, given the rising cost of food.
Mr Eustice said on Monday that adding free school meals on to the universal credit benefit could create a “cliff-edge” situation for families due to the “gradual, tapered withdrawal” of the benefit over time.
Sources added that the policy would be “kept under review”, however.