Why is it that whenever anyone proposes a tax on the wealthy all hell breaks loose, but when someone proposes a tax on the poor there is no more than a faint whimper of protest? Yesterday, life sciences minister George Freeman, speaking at the Hay Festival, floated the idea of a sugar tax. In contrast to Labour’s mansion tax or the removal of tax privileges for non-doms, my email inbox was not immediately jammed with statements from upmarket estate agents, accountants and others representing the interests of the rich warning of how it would ruin the economy.
It is fairly obvious who will pay the sugar tax: it would be paid for hugely disproportionately by the poor. The urban middle classes, whose current dietary fads tend to revolve around the new dogma that sugar is a bigger hazard than fat, will avoid it almost completely.
Interestingly, Jeremy Hunt last year ruled out a sugar tax, but now the election is over, is the government preparing the way for an about-turn? A sugar tax wouldn’t just raise money; it would do so under cover of a health-improvement measure. A sugar tax is the holy grail of the nutritionist lobby, with Tim Lang, professor of food policy at City University suggesting yesterday that manufacturers of sugary snacks should be banned from using the word ‘food’ to advertise their products. That is not just extremist, it is wrong – sugar is most definitely biologically a food.
When George Osborne last dreamed up a tax to extract money from the poor – the ‘pasty tax’, which would have added VAT to any food which was baked on the premises – he omitted to justify it with a health argument. On that occasion, the whimper of protest was just loud enough to force a reversal. Will the left be brave enough to speak out against the likes of Professor Lang and condemn a fairly blatant tax on the poor?