Soft drinks industry levy

Finance (No. 2) Bill – in the House of Commons at 2:30 pm on 25th April 2017.

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Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Lindsay Hoyle Lindsay Hoyle Chair, Panel of Chairs, Chair, Panel of Chairs, Chairman of Ways and Means

With this it will be convenient to discuss clauses 72 to 75 stand part.

Amendment 2, in clause 76, page 81, line 15, leave out paragraph (a).

Amendment 3, page 81, line 20, leave out subsection (2).

Clauses 76 to 107 stand part.

That schedules 20 to 23 be schedules to the Bill.

Photo of Jane Ellison Jane Ellison The Financial Secretary to the Treasury

Clauses 71 to 107 contain provisions for a new tax called the soft drinks industry levy to be introduced from April 2018. This is a key pillar in the Government’s childhood obesity plan, and it has been welcomed by a wide range of public health experts and campaigners. Tackling obesity is a national challenge—indeed, an international challenge. The UK has one of the highest obesity rates in the developed world, and childhood obesity in particular is a major concern. Today nearly a third of children aged two to 15 are overweight or obese, and we know that many of these children will go on to become obese adults. Obesity drives disease, as we are reminded at the moment as we come through Westminster underground station by the Cancer Research UK posters. It increases the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, and some cancers. The NHS spends over £6 billion a year across the UK in dealing with obesity-related costs, and the overall costs to our economy are estimated at between £27 billion and £46 billion a year. This cannot go on.

Health experts have identified sugary drinks as one of the biggest contributors to childhood obesity and a source of empty calories. A 330 ml can of full-sugar cola typically contains nine teaspoons of sugar. Some popular drinks have as many as 13 teaspoons. This can be more than double a child’s daily recommended added sugar intake in just a single can of drink. The Government recognise that this is a problem, and so have many others, with over 60 public health organisations calling for a tax on sugary drinks and many thousands signing a petition in favour. I am delighted that this issue has also received a high level of cross-party support.

Indeed, some soft drinks producers had recognised that sugar levels in their drinks were a problem too, and had started to reduce the sugar content, move consumers towards diet and sugar-free variants, and reduce portion sizes for high-sugar beverages. Nevertheless, reducing the added sugar in soft drinks is now a public health priority, and this new levy is needed to speed up the process. It is specifically designed to encourage the industry to move faster. We gave the industry two years to make progress on this before the levy begins, and we can see that it is already working. Since the Government announced the levy last March, a number of major producers have accelerated their work to reformulate sugar out of their soft drinks and escape the charge. These include Tesco, which has already reformulated its whole range of own-brand soft drinks so that they will not pay the levy. Similar commitments have come from the makers of Lucozade and Ribena, and the makers of Irn-Bru, A. G. Barr. In fact, we now expect more than 40% of all drinks that would otherwise have been in scope to have been reformulated by the introduction of the levy. We see international action too. In recent months, other countries such as Ireland, Spain, Portugal, Estonia and South Africa have brought forward similar proposals to our own.

As a result of such reformulation before the levy begins, we now expect the levy to raise around £385 million per year, which is less than the £520 million originally forecast—but we are clear that this is a success. The Government will still fund the Department for Education’s budget with the £1 billion that the levy was originally expected to raise over this Parliament, including money to double the primary schools sports premium and deliver additional funding for school breakfast clubs, and £415 million to be invested in a new healthy pupils capital programme. The devolved Administrations will receive Barnett funding in the usual way. The Secretary of State for Education has made recent announcements about how some of the money will be spent, particularly on the healthy pupils capital programme.

The levy has shown that the Government mean business when it comes to reducing hidden sugar in everyday food. That willingness to take bold action underpins another major part of our childhood obesity plan, namely Public Health England’s sugar reduction programme, which is a groundbreaking programme of work with industry to achieve 20% cuts in sugar by 2020 across the top nine food categories that contribute the most to children’s sugar intake. It has been acknowledged, not least by industry, that that is a challenging target, but one that industry is committed to working with Government to achieve. The sugar reduction programme will cover some of the drinks products that are not part of the levy, such as milk-based drinks. The programme is already bearing fruit: there have been announcements and commitments to reduce the levels of sugar in some of the products.

I know that some would like the levy to go further. In particular, the hon. Member for Aberdeen North has tabled amendments 2 and 3, which would remove the exclusion from the levy of high milk content drinks containing at least 75% milk. We oppose those amendments. Milk and milk products are a source of protein, calcium, potassium, phosphorous and iodine, as well as vitamins B2 and B12. One in five teenage girls do not get enough calcium in their diet, and the same is true for one in 10 teenage boys. It is essential for children’s health that they consume the required amount of those nutrients, which aid bone formation and promote healthy growth as part of a balanced diet. Health experts agree that the naturally occurring sugars in milk are not a concern from an obesity perspective, and they are not included in the definition of free sugars, which Public Health England now applies.

Of course, we want milk-based drinks to contain less added sugar, so they will be part of Public Health England’s sugar reduction programme. Producers of the drinks will be challenged and supported to reduce added sugar content by 20% by 2020. Public Health England has committed to publishing a detailed assessment of the food and drinks industry’s progress against the 20% target in March 2020, and today I make a commitment to the House that we will also review the exclusion of milk-based drinks in 2020, based on the evidence from Public Health England’s assessment of producers’ progress against their sugar reduction targets. In the light of that assurance, I urge hon. Members to reject amendments 2 and 3, and allow us to review the evidence in 2020, two years after the levy has begun, and to decide at that point whether milk-based drinks should be brought within scope.

Obesity is a problem that has been decades in the making and we are not going to solve it overnight. The soft drinks levy is not a silver bullet, but it is an important part of the solution. This Government’s childhood obesity plan, with the levy as its flagship policy, is the start of a journey and it marks a major step towards dealing with our national obesity crisis.

Photo of Kirsty Blackman Kirsty Blackman Shadow SNP Spokesperson (House of Lords)

The Minister is absolutely correct about the huge amount of cross-party support for the general thrust of the soft drinks industry levy and the move towards tackling obesity, particularly childhood obesity. However, we are concerned that the levy does not go far enough and that the Government could have chosen to close certain loopholes when drafting the Bill.

The single biggest cause of preventable cancer is obesity. More than 18,100 cancers a year are associated with excess weight. Cancer Research says that sugary drinks are the No. 1 source of sugar for 11 to 18-year-olds, which is a pretty terrifying statistic, and I appreciate that the Government have chosen to take action.

I am concerned about the Government’s response on milk-based drinks and about the fact that they are excluded from the levy.

Photo of Joanna Cherry Joanna Cherry Shadow SNP Westminster Group Leader (Justice and Home Affairs)

Does my hon. Friend agree that the problem with omitting high-sugar milk-based drinks from the provisions is that parents may mistakenly think that they are healthier than soft drinks that are subject to the extra tax, when that is simply not the case?

Photo of Kirsty Blackman Kirsty Blackman Shadow SNP Spokesperson (House of Lords)

My hon. and learned Friend is absolutely right. It is true, as the Minister has said, that milk-based drinks contain protein, calcium and other nutrients, but so does milk. Children could just drink milk without the added sugar. I do not think people realise quite how much added sugar there is in such products. The same is true of pasta sauce. When parents see a milkshake on the shelf, they do not realise that it could have as much sugar in it as a can of fizzy juice.

The Faculty of General Dental Practice and the Health Committee have said that milk-based drinks should be included in the levy. Our amendments 2 and 3 would remove their exemption. I welcome the Government’s undertaking that they will review the situation in 2020, which is an improvement on their previous positon. I appreciate that reasonable change and action.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 71 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 72 to 107 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 108