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Health: Duties on Food and Drink

Volume 779: debated on Monday 6 March 2017


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they intend to include, within the recently announced review of VAT, a consideration of the levels of customs and excise duties applied to those drinks and foods which research suggests are most responsible for avoidable deaths and chronic illnesses; and if so, whether they have any plans to hypothecate the yield to the National Health Service.

My Lords, the OTS’s current VAT simplification review will not consider these issues. The review is focused on identifying opportunities for simplification of the VAT system and establishing whether the system is working to minimise tax compliance burdens. The Government have, however, gone to great lengths to promote healthy eating, drinking and lifestyles. We have announced a new soft drinks industry levy and a sugar reduction programme to help address childhood obesity.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for her reply, but disappointed. I wonder whether she might be persuaded to reflect on the need for a further examination of the subject. Does she agree that Brexit provides the opportunity for us to look at VAT, customs and excise duty, and a whole range of taxes in a much more flexible way than we have been able to when linked to Europe? Does she agree that we have a major problem with the costs that alcohol is causing to the NHS, and that one way we might change that is by persuading people to move from high-strength to lower-strength drinks, and that now we have this flexibility coming there is a strong case for trying to effect such a change?

My Lords, I have some sympathy with the point the noble Lord makes. The Government believe that alcohol duties should be related to the alcoholic strength of drinks but, as he says, EU law currently restricts changes to the rates and structure of alcohol duties. We have already said that we would like any future changes to allow duty on wine to rise in line with alcoholic strength. We are constrained until we leave the EU but we will certainly consider this issue carefully in the light of EU exit.

My Lords, my noble friend will be aware that the Health Minister gave evidence to the ad hoc scrutiny committee on the Licensing Act 2003 to the effect that customs and excise duty would be reviewed precisely in this regard. Given the hard work that the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, has been doing over many years on this issue, what plans do the Government have to look at pricing, taxation and, potentially, minimum unit pricing as a steer for controlling alcohol, particularly the harmful effects on all age groups of alcohol and excessive alcohol abuse?

Obviously, the Government look forward to the work that is being done by the committee on the Licensing Act, learning from what has worked well and what has worked less well. It is fair to say that the Government have done a whole range of things to try to tackle the problem of cheap alcohol. The lower-strength drinks have lower rates, and there are higher duties on higher-strength beers and ciders. We took action to ban sales in England and Wales below duty and VAT. We amended the definition of “cider” so that only products with a minimum 35% apple or pear juice can be defined as cider for tax purposes. Working with the Home Office and the police, industry has taken a whole load of measures which I think are very important. Noble Lords will know that I used to be in the retail industry, and this was an issue that exercised me a lot. Indeed, we supported the minimum unit pricing that came in in Scotland, which is now the subject of court action.

My Lords, I share my noble friend’s disappointment at the Minister’s reply. I understand what the Minister says about the review of VAT—that it is about simplification—but it is also an opportunity. If the Education Minister can devote a levy on soft drinks to school sports in order to tackle the problem of obesity, why on earth can we not look at using VAT to tackle the acute problems associated with alcoholic drinks and heavy drinking, which need resources?

Alcohol is a problem and I think I gave a positive answer about the direction of travel, outlining the issues regarding EU rates and the structure of alcohol duties. The truth is that alcohol and obesity are problems right across the board. That is one of the reasons why local authorities have £16 billion for public health over the spending review period, in addition to the PHE funding and what the NHS itself spends on prevention. Our GPs do a marvellous job and I have been very struck by the way they support the measures we need on alcohol. However, I take the point that the licensing and tax regimes are also important.

My Lords, are the Government content with the way in which white cider is currently marketed and taxed? White cider is in fact not cider at all, and many bottles contain the equivalent of 11 units of vodka. In some shops, it is cheaper per litre than milk. I understand that there is the potential to increase tax on this product within the EU guidelines to reduce its destructive effects, particularly on young people.

We have made the changes in the juice rules that I mentioned and have had a number of representations, including perhaps from the noble Baroness, about white cider in the context of the Budget. I would add only that the UK cider industry is an important part of the rural economy and uses almost half the apples produced in this country.

My Lords, the Sheffield Alcohol Research Group has suggested that a 50p minimum unit pricing for alcohol, together with the duty escalator, could prevent around 700 deaths a year from alcohol-related causes. Would it not therefore be in the interests of the country, the NHS and the Treasury to introduce such policies?

We have already banned sales in England and Wales below duty and VAT, but the minimum unit pricing introduced in Scotland is subject to an appeal in the Scottish courts. While that is continuing, the introduction of unit pricing in England and Wales has to remain under review.