A Council Leader’s perspective on the ‘Sugar Tax’

Cllr John Ross - Leader of South Lanarkshire Council
Cllr John Ross - Leader of South Lanarkshire Council

In my role as South Lanarkshire Council’s Leader, I was asked by a constituent the other day why the Scottish Government was introducing a “sugar tax”.

This prompted me not only to look more closely at the tax itself, but also to consider where it sits as one of a number of measures being considered by Ministers as they try to tackle the deep rooted social and economic inequalities that continue to exist in Scotland.

The tax is part of the Scottish Government’s Good Food Nation Bill which is due to be published next month, and the need for this legislation is obvious: the Scottish Food Commission reports that 65 per cent of adults in Scotland are overweight, including 28 per cent who are obese.

The Commission also states that the UK has the highest proportion of children in the EU who are living in what are known as “severely food insecure households”. In other words, 10 per cent of UK kids have diets which are deprived as a result of a lack of money, compared with the EU average of 4 per cent.

So action is clearly needed, and the Bill’s proposals include not only extending the “sugar tax” but also rolling out fruit and veg breaks to all primary schools, and requiring restaurants to carry traffic light warning labels on their menus.

Ministers are also poised to consider establishing a universal legal right to food, placing a statutory duty on public bodies to ensure vulnerable people have access to nutritious food. For example, this may oblige local authorities to provide meals during school holidays to ensure all children have the opportunity to eat properly outside term time.

The obvious aim is to combat poor diet and obesity, but all the evidence shows this would also help tackle the academic attainment gap between pupils from lower and higher income brackets.

I am pleased to tell you that the SNP administration here in South Lanarkshire has already acted in this area and, as part of new budget initiatives agreed in March, the council is to start free breakfast clubs in our primary schools and pilot holiday lunch clubs.

Many of the proposals drawn up by the Commission look at the impact of food inequality on education and health. This builds on two decades of work by the Scottish government to ‘join up’ food policy areas which in the past may have been separate and uncoordinated.

This makes sense because, as well as obesity, Scotland faces a range of other related health issues, including diet-related cancer and other diseases, low rates of breastfeeding, poor dental health, food waste and food poverty. The new Bill will provide an opportunity to coordinate work on many of these complex issues.

At the same time, the rise of emergency food aid is also now being widely reported, with food banks operating across the UK being asked to provide more and more support to families which experience sudden economic crisis. Local food banks are subject to these same pressures, especially now, with additional problems related to the roll out of Universal Credit.

The sad irony is that while some households therefore go hungry, it is estimated that 270,000 tonnes of edible food is thrown away each year in the UK. Less than 14,000 tonnes of this is currently rescued and redistributed for the social good.

Zero Waste Scotland support food companies, individuals and communities to waste less food, but much more needs to be done.

Here in South Lanarkshire we will do all in our power to support all of these efforts to meet these challenges, and I would urge all readers to do what they can to help in this important local, national and global fight which will benefit generations to come.