Bitter row as sugar tax millions diverted away from fighting childhood obesity

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The Government has quietly abandoned a promise to spend millions of pounds in revenue from the sugar tax on fighting childhood obesity.

When the levy on soft drinks was introduced, ministers promised to spend “every penny” on children’s health and wellbeing programmes.

However, the cash has been diverted from specific projects or departments into the Treasury coffers.

Campaigners have accused officials of “breaking promises” and urged them to rethink the decision when young people “desperately” needed help.

From its introduction in 2018 until March this year, the Soft Drinks Industry Levy has raised more than £880 million in tax, including just over £300 million last year alone.

The Department for Education, which had in previous years been responsible for administering large proportions of the money, has now admitted under Freedom of Information laws that it “is no longer directly linked to any specific programmes, or departmental spending”.

It added: “Departmental spend is allocated through Spending Reviews, by the Treasury.”

Government sources argued that the money “was never fully hypothecated”.

But it is feared that the news could damage support for similar taxes, just months after the government-commissioned National Food Strategy recommended a tax on sugar and salt sold wholesale.

It was proposed that the £3.4 billion it would raise a year could be used to extend free school meal provision and encourage better diets among those on low incomes.

‘Very disappointing news’

Rob Wilson, the former minister for civil society, who has raised concerns about whether the money was being used for its intended purposes, said that officials had a “duty” to spend the sugar tax helping young people who were increasingly struggling with their weight.

“This is very disappointing news, but it is not surprising these types of taxes are after a few years of good intention usually disappear in the morass of general spending,” he said. 

“It is very unfortunate for children who desperately need the equipment, facilities and space to be able to exercise and play sport properly.”

Mr Wilson added that this could make it “extraordinarily difficult” to persuade people that similar taxes are “money well spent on people’s health”.

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