Boris Johnson has said he is "not attracted" to plans for a new sugar and salt tax, amid fears it could hit the wallets of people on lower incomes.
The tax was proposed by Henry Dimbleby, the head of the National Food Strategy and the founder of the fast food chain Leon. Mr Dimbleby’s report, released on Thursday, suggests levying a £3 per kilogram tax on sugar and a £6 per kilogram tax on salt.
But despite commissioning the report, the Government has sought to distance itself from the proposals – especially the tax on sugar and salt.
"I will study the report. I think it is an independent report. I think there are doubtless some good ideas in it," Mr Johnson said during a question and answer session in Coventry. "I am not, I must say, attracted to the idea of extra taxes on hard-working people."
His comments came after Robert Jenrick, the Housing Secretary, suggested the taxes could hurt poorer people.
"I think you do have to think carefully before you approach policies like that, because you have to think about the consequences for people on lower incomes, and take a balanced judgment," Mr Jenrick told Times Radio.
Mr Dimbleby’s report said some money raised by the tax should be spent on addressing the inequalities around food by expanding free school meals, funding holiday activity and food clubs, and providing healthy food to low-income families.
It said what the UK ate and how it was produced was doing "terrible damage", contributing to 64,000 deaths a year in England, costing the economy £74 billion and driving wildlife loss and climate change.
Mr Dimbleby told BBC Breakfast that taxes on sugar recommended by his report were unlikely to have an impact on ordinary consumers, with the aim being to drive down the amount of sugar in sweet foods rather than simply charge more for them.
"We find these foods that they’re marketing delicious, they don’t make us as full as quickly. We eat more, they invest more," he said. "You’re not going to break this junk food cycle… unless you tackle it directly, and that is what we are recommending with the sugar and salt reformulation tax."
‘People can make up their own minds about what they eat’
The idea has been panned by Tory MPs and free-market think tanks, who argue that Britons ought to be able to make their own choices about what they eat without being "nudged" by taxation.
Three think tanks warned on Thursday that the plans would add £172 to the average household’s annual shopping bill but would cut daily consumption by just 30 calories per day.
A government source said the plans were unlikely to be adopted, especially since Mr Johnson has appointed a free marketeer, Sajid Javid, as Health Secretary.
Dehenna Davison, Tory MP for Bishop Auckland, told The Telegraph: “It’s been a really difficult time for everyone financially thanks to Covid, and I think the very last thing we want to be doing is putting increased pressure on the cost of living for some of the lowest earners, which is what this would end up achieving.
“As the Conservative Party, we have long said we believe in personal responsibility, which in my view means we shouldn’t be telling people what they should and shouldn’t be eating.”
A second MP suggested the report conflicted with Mr Johnson’s brand of conservatism and could harm lower-income families.
“It’s really weird,” the MP said. “This is the time where we can say some key Conservative messages, which don’t cost any money, which just let people live their lives.
“As Orwell said in The Road to Wigan Pier: don’t take away the cheap luxuries like chocolate and cheap fashion and football from people whose lives are already pretty miserable.
“Just leave them alone. It was true for Wigan Pier all the way back then, and it’s true now.”