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Millions in funding for kid’s health ‘unaccounted for’ in sugar tax dispute

Barbara Crowther from food charity Sustain told the Big Issue the Government seemed to be “pathologically resistant to being fully transparent and accountable in how they are using every single penny of the levy on children’s health”

Ministers are refusing to say how hundreds of millions of pounds earmarked for children’s health has been spent, a charity has alleged, amid an ongoing row over the quality of free school meals

When the Soft Drinks Industry Levy, commonly dubbed the ‘sugar tax’, was introduced in April 2018, the Government insisted all revenues would directly fund school sports facilities and breakfast clubs, giving children access to quality PE equipment and healthy food.  

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Robert Jenrick, then a Treasury minister, promised “every penny of England’s share of the spending raised by the levy will go towards improving children’s health”.

But the Children’s Food Campaign run by charity Sustain has claimed that of the estimated £1.4 billion committed as a result of the tax since its introduction, as much as £700 million could be unaccounted for. 

Barbara Crowther, co-ordinator of the campaign, told the Big Issue the Government seemed to be “pathologically resistant to being fully transparent and accountable in how they are using every single penny of the levy on children’s health”.  

She said: “The Government promised both the soft drinks industry and the public that every penny of the sugary drinks tax would be spent on children’s healthy diets and wellbeing.  

“At a time that health inequalities, child hunger and childhood obesity are all growing faster than ever as a result of the current pandemic and lockdown measures, it is scandalous that hundreds of millions of pounds of this tax money is simply disappearing without trace.”

When asked by the Big Issue to confirm “every penny” of the levy is being spent on children’s health and wellbeing programmes, a Government spokesperson said: “A healthy, nutritious meal can have a real impact on a child’s development. 

“That is why through the Soft Drinks Industry Levy we are investing up to £35 million to kick-start or improve breakfast clubs in thousands of schools in disadvantaged areas, and we have doubled our PE and sports premium for primary schools to £320 million per year, to improve the quality and access to PE and sport for pupils to develop healthy habits early.”

But Sustain still maintain there is a shortfall. The charity claimed that the sugary drinks tax raises around £336 million a year at a minimum and have alleged that the Government has “refused” to say where and how all of this money has been spent.

The charity has teamed up with MPs to urge ministers to maintain their pledge. Robert Halfon MP, the education select committee chair, said the Government should use the levy to help feed hungry children during the summer holidays. 

“The sugary drinks tax raises more than £330 million a year. More than half of it is unaccounted for,” Halfon said. 

“This money should be redirected to programmes that tackle food insecurity amongst children and boost life chances – initiatives like the National School Breakfast programme run by Magic Breakfast, which we know help pupils make an additional 2 months academic progress over the course of a year.”

It comes amid growing pressure for the Government to investigate the free school meals system after pictures of frugal food packages for poor children sparked an outcry. 

Food insecurity experts from the Food Foundation called for an urgent review into the policy and said it was “time to act”. 

“In light of recent developments on current food provision for free school meal pupils during Covid-19 school closure, we are calling on the Government to conduct an urgent comprehensive review into free school meal policy across the UK to feed into the next spending review,” the Food Foundation said. 

“The review should be debated in parliament and published before the next summer holidays.”

A Government spokesperson said: “A healthy, nutritious meal can have a real impact on a child’s development. 

“That is why through the Soft Drinks Industry Levy we are investing up to £35 million to kick-start or improve breakfast clubs in thousands of schools in disadvantaged areas, and we have doubled our PE and sports premium for primary schools to £320 million per year, to improve the quality and access to PE and sport for pupils to develop healthy habits early.

 “Alongside this, schools and their caterers must follow the School Food Standards to ensure pupils receive healthy, nutritious meals while at school and our expanded Holiday Activities and Food programme will mean thousands more young people will get healthy food and take part in fun enriching activities over summer, Christmas and Easter this year.”