17 February 2022 | OPINION

The cost-of-living crisis will hit us all hard this year. Raising the energy price cap will increase average household energy costs by £693 per year. Food prices are climbing, with Tesco chairman John Allan predicting a 5% increase by the spring. AA reports that the price of petrol has reached a new record high at 148.02p per litre.

But one key group could be hit harder than most by the cost-of-living crisis – the (former) Red Wall. ONS data shows that poverty – and, more specifically, food insecurity – already disproportionately affects people in Wales, the midlands and the north of England. Across Red Wall areas, people are regularly left hungry, unable to access the essentials. In one in 10 local authorities, rates of hunger are more than double the national average – almost all fall within the Red Wall.

In the space of one month last year, 7.4% of adults in Britain reported skipping meals for a whole day or more, not having enough food and going hungry, and shrinking or skipping meals, according to research from the University of Sheffield. The worst-hit area was Wycombe, where almost 30% of people struggle to access food. Wycombe is represented by Steve Baker, who has a majority of less than 5,000.

All MPs should pay attention to the impact the cost-of-living crisis is having on their constituents, but it especially deserves the consideration of the 2019 intake of Red Wall Tory MPs. It is very much in their interest not to worsen these existing issues by increasing food shopping bills even further in the name of the anti-obesity drive.

The Government’s Health and Care Bill contains a number of alarming new nanny-state rules which would do exactly that. A crackdown on ‘junk food’ advertising will see ads banned before 9pm on TV and radio and at all times online. Another new regulation will outlaw special offers like ‘buy one, get one free’ in supermarkets for foods the Government deems unhealthy.

First off, these policies don’t work. The ad ban, for example, is aimed at weaning children off junk food. But according to the Government’s own research into its policy, which will come at a cataclysmic cost to the broadcasting, advertising and food industries, it will reduce children’s calorie intake by a total of 1.7 – the equivalent of half a Smartie, or a single Tic Tac.

The same is true of so-called sin taxes – the evidence shows they simply don’t work. Why, then, can we never be rid of these failed ideas? You might think that when you buy a battered book in a charity shop run by the likes of Diabetes UK or the British Heart Foundation, your £1.99 is going towards vital, life-saving medical research. In fact, it seems much of it ends up funding campaigns for more nanny statism.

Health charities, under the umbrella of the ‘Obesity Health Alliance’, can be found lobbying relentlessly for new taxes, new bans and new state interference of all kinds in the name of public health. Their undoubtedly well-intentioned manouevres miss the mark – they want to prevent heart disease and diabetes, and think restricting access to unhealthy foods is the way to accomplish that. But they simplify public health policy and fail to balance competing interests. They do not acknowledge the trade-offs involved.

Throughout the pandemic, SAGE had the ear of government and pushed reliably for faster and harder Covid restrictions. But there was no other side of the argument – there was no Economic Advisory Group for Emergencies to balance out the debate. In a medical sense, the ideal scenario is everyone living in sanitised bunkers where we can’t be exposed to germs or viruses of any kind – but we have to balance public health interests with our desire for freedom to live our lives.

In the same way, health charities’ one and only interest, quite rightly, is fighting disease. But their perspective must be balanced out by the other side of the debate, which stands up for personal responsibility, economic growth and basic freedom of choice. With that said, in the case of the obesity nanny state, the tax-and-ban approach that campaigns favour is misguided anyway, as the evidence shows.

Even more damningly given the cost-of-living crisis, the Health and Care Bill will artificially inflate struggling families’ food shopping bills. The Food and Drink Federation estimates that annual food costs will increase by £160. That might not sound like a fortune, but when those households are unable to feed themselves and their children adequately in normal times and are already facing skyrocketing energy bills and fuel prices, a £160 annual increase will not go unnoticed.

99% of shoppers take advantage of at least one promotion such as ‘3 for 2’ in one of the big four supermarkets each year. The Government bringing the hammer down on those offers will hit all our wallets but, as is so often the case with the nanny state, its effects will be concentrated on the worst-off. The poorest households will see their shopping bills grow by 11%, equivalent to their entire annual spend on fresh vegetables.

Backbench Conservatives find themselves with a bag full of bargaining chips given scandal and panic in No 10. They should use their newfound leverage to urge the Government to rethink its costly nanny-state anti-obesity drive. MPs signed up to the vision of ‘blue collar conservatism’ owe it to their constituents to keep the cost of food shopping as low as possible.

If the Health and Care Bill passes, they will have a lot to answer for. How will Lee Anderson, for example, elected MP for Ashfield in 2019, account for his decision to vote through artificial price increases in supermarkets which will make the poor poorer after they lent his party their vote for the first time in four decades? When Dehenna Davison of Bishop Auckland, who is vice-chair of the Blue Collar Tories group, is asked at a hustings or on the doorstep why she voted through a huge expansion of the nanny state, what will she say?

Nanny statism of this kind does much more harm than good, and MPs have a responsibility to stand up against it. If they don’t, they may find themselves regretting it when the next election rolls around.

Jason Reed is the UK Lead at Young Voices and a political commentator for a wide range of outlets. Follow him on Twitter @JasonReed624 or read more on his website, jason-reed.co.uk.

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