Belfast Telegraph

Sugar tax cash can't be used on health due to lack of ministers

By Victoria Leonard

Millions of pounds raised by the sugar tax cannot be used to combat obesity and Type 2 diabetes in Northern Ireland due to the absence of ministers at Stormont, the Belfast Telegraph can reveal.

The UK-wide tax, officially known as the Soft Drinks Industry Levy (SDIL), was introduced in April and forces soft drinks companies to pay a levy on high-sugar drinks. It aims to help tackle obesity, and is expected to raise £240m in revenue in its first year.

Northern Ireland is set to receive £12.3m in 2018/19 and £15m in 2019/20 as its share, according to Stormont's Department of Finance.

However, a Civil Service communique seen by this newspaper shows that revenue obtained from the levy is not being used to target health issues due to the lack of ministers to sign off on proposals. Instead, it is simply being divided up proportionally between Stormont departments.

The document reveals that a request was made at the Civil Service all departments officials group in November 2017 to identify how the funds could be use to tackle Type 2 diabetes and obesity.

Despite this, at a subsequent meeting on August 2 between the Executive Office, and the Departments for Communities, Education and Health, it "was confirmed that as there are no ministers in place, there is no appropriate mechanism to hypothecate the funding to the SDIL proposals that were put forward - as this was not within the current policy remit for the devolved budget".

The document continues: "Money coming into NI has therefore already been distributed pro-rata across Departments for 2018/19 and will continue to be managed in this way unless decisions can be taken by Ministers."

SDLP MLA Mark H Durkan, who has previously backed use of the revenue to tackle obesity and Type 2 diabetes here, said he was "disappointed and disgusted" that this had been prevented due to the lack of an Executive.

"These funds should be ring-fenced to target obesity and Type 2 diabetes, and the best time to do it is early, through schools," he said. "These conditions are costing our health service millions and millions of pounds. It seems the High Court decision on arc21 has given civil servants cold feet about making these decisions.

"The desks of permanent secretaries are buckling under the number of documents that need ministerial sign-off."

The Department of Finance said: "Northern Ireland does not receive any direct income from the levy; rather it receives a Barnett formula share of the additional spend in England.

"Funding received via the Barnett formula is unhypothecated, which means that it does not have to be spent on comparable programmes, and forms part of the overall Northern Ireland Departmental Expenditure Limit (DEL).

"The Barnett consequential for 2018-19 was therefore included in the overall NI DEL which was allocated to departments in the Budget 2018-19 announced by the Secretary of State on March 8, 2018.

"The Budget for 2019-20 has not yet been set."

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