REPORTING FROM LONDON -- The humble meat pie has become the center of a political furor in Britain after the Conservative-led government’s latest budget would put a tax on some of the nation's favorite hot snacks.
Outlining Britain's annual budget last week, Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne added previously tax-free treats such as pasties, sausage rolls and meat pies to the list of hot take-away food and meals bought from hamburger outlets and restaurants that are subject to the 20% value added tax imposed on most retail products and services.
The planned tax, which still must undergo a comment period, calls for all food and drink that is sold at “above ambient air temperature" to be subject to the 20% tax rate. If the item is cold, there is no tax.
The traditional meat pie of the southwest county of Cornwall is a favorite among the lower-income working population.
Osborne was challenged on the pasties tax by a parliamentary committee questioning him on the budget this week. “When was the last time you bought a pasty at Greggs?" Labor Party lawmaker John Mann asked him, referring to a low-price bakery chain.
“I can’t remember,” answered the chancellor, looking flummoxed.
“I think that sums it up,” Mann said.
Prime Minister David Cameron, keen to show he had the common touch, mentioned Wednesday during a news conference on the upcoming Summer Olympics that he loved a good pasty and thought he had recently bought one at Leeds station in the north of England. “And very good it was too,” he added.
After a quick check by most of Britain’s media revealed the pasty stall at Leeds station had closed down years ago, his office issued a correction stating the station was in Liverpool.
Later Wednesday, Cameron was filmed out and about in Woodstock, his constituency, munching on a pasty.
Meanwhile tabloid newspapers have made a meal of the question. The popular Sun’s headline was simply: “Half Baked.” The paper referred to Labor Party jibes that called Osborne a modern-day Marie Antoinette, the 19th century French queen famous for suggesting the starving population clamoring for bread should just eat cake.
Labor Party leader Ed Miliband, who often portrays Cameron’s government as representative of Britain’s privately educated upper and upper-middle classes, lost no time in accusing the government of being out of touch.
After buying sausage rolls on camera with Labor's shadow cabinet chancellor, Ed Balls, Miliband said: “The government is hitting people’s living standards in every way they can. ... The chancellor says you can buy them cold and avoid the tax. It just shows how out of touch this government is ... with the vast majority of people in this country.”
Edwina Currie, a retiree and former Conservative minister, called it "a storm in a teacake" on a BBC news program Thursday morning.
"I don’t eat pasties," she said. "They are fattening and they make a terrible mess. And let me tell you, most politicians in suits don’t eat pasties -- unless there’s a camera watching.”
Chief Executive Ken McMeikan of Greggs, the pasty and meat pie makers with more than 1,400 outlets, argued on the BBC News night program that his company's freshly baked pasties were not kept artificially hot and, therefore, should not be subject to tax.
“We don’t keep them deliberately heated -- we can’t guarantee that it's hot,” he said.
The government had “lost touch,” he added. “For ordinary hardworking families putting 20% onto a product that is specially baked is going to make a severe dent in their pockets at a time when they can ill afford it.”
[Updated March 29, 12:50 p.m.: McMeikan said that during the six-week period allowed for comments on the legislation he will “categorically campaign on behalf of the U.K. consumer and on behalf of the bakery industry. There are going to be job losses and closures of businesses as a result of this.”
Bakers' associations have launched a protest on a government petition website. By Thursday evening it had attracted 400 signatures.]
-- Janet Stobart
Photo: Customers in London wait for service at Greggs, a chain of pasty and meat pie makers. Credit: Alastair Grant / Associated Press