Brian Monteith: Tax moaning is plain unsavoury

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There is nothing like a pie. On its own, with some beans and chips, at a football match, after a few pints, or a sly one between meals when the wife’s not looking. I love them all.

A well-crafted Scottish pie, made preferably from mutton with plenty of seasoning, moist but not too greasy, is something I regularly hanker for when I’m abroad for any length of time.

When in the Scottish Parliament I was pleased to become the Honorary President of the Parliamentary Pie Club and officiate at its monthly pie tastings – accompanied by that other Scottish world beater, Caledonian IPA. I even had the strenuous task of helping judge the World Pie Championships where there were so many pies we could only have one small bite of each. They were all served cold until we ruminated and cogitated over the final few that were warmed up in an oven (never nuked in a microwave, that would be sacrilege!).

I buy them hot from bakers, cold from butchers, as a supper from the chippy and can’t resist those curried chicken ones from the supermarket (my missus likes a shell pie on a roll, which must give the deep-fried Mars bar a run for its money it the calorie stakes). When I reach for any of them I can’t say the price is what crosses my mind. Maybe I’m unusual in that, but if I want a pie I won’t really care if there’s VAT on it because it’s hot or not.

Last week I welcomed many of the changes in George Osborne’s Budget but pointed out its weaknesses and my belief that the Chancellor still does not get what tax cuts are about.

A week later, after taking a hammering on removing the age-related allowance for pensioners, dubbed the “Granny Tax” Osborne is still in the dog-house for what is now being called the “Pasty Tax”. Frankly, I don’t really see what all the fuss is about.

I’ve never been a fan of the pasty. I’ve always rated it as a poor man’s Forfar Bridie, a Scottish delicacy that I’ve often crossed the road to buy. Nevertheless, I know and appreciate the pasty’s history as the Cornwall tin miners’ “piece”, with savoury ones and sweet ones and even combinations of both – but give me a Scotch pie any time.

If one looks at the facts it is plainly a nonsense that on the high street a baker can sell a hot pie without VAT on it but next door a chippy sells hot food with VAT on it. That’s giving an unfair competitive advantage to one business over another in the same market – hot takeaway meals. Osborne probably thought righting this wrong was an innocuous change to make that would pass relatively unnoticed, but he had not reckoned with the Cornish lobby getting all upset about the cost of their pasties going up 20 per cent.

The tax change applies to other hot bakery items such as the Scotch pie, but for once the SNP has been caught napping and been unusually quiet. Maybe the First Minister ate too many pies that day?

Labour leader Ed Miliband and shadow chancellor Ed Balls rushed into Greggs the bakers and devoured a hot sausage roll for the cameras, while no doubt wondering why Gordon Brown had missed this wheeze when they were in government. The morning tabloids and even the respectable broadsheets saw an opportunity to suggest the Chancellor was aloof from the pasty-eating public and so “Pastygate” was born.

All for the lack of a pasty George Osborne became a right patsy – you could not have made this up a week ago.

Then in his efforts to defend his Chancellor the Prime Minister recalled eating a pasty at Leeds railway station but it all became rather tortured when the stall he named was found to have closed in 2007 and the only other one shut for good last week after the Budget.

I have no truck with any of this. If there have to be taxes on food then they have to be applied fairly without giving any advantage to one business over another. The principle of VAT is to tax the adding of value in making a product and in this case the general rule is the heating of food for immediate consumption is a service that attracts tax.

If there has to be VAT on restaurant meals then it’s only fair that there is VAT on hot takeaway meals – and if that means pizzas, chippies, curries and Chinese then it has to mean pies, sausage rolls . . . and pasties.

If Greggs and other takeaways think that’s unfair then they should count themselves lucky they have been enjoying an advantage over their competitors since VAT was introduced back in the distant 70s. That’s an awful lot of money on which they’ve not had to pay tax.

Of course there is another way to look at it; if some hot meals have been VAT-free then why not make the rest VAT-free too? It sounds attractive – but I’d rather have a reduction in my fuel duty before saving pies or pasties from VAT.