Hundreds of pasty makers turned out in force and braved torrential downpours today to deliver a petition from half a million people opposing the controversial “pasty tax”.
Donned out in chefs’ hats and white T-shirts emblazoned with “SOS – save our savouries”, around 500 supporters massed outside Downing Street to rally opposition against Chancellor George Osborne’s bid to make hot takeaway snacks subject to 20% VAT.
Mike Holling of the National Association of Master Bakers said the implementation of VAT would cause job losses.
He said: “I’m told by my colleagues in the West Country they envisage job losses – one of the things I want to know is from the HMRC or Treasury … what they envisage. There is a strong suggestion people will lose their jobs and we can ill-afford that at the moment.”
Mark Muncey, chairman of the Cornish Pasty Association, said: “This is a shock tax, a sweeping tax, badly thought-out and badly presented, and it needs to be changed.
“There’ll definitely be job losses. It’s a 20% increase and people can’t afford that.”
The demonstration, organised by high street bakery chain Greggs and the National Association of Master Bakers, drew support from passers-by and motorists who beeped their horns as they drove through Westminster.
Taking a loudhailer, Ken McMeikan, chief executive of Greggs, stood on a step ladder and addressed the protesters, saying they had fought to develop a strong industry which would be badly hit as customers could not afford the VAT introduction.
With the crowd cheering, Mr McMeikan said: “The gravity of the situation that faces our industry must not and cannot be underestimated.
“For generations these bakers have strived to create a bakery industry that is loved by customers for the bakers’ skills, affordability and delicious produce.
“We have to say no to higher prices.”
In driving rain, the baking representatives were joined by Cornish MPs to present the petition, in 21 boxes, at Number 10.
Stephen Gilbert, MP for St Austell and Newquay, said he hoped politicians will today be lured by the taste of an authentic Cornish pasty when he hosts a campaign event in the Houses of Parliament.
The Lib Dem politician was joining forces with the Western Morning News to hand out baked goods in an attempt to garner support.
He said: “Opposition to George Osborne’s proposed ‘pasty tax’ is continuing to grow.
“I urge the Government to listen to the strength of feeling being demonstrated today and review their unworkable and damaging proposal.
“It is simply wrong for the Government to impose a tax on the humble Cornish pasty while luxurious caviar remains tax free. If these plans go ahead, it could result in 400 job cuts and losses to the Cornish economy of £7.5 million.
“My fight in Parliament will not stop until these plans are dropped and I urge everyone to continue to sign the petition.”
Last week a move by Labour to block the tax was defeated despite a revolt by 14 coalition backbenchers – nine Tories and five Liberal Democrats.
The Prime Minister previously told the Commons he understood why “feelings in Cornwall run high on this” but insisted it was unfair that other takeaway food was covered by the tax while pasties were not.
A Treasury spokeswoman said: “The Budget closes loopholes and addresses anomalies to ensure a level playing field.
“In fact, VAT is already paid on over 90% of all hot takeaway food.
“And HMRC estimate that VAT is currently paid on around 40% of hot meat pies, pasties and sausage rolls.”
West Cornwall Pasty Company boss Gavin Williams said the Government may now be forced to listen over the controversial VAT introduction.
He said: “When this was first announced I found it baffling that the Government would propose it with no proper consultation or understanding of the implications to jobs and the Cornish economy.
“It was billed as a way of closing a confusing loophole but it has just thrown up a huge amount of variables – not least the nonsense around the ‘ambient temperature’.
“Stephen Gilbert has done a great job in removing the smoke and mirrors from the debate and showing that, if anything, the Government are complicating things even further by making this change.
“He is spearheading a very simple campaign that offers the Government closure on the loophole, offers the general public an easy-to-understand solution that will not force companies to cut costs and shed jobs.”
West Cornwall Pasty Company manufactures all of its products under the strict rules of PGI (Protected Geographical Interest) status, and Mr Williams said that would put them in an impossible position if the legislation is passed.
“Our products are made in Cornwall from the finest ingredients and then baked at our locations throughout the UK.
“Providers of other food would be able to look at sourcing cheaper ingredients from alternative sources in order to absorb some of the increase, but that is not an option for suppliers of traditional Cornish pasties.
“You cannot ask a business to find a way of restructuring its entire operation in six months. Everyone from suppliers to manufacturers and retailers have built their operations on the current principle of being VAT-exempt.
“We are currently in the midst of a very ambitious growth strategy which would create further jobs across the country and see us investing in towns and cities throughout the UK.
“It seems ironic that in these economic times the Government are not only throwing obstacles in that path but also risking many existing jobs in the process.”
Speaking after the day’s events, Mr Gilbert said: “The strength of feeling demonstrated today by the 500,000 people who have signed the petition or the hundreds of protesters who came out in the rain to make their voice heard just goes to show that this is an issue that is simply not going to go away for the Government.
“George Osborne’s proposal is not only politically unpopular, but it is also unfair, unworkable and based on a flawed logic.
“Under the Government’s plans, a pasty bought two minutes after the cooking process has ended and still piping hot would be VATable, while a pasty bought half an hour later after it’s cooled would not be.
“I’m suggesting that the Government makes a small but significant change and doesn’t increase VAT on hot food where no effort is made to keep the product hot after it’s been cooked.
“It’s a simple change that would mean the Cornish pasty would be protected.
“If the plans go ahead, estimates suggest that it could hit the Cornish economy to the tune of £7.5 million a year and result in 400 job losses in pasty production alone – more from the supply of ingredients and retail positions.
“I will continue to seek meetings with ministers to explain why they are wrong and I will be making representations at every turn as these proposals progress through the legislative process.
“The Government need to drop their flaky proposals and get this issue off their plate.”
By Jessica Abrahams and Emma Bowers. Originally published by the Press Association on 26 April 2012.