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British government faces criticism over budget

Friday, March 18, 2016 - 09:39

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British finance minister George Osborne faced stiff criticism over his budget on Friday as opposition emerged from within his own Conservative party over proposed disability benefit cuts.

[LONDON] British finance minister George Osborne faced stiff criticism over his budget on Friday as opposition emerged from within his own Conservative party over proposed disability benefit cuts.

Ministers were under pressure as Conservative lawmakers spoke out against a proposed £1.3 billion (S$1.68 billion) a year cut to disability benefits, and Friday newspaper front pages predicted a "rebellion" by backbenchers.

"The government needs to rethink its plan to cut disabled benefits," warned David Burrowes, a Conservative lawmaker who led a successful revolt to stop the government liberalising Sunday trading hours earlier this month, in the Daily Telegraph.

"It is unlikely to get the support of the House of Commons given how much concern there is on this matter," fellow Conservative MP Andrew Percy told Channel 4 News.

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Ministers indicated that the plans could be watered down following the backlash, with Education Secretary Nicky Morgan saying the disability cut was "still being discussed in government".

But Osborne defended his plan as a way to "make sure help goes to the people who need it most".

The rumblings came after think tank the Institute for Fiscal Studies warned that wages and living standards could fall and that Mr Osborne risked missing his own target of reaching a public finance surplus by 2020.

The Resolution Foundation, another think tank, also warned that planned tax changes would primarily benefit Britain's richest households.

The budget included plans for a levy on drinks with more than five grams of sugar per 100 millilitres to battle obesity rates, which are among the worst in Europe.

Mr Osborne described the idea as "one of those landmark public health decisions that we take as a generation".

But it faced immediate opposition from the soft drinks industry, which said that it was already taking action to combat obesity and that other food-and-drink sectors needed to help shoulder the burden.

"If the aim is to reduce obesity, this levy flies in the face of evidence from around the world which shows taxes do very little," said Jon Woods, general manager of Coca-Cola in Britain.

Only a handful of countries such as France, South Africa and Mexico have attempted such a tax.

According to 2015 figures, Britain is one of the worst countries in Europe for childhood obesity with 28 per cent of children aged between two and 15 overweight or obese.

During his budget announcement, Mr Osborne said that an average five-year-old child consumes his own body weight in sugar each year.

Media reports suggest the tax could add 8p (S$0.10) to a can of cola.

The government hopes the tax will raise £520 million a year.

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