Ice magic: a tribunal has ruled the Snowball is officially a biscuit. Photo: Corbis
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Felicity Cloake: Let the Gingerbread Man go naked . . . and save us some tax

A court has ruled that the Snowball is a cake, not a biscuit, and is exempt from tax. It’s not the first snack to wriggle out of extra charges. 

Stop the presses! Hold the front page! On 27 June, Scotland’s first-tier tax tribunal ruled that the Snowball, that gloriously gooey, chocolate-coated, coconut-dusted marshmallow confection, is officially a cake, rather than a biscuit.

This may seem a trivial matter, especially if you live south of the border, where the Snowball’s coconut-free cousin the teacake is the better known, but I can assure you it is not. Cakes, unlike chocolate biscuits, are exempt from VAT, which means that the decision was worth £2.8m in back tax for the two Lanarkshire bakers that brought the appeal. A sweet victory indeed.

It was the little details of the judging process I particularly enjoyed: as well as the usual legal pleas, the judges were presented with a plate “comprising a number of confections including one each of a Jaffa Cake, Mr Kipling Bakewell tart, Waitrose meringue, a tea cake manufactured by each appellant, a Lees Snowball and a mini jam Snowcake”.

These were apparently tasted “in moderation”, leaving the pair with tellingly “sticky fingers” of the sort one might end up with when eating “a cake such as a vanilla slice”.

The Snowballs were found to have other significant cake-like characteristics – including an inherent unsuitability for consumption on the hoof. The tribunal was in agreement that “most people would prefer to be sitting when eating a Snowball and possibly, or preferably . . . with a plate, a napkin or a piece of paper or even just a bare table so that the pieces of coconut which fly off do not create a great deal of mess”.

You may recall McVitie’s won similar recognition for its Jaffa Cakes in 1991 by baking a giant 12-inch version to prove its point, while M&S spent 13 years fighting for its chocolate teacakes to be recognised as cakes, rather than the chocolate biscuits the taxman claimed them to be. (A few grams of chocolate can make a good deal of difference: a gingerbread man can have chocolate chip eyes and still retain his zero rating, but if he sports fancy chocolate buttons, he’ll be taxed for his vanity.)

Why cakes and plain biscuits (and, oddly, chocolate body paint) should still be regarded as essential foodstuffs in the face of a swelling obesity crisis is a mystery, but it’s not the only absurdity of the 41-year-old value added tax. Frozen foods are exempt unless they’re designed to be eaten in a frozen state – which makes a baked Alaska tax-free, while the poor old Arctic roll is not.

Potato-based savoury snacks are taxed while tortilla chips, vegetable crisps and Twiglets are zero-rated. (I use the phrase potato-based advisedly: Pringles, which are less than 50 per cent potato, lost their appeal; they are, for tax purposes anyway, officially potato crisps.)

Tapioca-based prawn crackers are considered an essential foodstuff but those made from other cereals are a luxury – though if they’re served in a restaurant they’ll be taxed regardless of what they’re made from. If you get them with your takeaway, however, they’ll almost certainly arrive cold, meaning you don’t have to pay tax on them, which seems fair.

And on the subject of takeaways, who can forget 2012’s Pastygate affair, when outraged sausage-roll lovers forced the Chancellor to back away from his attempts to simplify their taxation?

Admittedly, we’re not the only country whose tax system invites mockery; more than one US state taxes pumpkins differently depending on whether they’re destined to become a dessert or a decoration, which may finally explain the curious American taste for pumpkin pie.

But much as I love the Snowball and its squidgy, sticky, debatably cakey cousins, I’m not sure they deserve a tax break. Let us all eat cake – but let us pay for it, too.

Next week: John Burnside on nature

Felicity Cloake write the food column for the New Statesman. She also writes for the Guardian and is the author of  Perfect: 68 Essential Recipes for Every Cook's Repertoire (Fig Tree, 2011) and Perfect Host: 162 easy recipes for feeding people & having fun (Fig Tree, 2013). She is on Twitter as @FelicityCloake.

This article first appeared in the 08 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the red-top era?

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis