Bake-off: a table of cakes for the Oxford-Cambridge boat race. Photo: Getty
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Tracey Thorn: The kids protest but sugary treats are an ever stickier issue

The low-fat yoghurts I shovel down my neck and the smoothies I’ve been promoting to my vegetable-allergic teenage son might just as well have been crystal meth.

I’m so obedient it’s tragic, really. I am a government campaign’s model audience. Give me a command, see how I run. A few weeks ago, the news was full of how sugar was killing us all. I approached the newspaper articles with some complacency, taking for granted that we were a virtuous household, but then was horrified to see from the pictures of all the things containing “as much sugar as a can of Coke” that I was wrong. 

The low-fat yoghurts I shovel down my neck and the smoothies I’ve been promoting to my vegetable-allergic teenage son might just as well have been crystal meth. Being a typical self-blaming middle-class mother, I spent the next hour gloomily pondering this unexpected failure, before mentally regrouping and deciding it was time to take action. That evening I announced to the dinner table that we were “having a crackdown on sugar”.

This went down about as well as you might imagine. Protestations that they were already being forced to eat a diet virtually Stone Age in its wholesomeness and frugality were met by my unyielding assertions that I was now in possession of New Information, rendering everything we’d thought up until now about our eating habits out of date. Rationing was about to begin. Foods that had once been a treat had insidiously wormed their way into every mealtime and were now back to being a treat. The response was a general wailing and gnashing of teeth, followed by despondency. For the next few days, cupboards would be opened ostentatiously with mournful sighs to reveal that where once there had been KitKats, now there was empty space; where once there were Honey Nut Clusters, now there was porridge.

A week or two went by, but then a certain sneakiness crept in. While I’d adjusted the shopping order, everyone else, it seemed, had adjusted their daily schedule to incorporate a trip to the shops for emergency biscuits. I had hidden a few chocolatey titbits, to be doled out at intervals and not exceeding the daily recommended allowance (although, the more I looked into it, the more this seemed to be an alarmingly vague and shifting figure, comfortingly high on the back of cereal packets, impossibly low according to World Health Organisation guidelines). Handing out the sweet treats without giving away the hiding places was tricky, and soon it became obvious that the secret stash was secret no longer and it began to disappear faster than I was distributing it.

Into this already fracturing scenario came a sudden and extremely unwelcome announcement. In the matter of vegetable consumption, it turns out that five a day is useless and that we should be eating seven, if not ten. And it can’t be fruit or, even worse, smoothies (yes, I’m looking at you, Tracey Thorn, as I read this out on the radio): it must be mostly vegetables; proper green, leafy, cabbage-smelling, earth-smeared vegetables. This was a bit of a blow. I might have deluded myself that our sugar consumption was Paltrow-ish, but there was no way I could stretch the youngest’s tally of baked beans and pasta sauce to look like ten portions of kale. I am defeated. Later that day, standing in the queue by the till at the local Tesco Express, I look at all the shiny things on sale. Reaching out, all I can touch is a floor-to-ceiling array of things that will kill me. Ciggies, booze, choccies; nothing that is necessary or good for me, but all of them in their own way representing a little shot of joy, a hit of pleasure to brighten the day. Despite my obedience, and my willingness to listen to health campaigns, I don’t know why we’re so surprised that we like these things. We wonder how we’ve ended up here, eating things that aren’t really food and ignoring all the health warnings, but it’s simply because we’re human.

We need treats, and it’s only a sliding scale of spending that leads you from the pricey ones that will do you no harm – trips to the cinema, new shoes, weekend minibreaks – to these little, cheaper ones, which will. If you’re lucky you can balance the two, and congratulate yourself for doing as you’re told, and being good, while you cross your fingers and hope that it’s good enough. 

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The new caliphate

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The future of policing is still at risk even after George Osborne's U-Turn

The police have avoided the worst, but crime is changing and they cannot stand still. 

We will have to wait for the unofficial briefings and the ministerial memoirs to understand what role the tragic events in Paris had on the Chancellor’s decision to sustain the police budget in cash terms and increase it overall by the end of the parliament.  Higher projected tax revenues gave the Chancellor a surprising degree of fiscal flexibility, but the atrocities in Paris certainly pushed questions of policing and security to the top of the political agenda. For a police service expecting anything from a 20 to a 30 per cent cut in funding, fears reinforced by the apparent hard line the Chancellor took over the weekend, this reprieve is an almighty relief.  

So, what was announced?  The overall police budget will be protected in real terms (£900 million more in cash terms) up to 2019/20 with the following important caveats.  First, central government grant to forces will be reduced in cash terms by 2019/20, but forces will be able to bid into a new transformation fund designed to finance moves such as greater collaboration between forces.  In other words there is a cash frozen budget (given important assumptions about council tax) eaten away by inflation and therefore requiring further efficiencies and service redesign.

Second, the flat cash budget for forces assumes increases in the police element of the council tax. Here, there is an interesting new flexibility for Police and Crime Commissioners.  One interpretation is that instead of precept increases being capped at 2%, they will be capped at £12 million, although we need further detail to be certain.  This may mean that forces which currently raise relatively small cash amounts from their precept will be able to raise considerably more if Police and Crime Commissioners have the courage to put up taxes.  

With those caveats, however, this is clearly a much better deal for policing than most commentators (myself included) predicted.  There will be less pressure to reduce officer numbers. Neighbourhood policing, previously under real threat, is likely to remain an important component of the policing model in England and Wales.  This is good news.

However, the police service should not use this financial reprieve as an excuse to duck important reforms.  The reforms that the police have already planned should continue, with any savings reinvested in an improved and more effective service.

It would be a retrograde step for candidates in the 2016 PCC elections to start pledging (as I am certain many will) to ‘protect officer numbers’.  We still need to rebalance the police workforce.   We need more staff with the kind of digital skills required to tackle cybercrime.  We need more crime analysts to help deploy police resources more effectively.  Blanket commitments to maintain officer numbers will get in the way of important reforms.

The argument for inter-force collaboration and, indeed, force mergers does not go away. The new top sliced transformation fund is designed in part to facilitate collaboration, but the fact remains that a 43 force structure no longer makes sense in operational or financial terms.

The police still have to adapt to a changing world. Falling levels of traditional crime and the explosion in online crime, particularly fraud and hacking, means we need an entirely different kind of police service.  Many of the pressures the police experience from non-crime demand will not go away. Big cuts to local government funding and the wider criminal justice system mean we need to reorganise the public service frontline to deal with problems such as high reoffending rates, child safeguarding and rising levels of mental illness.

Before yesterday I thought policing faced an existential moment and I stand by that. While the service has now secured significant financial breathing space, it still needs to adapt to an increasingly complex world. 

Rick Muir is director of the Police Foundation