The government has dumped radical plans to use anti-terror surveillance laws to spy on shopkeepers who sell children high-energy drinks.
The announcement came after HuffPost UK revealed that the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) had sought an exemption under the revised Regulation of Investigatory Powers (RIPA) Act to allow it to enforce a proposed ban on drinks like Red Bull and Monster being sold to under-16s.
But in a statement on Wednesday night, it said that “the use of these powers would be unnecessary and excessive and the Department will not pursue their use for these purposes”.
The plan risked fresh tensions between Hancock and Boris Johnson over what the PM has condemned as ‘nanny state’ interventions into the daily lives of individuals.
Following concerns that local councils were abusing the law to crack down on small-scale cases like littering and dog fouling, the RIPA act was amended by the Cameron government to apply only to serious offences that carried a six month jail term.
But the DHSC applied for an exemption to make sure that councils can arm investigators with spying powers to enforce its under-16s ban on sales of drinks with high caffeine levels.
It would have brought the sale of drinks like Red Bull into the same category as sales of alcohol, knives and cigarettes to minors.
Arguing for the draconian powers, the department had said that the issue had been raised by local authorities to allow them to make test purchases to investigate suspected breaches of the new ban.
Officials suggested that the new powers to crack down would be justified given what the department felt was a high level of public concern over the issue and the need to enforce the law.
The government said on Wednesday night that the use of RIPA to enforce the ban on the sale of energy drinks to under 16s was considered as part of a range of options but has now been discounted.
In Theresa May’s final cabinet meeting, Hancock announced his intention to go ahead with a drinks ban, pointing out the damage caused to children’s health such as headaches, hyperactivity and obesity.
However, many Tory MPs are wary of using the state to intervene and monitor private behaviour, especially in cases that are viewed as non-criminal.
Johnson vowed during the Tory leadership race to review so-called ‘sin taxes’, including the previous government’s sugar tax on soft drinks like Coca Cola.
On Wednesday, Hancock hit out at a Treasury advert that hailed new plans to make cigarettes and alcohol from the EU duty-free in the event of a no-deal Brexit.
The online ad trumpeted what the government saw as the benefits of new lower prices that would be available to consumers.
“Duty-free shopping with the EU is coming back, if we leave without a deal. People travelling to EU countries will be able to buy beer, spirits, wine and tobacco without duty being applied in the UK,” it said.
But the advert sparked an outcry by some health professionals and others.
Asked at the Public Health England (PHE) conference on Wednesday how the advert squared with his bid to make the UK “smoke-free” by 2030, Hancock made clear his own unease.
“We’ve got to keep winning this argument. Look, I don’t think that the return of duty free was really seen from within a public health context, shall we say, before publication. Certainly, I didn’t see it before publication but – leave that one with me.”
In its recent public health paper issued in July, the department came out strongly to say it would impose the under-16s sales ban on high caffeine drinks.
“Research has suggested that excessive consumption of energy drinks by children may affect some children adversely. In addition, energy drink consumption has also been associated with unhealthy behaviours and deprivation,” it said.
“Last year we consulted on ending the sale of energy drinks to children. The consultation showed overwhelming public support, with 93% of consultation respondents agreeing that businesses should be prohibited from selling these drinks to children.
“Teachers and health professionals, in particular, were strong in their support for the government to take action.”