“Brown to tax eating-out” screamed the front page of yesterday’s Sunday Express with an “exclusive” guaranteed to raise the reading public’s hackles, not to mention those of the restaurant business. There may be a real threat there, or it could be a case of political kite-flying, or perhaps even some old-fashioned media mischief. The Express is no friend of this Labour administration, after all. Digging deeper into the story you discover that the proposal for a 6% or 10% levy on all out-of-home meals comes from a group of Labour councils in a submission to a review looking at local government finance which will report to the Treasury some time later this year. So some way short of Chancellor Gordon Brown signing up for a so-called “plate tax” any time soon, or even any guarantee that the suggestion will be in the final review body recommendations. Stranger things have happened, but it’s still hard to envisage a Government trailing in the opinion polls and a Chancellor badly in need of some positive PR pinning their electoral hopes on such a scatter-gun pleasure tax. On the other hand, it’s not hard to see how some local government bureaucrats would imagine the restaurant industry as a modern-day “golden goose”. Eating-out is a growth sector, recently valued at £88bn by the Government’s own figures. Pure food sales out-of-home are probably nearer £24bn, depending on which official figures you choose, but 10% of that is still worth having if you’re a cash strapped council. Whether this particular story has legs or not, the worry for the eating-out business should be that, just like the drinks industry, it looks like a soft touch. That in turn begs the question of just how close is this economically vital industry to government and key policy makers? Does it have the ear of ministers or local council leaders? Does it have the platform to react even to the more left-field threats? The frenzy in the accommodation sector over a proposed bed tax suggests that relationships might not be as good as they should be. It’s not hard to marshal arguments to counter an eating-out tax. It would cost jobs, hit low income families as well as the well off, hit small businesses as much as big corporates and would also be horrendous to implement. At a time when the Government is encouraging more food sales in pubs in the run-up to the smoking ban in England it would smack of unbelievable opportunism. But more importantly the eating-out sector needs to recognise what leverage it can use with the Government. Obesity is centre stage, but instead of the eating-out market being seen as part of the problem it should be seen as part of the solution. What’s wrong with a partnership between Government and the restaurant industry to promote healthier eating? Jamie Oliver has already shown the way in his crusade over school meals, and it’s a good bet ministers still want to keep him on side. The Sunday Express meal tax “exclusive” may or may not be a scare story. What it should do is challenge the eating-out market over its readiness to combat threats real or perceived and to position itself as being “good guys” rather than an easy hit. Peter Martin is chief executive of the Peach Factory and Peach Network and a founder of the M&C Report