Thursday, 30 December 2010

This is for charity

Quick to capitalise on festive cheer and generosity, the government yesterday published a green paper discussing how their pet-project of a ‘Big Society’ can be supported, financially and otherwise, by everybody other than the government itself.

In a wide-ranging discussion, the green paper proposes ways in which individuals might give time to volunteering after they’ve finished the 1652 hours of work the average Briton annually undertakes, a figure 300 hours higher than is found in Germany, France, Sweden and a host of other nations that rank consistently above our little island in indexes evaluating quality of life.

Aside from the giving of time, the green paper also looks, inevitably, at how people can be encouraged to give more of their money to charities, the suggestion being that these private-sector companies need more revenue to help running services and protecting the socially marginalised, a responsibility that – puzzlingly – has always in the past been the very thing a government was mandated and funded to perform. Having raised capital gains tax, resolved to take 20% of VAT from the value of almost every purchase conducted in the UK, and decided that the treasury is in such fine shape that Vodafone could be excused a £5.2bn slice of its tax bill, it is mysterious that the government would now look to the apparently hard-up individual member of society to start making donations, additional to their taxes, in order to pay for the welfare state.

Ways in which this could be done are believed to include charitable donations appearing as options on cash machines, whilst the government has also identified that, as things stand, only 9% of the value of UK legacies are left to charities after people die, with 91% of the value being bequeathed, bizarrely enough, to family and friends. The green paper is quick to note that this leaves great potential for increased revenue.

On other points, the government seems quieter. The paper overlooks the nature of current donations, with almost three-quarters of the total value being given to medical research (32%), overseas aid (24%) and animal welfare (14%). In recognition of the slim overlap between these causes and the remit of the welfare state, it would appear that ‘Big Society’ depends on people donating not only more money, but also to charities most likely to plug the holes in the state, rather than those they have traditionally supported. None of this should be taken as a defence of central government over local, grassroots action, however, it does raise the question of whether the taxpayer achieves value for money from its rather expensive central government.

Another point scarcely touched-upon in the report is that the UK already gives a relatively high percentage of its income to charity. At 0.73% of GDP (approximately £10.6bn), UK giving is the second-highest rate amongst the developed world, behind only the USA on 1.7%. The size of the UK figure must be weighed against the fact that we pay significantly less tax than our European neighbours, but nevertheless, in 2005 Germany gave 0.22% and the French gave 0.14%. Up in Scandinavia, Sweden, Norway, Finland and Denmark donate still less than 0.14% of GDP to charity, and yet still manage to wipe the floor with the UK on all indexes of social health. Indeed, amongst a host of Scandinavian social accolades, you can typically expect to find the average UK citizen less happy, less ‘satisfied with life’, and less likely to have received a high level of education. Enough about what we have less of however, the average UK citizen can expect an awful lot more in the way of mental health problems, discrimination in the workplace, and that lovely thing called poverty.

Charity… a symptom of the disease, somehow mistaken for its remedy.

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