Contributory negligence

I am not giving to writing political posts. Indeed, the allegiances of the characters in this one are unimportant compared to the message they give about society, participation and responsibility.

This line was the trigger:

“This decision will cost him (and benefit the Treasury) tens of millions a year in tax yet he considers it worthwhile.”

[William Hague, talking about Lord Ashcroft in the Guardian].

Nobody really likes tax. That’s usually a starting point for the arguments. It’s a statement I think is arrived at too easily, but that’s another story. Let’s assume you aren’t exactly a fan of seeing your earnings disappear out of your pocket into another place, wherever that may be. We can probably all identify with that to some extent.

There are two ways to deal with this: an intelligent one of questioning priorities, addressing waste, and doing what you can – directly and through your representatives – to help shape a programme of public service funding.

And there’s the lazy one of pretending that it all just goes into some big smoking hole under Alistair Darling’s bed. And then after some labyrinthine process of leaking out into various MPs’ and bureaucrats’ pockets gets spent on equality coordinators in Scunthorpe. So you should resist paying at all costs because it’s just some nasty combination of extortion and fraud.

Clearly the latter approach is utter bollocks. But it’s far easier to believe in, and strangely comforting, provided you never actually have to experience life at the sharper end of any form of public service.

It seems Lord Ashcroft felt it was the most disgraceful waste of his money to have to pay some of it as a contribution to a society he was part of. It’s a view, I guess. But what message does it (and Hague’s support for it) give about the character of those purporting to be leaders of that society?

That everything they will propose as a publicly-funded programme is founded on something you really shouldn’t have to do anyway? That’s going to work, isn’t it?

These are statements of selfishness, shortsightedness and greed. And for politicians heading towards a General Election, lunacy. The row over deals, peerages and status is one thing. But the underlying attitudes revealed (which by no means are the sole preserve of any political party) about the role of contribution to our society, are far more serious.

Looking Gift Aid in the mouth

An interesting discussion last week: straying into the moral minefield of charitable giving, the issue of Gift Aid came up. (A small warning here. If you’re the treasurer of a charity, you’re probably not going to like this very much. Sorry.)

“How marvellous is Gift Aid!” my neighbour cried.

“How fraudulent is Gift Aid!”, I replied.

OK, perhaps not actually fraudulent. No one is actually being defrauded in a way that a court would recognise. But it’s not a wholly transparent business.

“Hang on, for every pound I give, the Chancellor adds another 28p. Everybody wins”, intones the fan.

“Well, how very kind of him”, comes my refrain. Reaching into that large piggy bank (or ‘coffer’ – beloved tabloid phrase) under his bed and counting out the extra pennies himself. “What a saintly man!”

Of course he doesn’t. Where do you think that 28p is coming from? Alistair’s little printing press? No: it’s a draw against general taxation in just the same way as education and social services (or indeed nuclear deterrent, aviation fuel tax relief, and lots of other things you might find less palatable).

Is it a good thing in principle to do this? Well, it might be. But only if one is prepared to make a huge, sweeping assumption that giving to any charity does more ‘good’ on average than the alternative of spending it on any other public sector cause.

So what could be improved here? I’m not suggesting it should be scrapped, but at least we could try and get a little more real about Gift Aid. What if the government labelled it more honestly as “a way in which you can add to your contribution by diverting some money that would otherwise prop up the health service, light the streets, build Olympic infrastructure etc. etc. etc.”*

It’s your choice, of course – but your choice should be informed.

Oh, and higher rate taxpayers – what about you? There’s a tiny little issue that no one really likes to talk about. Come tax return time, the penny usually drops. Or indeed, drops, bounces, and flicks back up into your pocket. There’s a nice little kick-back, isn’t there? That difference between higher and standard rate that neatly offsets some of the aforementioned general funding of public services.

Now isn’t that the ultimate win-win? You get to feel worthy, and you get cashback! B-b-b-b-b-but – my neighbour burbles – it’s such a good incentive. It makes people give more.

I agree. It does. So would giving them beer vouchers, or a free MacBook Air, but it doesn’t make it the right thing to do. That transparency point again – how it all works and where the money really flows should be made much more clear.

But ultimately this is all about personal choice.

You could choose to keep it simple. Don’t tick the box. Don’t put charitable giving on your tax return. Let your pound be an honest, real pound. Up it by the extra 28p yourself if the cause is that dear to your heart. Or if you do declare it, factor in that little kick-back in advance when deciding what to give. But of course, you probably do that already, don’t you? ;-)

*this is a bit wordy. Ever my weakness. Could you put it more succinctly?