Perhaps we should be grateful, after the comments of one of his predecessors in the 1980s, that David Cameron at least recognises that there is, indeed, such a thing as society, but I am deeply sceptical about his much publicised ‘Big Society’ concept. Let me explain why.
Some of my best friends are PR consultants, so I have nothing against them per se, but the whole concept is rather redolent of some of the worst aspects of the “style over substance” elements of the darker PR arts.
On my walk into the office this morning (I now know where the snow was!) there was considerable discussion about the launch of the new Big Society Bank, much of it focusing on the damage that government policy has done to the charity sector, and the perceived inadequacy of the BSB concept as a response to that. This focused my mind on the fact that coming down the track is a tax change that will also have a significant negative impact on the charity sector, just at a time when that sector could well, you might think, do without it.
I am referring to the introduction, on 6 April 2013, of a cap on unlimited tax reliefs. This will limit any taxpayer to a total of such reliefs (including charity share gifts and Gift Aid donations) not exceeding 25% of taxable income for the year, or £50,000 if greater. I assume this is an anti-avoidance measure, but if it is then insufficient thought has been given to its implications for philanthropy, given that I struggle to see how an individual could possibly be deemed to be engaging in a selfish act of tax avoidance by giving large sums of money to charity
I have a client, who shall for obvious reasons remain nameless, and who I shall call X. X is independently wealthy, has no close relatives and is getting on in years. Some years ago X set up a charitable trust, into which X has been systematically transferring significant parts of a share portfolio on an annual basis under the charity share gift scheme, which gives income tax relief for the market value of shares gifted to charity. The trust then donates its investment income to various other charities chosen by X and X’s fellow charitable trustees. X also makes significant Gift Aid donations.
X’s income is nowhere near £200,000, so X will be limited to £50,000 of uncapped reliefs. This will not cover X’s annual charity share gifts and Gift Aid donations, so the reward for continuing with a consistent, extremely generous and to my mind extremely praiseworthy pattern of philanthropy will be a significant increase in X’s annual tax liability. Can that be right, and is that an incentive to increased charitable giving in the supposed ‘Big Society’? I think not.
X will not be an isolated example, or even I suspect a particularly significant (at least in absolute financial terms) example. I know for a fact that there are many people who make much larger charitable donations than X, and who will suffer an even more dramatic tax impact if they continue to do so after April 2013.
It beggars belief to think that the government had not considered the impact of this proposed change on charities, and in any event it appears that the choice of conclusions to draw is that they are either mendacious or stupid, neither of which is something one would wish to think of one’s democratically elected government. I am thus prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt, on the basis that isolated moments of stupidity can be corrected, and urge them to exempt charitable donations from the cap on tax reliefs. Otherwise further talk of “The Big Society” will elicit only hollow laughter from the charitable sector and those who so generously support it.