Can Osborne undo the damage done by the charity tax?

With two-thirds of coalition backbenchers opposing the plan, the Chancellor is considering concessio

When George Osborne announced a cap on tax relief in the Budget last month, the so-called “tycoon tax” was supposed to be a populist measure. Under the plans, previously uncapped tax reliefs – including those on charitable donations – would be capped at £50,000 or 25 per cent of income, if higher. Supposed to be a way of clamping down on legal methods of tax avoidance, it clearly it hasn’t quite worked out as hoped, with the government under a hail of criticism for limiting charitable giving.

It appears that the storm is far from over, with a ComRes poll finding that two-thirds (65 per cent) of government backbenchers believe that tax relief on charitable donations should be exempt from the cap. The survey, commissioned by the Charities Aid Foundation, found that 68 per cent of the Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs surveyed believed that the government should review its proposal to cap tax relief on charitable donations. It also showed that 93 per cent of coalition backbenchers believed that the government "should do all it can to use the tax system to encourage charitable donations from wealthy donors".

So what next for the policy? The government is still scrambling to regain some political points, with the Treasury releasing figures that reveal the extent of tax avoidance among the super-rich. The figures show that almost a thousand UK taxpayers earning over £1m a year are paying less than 30 per cent of their income in tax, while 12 of the 200 taxpayers earning over £10m are paying less than 10 per cent in tax. The figures are supposed to show how the super-rich are using tax reliefs and legal schemes to reduce the amount of tax they pay.

The numbers are certainly shocking, but at this point, probably not enough for the government to regain control of the message. Indeed, the Financial Times reports that Osborne is considering changes to the proposals, although as yet he is resisting pressure to exempt donations from the cap completely. Two proposals are reportedly under consideration. The first is to create a separate limit on charitable donations of 50 per cent of a person’s income, which would allow charities to claim tens of millions extra in tax relief than the current plan. Such a move would cost £40m, hugely reducing the amount saved by capping charitable donations, to just £20m. The second is to allow donors to roll over any unused tax reliefs into future years if they are used for donations.

Hot on the heels of the furores over pasties, granny tax, jerry cans, and email surveillance, this is yet another example of poor communication and media strategy from the very top of the coalition. With several papers this morning calling for David Cameron to improve his team, this latest incident only serves to cement the impression of a government that acts before it thinks.
 

George Osborne is considering concessions to his planned cap on charitable donations. Photograph: Getty Images

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Leader: Labour is failing. A hard Brexit is looming. But there is no need for fatalism

There is nothing inevitable about the right’s supremacy or a catastrophic Brexit.

Democracy depends on competent opposition. Governments, however well intentioned, require permanent and effective scrutiny to meet the public interest. For this purpose, the role of Her Majesty’s Opposition was enshrined in law 80 years ago. However, at present, and in the week Article 50 is invoked, this constitutional duty is being fulfilled in name alone. (The Scottish National Party speaks only for the Scottish interest.)

Since re-electing Jeremy Corbyn as its leader, the Labour Party has become the weakest opposition in postwar history. It lost the recent Copeland by-election to the Conservatives (a seat the Tories had not held since 1931) and trails the governing party, by up to 19 points, in opinion polls. The Tories feel no pressure from Labour. They confidently predict they will retain power until 2030 or beyond. Yet as the poll tax debacle and the Iraq War demonstrate, prolonged periods of single-party rule run the danger of calamitous results – not least, this time, the break-up of Britain.

Under Mr Corbyn, who formally lost the confidence of 80 per cent of his MPs last summer (and has not regained it), Labour has the least impressive and least qualified front bench in its history. Its enfeeblement has left a void that no party is capable of filling. “The grass-roots social movement of the left that was supposed to arrive in Jeremy Corbyn’s wake has not shown up,” the academic Nick Pearce, a former head of Gordon Brown’s policy unit, writes on page 36.

In these new times, the defining struggle is no longer between parties but within the Conservative Party. As a consequence, many voters have never felt more unrepresented or disempowered. Aided by an increasingly belligerent right-wing press, the Tory Brexiteers are monopolising and poisoning debate: as the novelist Ian McEwan said, “The air in my country is very foul.” Those who do not share their libertarian version of Brexit Britain are impugned as the “enemies” of democracy. Theresa May has a distinctive vision but will the libertarian right allow her the time and space to enact it?

Let us not forget that the Conservatives have a majority of just 15 or that Labour’s problems did not begin with Mr Corbyn’s leadership. However, his divisiveness and unpopularity have accelerated the party’s decline. Although the Unite general secretary, Len McCluskey, elected by a fraction of his union membership, loftily pronounced that the Labour leader had 15 months left to prove himself, the country cannot afford to wait that long.

Faced with the opposition’s weakness, some have advocated a “progressive alliance” to take on the Conservatives. Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and the nationalist parties are urged to set aside their tribalism. Yet it is fantasy to believe that such an alliance would provide stable majority government when nearly four million people voted for Ukip in 2015. There has also been chatter about the creation of a new centrist party – the Democrats, or, as Richard Dawkins writes on page 54, the European Party. Under our first-past-the-post electoral system, however, a new party would risk merely perpetuating the fragmentation of the opposition. If Labour is too weak to win, it is too strong to die.

The UK’s departure from the EU poses fundamental questions about the kind of country we wish to be. For some on the right, Brexit is a Trojan Horse to remake Britain as a low-tax, small-state utopia. Others aspire to a protectionist fortress of closed borders and closed minds. Mr Corbyn was re-elected by a landslide margin last summer. The Leave campaign’s victory was narrower yet similarly decisive. But these events are not an excuse for quietism. Labour must regain its historic role as the party of the labour interest. Labour’s purpose is not to serve the interests of a particular faction but to redress the power of capital for the common good. And it must have a leader capable of winning power.

If Labour’s best and brightest MPs are unwilling to serve in the shadow cabinet, they should use their freedom to challenge an under-scrutinised government and prove their worth. They should build cross-party alliances. They should evolve a transformative policy programme. They should think seriously about why there has been a post-liberal turn in our politics.

There is nothing inevitable about the right’s supremacy or a catastrophic Brexit. At present, the mood on the Labour benches is one of fatalism and passivity. This cannot go on.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition