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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I was wrong about Help to Buy - but I'm still glad it's gone

As a mortgage journalist in 2013, I was deeply sceptical of the guarantee scheme. 

If you just read the headlines about Help to Buy, you could be under the impression that Theresa May has just axed an important scheme for first-time buyers. If you're on the left, you might conclude that she is on a mission to make life worse for ordinary working people. If you just enjoy blue-on-blue action, it's a swipe at the Chancellor she sacked, George Osborne.

Except it's none of those things. Help to Buy mortgage guarantee scheme is a policy that actually worked pretty well - despite the concerns of financial journalists including me - and has served its purpose.

When Osborne first announced Help to Buy in 2013, it was controversial. Mortgage journalists, such as I was at the time, were still mopping up news from the financial crisis. We were still writing up reports about the toxic loan books that had brought the banks crashing down. The idea of the Government promising to bail out mortgage borrowers seemed the height of recklessness.

But the Government always intended Help to Buy mortgage guarantee to act as a stimulus, not a long-term solution. From the beginning, it had an end date - 31 December 2016. The idea was to encourage big banks to start lending again.

So far, the record of Help to Buy has been pretty good. A first-time buyer in 2013 with a 5 per cent deposit had 56 mortgage products to choose from - not much when you consider some of those products would have been ridiculously expensive or would come with many strings attached. By 2016, according to Moneyfacts, first-time buyers had 271 products to choose from, nearly a five-fold increase

Over the same period, financial regulators have introduced much tougher mortgage affordability rules. First-time buyers can be expected to be interrogated about their income, their little luxuries and how they would cope if interest rates rose (contrary to our expectations in 2013, the Bank of England base rate has actually fallen). 

A criticism that still rings true, however, is that the mortgage guarantee scheme only helps boost demand for properties, while doing nothing about the lack of housing supply. Unlike its sister scheme, the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, there is no incentive for property companies to build more homes. According to FullFact, there were just 112,000 homes being built in England and Wales in 2010. By 2015, that had increased, but only to a mere 149,000.

This lack of supply helps to prop up house prices - one of the factors making it so difficult to get on the housing ladder in the first place. In July, the average house price in England was £233,000. This means a first-time buyer with a 5 per cent deposit of £11,650 would still need to be earning nearly £50,000 to meet most mortgage affordability criteria. In other words, the Help to Buy mortgage guarantee is targeted squarely at the middle class.

The Government plans to maintain the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, which is restricted to new builds, and the Help to Buy ISA, which rewards savers at a time of low interest rates. As for Help to Buy mortgage guarantee, the scheme may be dead, but so long as high street banks are offering 95 per cent mortgages, its effects are still with us.