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.

Photo: Getty
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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.