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Will Cameron U-turn on charity tax relief?

The PM looks increasingly certain to revise Osborne's plan to cap tax relief on charitable donations

David Cameron talks to sudents in Jakarta.
David Cameron talks to sudents at The Al Azhar University on April 12, 2012 in Jakarta. Photograph: Getty Images.

Three weeks on from the Budget, David Cameron could be forgiven for hoping that the political strife was over. But even 8,000 miles away in Asia [the PM flew from Indonesia to Malaysia earlier this morning], Cameron can't escape the aftershocks of George Osborne's statement. The outcry over the Chancellor's decision to impose a cap of £50,000 on tax relief for charitable donors is reaching a crescendo and Cameron has already hinted at a U-turn. Speaking in Jakarta yesterday, he said:

George Osborne said in the budget very carefully we would look at the effect on charitable donations because we want to encourage charitable giving... We'll look very sympathetically at these concerns

He has every reason to be sympathetic. A move intended to limit tax avoidance could end up strangling the PM's cherished "big society". A survey by the Charities Aid Foundation shows that nine out of 10 charities fear the plans will result in a drop in donations. The foundation's John Low speaks of "widespread alarm and despair" among charities. 88 per cent of the 120 charity executives surveyed believe that the cap will have a "negative impact on the value of donations" from major donors, while 56 per cent fear donations will fall by some 20 per cent.

In addition, there is pressure from Fleet Street and a significant number of Tory MPs to think again. Mark Pritchard, the secretary of the backbench 1922 Committee, commented: “This appears to be going in the opposite direction of encouraging philanthropy and major giving to charity.”

However, with the new rules not due to come into place until April 2013, there is time for a compromise. The Times (£) reports that one idea under consideration is to exempt high-value, “once in a lifetime” legacies from the new cap. Another option would be to limit the cap to donations to foreign charities, some of which do little or no charitable work.  Low's warning that a measure intended to hit the rich could end up hurting the most vulnerable is a cogent one.

Politically, the cap on charity tax relief is yet another example [cf. "the granny tax" and "the pasty tax"] of a measure the government has struggled to both explain and to defend. There are plausible arguments for all three taxes [ensuring the elderly contribute to deficit reduction, removing an anomaly that favours large traders over small ones, reducing tax avoidance by the wealthy] but Cameron and Osborne only seem to make them once it's already too late. The Daily Mail's caustic observation that the pair may now regret that they "swanned off to America" the week before the Budget will hurt because it is true.