Going cap in hand to the charities

How to change the tax relief cap to help charities and the government get value for money.

The Chancellor’s budget decision to cap income tax relief has caused a hullabaloo. Wealthy donors and their beneficiaries are in open revolt, saying that charities will be hit hard by the measure. And a lobbying alliance of the wealthy and the charity sector is not something that politicians are likely to defy.

That there will be some cap seems certain. But in the face of this firestorm the government has been curiously reticent in defending its plan. Pointing to the need to curb the minor problem of fraudulent charity giving understandably angered many. There are good arguments for capping donations tax relief, which tend to get less of a hearing. A look at the evidence also points to some ways in which the Chancellor could appease the charity sector while keeping most of his savings.

So what possible justification could there be for cutting tax breaks on giving?

First it’s worth asking the question of how much charities actually benefit from tax relief on donations. This depends how donors respond. If they aim to give a fixed amount of their post-tax income, regardless of government policy, then the charity can expect to get the full value of any tax break that applies.

But what if donors want the charity to get a fixed amount – say a round million pounds? In this case, the availability of a tax top-up might cause them to cut their net donation from what it would otherwise have been. Here the donor benefits but the charity does not. Cutting relief in the first case would hit the charity, but in the second, the total received would be unchanged.

Which of these effects dominates is an empirical question. Several studies suggest that charities get significantly less than £1 for every £1 of tax relief paid out, because people reduce the amount they give in response to the top-up. The evidence isn’t conclusive but a reasonable approximation would be that perhaps two-thirds of tax relief gets to the charity. The residual ends up in the pockets of donors.

So since charities get less than the government spends on tax relief, the state has a dilemma. The cap is expected to save the Treasury up to £100m per year from charity donors. So should it spend that extra £100m on schools or the NHS, services that the electorate as a whole (not just wealthy donors) want to see provided? Or should it reverse its policy and spend that money on tax relief for only £66m to go to privately favoured charities, ranging from famine relief to donkey sanctuaries? The case for doing the latter is perhaps weaker at a time when public services being cut to the bone and ministers lose sleep about the government’s creditworthiness.

Nevertheless, the growing clamour now looks very likely to force some kind of concession from the Treasury. And here the evidence has interesting things to say about how the Chancellor could recast his cap to make sure that government saves some cash and charities maximise giving.

Recent research shows that how tax relief is offered really matters to maximising donations. Where the charity directly claims the tax rebate on behalf of the donor, as with Gift Aid, the scheme looks more like a matching proposition. You give £1 and the government will match it with a further 25p. Under Gift Aid for higher rate taxpayers, the basic rate half of their tax break goes straight to the charity in this way. But they reclaim their rebate on the other 20% - the gap between basic and higher rate income tax - through self assessment.

Field experiments indicate (pdf) that the matching design can wring up to three times as much in donations for every pound spent on the match as the tax rebate version. And this is in spite of the fact that economic theory would suggest that how the tax relief is delivered should have no impact on donor behaviour.

Yet under the government’s current proposal both parts of the donors’ tax relief will be subject to the cap. This makes little sense. The smart move for Mr Osborne would be to un-cap the tax relief that boosts giving while screwing down the cap on the rebate. Both the Big Society and the broke state would be the winners.

Please sir, if you give me 10 per cent more the government will top it up by another 2.5 points while returning between 20 and 30 percent of the increase back to you. Credit: Getty

Ian Mulheirn is the director of the Social Market Foundation.

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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”