Denise Van Outen holds a cheque for Great Ormond Street Hospital. But can she claim back the tax? Credit: Getty
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How charitable tax deductions work

We've heard Osborne's plans to crack down on tax dodgers/ philanthropists (delete as appropriate), but what about higher rate payers and their charitable deductions?

The Financial Times is reporting that George Osborne is set to back down over proposals to limit the tax-deductability of charitable donations. The chancellor's planned cap on tax relief limited deductibles to the higher of 25 per cent of annual income or £50,000 per person, but the inclusion of relief given due to charitable donations in that cap sparked condemnation from all three parties and many charities.

As a result, Osborne is considering two new possibilities:

One plan is to have a separate limit on charitable donations of 50 per cent of a person’s income, allowing charities to claim tens of millions of pounds more in reliefs than under the current plan. Another is to let donors roll over any unused tax reliefs into future years if they are used for donations.

Treasury officials are locked in talks with representatives from the voluntary sector, and expect to make final decisions on how best to mitigate the effects of the planned cap in a few months. But they estimate raising the ceiling for charitable donations to 50 per cent would cost £40m, taking the overall savings from capping charities tax relief down to just £20m.

It is worth clarifying what the proposed changes are. Most of us are only aware of the most basic level of interaction between the tax system and charitable donations: gift-aid.

If a basic-rate taxpayer makes a donation, then a charity can claim back the tax paid on the money donated, boosting the value of the donation by 25 per cent (if the donor gives 80p, then the charity gets £1, which is the amount the donor had to earn to receive 80p post-tax income). There are no current plans to change that, and it has been an invaluable source of revenue for many charities.

If the donor is a higher- or top-rate taxpayer, however, tax relief kicks in for them as well as the charity. In addition to the 20 per cent gift aid, the donor can claim back the 20 or 30 per cent they paid on top of that, and count it against taxable income at the end of the year. So that 80p donation still earns the charity £1, but when the time comes to fill in their tax return, the donor won't have to pay more than basic rate tax on the money donated – they get 20 or 30p back. For a top rate taxpayer, that means that they are out-of-pocket by 50p, while the charity gets £1.

It is important to note that no-one makes money by donating to charity in this way. If the charity is a real one - and this whole affair was sparked because some people are apparently donating to bogus charities, which really is tax dodging - then the donor will always lose at least 50p in every pound the charity receives. It will indeed reduce the total tax they pay, but that reduction will necessarily be less than the amount they donate.

Despite that, there will be people using donations to avoid tax. It won't be rational, and it won't make them richer, but sometimes dodgers go to ludicrous lengths to not pay tax. Willard Foxton reported people "dodging VAT on cars by having them flown in at more cost than the tax". It is certainly believable that those who think like that would donate £2m to avoid paying £1m in tax; but it isn't going to be many.

Even for those who aren't donating out of blind desire to reduce their tax take, the cap will hit hard. Combined with other tax deductions, charitable donations may be enough to push the total tax-rate of a wealthy individual to less than 25 per cent. That is what is concerning charities. Under the proposed rules, the cost of donations to philanthropists with an already low tax rate will rise by 37.5 per cent. If donors react to that rise by donating less, then charities will be sorely hit.

The core issue at stake is whether or not charitable giving abdicates one's responsibility to pay for the machinery of state. On the one hand is the belief exemplified by Clement Atlee:

If a rich man wants to help the poor, he should pay his taxes gladly, not dole out money at a whim.

On the other hand is the belief that by donating to charity, one has fulfilled their responsibility to pay a "fair share".

In the real world the argument hasn't touched upon this morality much, if at all. Instead, the matter is presented in far starker terms; either a focus on "total tax rate" to the exclusion of the reasons why that rate might be low, or a focus on the total income of charities, to the exclusion of the source of that money.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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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.”