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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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.