Mr Cameron Cannot Have a Big Society without Money; as Charitable Donations Start to Dip, an Ex-Banker and Charity Chief Calls the Government to Account for Its Failure to Support Philanthropy

Article excerpt

Byline: Stephen Robinson

IF THERE are people out there who truly understand the Cameroonian concept of the Big Society, then they're not telling the rest of us, and especially those who run the country's larger charities.

Government spending cuts after Gordon Brown's spending splurges may be inevitable. Important advisers such as Steve Hilton, who is rarely beyond whispering distance from the Prime Minister's ear, say we should not be so Nineties in our thinking. The third sector -- the charities and their legions of volunteers across the land -- will pick up the slack.

But Thomas Hughes-Hallett, chief executive of Marie Curie Cancer Care, is far from convinced that they will be able to do so. "For the first time since the Thirties there are signs that charitable giving may fall sharply. In the past few months a number of charities have begun to see a real fall-off in giving."

A recent opinion poll shows that a quarter of charity donors expect to give less in the next 12 months than in the past year. It is not hard to see why. The very rich, especially the bankers, feel sullen and despised.

But the bedrock of charitable giving is relatively small donations from people who are not rich and who are being clobbered by inflation, derisory returns on deposit savings and rising fuel costs.

The reality of charitable fundraising, says Hughes-Hallett, is "more Middlesbrough than Belgravia", and one senses that as an Old Etonian who made his own fortune that this is a cause of some shame for him.

In the summer, David Cameron pledged the Coalition to policies that would foster charitable giving across the income spectrum. "There has been a lot of talk about the Big Society and philanthropy but actually there has been little or nothing done to support levels of giving," says Hughes-Hallett.

Indeed, it is worse than that because as government spending cuts fray the strands of the social safety net, charities' incomes are contracting, not increasing. "The Government will have us believe that the Big Society will address this. But this is already a very generous nation in terms of volunteering. And you cannot have a Big Society without money."

This is why Hughes-Hallett is joining forces with others in the sector to hold Cameron's feet to the fire.

The Philanthropy Review, launched this morning, draws senior officers in charities together with big corporate donors such as JP Morgan to lobby the Government to match rhetoric with action. Officially the Government "welcomes" the initiative but the charities are quite clear that ministers are on notice. "Either we can sit like puddings and do nothing about it, or speak out," says Hughes-Hallett.

The review is going to be quick and, it is said, radical in pointing to means to make it easier for people to volunteer their time and donate their money.

The Treasury has long resisted radical measures that make donating easier, fearing they would open the floodgates to tax breaks for the rich and the leaking of revenues, but this has raised barriers to charitable giving.

There are thousands of valuable inherited paintings up and down the country. Often these are unloved, too expensive to insure, yet should the owners wish to sell a painting and give the money to charity, first they would have to sell it and pay the bulk of its value in capital gains tax. So it hangs on the wall, giving no pleasure to the owner and no benefit either to a charity or the Exchequer.

Hughes-Hallett concedes the charities have often lacked imagination themselves, and need to think hard about expanding their incomes. Gift Aid, which allows charities to claw back tax from donors, has been successful but imposes enormous administrative burdens. A scheme to encourage donations through company payrolls has yielded only disappointing returns.

Hughes-Hallett is frustrated by our failure to embrace the pleasure of philanthropy. …