Editorial: Two languages in the giving debate

The contrast between the Giving Green Paper and the responses to it indicate there might be big disappointments ahead, says Stephen Cook

Stephen Cook, editor
Stephen Cook, editor

At the end of last year, the government's Giving Green Paper devoted no more than a paragraph to tax incentives, pledging only to "review the relationship between financial incentives and giving". The message was not encouraging.

Most of the submissions from the main sector organisations to the consultation on the paper say, however, that tax incentives are the most powerful potential means of increasing donations to charity. Some of them make detailed proposals.

This epitomises the contrast between the paper and the responses: the paper is in the main unspecific and aspirational, playing down the role of government, whereas the responses contain many detailed, specific ideas and requests for action, some of which would need legislation.

Maybe the the government will seize on and take forward some of these specific ideas, such as enabling lifetime legacies or introducing an opt-out system for payroll giving. Perhaps - miracles sometimes happen - it will even take up the idea of companies giving 1 per cent of pre-tax profits to charity.

But don't hold your breath. The green paper emphasises all along that the government believes an increase in giving will come not so much from interventions of this kind as from a bottom-up culture shift catalysed by new technology, nudging and peer pressure.

The paper's ideas for doing this range from spreading the use of giving at cash machines to getting ministers to send thank-you letters to philanthropists. And the rather piecemeal and whimsical proposals such as these get scant approval, by and large, in the sector responses.

It's hard to escape the impression that the two sides are not really speaking the same language. Sector organisations appear to be using the discourse of the Labour years, where government action was seen as key to change. The coalition government, however, has switched to the non-interventionist terminology of the big society, where decisions are meant to be made by citizens rather than politicians. There might be some big disappointments ahead.

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