Ken Macdonald QC

Does Osborne know what philanthropy is?

on 16 April 2012

Let me start with a confession: I chair an organisation called Reprieve, which campaigns against the death penalty and secret prisons around the world. We have freed scores of men and women from death row in the United States, and our lawyers have returned no fewer than 66 prisoners from Guantánamo Bay.

We work in China and Pakistan, where we monitor the silent killer drones, and we have brilliant young lawyers and investigators who could increase their incomes tenfold by moving to the City or to Wall Street tomorrow. But instead of drowning themselves in champagne in Stock Exchange wine bars, they traipse through dirty streets, dark prisons and death cells to confront injustice and cruelty. Yet their inexhaustability is not enough: for all their courage and idealism amounts to nothing without cash.

Does George Osborne understand this? Does he understand that, like all charities, we depend utterly upon those enlightened benefactors who give us the money that allows these young people to carry on working for us every day for salaries that many of their peers would laugh at? Can he really have any doubt that in this country there has never been enough benefaction, that our universities don't offer enough scholarships, that our museums are not well enough endowed, that our galleries need more cash and that our rich people don't give enough money away? And if he does, why would he ever want to send out a Chancellor's signal crassly associating generosity with avarice and greed?

In the autumn, I am moving to Wadham College, Oxford, which will open a stunning new centre for graduate students to proclaim our belief in the future of the great universities. Not one stone of this beautiful new building could have been put in place without the extraordinary generosity of a remarkable group of benefactors, who have given much more that we could ever have expected.

In the face of such vision, George Osborne maintains a politician's depressingly nuanced view. He tells us that, beyond showers of altruism, some rich people pour money into charities not because they are philanthropists but in order to avoid paying tax. I expect we might all understand that this occasionally happens; the ways of tax avoidance are, of course, many, shameful and varied and we would expect our Chancellor to understand this. But we might also hope that he would be worldly enough to understand that it's probably more important to encourage, by Treasury word as well as by deed, a widespread and developing culture of philanthropy than it is to throw out our babies with the dirty bath water of dishonest tax schemes that are already obviously criminal and can anyway be tidily fought by other, less foolish means.

If our Chancellor really believes that the pressing problem of tax avoidance lies in a culture of unrestrained philanthropy, he is in danger of looking like a rich man who doesn't understand either and really needs to get out more.

Rather worse for him and for Mr Cameron, their judgment in stigmatising charitable giving as a routine source of fraud may say more about a Conservative Party that we had supposed had been consigned to history than it does about a modern Britain in which everyone knows that Vodafone has been allowed, by embarrassing Treasury agreement, to avoid a potential £6 billion tax bill, that trillion-dollar Apple pays virtually nothing at all in the UK, and vertically challenged retail billionaires stash nearly everything they have for free in a couple of square miles of trashy Monaco real estate.


This article originally appeard in The Times, 16/04/2012

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