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Monday, 20 October 2014

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Give with one hand – then claw it back with the other

Look up the definition of philanthropy and you’ll find yourself suddenly bathed in a warm, rosy glow of benevolence.

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Write it off: For ordinary people choosing to give to charity has nothing to do with the impact on their taxes

It means – no matter where you find your reference – a love of humanity, selfless generosity, devotion to the greater good, kindness, sacrifice. Nowhere is it defined as a handy way of reducing your tax bill.

But that’s what it has become of late. Our living language, which changes and evolves almost daily, has added a new nuance to the once universally recognised meaning of philanthropy.

Greed? Hmmm, well if not quite that yet, what about self interest? Quid pro quo? You scratch my back or I’ll stab yours? Our elders, betters and richers (which isn’t a word but, since they’re the ones changing the language, it’ll fit my bill on this occasion) are taking to wobbly moral high ground to spice up the simple with a convoluted complexity.

It’s a mind game. One of the many they like to play to make little people wonder how on earth big people find the time and brain power necessary to manage their lives, our lives and more importantly their finances – without which we minnows would all go to the dogs without a hospice or hostel for the homeless to our names.

The row is over how much tax the super-rich should be excused from paying, if they – as philanthropists – donate to charities. It’s an unseemly and vaguely ridiculous debate. At least, that’s the way it seems to me. See, I can’t help but wonder why the super-rich can’t pay their taxes AND make donations to charity.

Call me naive – I’ve been called a lot worse, so feel free. But there’s nothing in my book that equates philanthropy with under-the-counter deals. Whatever your income, however big your stash of cash, if you make a gift you do so willingly and generously without a negotiated reciprocal favour being on the agenda.

The Treasury says almost one in 10 people earning more than £10 million a year pays less than 20 per cent in income tax. Does a donation to a public school, a rehab centre for distressed rock stars or funding IVF for menopausal imported pandas make that more acceptable?

You may think it does – in which case we will politely beg to differ. But in my experience the millions of little folks who happily and dutifully donate to worthy, often essential charitable causes – services neglected by government specifically because of their genuine generosity – do so after they have met their obligations to the state, asking no favour in return.

Most of them are older, paying tax on their pensions and still keeping air ambulances in flight, hospital wards open, school equipment renewed, child cruelty prevention services in operation. They are the true philanthropists and their faces are slapped dismissively when they are taken rudely for granted and the special case of multi-millionaire tax avoiders is pleaded with such a passion.

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