The tax relief cap is either confusing or stupid

For a government that is seemingly trying to push the philanthropy button hard, the chancellor George Osborne made a right mess of this year’s budget – the disapproving responses to which have only grown in size and negativity in the days since he announced his measures. 

The only real mention of charities and giving to charities was within the negative sphere of capping tax relief. In a nutshell, Osborne capped the amount of relief you can get at 25 per cent of your income or £50,000, whichever is higher.

On the face of it, this would seem more than fair in a time of extreme austerity. But when you look at the possible repercussions of this on charitable giving, it becomes a lot less fair, and incredibly confusing, given the high profile this government has been trying to give philanthropy. The measure makes is more expensive to give large donations to charities – and could therefore put a lot of wealthy donors off giving substantial gifts.

Coupled with a very insightful piece I recently read on Liberal Conspiracy – a post by Damian McBride which outlines how budgets are put together and why he therefore knew Osborne was in trouble –  all of this gives me very little confidence that the government has  any idea what it is doing, or that there is a huge amount of communication going on across departments.

Making it harder to give to charity, and thereby decreasing the amount given to charity, seems like a mean, unpopular move at the best of times. But doing so in a time of austerity when charities have enough cuts to deal with as it as, and for the move to be made by a government that has harped on relentlessly about making giving a “social norm” seems mind-boggling at best and utterly stupid and/or deceitful at worst.

I can only really think of three possibilities that could explain what happened here, none of them good:

1. Osborne didn’t really think this through, and nobody pointed out to him the massive difference this cap could make to charitable giving.

2. The whole philanthropy agenda is just a bit of a soundbite and it really isn’t that important to the government to push this forward properly at all.

3. Given the high level of national debt and the other wealth-friendly measures contained in the budget, Osborne knew he needed to set out a measure that looked as though it would hit the rich a bit, and he couldn’t think of anything more creative than this.

Whatever has really happened, I think now may be one of those times to listen carefully to huge levels of outcry and consider exempting charitable donations from this tax relief – a campaign calling for which has already been launched by a number of voluntary sector organisations, perhaps showing the seriousness with which they are taking this.

By Sophie Hudson

Minimum alcohol pricing will not be enough

So, after a disasterous budget, in which the chancellor George Osborne managed to upset just about everyone other than his stock broker and Tarquin and Hugo down on the Kings Road, the government is now proposing a minimum alcohol price for England and Wales. 

(Side note to the Sun about its budget coverage: it’s no good feigning utter outrage on behalf of all your valued readers now. You were largely responsible for putting Osborne and Cameron in charge of the nation’s finances. What on earth did you expect from a Tory government?)

The alcohol news is conveniently timed to say the least – given the general reaction to the budget. But to be fair it is probably a sensible strategy – although I’m not sure how much difference it will really make.

If people want to get wasted on some kind of a substance – be that alcohol or drugs – they will, often regardless of price. There is a binge drinking culture in this country that businesses, young people, middle aged people and some old people often take full advantage of, and it is heavily engrained.

It’s acceptable, no more than that, it is actually normally seen as funny and entertaining in this country, when someone stumbles around drunk, yelling stupid things or falling over their own feet.

Elsewhere this isn’t so much the case. I was recently in Italy, and on nights out the atmosphere in clubs was very different to in London. Yes, young people were drinking and having a good time and dancing until the early hours, but there was a nuanced difference to the way they were doing this.

It, generally, wasn’t a case of people downing as much as possible to get trashed as quickly as possible, but instead most were enjoying a more sensible level of drinking, while they chatted to friends and danced for hours on end.

If you exit one of these clubs and find a local shop that sells wine, you can find bottles of the stuff for just as little, if not a lot less (and they taste a lot better) than you can in shops in the UK.

So I don’t think the government’s minimum pricing will necessarily harm the situation, but by themselves these types of measures are not going to make much difference. It’s a slow cultural change that is needed, and for that to occur all of society, from parents, to schools, to businesses need to play their part.

I can’t help but worry that the government’s new agenda by itself will do little other than further line the pockets of big supermarkets.

By Sophie Hudson

Charities have good reason to frighten us

The GP and author Margaret McCartney unleashed a no-holds-barred attack on health charities this week in the Times. And I wasn’t entirely convinced by all of her arguments. 

Due to a paywall I can’t link to the article here, but, briefly, a few of her criticisms included the fact that some charities are giving out “alarmist and misleading” information to grab our attention; that too many young women are being used on breast cancer awareness posters; and that charities push “emotive case studies” at journalists.

Basically, according to McCartney: “We are being frightened, not informed.”

The thing is, and to be fair McCartney gives a token mention to sentiments of this kind at the beginning of her piece, we live in a world where charities have to act like this to ever get our attention or, harder still, any donations from us.

We live in a world where any piece of good news is not deemed exciting enough to reach even page 30 of our newspapers. Where we are bombarded by thousands of ads every day, to the point that most of the time we no longer even consciously notice them.

As well as all of this, charities have plenty of competition among themselves, with figures from the Charity Commission website telling us there are over 160,000 registered charities in England and Wales alone.

In these circumstances a charity can’t exactly put an ad up on the tube that says: “There’s only a slight chance that you or your close relatives could get cancer. In fact you’re more likely to get hit by a bus. But why not give us some of your hard-earned cash anyway, just in case?”

I do understand that there are dangers involved in trusted sources of information, like charities, not giving us accurate statistics, or misleading us. But I do not believe for even a moment that the information given by organisations like Breakthrough Breast Cancer is anything like reaching the point of dangerous.

In fact, if we’re going to start going down this route, the Daily Mail should be first on the hit list, not some highly respected, invaluable health charity that is fighting a hard, competitive fight to get us to notice some truly life-saving messages.

And I would personally much rather live in a society where if, god forbid, my best friend, or my mother or my grandmother were in the slightest bit concerned about their health they would go and see their GP right away, rather than in one where they wait because it has been drummed into them that you only have a one in eight chance of getting breast cancer, and that is assuming you reach 85 years old, so don’t you worry too much.

It’s all very well criticising charities for exaggerating the facts slightly, or pointing us to the worst rather than best case scenario, but there really is no alternative in the society we live in. Circumstances cannot just be put aside when you hit out at a organisation for its behaviour – they are often the very reasons for that behaviour.

By Sophie Hudson

Finally, signs of the end of Facebook

So, the end has finally started to arrive. The Facebook fad and its crippling takeover of anything meaningful in our lives is dying a well-overdue death. 

Yes, yes, if Facebook were a nation, it has so many members that it would be the third largest country in the world and all that, so it still is mildly popular. But I am also happy to say that numerous bits of recent research have found that people are using Facebook a lot less than they used to, and in many countries it is now losing significant numbers (i.e. millions) of members.

Lucy Mangan’s brilliant piece in today’s Stylist gives all the essential facts.

I don’t have a problem with social media in general. I’m actually a big fan of other forms of it, such as Twitter and even to a certain extent LinkedIn. But I have actively disliked Facebook for a number of years now.

It’s the shallow, fake, uselessness of it, mainly. I don’t like the way people add people as ‘friends’ who they are in no way ‘friends’ with. I don’t like the way people post ‘personal’ conversations on a wall that all and sundry can read. I don’t like the way people post statuses purely to get attention but write them in a ridiculous ‘oh no I *really* don’t want to talk about it’ way. Basically, I don’t like it and have barely used the thing for a number of years.

Sadly I have felt compelled to leave my Facebook profile active for now (I have closed it once before, but unfortunately had to reactivate it as I realised there are a handful of people, mainly ex colleagues based abroad, who seem to refuse to stay in contact through anything other than Facebook).

In perhaps a sign of its decreasing popularity I seem to be contacted by Facebook at ever dwindling intervals, reminding me to come back soon and giving me updates about people who’s names I was happily starting to forget.

This makes me sound like a right cold, unfriendly old cow. Which, I hope, I am honestly not. My friends and family mean more to me than anything. But, in all honesty (other than in the aforementioned based-abroad situation) if I have to catch up with you over a public-facing ‘wall’ rather than in person over a cocktail, or, at worst, on the phone, then to be honest we probably aren’t really ‘friends’ after all.

Twitter, though, is different. It doesn’t purport to be a digital representation of your entire social and professional life, and every connection you have ever made within it. Instead you get to read and become involved in a number of conversations about topics that are genuinely of interest to you. And it epitomises instant, public-owned journalism *often* at its very best.

I have very carefully tailored my Twitter feed so when I log on I actually feel like I have walked into a room filled with people I genuinely really like, or find very entertaining/ interesting. I don’t know what it is about Facebook, but every time I log on there I instead seem to feel a bit rubbish about myself, with people I never really liked in person, let alone on the internet in the most extreme version of themselves, wielding their way back into my life.

So, goodbye Facebook (if the research is correct) you won’t be missed.

By Sophie Hudson

The Grapes of Wrath – still scarily modern

I recently finished reading The Grapes of Wrath, a book I know will be with me in some way forever.

It’s definitely one of those books – one of the ones you know you are supposed to read, which for some reason makes the prospect of reading it ever so slightly dull.

If this is something you are currently feeling about John Steinbeck’s masterpiece, don’t. Banish such fears immediately, find yourself a copy of this book tomorrow and read it.

Instead of doing a traditional review of this book here though, of which there are already plenty, I wanted to reflect on something that really struck me as I read it.

No one can be sure how Steinbeck imagined the world would be when people read this book more than 70 years after it was first published in 1939. A lot has changed in that time. But one thing that hasn’t is human nature and the human spirit.

It is particularly poignant to read The Grapes of Wrath, which is set in the Great Depression, now, in this current time of great economic uncertainty. For many of the world’s poorest, conditions are just as bad now as they were for the heroic Joad family in the book – something which would surely be to Steinbeck’s absolute horror.

In fact a recent BBC documentary found very similar conditions in California today as those described in the book. And for all the wealth that has been created in our society over the many decades now separating us from the Great Depression, it is still enjoyed by the few, with the many remaining in a constant cycle of struggle.

And, what do you know, here we are again, enjoying another recession. Clearly the system is broken, and needs urgent and permanent fixing.

I hope over the next century we can do a lot better as a human race at rectifying this. Because, frankly, the idea that in seventy years there will still be vast swathes of people without even the very basics like medicines, food, water and a home to call their own, really is terrifying.

If I could give one piece of advice to David Cameron before he continues with any more of his austerity plan, it would be to read, or maybe reread, The Grapes of Wrath very soon.

By Sophie Hudson

Riots, parenting and society

I have a strong view on what good parenting is. 

It’s caring enough about your offspring to bother to punish them when they have done wrong. This is not an easy task because it requires effort – effort that once made shows a child in a very subtle way how much you care about their future wellbeing.

It is also caring enough to nurture them and give them the best life chances you possibly can. To pick them up when they are feeling low and struggling, to make sure they know that with the right hard work and behaviour there are endless opportunities out there for them.

In the aftermath of the riots that have been happening across the country this week, society could learn a lot from good parenting.

First, we need to clamp down on the young people who have looted shops and in some cases set fire to homes and attacked innocent civilians and policemen/women. We need to show them that these abhorrent actions have not gone unnoticed and will have severe repercussions.

But the job does not end there. No matter how unpopular it may seem at the moment, after the punishment needs to come the nurturing and care.

You can’t just beat someone with a stick, send them back to a life which they are clearly not feeling happy and fulfilled in, and then expect that anything will change.

The sense of entitlement that has crept up within our society needs to be smothered, but so too does this growing societal trend which silently dictates that people should be left to their own devices and if they make mistakes and don’t ‘measure up’ they will be cajoled and punished but never respected or nurtured.

The message needs to get through that society expects better from those that took part in the riots because they are part of this society. And at the same time society needs to start keeping its end of the deal by making more of an effort to support members of its youth who are feeling so disengaged they are quite willing to destroy everything around them.

Clearly, not enough is being done at the moment to support these people – I don’t think we could have been given a clearer signal of that fact this week. The concept of ‘tough love’ needs an urgent revisit.

By Sophie Hudson

Sleeping rough

Homelessness sparks debate. Already in my modest-lengthed life I’ve been involved in a number of heated discussions about the issue.

But last Friday I took part in an event which was to change my views on it forever, making me much more certain of my stance on it. I slept rough in London for charity.

I was undercover at least, in Spitalfields market. But I was in a sleeping bag, there was no heating, and the only thing between me and the pavement for an entire November night was a very thin piece of cardboard.

It was an uncomfortable experience to say the least. I gritted my teeth and got on with it though, knowing that within only a few hours I’d be able to go home and get into a nice warm bed.

When I woke up just after 6am I was cold, I ached all over and I just generally felt very tired and stale. At that moment, whilst most the people around me were still asleep and it was eerily quiet, I suddenly wondered what it would feel like if options were not open to me at that point in time.

I wondered how I would be feeling if my only option for the day was to gather up my sleeping bag and bit of cardboard and head out onto the street to beg for money. What if I couldn’t go home and have a shower? What if I couldn’t go and brush my teeth? What if there was no food for me waiting in my fridge? What if I knew I would be sleeping rough again that night?

Anyone who is living a life in which those ‘what ifs’ are their daily reality is not in that position out of choice. A home is something most of us take for granted, and to be without one on a constant basis must be utterly miserable and one of the least care-free existences anyone can fathom.

There are no lengths we shouldn’t be going to as a society to put an end to homelessness. Since Friday I’ve already made a promise to myself that I will do all I personally can to help alleviate the situation in some way. Whether that is by donating money to a charity, becoming a trustee or volunteering in a soup kitchen I am not yet sure.

One thing I am sure of though is that there is no easy solution to a problem like homelessness, but that everything must be done to find one. It’s something that homeless people themselves have very little, if any power, to change. It’s therefore up to the rest of us to help pull them back out of that constant struggle.

By Sophie Hudson