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Does the Big Society need a rethink? - Charities

    Yorick Wilks, Professor of Artificial Intelligence (Emeritus) at the University of Sheffield, writes about the dependence of charity and public projects on the state.

    “CUTS FORCE CHARITIES TO SLASH SERVICES” screamed the Guardian recently (21.7.11). A moment’s reflection might make one answer “Hang on, what have any Government cuts to services got to do with charities? Surely they are independent of the Treasury?” But we also know that is not true these days: Gordon Brown over his whole Chancellorship subverted the major charities by getting them to apply for Government grants and be drawn into the social services’ machine.

    This shift has gone hand in hand with charities taking on campaigning rather than fundraising roles, as Jill Kirby pointed out in the Times in 2009. It was all part of the Labour Party strategy to promote the State as the only real source of benefit and virtue, precisely what David Cameron set out to combat with the Big Society, though he has yet to convince the British people about it.

    How different those British people once were: Henry Mayhew is best known for his London Labour and the London Poor of 1840 which first described the awful but complicated lives of the poorest workers of the time. His view of charities and private fundraising were not at all like that of modern Labour Party superiors which can be summed up in the famous remark of Peter Mandelson that only “public services and public investment can deliver opportunity and end poverty”.

    On the building of the Crystal Palace in 1851 Mayhew wrote “And well may the nation be proud of its Crystal Palace. No other people in this world would have raised such a building, without one shilling drawn from the national resources”.

    In modern terms this can be considered an extraordinary remark: it could never have crossed Lord Mandelson’s mind that his vaunted Millenium Dome might have been funded in such a way. The contrast is a measure of the profound changes in our sensibility and expectations of ourselves; it is us who are changed not the times - a modern American could still have boasted of such private achievement.

    When asking how to revive traditional attitudes to charitable giving, it is well to remember that the UK is not a laggard in private giving: we are second behind the US in world rankings (and closely followed by Australia and Canada) at 0.9% of GDP versus the US 1.67%. What’s more, the US has both lower taxes than us and tax laws that positively encourage individual giving.

    Ways of changing our culture back to how it once was have been set out in Paul Palmer’s CPS pamphlet, where he made two concrete suggestions: “Remainder Trusts” from which an individual could recoup if his finances went downhill later and a new kind of ‘Personal Charitable Trust’ with tax benefits and, importantly, anonymity. This last was so that the giver would not be under constant siege from petitioners, themselves often using automated request emails linked to open lists of private charities. As Palmer puts it: “These reforms could unlock some of the £740 billion held by the 820,000 Britons with a net wealth of more than £500,000. If just 10% of this sum were realised, then an additional endowment of £74 billion would be made available for good works.”

    The Government should keep these suggestions on its list of reforms if we are to take the Big Society seriously.

    Yorick Wilks is Professor of Artificial Intelligence at the University of Sheffield, and is also a Senior Research Fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute. He studied maths and philosophy at Cambridge, where he got his PhD in 1968. He has published numerous articles and six books in artificial intelligence concerned with language processing.

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