Artful (tax) dodgers?

Ballet shoes lined up in a row

Your business is booming. You are rich. You're beginning to feel uncomfortably well off: it's time to share your good fortune. You love the arts and decide to give £1m to the Royal Ballet: a fine institution and a charity to boot.

This is money you have yet to pay tax on. As a high-earner, you pay at a rate of 50%, which means a £1m gift costs you personally about £500,000 - the other half is taken from your tax bill.

With the current tax relief system, a £1m donation breaks down like this:

  • you give Royal Ballet £800,000
  • and pay £200,000 tax
  • ballet company can claim that £200,000 back from the Treasury under the Gift Aid scheme

Of course, you - as intended - are left with nothing. But then so is the Treasury.

Replay the scene, but with the changes to the charitable tax relief system as proposed by the chancellor in his recent Budget. Of your £1million gift:

  • Royal Ballet would receive a little over £600,000
  • Treasury picks up the rest

Your donation has still personally cost you about £500,000, but the net result is your generous donation is worth a great deal less to the Royal Ballet.

Start Quote

Certain individuals on very high incomes are exploiting these reliefs to reduce their tax bills”

End Quote Prime Minister's official spokesman

This scenario, unsurprisingly, has upset many state-funded arts institutions. They feel as if they have been let down by the government.

Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt announced significant cuts to government funding of the arts last year. But he cushioned the blow by saying that both he and the government would do their utmost to encourage more philanthropic giving. In 2011 Mr Hunt launched a Year of Corporate Philanthropy.

It was a well-intentioned initiative. But, by his own admission, the venture was not a success. Corporate giving did not rise during this period; it fell. The arts sector winced. Still, there was always individual giving - private philanthropy - and the culture secretary said he was very keen to support that.

Then last month came the chancellor's budget announcement.

Nobody in the arts that I've spoken to thinks the new tax proposals will have anything but a detrimental effect on philanthropy. Not just in terms of money, but also by discouraging people to give.

Start Quote

Philanthropists who make large donations give away far, far more than they could ever claim in tax relief”

End Quote John Low Charities Aid Foundation

George Osborne explained at the time that the changes were to stop the rich offsetting their tax bill by giving to "dodgy" charities. Ministers say they want to end the practice of wealthy people minimising their tax bill - sometimes to zero - by donating to charity. The upshot of these comments, one senior fundraiser told me, was that "the government has changed the perception of philanthropists from generous do-gooders, to greedy tax-evaders".

The government has since announced a formal consultation over plans to limit the tax relief on charitable donations, saying there are "various options on table". And Number 10 has said David Cameron wants to see more charitable giving.

Consequences of the proposed change are worthy of consideration. Let us accept - for the sake of argument - that it is desirable for our arts institutions to operate at their current level in terms of programme and cost. Let us also accept that the amount of money philanthropists have available to give away remains unchanged.

Suzie Toase and James Corden in a scene from One Man, Two Guvnors Hit plays such as One Man, Two Guvnors and War Horse started out at the National Theatre

Under these circumstances, the new tax system would leave a deficit in the funding of our arts institutions that would probably fall to the government to cover.

The effect of which would be that the tax-paying population as a whole would be paying more to fund the arts, and the super-rich less. Is that fair? After all, large swathes of the British public don't actually go to the ballet, or the theatre or an art gallery, but wealthy arts enthusiasts do so a great deal.

In the United States, a country Mr Hunt has cited as an exemplar for encouraging philanthropic behaviour, there are generous tax concessions to stimulate individual giving, meaning the rich pay more to play - and the poor less to watch them have fun.

The alternative is to accept that arts institutions will have a reduced income. But that is not without risk, given that the vast majority of philanthropic giving is allocated to the UK's major institutions such as the National Theatre, British Museum and the Tate Gallery.

How tax changes will work

  • From April 2013 there will be a limit on the amount of income tax relief individuals can claim
  • At the moment there is no limit
  • Although the donor does not personally profit from the arrangement, it means they are choosing where their money is spent
  • Cap will be set at £50,000 a year, or 25% of individual's income - whichever is greater

Over the past decade or so, they have all thrived through investment to become an important part of the country's domestic economy and international reputation. For example, both the British Museum and the Tate are in the top five tourist attractions, while the National Theatre has successful shows running in the West End and on Broadway. All of this activity generates commercial income on which tax is paid.

It is often the additional money given by philanthropists that allows these institutions to take a risk, to put on a show or to add a new facility. It is therefore quite possible that a less well-funded arts sector could end up costing the Treasury and the taxpayer a great deal more money than the small amount of extra revenue generated by changing the rules on charitable giving.

Jeremy Hunt's office would not comment, saying tax is a "Treasury matter".

Will Gompertz Article written by Will Gompertz Will Gompertz Arts editor

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  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    Notice how these 'charities' that the rich choose tend to be in entertainment areas enjoyed by the rich, ballet, art. Seriously why are people allowed to decide they are more deserving of their tax money than the NHS, the army, the elderly etc. Its an outrage that people are even complaining about this - pay your tax and shut up.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    We define our history by the style of the art of the time, so art has a big part to play in human existence. We define country, culture and historical moments with art.

    Art can be a great investment for many reasons, so is it really all as simple as saying people should donate their money for arts sake.

    So philanthropy may be not so much the driving force in art as you think.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    It's just plain wrong. If I gift £1m to a charity, the charity should receive £1m. Nothing to do with the Treasury at all. If I gift £1m to my brother, wife, or the homeless man in the street, then, maybe, the Treasury has a right to tax. The gov just wants a cut every time money changes hands, and sometimes it's money that's already been taxed once or twice. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    What will happen?

    Well I'll tell you what: The wealthy West End set who are the majority that attend such events will have to start paying full price for their tickets. The rest of the population, who probably cannot even afford to get themselves to London, will not notice a damned thing.

    That's what will happen.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    I have absolutely no problem with the rich funding the Arts through the tax relief system. The important thing is that the Arts survive and flourish.

    My problem is that they use their tricksy accountants to find so many other loopholes and offshore wriggle-outs to avoid paying their due share of tax in the first place.

    What do they find so hard about paying a just share of the tax burden?

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    An evening out in the west end is beyond most peoples mean's, so it won't affect Joe public that much. For many (the ones who will probably disagree with me) austerity is still only something they read about in the news.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    The calculations in the article are not necessarily correct, they don't take account of the '25% of ones income' allowance before the new rule kicks in

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    " You're beginning to feel uncomfortably well off: it's time to share your good fortune." Ha ha ha ha... best laugh of the week. If only the rich did feel uncomfortable... Philanthropy is pretty much dead in a traditional sense - what we have now is a few rich buggers spreading a few crumbs in the hope of a title... Bah Humbug.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    I think this shows what a joke the current Government's taxes are

    The arts and all charities will suffer, as much as the grannyy's taxed to fund a 5% cut for those on a minimum of £3000 a WEEK, and the sad thing is they wont be able to afford a pasty for lunch soon, or get into a 'cheap' matinee peformance of a show 'touring the province's it seems also

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    They still get $50,000 tax relief so things aint too bad

    The treasury should get it's cut too though

    after all:

    We're all in this together! remember?

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    While it's all very sad that these fine charities may not get the monies they do under the current system, there needs to be a recognition that the donors are giving money away that shouldn't be theirs to give. Unless we can all choose to opt out of the tax system and decide to whom our dues are paid, then the rich shouldn't either. If they really want to donate they can do so after paying tax.


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