Archive for December 2010

Charity begins at…? Part 1

We all know that Christmas is traditionally the season of giving, even if it is only presents to loved ones. The problem is that it would appear that the Government also knows this and has, via Francis Maude and Anne Milton, floated ideas to do what it does best: give away what belongs to other people.

For the sake of length I’ll address these two separate but related issues in two posts beginning with Francis Maude.

On the Wednesday just gone a Green Paper published on behalf of Maude, the Cabinet Office minister, proposed “a new role for government as a facilitator of giving, making it easier for philanthropists, volunteers and charities to form partnerships”. Something tells me that those charities which are still charities (and not simply an extension of the state) don’t really need the dead hand of central government adding an extra layer of management and complexity to their organisations.

The first part of the paper talks about how we can be encouraged to part with our time and money:

Business can offer valuable support by, for example, encouraging employees to give time and money, introducing payroll giving, making company resources available to community groups, and helping employees learn how to get involved in social action.

Oh great, yet more potential for top slicing my salary. What if I don’t want to give that month? Or if I want to give money to a different cause? Can’t imagine that HR of a small, let alone a large, company will be to happy keeping track of what and how much is supposed to be going to whom across every employee on a monthly basis. This will quickly get boiled down to something to make their lives easier: a fixed percentage to one of a small number of organisations on for a fixed period (say 6 or 12 months) with no way to opt out until that period is over. Thanks, but no thanks. If I want to donate it’ll be from my own pocket as and when I want to and to whomever I wish.

The Pennies Foundation has developed marginal giving technology that allows customers to ’round up the pound’ and so give small amounts every time they make a payment with a debit or credit card.

Are sales assistants going to be trained to ask you to do this in the same way they ask about your store card? This will result in the length of time it takes to extract money from the customer increasing, more staff being required to maintain throughput and thus fixed costs go up. Which charity is the money going to go to? Do we get to chose and let our bank know or is it going to be the charity that the business you are patronising chooses? If the latter then stores will have to let their customers know and staff will no doubt be asked at the checkout – this slowing things down further.

The Colombian system of ATM giving allows customers to make a donation every time they withdraw money.

Yet another screen to read when withdrawing money? All people want to do is get their hard earned cash, not be made to feel guilty for hitting the ‘No’ button. And the same problem as described above applies.

Online donation agencies like justgiving and virginmoneygiving have made it easier both for people to raise money and for people to give.

Applications and websites, such as the forthcoming Givey, allow donors to give time or money while they’re on the move using mobile phones or portable computers.

Internet platforms like match organisations with people who want to ‘micro-volunteer’ or donate short periods of time.

All of these have something thing in common – they were developed without interference from government. It is business and charities adapting to the changing environment around them and simply getting on with things without needing Nanny to tell them how. The later however is a example of a nice idea not initially working in the market place, an ensuing spat between creator and money men over ownership and resurrection before being given taxpayers money and eventually completely selling out to the public sector.

And all that is just for those who have money, no matter how little. The paper does however suggest offering tax relief to those who do decide to give money. If you are too young to have money though, fear not, you will targeted in other ways:

National Citizen Service will open up a host of new opportunities for 16 year-olds to give time. It will play an important role both in building social cohesion by creating new connections between young people, and in demonstrating the benefits of social action to them.

Or they could go out and get a (Saturday) job like my generation and those before mine did. If a 16 year-old wants to volunteer they will but having some well meaning adult telling them to do so will do down like a lead balloon at an age where children barely listen to their own parents.

They are also looking to “fund a programme for younger school children to find out about giving and establish a social norm at an early stage of life”. Or, in other words, getting them whilst they are too young to know any better.

Even death should not be a reason not to give. One of the many quotes scattered amongst the document informs us that only 9% of the total value of legacies goes to charity, the rest being spread amongst family and friends. Quelle horreur! I take it that the people behind this have never seen the result of leaving one’s entire estate to charity? Locusts are known to leave more behind than a charity performing a house clearance. Be sensible, suggest a collection be taken up on behalf of your favourite charity instead of flowers and make sure that money is given to the local branch rather than the central hub.

Fresh from telling us how to, the paper moves on to telling us where we can give to and here, once again, we find that the state already has its tentacles buried inside the so-called ‘third-sector’ having taken the previously independent UK Community Foundations, brought them into Orwellian sounding ‘Office of the Third Sector’ and supplied them with a generous amount of taxpayer money (£130 million). This is as well as having them involved in distributing money collected via the National Lottery.

Not yet content, we are informed that starting in Match 2011, the taxpayer will be “investing in the front line Volunteer Infrastructure Programme in order to provide the public with information on local volunteering opportunities and to provide support to organisations that manage volunteers”. Why pray tell? Has it been impossible up to now for individuals to find causes they they wish to assist? Has every organisation been incompetently run?

No proposal would, of course, be down with the kids unless it could be linked to the media, both new and old. Reflecting the current way of the world Facebook and Twitter get an obligatory mention as does C4s Secret Millionaire and the charity marathons hosted by our state media machine.

To be fair it does say that not all giving should not be selfless however and that large donations, be it in time or money, should be recognised. I’m not sure though that ideas such as

thank you letters from Ministers; a national day to celebrate donors; a televised weekly ‘thank you’ to national lottery winners who have donated;

will induce anything other than mass vomiting however.

Never fear though, the government is leading by example…

Government has the opportunity to encourage its employees to lead by example, and in so doing help build new social norms. Plans are already underway to develop a ‘civic service’, whereby civil servants are encouraged to contribute to their communities.

What joy, more attempts by government to produce the ideal prole but this time they are using peer pressure to back up their desires. It isn’t content to stick with just encouraging those on the payroll to give of their time though:

For instance, the Department of Health provided £5,000 to Southwark Voluntary Action (the Council for Voluntary Service local to one of the Department’s office buildings) to compile a directory of local community venues that could be used for external meetings and events. This has multiple benefits of increasing links with local community groups, reducing public spend on venue hire and pumping more public money into the local community.

Yep, it is that old favourite of using your money as well on something that should be done by the market… and if it isn’t done by the market then the need for it doesn’t exist or the savings in time and money are insignificant.

Early on, the paper tells us that the main lesson that government can draw from the past is to acknowledge its limits. A pity then that it decided to get involved as it seems to ignore that salutatory point as the paper goes on and in the end it just seems like the paper is all about the government actions in effectively nationalising the entire charitable sector – for our own good. Given the success of the state in other fields such a move would spell disaster.

Disclaimer: The author donates money to two charities – the RNLI and the Royal British Legion. She would consider giving her time to local organisations but doesn’t have any spare Monday to Friday and likes to spend the weekend doing her own thing. You can, if you so wish, consider the Sunday afternoons spent scoring for a local cricket club, producing the statistics and maintaining their website – all without any pay (unless you count beer) – as giving time to charity.


Never heard of them until today? OK, maybe you have if you have small children. But why have they suddenly made headlines? Because they have had their government funding removed and they – and their supporters including the bandwagon jumping leader of the Labour party – are complaining.

What are they all about then?

For starters they refer to themselves as a ‘national independent charity’. This could be said to be slightly disingenuous as it is the parent organisation – Booktrust – that is the registered charity (since 1963-07-01). Bookstart didn’t come about until 1992 when research commissioned by Booktrust found that children whose family had started them reading before they went to school did better. Yes, this sounds like a case of the bleeding obvious to me as well.

As obvious as it may seem, they still managed to persuade Sainsbury’s to give them money and eventually this brought them fame and fortune. Or, at least, the attentions of our unlamented former PM but Chancellor at the time Gordon Brown. In 2004 he decided to throw taxpayers money at the scheme in order to give ‘free’ books to children under the age of four. It was at this point that we can safely say that Booktrust stopped being a charity and became what is known as a fake-charity – or government quango.

Indeed their 2009 accounts show that the three programs they fund were granted almost £15 million from the taxpayer. This equates to over 95% of their income for that year. So what did we (the taxpayer) get for that money?

An awful lot of marketing material and self-promotion it seems.

  • 23,000 Best BookGuide to Picture Books were distributed in the Children’s Book Week packs to all primary schools, public libraries, school library services and teacher training institutions, plus 1,000 copies to independent bookshops;
  • 20,000 copies of the Rough Guide to Picture Books were distributed to Waterstone’s, and 70,000 copies to families with young children across the country, via Bookstart local coordinators;
  • The Big Picture Campaign was promoted at festivals including Edinburgh, Bath and Cheltenham;
  • The campaign raised the profile of illustrators, while promoting the art istic qualities and appeal of picture books to less confident parents.
  • We were pleased to receive continued DCSF funding for Everybody Writes, a partnership with the National Literacy Trust, and this year developed printed resources for primary and secondary schools with 8,000 brochures distributed. The website attracts on average 8,000 web hits per month.
  • Children’s Laureate Michael Rosen has been an excellent champion for children’s literature and the pleasures of reading. A 10th Anniversary event at the Festival Hall, attended by Michael and former laureates Quentin Blake, Michael Morpurgo, Anne Fine and Jacqueline Wilson, attracted several hundred children with their families.
  • Children’s Book Week 2008, launched by Michael Rosen and 200 children on the London Eye, followed by a writing event producing a giant poem “I spy with my little eye” was mentioned on BBC Newsround.
  • The 2008 Children’s Book Week resource pack, themed this year Rhythm and Rhyme, was sent to 23,000 primary schools, public and school libraries, and teacher training institutions.
  • The Booktrust school libraries leaflet continues to attract interest with 500 requests for extra copies.

There is something else, surely?

The Bookstart website tells us that ‘central funding from the taxpayer is only 25% of the retail cost of delivering Bookstart’ and that sponsors pick up the rest of the tab. It doesn’t, so far as I have been able to find, tell us who those sponsors are or how much they give but a crude extrapolation the 2009 accounts figure would suggest external funding to the tune of almost £45million. Not a small sum and one would hope that the ‘charity’ could – with some adjustments to its ambitions – cope on this alone. Or is it that the publishers of the books doled out via this program agreed to accept only 25% of the retail price as a gesture of goodwill? If so I’m sure the buyers at Amazon would like to hire the person who made that deal as even they haven’t managed to screw the publishers quite that much.

So what books do we get for that money? Those chosen by the ‘Bookstart book panel’ which is made up of book experts, librarians, health professionals and early years professionals. It doesn’t however name these kind professionals who I have no doubt have gone to great lengths to ensure that the nations children receive only the best.

The question though – and one I’m would guess that Michael Gove asked – is what is the point of this scheme? Those who want the best for their children taught them to read before it came along and will continue to do so after it disappears by making full use of the library service when the children were young and then buying them books or passing on items kept from their own childhoods as the get older. Those who don’t will leave it to the nursery or the school teachers who have for many years been the fall back for those parents who forgo their responsibilities.

I’m sure that it is the latter category that this scheme would have been after but if they weren’t going to teach their kids to read before hand, they certainly weren’t going to do so just because the state handed them some ‘free’ books. These are people who don’t see the point of formal education and until their minds change then this scheme, however noble in intention, is doomed to fail. Being a bookworm myself I applaud the sentiment behind it but I have no wish to see the taxpayer pick up the tab for a cause that should be funded through voluntary donations from corporations and philanthropists alone.

Dressing for Success

One of the main tenants of Libertarianism is property rights, simply put: your gaffe/body, your rules and my gaffe/body, my rules. Sounds simple but what happens when you are at your place of work? It is your employer’s place and thus their rules apply but what about when those apply to your body? Your employer (assuming that you aren’t a slave) doesn’t own your body and can’t tell you want to do with it, right?

In reality a compromise has to exist, with one of the areas in which your employer can commonly expect you to abrogate your right (which they make up for by paying you for your time) in favour of theirs being a dress code, such as a uniform for hospitality and housekeeping staff or the suit for the white collar worker in a client or customer facing role. The idea of course being to present the employees favourably to guests or customers in the hope of winning business or repeat custom.

But how far can the employer go in dictating what is, or isn’t, acceptable attire? Flesh-coloured underwear? Black, unpatterned socks? Skirts of at least knee length but no longer than 2″ below that? A limit to the amount of jewellery that either gender might wear? Only white blouses?

It might sound (with the exception of the jewellery) like you are back in school but these are items from the 44 page dress code that UBS has issued to employees in 5 of its Swiss branches and compliance with it is mandatory.

Unsurprisingly the document has been the subject of much mirth around the world since its publication.

How though is UBS going to enforce the less visible parts of the manual? Are they going to institute panty inspections to ensure the females haven’t gone for something in black, white or a more risqué colour? Whilst I’m sure they’d be able to find a queue of men around the block volunteering for job, the cost of the resulting claims would destroy their profit margin. What about the instructions on toenail length? I can’t see employees being asked to remove shoes, socks or hosiery whilst someone measures them. Or how about the instructions on how to care for your clothes? No, I can’t see any employee (except the very stupid) agreeing to have their boss over to check.

Expecting your employees to look smart is one thing, dictating down to the smallest detail whilst patently being unable to enforce it is ridiculous.

These Charmless Men

One of David Cameron’s few successes recently has been getting Johnny Marr and Morrissey to agree on something: namely that they dislike the fact that Cameron has previously expressed a liking for the music of the Smiths.

Marr went for the short approach via twitter:

“David Cameron, stop saying that you like The Smiths, no you don’t. I forbid you to like it.”

Oh diddums, someone you disagree with politically likes your music. Sorry Johnny but it isn’t up to you who likes you music. Once you create something and release it into the wild then all control over it is lost. What are you going to? Restrict sales to only people who vote the way you want them to do? What about those who who have already purchased it? Will you offer them refunds? No, didn’t think so. You’ve got yourself a Champagne Socialist lifestyle to fund so you wouldn’t in any way wish to restrict your ability to live in the matter to which you have become accustomed. Can I therefore suggest you stop being a hypocritical whiner and just smile ironically at the fact that someone who is everything that you despise apparently helped contribute to the life you have today.

Morrissey’s response though was less direct, being a 1,224 word rant in which he felt the need to widen his attack on Cameron to include any supporters of hunting and indeed anyone who doesn’t think that being a vegetarian is the way forward… which would be most of us.

“It is true that music is a universal language – the ONLY universal language, and belongs to all, one way or another.”

Music is a language to be sure, but a universal one? Not a hope. If you want to find a true universal language, might I suggest Mathematics?

“However, with fitting grimness I must report that David Cameron hunts and shoots and kills stags – apparently for pleasure. It was not for such people that either “Meat is Murder” or “The Queen is Dead” were recorded; in fact, they were made as a reaction against such violence.”

Just because that is what you intended, doesn’t mean that the listener will take them that way. As I said above, once you’ve relinquished control to the general public they will find their own meaning in it, their own interpretation and you cannot control that. If Cameron wishes to hunt and listen to your music that is his choice, not yours. Wanting to control other people’s actions makes you no better than any politician or bureaucrat who has ever lived. People make their own choices and whilst you may disagree with them, so long as no harm is done to your fellow man, you should not stop them.

“I apologize very deeply for my support over the years for the group Roxy Music. I had no idea until very recently that their singer Bryan Ferret is also an avid hunter, and is now managed by his Lord of the Hunt son, Odious Ferry.”

Translation: “Oh noes, I liked someone who has views I disagree with. Can you ever forgive me for not being the perfect being I portray myself as? Here, I’ll even ease the pain by gratuitously insulting his offspring.”

“Politically, I long for the day when it is finally acknowledged in the House of Lords that the indigestible business of the meat industry corrupts and destroys the planet more than any other profit organization. We continually hear of disappearing rainforests but the cause is never explained, for this would then force concerned world leaders to ‘cull’ meat production, and rather the world sizzle than it be admitted that the meat industry is the root of climate change.”

You are trying to link two different issues here. Much of the cause of the deforestation is illegal logging and crop growing – crops that are very much used in the production of biofuels. Can you spot the irony there? As for you claim about the meat industry, few even of your fellow AGW alarmists will hold to that assertion. Even the general public who accept the AGW idea laugh at you and your fellow militant tofu-eating clowns for that, preferring instead to eat their bacon sarnie.

In closing, can I suggest that the two of you grown up and stop being so bloody thin-skinned? It isn’t a crime to like someone’s music even if you dislike their lifestyle. I buy music because I like it, not because I agree with the artist political opinions – although in the case of the Smiths I’ll make an exception and confirm that I’ll never give you a single penny from my meagre pay packet. I’m sure that’ll make you happy because heaven knows you’re both miserable now.