Thursday, 30 December 2010

This is for charity

Quick to capitalise on festive cheer and generosity, the government yesterday published a green paper discussing how their pet-project of a ‘Big Society’ can be supported, financially and otherwise, by everybody other than the government itself.

In a wide-ranging discussion, the green paper proposes ways in which individuals might give time to volunteering after they’ve finished the 1652 hours of work the average Briton annually undertakes, a figure 300 hours higher than is found in Germany, France, Sweden and a host of other nations that rank consistently above our little island in indexes evaluating quality of life.

Aside from the giving of time, the green paper also looks, inevitably, at how people can be encouraged to give more of their money to charities, the suggestion being that these private-sector companies need more revenue to help running services and protecting the socially marginalised, a responsibility that – puzzlingly – has always in the past been the very thing a government was mandated and funded to perform. Having raised capital gains tax, resolved to take 20% of VAT from the value of almost every purchase conducted in the UK, and decided that the treasury is in such fine shape that Vodafone could be excused a £5.2bn slice of its tax bill, it is mysterious that the government would now look to the apparently hard-up individual member of society to start making donations, additional to their taxes, in order to pay for the welfare state.

Ways in which this could be done are believed to include charitable donations appearing as options on cash machines, whilst the government has also identified that, as things stand, only 9% of the value of UK legacies are left to charities after people die, with 91% of the value being bequeathed, bizarrely enough, to family and friends. The green paper is quick to note that this leaves great potential for increased revenue.

On other points, the government seems quieter. The paper overlooks the nature of current donations, with almost three-quarters of the total value being given to medical research (32%), overseas aid (24%) and animal welfare (14%). In recognition of the slim overlap between these causes and the remit of the welfare state, it would appear that ‘Big Society’ depends on people donating not only more money, but also to charities most likely to plug the holes in the state, rather than those they have traditionally supported. None of this should be taken as a defence of central government over local, grassroots action, however, it does raise the question of whether the taxpayer achieves value for money from its rather expensive central government.

Another point scarcely touched-upon in the report is that the UK already gives a relatively high percentage of its income to charity. At 0.73% of GDP (approximately £10.6bn), UK giving is the second-highest rate amongst the developed world, behind only the USA on 1.7%. The size of the UK figure must be weighed against the fact that we pay significantly less tax than our European neighbours, but nevertheless, in 2005 Germany gave 0.22% and the French gave 0.14%. Up in Scandinavia, Sweden, Norway, Finland and Denmark donate still less than 0.14% of GDP to charity, and yet still manage to wipe the floor with the UK on all indexes of social health. Indeed, amongst a host of Scandinavian social accolades, you can typically expect to find the average UK citizen less happy, less ‘satisfied with life’, and less likely to have received a high level of education. Enough about what we have less of however, the average UK citizen can expect an awful lot more in the way of mental health problems, discrimination in the workplace, and that lovely thing called poverty.

Charity… a symptom of the disease, somehow mistaken for its remedy.

Monday, 6 December 2010

We are London

With students set to take to the streets in protest again this week, the sports manufacturer, Adidas, is offering a glimmer of hope for the future of London’s youth, and providing them with the support needed in such troubled times as ours. ‘We are London’ is the title of the brand’s new campaign, an effort to recognise the efforts of a generation that is “going places and making its own luck”, qualities that will be of increasing use in a generation widely perceived to be going nowhere and in need of an awful lot of luck just to get a half-decent job.

As university education and graduate jobs recede into the realm of pipe dreams, Adidas have proposed that youths instead stand-around on London’s railway bridges and benches, stuffing their hands into the pockets of any garment of Adidas clothing they can come by. Pastimes once vilified by the mainstream media and criminalised by a decade of anti-social behaviour orders, Adidas propose that sitting about with seemingly nothing to do might henceforth be regarded instead as an act of empowerment and urban belonging.

Whether or not the ruse works remains to be seen, and indeed statistics show no strong correlations between Adidas and social success. Wider society might also feel concerned at what will happen when the next generation of Londoners are not all of them able to make a success of themselves as hip-hop acts, and are forced to take-up jobs at Tesco. Tesco have recently threatened to create 10,000 new jobs in 2011… a proposition that begs the question of just who the unlucky 10,000 will be.

Regardless of all this, “We are London” certainly seems to have struck a chord with its target audience. The campaign’s Facebook group is already “liked” by approximately 6,300,000 people, a figure rising at a rate of about seven every three seconds and soon to eclipse the 6,800,000 “likes” that the Liberal Democrats polled at the last election. It being safe to assume that the Liberal Democrats are now considerably less popular than they were on election day, we can anticipate “We are London” superseding Clegg et al. in popularity come the end of the week, and taking the mantle of third-party should a snap-election be called imminently.

Meanwhile in Westminster, where the average MP remains fifty-years-old, our 650 elected representatives are angry at having spent only £3.1million of taxpayers money in the four months following the election. The figure compares unfavourably with £96million in the entirety of last year, and breaks-down to only £5,000 of expenses each during the four month period, on top of a £65,000p/a minimum salary. MPs have set-about bemoaning the complexity of the new scheme to monitor expenses spending, with some claiming to have been left “out of pocket”. Never prepared to stand idly by as the nation is threatened by inefficiencies of any sort, MPs have given a four month notice period to the independent body responsible for overseeing expenses, demanding that it become "more effective and more efficient”.

We await news of whether four months will become the statutory waiting period for ills effecting the remainder of the population to be put-right.

Saturday, 4 December 2010

Happy Anniversary

Well... this very time a year ago I was riding east with about seventy-something miles to go to Rouen, my Rohloff stuck in its tenth gear, myself freezing cold and sleep deprived. It's strange to think that a year has passed, the 4th of each month has had a certain poignance ever since returning, I feel happy that I'm no longer so painfully aware as I once was that another month has crept by.

The world around seems to go on changing in the minutest of ways, ways that will only ever seem significant for the shortest imaginable periods of time. Sky News was this week screening high-definition images from a helicopter hovering in a snowstorm... that's right... a snowstorm in high definition... such progress would have been all-but inconceivable a year ago.

To recognise the anniversary I'm putting-up a recording of a talk that I gave last month at the University of Sussex. The talk forms a brief glance at the world of London that I left and returned to, and also aims to provide a political discussion of the nations and regions that I travelled through. Some of the above photos I have uploaded to previous posts, however, I am including them again as they were featured on a slide show during the talk.

I continue to write my book, and feel that things are progressing favourably with it. I'm arranging an exhibition of photography and writing that will appear in the cycling stronghold that is the Look Mum No Hands cafe in Clerkenwell, London. The exhibit will be up for two weeks or so from a launch on the evening of January 6th... more details closer the time, but needless to say that one and all will be welcome. The exhibit will be accompanied by a small publication of words and photos, a light-touch endeavour to chronicle the episodes of my trip as they appear to me now with the passing of time. Copies of the collection will be on-show in the cafe, and will soon be available online through Blurb publishing. A larger collection of photography is a plan I have for some way down the line, all depending on the reception this first offering receives.

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