There was nothing Gordon Brown liked better than to stick some irritating policy change onto one of the spending departments. It demonstrated that the Treasury was in charge, just in case any of the other ministers forgot it. His Budgets were frequently awful, and it often took several weeks of picking through the gory details before it became obvious just how bad they were. Watching them unravel from across the floor of the House, you might have expected George Osborne to have learnt how not to do it.
The Budget should set the financial and tax framework for the coming financial year. It helps to remember that the state currently spends about £2 billion a day every day, including Sundays and Bank Holidays, so that a £1 billion measure changes the annual total by less than 0.2%. Any measure worth less than £500 million is effectively a rounding error.
So: the pasty tax (including VAT on rented hairdressers’ chairs) is expected to raise £115 million, closing the stamp duty loophole £65 million, while the cut in income tax to 45% will cost £100 million. Pointless, or what? The only contentious measure that (almost) registers on the spending scales is the 25% of income cap on tax reliefs, raising £490 million in its first year, falling to £240 million thereafter, presumably because the Treasury expects people to find ways round it.
This is even more pointless than the pasty fight. Nobody really knows how much charities depend on a few big donors, but this rule is the charge of the financial light brigade into the massed guns of the charity sector, the universities and the Conservative heartland. It’s hardly the natural constituency of Dame “Suzi” Leather, the social crusader who chairs the Charity Commission, but this is such a self-evidently stupid measure that even she can make common cause with her political enemies.
If the wealthy prefer to give their income to charity rather than have half of it extracted by the taxman, then that is surely their affair. We all feel slightly smug about charitable giving; the wealthy will feel smugger, but even the most pampered charity (and there are a few) will spend the money more efficiently than the state can. If some of the 162,136 registered UK charities are a sham (and there are a few) then Suzi should get on the case and root them out, rather than declaring war on the public schools. The chancellor, meanwhile, might stick to the big picture. We barely survived a decade of Brown’s compulsive fiddling syndrome. It would be disastrous if Osborne is catching the same disease.