Leading Article: True public service means giving time as well as money

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
THE DECLINE in charitable giving, both of time and money, is not just a technical phenomenon, another pernicious side effect of the National Lottery - although it is that too. It goes to the soft centre of the Prime Minister's Third Way. Philanthropic donations and voluntary work are central to any meaningful notion of "community", as Tony Blair acknowledged yesterday. In a thoughtful speech to the National Council of Voluntary Organisations, he criticised the cynical view that the only thing that motivates people is the desire to acquire power, wealth and material possessions for themselves. "If everyone shared that first-past-the-post, me, my, mine philosophy, then there really would be no such thing as society." This is but the latest echo of one of Margaret Thatcher's most famous formulations. And yet the point she was trying to make in that famous Woman's Own interview was much closer to Mr Blair's thinking than either of them might admit, because the decline in the idea of community service goes rather deeper than the "me and mine" philosophy of the yuppie Eighties. It has also been undermined by the idea that many welfare functions are the responsibility of the state. Mrs Thatcher was railing against the idea that if people failed to bring up children properly or turned to crime, it was "all the fault of society". She was appealing, like Mr Blair, for a restoration of a sense of individual duty towards others.

Where this present Prime Minister has a potential advantage over his predecessor is that her philosophy, with its simplistic reliance on the notion that people pursue only their economic self-interest, offered no explanation as to why they should give money away or work for free - "no such thing as altruism", as she might have said.

Mr Blair, on the other hand, has always espoused a political vision which recognises that people fulfil themselves in their relations with others, and that individual success is unsatisfying unless it is accompanied by a sense of belonging to a successful community.

However, the trend away from charitable giving and voluntary work is not going to be reversed unless the Government changes the incentives that influence human behaviour, and tries to change our national culture. That means American-style tax breaks for charitable giving - to accompany the overhaul of the legal definition of charitable objects that is currently under way. And it means changes in the tax system, beyond the current give-as-you-earn and bequest schemes, to encourage people to devote more time to voluntary work and public service. Employers should have more incentives to employ more people, more part-time and flexible workers, rather than simply to work existing staff for longer hours.

These incentives should both encourage and reinforce cultural changes, in which both the Government and the NCVO should take leading roles. We need to get away from a situation in which it is easier to raise money for guide dogs for the blind than it is to raise money to help blind people more generally. This reflects the fundraiser's dilemma, which is that it is always easier to raise money for specific causes that make a measurable, short-term difference. That again, of course, reflects too narrow a view of charity, as an obligation that is discharged simply by giving money. The Prime Minister was right yesterday to call for a broader notion of public service, which involves giving time as well as money. "A fully employed society," he said, "is one where everyone contributes all their talents through the things they do - paid or unpaid - in the service of others. A society in which, when people ask you, `What do you do?', it's not just your job that you mention."

It is a fine ideal, a fitting softening of the stridency of "no such thing as society". But it will require consistent action from the Government to turn it into reality.

Comments