Anthony Hilton: Why are Britain's luckiest people such skinflints?
It is not the problems that upset customers, it is the way they are handled
Saturday 29 September 2012
Monday in Aberdeen for the opening by the Queen of the Sir Duncan Rice university library, a spectacular building named after the former vice-chancellor of the university (whose wife, Susan, is incidentally a member of the Court of the Bank of England and one of the highest-ranking women in British banking).
It was a fitting tribute. Sir Duncan was probably the first head of a British university to understand how these institutions were going to have to stand on their own financial feet if they were to continue to be centres of academic excellence. He launched the Sixth Century Appeal, when the university marked its 500-year anniversary in 1997. Its £150m fundraising target was at the time the largest attempted by a university other than Oxford or Cambridge.
The campaign has not only funded the library and world-beating medical research centre, but also enabled this relatively remote outpost of learning to become a magnet for many of the world's top researchers and students.
But it is tough raising money. Michael Portillo said recently that when Margaret Thatcher slashed the top rate of income tax she believed that the well-off would respond by upping their philanthropic giving, as they do in the United States. It has not happened.
According to a report by The Economist, 69 of America's billionaires have promised to give away at least half of their fortunes by signing the Giving Pledge championed by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett. There were only 174 charitable donations of over £1m in the UK in 2010.
There is an effort under way in the City, promoted by people such as Paul Myners, to encourage people to commit to give 10 per cent of their estate to charity. Anecdotally progress is said to be slow.
In a speech this year Sir Howard Davies, a former director of the London School of Economics, said that total charitable giving in the UK is estimated at £11bn a year. The amount has barely increased over the past five years. Fifty-eight per cent of the population give something, but 40 per cent of those give, annually, less than £10, and only 7 per cent give over £100 a year. At the top end, when "high net worth individuals" were asked whether charity was a priority for them, 41 per cent of Americans, 30 per cent of Irish and 24 per cent of Swiss said yes, but only 18 per cent of the British respondents did.
Our fortunate citizens appear to feel much less obligation to share their good fortune than they do in the rest of the world. Pro rata, they give half as much as Americans do. So much for society stepping in to fill the gap left by government cuts.
Left stranded by easyJet's dreadful corporate culture
Tuesday I should have been on a platform with Vince Cable at the Lib Dem conference in Brighton, but instead spent the day stranded at Aberdeen airport, when the incoming easyJet flight which was supposed to take me to Gatwick diverted to Edinburgh because of bad weather.
The other airlines maintained a reasonable schedule; the few which could not land promptly booked passengers at their own expense on to alternative flights. But easyJet compensated for its four-hour delay by giving passengers £6 vouchers for the coffee shop.
Perhaps its chief executive, Caroline McCall, thinks her time is also worth only £1.50 an hour – it would certainly explain a lot about how the airline is run. It is not the problems which upset customers, it is the way a company handles those problems. Easyjet's way is indicative of a dreadful corporate culture.
It gets worse. The pilot of the plane which eventually collected us let the cat out of the bag. The initial problem was bad weather, he said, but then the earlier crew could not come to collect us because it would have pushed them over their permissible flying hours. But we were a 9.30am flight, so how could the crew already have done a full day? It sounds as if our crew were instructed to fulfil the later part of their schedule and easyJet decided simply to leave us stranded.
Why the aviation regulator, the CAA, allows such mistreatment of passengers is one of life's mysteries. Until easyJet and other airlines are forced to pay serious compensation for lateness, rather than £6 in vouchers, they will never improve.
Meanwhile, anyone thinking of going to London from Aberdeen should take the train. On Monday it would have been quicker, cheaper and more reliable, and it pays compensation when it's late.
Magnificent venues and an unexpected treat
Treat of the week was a fundraising reception on Wednesday in the official residence of the Foreign Secretary in Carlton Gardens, courtesy of William and Ffion Hague, and held on behalf of a brilliant arts organisation called Dance East. Sadly, it finds it even tougher than the university to raise funds.
The house is magnificent, and much more lavish inside than either the Chancellor's or the Prime Minister's in Downing Street. Number 11, in fact, always strikes me as fairly tatty, while going into Number 10 is like going into Dr Who's Tardis – it is vastly bigger than it looks from the outside.
But even the Foreign Secretary's house pales in comparison to the splendour of the Court Room of the Bank of England, where on Thursday Sir Mervyn King held a party to mark the return to America of the Monetary Policy Committee member Adam Posen. The Governor was fulsome in his praise; Mr Posen in response adapted and delivered a ditty from Gilbert & Sullivan's HMS Pinafore: "Now I'm a member of the MPC". Very funny, and not at all what you would expect from an American economist.
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