Brendan O'Connor: Taxes, not charity, should help fund the vulnerable
The salary top-up story highlights the strange intersection between the State and charity in Ireland, writes Brendan O'Connor
Published 24/11/2013 | 01:00
THE big talking point for everyone last week was undoubtedly the earnings of hospital and charity senior management. Inevitably it focused a lot on Rhona Mahony, the Master of Holles Street. She is a woman, she is young, she is photogenic, she is outspoken, she is stylish and she is out there. She fascinates people, for better or worse. Even when it emerged that what was previously incorrectly assumed to be a top-up to Rhona's salary from the car park or the cafe was actually her legitimate earnings from delivering babies, the discussion continued as to whether she was worth it or not. The knee-jerk reaction was that no one is worth nearly 300 grand a year, with some considering that if you could be making nearly as much without taking on the responsibility of running a hospital, strategically and operationally, down to being on call most of the time, that if you spent a huge part of your adult life studying and training, and that if your tenure was for a limited time, then maybe you need to be well paid.
Mahony's specific situation, which was different, aside, what everyone did agree on was that hospital and charity bosses being paid top-ups out of private funds and out of shops and car parks was not right. The issue has upset many fundraisers and charities and even the poor celebs who raise money for charity. You can understand why the celebs and the fundraisers are upset – they are now wondering where the money they helped raise in good faith went. The reason charities are upset is because they feel this story will impact on their fundraising during the crucial Christmas period, which is traditionally a bonanza for Irish charities. Irish charities are more reliant than ever on the Christmas period because donations have, understandably, fallen off a cliff in the last few years.
People like to get a warm, fuzzy glow when they give money to Irish domestic charities. They want to think about the children they are helping, about conditions in the wards of children's hospitals getting better, about toys being bought, about a new machine being procured for sick kids, about trips to Barretstown, about respite for carers. People do not get a warm, fuzzy glow at the idea that their donations are going to top up the already healthy salary of a hospital or charity senior manager.
Jonathan Irwin displayed his customary righteous eloquence in the Mail on Thursday. Irwin is the head of the Jack and Jill Foundation, which does amazing work in helping to look after seriously ill and disabled kids, and in giving their families a break from the 24/7 care such kids can require. As a self-confessed "broken-down horse dealer looking after babies when the HSE is one of the best funded health agencies in Europe", Irwin is paid 90 grand a year. He says that the top-up story is "detrimental to all of us [charities]. We all get tarred with the same brush here. It's absolutely nightmarish for us ... " Indeed, not only are people possibly feeling different about giving to charity this Christmas, they are feeling a bit off about using hospital shops as well.
But then, all this story really does is shine a light on the strange intersection between the State and charity in this country. As Jonathan Irwin points out, many charities are simply arms of the HSE. And most domestic Irish charities are performing functions that should be performed by the HSE, like Jack and Jill.
But there is a somewhat weird funding model at work here. I remember meeting a PR woman who had just started working in Ireland. She was amazed that many of the jobs she had done thus far involved fundraising for things that she was used to being paid for by the government. She couldn't understand that we paid all these mammoth taxes in Ireland and then we also gave more money to charities to perform some of the functions of the State.
When you think about it like that, it does seem like an odd hybrid. We are a functioning country with a huge public sector, a country where we pay up to 55 per cent tax before we even start earning the average industrial wage, yet the State apparently cannot afford to build or maintain children's hospitals without charity fundraising kicking in too. We are still a relatively wealthy country, but it is left up to charities to feed the poor and look after the disabled. We all pay high taxes that we should be able to assume mean we can look after the most vulnerable in our society, yet they are all too often just disregarded as charity cases.
It is a strange blurred line we have in our society, where some people have rights and other people are charity cases who rely on the kindness of strangers. It also blurs our lines on paying taxes, which we have no choice about and no say in where the money goes, and then making donations, which we have a choice about, where we can dictate roughly where the money goes, and where we get to feel good about ourselves. The latter is obviously far preferable. And hence the outrage about the top-ups last week. People felt that the choice they have in fundraising was taken from them, that their money was possibly being used as tax.
My old sparring partner Niall Crowley, former head of the Equality Authority, had an interesting piece about this blurring in the Irish Times on Wednesday. He was talking about the One Percent Difference campaign, which encourages us all to give one per cent of our money or time to good causes. This campaign focuses on the contrast in the two methods of funding the less fortunate. Crowley quotes their video: "The Govern-ment decided where your taxes go. This is yours."
Crowley points out that the Department of the Environment will give €2.5m to fund the One Percent Difference campaign over the next two years while shrinking its own funding to good causes. So it would seem that the Government is trying to encourage us all to take over even more of its remit, to make more vulnerable people dependent on charity. It's a kind of an outsourcing, you could say. Crowley calls it privatisation.
He wonders if the One Percent Difference campaign wouldn't serve us all better by promoting a culture that is better disposed to paying tax. He mentions the current proposal that tax exiles be sold an extra day in Ireland for every €36,500 they give to charities. It makes you think. Why do those guys get to have the fuzzy, good feeling while the rest of us just have to hand over our taxes?
I would like to dictate where my taxes go. Specifically I have a nice
idea that we should build music rooms for kids with intellectual, physical and sensory disabilities. I think it would change people's lives in a very real way, and it would certainly give me a nice fuzzy glow and make me feel good about myself.
Unfortunately I don't have the option to trade taxation for doing good. So it's boring old taxes for me right now. And meanwhile I'll just have to hope the Government starts building these music rooms with my money, or else I'll have to wait until someone who has the time takes pity enough to build the rooms, and then I can support that. That latter route will make of the kids in question what we like them to be, what Crowley calls "supplicants, at the mercy of good works". The fuzzy feeling on our end only happens if you create supplicants at the other end of the transaction.
As long as we believe that some people deserve our taxes and some people should stay at the mercy of good works, we will always have a deficit in this republic in our attitude to paying taxes. As long as hospitals are not fully paid for by the Government and topped up by people's charity, we will always have huge areas of neglect among the vulnerable. And the people who can will always choose the fuzzy glow. And some things give you a fuzzier glow than others.