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British prime minister David Cameron urges citizens to volunteer – just like him

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(Read caption) Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron makes a 'Big Society' speech May 23, 2011. Part of the initiative is a push to increase private philanthropy and community service.

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British Prime Minister David Cameron may be known at the moment as Barack Obama's latest new best friend. But on Monday, just before the American president and his wife drew all the news media's attention, Mr. Cameron made a plea for more community service and charitable giving in Britain.

Cameron, it turns out, volunteers his own time for charitable work. He expects cabinet members to do the same. And now he's proposing some ways government can better encourage private efforts to help the disadvantaged.

It's all part of a vision of a "Big Society" that Mr. Cameron, a Conservative, has brought with him to his office. It aims to "recognize that we can all do more to build a bigger, stronger society,” he said in a televised interview Monday. “It's not simply encouraging more volunteering, or simply encouraging more philanthropic giving, it’s also about trying to give people the ability to do more if they want to.”

A government white paper released Monday, called "Giving," sets out a number of ideas on how to encourage private philanthropy. Among them: allowing people to make small donations as they visit their ATM for cash and reducing the inheritance tax to 36 percent for those who leave 10 percent or more of their estate to charity.

Although Britain has a strong tradition of philanthropy, "levels of giving have flat-lined in recent years," the paper says. "So we want to empower and encourage more people to get involved ... we want to work with partners to make giving as easy as possible, make giving as compelling as possible, and give better support to those that provide and manage opportunities to give – be they charities, community groups, or others."

The government also plans to experiment with allowing charitable advertising on its websites and has asked for public feedback at

Cameron himself has volunteered to tutor young people in job-interviewing skills for the group Street League, which uses youths' interest in soccer to promote education and job training.

Members of Cameron’s cabinet also must take at least one day of a year to do volunteer work (website requires free registration).

Cameron's Big Society concept has met with indifference, skepticism, and even scorn. Critics have derided the charity initiative, calling it at best a distraction from hurtful budget cuts being undertaken by the government. A columnist at The Guardian calls the plan nothing more than dangling "a shriveled carrot."

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"Rather than promoting charity to support 'vulnerable communities,' the government could just stop cutting funding and services to vulnerable communities," Richard Seymour says. "Rather than encouraging philanthropy on the part of the rich, the government could just collect taxes."

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