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Helping ourselves

People in Britain are 24 per cent more likely to help a stranger than the average inhabitant of world's other leading industrial countries.

According to a study by the Organi sation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), volunteering is also on the increase in the UK, with results showing that Britain has emerged from the 2008 recession with some of the strongest social bonds in the developed world.

94 per cent of British people (who were surveyed as part of a global poll) said they knew someone on whom they could rely in a time of need. That puts Britain seventh out of 36 of the world's leading countries on the OECD's 'community' measure.

The figures are contained in the latest edition of the organisation's Better Life Index, which measures factors that contribute to happiness across the world's most economically advanced countries. Surpringly perhaps, indications are that, in contrast to many other leading countries (particularly those most badly affected by the crisis with the Euro currency), Britons have emerged from the long economic downturn happier and even with greater trust in government than before it.

On one key measure of social involvement, the study found that 61 per cent of Britons had helped someone they did not know in the previous month, compared with an average of 49 per cent across the OECD as a whole.

The current figure is not only a few points higher than before the outbreak of the financial crisis but represents a recovery from two years ago when it had slipped lower.

Ireland leads the way for altruism, with more than 64 per cent of people regularly helping strangers, according to the most recent figures.

Meanwhile just over 29 per cent of British people take part in volunteering, an increase of more than a quarter since 2007.

Most European countries, the UK included, still lag some way behind the US, where 45 per cent volunteer in some form.

Peter Maple, the director of charity fundraising courses at London South Bank University, said the apparent rise in altruism is likely to be the legacy of the downturn rather than the fruit of recovery.

'Are we becoming nicer? The jury is still out on that one,' he says. 'But I would say that because of the feeling of being under pressure, people are more prepared to go the extra mile.'

He added: 'It doesn't surprise me. While we are seeing that economically there are some green shoots of recovery, if you ask the average person in the street they don't feel better off than last year. Whatever the economic indicators are, people aren't necessarily feeling better off at the moment, I would say that we are still feeling under threat and that would tally with people being more prepared to help one another.

'One thing which has been trending up a little bit is participation in giving. If people feel that the state is reining in he help it provides, people are prepared to step up to the mark - whether that is helping a stranger or giving money, I would say that fits with my observations in terms of the motivation for giving. Clearly that is a reflection on how people are feeling at this particular time.'

Other factors unearthed by the study suggest all many not be so rosy, however. The OECD acknowledged that income inequality increased by more than average in the UK between 2007 and 2011. It also suggested that the UK still has work to do in closing the gender gap: British women are still less likely than men to have a paid job or be elected to parliament and more likely to spend many hours performing household tasks.