11th November 2019

As the general election in December approaches, the Charity Commission has recently published guidance for charities. This has been issued to remind charities of their responsibilities during an election period, and to inform them of previously published guidance to help with decision making regarding political activity. The principles described in CC9 continue to apply during an election period.

The key legal principles from the Commission’s guidance on political activity (CC9) that charities should remember are:

  • charities cannot have political purposes, and campaigning and political activity must only be undertaken by a charity in the context of supporting the delivery of their charitable purpose
  • in the political arena, a charity must stress its independence and ensure that any involvement it has with political parties is balanced; a charity must not give support or funding to a political party, candidate, or politician
  • a charity may give its support to or raise concerns about specific policies advocated by political parties if it would help achieve its charitable purposes as long as it makes clear its independence from any political party
  • trustees must protect their charity and not allow it to be used as a vehicle for the expression of the party-political views of any individual trustee or staff member or by a party or candidate

During an election cycle, the Commission has stated that “the need for impartiality and balance is intensified, and charities must take particular care when undertaking any activities in the political arena.” The point is also stressed that the Commission does not want to narrow the space in which charities can engage. This is due the history of charitable organisations participating in public debate from a variety of perspectives in order to give a voice to their beneficiaries and highlight their cause.

The recent guidance highlights six key issues that arose from charitable involvement in the 2017 general election (find here). In a report released by the Commission following the vote, it stated that they dealt with 41 cases relating to campaigning and political activity by charities during this time; these cases dealt with concerns relating to all the main political parties. The report does not cover all electoral laws, as those are enforced by the Electoral Commission. It defines the terms:

  • Political activity to refer to any activity taken by a charity that aims to secure or oppose a change in the law or in the policy or decisions of central government, local authorities, or other public bodies (whether in this country or abroad)
  • Campaigning to refer to a charity raising awareness and undertaking efforts to educate or involve the public by mobilising their support on a particular issue, or to influence or change public attitudes

The key issues highlighted were:

Visits to charities by prospective parliamentary candidates

It is often the case that parliamentary candidates will visit a charity during their election campaign, and it was an issue that was flagged up as part of the Commission’s report. While it is okay for a charity to allow these visits, it risks being seen as endorsing that particular candidate and their party. As such, trustees should be aware of these risks in order to maintain party political neutrality by being able to justify why the visit took place, how it furthered the charity’s purposes, and how they ensured it did not result in any perceived endorsement.

If a candidate wishes to use the facilities within a charity’s premises (such as a community centre) for a public meeting, it should be treated as a commercial hire, and rented out at a rate decided for by the trustees. It is also within a charity’s rights to refuse to hire out its facilities to a prospective candidate or party if they have good reason to believe this might alienate their supporters, service users, or beneficiaries.

Publishing educational material with political commentary and analysis

It was noted that a number of ‘think tanks’ and similar charities with educational purposes had either criticised or endorsed a particular political party or its policies; the nature of these charities makes them more likely to offer commentary on such issues, and therefore they risk being seen as politically partisan.

Guidance offered by the Commission states that charities should take extra care to ensure that they minimise the risk of their materials being publicly perceived as containing political bias, such as through using neutral language.

Providing explicit support for candidates and political parties

Charities must not express any explicit partisan support, and must not assist any candidate with their campaign – financially or otherwise. This is because it could influence their donors or beneficiaries to vote for one party or the other, which charities absolutely must not do. Charities should only engage in political activity that furthers their charitable purpose, and cannot be party political or attempt to influence voter behaviour.

Use of charity material by candidates and political parties

A candidate or a political party is able to use a charity’s research or other materials to support their polices or campaigns with or without prior consent. This can lead to a perception by the public that the charity endorses that candidate and/or party. The Commission stated that it advised a charity that trustees should assess the reputational risk to their charities political independence, and consider how to deal with it.

Political activity by charity employees and trustees

According to the Commission, “candidates who run for election often have close ties to the community” and therefore they may have current or previous involvement with local charities. While both trustees and charity employees are able to run as political candidates, this may cause the public to perceive that the charity is supporting or endorsing a certain political party. As such, trustees need to consider the potential conflicts of interest and reputational risk to the charity, and candidates who are running should explicitly state that they are acting as a parliamentary candidate and not on behalf of the charity.

For employees who are politically active, charities should consider implementing policy on how to protect their independence. This includes adopting formal rules and setting up a social media policy.

Links with non-charitable organisations

Issues were observed surrounding charities who have links to non-charitable organisations. In their guidance, the Commission states that the charity and its trustees must take steps to ensure that they do not mislead the public over the activities of the charity and non-charitable organisation, especially when these are linked to political activity. By being clear about the separation and taking into account any risks involved, the charity is minimising damage to its reputation.

If you would like further information surrounding guidance for charities about campaigning and political activity, read the full CC9 report here. This article featured in our October Charity Bulletin. If you would like to see the full Bulletin, click here.

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