Charities and a general election on the horizon
Charities have faced their fair share of uncertainty in the last few years, with the financial challenges of the last decade compounded by worries about the impact of leaving the EU. For some, it has never been a more difficult time to plan for the future. With a general election now scheduled for 12 December, the level of uncertainty and unpredictability for charities is reaching new peaks.
In the short term, in the run-up to an election, there are particular legal and regulatory issues that charities need to bear in mind. In previous elections (and indeed in relation to the referendum on leaving the EU back in 2016) we have seen charities inadvertently getting caught up in political campaigns in a way that damages their reputation and could result in them falling foul of the Commission’s guidelines about political activities. Now is therefore a good moment to remind charities of what is expected of them in terms of political engagement:
- Charities should remember that they are established for charitable purposes only, and that a purpose that is political cannot be charitable. That is not to say that charities cannot speak out and campaign on issues that are also being debated in the political arena, but any charity involving itself with political campaigning or political activity should only do so if this is a means of furthering its charitable purposes. Charities need to ensure that their campaigning and advocacy work does not have a party-political component. This means they can neither support or oppose a political party, but they can support or oppose a policy that is relevant to their charitable aims.
- Maintaining independence is another key point to keep in mind. During an election period, charities must be independent from all political parties and remain politically neutral. This means charities need to make sure that they are seen to be independent of any political party, even if that party’s policies include issues where the charity is advocating the same message. In such situations. support can be given to policies advocated by political parties but only if it helps to achieve its charitable purposes, and so long as it does not (even inadvertently) encourage support for a political party.
- Charities must not donate funds to political parties and must also not assist candidates with their election campaigns, financially or otherwise. However, there are many other things they can do, while maintaining political neutral. For example. they can invite candidates to public meetings to discuss issues, or to speak at a reception or launch at the charity, although the Commission advise inviting representatives from a wide political spectrum, to ensure are not looking as though they are showing support for one political party. Charities can also approach candidates to express their concerns about an issue or host them at their premises, and of course some charities may be required by electoral law to make their premises available for public meetings in the run-up to an election.
- Although a charity has to be careful in terms of what it does during an election period, it must remember that its trustees, employees and members are free to have their own political views and interests outside of the charity. Having said that, individuals at a charity must be careful not to suggest that the charity endorses a candidate or party. Individuals are free to help a candidate in their personal capacity, but must not do so using their position at the charity. Employees should be encouraged to declare any personal involvement with a political party (if they are a candidate for example), so that the charity may then assess the reputational risks that this might entail. Ultimately, charity trustees must not allow the charity to be used to express the political views of any individual trustee or staff members.
- On top of heeding the Commission’s guidance, charity trustees who engage in campaigning in the run up to an election may need to be aware of the requirements of the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014 (more generally known as the Lobbying Act). There may be circumstances where spending money on activities that are in furtherance of a charity’s purposes would require the charity to be registered with the Electoral Commission as a non-party campaigner. Non-party campaigners include individuals or organisations that campaign in the run-up to elections, but are not standing as political parties or candidates. If the activities carried out amount to ‘regulated campaign activity’, and the spending is over a particular threshold (£20,000 in England) then registration will only be required. Click here for more information.
- The Commission will get involved where it is brought to their attention that a charity is carrying out a campaign activity that is not sufficiently connected to its purposes. Although it generally aims to resolve such situations informally, it could take regulatory action where there has been misuse of charity resources or misconduct. If a charity remains uncertain about whether it is appropriate activity for their charity to engage in, we recommend seeking legal advice or guidance from the Commission directly.
To see the Charity Commission guidance on the topic click here.
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