Charity and Politics

16 02 2010

I’m following Julia Middleton of Common Purpose infamy on twitter.  She has thrown up a link to the Third Sector website regarding the actions of Charities in the run-up to the General Election.

Campaigning in the run-up to an election

Third Sector, 16 February 2010

Andrew Studd, a partner in the charity team at Russell-Cooke, sets out the rules

As the general election approaches, charities must be sensitive to the nature and tone of their activities in the media. A charity can carry out campaigning and political activity with a view to furthering or supporting its charitable purposes, but it must avoid giving any impression of political bias towards a political candidate or party.

The Charity Commission’s guidance on campaigning and political activity, CC9, defines political activity as aiming to secure or oppose a change in the law or in the policy or decisions of government or other public bodies. Many charities engage with politicians for a wide range of reasons, including political ones, entirely legitimately. However, with a general election to be held in the next few months, charities must be careful to avoid becoming embroiled in the party political debate.

This can be tricky. We all see politicians using charity or think tank reports to support or justify their policies and views. This can often create the impression that the politicians have the support of these organisations. Where charities are asked by journalists to comment on the story of the day, an ill-considered response can quickly become front-page news and give the impression of support for, or opposition to, the politician rather than the policy. This may not only be a breach of the law, but could also have a damaging effect on a charity’s reputation.

Charities should not be deterred from campaigning in an election period: indeed, it could be the most effective time to do it. But they need to be careful what they say and how they say it. The challenge is to ensure any views or comments are focused on debating the issue or policy and cannot be regarded as support for a party or candidate. This is often a fine distinction.

Last month, the Charity Commission reissued its additional Charities and Elections guidance, which deals specifically with the period between the announcement of an election and the day it is held. Its overriding intent is to ensure charities remain independent of party politics. It makes it clear that a charity can still promote its chosen policy, even if it is similar to a policy adopted by a political party – provided the charity makes it clear it is independent of the party and does not support it.

A charity can approach candidates, ask for their opinions and invite them to events, but only to promote debate rather than to support the candidate or party. It should not compare its views with those of politicians or parties and must avoid being associated with a particular candidate or party. It must also avoid supporting or opposing a particular candidate or political party and assisting them in any way with their campaigns.

A charity can also issue a manifesto, provided it is designed to encourage parties to support particular policies for the benefit of the charity’s beneficiaries rather than to influence voter behaviour.

Charities must also avoid producing any campaigning materials that, because of their closeness to a candidate’s or party’s position, might be regarded as part of the politician’s campaign. This would breach electoral law and probably cause the commission to take regulatory action to protect trust and confidence in charities as a whole.

The guidance still leaves areas of uncertainty, which is not surprising because there is no clear line between political and party political activities. Charities should not be put off by this uncertainty, but should review all campaigning material or press comment to ensure that it is entirely objective in its analysis of any particular policy, directly justifiable by reference to the charity’s purposes and avoids giving the impression of supporting a particular political party or candidate.

Unite Against Fascism, Searchlight, Hope not Hate and Operation Black Vote, mmm, something just isn’t right is it?


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