How can charities campaign in the run-up to the election?

Charities need to take particular care that they do not accidentally slip into campaigning which might be considered to be “party political”.

The announcement by Theresa May of the election on 8 June this year caught many people by surprise, and, all too soon it seems, it’s time for charities to reach for their copies of the Charity Commission’s guidance Charities, Elections and Referendums again.

The good news for charities is that there is no need to stop campaigning. But charities do need to take particular care that they do not accidentally slip into campaigning which might be considered to be “party political”.

This means that charity trustees should re-familiarise themselves with the above-mentioned special guidance issued by the Charity Commission, which applies from the announcement of an election until the date on which the election is held.

Do charities have to worry about any other guidance or legislation?

Charities who spend significant sums on campaigning should also be aware of the Electoral Commission’s guidance on lobbying for “non-party campaigners”, and the requirements for registration contained within the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014 (otherwise known as the Lobbying Act).

The Lobbying Act puts limits on the amount that organisations which are not political parties can spend on “regulated campaigning activities” during the “regulated period” before a general election. So, what kind of activities are covered, what is the period, and what are the limits involved?

  • Regulated campaigning activities
    Only certain types of campaigning activity will be considered “regulated campaigning activity”, and the Electoral Commission’s FAQ contains guidance for charities as to what may or may not be considered such an activity. Broadly speaking, campaigning activity should only be a regulated campaigning activity if it can “reasonably be regarded as intended to influence voters”. If, however, charity trustees are in any doubt as to whether their charity is carrying out “regulated campaigning activities”, then professional advice should be sought.
  • The regulated period
    The “regulated period”, in this unusual situation, actually began on 9 June last year. Comfortingly, the Electoral Commission’s guidance recognises that some organisations may already have spent money on campaigning which falls within the remit of the legislation prior to the announcement of the election, and confirms “We are unlikely to consider enforcement action against non-party campaigners that have taken prompt steps to register, even if their regulated spending is already in excess of the registration threshold”.
  • The limits on spending
    The limit on the amount which can be spent on “regulated campaigning activity” without registration with the Electoral Commission being required varies depending on where the campaigning is carried out. In England the limit is £20,000; in any of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the limit is £10,000.

Despite Lord Hodgson’s 2016 review of the Lobbying Act, recommending a number of amendments which would reduce the impact of the legislation on affected charities, it currently remains unchanged. And the fine of £30,000 imposed on Greenpeace earlier this month for refusing to register as a third party campaigning organisation before the 2015 election shows that the minority of charities affected by this legislation cannot afford to ignore it.

What kind of campaigning can charities carry out?

Thankfully, in the run up to an election, charities are not expected to stop campaigning to raise awareness of their aims or their work towards those aims. They can ask political candidates about their opinions on issues relevant to their aims, and may choose to publish those opinions with a view to raising public awareness and promoting debate about those issues.

Charities can also invite candidates to speak at public meetings about the issues on which the charity campaigns, but must be careful not to encourage support for any particular political party in doing so. In practice, this is likely to mean inviting not just one candidate, but candidates from as broad a political spectrum as possible.

Charities can even publish their own manifestos to raise awareness of the issues on which they campaign and the changes they would like to see made to address those issues. However, any such manifesto must be aimed at the political candidates and parties, seeking to persuade them to adopt the charity’s suggested approach, rather than seeking to influence the electorate.

What can’t charities do?

There are, however, also some things that charities cannot do:

  • They must not support or oppose a political candidate or party, or call on people to vote for a particular candidate or party.
  • They must not donate funds to political parties.
  • They must not explicitly compare their views on issues (whether or not favourably) to those of any candidate or political party.

Charity trustees also should be wary of any potential “exploitation” of their charities by unscrupulous politicians seeking to further their own electoral ambitions through a connection with the charity or its work. The charity cannot be allowed to appear to be supporting any particular candidate or party.

Provided a charity’s trustees are aware of and apply all the relevant guidance, and the charity avoids these particular pitfalls, the charity should be able confidently to continue campaigning to further its aims, despite the suddenly impending election. 

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