The Charity Commission, the independent regulator of charities in England and Wales, is issuing regulatory guidance to charities on engagement with the referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union.
Political activity can be a legitimate activity for charities and some may want to engage with the referendum. However, the guidance sets out the threshold necessary to justify any charitable activity on this specific issue. It also makes clear the factors that trustees must consider if a decision is to be made to campaign on the outcome. Such political activity by charities must always be undertaken in the best interests of the charity, and must only ever be a means to an end and not an end in itself.
The commission already sets clear boundaries in its general guidance on political activity and campaigning. The supplementary guidance has been issued specifically for the EU referendum to provide further clarity for trustees. It should be considered, alongside the general guidance, by all charities making a decision on whether to engage with the referendum debate.
The guidance contains 5 keys elements for charities to consider:
- Does this political activity support, and is it incidental to, the charity’s purposes?
- Are any conflicts of interest and other risks properly managed?
- Are decisions to engage properly recorded?
- What is the role of the Commission if guidance is breached?
- Does the charity’s involvement need to be registered with the Electoral Commission?
The Commission will be closely monitoring the situation and will take action where the guidance is breached. The Commission produced a report in December on the cases that it dealt with in the run up to the 2015 General Election.
Kenneth Dibble, the Commission’s Director of Legal Services, said:
“Political activity by a charity can only ever be undertaken in support of its charitable purposes. This guidance sets out the rules charities must follow should they be considering engaging in the EU referendum. The guidance clearly says that there are reputational risks for charities which engage in political activity on the EU referendum. Trustees must therefore consider the guidance carefully before involving their charities.”