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This publication is available at https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/campaigning-and-political-activity-by-charities-prior-to-the-2017-general-election-case-report/campaigning-and-political-issues-arising-in-the-run-up-to-the-2017-general-election
Campaigning and political activity can be legitimate and valuable activities for charities to undertake. However, charities must comply with the law. During an election period, the need for impartiality and balance is intensified, and charities must take particular care when undertaking any activities in the political arena.
The Charity Commission (‘the Commission’) uses the terms:
- ‘political activity’ to refer to activity by a charity which is aimed at securing, or opposing, any 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 awareness-raising and efforts to educate or involve the public by mobilising their support on a particular issue, or to influence or change public attitudes
This case report contains an analysis of some of the key issues that we dealt with in cases we opened relating to campaigning and political activity by charities in the run-up to the General Election, being:
It also includes wider lessons for trustees.
This report does not the cover electoral law issues that apply to charities: these are enforced by the Electoral Commission.
Overview of cases
Our monitoring of campaigning and political activity by charities focused on the period between the announcement of the General Election on 18 April 2017 and it taking place on 8 June 2017.
During this time, we dealt with 41 cases relating to campaigning and political activity around the General Election. Of these, 28 resulted from us either proactively identifying concerns about apparent non-compliance by charities through external sources such as mainstream media and social media, or responding to concerns raised with us. A further 13 resulted from charities contacting us to seek advice about regulation in this area. Where any further issues have been raised since the election we have continued to engage with the charities. The cases were handled quickly and with any necessary remedial action taken swiftly.
The profile of charities that we engaged with was wide-ranging; there was no predominance of charities with certain purposes. Most but not all have income of more than £1 million per year.
Our cases dealt with concerns relating to all the main political parties.
1. Visits to charities by prospective parliamentary candidates
Charities are often visited by parliamentary candidates as part of their election campaign. Visits by parliamentary candidates to charities featured heavily in our casework during the run-up to this general election. These visits can be a good way for candidates to interact with the local community and for charities to draw attention to their cause and express their aspirations for future changes to laws or policies. However, hosting visits can suggest that the charity endorses a particular candidate by giving them a platform; the charity risks being exploited by a political party for its own benefit; and it poses a reputational risk to the charity’s independence. Whilst we recognise that some visits are arranged before an election is announced or occur spontaneously, these risks still apply.
Trustees should be aware of these risks and take steps to preserve the charity’s party political neutrality. They should be able to justify why the visit took place, how it furthered the charity’s purposes, and how they ensured the visit did not result in any perceived endorsement for the individual.
We contacted the United Nations Association International Service (1069182) after identifying in the media that the charity had hosted a visit from Priti Patel. The trustees confirmed that Priti Patel visited in her capacity as Secretary of State for International Development rather than as an election candidate; that the charity had received government funding for a significant period of time and the visit had arisen as a result of that funding. The charity also confirmed that there was no discussion about the election or manifesto commitments; but there was discussion about the charity’s work, for example about its beneficiary groups. The Commission decided not to take any further action.
We identified through media reporting that Jeremy Corbyn gave a speech at Chatham House (The Royal Institute of International Affairs, 208223) outlining his approach to a Labour Government’s policy on defence and foreign policy priorities. We wrote to the charity: the trustees confirmed that the invitation to Jeremy Corbyn was issued before the election was called and that invitations to speak at the charity had been issued to political figures from the main parties during the election campaign. The Commission was satisfied and no further action was taken.
We wrote to Valley Kids (1074840) after being made aware that Leanne Wood launched Plaid Cymru’s election manifesto at the charity’s premises. The trustees confirmed that this was a commercial agreement to rent the charity’s community hall, and that no charity staff attended the event. The charity has in the past hosted visits from other political parties. The Commission was satisfied that there was no breach of the law.
2. Publishing educational material with political commentary or analysis
A number of cases raised concerns that think tanks and similar charities with educational purposes were criticising or endorsing a particular party or its policies. By the nature of their purposes, these charities are more likely to publish commentary or positions on political issues and are therefore more at risk of appearing to be politically partisan. Comments and analysis published by these charities often carry weight with the media and may be used in reporting about party manifestos.
These charities should therefore take extra care to minimise the risk of their work being publically perceived as containing political bias, including using neutral language. Whilst they can provide analysis on the perceived potential consequences of a particular policy, they must not overstep the mark and disproportionately endorse or criticise a specific party and its policies.
We received a complaint that The Institute of Economic Affairs Limited (235351) had jointly published with The Taxpayers’ Alliance (a non-charity) ‘Policy Proposals for a Conservative Manifesto’. There were no similar suggestions for any other political party, and we concluded that the publication breached our guidance, CC9. We also identified that the IEA had published a press release entitled ‘Labour’s manifesto pledges would add at least £40bn to public spending’ that included highly critical language, further suggesting a partisan approach. We immediately issued formal regulatory advice requiring that the charity withdraw these publications and put in place measures to ensure this would not happen again. IEA did so and reviewed other material to ensure that there was no use of language which could be reasonably interpreted as implying bias by the charity.
We considered communications by The Institute for Fiscal Studies (258815) after the charity’s comments were used in a newspaper article criticising the Labour Party’s policies. We looked at the original material, which was about both the Labour and Conservative Parties’ economic and taxation policies, and which offered reasoned analysis and criticism of both. This particular piece of work was one of many put out by the Institute over the election period aiming to provide information and analysis in the run-up to the election. We also considered the charity’s objects, which is the advancement of education for the public benefit, by promotion on a non-political basis of the study and discussion of the economic and social effects and influences of existing taxes, proposed changes in fiscal systems and other aspects of public policy. We concluded that there was no breach of the charity’s objects or charity law.
3. Providing explicit support for candidates and political parties
Charities must not assist candidates with their election campaigns, financially or otherwise, or give any form of explicit partisan support. Doing so could be seen as a way of calling on people - including their donors and beneficiaries - to vote for one party or another, which charities must not do. Any political activity that charities do must always be undertaken in furtherance of their charitable purposes; charities cannot be party political and therefore such activity is not acceptable where the intention is to influence voter behaviour.
We did find some instances of charities explicitly supporting particular candidates in the run-up to the 2017 General Election. We took rapid regulatory action to ensure this was rectified quickly.
We were approached by a local newspaper in Portsmouth alerting us to a Conservative Party leaflet in which the Beneficial Foundation’s (1109518) chief executive in her professional capacity endorsed support for local candidate Flick Drummond. Whilst the candidate explained that this was produced in error by her team and would not be re-circulated, we contacted the charity and asked for confirmation, which we received, that the leaflet would be withdrawn. The charity also confirmed that they were aware of the legal position, as set out in our guidance CC9.
It was identified through a complaint that Unity Group Wales (1167542) were displaying posters in their high street centre in Swansea which promoted the Labour Party candidate for election, who was also a trustee of the charity. We required the trustees to immediately remove the poster, which they said was displayed in error, and to make a statement to express their independence and political neutrality, which they did.
We received complaints, and were provided with evidence, that the National Council of Hindu Temples (UK) (280718) had issued an email to its members indicating support for the Conservative Party, following a visit by Theresa May. We immediately contacted the charity, requiring it to retract the message by issuing a further email making it clear that the charity does not support any particular political party or candidate. The charity did not agree that the email was partisan and the Commission considered using its power to issue an official warning, under the Charities (Protection and Social Investment) Act 2016. The trustees then issued the email stating that the charity does not endorse any political party and is politically neutral.
4. Use of charity material by candidates and political parties
The risk of a candidate or a political party using a charity’s research or other material to support their policies or campaigns was raised with us. This can occur with or without the charity’s knowledge and prior consent. Even when this isn’t generated or approved by the charity itself, there is a risk that this will result in perceived support for that particular candidate or party.
Scope (208231) sought advice from the Commission after the Labour Party’s manifesto referred twice to research carried out by the charity in 2013. The charity confirmed that the research was not commissioned specifically for the Labour Party manifesto and that they weren’t approached for permission for the statistic to be included. We advised the charity that the trustees should assess the reputational risk to their charity’s independence and consider how they deal with this.
5. Political activity by charity employees and trustees
Candidates who run for election often have close ties to the community and may have current or previous involvement with local community groups or charities. While trustees or charity employees can run as political candidates, this relationship may cause people to think that the charity is aligned with a particular political party. This risk can be greater when senior employees such as a chief executive or a trustee are associated with a political party.
Where this occurs the trustees will need to consider the potential conflict of interest and assess the risks for the charity in terms of both reputation and legal liability of the person taking on both roles simultaneously. They should put in place policies and procedures to mitigate the risk to the charity. The individuals in question should be explicit about whether they are acting and speaking on behalf of the charity, or as a parliamentary candidate.
Charities should also consider how to manage employees (and trustees) who are politically active, on social media and more generally, and whether to adopt formal rules and a social media policy so that the charity is appropriately protected.
We were approached by the sole trustee of Homeschool Social Enterprise (1146794) about whether he could stand as an independent candidate in the election. Given that there was only one trustee, we considered there was a serious risk that the charity’s neutrality could not be managed. We also discovered that the charity’s email signature already encouraged people to support him as an independent candidate, and that there was a section on the charity’s website dedicated to his candidature. The Commission urgently provided regulatory advice to the trustee and insisted that the email signature and references to the election be amended. The charity did not respond quickly enough and the Commission considered using its power to issue an official warning, under the Charities (Protection and Social Investment) Act 2016. The email signature was amended and the election tab removed from the website. We also required that additional trustees be appointed to the charity.
6. Links with non-charitable organisations
We observed issues around the campaigning activities of non-charitable bodies that are linked and/or share similar names to charities.
Trustees must take steps to ensure they do not deliberately or otherwise mislead the public over the activities of the charity and the non-charitable organisation generally, and especially when these are related to political activity. The trustees must ensure that they identify risks arising from any political activity of the linked organisation and that they minimise the impact of those risks on the charity and its reputation.
We received complaints about Hope Not Hate Charitable Trust (1013880) in relation to tweets issued by a staff member at Hope Not Hate Limited (which is not a charity) that were of a political nature. On investigation, we established that these tweets were issued by the private Twitter account of an individual linked to the non-charitable body. However, we asked the trustees to ensure the charity was adequately distancing itself from them. The charity confirmed that the charity neither tweeted nor did it re-tweet the messages. However, in light of the Commission’s contact, it had added a disclaimer to the charity’s Twitter feed that explains that some tweets are posted by their campaigning arm, and the charity’s website also makes clear that the political campaigning body and the charity are separate organisations.
Lessons for other charities
The majority of the cases that we conducted in the pre-election period confirmed that charities have a valuable role to play in raising awareness of and encouraging debate about issues that affect their beneficiaries and wider society. As long as they follow electoral law and charity law as set out in our guidance on campaigning and political activity (CC9), charities should feel confident to carry out such activity.
Charities should nevertheless remember that they need to remain compliant in the period following the calling of an election, as the risk of them influencing, or being seen to influence, voter behaviour is increased. Failure to follow the law can affect the public’s trust and confidence in charities and can result in the Commission taking regulatory action. There are a number of additional issues to consider in the pre-election period, many of which are outlined above. The Charities, elections, referendums annex looks at many of these issues in greater detail.
The key legal principles from our 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 purposes
- 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
In the run up to this election it was reported in the media that some charities were concerned about their obligations under electoral law. Whether charities need to register as a third party with the Electoral Commission will depend on how they are planning to campaign and how much they are spending. If charities meet the registration threshold and requirements for non-party campaigners, they must, by law, register with the Electoral Commission. It is important that charities comply with this electoral law requirement as well as the charity law duties described in this report. For advice on the rules affecting non-party campaigners visit www.electoralcommission.org.uk.