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Election - Election

Campaigning in the run up to the election

Chris Rowse and Andrew Studd from the charity team at Russell-Cooke Solicitors provide advice and highlight the Charity Commission's guidance for charity campaigning around the time of a general election. 

There’s been some concern that in recent elections charities have been discouraged from campaigning and becoming involved in the debates. This is troubling for charities and democracy. An election can be one of the best opportunities for charities to help bring about change and charities shouldn’t be discouraged from campaigning during an election.

Of course, charities must take care during an election and be sensitive to the nature and tone of their public statements. A charity can carry out campaigning and political activity with a view to furthering or supporting its charitable purposes, but must steer clear of any perception of political bias towards any political candidate or party.

It can sometimes be tricky for charities to avoid becoming embroiled in party political debate. We all see politicians using charity reports to support their policies. They often create the impression they have the support of particular people or organisations. Where charities are asked for a comment or opinion on the day’s story, an ill-considered comment or response to a journalist can quickly become front-page news and lead to the impression of support for, or opposition to, the politician rather than the policy. Charities need to ensure their views or comments are focussed on debating the issue or policy and cannot be regarded as support for a party or candidate.

When charities decide to campaign, it’s a good idea to prepare a written campaign strategy. This can provide a rationale for the campaigning and help show the trustees have considered the risks and benefits.

What the Charity Commission say

Charities should also consider the Charity Commission’s general guidance on campaigning and political activity and its specific guidance on charities, elections and referendums. The elections guidance aims to help ensure charities remain independent of party politics. It provides that:

  • Charities can promote their policy even if it is similar to a policy adopted by a party, but the charity must be clear it’s independent of, and doesn’t support, the party
  • Charities can compare views of candidates provided the intention is to debate the underlying issue. Charities should avoid comparing its view with those of politicians or parties. It’s permitted to influence public opinion but not to encourage the electorate to compare parties’ policies
  • Charities can issue a “manifesto” provided it’s designed to encourage parties to support particular policies for the benefit of the charity’s beneficiaries rather than to  influence voter behaviour
  • Charities must not support, or oppose, a particular candidate or political party, or assist them financially or otherwise in their campaigns. They must avoid being associated with a candidate or political party
  • Charities 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.

Charities that spend more than £20,000 in England or £10,000 in any one of Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland on ‘regulated activities’ during the one year period before an election must register with the Electoral Commission. This is a requirement of the much criticised Lobbying Act. Regulated activities include election material, canvassing, press conferences and rallies. The rules are complicated and there is some new Electoral Commission guidance. But it’s important to remember that most charities won’t need to register.

Chris Rowse and Andrew Studd are partners in the charity team at Russell-Cooke