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Keep Calm And Don't Talk Politics (Unless It Advances Your Charitable Purposes)

Keep Calm And Don't Talk Politics (Unless It Advances Your Charitable Purposes)

With the campaign for this year’s general election now in full swing, it is important that charities bear in mind that there are specific rules under both charity and electoral law that apply to charities when campaigning on political issues.

The Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator (OSCR) recognises that political campaigning can, in certain circumstances, help charities achieve their charitable purposes and have produced guidance for charities to ensure that they do not fall foul of charity or electoral law.  This guidance makes it clear that the main consideration for a charity campaigning on political issues is whether the activity advances the charity’s charitable purposes.  For example, a charity whose purpose is to promote the advancement of education may legitimately carry out campaigning activity aimed at securing reductions in university tuition fees and enhancement of financial support available to students, as this would help to further their charitable purpose.  In addition, campaigning must not be prevented by the charity’s governing document, must not involve the advancement of a particular political party and must be in the charity’s best interests.

A charity can therefore carry out activities that support or oppose political parties’ particular policies, such as providing information on or being involved in debates regarding those policies, provided that the activities assist the charity in achieving its charitable purposes and that the charity does not support or oppose a particular political party or candidate.  To take the example above, the charity could publish information in support of reductions in university tuition fees despite this being one of the policies of a particular political party.  However, the charity trustees may decide that it would not be in the charity’s best interests to continue publishing such information if, for example, the party’s other policies could be considered to be controversial and the charity would as a result run the risk of suffering reputational damage from supporting such a policy. Regardless of this, it should always be borne in mind that charities must remain independent of political parties and candidates at all times.

Whether or not a charity will also be required to follow the rules under electoral law will depend on whether the charity is required to register with the Electoral Commission.  A charity is required to register with the Electoral Commission as a non-party campaigner if, during a particular regulated period (typically around 6 months before the date of the election), the charity spends or plans to spend more than £10,000 on ‘regulated campaign activity’ in Scotland (or £10,000 in either Wales or Northern Ireland or £20,000 in England).  Press conferences, production or publication of election material, canvassing and public rallies are all examples of the types of activities which may, depending on whether they meet certain tests, fall within the definition of regulated campaign activity.  Further detail can be found in the Electoral Commission’s guidance.

Under electoral law, charities registered with the Electoral Commission cannot spend more than £55,400 on campaigning activity in Scotland during the regulated period (£319,800 in England; £44,000 in Wales and £30,800 in Northern Ireland or £390,000 over the whole of the UK, unless there are separate campaigns in each of the four parts of the UK in which case the limit is £450,000).  Further, donations that are given to fund regulated campaign activity have to be reported to the Electoral Commission and there are rules on who charities can accept donations from.  Any election material produced by a charity must not promote a political party or candidate and must instead be aimed at promoting the charitable purposes of the charity.  Again, further detail can be found in the Electoral Commission’s guidance.

There are therefore a number of rules a charity may need to follow when campaigning on political issues and advice should be sought wherever there are uncertainties surrounding planned activities.

Stephen Phillips


Burness admin