The No to AV campaign, which is lobbying voters to oppose the alternative vote electoral system in the forthcoming referendum, has asked several charities to issue public denials of support for the Yes to Fairer Votes campaign.
The No campaign’s referendum agent, William Norton, has written to 23 charities that are members of the political education alliance Democracy Matters, arguing that it is a breach of charity law to take a public stance on the issue.
The letter says the Democracy Matters logo has been used on the website of pro-AV group Take Back Parliament. It says this implies the charities that are members of Democracy Matters are also in favour of AV, and it asks them to provide a "denial to the yes campaign, for general circulation".
Norton has also written to Sam Younger, chief executive of the Charity Commission, arguing that the charities should "publicly disaffiliate" themselves from the Yes to Fairer Votes campaign. The letter says: "The affiliation (direct or implied) of these bodies to the yes campaign is an activity incompatible with their charitable status."
Titus Alexander, the convenor of Democracy Matters, said the organisation had not taken a public stance on the referendum and its logo had been used by Take Back Parliament because it had supported the campaign for a referendum on AV. He said the logo had since been removed from the website.
But Alexander said charities should be able to take sides in the referendum, which will take place in the spring. Doing so did not breach charity law because it did not involve support for a political party or a candidate, he said.
"If a charity’s objective is to give citizens a voice, and it believes either supporting or opposing the alternative vote system will do this, it should have the right to do so," he said. "I think the Charity Commission’s guidance is quite clear on this. The letters are an intimidatory tactic by the No to AV campaign."
Several of the charities involved declined to comment because they were seeking legal advice on the issue.
Norton told Third Sector: "I think the Charity Commission will almost certainly agree with me that the principles that apply to a general election also apply to a referendum.
"I’m trying to stop a group of charities from breaching their charitable status," he said. "I don’t see this as a hostile move."
A Charity Commission spokeswoman said it was due to publish new guidance on charities and referendums very soon.