Charities 'must not support political parties on Scottish independence vote'

Draft guidance from the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator says that campaigning is allowed but should be limited to promoting the charity's aims

Charities in Scotland can get involved in debates on the forthcoming independence referendum, as long as they do not support a political party and their campaigning work promotes only the charities' aims, according to draft guidance from the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator.

The regulator wants views on its draft guidance on how charities can get involved in the referendum, which will take place in September 2014.

The OSCR said that it had been contacted by charities asking for clarification on what they may or may not do leading up to the referendum, because they were unsure to what extent they could engage in discussions about the referendum.

Martin Sime, chief executive of the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations, was criticised last year by Willie Rennie, leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats. Rennie claimed the Scottish National Party was trying to use the SCVO to garner support for the inclusion of a "devo max" option on the referendum, which would transfer more powers to the Scottish government. The SCVO said at the time that the claim was "preposterous".

The OSCR’s draft guidance says that charities can get involved in a referendum on constitutional change because it is not an election. Supporting a particular outcome does not necessarily mean supporting a particular political party, something that is forbidden under charity law, the guidance says.

Charities that want to do any form of campaigning relating to the referendum must first ensure that the activity is not prohibited by the charity’s own rules, the guidance says. Any campaigning they do must help to achieve the charity’s aims and not involve matters beyond the charity’s remit, it says.

For example, the guidance says, a health charity may point out how it believes independence would help or hinder a particular area of health. "It should not, however, campaign on other issues if it cannot clearly demonstrate how this would affect its achievement of its charitable purposes," the guidance says.

Charities can receive funding from organisations that support one decision in the referendum providing they maintain their independence and do not show favour for one political party, the guidance says. Trustees should also be careful not to express their own personal opinions about the referendum as the charity’s view, it warns.

The OSCR is asking charities, public bodies and professional advisers to submit their views on the draft guidance by 15 May. The full guidance is expected to be published by the end of May, a spokesman for the OSCR said.

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