The Charity Commission has refuted claims made in The Daily Telegraph newspaper that guidance for charities on campaigning in the EU referendum was issued in response to complaints about three environmental organisations.
But the guidance, published today, was criticised by lawyers and charity umbrella bodies for being too prescriptive and could deter charities from campaigning at all in the run-up to the EU referendum.
An article on the front page of the Telegraph, published this morning, said comments from Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and The Wildlife Trusts claiming that the UK would have to adhere to stricter environmental standards if it remained in the EU had sparked complaints that had led to the commission publishing guidance.
But a commission spokesman told Third Sector today: "The guidance is something that we have been planning to issue for a while and it is not related to complaints about charities."
He said the regulator had committed to providing guidance in order to give charities clarity on the issue.
The commission’s guidance warns that charities must consider whether political campaigning about the EU would support the charity’s purposes, whether conflicts of interest and other risks were properly managed and whether decisions and the reasons for them were properly recorded.
It says the commission would be "closely monitoring the situation" and would take action if the guidance was breached.
It also reminds charities that if they spend more than £10,000 on campaigning they need to register with the Electoral Commission under the lobbying act.
Rosamund McCarthy, partner at the law firm Bates Wells Braithwaite, said: "The tone of the guidance could be seen to be at odds with the commission’s previous suggestion that new guidance was not required because trustees would ‘instinctively understand’ how to strike the right balance.
"We are also concerned that the guidance is unclear and even contradictory in a number of areas, fails to resolve ambiguities we had previously identified and seems to imply that matters of good practice are legal requirements."
She said publication of the guidance had come so close to the referendum that many prudent charity trustees would have already decided how they would approach the issue.
Elizabeth Chamberlain, policy manager at the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, said the guidance set the wrong tone and contained warnings that were not appropriate for regulatory guidance.
She said: "The guidance suggests that only in ‘exceptional’ circumstances will it be appropriate for charities to advocate a particular outcome in the referendum. This fails to recognise that the otherwise generally accepted view that the EU referendum is a constitutional issue with cross-generational significance.
Asheem Singh, director of public policy at the charity leaders group Acevo, said: "It is remarkable that the Charity Commission has aligned itself with those quoted in the Telegraph to insist that charities are the only sector that should be excluded from the debate around the biggest constitutional question of this generation.
"It is one thing to be conservative when it comes to charity campaigning, it is quite another for a regulator to insist that charities censor themselves at every opportunity. At this moment in time, the commission is moving beyond error and into the realm of parody."
Jay Kennedy, director of policy at the Directory of Social Change, said the Telegraph story was "nonsense" and the tone of the commission guidance could be enough to convince trustees that it was too dangerous to get involved in the EU referendum.
The commission spokesman was unable to confirm on Monday morning whether the commission had received any complaints about the three environmental bodies.
Nigel Doar, director of strategy at The Wildlife Trusts, said the criticisms in the Telegraph article were unfounded.
"This is a very significant issue, core to our charitable purposes, and there is no clear party political aspect to it," he said.
"Our board of trustees has discussed this at length and agreed unanimously that we should communicate our view publicly, entirely independent from any political parties or external political pressure. We believe that we are in a very good position to provide a factually correct, considered and non-party-political view on the likely implications of the referendum for the natural world."
He also said he believed the charity’s approach was in line with the new guidance.
John Sauven, executive director of Greenpeace UK, said: "If this is an attempt by some in the Brexit camp to cow civil society into silence on the EU referendum, it's bound to fail.
"The public has heard a lot from industry leaders about how a vote to stay or leave will affect UK businesses – there's no reason why they shouldn't be hearing from environmental groups about how it will affect our environment and quality of life."
He said the UK had a far better chance of tackling air pollution and climate change by working from within the EU.