Sir Stuart Etherington, chief executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, has criticised the Charity Commission for deterring charities from getting involved in the debate in the run-up to the EU referendum.
In a speech at the NCVO’s offices in London this morning, Etherington said the regulator "screwed up badly" before last year's vote on the UK’s membership of the European Union by issuing guidance that set the wrong tone and had the effect of causing charities to stay out of the subsequent discussions.
The Charity Commission’s guidance, which was criticised by the charity law firm Bates Wells Braithwaite for "misrepresenting the law", was later withdrawn and re-issued in a softer form, but Etherington said the damage had already been done.
"With few exceptions charities didn’t enter the referendum debate," he said.
"I think we have to be critical of our particular regulator, which issued guidance on the referendum that subsequently proved to be not in accordance with the law and setting completely the wrong tone.
"That guidance was withdrawn and re-issued but I personally think the damage had actually been done.
"That meant charities were not forthright in coming forward pointing out what the issues were. I think our regulator has a cross to carry in relation to its intervention early in the debate."
Later in the session, in response to a question about the role of charities in how Brexit will work, Etherington said: "In terms of advocacy in general, I don’t think we’re going to get much trouble from the regulators.
"They screwed up badly during the referendum and more importantly I think they knew that they’d screwed up. That’s why they withdrew the guidance so quickly and replaced it with new guidance, based on the fact that it wasn’t defensible in law and the tone of that guidance was wrong."
Sarah Atkinson, director of policy and communications at the Charity Commission, said the regulator’s guidance was not unlawful. "We published our guidance having being asked by charities to clarify the rules in the run-up to the referendum," she said.
"We were made aware of specific concerns and subsequently made some changes to provide greater clarity on the wording and intent. I explained this in detail in a blog at the time."
But she said it was more important to look ahead. "Brexit is clearly the biggest issue facing our country and charities will rightly wish to be involved in the process," said Atkinson.
"We, alongside charities, have taken part in round-table discussions on the key concerns and opportunities for the charity sector, and will continue to monitor developments closely."
In his speech today, Etherington also called on charities to campaign for EU citizens to be able to remain in the UK post-Brexit.
He said about 5 per cent of staff in the voluntary sector were people who had come from other EU countries and called on the government to swiftly resolve the issue of those people’s future rights to remain.
"Having these people as colleagues, carers, volunteers, has enriched our heritage and the culture of our society," he said.
"In my own organisation, I am aware that staff are not just frustrated by the uncertainty in which they find themselves, but they are also increasingly anxious. And some of them are understandably fearful about what the future holds.
"I believe as civil society, we should continue to campaign for those rights, both of EU citizens in the UK and British citizens in the union, because it is the right thing to do. The contribution of our European friends and colleagues is something that we must not lose, especially in a shared society."
Etherington also urged charities to work together and with government to develop simple and effective visa requirements that would enable the continued flow into the sector of skilled workers from outside the UK.
He said his organisation had already started to think about how it supported colleagues who could be affected and urged other organisations to do likewise.