Disagreements delay political campaigning guidance

Publication of the Charity Commission's revised guidance on political campaigning is likely to be delayed until March after the regulator's board disagreed over the wording of the draft version during a prolonged board meeting yesterday.

The draft version of Speaking Out: Guidance on Campaigning and Political Activities by Charities was released last week on the commission’s website (Third Sector Online, 25 January).

The draft guidance was designed to provide clearer guidance than the document CC9, which says political campaigning must not become a “dominant” activity and must “remain incidental or ancillary to the charity’s purposes”.

The new draft instead makes a distinction between “campaigning activities which can further charitable purposes” and “political activities which can be undertaken by a charity only in the context of supporting charitable purposes”.

However, several board members did not believe the distinction between furthering and supporting charitable purposes was sufficiently clear.

Andrew Purkis pointed out that the words were listed in the dictionary as synonymous. “The distinction is not robust enough,” he said. “It is not going to be helpful to trustees.”

John Williams said it was a mistake for the draft document to put so much emphasis on the distinction. “We don’t need these words,” he said. “The rules are very clear. Political activity cannot be a charity’s reason for being and political activity defines your charity if you do it for too long.”

Commission members were also worried about the draft document’s statement that campaigning intended to ensure that existing laws are upheld should not be regarded as political.

Purkis said: “It’s one thing to talk about upholding law and another to say it is charitable to fight for the preservation of a particular law. ‘Upholding’ could mean either of these things and people will think it includes preserving the law.”

Kenneth Dibble, legal compliance director at the commission, confirmed that campaigning to preserve a law that others wanted to repeal would count as political activity. The board agreed to use the word “observe” instead of “uphold” in the final document.

Members also noted that even campaigning to have current laws enforced could be controversial. Purkis cited the example of the blasphemy laws. He also thought the document should be clearer about whether campaigning to bring national laws into line with international treaties would count as political.

Dibble said that case law suggested only campaigning to implement laws on absolute human rights, such as anti-slavery laws, would count as non-political. The board agreed to explain the issue in the final document.

Suzi Leather, chair of the Charity Commission, agreed that the document needed “quite a lot of tweaking” and should come back to the board for final approval as early as possible. Andrew Hind, chief executive of the regulator, said the commission would work as quickly as possible to amend the document but it might take until the March board meeting to complete the work.

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