Advocates of reform of the rules on campaigning and political activity by charities have welcomed the Charity Commission's new guidance on the matter.
Released last week, the guidance states explicitly that political activity - seeking to influence a specific law or a policy of central or local government - is legitimate, provided it is not a charity's "continuing and sole" activity (Third Sector Online, 5 March).
The commission has removed the 'dominant/ancillary rule' that some charities complained was unclear in the previous guidance. This said campaigning could not be a charity's dominant activity and had to be ancillary to its purposes.
Rosamund McCarthy, a solicitor and member of the Advisory Group on Campaigning and the Voluntary Sector, which wants charities to be freer to campaign, welcomed the change.
"The old guidelines were peppered with risk, which gave the wrong impression and led to unnecessary self-censorship by some groups," she said. "I'm very pleased that this version unequivocally endorses the right of charities to campaign, so if there has been self-censorship, that will be lifted now.
"It's much more than just a word change, because it makes clear that political activity can be a group's sole activity for a period of time until a goal is met - for example, a village group campaigning politically against a new development."
The National Council for Voluntary Organisations said the guidance clarified the law.
"Campaigning is a crucial part of many charities' activities," said Stuart Etherington, chief executive of the umbrella body. "Until now there has been considerable confusion about what charities legally can and cannot do. As a consequence, many have been overly cautious in their approach to campaigning. This new guidance will enable charities to campaign with confidence."
The new guidance makes clear for the first time that campaigning against a private company and trying to change the behaviour of corporations is not considered to be political activity, and that, since the Human Rights Act 1998, the promotion of human rights is a charitable activity, not a political one.
Sukhvinder Stubbs, chief executive of social justice charity the Barrow Cadbury Trust, said the new guidance was clearer. "Some of the 20th century's greatest advances in social justice occurred in large part because of the sector's campaigning work," she said.
"At a time when public money to the voluntary sector is increasingly being channelled towards service delivery, it is crucial that the sector doesn't lose its campaigning edge. If these changes make it easier and simpler for voluntary sector groups to campaign, then they're to be welcomed.
"There is, however, still uncertainty about how the guidelines will be applied in practice. The sector will look for reassurance that the spirit of the guidelines will be honoured and translated into local practice."
A spokesman for the Office of the Third Sector said: "The Government welcomes the new Charity Commission guidelines, which address charities' concerns about the lack of clarity over their legal rights and responsibilities.
"The law has not changed. Charities still cannot support political parties or candidates."
The old guidelines...
- Political campaigning must not be a charity's "dominant" activity, and must "remain incidental or ancillary to the charity's purposes"
- No clear distinction between campaigning and political activity
- Working with politicians and political parties described as a risk for charities
- Unclear whether campaigning against a private company is considered a political activity
- Unclear whether campaigning on human rights is a political or charitable activity
- Unclear whether a charity's constitution has to mention campaigning for it to be allowed to do it
... And the new
- Political activity cannot be the "continuing and sole activity" of a charity, and can only be undertaken in the context of supporting the delivery of charitable purposes
- Awareness raising, and making sure existing laws are observed, is campaigning. Political activity is trying to change the law, or a policy of central or local government
- Charities are free to work with politicians and political parties, provided they are open about it and preserve their independence. Charities must protect themselves from the risk that politicians might try to use the charity's name for political ends
- Campaigning against a private company is not a political activity
- Work on human rights is a charitable, not a political activity, since the introduction of the Human Rights Act 1998
- A charity can campaign even if its constitution says nothing on the subject.