When Yes to Fairer Votes began its campaign to back the alternative vote system in next month’s referendum, it had the support of several large charities and those representing smaller community groups.
It listed among its supporters the charities Friends of the Earth, Urban Forum, Bassac and British Muslims for Secular Democracy, as well as the think tanks New Economics Foundation and Independent Academic Research Studies, both charities.
Since the launch, however, most of them have dissociated themselves from Yes to Fairer Votes by asking for their logos to be removed from a list of ‘supporting organisations’ on its website and cancelling plans for research or campaigning work.
Their decisions have been prompted by a fierce challenge by the No to AV campaign, combined with uncertainty about the Charity Commission’s guidance on campaigning and how it applies to them. So charities that believe electoral reform is within their charitable objects have been pushed out of a debate that many feel has been dominated by a ruthless clash between the main camps.
One charity chief executive, who asked not to be named, says: "We dissociated ourselves from the referendum because the no campaign was incredibly aggressive from the outset. Understandably, it is fighting tooth and nail about it, and it has effectively shut down the debate."
The charities first began to worry when William Norton, the referendum agent for No to AV, questioned the Charity Commission about whether it was permitted in law for charities to take sides in the referendum campaign.
The commission then wrote to all the charities whose logos were on the Yes to Fairer Votes site and to others Norton alleged had links to the yes campaign. It warned them that trustees should be able to make a strong case that taking sides on the issue was in line with their charitable objects.
The effect was chilling. "Most have quietly withdrawn," says Toby Blume, chief executive of the community charity Urban Forum. "We took our logo down because it was unclear whether we were entitled to support the campaign, and it was not worth the fight. Charities should be prepared to make the case, but many of them, like us, find the odds are stacked against them."
Independent Academic Research Studies also withdrew. Theo Gavrielides, its director, says it had agreed to carry out research for the yes campaign about what young people wanted from an electoral system. The research would not have been biased in favour of AV, he says.
He says those working on the yes campaign had assured him that associating his charity with their campaign did not breach the commission’s rules. This assurance came long before January, when the commission produced its guidance (see below). "I don’t think the yes campaign was misleading me," he says. "Based on the material they had available to them at the time, I think they were right." But when the challenge and the letter from the commission came, he says, the charity decided to withdraw completely from the debate.
More proportionate system
Friends of the Earth, however, decided to maintain its support for the yes campaign. Craig Bennett, head of policy and campaigns, says: "We have evidence that environmental and sustainability issues have a more prominent place on the political agenda in those countries where the voting system is more proportionate.
"We told the commission in March why we feel supporting AV is entirely consistent with our charitable objects and we don’t see any problem with it at all." He has not heard back since from the regulator or No to AV.
Part of the problem, some charities say, is that the Charity Commission’s guidance was issued only when the campaign was well under way and seems ambiguous to many.
The other part, they say, is the persistence of No to AV, which argues that the commission’s guidance should be interpreted in a narrow sense.
"The commission says charities should take sides only if this clearly furthers their charitable objects," a No to AV spokesman says. "If there was a charity whose object was to promote AV, I would have no qualms about that charity taking sides.
"By supporting one side, a charity is making a decision on behalf of its supporters and beneficiaries, and those people might not agree with that decision."
No charities have backed the No to AV campaign in public, but the spokesman says this is not the reason for its insistence that they should stay out of the debate. "I know it might look like this benefits us because the charities don’t support us," he says. "But it’s about what is acceptable by law and in the eyes of charities’ supporters."
Some charities accuse No to AV of intimidating them into silence. Titus Alexander, convenor of the political education group Democracy Matters, claims the No to AV campaign wrote to 23 members of his organisation, asking them to provide a "denial to the yes campaign for general circulation" after the Democracy Matters logo appeared on the website of Take Back Parliament, a group that supports electoral reform.
He says the no campaign also sent requests under the Freedom of Information Act to public bodies that funded charities, asking them for details of meetings with, and funding of, charities it suspected of being linked to the yes campaign.
Alexander claims this intimidated charities, because it meant they started to receive letters from their public sector funders. "People should be able to take part in the debate without fear," he says.
A spokesman for the New Economics Foundation, which has removed its logo from the yes campaign site but continued to carry out research into AV, agrees. "It’s not the role of charities to provide information on both sides of the story," he says. "We are here to represent what we think is the truth and in the best interests of beneficiaries, then to campaign for that."
He says the foundation will change its charitable objects once the referendum campaign is over so that it can campaign in future for an electoral system that it believes to be more proportionate than AV.
"We and other charities have said for years that we want electoral reform," he says. "But as soon as there was a chance this might happen, we’ve been steered away from campaigning for it."
The rules Guidance from the Charity Commission puts the onus on trustees
The Charity Commission published guidance on charities’ involvement in referendum campaigns in January.
"There may be some circumstances in which it is appropriate for a charity to set out the pros and cons of a yes or no vote for their beneficiaries," the guidance says. "A charity which exists to promote good citizenship might want to encourage people to participate in the process."
In such a case, the guidance says, trustees must consider "how they will ensure that they maintain their independence and neutrality".
The commission makes a clear distinction, however, between setting out the arguments and a decision to actively campaign on either side.
"In exceptional cases charities may consider that the outcome of a referendum is likely to directly affect, positively or negatively, the delivery of their charitable objects," it says.
The sentence implies, but does not explicitly state, that in such cases it is justifiable for a charity to campaign for a certain outcome. In this context, the commission warns that "where the impact on the work of the charity is very indirect or uncertain, the trustees will find it difficult to justify campaigning for a particular outcome".
The guidance closes by saying: "The key question for the trustees is exactly how such activity would be an effective way of promoting the objects of the charity."
So if a charity’s objects state specifically that it exists to campaign for the introduction of AV, there is clearly no problem, as No to AV points out. But the dilemma for charities is that their objects are rarely so specific and it is arguable whether their objects include electoral reform.
On a wide interpretation, a charity whose objects included promoting citizenship and democracy could campaign for AV; on a narrow interpretation, it could not.
The dilemma for charities is that there is no way for them to obtain a definitive ruling in advance. They have to assess the guidance, make a decision and proceed at their own risk. Faced with possible censure from the commission and the courts, many decide to back off.
Logo or no logo?
Five charities, and three organisations with charitable and non-charitable arms, allowed their logos to be used under the heading ‘supporting organisations’ on the Yes to Fairer Votes website. But all five of the former asked for their logos to be removed after receiving a letter from the Charity Commission warning trustees to make sure this was in line with their objects. The other three have left their logos on the site.
Charities that removed their logos:
Toby Blume, the charity’s chief executive, says: "We could have made a good argument that supporting AV was in line with our objects, but we backed down as we didn’t have the resources to fight our case."
Theo Gavrielides, director of the charity, says: "It’s borderline and we didn’t have time to clarify the border, so we backed off."
A spokesman for the charity says it was "playing it safe" by asking for its logo to be removed from the site, but has continued to work on AV. "Our charitable objects include education, so we think it is legitimate to inform people of the effects of AV," he adds.
A spokeswoman for the charity says supporting the yes campaign is within its objects because AV would enhance community involvement in local politics. She says the logo was removed partly because of the commission’s letter and partly because Bassac merged with the Development Trusts Association to form Locality.
Tehmina Kazi, the charity’s director, says: "After taking legal advice, we removed the logo and scrapped plans to campaign for a ‘yes’ vote. We didn’t want to, but we didn’t have the resources to do otherwise."
Bodies whose logos are still on the site:
Craig Bennett, director of policy and campaigns, says: "We have evidence to show that, in places with a more proportionate electoral system, issues around the environment move up the political agenda. We feel we can justify our support for the yes campaign."