An amendment to the European Union Referendum Bill that would have compelled the Electoral Commission to issue specific guidance on charities’ participation in the debate over the UK’s membership of the EU has been withdrawn.
The Labour peer Baroness Morgan of Ely put forward the amendment during a debate about the bill yesterday in the House of Lords to set out the basis for the forthcoming referendum.
The amendment said: "The Electoral Commission, in collaboration with the Charity Commission for England and Wales, the Charity Commission for Northern Ireland and the Office of the Scottish Regulator, must issue joint guidance confirming the principles that apply to the engagement of charities with the referendum."
Morgan told peers that the amendment was necessary because charities needed "essential clarification" of their role in the referendum campaign.
"The EU referendum is essentially a single-constituency vote, and charities from across the UK should be able to engage fully and equally with that referendum if they wish," she said. "The problem, however, is that existing guidance from charity regulatory bodies differs across the UK."
Morgan said that charity law regulating political campaigning should be standard across the UK, with no cross-border disparity.
"What we need, therefore, is a single set of rules which will create a level playing field across the UK and clarification for charities that are registered with more than one of the charity regulators."
She said that it would make sense for the guidance to be based on the "tried and tested model of the charity guidance for the Scottish referendum".
She said: "Let us remember that this has been proven in a fierce campaign north of the border, facilitating engagement while ensuring that charities are still subject to strict rules to act prudently and independently."
But she said that she did not want to set out what the guidance should look like and that this should be drawn up by the regulators themselves.
The Conservative peer Baroness Anelay of St Johns, minister of state for foreign and commonwealth affairs, said the three charity regulators had already issued guidance on charities’ involvement in referendums and the rules across the countries were similar.
She said that the Charity Commission for England and Wales would meet the Electoral Commission today to discuss the joint promotion and communication of guidance in order to promote charities’ awareness and understanding of the rules.
"I also understand that the UK charity regulators are due to meet later this week, providing a timely opportunity to discuss this issue and consider the potential for collaboration on such guidance," Anelay said.
"We do not believe that the amendment is necessary, given the willingness of the Electoral Commission and UK charity regulators to work collaboratively on this specific subject," she said.
Morgan welcomed Anelay’s clarification and withdrew her amendment.