What charities need to know about election time

Be aware of the law on endorsing particular parties, but don't assume the lobbying act is a huge barrier to campaigning

The general election campaign is now in full swing, so what must the voluntary sector be aware of before the vote on 8 June?

Peter Gilheany, PR director at Forster Communications, says any charity that is already campaigning on a specific issue can and should continue to do so during the election period.

"Charities need to view this as an opportunity to bring some focus and impact to their campaigning rather than being scared into staying quiet or downing tools because of a misplaced fear of getting into trouble as a result of the lobbying act," he says.

"Elections have always been a focal point for charity campaigning, and organisations that already campaign are generally well versed in ensuring there isn’t a party political element to their campaigning, which is the main stricture of the act itself."

He says an election can provide a good opportunity to put an issue on the agenda, but everyone is having the same thought so it could be difficult to gain traction with a short election period that is likely to be dominated by Brexit.

Chris Walker, senior external relations officer at the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, says charities should not assume that the lobbying act is the barrier that many people seem to believe it is.

"Charities need to be aware of both the Charity Commission guidance on campaigning during elections and the lobbying act, but they shouldn’t assume it will stop them from making their voices heard," he says. "Provided you are campaigning on substantive policy issues and engaging with candidates from all parties, you shouldn’t have any problems.

"As always, charities will need to bear in mind how they can ensure their independence and avoid being dragged into party political debate, so thinking about how and when to intervene in a measured way is important."

Nicola Evans, charities counsel at the law firm Bircham Dyson Bell, sounds a more cautious note.

She says there are continuing concerns about the lobbying act, especially in light of the recent fines levied on Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth for breaching the legislation during the 2015 general election.

"Charities should take steps now to carry out health checks on their communications, including social media, to ensure their independence and to consider whether they might be affected by the lobbying act," she says.

The Charity Commission has published guidance on what charities can and cannot do during election periods. It says the guiding principle of charity law in terms of elections is that charities must be and must be seen to be independent from party politics.

But it says that charities can continue to campaign on issues that are the same or similar to the position of one or more political parties, providing they make clear their independence of any of those parties and, crucially, do nothing to encourage support for any party.

It says charities can also set out where each party stands on a particular issue the charity is campaigning about, but they must not call on people to vote for one party or another.

"The key point is that while charities can attempt to influence public opinion on a particular issue if it furthers or supports their objects, they must leave it to the electorate to make their own decisions about how to vote," it says.

The guidance says it is acceptable for charities to publish their own manifestos, providing the intention is to persuade political parties to adopt the policies in it or raise the public profile of those issues, not to influence voter behaviour.

Charities must refuse any request from a political party to refer to them in its manifesto because of the risk that the charity would appear to be endorsing the party itself, the guidance says.

It says charities can invite candidates to public meetings about issues on which the charity is campaigning, such as a debate, but again the regulator’s guidance says this must not encourage support for any political party.

It suggests that inviting representatives from a wide range of political parties could be one way of achieving this, but in practice this can be difficult.

Charities are free to approach candidates directly during an election to set out their concerns and ask for the candidates’ opinions on them, but they should be careful that this does not lead to them becoming associated with the candidate and their party in the minds of the public.

The regulator recommends that charities acquaint themselves with guidance published by the Electoral Commission on the lobbying act, or to give it its full name the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014.

The act says non-party campaigners must register with the Electoral Commission if they plan to spend more than £20,000 in England or £10,000 in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland on activities that can be "reasonably regarded as intended to influence voters to vote for or against political parties or categories of candidates".

Electoral Commission guidance says that because charity law prevents charities from supporting or opposing political parties or candidates, spending on charity campaigns will not, in most cases, be regulated under electoral law.

But a complicating factor for charities is that because the election has been called at short notice, the period from which any relevant expenditure must be counted will date back to 9 June last year.

Andrew O’Brien, head of policy and engagement at the Charity Finance Group, warns that the retrospective cost calculation will cause "significant confusion" for charities that are caught by the act.

"It is important for campaigners and finance teams to work together," he says. "In future it might be the case that charities carrying out activities caught by the act will need to calculate their costs on an ongoing basis because of the risk of snap elections."

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