Charity groups have urged the government to clarify the lobbying act to avoid deterring charities from campaigning in the run-up to the snap general election called by Prime Minister Theresa May this morning.
The election, due to be held on 8 June, subject to parliamentary approval, will be an opportunity for charities to make their voices heard and explain their role in public life, sector groups also said.
May announced this morning that the government wanted to call an election in order to bring greater certainty and stability during the UK’s Brexit negotiations.
Reacting to the announcement, John Low, chief executive of the Charities Aid Foundation, said many people had become more politically and socially active since the referendum and saw involvement with charities as a way to make a difference.
But he said: "As we head into a general election, there is a real danger that the lobbying act might deter charities from fulfilling this fundamental role, which is central to our democracy.
"While not engaging with party politics, it is both legitimate and vital for charities to influence government and opposition policies on behalf of their beneficiaries. We should support and protect their proud and historic role in our national debate.
"We urge the government to make it crystal clear that charities can contribute their insight and expertise, which is so important at this crucial time in our country’s history."
Vicky Browning, chief executive of the charity leaders body Acevo, said her organisation would write to all the major parties, calling on them to introduce the significant reforms of the lobbying act suggested by the Conservative peer Lord Hodgson in his review of the act last year.
Hodgson’s proposals would reduce the scope of the act to include activity only intended to influence how the public votes, instead of any activity that could be seen as influencing voting intentions, as the existing rules do.
Browning said Acevo’s letter would call on the next government to commit to meaningful engagement with charities throughout the process of exiting the EU and to ensure public service contracts deliver social value as well as economic value.
She said: "At this critical moment in the national debate, now is not the time for charities to be silent. Charity leaders need to take courage from their convictions and speak out on behalf of their beneficiaries.
"A general election underlines the critical role of the independent political perspectives that charities bring to bear. A timid sector does not serve its beneficiaries or causes – that alone should give leaders the confidence to speak frankly."
Sir Stuart Etherington, chief executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, said charities should take the opportunity to make their case on issues around Brexit that would affect them, such as freedom of movement.
He said the NCVO would be using the coming weeks to remind politicians of all parties of the crucial role of charities and volunteering in national life, saying charities could make an even bigger difference in the right conditions.
The NCVO warned charities that they should immediately remind themselves of Charity Commission guidance on campaigning during an election period and, although it was crucial that charities took the opportunity to get their issues on the agenda, they should be extra vigilant about party political neutrality.
Caron Bradshaw, chief executive of the Charity Finance Group, called for charities to make bold proposals to all political parties.
"This snap election is a critical opportunity for charities to make their voices heard and help politicians to understand the role of charities in addressing some of the biggest challenges facing Britain," she said.
She said the CFG would work to communicate the importance of the sector and clearly set out how the next government could practically help charities to do their work.
Barney Mynott, head of public affairs at the local infrastructure body Navca, said: "Now is the time for political parties to reverse the recent lack of concrete policies to support social action, volunteering and the voluntary sector.
"We want all main parties to publish meaningful manifesto pledges that support our sector. If they are struggling to think of suitable policies, then a great starting point is the recent Lords select committee report."