The Charity Commission has denied briefing Eurosceptic newspapers about new guidance on charity EU referendum campaigning days before issuing it to charities themselves, after accusations were made by Friends of the Earth.
Craig Bennett, chief executive of FoE, one of three environmental organisations to come under fire in The Daily Telegraph yesterday for campaigning on the forthcoming EU referendum, has written to David Cameron, the Prime Minister, claiming that some members of the press were given early sight of the guidance.
Bennett said he would also be writing to Paula Sussex, chief executive of the Charity Commission, about the matter.
The guidance, outlining what charity trustees must consider before allowing their charities to state a view on the EU referendum, was officially released in the early hours of yesterday morning, and was sent to Third Sector under embargo at midday on Sunday.
A commission spokesman said: "It is normal practice to issue publications under embargo. The guidance was issued under embargo to a wide selection of media outlets at 12 noon on Sunday, and subsequently published at midnight."
He denied the commission press office had sent the guidance to any news outlets before Sunday.
But Bennett said a Telegraph journalist who contacted him on Friday for comment on the story appeared to have seen the guidance already.
"We had been watching for the guidance daily – the Telegraph phoned us on Friday to say ‘we think you’re in breach of this new guidance’," he said.
"So we phoned the commission asking if we’d missed it somehow, but were told it would not be available until the following week."
He said it was "astonishing and very disappointing" that newspapers had been given the guidance before charities.
"Clearly this guidance was given by someone – and I do not want to speculate about who it might be because it might not be someone in the commission; it might be someone in government – but someone gave copies of this guidance to various anti-European newspapers last week, and it was clear they had had time to do some research by the time they contacted us on Friday," he said.
Bennett pointed to a section of the new guidance that warns trustees to consider the reputational impact of being seen to campaign on either side of the debate about whether the UK should leave the EU.
"Let’s be clear, Friends of the Earth’s reputation has been damaged today – not by anything we’ve done but by the actions either of the Charity Commission or of others in government," he said.
The Telegraph article accused FoE, Greenpeace and The Wildlife Trusts of using public money to campaign on the EU referendum "despite guidance", but said that complaints about the organisations' campaigning activities had "led to" the commission publishing the guidance.
Yesterday, the commission refuted the idea that it had published the guidance in response to complaints about the charities.
Today it confirmed it had received only one complaint about FoE’s EU campaigning activity. This, the commission said, was in February 2015.
According to Bennett, this was two months before the charity decided whether it would publically adopt a stance on the EU debate and what that stance would be.
Bennett said the organisation had begun to consider the issue three years ago and had followed a diligent process, including independent research.
He said: "After reviewing this evidence very carefully, the trustees of Friends of the Earth unanimously agreed in April 2015 that campaigning for Britain to remain in the EU was essential to support the delivery of our charitable purpose, and failing to do so would be contradictory to this."
Bennett said the charity’s activities had complied fully with the commission’s previously existing guidance on campaigning, CC9 – and, at first glance, they also complied with the new guidance. But he said he and the trustees would be looking at it more closely to ensure this was the case.
Bennett said he had been frustrated by how close to the June referendum the guidance had been published, because many charities would have already had to consider their position before now. He said he felt the guidance itself was "not in the spirit of CC9".
In his letter to the Prime Minister, Bennett said the suggestion made in the new EU guidance that charities would engage in the debate only "by exception" was an idea that "flies in the face" of Cameron’s comments in January at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, that he hoped "business, NGOs and other organisations won’t hold back" from debate around EU membership.
"We need clarity about what the Prime Minister thinks charities should do in these situations and should discuss it with regulators," he said. "At the moment we have one set of advice from the commission and another from the Prime Minister, and they seem to be completely at odds."