The National Trust, the League against Cruel Sports, Whizz-Kidz and the International Fund for Animal Welfare were among 17 charities contacted by the Charity Commission because of concerns about their political neutrality in the nine months before this year’s general election.
A case report by the commission on the events in question says that "most issues were dealt with promptly and without need for escalation within the commission, indicating these were not considered serious breaches of guidance."
One of the charities, the Badger Trust, is the subject of a separate case report detailing the commission’s intervention when the charity promoted a march entitled Stop Cameron’s Cull. The charity agreed to stop promoting the event and made it clear that its chief executive would be speaking at it in a personal capacity only.
The commission received a further 22 complaints that it says either did not require regulatory action or were related to requests for advice: "These include cases which arose a result of the actions of others as opposed to the charities concerned, for example where candidates or media used information from or about charities in their materials which gave rise to the perception that the charity was endorsing the candidate or party, without the charity’s consent."
A spokeswoman for the commission confirmed that the complaints on which it took no action included one about the Policy Exchange, which describes itself as the UK's leading think tank and cites directly elected police commissioners, the pupil premium and free schools as examples of its policy ideas that have been taken up by government.
The case report says the 17 instances it deals with were diverse and predominately concerned charities in two income brackets: those with incomes between £25,000 and £500,000, and those with incomes over £1m.
In each of the instances dealt with, the report does not say which political parties the charities were said to be supporting. A commission spokeswoman declined to say what the parties were on the grounds that "it is not relevant from a regulatory perspective."
The interventions by the commission related to events including:
- The display on the dome of a mosque of a banner endorsing a particular election candidate: the UK Turkish Islamic Trust said the banner was put up without its consent, and took it down when contacted by the commission
- The inclusion of a photograph of the chief executive of Whizz-Kidz in the manifesto of a political party: the charity was advised to issue a public response distancing itself from the use of the picture and reasserting its political neutrality
- A newspaper headline saying a particular party "is the only party that recognizes rural threat, head of National Trust warns": the commission recognized that the charity had no control over the headline, but advised the charity "that there may be some who might argue that the comments in the article were party political in nature and may have the effect of influencing voters"
The case report concludes: "It is a fundamental principle of charity law that charities must maintain their independence and must never engage in party political activity. They may only engage in campaigning and political activity that supports their charitable purposes."
In an election period, the risk of a charity supporting or appearing to support a party or candidate is heightened, the report says, and legitimate campaigning activity need careful consideration and monitoring by trustees.
"In the cases that came to us, this was the risk that most frequently led to concerns being raised with us about a breach of our guidance CC9."
The other charities mentioned in the case report are 2/230th Manchester Scout Group, Brent Private Tenants' Rights Group Ltd, Brighton and Hove Unwaged Advice and Rights Centre, Chabad Lubavitch Centre North East London and Essex Ltd, Countryside Restoration Trust, Greenstead Community Association, Kidz in Kampz, Middlesbrough and Teesside Philanthropic Society, Moorends Miners Welfare and Community Development Centre, National Council of Hindu Temples, the UK Turkish Islamic Trust, and Vale and Downland Museum.