Scottish referendum guidance says charity campaigning must be in line with objects

Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator publishes guidance that says trustees must be able to demonstrate that any campaigning is a way of achieving their purposes

Charities in Scotland can campaign for or against Scottish independence before next year’s referendum, providing they do so to achieve their charitable objectives, says new guidance from the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator.

The guidance, published by the OSCR yesterday, says: "Some charities may consider that one or other outcome of the referendum is likely to directly affect their ability to work towards their charitable purposes, either positively or negatively. They may therefore wish to campaign for or against an outcome in the referendum.

"Where trustees wish to do so they must be able to demonstrate that this is a way of achieving their charitable purposes," it says.

The guidance also says that trustees must ensure that campaigning on the issue "does not advance a political party" and be satisfied they are acting in the interests of the charity.

In April, the OSCR asked charities for their views on a draft version of guidance on the referendum, which will be held in September 2014.

In its response to the consultation, the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations criticised the guidance for lacking clarity, especially about whether charities would be able to campaign for a particular vote in the referendum.

The regulator’s draft guidance said it was unlikely that supporting or opposing the prospect of Scottish independence as a whole could be easily linked to the furtherance of charitable purposes.

In a statement issued yesterday, David Robb, chief executive of the OSCR, said the regulator had consistently stated that charities could campaign in the independence referendum debate as long as they met legal requirements.

"On the specific question of advocating a yes or a no vote, we have clarified our position and made our wording more explicit," said Robb.

"While we never ruled out the possibility of charities advocating a yes or a no vote, our dialogue with the sector made clear that a wider set of circumstances could exist where charities may legitimately speak out, and our final guidance reflects this."

Martin Sime, chief executive of the SCVO, said the organisation strongly supported the new guidance. "Charities play a huge role in public life in Scotland so the referendum is bound to have a big impact on them," he said.

"It is important that third sector organisations are able to get fully involved in the debate, and this guidance from the OSCR will help them to think about the issues involved while adhering to the law."

The OSCR has also produced webcasts from the Scottish Refugee Council, Scottish Environment Link and Diabetes UK discussing their experiences of planning for the vote. 

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