Use the chance to seize the day

Charities can be exploited and misrepresented by politicians at election time, and there are obvious traps to avoid. But it also presents voluntary groups with a prime opportunity to get their message across, as Emma Maier reports.

Political billboard posters have crept up and politicians have started getting touchy-feely in their constituencies, but for weeks the coy pretence of normality in Whitehall has continued. This week, after months of anticipation, Britain's worst kept secret was revealed and the election date was announced finally - let battle commence.

Among the inevitable sniping and muck-raking that will become commonplace until 5 May, each of the parties will be making a range of shiny new promises about what they plan to deliver should they win. The voluntary sector has got good reason to monitor these promises carefully. "The growing use of the voluntary sector in government contracts can raise the potential for the buck to be passed on responsibility for delivery," says Ruairi O'Connor, senior public affairs officer at the British Heart Foundation.

This isn't a problem if the charities concerned have been campaigning for an opportunity to deliver the service. But sometimes this isn't the case.

"For example, over the past six to eight months, the Conservative Party has been talking about handing over Job Seeker Centres and New Deal initiatives to the sector, and that's not necessarily in response to advocacy from charities," says Pete Moorey, parliamentary and campaigns officer at sector umbrella body the NCVO. "Just because one party or other is saying they want a greater role for charities in a given area doesn't mean that charities have to turn around and say 'we should be doing this'."

According to O'Connor, it's up to charities to be vigilant. "Make sure that contracts with government rely on joint action and that core funding is provided for the duration of the contract," he urges. "Then it's not up to the charity to take it forward; it is actually a partnership."

As well as making promises for the next term, politicians will also spend at lot of time in the election campaign reviewing what has already been achieved. And this includes what has been achieved with the help and support of the voluntary sector.

"You can understand why parties would take credit for certain things, but it's up to charities to make sure that a fully rounded picture is presented," says O'Connor.

Talk of achievements can also have wider implications. A recent Department of Health report showed a reduction in deaths from heart disease. The ensuing media coverage claimed that heart disease would be beaten by 2013.

This obscured the message that caring for people living with heart disease is now a major issue and has ramifications for the British Heart Foundation's fundraising efforts.

At election time, the risk of perception that an issue has been resolved is an ever-present concern for charities. "There is a fear that cancer will no longer be a top priority in the next term and that somehow the cancer box has been ticked," says Macmillan Cancer Relief parliamentary affairs manager Kevin Shinkwin.

But election time also brings some opportunities for charities. "It's really a positive time for all voluntary organisations," says Acevo chief executive Stephen Bubb. "It's the maximum opportunity to get political parties to listen to what you've got to say."

Moorey agrees: "Jamie Oliver's healthy school dinner crusade demonstrates in impressive terms just how possible it is to get an issue onto the agenda before an election."

And it's not just the politicians who are switched on. "People are more engaged in political discussion at election time, and that allows you to raise awareness of issues among the electorate," says O'Connor.

Nonetheless, there are risks. "My instinct would be to be extremely cautious," says Shinkwin. "To use a rugby analogy, the election campaign is a scrum and you run the risk that a) the ball gets lost and, b), as happens in most scrums, someone picks the ball up and it will be used to score points by one team."

Acevo's Bubb is less cautionary. "I think the political parties are fairly switched on to the notion that they're not going to get a charity to endorse a particular party," he says.

Despite the risks, the Charity Commission's head of regulatory policy, Caroline Cooke, says charities have an important campaigning role. "In the past, some charities have been concerned that they should do less campaigning than usual during elections, but we don't want charities to lose campaigning opportunities - it's just a matter of doing it carefully," she says. "The key charity law principle that must be remembered is independence."

This means always acting and speaking on behalf of your beneficiaries and being careful not to support one party over another. "It's important to make sure you contact representatives of parties equally," advises O'Connor. "Ideally, you want to be building consensus so your issue receives cross-party support."

Moorey also recommends making the most of this time of heightened awareness to establish contacts. "Candidates will be out much more in their localities and will want to engage with charities and see local charities' services," he says. "Charities shouldn't be shy of meeting candidates and pushing their issues. It's a good time to secure commitments with local candidates and build relationships."

But for all the action taken during election time, following up afterwards is the secret to success. "It's up to charities to ensure that constant pressure is applied throughout the parliamentary cycle," says O'Connor. "The charity's voice must be strong and ongoing."

CAMPAIGNING DURING AN ELECTION

- Do make it clear that your policies are for the benefit of your beneficiaries and that any similarities with party political policies are purely coincidental

- Do try to get a balanced representation if you invite political candidates to charity events

- Do feel free to let candidates use your premises, as long as commercial hire rates apply

- Don't compare the policies of different parties in your campaign messages

- Don't help candidates with their election campaigns and be wary of them trying to gain kudos through association

- Don't donate funds to a political party

For more details see www.charitycommission.gov.uk

Also consider the Charity Commission's campaigning guidance CC9, the Representation of the People Act (1983), which has rules about paying expenses to political candidates, and the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act (2000), which outlines new rules on political campaigns.

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