New guidance from the Charity Commission indicates that charities will legitimately be able to support a yes or no vote in the forthcoming referendum on the alternative vote system of voting if they believe the outcome will directly affect the delivery of their charitable objects.
New guidance on referendums from the commission says the principles that govern political activity by charities also apply to referendums. In some circumstances, it says it may be appropriate for charities to "set out the pros and cons of a yes or no vote for their beneficiaries".
It says: "For example, if the outcome of a referendum will have a particular impact on older people, it would be appropriate for a charity that works with older people to explain the effects of the different outcomes to its beneficiaries."
But it draws a distinction between setting out the pros and cons and actively campaigning for a yes or no vote.
"In exceptional cases charities may consider that the outcome of a referendum is likely to directly affect, positively or negatively, the delivery of their charitable objects," it says. "Where the impact on the work of the charity is very indirect or uncertain, the trustees will find it difficult to justify campaigning for a particular outcome.
"The key question for the trustees is exactly how such activity would be an effective way of promoting the objects of the charity."
The document says charities might need to register with the Electoral Commission as campaigning organisations if they plan to publish material that indicates support for one side in a referendum.
A statement issued by the No to AV campaign said: "We welcome this guidance from the Charity Commission and will be seeking urgent clarification from the charities concerned over how their alleged support meets their charitable objectives."