William Shawcross says he regrets problems with EU campaigning guidance

The chair of the Charity Commission says the regulator intended only to advise charities how they could campaign within the law

William Shawcross
William Shawcross

William Shawcross, chair of the Charity Commission, has expressed regret about the regulator’s controversial guidance on campaigning ahead of the EU referendum, which was widely criticised as too prescriptive.

The commission issued the guidance in March, saying charities should campaign around the EU referendum only "in exceptional circumstances", which sector lawyers said misrepresented the law.

Two weeks later the commission issued a new version of the guidance, which accepted that there were some circumstances in which it might be appropriate for charities to explain the benefits of a particular referendum result, a move described at the time as a "significant climbdown" by one legal expert.

Speaking at an event held by the charity recruitment company Wild Search last week, Shawcross said the commission had intended only to advise the sector.

"Some felt our guidance was too restrictive and threatened to deter charities from becoming involved," he said. "I regret this.

"Our aim was not to stifle legitimate contributions, but rather to advise charities how they may contribute within the limits set by law.

"In response to some concerns, we adjusted this guidance to offer further clarity."

But Shawcross stopped short of apologising for the original guidance.

Shawcross also used his speech to suggest that grant-makers should consider requiring recipients to spend some of their grant money on governance and leadership development in order to support the commission’s work.

He said governance must become the watchword of charities to secure the future of the sector, and help was needed.

"There is a limit to what the commission can do," he said. "By law, and rightly in my view, we cannot order trustees how to run their charities. We are the policeman of charities, not the Stasi."

He also pointed to the commission’s lack of resources, given successive budget cuts amounting to £8m since 2010.

He called on foundations, umbrella bodies and others interested in the future of charity "to champion the investment of time and resource in developing the quality of boards and the role of trustees". One way to do that, he said, could be to allocate money within grant agreements.

Despite this, he said, charities with "specific concerns" were welcome to contact the commission.

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