General election 2017

How to campaign and speak up while staying within the rules

Watch a recording of our webinar on how to campaign during the election period

What does the snap general election mean for you?

In the run up to the general election, some charities will want to talk in public about the causes and beneficiaries that they care about. This will include talking to politicians and the media, or campaigning and raising awareness within the public about the changes you want to see or policies that you think the next government should adopt.

This is perfectly right and normal: we encourage you to speak up. We also want to help you. If your charity campaigns or engages with politicians, there are some rules that apply in the run-up to the election. This guide aims to help you to speak up with the confidence that you are doing it within the rules.

Two areas are especially important:

These rules recognise that campaigning is a legitimate thing for charities to do. Charities can legitimately continue to campaign to advance their cause and speak up for their beneficiaries. The aim of these rules is to ensure that you campaign responsibly and lawfully.

What the Charity Commission’s guidance says

During the period between the announcement of an election, and the date on which an election is held, charities must follow the Charities, Elections and Referendums guidance. This supplements the general Speaking out: Guidance on Campaigning and Political Activities by Charities (CC9) and in some parts sets stricter requirements.

Key points about campaigning

The following legal principles described in CC9 always apply, both outside and during an election period.

  • A charity cannot be established for political purposes. So a charity cannot exist for the purpose of securing or opposing a change in the law, policy or decisions.
  • Charities can campaign for a change in the law, policy or decisions where such change would support the charity’s purposes. Charities can also campaign to ensure that existing laws are observed.
  • Party political support in any form is never allowed. So a charity cannot exist for the purpose of furthering the interests of any political party.
  • A charity may engage with political parties in ways which support its charitable purposes. If a charity has any involvement with political parties it must ensure this is balanced and it must always safeguard its independence.
  • Charities must never support or oppose a political party or candidate. Charities must never donate funds to political parties, candidates or politicians.
  • Charities can engage with individual politicians. However when doing so they must remain politically neutral and consider how they can ensure public perceptions of neutrality.
  • A charity may give its support to one or more specific policies advocated by political parties if it would help achieve its charitable purposes. This is different from giving general support to a political party, which is not allowed.
  • Trustees must not allow the charity to be used as a vehicle for the expression of the political views of any individual trustees or staff member.

In the run up to an election, these principles apply more strictly so charities need to take special care to ensure their political neutrality.

What does this mean in practice?

Policies

Your charity’s policy position on a particular issue may coincide with, or be more or less similar to, that of one of the political parties – eg you might support building more houses as a solution to homelessness. In this case it is entirely acceptable for your charity to continue to campaign on that issue and to advocate your policy. But your charity must make clear its independence from any political party advocating the same policy. Your charity must do nothing to encourage support for any political party, even if they agree with your policy.

Publicity

In any publicity material (including printed material, media interviews, and websites) your charity may promote its views on issues which relate to your charitable objectives and activities. However your charity must steer clear of explicitly comparing your views (favourably or otherwise) with those of the political parties or candidates taking part in the election.

Your charity can publish a manifesto to persuade the political parties to adopt the policies which you advocate. You can also do this if you are simply trying to raise the public profile of the issues your charity was established to address. But it is not acceptable where the intention is to influence voter behaviour.

Election candidates

Your charity is free to approach the candidates in an election, setting out your charity’s concerns and asking for the candidates’ opinions on them, with a view to promoting debate.

However, you should be especially wary of associating – or becoming associated in the minds of the public – with a particular candidate or political party. The point here is to remain neutral at all times.

Your charity is free to invite candidates and political party representatives to public meetings about issues on which your charity is campaigning, eg you can invite candidates to debate those issues, or to speak at a reception to launch your charity’s campaign. However an event or speaking opportunity must not be seen as support for any political party. One way of making sure that this doesn’t happen may be to invite representatives from as wide a political spectrum as possible, although in some cases the Charity Commission recognises that it may be acceptable not to invite a particular candidate or political party (eg if the presence of a particular candidate could lead to disorder or alienate the charity’s supporters).

What the non-party campaigning rules say

The non-party campaigning rules are intended to provide transparency and limitations on spending by organisations and individuals that are not political parties but are involved in election-related campaigning.

The ‘regulated campaign activity’ that brings you within the scope of the rules is activity that ‘can reasonably be regarded as intended to promote or procure electoral success at any relevant election’ for particular political parties or candidates (this is referred to as the ‘purpose test’). This includes parties and candidates who share particular views or policy positions.

The activities are only regulated if they also are aimed at, seen or heard by, or involve the public (this is referred to as the ‘public test’).

A charity’s official members and ‘committed supporters’ (such as regular donors with a direct debit, or people who are actively involved in the organisation) are not considered to be part of the public. However, active involvement is interpreted narrowly for these purposes. Furthermore, people with whom the charity regularly communicates with (because they have signed up to email updates or social networking sites) are considered members of the public.

The difficulty for charities is that the definition of ‘regulated campaign activity’ can be met even in the following situations:

  • No party or candidate is expressly named (but for example, the charity is campaigning for a policy that is closely associated in the public’s view with one or more political parties).
  • The campaign activity is intended to achieve something else, such as raising awareness of an issue.

There may therefore be circumstances where charities are undertaking regulated campaign activity, even though they have no actual intention to support or prejudice particular parties or candidates (which would be prohibited under charity law). This is entirely legitimate, and means that charities need to register with the Electoral Commission as a non-party campaigner.

Understanding whether a charity needs to register involves looking at:

  • the charity’s campaigning activities during the regulated period
  • the timing of those activities
  • how much money the charity plans to spend on these activities.

The regulated period for non-party campaigners is 365 days from polling day. The regulated period for the 2017 general election on 8 June therefore started on 9 June 2016.

Charities will need to register with the Electoral Commission if during this period they have spent, or plan to spend, the following amounts on regulated campaign activity:

  • More than £20,000 in England
  • More than £10,000 in Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland

What’s the risk charities need to manage?

Earlier in this guidance we said that charity law is very clear: your charity cannot support any political party at any time, and this requires especially careful management in the period before an election. The non-party campaigning rules say that your campaign activity and expenditure is of regulatory interest when the purpose may reasonably be regarded as being to influence the outcome of an election and it is targeted at the public. The first rule appears to preclude the second: charity law does not allow you to spend money on the purpose that electoral law is seeking to control.

The relevance of electoral law to charities is due to the fact that the Electoral Commission takes an objective approach: this means that it might view your campaign spending as regulated activity even if it wasn’t your intention to influence voters’ decisions. So, while the Charity Commission recognises that such activity can be legitimate, you may have obligations under electoral law.

In particular, if you think you may incur expenditure on regulated campaign activity and the amount could require registration with the Electoral Commission, there is a judgement to be made at board level. This is because registration is likely to involve work in terms of your charity’s governance, activity planning, record keeping and reporting. These are factors trustees will need to consider carefully when deciding their charity’s campaigning activities in the run up to the election.

Watch the webinar

We held a webinar on campaigning during the election period on 2 May.

Please get in touch with us if you have any questions.

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