Campaigning and Charity Law
January 22, 2015
The 2015 General Election is fast approaching, meaning politicians are particularly keen to engage with voters. But should your organisation try and influence politics, or should you just “stick to your knitting” as one government minister suggested over the summer?
Many third sector organisations feel it’s important to engage with politicians to advance their charitable aims. Cumbria Third Sector Network certainly believes it has a role in promoting a fairer society, and will be organising a “Question Time” event in April to give people from third sector organisations a chance to hear what representatives from the main political parties have to say on the big issues affecting Cumbria’s Third Sector.
But does the new Lobbying Act restrict what your organisation can do? Well, maybe. But there have always been some restrictions on how charities can engage in politics, and for most Cumbrian organisations, it’s unlikely the Lobbying Act will create too much additional bureaucracy.
So, here’s a quick outline of the things you need to bear in mind if you’re considering campaigning – although you should also read the formal guidance (the Electoral Commission Guidance “Charities and Campaigning” leaflet is a good starting point, and contains links to the other relevant guides: http://www.electoralcommission.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0010/165961/intro-campaigning-charities-npc.pdf )
First, campaigning needs to stay within Charity Law, which means, amongst other things:
- It must further the organisation’s charitable purpose – so a youth club could campaign on issues directly affecting the young people it works with, such as better access to apprenticeships, but probably couldn’t campaign on animal rights issues even though its members may feel strongly about this
- Charities can’t be party political – they can’t support or oppose a particular political party or candidate – and must maintain their political neutrality and independence.
If the campaigning is acceptable under Charity Law, you then need to check if the organisation needs to register as a “non-party campaigner” with the Electoral Commission. There’s a flow chart in the Electoral Commission’s guidance “Charities and Campaigning” that helps you make this decision – including the “purpose test” (is activity intended to influence how people vote?) and the “public test” (is the activity aimed at the public?). It’s worth being aware that the core work of your organisation might be viewed as campaigning if it aligns closely with the policies of one or more political parties – for example, a charity working with homeless people might find its policies around housing issues overlap with those of a political party.
However, you only need to register if you’ll be spending over £20,000 on activities that could reasonably be seen to as intended to influence people’s voting choices – and whilst this isn’t likely to affect many Cumbrian organisations, if you’re planning to campaign with other organisations (for example, with similar organisations in other parts of the UK) it’s worth looking more carefully at the guidance. Activity to influence party policies, rather than the public vote, isn’t likely to be covered by the Act.
And to finish, it’s worth watching the short film Faith, Hope and Charity (http://fhcfilmsite.weebly.com/), produced by staff at our Carlisle Office, that looks at the 110 year history of voluntary action in Carlisle. You’ll certainly discover that charities getting involved in politics is nothing new! The film will also be screened at the Keswick Film Festival (http://www.keswickfilmclub.org/kff/page.php?id=kff16doc)
Cumbria Third Sector Network Coordinator