Charity Campaigning Before The General Election

With the upcoming 4 July 2024 election, charities are planning campaigns to highlight their issues. While they can campaign on non-partisan issues, they must adhere to legal guidelines to maintain political neutrality and ensure compliance with electoral law.
UK Corporate/Commercial Law
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A general election has been called for 4 July 2024 so many charities that we are working with have started to plan their campaigns to ensure that the issues that matter to them are on the political agenda.

Charity campaigning

Raising the profile of a charity's purposes and advocating for policy change is an important part of what a charity does but it's critical that charities understand the legal framework and potential risks associated with engaging in campaigning activity.

In recent months there has been considerable discussion about the role that charities play in public debate. In this context the Chairs of the Charity Commission and Electoral Commission issued advice for charities in December 2023.

Whilst charities are not permitted to engage in party politics, charities can legitimately engage in campaigning activities including leading up to and during an election period.

It's important to ensure that the views of the charity are politically independent, and that the charity is not used to advocate the political views of its staff or trustees. Safeguards need to be in place and campaign activities mut be carefully planned to ensure that all activities are carried out in accordance with the Charity Commission guidance. In addition, the Charity Commission has campaigning guidance for charities during an election. This also features as a 5-minute guide for trustees which we recommend all trustees review.

The Charity Commission has confirmed that campaigning is a legitimate activity for charities. This is still the case during elections but there is inevitably greater scrutiny of a charity's views before election day particularly on high profile issues. In summary, charities can take part in political activity provided it supports their purpose and is in their best interests.

"Campaigning" in this context of the Commission's guidance means raising awareness of an issue, attempting to influence public attitudes or corporate behaviour, and mobilising public support. This is different from "political activity" which is designed to secure (or oppose) a change in the law, or the policies or decisions of a public body.

Charities can engage in campaigning and political activities, but it cannot get involved in party political activities including supporting a political party or an individual. It's important to ensure that where possible, charities should seek cross-party support to ensure that they remain independent and politically neutral.

We recommend that all charities engaged in campaigning ahead of the elections undertake an assessment of its governing document and documents, the key risks associated with its campaign and steps that it plans to take, to manage them in accordance with the charity's governance processes.

During this period, many charities will seek to publicise the issues that they campaign on, sometimes in the form of manifestos as long as these are not intended to influence voter behaviour. They cannot, however, feature in the manifesto of a political party.

Charities can arrange hustings or public debates.

In order to manage potential risks trustees should ensure that they have a detailed assessment of how the campaign will be managed and the mitigations it has in place. It's also important that the charity carefully manages its communications during this period, has clear reporting lines and has adopted an appropriate communications plan and social media policy in accordance with the recent Charity Commission guidance (social media).

In addition to the usual charity law requirements, charities also need to ensure that they understand which campaign activities are regulated as a matter of electoral law. If a charity spends money on activities that can reasonably be regarded as intended to influence people's voting choice this is considered as 'regulated campaign activities'. This is the purpose test which means to "promote or procure the electoral success of:

  • one or more political parties
  • political parties or candidates who support or do not support particular policies or
  • another particular category of candidates by influencing voters at an upcoming election to vote in a particular way."

You may be caught by this test if your views on a policy (positive or negative) are closely connected to a political party and a reasonable person may believe that you are seeking to influence someone to vote in a particular way even if that was not the actual intention of the charity.

If a charity is engaged in regulated campaign activities, you are required to register with the Electoral Commission as non-party campaigners if your charity spends over £10,000 on regulated campaign activities, across the United Kingdom. Registration also involves post-election compliance requirements, including the filing of financial returns, designed to meet public transparency requirements. This requires early registration with the Charity Commission. Once the election is called you are unable to spend in excess of the threshold until the registration has been authorised.

Please be aware that where you are coordinating activity with another charity, care should be taken as the spending limit applies overall, rather than to each charity's spend.

After the election, you may then need to provide financial returns, to support public transparency. If you think you might need to register, once an election is called, you cannot spend over the threshold until your registration is confirmed.

We recommend that charities who are potentially engaged in regulated political activity carefully consider the Electoral Commission's full guidance for non-party campaigners during elections including spending limits, and what counts as regulated activity.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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