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Charitable campaigning and political activity: can charities and politics mix?

30 January 2024

What are the duties of trustees when it comes to political engagement?

This article is about the normal rules for charities when thinking about campaigning and political activity.  Additional rules apply in the year running up to a general election (read our article Charity campaigning and political activity in an election period).

For most charities, there are a number of different ways in which they could carry out their charitable purposes.  The trustees are free, within the law and regulatory requirements, to select the means which they believe in good faith will best further their charitable purposes. 

Campaigning and political activity

This can include, to use the Charity Commission’s language from its Campaigning and political activity guidance for charities (CC9):

  • “Campaigning”: the process of raising awareness of a particular issue to educate the public or to attract their support.  The Charity Commission uses this for non-political campaigning. 

  • “Political activity”: aimed at securing or opposing changes in law, policy, or government decisions, or in seeking to maintain the status quo.  This includes political campaigning. 

Campaigning or political activity?

Sometimes it can be confusing which category something falls in to.  We have set out some examples below.  Which are they? 

A health charity promoting healthy eating to help reduce heart problems, or encouraging people to stop smoking or to reduce their alcohol consumption for the sake of their health.  Campaigning or political activity?  

Campaigning. It is raising awareness of an issue/educating the public.  It is not calling for legal or policy reform.  

A health charity calling for the government or the police to enforce the existing law which bans the sale of alcohol to under 18s.  Campaigning or political activity? 

Campaigning.  It is seeking to enforce the existing law rather than seeking to affect what the law or policy is.

A health charity calling for the government to keep the law which bans smoking in indoor public places.  Campaigning or political activity? 

Political activity.  It is aimed at preserving existing legislation.  This is distinguished from asking the government or other agencies to enforce existing legislation or using existing legislation to claim rights for beneficiaries.

A health charity calling for the government to ban adverts for junk food or to ban sales of energy drinks to children.  Campaigning or political activity? 

Political activity.  It is aimed at securing a change in the law.

A health charity calling for the government to make dental care free for all at the point of delivery.  Campaigning or political activity?

Political activity.  It is aimed at securing a change in the current law and/or policy.  It does not matter whether the aim is to maintain the status quo, or to relax or toughen it – seeking legal or policy change is political activity.

It can be summarised like this: taking advantage of existing laws and policies is campaigning.  Seeking to influence law or policy is political activity. 

The same rules apply whether it is UK law or policy or that of another country.  However, the picture can be complicated by international law which may conflict with domestic law.

Charities can do both campaigning and political activity, but political activity is more heavily regulated, particularly in an election year.  Electoral law is beyond the scope of this article, but please read our article on Charity campaigning and political activity in an election period

How has political engagement by charities advanced their charitable purposes?

Here are some of the ways in which charities have successfully engaged politically in the past in order to secure changes for their beneficiaries:

  • Various disability charities came to together to lobby successfully for new rights and protections for disabled people in the Disability Discrimination Acts of 1995 and 2006.[1]

  • An animal welfare charity lobbied to secure a ban on hunting with dogs in the Hunting Act 2004.[2]

  • An LGBTQ+ charity has campaigned successfully for the right for same-sex couples to have civil partnerships, get married, and adopt children, and for protection from discrimination at work for LGBTQ+ people (amongst other things).[3]

  • In 2021 an environmental charity successfully lobbied for Europe’s largest Ultra Low Emission Zone (in London).[4]

In some cases there may be charities on opposite sides of a political debate.  For example, an animal welfare charity may wish to stop animal testing; whereas some medical charities may be concerned about any changes which may make it harder to develop life-saving medicines.

How have charities engaged politically in the past?

Examples include:

  • Inviting their beneficiaries to write to their MP about an issue relevant to the charity.

  • Setting out how particular MPs have voted on issues relevant to their charity, so that readers can decide for themselves which MPs are likely to support the charity’s goals. 

  • Sharing a summary of manifesto pledges with their supporters.  It is crucial that the summary is accurate and balanced e.g. covering the position of at least the main political parties.

So you are considering political engagement.  What do you need to think about?

The usual trustee duties apply when making any decision.  We have set out below some points to consider.  Please note that this is not a comprehensive list, but we hope that it provides a helpful starting point.

Ensuring that your charity is carrying out its purposes for the public benefit.

  • Is the activity likely to be an effective means of furthering the charity’s objects?

  • Does the political activity or linked campaign have a realistic end date so that it does not become the continuing activity of the charity?

  • Charities cannot have political purposes, even as part of a list of other purposes.  Some organisations decide not to become charities for this reason.  The lines have become a bit blurred with the acceptance of the promotion of human rights as a charitable purpose.  The promotion of human rights used to be regarded as a political purpose, but the adoption of the Human Rights Act 1998 means that it is now a charitable purpose to seek to exercise the rights granted by the Act.

  • Linked to the no political purposes point, charities cannot have political activities as the continuing and sole activity of the charity.  So political activities can be part of the mix, or in exceptional cases can be the only activity for a limited period, but not the only activity over an extended period.

Complying with your charity’s governing document and the law.

  • Have you checked what legal and regulatory requirements apply?

  • Are you complying with the BCAP Code and CAP Code and laws on defamation (if applicable)?

  • Does your governing document prevent you from engaging in political activity?

Act in your charity’s best interests.

  • Is the activity in the best interests of the charity?

  • What other options are available to the charity?  Which is most likely to advance the charity’s purposes most cost effectively?

  • Charities must remain independent.  This means that they must not be party political.  When engaging with political parties, charities need to take care that the engagement is in the charity’s best interests and not compromising its independence or reputation.

Manage your charity’s resources responsibly.             

  • Do the likely outcomes justify the resources required?  Consider financial resources, as well as staff and trustee time and emotional energy.

  • Have you carried out a proper risk assessment?

  • Have you carried out proper due diligence on donors e.g. is  there a risk of greenwashing, tainted associations, compromised independence or reputational damage?

Act with reasonable care and skill.                            

  • Consider whether you need to take professional advice.

  • Any decision the trustees take must be within the range of reasonable decisions open to them.  Consider all the options before deciding which one (or ones) are best.

Ensure your charity is accountable.

  • Are there clear, measurable objectives (including a realistic end date for the political activity)?

  • Do you have a proper record of your decision-making and the reasons for it e.g. minutes, business plans, risk registers?

  • Are you able to explain to regulators, beneficiaries, funders and other stakeholders why you have taken the decisions you have taken?

 The restrictions

We wish to flag two restrictions in particular:

  • Charities cannot be party political.  They must never endorse a political party, manifesto, policy or candidate, and they must not tell voters which way to vote.  Charities must never donate money to a political party or electoral candidate.  It is important that charities are, and are seen to be, independent. 

  • Political activity must never become the continuing and sole activity of a charity. 

There are of course other restrictions, but charities should be free within the law and regulatory requirements to engage in campaigning and political activity in furtherance of their purposes.

If you have any queries about what your charity can and can’t do when it comes to campaigning and political activity, please contact Nat Johnson or any member of our charities and social economy team on 0113 244 6100.

The information in this article is necessarily of a general nature and relates only to England and Wales.  Different rules may apply in Scotland and Northern Ireland.  The law stated is correct at the date (stated above) this article was first posted to our website, but no liability can be accepted for reliance on this article. Specific advice should be sought for specific situations. If you have any queries or need any legal advice, please feel free to contact Wrigleys Solicitors.

 

 
 
 
 
 
 

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Nat Johnson View Biography

Nat Johnson

Partner
Leeds

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