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Charity campaigning and political activity in an election period

30 January 2024

Will the upcoming general election impact your charity’s activities?

With a general election set to take place no later than 28 January 2025 – perhaps far sooner if some rumours from Downing Street are to be believed – charities must be aware of the tighter restrictions on their activities as we enter a ‘regulated period’. Campaigning has been a hot button issue in recent months, with the introduction of the Charity Commission’s long-awaited social media guidance, as well as several high-profile charities being subject to public scrutiny as a result of their political messaging and engagement with government policy. It is therefore important for trustees to remember their ordinary duties and obligations as regards campaigning and political activities, and to be aware of recent changes which may impact upon their activities in this regulated election period. 

For many charities, many of their activities will be able to continue as usual.  However, charities need to be extra mindful of any political activity in the year running up to a general election and certain other elections (the year starts retrospectively).  In this article we set out some key headlines in relation to the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 (often known as PPERA).

It is possible that the outcome of the election will affect the work of your charity in other ways – demand for your services could go up or down; funding could be made available or cut; public policy or legislative change could smooth the path for you or your beneficiaries or make it harder.  Consideration of these factors is beyond the scope of this article, but we would encourage you to consider these issues as part of your charity’s risk register and risk assessments. 

What are the normal rules?

Charities can in normal circumstances carry out non-political campaigning and certain political activity.  There are criteria to meet, processes to follow, and some restrictions, but there is also quite a lot of freedom within that.  More on that in our article on Charitable campaigning and political activity: can charities and politics mix?

What changes in an election year?

There is increased regulation in an election year – this time by the Electoral Commission.  The usual charity law rules still apply, but some additional election law rules apply as well and charities need to be that bit more careful about their activities.

Questions for charities to ask themselves:

Is it a “regulated period”?

The regulated period is the 365 day period leading up to and including polling day.  That means that, with the way the UK political system works, we can be in a regulated period without knowing it.  As we know that the general election will be held no later than 28 January 2025, we know that we are now in a regulated period.

If yes, are you a “non-party campaigner”?

For the purposes of electoral law, non-party campaigners (sometimes called third parties) are individuals or organisations who campaign for or against political parties or candidates or on issues around elections without standing as a candidate or being a registered political party. This may include charities.  Charities must not campaign for or against candidates or parties because of charity law, but they may wish to campaign on relevant issues.  The issues must be relevant to the charity’s charitable purposes.

If yes, are you taking part in “regulated campaign activity”?

Non-party campaigners are subject to spending and reporting requirements where they engage in “regulated campaign activity”; broadly this is campaigning which can reasonably be regarded as intended to promote the electoral success of a particular party, parties or candidates supporting or not supporting a particular policy by influencing voters to vote in a particular way. Whether a charity’s campaigning is considered to do this relies on an assessment of several factors, including how a reasonable person would see the activity, the context and timing, the tone, and the call to action of the activity.

Are you planning to spend more than £700 on regulated campaign activity?

If so, you need to check that you are eligible.  If you are not UK-based or an unincorporated association with the requisite UK connection, you are not eligible and you must not spend more than £700 on regulated campaign activity. 

Eligible parties include:

  • Individuals resident in the UK or registered in an electoral register.

  • A company registered under the Companies Act 2006 and incorporated with the UK and carrying on business in the UK.

  • A limited liability partnership.

  • A friendly society.

  • An unincorporated association carrying on business or other activities in the UK and whose main office is in the UK.

  • A body incorporated by Royal Charter not falling in the list above.

  • A charitable incorporation organisation.

  • A Scottish CIO.

  • A partnership constituted under the law of Scotland which carries on business in the United Kingdom.

Do you intend to spend more than £10,000?

If so, you must check that you are eligible (same list as for spending over £700) and, if you are, notify the Electoral Commission and appoint a “responsible person”.

Do you intend to spend more than £20,000 in England or £10,000 in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland? 

If you spend more than £20,000, you must record and report your spending.

Is your proposed budget within the spending limits?
  • Make sure that you don’t go above the spending caps.  There are caps per constituency as well as for parts of the UK and overall.[1]

  • Charity law restrictions mean that charities should not be seeking to influence voters to vote for a particular party.  This means that they should not be engaging in what the Electoral Commission call “targeted spending” (which might require authorisation from the political party in question).

  • It isn’t just spending which is regulated – the receipt of donations (or donations in kind) over £500 specifically towards regulated campaign activity is also regulated.  

Have you checked the rules and taken advice if needs be? 

There are traps for the unwary in how this is calculated. For example, you may think there is very little cost associated with certain activities (such as reusing materials from previous years, or avoiding the cost of print by utilising online platforms). However, staff and overhead costs associated with the regulated campaign activity must be taken into account, as well as other costs such as storing, altering and re-using old materials. The administrative burden of the reporting requirements associated with exceeding the notification threshold may be such that charities should carefully consider the scope of their campaigning during an election period.   Where two or more charities or organisations work together on a joint campaign, expenditure by one counts towards the total spend of all.  So some charities could in theory reach the thresholds without spending more than £700 themselves.

Are you planning to conduct regulated campaign activity using digital materials? 

If so, please note that digital materials (such as social media posts) which constitute regulated campaign activity must now contain a digital imprint. This tells voters who was responsible for publishing and promoting the material.

 

If you have any queries as to what the upcoming election may mean for your charity, or for any other concerns regarding charity governance and campaigning, please contact Nat Johnson or any member of our charities and social economy team on 0113 244 6100. 

You can also keep up to date by following the Wrigleys charities and social economy team on Twitter.

The information in this article is necessarily of a general nature.  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

Mark Beech View Biography

Mark Beech

Trainee Solicitor
Leeds

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