The next UK general election will be held on Thursday 7th May 2015, with a Scottish
general election due on Thursday 5th May 2016. If the Conservatives remain in power after the May election, David Cameron has promised an"in-out" referendum on UK membership of the EU. With all of these votes coming up, charities need to consider what Scots charity law says about campaigning if they propose to engage in debate on political matters.
The Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator (OSCR) is clear in its recently published guidance"Charities and campaigning on political issues" – charities can campaign on political issues to advance their charitable purposes, including during the run-up to elections, provided that the requirements of charity law and, where necessary, electoral law, are met. It has to appreciate, however, that campaigning for party political purposes is not allowed under Scots charity law. The distinction between political and party political is therefore crucial.
Charity trustees must ensure that any political activity which they engage in is in pursuit of the charitable purposes of the charity and that in doing so they are acting in the best interests of the charity. As well as considering whether campaigning is permitted (or prohibited) by their charity's constitution, charity trustees also have to consider any potential reputational impact to the charity when it engages in political debate. This includes the impact of campaigning through social media which, with its high degree of informality, can mean that material is published without the full consideration that a newspaper or magazine article might demand.
It is right that charities can and should enter the non-party political arena when such campaigning is clearly in their interests. However, in doing so, charity trustees must be aware of the relevant law and consider the risks before engaging in debate. Trustees should read the OSCR guidance and, if in doubt, take advice about what they plan to do. As always, the rule is: if in doubt, seek guidance or advice.