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In light of the fast-approaching general election in December the question of just how close charities can get to politics is one which is worth some elucidation. Charities situated in Northern Ireland are closely-knitted to local communities, often receiving high levels of public trust and confidence. With this in mind, charities can find themselves uniquely placed to campaign and advocate on behalf of their beneficiaries. This article will explain what charities can and cannot do in this regard.
A number of charities carry out some form of political activity or campaigning on a regular basis. To guide charities on this very point, recent guidance from the Charity Commission for Northern Ireland (CCNI) has helpfully highlighted the important distinction which needs to be made between political activities and political purposes.
Political activity is defined as activity by a charity which is aimed at advancing its charitable purposes by securing or opposing a change in the law or in the policies of government or another public body, whether in this country or abroad. This includes activity aimed at preserving an existing law where a charity opposes its removal or amendment. This is distinct from activity aimed at ensuring that an existing law is observed which falls under the definition of campaigning. An example of political activity would be a health charity raising support for a change in the law on the sale of alcohol.
Campaigning is defined as awareness-raising and efforts to educate or involve the public by mobilising their support on a particular issue, or to influence or change public attitudes. Campaigning includes efforts to ensure that existing laws are observed. An example of campaigning would be a human rights charity calling on government to observe certain fundamental human rights.
Political purpose is any purpose of the organisation which is aimed at furthering the interests of a political party; securing or opposing a change in the law; or securing or opposing a change in the policies of government or any public body, whether in this country or abroad. Unlike with political activity or campaigning, the purposes of an organisation are what it is established to achieve. An example of a political purpose would be an organisation which was set up with the purpose of seeking an abolition of the death penalty world wide.
What charities can do
Charities can engage in political activity or campaigning as a way of advancing their charitable purposes. For example, an organisation established to reduce poverty by providing social housing and food could, seek to influence legislation by responding to consultations or seeking to influence the position of political parties or candidates on the charity’s position and the needs of its beneficiaries.
A charity can carry out political activity or campaigning provided:
What charities cannot do
A charity cannot be established for a political purpose. Charities need to be established exclusively for one or more of the 12 charitable purposes set out in the Charities Act (Northern Ireland) 2008 and each purpose must be for the public benefit.
An organisation with a political purpose cannot be charitable because it cannot be determined whether the purpose would be for the public benefit. Therefore, using the example provided earlier, an organisation which was set up with the purpose of seeking an abolition of the death penalty world wide could not be a charity. While many people may feel strongly that such a cause is important and has merit, it is not charitable.
Charities also cannot engage in political activity or campaigning where the previously mentioned safeguards are not met. For example a charity could not align itself with a particular party based on its Brexit position. By endorsing a party rather than a policy, the charity is effectively endorsing the party’s wider policies which are not aligned with the charity’s purposes. Additionally a party or politician may change its policy over time.
Important considerations for charity trustees
It is clear that this area can be very difficult for charities to navigate. Trustees should have a strategy to ensure that the charity’s activity always is in line with the purposes of the charity and is the best way of furthering those purposes. Trustees should take care to ensure that the charity is not used as a vehicle for the expression of the political views of any particular trustee or member of staff. This is particularly important in the age of social media.
Charities should consider carefully how close they are to particular political parties. Charities should be aware of the reputational risks of alienating its beneficiaries or supporters by creating a perception of favouring a particular political party or politician. If a charity were to consistently engage with only one political party this would call into question the independence of the charity. The same principle applies to the use of a charity’s premises for political functions. Trustees will need to take care that the charity is not giving preferential treatment to a particular political party by applying a discounted rate.
Thankfully there is helpful guidance out there for trustees to follow such as that which has been produced by CCNI. If in doubt, seeking legal advice eliminates the ambiguity and allows for charities to go about their business with confidence that they will not be found on the wrong side of the law.
This article has been produced for general information purposes and further advice should be sought from a professional advisor. Please contact our Charities and Social Enterprises Team at Cleaver Fulton Rankin for further advice or information.