I’ve been asked several times recently what the forthcoming EU referendum means for charities and whether charities can campaign about the outcome? The second question is easier than the first, so I’ll deal with that one first.
In March 2016, the Charity Commission for England and Wales issued guidance for charities on campaigning on the EU referendum. Many commentators (including me) believed that the Commission’s guidance was too restrictive. To their credit, the Commission withdrew its guidance and re-issued this, with a less restrictive tone. The re-issued guidance can be found here.
As with all other campaigning, the trustees of a charity must be satisfied that to campaign on the EU referendum is an effective way of promoting the objects of the charity (the legal reason for which the charity was set up). Any decision to campaign on the referendum must be a reasoned one by trustees; the personal views of trustees and senior staff on the referendum should be disregarded. The trustees must act in their charity’s best interests, taking due care and diligence in their decision-making.
So what does the referendum mean for a charity?
The trustees should consider the effect of the outcome of the referendum on the charity’s work. If the trustees consider that the effect on the charity’s work would be sufficiently significant, the trustees would be justified to campaign for the side whose success would deliver the beneficial outcome for its work. Any campaigning activity should be proportionate to the importance of the issue to the charity’s work and to the charity’s financial position.
What are charities saying currently?
As a Non-Departmental Public Body, Arts Council England is rightly taking no part in the referendum. However, it has issued guidance to arts charities who may wish to campaign on one side or the other, to ensure that such charities follow the Charity Commission’s guidance.
Craig Bennett, Chief Executive of Friends of the Earth, said “EU membership has led to significant benefits for our environment – that’s why we are in favour of staying in.” The UK Council of Wildlife Trusts is also in favour of UK membership of the EU, which it says provides “Collaboration for wildlife which knows no boundaries.”
Charity is a key part of civil society. The voice of charity needs to be heard, where applicable, on all the great issues of our time, including the question of the EU referendum. The beneficiaries of charity and the wider public deserve no less.