Is referendum synonymous with party politics?

Is referendum synonymous with party politics?
Third Force News
02.05.13

CHARITIES this week called for the Scottish charity regulator to rethink rushed guidance on the role of charities in the independence referendum.

The Office of the Scottish Charity Regulators (OSCR) has published draft guidance for charity trustees on the referendum which appears to imply that charities cannot support a particular yes or no outcome in the referendum.

The confusing seven-page advice document, which the regulator plans to finalise by the end of the month, contradicts what many charities, some of whom were involved in a recent meeting with OSCR on the subject, believed to be the case.

The role of charities in politics has always been controversial. Charities are not allowed to be political parties or to support political parties. However, they regularly get involved in election campaigns by encouraging politicians to back policies that are in their charity’s interest.

“This guidance is conflating the worry about charities getting involved in overtly political activity and supporting political parties with becoming involved in something that has manifestly significant implications for everybody on every level, taking it beyond the realm of politicians,” said Angus Hardie of the Scottish Community Alliance, who attended the recent meeting on the issue.

“If the outcome of the referendum is clearly going to be in the interests of a charity’s aims and objectives then it seems strange to forbid them from becoming involved in that debate.”

The document, which the regulator claims is designed to encourage charities to get involved in the debate, states that charities can participate in the referendum debate only as long as they are confident it furthers their charitable purposes and will not have a negative impact on their reputation. It also discourages charities from getting involved in the debate in areas beyond their remit.

It states: “It seems unlikely to OSCR that supporting or opposing the prospect of Scottish independence as a whole can be easily linked to the furtherance of charitable purposes.”

However, speaking to TFN this week, OSCR’s own chief executive David Robb, who admitted that the document was still in draft format, suggested the opposite.

“What we’re trying to do here is encourage participation in this agenda because we know that many charities will want to do that, but obviously trustees will want to be careful that they don’t overstep the mark,” Robb told TFN.

“What we’re saying is not that it can’t happen but that trustees should think carefully, consider what their constitution permits, consider what their charitable purpose is, and consider the risk to their business and reputation. If they’ve done all of that responsibly and still conclude that it’s in the best interests of their charity to actively campaign for one outcome or another, then we think that’s legitimate.”

Charities, however, have said the guidance is confusing and won’t reassure trustees at all.

Andy Myles from Scottish Environment Link, said: “The OSCR guidance could do with considerable shortening to make it clear that charities might within limitations campaign for a yes or no vote should they so choose.

“OSCR should be encouraging charities to take part in Scottish political discussions and pointing out that it doesn’t necessarily mean that have to take sides.”

Martin Sime, chief executive of the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations, said that the sector had significant concerns about the document and called for a rethink.

“This draft guidance fails to clarify the issue for trustees and actually muddies the water,” said Sime.

“Also, we are unconvinced about the need to rush formal guidance out and we’d like OSCR to take the time to get this right.

“Trustees should know, quite simply, that they can fully engage in the referendum debate to advance the interests of the people they serve.”

Charities have until 15 May to tell OSCR what they think of the guidance. Responses can be emailed to  info@oscr.org.uk