EU referendum campaigning and the Churches

Friday 15 April marked the start of the “referendum period” during which the rules relating to the spending on campaigning apply. Referendum campaign spending is regulated under the Political, Parties Elections and Referendums Act 2000 (PPERA) as amended by the European Union Referendum Act 2015 and the Transparency of Lobbying, (etc) Act 2014. Faith-based organizations might be affected in two ways:

  • if they spend more than £10,000 during the referendum period, in which case they are required to register with the Electoral Commission; and/or
  • in relation to their charitable status.

Campaigning expenditure

Readers will by now have received the Government 16-page leaflet Why the government believes that voting to remain in the EU is the best decision for the UK: this was delivered to households in England from 11 to 13 April, ahead of England’s local election purdah, and to households in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland throughout the week commencing 9 May, to avoid disrupting the pre-election period for the devolved legislatures. The Minister for Europe, David Lidington, informed the House  of Commons that they were delivered to 27M households at a  total cost of £9.3 million, equivalent to 34p for each household in the country.

Within the referendum period, registered campaigners must not spend more than the following amounts:

  • Lead campaigner:  £7M.
  • Political parties: between £700k and £7M depending upon the percentage share of vote.
  • Other registered campaigners: £700k.

Following an application process, ‘Britain Stronger in Europe’ (The In Campaign Ltd) and ‘Vote Leave Ltd’ were designated as lead campaigners representing each side of the debate; on 15 April there were 60 non-political party campaigners listed on the Electoral Commission’s web page. To date, no group with a religious affiliation has registered.

Charitable status

In March, the Charity Commission issued its Regulatory guidance for charities on engagement with the referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union which is summarized here. The guidance contains five key elements for charities to consider:

  1. Does this political activity support, and is it incidental to, the charity’s purposes?
  2. Are any conflicts of interest and other risks properly managed?
  3. Are decisions to engage properly recorded?
  4. What is the role of the Commission if guidance is breached?
  5. Does the charity’s involvement need to be registered with the Electoral Commission?

The Commission will be closely monitoring the situation and will take action where the guidance is breached. The Commission produced a report in December on the cases that it dealt with in the run up to the 2015 General Election.

Ecumenical resources

Unsurprisingly, there is already a lot of material on the Internet from the Churches:

  • EU Focus: website hosted by Christians in Politics, from all parties and for all denominations.
  • Re-Imagining Europe: Blog from the Church of England and Church of Scotland, with the editorial support of Crucible.
  • Think, Pray Vote: from the Joint Public Issues Team representing the Baptist Union, the Church of Scotland, the Methodist Church and the United Reformed Church.
  • The BBC website is a good general source of reference.

Hustings

EU Focus has some very helpful guidance on how to conduct hustings in advance of the referendum. In short:

  • Hustings work best when done ecumenically, so try and get as many churches involved as possible.
  • For a referendum hustings it is important to have both sides of the debate represented.
  • Whom to invite on to the panel is much less clear than for an election hustings. EU Focus suggests contacting the local branches of the political parties, on the assumption that they will have members knowledgeable about the debate who will want to make their case for either staying in the EU or leaving.
  • The chair of the meeting needs to be firm, impartial and well-respected.
  • Decide a structure for the debate ahead of time and be aware of timings. Remember that with a number of panellists even two-minute speeches can quickly add up.
  • Decide how you are going to handle questions from the public. Do you want to take them in writing before the meeting starts, or just from the floor during the meeting? Will you (eg) take three questions at a time or allow the panel to answer each question individually?
  • The venue needs to big enough to accommodate the likely audience and accessible for those with disabilities. Do you need stewards to welcome people and provide refreshments?
  • Advertise the event as widely as possible: use posters in community spaces, church websites and social media and send a press release to the local newspaper and radio station.

DP & FC

Cite this article as: David Pocklington & Frank Cranmer, “EU referendum campaigning and the Churches” in Law & Religion UK, 15 April 2015 https://www.lawandreligionuk.com/2016/04/15/eu-referendum-campaigning-and-the-churches/

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