Campaigning by charities during elections and referendums is governed by Part VI (Controls relating to third party national election campaigns) Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, which must be read in conjunction with Part 2 (Non-party campaigning etc) Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014. The 2014 Act was clearly intended to operate in conjunction with the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011; and the fact that its operation has been suspended to allow for a snap General Election on 9 June has rather confused the issue. But be that as it may, the rules in relation to pre-Election campaigning have now kicked in and churches, faith-groups and others need to be very careful about observing them: Greenpeace was fined £30,000 for refusing to register as a third-party campaigning organisation under the 2014 Act in the run-up to the 2015 election.
The Charity Commission for England & Wales has published Guidance on Charities, Elections and Referendums: similar considerations apply in the other jurisdictions.
The principal issue for churches is holding hustings that satisfy the terms of the legislation. The Electoral Commission has posted Hustings for elections being held in 2017, applicable to the whole of the UK, which the Commission describes as for “non-party campaigners who want to know good practice for holding hustings and when hustings may be regulated.” If you propose to hold hustings in advance of the Election, read the Electoral Commission’s guidance very carefully before anything else.
In addition, various religious organisations are beginning to put material on the web for their members’ information, and I thought it might be helpful to bring them together – though this post is provided for information only and is emphatically not to be regarded as legal advice:
- Cytûn: Eglwysi Ynghyd yng Nghymru/Churches Together in Wales has published General Election 2017 Q&A: a chance to ask the candidates our questions.
- The Evangelical Alliance published How to organise election hustings in 2015 but, like Cytûn’s guidance, it still rermains valid.
- Quakers in Britain (which is in the process of registering with the Electoral Commission under the 2014 Act) has posted an extremely helpful briefing on elections and hustings which includes the salutary reminder that “a hustings is an opportunity for voters to hear from the candidates, not to promote any particular point of view. Make sure that all candidates get an equal chance to put their point of view across.”
- The Scottish Churches Parliamentary Office published guidance in advance of the General Election in 2015.
- the person who is to chair the event needs to be scrupulously fair and impartial and should certainly have no connexion with any political party or candidate;
- the Chair needs to conduct the meeting firmly and impartially and must be properly briefed about how the event will be run (on such matters as ensuring that each candidate gets the same speaking-time); and
- normally, all candidates standing in the constituency should be invited to participate.
If, however, the number of candidates standing in your constituency would make the event unweildy you may choose to invite only some of them always provided that you have an impartial, objective reason for doing so that you can defend if challenged. Possible reasons are as follows:
- that the individuals not invited are likely to obtain very few votes;
- that those invited are the candidates most likely to win in the constituency;
- that there is a very large number of candidates and it is impractical to invite them all;
- that a particular candidate or candidates could be a public order risk.
In such a case:
- you should be able to give impartial, objective reasons why you have not invited particular candidates or parties;
- you should be prepared to explain your reasons to candidates or parties you have not invited;
- you should make sure that candidates or parties you invite represent a reasonable variety of view, from different parts of the political spectrum;
- you should give each candidate or party representative attending a fair chance to answer questions and, where appropriate, a reasonable opportunity to respond to points made against them by other candidates or party representatives; and
- you should tell the audience at the meeting about any candidates or parties standing that have not been invited.
If you decide not to invite all candidates, you will need to be able to show that you are not promoting or opposing a particular candidate more than others. What you must not do is to refuse to invite a candidate because you disagree with his or her views or policies. That is not an impartial reason.
In short: before arranging a hustings, think very carefully about whom you are inviting and why.
Charities and party political activity
As the Evangelical Alliance points out, churches, as charities, are bound by the terms of the legislation that governs their charitable status – in England & Wales, the Charities Act 2011 – and that applies whether or not they are registered with their territorial regulator.
Crucially, a charity must not support or oppose a specific political party, though that does not prevent charities from supporting or opposing specific policies. The Commission points this out in Campaigning and political activity guidance for charities (similar restrictions apply in Scotland and Northern Ireland):
“a charity must not give its support to any one political party. It may express support for particular policies which will contribute to the delivery of its own charitable purposes so long as its independence is maintained, and perceptions of its independence are not adversely affected.”
So, to return to the specific issue of hustings, if you do not invite every political party or independent candidate to your event and you cannot demonstrate what the Electoral Commission judges to be “an objective reason for not doing so”, it may count as a donation towards those parties or candidates that were invited. If the cost is above £50, it would then need to be recorded by the invited candidates as a political donation – and you would then have fallen foul of charity law because it is axiomatic that charities may not make political donations: see the Charity Commission’s 2010 Regulatory Case Report of an investigation into the Garfield Weston Foundation.