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July 31, 2013

About turn on independence issue

Earlier this year Scottish charity regulator OSCR published draft guidance suggesting that any active involvement in the referendum debate by a charity – for or against – was unlikely to be consistent with charitable purpose.  In other words – don’t do it. Along with many others, SCA argued that where the outcome of the referendum would have a direct impact on the future activities of a charity, it was important for trustees to be able to campaign on the basis of where their best interests lay.  Hats off to OSCR for listening.


Severin Carrell, The Guardian

The Scottish charity watchdog says voluntary groups and charities can take an active role in the referendum, even funding events, in what may prove helpful to the ‘yes’ movement

Scotland’s charity watchdog has authorised the country’s 23,500charities and voluntary organisations to take an active role in the independence debate if they wish, in what may emerge as a significant opportunity for the ‘yes’ campaign.

In a new advice note published on Tuesday, the Office of the Scottish Charity regulator (OSCR) has said that charities can campaign openly for a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ vote in next year’s referendum, as well as fundingreferendum-related events and causes, allowing the voluntary sector far greater political freedom.

The OSCR said that despite the legal prohibition on charities supporting political parties, the significance and potential impact on their work of independence – or continuing within the UK – made it of obvious concern to the sector.

In a statement, OSCR chief executive David Robb said:

For many charities, advocacy and campaigning is core business, and the referendum on independence for Scotland raises key questions on which charities, rightly, will want to have a say. Our guidance aims to set out the issues clearly and to help charity trustees take part in the referendum debate within the framework of charity law.

On the specific question of whether charities can advocate an overall ‘yes’ or ‘no’ vote in the referendum, our view is that they may do so, in pursuit of their charitable purposes.


The new ruling suggests the voluntary sector – a key part of that amorphous entity known as civic Scotland, could play an influential role in the referendum debate.

The Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO), the umbrella body for charities and voluntary organisations, estimates the wider third sector in Scotland has an overall turnover of £4.5bn a year, employing 138,000 people in more than 45,000 organisations.

The charitable sector covered by the OSCR is about half that number, with 23,500 charities under its ambit. About 55% of those are tiny, with incomes under £25,000; only about 2,400 have incomes over £100,000 while others are very large. The top 10 earn more than £230m each.

On the face of it, it presents the yes campaign and the Scottish government with the greatest opportunity: a core part of its narrative is to present independence as a fresh start, a chance for Scots to reorganise and protect public services, to differentiate Scotland from (so goes the rhetoric) Tory-led England and advance their own, local interests.

Judged against the difficulties of making defending the status quo and the “old” system (which is in many respects where the pro-UK campaign has to stand), this blank page strategy is likely to serve the yes campaign best: selling new improved Daz is easier than pushing old soap, so the logic goes.

The UK government’s welfare reforms, such as cutting benefits (introducing the bedroom tax) and setting far tougher disability assessments, has energised Scottish charities, rallying them in opposition to Westminster-directed policies.


Many now press for Westminster to cede control over welfare to Edinburgh. Martin Sime, the chief executive of SCVO, has been a significant figure in that discussion: SCVO has been a leading voice for far greater devolution of welfare policy. It has also pushed debate on constitutional reform in the sector, sensing a significant opportunity if the Scottish parliament wins more powers.

Welfare reform has also given Alex Salmond’s government and the independence movement a very useful weapon to attack Westminster – a case study in favour of independence.

Nicola Sturgeon, the deputy first minister, has consistently cited welfare cuts as the best exemplar of how a Tory-led government rejected by Scottish voters is imposing alien policies on a reluctant population. It is a message with strong appeal to many activists on the Scottish left, now either flirting with or persuaded by the case for independence.

So we can foresee those issues becoming very closely aligned in coming months, not least as George Osborne, the Chancellor, and his deputy Danny Alexander, the Scottish Lib Dem MP and Chief Secretary to the Treasury, oversees further multi-billion pound cuts to welfare spending.

And as Sturgeon directs the appeal of independence to a centre-left urban audience, and frequently to left-wing activists, issues such as refugee rights will arise. Even establishing policy priorities closer to the SNP’s or Yes Scotland’s rhetoric – particularly in contrast to the Tories, will assist.


The OSCR selected the Scottish Refugee Council as one charity to talk about this new guidance. John Wilkes, the SRC’s chief executive, was quoted saying:

…it is not our role to enter into the political debate surrounding the merits or otherwise of the current constitutional settlement, or of independence for Scotland. Nevertheless, the debate on Scotland’s future offers us, as it does other charities in Scotland, an important opportunity to set out our vision.

…Whilst charities in Scotland may not wish to comment on who should exercise power, this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t comment on how power should be used, whoever the Scottish people decides should hold it. It is vital that the voices of charities, often standing up for the most vulnerable in our society, are heard in the referendum debate.

But will the Tories, for instance, retreat here? It’s unlikely. The past Scottish Tory leader Annabel Goldie and her successor Ruth Davidson have both championed the role of the third sector, of volunteering, in parallel with David Cameron’s “big society” rhetoric.

They insist the charitable instinct, of non-state community activism, is integral to the Tory self-help ideal. So can we expect to see the Conservatives, then, insist that the collaborative, burden-sharing narrative central to their defence of the UK is identical to the collaborative ethos of the charitable sector?

And equally, many charities will avoid direct involvement in the actual debate: they will want to be sensitive to the risks of alienating apolitical supporters and donors. The opinion polls clearly show – at present – most Scots voters will not vote “yes”.

The OSCR nodded at that question in its guidance when it said charity trustees had to ensure that any campaigning was consistent with its charitable purposes, was not prohibited by the charity’s rules and would not alienate its clients or supporters:

Some charities may consider that one or other outcome of the referendum is likely to directly affect their ability to work towards their charitable purposes, either positively or negatively. They may therefore wish to campaign for or against an outcome in the referendum.

Where trustees wish to do so they must be able to demonstrate that this is a way of achieving their charitable purposes.

As with any activity, trustees must also satisfy themselves that any decision to take a position in the interests of the charity, taking into consideration the effect on its beneficiaries, supporters, donors and members, and that it does not put the charity, its assets or its reputation, at undue risk.

There is a risk of overstating the role charities could play in the short term: research by the Carnegie UK Trust last year found that a large majority (88%) of charities had not yet begun to assess the implications of the referendum on their own activities, even though 50% thought independence would affect them.

And many of the largest and most influential charities in Scotland – the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, WWF, Diabetes UK, Oxfam and Amnesty spring to mind, are UK organisations which are highly unlikely to get heavily involved beyond pressing their own sectoral interests (albeit very hard in some cases).

And there was a clear OSCR warning to all organisations about breaching their charitable objectives, such as overstepping their own rules or stepping outside their remit.

The regulator said these new freedoms had to be carefully used: it could take action if a charity strayed too far, it stated. And charities would also be bound by Electoral Commission rules on campaign funding once the official campaign starts early next summer – another hurdle some smaller charities may seek to avoid.

The law meant charity trustees were required:

to consider the potential positive and negative impacts on your charity if it enters the debate and campaigns for a particular outcome [and]

the charity trustees act with appropriate care and diligence. This normally requires you to have considered carefully the arguments and evidence advanced for a ‘yes’ and a ‘no’ vote in the particular context of your charity’s own purposes.

But of perhaps greater significance to the constitutional debate is this: the OSCR guidance now allows every charity to argue their individual and collective interests specifically in the context of the referendum from today.

Many will have shopping lists and demands: this new ruling raises the stakes for the sector and for campaigners on both sides. Expect to see Scotland’s charities – organisations by definition which command public respect and which are run by motivated people – being courted heavily in coming months.