Scottish Independence: Charities can choose sides

Scottish Independence is a big issue. Picture: Jane Barlow
Scottish Independence is a big issue. Picture: Jane Barlow
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CHARITIES are to be allowed to take sides in the independence debate after a U-turn by the regulator.

Previous guidance from the Office of the Scottish ­Charity Regulator (OSCR) said there were few circumstances in which charitable organisations could legitimately back a Yes or No vote in next year’s referendum.

But that sparked complaints that debate was being stifled.

And now, in new advice, the OSCR has said charities north of the Border can voice an opinion on Scotland’s future relationship with the UK, so long as they do not breach charity law. It also warned that charities risk damaging their reputations if they overstep the rules.

Martin Sime, chief executive of the ­Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO), welcomed the change of heart.

The SCVO had argued the original guidance went beyond the OSCR’s regulatory remit by entering the territory of advising charities on what activities they should undertake. It said the guidance was confusing, encouraged a risk-averse approach and could dissuade charities from taking part in what was an important debate.

Today Mr Sime, pictured, said: “It is important third-sector organisations are able to get fully involved in the debate, and this guidance from OSCR will help them to think about the issues, while adhering to the law.”

John Wilkes, chief executive of the Scottish Refugee Council, said: “It is vital charities, often standing up for the most vulnerable in our society, are heard in the referendum debate.”

Jane-Claire Judson, national director at Diabetes UK, said: “The risk with an issue like the referendum is it is highly politicised and organisations may be nervous having these discussions. But another risk is not addressing it.”

OSCR said its advice was revised in response to feedback, but that it still made clear the issues charities should consider and the laws they must heed.

Campaigning activity, including offering a view on the poll’s outcome, must be in pursuit of a charity’s core purposes and must not be prohibited by its constitution, the guidance says.

OSCR chief executive David Robb said the new guidance reinforced the regulator’s position on general political campaigning, but also considered the referendum specifically.

He said: “For many charities, advocacy and campaigning is core business, and the referendum raises key questions on which charities will want a say.

“Our guidance aims to help charity trustees take part in the debate within the framework of charity law. On whether charities can advocate a Yes or No vote, our view is they may do so in pursuit of their charitable purposes.”

Both Yes Scotland and Better Together welcomed the revised guidance, saying it was vital charities were heard in the debate.