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Is my campaign within the law?

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When running a campaign, your communications will need to comply with the relevant laws. The main regulations you need to be aware of are covered here.

Charity Commission – CC9: Campaigning and political activity guidance for charities

Charities need to follow the Charity Commission’s guidance on campaigning. This is known as CC9.

The main elements within CC9 cover:

  • charities and political activities
  • campaigning during an election period (separate guidance available from the Charity Commission website)
  • balance of activities.

Political activity and staying neutral

Political activity is when a charity tries to influence how law and public policy affects people, amend a law, or stop a law from being scrapped. It is allowed if it benefits the people that the charity has said they are trying to help in their governing document. For example, if your organisation works with victims of domestic violence, you can campaign for more government funding for women’s shelters. However, campaigning on animal rights would not be acceptable.

Charities cannot support a political party directly. They have to remain politically neutral. The public values charities' independence, and it is important that charities are not perceived to be supporting one party over another. A charity may support specific policies advocated by political parties if they would help achieve its charitable objectives. But trustees must not allow the charity to be used as a vehicle to express personal or party political views.

This applies to all communications, including social media. For example, a charity that works with refugees could tweet their support for a government commitment to accept more refugee children. But it would not be appropriate to tweet support for a particular political party in general. 

More information on working with political parties can be found on the Charity Commission website.

To help you understand further how CC9 guidelines can affect your campaigning, see our page of example scenarios.

Electoral Commission – guidance

Charities need to follow electoral law, mainly set out in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, during regulated periods leading up to most public elections.

For UK general elections, this regulated period is 365 days before the election. For elections to the European Parliament and devolved legislatures, the period is four months before the election.

Charities only need to register with the Electoral Commission if they spend over a certain amount on activity which counts as regulated by the Electoral Commission. These limits are:

  • £20,000 in England
  • £10,000 in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland.

This means that if your campaign budget, including a reasonable assessment of staff costs, isn’t over this threshold, you won’t need to register – even if it’s all regulated activity.

In order for spending to count as regulated activity, it needs to pass both:

  • the public test – is the activity aimed at, seen or heard by or involving the public or a section of the public?
  • the purpose test – could the activity reasonably be regarded as intended to influence voters to vote for or against candidates or parties?

The Electoral Commission has released guidance for non-party campaigners, in order to reassure charities and other non-partisan organisations who are worried about how electoral law works. We welcomed this at NCVO and you can read our blog post about the guidance here.

This guidance recognises that charities must not be partisan by charity law. It says that if charities follow charity law and guidance from charity regulators, they are generally unlikely to be carrying out regulated activity under electoral law. This means that most charities, so long as you are following Charity Commission guidance on political activity, don’t need to register with the Electoral Commission.

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA)

The ASA is the UK’s independent regulator for both broadcast and non-broadcast adverts, sales promotions and direct marketing.

The ASA administers:

  • the UK Code of Non-broadcast Advertising
  • sales promotion and direct marketing (The CAP Code)
  • the UK Code of Broadcast Advertising (The BCAP Code).

All these codes set out what is allowed in advertising and broadcast media. The codes cover all marketing publications to the public, not just paid-for advertising. Any marketing material your organisation publishes could be referred to the ASA by a member of the public if they feel that you have breached the overall requirements to be ‘legal, decent, honest and truthful’.

There are similar rules for broadcast and non-broadcast media. Organisations also have to follow the Communications Act 2003. From 2011, the ASA’s remit was extended to include online marketing communications on organisations own websites as well as non paid-for space under an organisation’s control – such as social networking sites.

In summary:

  • you need to make sure that any claims you make can be substantiated
  • you also need to make sure that you do not unnecessarily cause distress.

If a complaint is made the organisation will be investigated by the appropriate body. If your organisation is found to have breached the guidelines, the judgement will appear on the ASA website. You will also probably be told to withdraw the offending claim and any material that reproduces it.

If you are unsure about any advert or item of material you can check with the ASA beforehand.

Defamation law

The civil law of defamation includes both slander and libel. ‘Slander’ refers to the defamation by the spoken word and ‘libel’ to written defamation. You need to make sure that any statements are based on facts or honestly derived and that there is no malicious intent. You should not personalise a campaign around attacks on one individual. Making a compelling case using all communication methods is essential to effective campaigning; it raises no particular risks as long as the material is based on sound evidence.

The Communications Act

The Communications Act 2003 prohibits the use of paid ‘political’ advertising in the broadcast media. The ban does not affect internet, cinema, SMS, telephone, billboard or newspaper advertising, all of which are covered by the ASA rules. The legislation defines ‘political’ as seeking a change to the law, government decisions or policy. It prohibits any advertisement from any organisation or individual to achieve those ends. It also prohibits any attempt to influence public opinion on a controversial public issue. 

The most famous example of an advertising ban following political campaigning was the Make Poverty History one-click advert in 2005, which highlighted that a child dies every three seconds because of preventable poverty. In fact, the media ban ended up generating significant coverage.

Further information

More information on campaigning and the law can be found in the following resources.


Page last edited Oct 31, 2019

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