The Charities Commission is today issuing new guidance on political neutrality after evidence has emerged suggesting Britain’s biggest environmental charities have used public donations given to protect the environment to campaign instead for remaining in the European Union (EU).
Charities with many thousands of members such as Friends of the Earth, The Wildlife Trusts and Greenpeace have argued Britain’s membership of the EU is vital to protecting the country’s wildlife, reports The Telegraph. As a result formal complaints have been lodged by Eurosceptics, and the Charity Commission is now publishing new guidance on political neutrality during the EU referendum.
The body that regulates registered charities uses the 1,500 word guidance to say they should only involve themselves in referendum campaigning in “exceptional” circumstances, stressing the importance of independence and neutrality. It warns that charity staff members tweeting support for anyone in the referendum or putting up posters in offices would constitute “clear breaches of our guidance”.
The Commission also highlights fears that Europhile trustees might use charities as a “vehicle” for advancing their own agendas in ways that breach impartiality rules. Also, charities in receipt of EU funding are told to publish financial links to Brussels and warned they may “seriously undermine” their reputations by campaigning.
Trustees of charities that refuse to follow the guidance could be sacked if the Commission investigates and declares them in breach.
Charity transparency campaigner Gina Miller of the True and Fair Foundation believes donors will be angered if they find out funds given to support environmental charities are instead spent campaigning for Britain to remain in the EU, saying:
“I feel uncomfortable they are exerting undue pressure. There is a very fine line between a trustee doing this as an individual and someone using the standing of the organisation for political purposes.
“Members would be infuriated. If you are a Eurosceptic you do not want your money spent on the other side.”
Environmental charities have, however, already begun their campaigns. Seen by some as environmental scaremongering based on the Remain campaign’s ‘Project Fear’ tactics, Friends of the Earth (FoE) says on its EU referendum and the environment page that membership has given the UK “cleaner beaches and drinking water”, “less air pollution”, “safer products” and “protected wildlife”.
Even though FoE concedes that “the Common Agriculture Policy has proved an environmental disaster” and campaigns against the EU’s Transatlantic Trade and Investment Pact (pictured above) it still asserts that “exiting the EU would leave the UK’s environment in even worse shape”. The charity’s Chief Executive Officer, Craig Bennett, even warned that Brexit would make the UK “the dirty man of Europe yet again”.
Mr. Bennett happens to sit on the Steering Committee of the group Environmentalists for Europe (E4E) alongside the likes of 1970s comedian Bill Oddie, former Head of Prevention of Pollution Division at the European Commission and Member of the European Parliament Stanley Johnson (father of Boris), Caroline Lucas of the Green Party, and Baron Deben (John Selwyn Gummer).
The E4E website (which reveals its views by declaring on every page “PROMOTED BY MATTHEW FULTON ON BEHALF OF THE EUROPEAN MOVEMENT UK”) solicits donations from supporters, explaining: “We have an uphill struggle and the opposition are well-funded and have been preparing for years. We need all the help we can get.”
Spokesmen for Friends of the Earth, The Wildlife Trusts and Greenpeace have all stated their belief that their pro-EU activity complies with the new Commission guidelines as issues thrown up by EU membership are important to their causes. The FoE’s Mr. Bennett said:
“We are more than within our rights to campaign on the EU referendum. Indeed it could strongly be argued that we were failing our charitable objectives if we stood by and did nothing.”