Pro-EU charities have criticised their regulator for telling them to stay neutral in the European Union (EU) referendum debate.
Britain’s Charities Commission issued guidance this week saying charities should only get involved in the referendum campaign in “exceptional circumstances” following complaints from Eurosceptics that they were using their funds to call for a “remain” vote.
The guidance warned that charity staff members tweeting support for any side in the referendum or putting up posters in offices would constitute “clear breaches of our guidance”.
Now, however, The Guardian reports that Craig Bennett, chief executive of Friends of the Earth, has written to the Prime Minister to complain about the guidelines, saying: “The tone is clearly designed to discourage charities from taking a position in the EU referendum.”
The charity’s European arm, Friends of the Earth Europe was revealed in 2013 to have received £6.4 million funding from a European Commission environmental fund.
Mr Bennett even accused the Charity Commission of having a Eurosceptic agenda and claimed the guidance was linked to the press before charities had seen it.
“It is very clear that someone who had access to guidance with a very clear political agenda gave it to the Telegraph and other Eurosceptic papers,” he said.
“This is a debate about to what extent it is appropriate or not for charities to engage in political campaigning. The huge irony is that whoever leaked a copy of this guidance to Eurosceptic members of the press was clearly motivated by purely political reasons.”
Pro-EU Labour MP Margaret Hodge has also attacked the Commission’s chair, William Shawcross, calling him an “arch Eurosceptic”.
“It will disappoint many that someone with such controversial views on issues like gay rights and climate change is involved in gagging charities from speaking out about Europe,” she claimed.
Karl Wilding, Director of Public Policy at the National Council of Voluntary Organisations, which represents charities, also called the guidance “hawkish” and said: “Our concern is that the guidance has been deliberately drafted to put charities off speaking out even when they have a legitimate rationale for expressing their views on the referendum.”
On its EU referendum and the environment page, Friends of the Earth says EU membership has given the UK “cleaner beaches and drinking water”, “less air pollution”, “safer products” and “protected wildlife”.
Mr Bennett previously 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.”