CHARITIES have found the independence debate “a tricky issue” – because they fear being embroiled in what they see as a polarised debate, an expert seminar on the subject heard.
Shonaig Macpherson, a trustee of numerous charities, said: “All the charities I am involved with have decided not to enter proactively into the debate, making no statements and keeping a neutral position on what the impact of the referendum might be.”
The event, organised by The Scotsman Conferences and Turcan Connell, heard most charities were now engaged in the debate about what impact the vote might have on their operations – although Ms Macpherson said some were still wary.
She added: “There is some sensitivity – some charities think by saying anything, they are contributing to the political process. But it is folly not to consider the potential impact of the referendum decision either way.”
Simon Mackintosh, a partner and charity law expert with Turcan Connell, stressed the referendum had been identified as a non-party political issue, in guidance from the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator (OSCR).
He said: “This means a charity may participate in the debate if it can show it is pursuing charitable purposes and acting in the charity’s interests with due care and diligence.”
Participation in the debate could mean anything from assessing possible impacts to campaigning for specific policy outcomes to arguing for a Yes or No vote, Mr Mackintosh added.
He noted that OSCR guidance urges charity trustees “to take an all-round view”, considering the perspective of donors, members, supporters and volunteers.
Event chair Jane Ryder, a former OSCR chief executive, understood why many charities might be nervous about “the high political strategic ground” but said they could consider the debate in terms of basics – what might it mean for beneficiaries and for donors, for example? One delegate urged the sector to speak up more as a “sensible voice” in an increasingly adversarial political debate.
Mr Mackintosh suggested the independence white paper was “light on detail when it comes to charity tax relief” beyond saying an independent Scotland would seek a policy to “enhance charitable activity and charitable giving”. He added: “It doesn’t say anything about capital gains tax or inheritance tax and many charities depend on legacy income.”
He stressed that on tax, the status quo was not an option: “If there is a No vote, there will still be greater divergence between Scotland and the rest of the UK.”
Issues which needed to be discussed were whether or not the definition of a charity would change, whether the Gift Aid system would continue and the status of donors from other parts of the EU.
Mr Mackintosh added: “If both parts of the former UK are in Europe after a Yes vote, it’s reasonably straightforward – but if Scotland is not a member of the EU or if the rest of the UK leaves in 2017, it’s a completely different scenario.”
Ms Macpherson, who is a trustee of grant-giving body The Robertson Trust, said charities had become much more engaged in the independence debate in the past 12 months, with most having it as a standing item on board agendas to assess new data and arguments. She added: “Most charities now approach it as they approach regular strategic reviews. We have to think about minimising risk.”
Ms Macpherson concluded: “My main concern for the sector is how we can continue to ensure funding is available for a vibrant charitable sector in Scotland.”
All the speakers stressed that change was coming to the charities sector, irrespective of the outcome of the referendum, with changes to the taxation system already happening and all parties in the No camp promising further devolution if independence is rejected in September.