Scottish independence: Charities fear ‘toxic’ independence debate

Martin Sime suffered criticism for apparently supportting 'devo-max'. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Martin Sime suffered criticism for apparently supportting 'devo-max'. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
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CHARITY leaders are fearful of raising crucial questions about independence because the “toxic” debate in Scotland is likely to see them caught in the crossfire between the warring “yes” and “no” camps, a major ­report to be published today will claim.

Key issues over taxation and the role of revenue and customs are not being addressed as charities “keep their heads down”. They fear that any concerns will be hijacked by both sides of the debate, according to the report by the Carnegie UK Trust.

The head of the trust says the criticism suffered by Martin Sime, the boss of third-sector umbrella body SCVO following his apparent support for the “devo-max” referendum option, is a “lesson” to charities to keep quiet.

The report finds that 92 per cent of charities have not prepared for independence, although half say it will have an effect on their operations. They are now being warned that the debate must move from the “coffee house to the board room”.

Martyn Evans, chief executive of the Carnegie UK Trust, said: “It’s not that there are not issues to be addressed, it’s just that by asking the question, sometimes you will be taken to be partisan.”

The report surveyed 164 of the largest charities registered in Scotland by the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator (OSCR). “One representative of a large organisation described the present circumstances in Scotland as ‘toxic’,” the report the states.

It found that charities were not so much anxious about a “hostile reaction” from pro or anti-independence camps, but that they would be “used by ­either side”.

Mr Evans added: “They’re not afraid of being attacked, they’re afraid of being seen as partisan and non-charitable and probably, like business, they’re asking trade bodies to take on the role as well. There’s a parallel there with business, that maybe if we put our head above the parapet, the protagonists might just go for us.”

The lack of certainty about the overhaul expected across Scotland’s civic and governmental landscape in the event of a “yes” vote has left many charity leaders in the dark about what impact independence would have. The issues at stake include gift aid, Inland Revenue recognition, charity law and regulation.

“My impression was before the devolution debate, as that went through, there was a stronger feeling of consensus in Scotland, that this was a reasonable thing to discuss and civic society was engaged in that process,” Mr Evans added. “I think this is more divisive.”

Opinion polling indicates that about a third of Scots support independence, another third are behind the status quo and a further third back more powers for Holyrood, the so-called “devo-max option”.

“That kind of civic consensus that this is legitimate to discuss is not there any more,” he added.

SCVO chief executive Mr Sime became involved in public spat with Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie after the third- sector leader appeared to back a third “devo-max” option.

A spokesman for the official pro-union campaign Better Together said: “It is extremely worrying that the organisations that do so much good in our communities are frightened of taking part in the debate on our country’s future.”

A spokesman for the pro-­independence Yes Scotland campaign said: “It is a matter of great regret if charities feel intimidated from taking part in the independence debate because they fear being targeted by negative forces.”