NEW, better guidance from the regulator of Scotland's charities about whether and
how they can campaign in the independence referendum is greatly to be welcomed.
The Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator (OSCR) sowed confusion and some anger in May by publishing opaque and largely risk-averse advice in draft format.
It has had a rethink and the results have been greeted with relief by representatives of Scotland's charities.
Many of them have been wrestling with how best to reconcile their campaigning objectives with charity law which limits their ability to engage in political campaigning, as indeed have charities currently operating UK-wide.
In the context of the independence referendum, the rule that a voluntary organisation should not back political parties is clearly unhelpful. Is Better Together a party? Is supporting Yes Scotland equivalent to supporting the SNP? Clearly not, and one does not have to be highly imaginative to see that the referendum result will have a critical bearing on the work of charities, in a host of areas such as health, vulnerable children, the environment or the elderly.
The regulator says charities must still be sure that taking a stance will advance their own charitable goals.
But it adds that some charities may consider that one or other outcome of the referendum is likely to directly affect their ability to work towards those charitable purposes, either positively or negatively. If so, it says, they can come out for one side or other and indeed actively campaign for a particular outcome.
It is certainly possible to envisage one or more of the many major UK-wide charities, currently working on both sides of the Border, reaching the conclusion that they are better off with Better Together.
Similarly, although it has not taken sides, it is possible that an organisation such as the Scottish Refugee Council might decide an independent Scotland with its own immigration and asylum rules could be an appealing prospect.
This raises serious questions though. Who decides on a charity's final position? Its chief executive or directors? The chairman or woman of a board of trustees? The membership? OSCR seems to suggest trustees should decide.
Scottish Environment Link is one charity that has appealed to both campaigns to explain how their desired outcome would be best for the environment. Parliamentary Officer Andy Myles says he would like to be able to advise members on how best to vote, if they want to prioritise issues such as conservation and biodiversity. He claims neither camp has yet replied. But this is exactly why this paper has called for a more sensible approach to charity involvement in the debate.
The narrow, politicised parameters of the debate so far have left whole swathes of the population of Scotland non-plussed and many avowing lack of interest.
If charities can help get answers from the key players, they can engage new voices in the discussion about Scotland's future.
Many voters are looking for reasons still to help them choose, or to justify the direction in which they are leaning. The political campaigns have failed to reach them. It is time for charities to find their voice.
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