Gagging Law

Photo by 38 Degrees

You have probably heard of the “Gagging Bill” which is going though parliament at the moment. Its proper name is the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill, and that makes it sound rather good, doesn’t it? Sadly, the bill does very little or nothing to stop the sort of lobbying that Cameron promised to do something about before the election (i.e. by the wealthy, powerful and big business), but puts huge barriers up to charities and campaign groups doing what they do - speaking up on the issues they campaign for.

Maina Kiai is a lawyer and Kenyan human rights activist who currently serves as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association. He has said: “Although sold as a way to level the electoral playing field, the bill actually does little more than shrink the space for citizens – particularly those engaged in civil society groups – to express their collective will. In doing so, it threatens to tarnish the United Kingdom’s democracy … Provisions ostensibly designed to target corporate lobbyists have a loophole so big it swallows the rule. In-house lobbyists – which enjoy the most influence in the UK government by far – are exempt.”

Indeed, the bill would have such an impact on the ability of charities to do their work that a huge number of them have written a joint letter to the Government detailing their objection</a>.

Sadly, the government has ignored the charities and groups and is pressing ahead, despite vigourous protests. The campaigning group 38 Degrees ran a spirited campaign, and groups of constituents all over the country took their concerns to their MPs. In same cases, such as Tory MP Sir Richard Ottaway, they refused to meet their constituents and even called the police. Generally though, many Coalition MPs listened to the complaints. And ignored them.

Green MP Caroline Lucas, always opposed to the Gagging Law, found herself in an unusual situation when the Coalition used her as a possible beneficiary of the bill. This sort of logic is absurd, of course, as she points out in her article in that link, but it does show that even the Government can’t find any decent excuses as to why this bill is required. It simply caters for a problem that doesn’t exist and ignores problems that do, while at the same time making sure that only wealthy corporations and newspaper owners can influence public opinion, rather than civil groups such as 38 Degrees and Oxfam.

You can see why the Coalition are pushing this law through. The general election in 2015 is going to be running at a time where more than half a million people in this, the seventh richest country in the world, are depending on food banks to eat. A country where the sick and disabled are having vital benefits cut, and where the poor and young are demonised. It is charities and ground-level campaigning groups that will be publicising this, and that is why the government want to neuter them.

When the bill went to the Lords it looked like the worst parts of the bill might be dropped. After much debate the Lords made a number of amendments via a Comission chaired by Lord Harries, which consulted on the legislation after the government failed to conduct any pre-legislative scrutiny. Today, the Commons rejected nearly all of the amendments. The story makes rather depressing reading.

With the Lords unlikely to try again, it seems as if this government has its way. It will be harder for charities and campaign groups to bring terrible legislation to the attention of the public, whether that’s when they try to sell-off our forests, or privatise our NHS. You can imagine the hearts of Tories and their stooges warming at the news. It is, however, a massive blow for democracy and one of the first things that the next government must overturn.