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Local Tory MPs back "Gagging Bill", Third Reading next week, protest tomorrow in Lancaster

John Freeman
Eric Ollerenshaw(Updated 1350): Both Lancaster MP Eric Ollerenshaw and Morecambe and Lunesdale MP David Morris have given their backing to a new bill that many charities and pressure groups have warned could effectively curtail some of their work in the 12 month run up to a general election.

There will be a protest against Mr Ollerenshaw's support for the plan, and to draw attention to the Bill in Lancaster's Market Square at 12 noon tomorrow.

This week, the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill (PDF Link), labelled the "Gagging Bill" by those horrified by its proposals, got a second reading in the House of Commons, and will get a third reading next week.

Published the day before MPs went on holiday in the summer, then reintroduced today two days after their return, its timing looks suspiciously like the Government want to avoid MPs giving it proper scrutiny, which is certainly how both pressure groups, lawyers and charities see it.

"It's a complex piece of legislation but its repercussions for us are quite simple," notes Gary Shrubsole from Friends of the Earth. " if it had been passed 10 years ago, it would very likely have curtailed much of Friends of the Earth's work on our most important campaigns."

If passed it could effectively stifle campaigning on subjects such as zero hour contracts, fracking, government corruption, the NHS and much more – all maters for which politicians wanting our vote should be held to account in the run up to a General Election.

Opponents argue the Bill poses a huge threat to pressure groups and to the whole voluntary sector because it vastly extends the definition of what activities are considered to be 'for electoral purposes' in the whole year before an election, and slashes the cap for what charities can legally spend on these activities - both nationally and in every MP's constituency across the country.

A restraint on freedom of expression

Helen Mountfield QC, of law firm Matrix Chambers, gave her legal opinion this week that the Bill's "restrictions and restraints are so wide and so burdensome as arguably to amount to a disproportionate restraint on freedom of expression."

 "We are concerned that the bill could severely restrict civil society campaigning activity and may even be in breach of Article 10 of the Human Rights Act," stated Charity lawyers Bates Wells Braithwaites. "The threat is not only to large charities, but also to coalition and grassroots local activity, as each entity, no matter how small, has to report the entire spend on campaigning in the run-up to a general election if it is considered to be for 'election purposes' in law."

Writing on the Civil Society web site, Lawyer Rosamund McCarthy warns that, on the basis of its current wording, if it had been law during the last election it might have affected, for example, the Royal British Legion military covenant.

“This will have a chilling effect on civil society and its freedom of expression,” she argued. “It’s also a possible breach of Article 10 of the Human Rights Act.”

The Trades Union Congress has also said it contains clauses which will make organising its 2014 annual conference a criminal offence.

A huge number of civil society organisations have voiced their steadfast opposition to the Bill's fresh restraints, including - the Countryside Alliance and campaign group 38 Degrees.

The National Council for Voluntary Organisations sent a letter to Chloe Smith, the Minister for Political and Constitutional Reform (PDF Link), signed by charities and other groups including Battersea Dogs' Home, the British Heart Foundation, Christian Aid, Guide Dogs and the National Union of Students.

As the bill stands, the ambiguity of the proposed new rules and the threat of criminal liability for breaching them may deter many organisations from engaging in policy debates at all, even where vital to their mission. Smaller organisations, dependent on volunteer support and without access to expert advice, are likely to be hardest hit.

In addition, it is not just charities that could be caught by the bill – trade associations and business bodies such as the federation of small businesses could also be caught if their campaigning and policy work coincide with, or contradict, the policies of a particular political party or candidate.

The Lobbying Bill has united opinion that would otherwise be utterly divided: from Conservative MP Douglas Carswell (who, along with Tory MPs Philip Davies, David Davis, Zac Goldsmith and David Nuttall voted against the bill while others also expressed concerns during the Second Reading debate) to left-wing columnist Owen Jones – with most opponents arguing the bill is being rammed through Parliament at breakneck speed.

"Imagine if Friends of the Earth hadn't been able to run our Bee Cause campaign," says Gary Shrubsole. "We wouldn't now have the Government committing to a Bee Action Plan to save Britain's wonderful bees.

Greenpeace says the propsoals will prove a "hugely increased bureaucratic burden, particularly onerous for small, local campaign groups, and the bewildering lack of clarity on which aspects of which activities count as electoral," and not they have led the Electoral Commission to describe the changes as unworkable.

"The restrictions are not just applied to explicit party endorsements," note Greenpeace. "When Help for Heroes lobby for better prosthetic limbs for military veterans, that could be an implicit criticism of the current government, and were they to publicise a big improvement in this area, that could be an implicit endorsement. Whether something is electoral is judged by whether it could potentially affect the election, not whether it is intended to."

During the House of Commons debate the Labour party's shadow Commons leader Angela Eagle called the bill "one of the worst pieces of legislation I've seen any government produce in a very long time" and has criticised proposed rules on lobbying, including a limit on the amount of money charities and trades unions can spend on funding election candidates, as "sinister and partisan".

There's still time to voice your opposition to the Government's proposals. Next week - on 9th, 10th and 11th Sept - the bill will be debated again by all MPs. If you're concerened (and if you work in the voluntary sector or for a charity, you should be), then contact your MP before then to voice your concerns - ideally, by meeting them face to face. 

A Matter of Transparency

David MorrisMP David Morris disputes the claims made by opponents about the bill. "This Bill is about bringing transparency to the way third parties interact with the political system," he argues. "Campaign groups play an important role in our political process, helping inform policy making and allowing different views to be heard from across society. The Government is clear that it wants this to continue.

"It is very important to note that these new proposals are only for third party organisations which campaign for the electoral success of a particular political party or candidate," he claims. "An organisation campaigning only on policy issues would not be included in these changes.

"The Government wants to take the big money out of politics," he says. "Limiting campaign spending during an election will help the UK avoid the situation we see in other countries, where unregulated spending by vested interests means that it might not always be the best candidate who wins an election, but the one with the richest supporters.

"The amount an organisation can spend campaigning for electoral success during an election period will be limited to £390,000 across the UK. The Government believes this is still a very substantial sum and is a proportionate figure. Expenditure on these campaigns will be fully recorded and disclosed.

"At present, charities can undertake non-party political activity where the trustees can show that it supports their purposes and would be an effective use of their resources.

"The law prohibits charities from engaging in party politics, party political campaigning, supporting political candidates or undertaking political activity unrelated to the charity’s purpose.

"The Bill does not change this. Charities will still be able to support specific policies advocated by political parties if it would help achieve their charitable purposes.

"The Minister for Political and Constitutional Reform, Chloe Smith, has written to 38 Degrees, outlining the Government’s position and you can read it online here (PDF).

"Ministers have been working closely with charities and third party groups to address their concerns, " he says. "This Bill will not prevent or prohibit campaigning but will make the system more transparent by bringing these third parties into the spending reporting regime."

• You can read a Friends of the Earth briefing and FAQs on the Lobbying Bill here (PDF Link)

Read the full Second Reading debate via TheyWorkforYou

• Challenge your MP on the Bill: 

BWB warns new laws on non-party campaigners pose a serious threat 

Rosamund McCarthy warns new bill poses ‘existential threat to charity campaigning’

Greenpeace: How the lobbying bill became the charity gagging bill