The government's new gagging law is a serious attack on Britain's civil society

While doing virtually nothing to fix the real problems of money in politics, the government is trying to introduce a new law that will shut down vast swathes of political commentary and scrutiny for a whole year before general elections.

The breadth, depth and variety of voluntary and civil society organisations in this country is, we found in successive audits while I was at Democratic Audit, a major strength of our democratic life. The government has presented a bill to Parliament today, the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill, that will kill off much of this democratic resource.

The bill has been condemned by 38 Degrees as a “gagging law” that would, if passed, “have a chilling effect on our democracy. From May 2014, draconian new rules would prevent non-politicians from speaking up on the big issues of the day.”

Ministers accuse 38 Degrees of “scaremongering”. But they are right, and they are not alone in being alarmed at the extent of the bill’s impact on everyday democracy in the UK. A huge range of voluntary organisations, campaign groups and charities – from the umbrella organisation, the National Council of Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) to the TUC, the Royal British Legion to the RSPB, Oxfam to Unlock Democracy – have joined 38 Degrees in stark warnings about the damage that part II of the government bill would inflict on open debate. 

The NCVO is about as representative of the voluntary sector as any body can be, with 10,000 member organisations from large charities to small community organisations. The NCVO engaged a leading lawyer, Helen Mountfield QC, to report on the human rights implications of the bill. She found that there is a good argument that the changes contemplated under part II of the bill “would go so wide and be so uncertain as to the extent of their restrictions on political/policy expression, over so long and so uncertain a period, as to be more than is ‘necessary in a democratic society’ and so to violate the provisions of Article 10 [on freedom of speech].”  

Put simply, the bill would impose an intimidating cordon sanitaire on all non-party political activity, campaigning and free speech for a whole year in advance of the next general election – a whole year!  At present, only activities undertaken with the intent of influencing an election result are regulated; the bill will regulate activity over a year which may affect the result of an election. Moreover, the bill introduces criminal sanctions that are likely to frighten off many organisations from legitimate comment on government policies; will reduce the amount that third party campaigns may spend to £390,000 (from £989,000); and will suffocate organisations with reporting and other obligations – “restrictions and restraints”, in the view of Helen Mountfield, “so wide and burdensome as arguably to amount to a disproportionate restraint on freedom of expression”.

Of course, there is a legitimate case for ensuring equality between parties and their candidates and protecting them from targeted assault. Ministers argue that the aim is to protect British politics from US-style “super-PACs”, but as Alex Runswick argues on a Liberal Democrat blog, current laws already do so:

“The practice of political action committees spending vast amounts of money in US elections has arisen for one simple reason: political TV and radio advertising. This is currently not allowed under UK law. More to the point, why would millionaires and rich corporations bother setting up the UK equivalent of political action committees when they can simply fund political parties directly, gaining for themselves unparalleled access to party leaders and even potentially membership of the House of Lords in the process? If the government is truly concerned about millionaires buying elections, they would sort this fundamental problem out: they have repeatedly failed to do so.”

The trade unions are of course the main target of a bill which is, taken as a whole, openly uneven and partisan. Part I introduces controls on lobbying so narrowly drawn as to be worthless, confining the register to lobbying only ministers and permanent secretaries instead of a comprehensive register taking in all lobbying, most of which takes place routinely with government departments and is known there as “consultation”. Ministers wish to spare the private sector from excessive red tape. Yet part III piles excessive red tape upon trade unions and part II on campaigning and voluntary organisations and charities as well as trade unions – OurKingdom would almost certainly fall under the legislation’s remit.

But the wider effects of part II are not simply collateral damage from the assault on trade unions. It is said, for example, that the Lib Dem hierarchy wants to protect its candidates from the effect that pro-hunting campaigns had on their electoral chances in rural constituencies. This raises a fundamental question: are democratic politics and elections conducted on behalf of the political parties or on behalf of society as a whole? It seems too much of the democratic process is designed for the benefit of political parties which refuse to reform themselves, to sort out equitable party funding and to create a fair electoral system. The government’s wretched bill exempts one group of organisations from its punitive measures – the political parties which will be freer to propagandise in the absence of rebuttal from civil society organisations. For a whole bloody year!

About the author

Stuart Weir is founder of Democratic Audit at the Human Rights Centre, University of Essex, and co-founder of Charter 88. He is a consultant to the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust on the State of the Nation polls.