The Gagging Bill: Criminalising peaceful participation in public debate

The Gagging Bill is an attack on the foundations of our democracy. Far from supporting the "Big Society", Cameron and Clegg are crushing it. The legislation has been paused in the Lords. Now it must be abandoned, says Ian Leggett.

Ian Leggett
25 November 2013
Women's institute.jpg

The Women's Institute is one of many organisations to oppose the gagging bill/wikimedia

You have to hand it to Andrew Lansley – he is remarkably successful at producing Bills that annoy huge swathes of society. His Health and Social Care Bill faced such intense opposition that it had to be paused before it emerged – largely unscathed it has to be said – as law. With the Gagging Bill, he's done it again. There has been widespread criticism, focussing on the way in which the Bill will effectively gag charities and campaigning organisations of all kinds. The sheer breadth of the opposition is worth noting. The Gagging Bill has united opinion from across the political spectrum.

When the Director General of Institute of Economic Affairs, the Adam Smith Institute and the Centre of Policy Studies (one of the intellectual centres of Thatcherism), as well as the CEO of the
Taxpayers’ Alliance join together with with the leaders of the UK's oldest human rights organisation, English PEN, and of Big Brother Watch “to highlight our grave concern about..... a piece of legislation that poses a significant threat to legitimate campaigning freedom of speech, political activism and informed public debate” you know that this is not the usual coalition of bleeding hearts. Even conservativehome fear that “cheers today can be followed by cries of 'censorship' tomorrow”.

Similarly, a hastily cobbled together Civil Society Commission brought together organisations as diverse and popular as the RSPB, the WI, Mumsnet, 38 degrees, the Wildlife Trusts and the Countryside Alliance. These - and the dozens of other organisations that backed the Commission – have a combined formal membership that exceeds one million (the WI alone has more members than the Tory and LibDems combined) and have an active participation reach – people who sign petitions, write to their MP's, or contribute money that is probably close to 5 million. Their response the Gagging Bill is truly scathing. For example, “ the Lobbying Bill risks profoundly undermining the very fabric of our democracy by significantly limiting the right of organisations – from charities and community groups to think tanks and blog sites – to speak out on some of the most important issues facing this country and the planet. Whether we agree with these organisations or not, their role is essential in order to have an informed, engaged electorate.

A theme running through so many of the criticisms is that this bill threatens a fundamental democratic right: the freedom of expression. We are not talking about strikes, demonstrations, protests or other forms of civil disobedience. What is being curtailed are activities such as writing to MPs, organising petitions, informing supporters how MPs or councillors have voted or where candidates for electoral office stand on an issue. These activities are the daily bread and butter of a democracy. They have been a common feature of the work of charities or campaigning organisations for decades – and have been subject to strict regulation by the Charity Commission. There has been no hint that such regulation has been ineffective, nor abused by charities. If it is hard to see what problem the Bill is seeking to address, it is clear who the targets are - the organisations that the government really fears are not the mainstream charities like Christian Aid or The Wildlife Trusts - it's organisations such as 38 Degrees, Avaaz, Mumsnet which have massive social media outreach capabilities.

The Gagging Bill will not criminalise the individuals who write letters or sign petitions, but it will make it an offence for individuals – such as Treasurers, Directors, or other 'responsible persons' – to fail to comply with the range of extraordinarily complex regulations. This is a dangerous and slippery slope. In essence, what this Bill does is to make into criminals the volunteers and staff of charities and campaigning organisations for doing nothing more than enabling citizens to have a right to a say or to information on issues that are of legitimate public interest and which are in themselves peaceful, lawful actions.

In seeking to place limits on the role of charities, campaigning organisations and blog sites the government is seeking to control how we use the internet and social media to shape public policy. With a growing rejection of conventional political engagement – just look at the Hansard Society's latest audit of political engagement to see that it's not just Russell Brand who has no confidence in our democracy. The Brand test of democratic vitality – the propensity to vote – is dropping like a stone. Just 41% of the public say they would be certain to vote that in a general election. That' a decline of seven percentage points in a year and the lowest level in the history of the Audit. For young people, the picture is even worse; just 12% are certain to vote, down from 30% two years ago.

Dissatisfaction is also evident in the drastic decline in party membership. Latest estimates suggest that the Labour Party has just less than 200,000 members; the Tories have perhaps 170,000 (and possibly many fewer than that) while Lib Dem membership has fallen off a cliff since 2010 and is now less than 50,000. Being generous, it means that about half a million people are members of a political party. That is less than 1%. It was nearly 4% just thirty years ago.

In contrast to this collapse in membership of established political parties, the number of people joining charities, campaigning groups and community organisations is climbing – in some cases very dramatically. When it comes to finding a way to express their values and beliefs people are voting with their feet - or, more accurately, with their fingers. They are opting out of political parties and opting in to charities and campaigning organisations. By seeking to impose a vast web of limits, restrictions and reporting on those organisations, the coalition government is seeking to limit their right to a say on issues that matter to them as individuals – whether it is HS2, European membership, climate change or the future of our forests and wildlife. Such a blatant restriction on the freedom of expression is surely open to legal challenge.

Just two years ago the government was proclaiming as its passion a commitment to the Big Society “The Big Society is a society with much higher levels of personal, professional, civic and corporate responsibility; a society where people come together to solve problems and improve life for themselves and their communities; a society where the leading force for progress is social

responsibility, not state control.” With this Bill, Cameron and Clegg have killed whatever remained of their vision for a Big Society. It has been replaced with a thicket of limits and restrictions that is virtually impenetrable to anyone other than eagle-eyed lawyers. In place of more freedom, we have more regulation. In place of trustees or directors deciding how best a charity's money should be spent, we have the heavy hand of the state telling them exactly how much they can spend. In place of clarity and understanding, we have uncertainty, complexity and confusion. In place of an individual's right to choose how to engage on matters of public policy – anyone can join or leave organisations like 38 Degrees, Avaaz of Mumsnet with two or three clicks of a mouse – we have a government that is telling them how they can 'come together' to make their voice heard. It is a blatant attempt to erode the long existing rights of charities, campaigning organisation or think tanks to choose how they can best achieve their objectives.

In stark contrast to the burdens and restrictions it imposes on charities and other third parties, the part of the Bill that applies to lobbyists is drafted in such a way as to provide only the lightest of touches to a small number of people who act as lobbyists. This part of the act is so full of loopholes and so devoid of the detailed controls that have been imposed on charities and other third parties that it is glaringly obvious that corporate influence will continue, its excesses unrestrained and undiminished.

The Lobbying Bill has been described as a dog's breakfast, but that will not stop it becoming law. Neither Clegg to his great shame nor Cameron to his great embarrassment have acknowledged that on this issue they have got it badly wrong. They may try to split the opposition to the Bill by some modest tinkering, but that will hardly address the fundamental criticisms that have been made. For the health of our democracy, only abandonment will do.

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