Report highlights major free speech dangers of Lobbying Bill

By staff writers
October 29, 2013

A diverse coalition of prominent charities, advocacy groups, academics, think tanks and online networks has published a report raising serious concerns about the government's Lobbying Bill, which is being rushed through Parliament at present.

There is growing alarm about the likelihood that charities, churches, civil society organisations, trade unions and pressure groups will face a “chilling effect” on their legitimate activities around election times as a result of the bill – which has been described by critics as "a huge assault on free speech".

The report, 'Non-Party Campaigning Ahead of Elections', is being launched at the UK Parliament today by the independent Commission on Civil Society and Democratic Engagement.

The Commission represents an unusually broad coalition, including groups that would otherwise be antagonists – from the Lancashire Badger Trust to the Countryside Alliance, and from the National Secular Society to the conservative Christian Institute.

The government did not consult voluntary organisations, the public, or even the Electoral Commission responsible for regulating elections, before publishing the legislation, they point out.

The independent Commission has been taking evidence from across the UK to ensure the widest range of views are heard on this issue in a very tight timescale.

It is making recommendations to Parliament about appropriate regulation of non-party campaigning activity ahead of elections in time for the Committee Stage of the Bill in the House of Lords in November 2013.

Churches are concerned that the pre-election hustings meeting they have been hosting for many years will be rendered illegal if openly racist parties are excluded. Their briefing and advocacy is also effected.

Civil society groups of all shapes and sizes, including unions, also face a potential bar on speaking out on issues of public concern ahead of general elections.

In his foreword to the report, the Commission’s chair, Lord Harries, the former Anglican Bishop of Oxford, warns: “There is no doubt, from the evidence that this Commission has gathered, that ... the 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."

He continues: “Whether we agree with these organisations or not, their role is essential in order to have an informed, engaged electorate.”

Lord Harries adds: “It is a mark of bad governance for legislation to be bounced on Parliament and those directly affected without any consultation. When matters of democracy are at stake it is a very grave error.”

Andrew Lansley MP, Leader of the House of Commons and the Minister leading the Transparency in Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill, declined to give evidence to the Commission.

Tom Brake MP, who had agreed to give evidence to the Committee on Monday 14 October, was subsequently withdrawn from giving evidence by Andrew Lansley.

Angela Eagle, Shadow Leader of the House, Graham Allen, Chair of the Political and Constitutional Select Committee, and Hywel Francis MP, Chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights gave evidence on Monday 14 October.

Ekklesia has joined the Commission on Civil Society and Democratic Engagement and is making the new report widely available (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/19330), alongside other coalition members.

Simon Barrow, the Christian think-tank's co-director, commented today (29 October 2013): "There are numerous problems with the UK government's Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill as it presently stands.

"In terms of calling powerful corporate lobbyists to account, it is too weak. But in Parts 2 and 3 it institutes limits on the freedom of expression of charities, civil society organisations, think-tanks, advocacy groups and trades unions that effectively amount to a gagging order against many non-party commentators at election times.

"The independent Commission on Civil Society and Democratic Engagement, which we are pleased to support, has brought together civic groups from across the spectrum and produced a detailed, thoughtful and constructive appraisal of section two of what the government is proposing.

"Sadly, the Minister leading on the Bill has so far refused to engage properly with a huge coalition of concern and with the framework of independent scrutiny across the country provided by the independent Commission. This Bill is an issue of major public concern, and we hope that politicians can be made to listen before going down what looks to be a significantly anti-freedom of speech route. At present it is not fit for democratic purpose."

Supporters of the Commission on Civil Society and Democratic Engagement include: A Rocha, Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations, Amnesty International UK, Barrow Cadbury Trust, Better Transport, Big Brother Watch, Bond, Centrepoint, Change.org, Children England, Christian Aid, Christian Institute, Citizens UK, Countryside Alliance, Democracy Matters, Ekklesia, Electoral Reform Society, Electoral Reform Society (Wales),
Friends of the Earth England Wales and Northern Ireland, Gingerbread, Greenpeace UK, HOPE not hate, International HIV/AIDS Alliance, Lancashire Badger Group, Lumos, MADE in Europe, Micah Challenge, Mumsnet, Muslim Council of Britain, National Secular Society, National Union of Students, NCVO, Oxfam GB, People & Planet, Peter Tatchell Foundation, Quakers in Britain, Runnymede Trust, RSPB, Sheila McKechnie Foundation (SMK), Small Charities Coalition, STOPAIDS, Stop HS2, Sue Ryder, 38 Degrees, Global Poverty Project, Royal British Legion, Vegan Society, Wildlife Trust, Woodland Trust, Unlock Democracy, Unite Against Fascism, WaterAid, Womankind Worldwide and the Women’s Institute.

* Read the full report here: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/19330

* Commission on Civil Society and Democratic Engagement: http://civilsocietycommission.info

* More from Ekklesia on lobbying and the bill: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/search/node/lobbying

* Timetable for Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill 2013-14: http://services.parliament.uk/bills/2013-14/transparencyoflobbyingnonpar...

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