Faith leaders have gathered outside Parliament to urge MPs to rewrite the Lobbying Bill and prevent significant damage to legitimate civil society campaigning.
They added their voices in support of a report published by an independent cross-party commission chaired by Lord Harries, former bishop of Oxford. The report recommends significant changes to the Lobbying Bill, which would prevent charities, NGOs and unions from speaking out on political issues in the run-up to an election.
Mark Lister, Chief Executive of Catholic charity Progressio, commented: “This Bill really matters. Limiting the ability of churches, charities and campaigning groups to speak up for people living in poverty cuts out the voices of those we need to hear the most before elections: the poorest and most marginalised in society.”
Jessica Metheringham from the Quakers said: “We must campaign together to tackle the root causes of poverty. As it stands, this Bill may effectively stop faith communities speaking up on urgent moral issues such as poverty or the environment.”
Sarah Javaid, Executive Director of MADE in Europe declared: “More than 100 civil society organisations, including faith groups and faith-based agencies, have come together to give a clear message to the government that their Bill needs a rethink.”
"In its current form the government's Transparency in Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning, and Trade Union Administration Bill is inappropriate and unjust. It constitutes a significant and unacceptable violation of democratic freedoms and civil rights in the UK," said Simon Barrow, co-director of the Christian political think-tank Ekklesia.
Lord Harries, chair of the independent Commission on Civil Society and Democratic Engagement (CCSEDE), said: “Ministers should take seriously the severe damage to trust between Government and organised civil society as a result of this legislation and the way it has been rushed through Parliament without due consultation.”
Campaigners have reiterated that Part Two of the Bill is so broadly drafted it could restrict campaigning in the whole year before an election. Trade unions want similar revisions to Part Three which violates the privacy of their membership records and ties them up in unnecessary red tape.
The Commission’s recommendations include:
· Treating campaigners in the same way as political parties by excluding staff costs from spending limits
· Reducing the period covered by the legislation to six months ahead of an election instead of a year
· Dropping the proposed tightening of spending caps for campaigners
· Doubling the current spending levels at which campaigners have to register with the Electoral Commission
· Scrapping the proposed constituency spending limit which the regulator warned may be unenforceable
The Commission warns that the Government has so far failed to make any meaningful changes to the legislation, despite acknowledging the need for a five week pause in the Parliamentary passage of the Bill to allow further work.
Faith leaders at the Day of Action at Westminster on Tuesday 10 December 2013 represented an unusually broad range of faiths, movements and churches including the Northwood and Pinner Liberal Synagogue, the Movement for Reform Judaism, British Buddhists, Unitarians, Quakers in Britain, Evangelical Alliance, Catholic Bishops Conference and others.
The National Secular Society submitted evidence to the Commission jointly with the right-wing Christian Institute, in an unexpected show of ecumenism.
Adverts criticising the Bill and supporting the CCSDE have appeared on a range of political blogs, including ConservativeHome, as well as those of green, liberal and left-of-centre commentators.
In addition to Ekklesia, supporters of CCSDE include such diverse organisations as Christian Aid, Christian Aid Wales, the British Humanist Association, Canon Collins Trust, the Christian Institute, Micah Challenge, the Muslim Council of Britain, the National Secular Society, Catholic agency Progressio, Quakers in Britain, the Salvation Army, and Tearfund.
* More on the Lobbying Bill from Ekklesia here: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/lobbyingbill
* The second full report on the Lobbying Bill from the independent Commission on Civil Society and Democratic Engagement (CCSDE) is available for reading and downloading on Ekklesia's website: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/19633
* The first report, 'Non-party campaigning ahead of elections' (29 October 2013) is available here: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/19330
* Full information about the independent Commission on Civil Society and Democratic Engagement can be found here: http://civilsocietycommission.info
* The content and procedure of the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill 2013-14 is detailed here: http://services.parliament.uk/bills/2013-14/transparencyoflobbyingnonpar...