In an astonishing attack on the UK government's much-criticised Lobbying Bill, a senior UN rapporteur has described it as a threat to democracy.
The comments came in a forthright article published on the Guardian newspaper website by Maina Kiai, UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association.
A Kenyan lawyer appointed by the UN's human rights council, he writes: "Although sold as a way to level the electoral playing field, the bill actually does little more than shrink the space for citizens – particularly those engaged in civil society groups – to express their collective will. In doing so, it threatens to tarnish the United Kingdom's democracy."
He continued: "Provisions ostensibly designed to target corporate lobbyists have a loophole so big it swallows the rule. In-house lobbyists – which enjoy the most influence in the UK government by far – are exempt. That leaves unions and civil society as taking the brunt of the bill's impact."
Mr Kiai declares: "The most obvious problem is that the language regulating civil society groups is unacceptably vague and broad.
"What is the difference between legitimate campaigning and 'electioneering'? Backers of the bill don't seem able to answer this question with sufficient clarity, but have introduced draconian restrictions on spending nevertheless. Is a charity barred from its advocacy work simply because a particular political party or candidate is campaigning on the same platform? How about groups that promote education or crime prevention? These are common issues in most election campaigns. Is civil society simply supposed to shut down and shut up for a year every time there is a general, European or devolved election?
"Second, despite being touted as a way to keep big money and corporate lobbying out of politics, the bill actually has a disproportionate impact on civil society. Provisions ostensibly designed to target corporate lobbyists have a loophole so big it swallows the rule. In-house lobbyists – who enjoy the most influence in the UK government by far – are exempt. That leaves unions and civil society as the taking the brunt of the bill's impact.
"It is understandable that the UK might wish to establish restrictions on the influence of money in politics. But this is the wrong way to do it."
The comments come as the government has made some concessions to NGOs and the public on the Bill, but the vast majority of objectors – including Ekklesia – believe it to remain a severe threat to democracy and freedom of expression in its current form.
* Read the full article by Maina Kiai here: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/jan/12/lobbying-bill-stain...
* More on the Lobbying Bill from Ekklesia here: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/lobbyingbill