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Yesterday (16 April 2014) I moved the unanimously accepted composite motion on the UK Government’s Lobbying Act at the STUC congress in Dundee.
I said: “If you ask most people in this hall or outside to name the most dangerous things this coalition government has done, many will identify vicious cuts, one-sided economic policies, privatisation and bank bailouts as their chief calumnies.
“Too few will have noticed a complex, technical piece of legislation called the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act.
“Yet this pernicious legislation, passed in the teeth of overwhelming opposition across the political spectrum and among experts, constitutes a massive threat to democratic and political freedom in this country.
“The ‘gagging bill’, as it has rightly been called, was introduced on the back of widespread public anger about how big business lobbyists have been able to secure benefits for their friends by infiltrating the Westminster system without proper accountability.
“What the coalition has done instead of tackling this genuine problem is to introduce an Act that does virtually nothing to harm corporate, commercial lobbyists, but instead imposes severe restrictions on the right of charities, trade unions, community groups and other non-government organisations to speak out for their causes in the run-up to, and during, elections.
“Part one of the Act will impact only one percent of in-house lobbyists at Westminster representing the interests of the rich and powerful. Part Two, however, tries to stop non-party civic groups from tackling public issues seen as impinging on party positions.
“So if a particular candidate supports your opposition to a hospital closure, say, it could become a criminal offence to campaign on it, because that would be seen as favouring some parties over others outside their agreed expenses. All this is wrapped up in highly complicated spending and boundary restrictions.
“Meanwhile, Part Three of the Act, the least publicised, could enable employers to put in complains about trade union campaigning in an attempt to gain access to union records through legal process. This is a major privacy issue.
“We need to ask ourselves, what on earth is the government doing wanting to control charities and campaign groups. Why does it think it should be administering trade unions? Unfortunately, I think we know the answer to that.
“This so-called Lobbying Act is anti-democratic. The Electoral Commission itself has said key aspects of it will be unworkable. Human rights advocates and senior lawyers point out how it infringes basic rights. My union, the NUJ, sees it as a threat to free speech. There are likely to be huge political and legal challenges in the run-up to the next election.
“Now Labour, the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Greens all favour scrapping the Act. But it is only civic and trade union campaigning that can ensure that they live up to this pledge if they are in a position to do so.
“With this motion, the Scottish TUC is committing itself to working with student groups, charities, the members of the Commission on Civil Society and Democratic Engagement (which gained significant concessions during the passage of the Bill) and others to expose the massively damaging implications of this Act and to seek its repeal.”
* Commission on Civil Society and Democratic Engagement: http://civilsocietycommission.info
* More on the Lobbying Act from Ekklesia: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/lobbyingbill
* STUC: http://www.stuc.org.uk
© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. He was a delegate from the National Union of Journalists in Scotland to the Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC) annual conference in Dundee, 14-16 April 2014. Ekklesia is an active member of the Commission on Civil Society and Democratic Engagement, chaired by Lord Harries and bringing together over 160 civic groups and non-party NGOs right across the spectrum.Tweet