A bill has just been passed which many are claiming will undermine free speech, free protest, the democratic process and trade unions. But you wouldn’t have guessed this from the apparently benign name of the bill: the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014. To express the true nature of this bill, it is now referred to as the ‘gagging bill’ or ‘gagging law’. 38 Degrees campaigners protested against the bill back in October on the grounds that it would allow the government to silence charities and campaigners a year before the elections. It also saw opposition from Oxfam, Caroline Lucas (leader of the Green Party), bloggers such as Vox Political and Guido Fawkes, and journalists such as Polly Toynbee and Owen Jones. Many see this as a gross violation of free speech and our right to criticise politicians and hold them accountable. Unfortunately, all resistance to the bill has been unsuccessful – the bill officially became law on January 30th and it is being prepared for publication.
Perhaps one of the most unnerving aspects of this story is that the Lib Dems supported this bill, a party who is supposed to be dedicated to the values of free speech and democracy – it’s essentially how they define their party. Or rather, at least it’s how they used to define their party. Without their votes, this illiberal legislation would never have been passed. I really don’t see how they deserve to call themselves a ‘liberal’ party after this shameful complicity.
The law is actually pretty sneaky. Although there are no explicit limits of free speech described in the bill, that is the effect it will have through its proposed bureaucratic and financial barriers. These barriers are detailed in Part 2 of the Bill, which you can read here. The government will have the power to control the expenditure and activities of non-party campaigning. It is a subtle but very real form of censorship. Wealthy corporate lobbyists are under no threat from this law – they will continue to enjoy a cosy relationship with politicians. Instead, those being targeted are charities, NGOs, bloggers, community groups – any organised group really who might oppose the government the year before a general election. This bill has been passed just in time before the General Election next year. The bill has also been passed without any of the amendments which would have made the proposals less strict and unreasonable.
Many groups who are usually opposed to each other and joined forces to speak out against this law. As 38 Degrees put it:
It’s telling that so many groups who wouldn’t normally agree with each other have united to oppose the gagging law. Groups that speak out in favour of hunting, windfarms, HS2 or building more houses are joining together with groups who say exactly the opposite.
After all, free speech is equally valued by all these groups. Nigel Stanley, the Trade Union Congress (TUC) Head of Campaigns called the bill a “chilling attack” on free speech, while Liz Hutchins, senior campaigner at Friends of the Earth, said it was a “bad day for anyone wanting to protect the environment, save a hospital or oppose tuition fees.”
As I mentioned earlier, lobbying groups are not covered by the bill. This is a serious issue since UK politics is constantly being corrupted by commercial interests. There will be no transparency about campaign donations that lobbying groups make or about the more questionable relationships that exist between politicians and businesses. As a case in point, Philip Green, the owner of Topshop, was asked in 2010 by David Cameron to lead an ‘efficiency review’ in government spending. This is a man who is notorious for his tax avoidance. He managed to avoid £300m in tax. So while Green refused to pay his share into the public pot, he was nevertheless appointed to dictate how public money should be spent. Decisions like these would not be regulated by the bill.
Massive donations from lobbying groups will also remain hidden from public view. Of course, this lack of transparency is in the interests of politicians. It means that they can continue to receive funding from interest groups and offer them favours in return, such as advice and guidance or writing government policy which protects their interests. Lobbying scandals, like the case of former Tory MP Patrick Mercer, can continue as well. The Coalition wants to control third-party groups because they know that such groups will be critical of their policies in the coming General Election. Furthermore, third-party groups are not likely to make substantial donations to the main political parties. The Coalition is only interested in protecting lobbying groups who they have financial ties with and who aren’t going to put the government in a negative light.
Although the bill has been passed, many are still vehemently protesting against it. Stephen Bubb, chief executive of the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations (ACEVO) said that “We must be clear: civil society must never lose its voice. We must stand up for our beliefs and refuse self-censorship. ACEVO will work tirelessly to ensure that this Bill does not gag charities and campaigners”. Thomas G Clark who writes for the blog Another Angry Voice suggests that nationwide dissent may be the only viable response: “One possibility is that mass non-compliance with the rules will render them literally unenforceable. If charities, voluntary organisations, protest groups, trade unions and religions all refuse to comply with the regulatory burdens of the legislation, what can the Tories actually do about it?”
A petition from 38 Degrees also hopes to bring these concerns to the attention of Andrew Lansley MP and Lord Wallace who support the bill and deny allegations that it will result in an erosion of civil liberties. As individuals we will still be entitled to protest government actions, but not as groups, which is the kind of protest that really matters and which makes a difference. Although non-party groups may have their free speech restricted in the coming General Election, the Tories and Lib Dems may still find themselves losing votes due to the public’s opposition to this bill.