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We must stop the “Gagging Bill”

Toby Perkins MP, explains the dangers of Part Two of the Tory-led Government’s “Gagging Bill”.

“I share the concerns of the 80 or so constituents who have contacted me on part two of the Lobbying Bill in the last two weeks alone.  I fear that we are seeing a repeat of the ConDem tactics at the time of their costly top-down reorganisation of the NHS.  At that time the Tory-led government pushed through this reform to our health service they faced severe opposition from almost every organisation in the health sector.  In order to overcome this, the government ordered a “pause” for further consultation.  After the pause they then came back with exactly the same bill!

Munitions 1Cameron has copied these tactics when it came to the Lobbying Bill.  He was forced to apply the brakes to this sinister and badly drafted Bill when it looked like he was about to lose key votes. Now it is back in an almost unamended form and still has the potential to have a chilling effect on our democracy.

The Tory-led government point to a few minor amendments to clause 26 in part two, but these only partially address one of the many problems in part two of the Bill and overall I am sure you will agree with me that it would be much better for them to just go back to the drawing board. A loosened gag is still a gag.

I have read Commission for Civil Society’s report on part two of the bill you sent to me by many consituents (read more here) I can assure everyone that Labour welcomes this report.  In consulting widely with affected charities and campaigners the Commission have done what the government should have before they brought this bad Bill to parliament.  The Commission’s recommendations are wide ranging, and many of them will help to remove some of the worst excesses of this sinister gagging bill.  Labour will be working closely with the Commission and with all concerned charities and campaigners from across the UK as this Bill goes through its next stages in the Lords.

In the coming weeks and months the Tory-led government will try to smeer anyone who opposes this bill as being against political reform.  Always remember that this is not the case.  For example, on lobbying, both transparency campaigners and the lobbying industry agree that the Lobbying proposals will make things worse and not better. As the proposed register has no code of conduct or sanctions, it is a step backwards from the voluntary registers that already exist.

Part two of the Bill increases the regulation of charities and campaigners in the year before the election and restricts their activity.  There are still fears that campaigning will be restricted even if it wasn’t intended to affect the outcome of an election, for example by engaging in public policy debate.  Staff costs and overheads will also have to be included in what campaigners have to declare, which could mean that larger charities have to pull back from any public facing activity in the year before the election to avoid hitting the lower spending limit.  There are also concerns that the Bill will deter smaller organisations from campaigning because they won’t be able to afford the administrative burden required to report.  It will also prevent charities from campaigning in coalitions because the full cost of the coalition would have to be registered against each organization.

So this Bill is still a gag on charities and campaigners.  These changes will have chilling effect on our national debate in the year before the election.  The government is trying to insulate its record and its policies from legitimate, democratic criticism.

This will have the effect of chilling debate in the run up to the election, and allowing the government escape scrutiny on their record and their policies. For example it could:

  • stop organisations like the NUS from being able to hold the Lib Dems to account for their broken promises on tuition fees
  • stop organisations like the Daycare Trust highlighting how Cameron has driven up the cost of childcare for working families
  • stop organisations like the Royal College of Nursing from warning the public about David Cameron’s cuts to nurses

At a time when trust in politics is at an all time low, it is nothing short of amazing that the government wants to restrict the one part of our politics that is doing a good job at engaging people.

The Government claims this is an attempt to take the big money out of politics, but it doesn’t even mention the real source of the problem: the amount spent nationally on election campaigning by political parties.  Political parties nationally spent £31m at the 2010 election, compared to just £3m by third-party campaigners. The biggest third-party spender spent just 4% of the £17m spent by the Conservative Party.

The government have wasted an opportunity to tackle the real problem of big money in our politics and have ripped up the cross-party approach to party political funding.

To make matters worse they are rushing the Bill through Parliament so that the rules can be in place before the next election.  Because the rules cover the year before an election, they would need to be in place by May 2014, with guidance to affected parties issued well ahead of that date (up to 6 months).  There has been no pre-legislative scrutiny of the Bill, nor any consultation with the sector on the Bill’s proposals. The Commons’ Political and Constitutional Reform Committee were forced to take emergency evidence from some affected third parties.    The Electoral Commission have been particularly critical of the lack of discussion with them on the proposals and the lack of opportunity for pre-legislative scrutiny.

No wonder the Electoral Commission have said they have “significant concerns” about the changes. They have said that the Bill creates uncertainty and significant new regulatory burdens for charities and campaigners: “the Bill creates significant regulatory uncertainty for large and small organisations that campaign on, or even discuss, public policy issues in the year before the next general election, and imposes significant new burdens on such organisations”.”

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Welcome

I am Toby Perkins, Labour's Member of Parliament for Chesterfield. If you would like to get in touch with me, my office is open and can be reached by phone on 01246 386 286. I also hold regular surgeries so that constituents can meet me and I can take up their concerns. If you would like to make an appointment then please do contact my office. Thank you for visiting.

Contact Toby

Tel: 01246 386286
Email: toby.perkins.mp@parliament.uk
Post: 113 Saltergate, Chesterfield, S40 1NF

Surgeries

I hold regular surgeries for my constituents.
Please call 01246 386286 or email toby.perkins.mp@parliament.uk to make a booking.

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