The “nasty little bill” that could kill the Big Society


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The stakes are incredibly high as the British government considers buckling in the face of intense pressure over its controversial and divisive lobbying bill. If it does not, there is a real danger that the voice of David Cameron’s “Big Society” is about to be snuffed out for good.

From out of nowhere, the coalition government’s lobbying bill has created a sudden, serious threat to freedom of speech in Britain. Charities are terrified that their campaigning activity will be virtually shut down if the coalition’s proposed measures become law.

After a week of outrage and anger the first indications of a shift in stance are now starting to emerge. One coalition source I’ve spoken to says further concessions as the bill is debated in detail next week will leave the charities “mollified”. A Liberal Democrat source has, separately, suggested amendments will be tabled making clear charities’ activities will not be impinged. At the time of writing it remains to be seen whether that’s the case.

It has happened astonishingly quickly. Before the summer started there was no cause for concern. Now, though, dark partisan motives are underpinning debate on the legislation many of those affected are already calling the “gagging bill”.

This “nasty little bill”, as one Labour MP put it, is ostensibly an attempt to create more transparency in the system by which interest groups of all shapes and sizes put pressure on MPs and ministers. Its proposal to create a statutory register of lobbyists is widely criticised for being fundamentally flawed, though, because it only covers those working for public affairs agencies. In-house lobbyists, representing large corporations, get away scot-free.

Then there’s the real issue: a move against the influence of third parties in election campaigns. Under the proposals of this afterthought, any organisation which isn’t a political party faces a severe clampdown if it wants to campaign actively on its own issues during the election season. Trade unions, whose activity overwhelmingly helps Labour, are overtly targeted. The problem is that charities, which cumulatively form an important part of British political debate, are also going to be affected.

“The bill will have a chilling effect on campaigning activity,” the National Council of Voluntary Organisations’ parliamentary manager Chloe Stables warns. She fears the complexity and the uncertainty of the rule changes will lead many organisations to become “so scared of these rules they’ll stop undertaking campaigning, because charities are very risk averse”.

Not everyone is convinced there is an issue here. Conservative MP Stephen McPartland says charities are already covered by many of these rules. It’s true – charities are already forbidden from endorsing a particular candidate. “I’m very concerned the opposition have been able to portray this bill as a gagging bill,” he worries (says?).

Drill down to the small print, though, and the way in which the bill would dramatically broaden the activities charities are forbidden from undertaking emerges. Under current rules, Laura Pett of the Royal British Legion (RBL) explains, charities only have to prove their “intent” if they are accused of interfering in a specific campaign. Under the text of the bill, though, they’re banned from activity “for the purpose of or in connection with” electioneering.

The question charities are now asking is: what does ‘in connection with’ actually mean? In the run-up to the 2010 general election the RBL persuaded 75 per cent of candidates to sign a pledge promising to ‘do their bit’ for the armed forces if elected. What happens if candidates A and B sign up, but candidate C doesn’t – and then candidate C, having lost by a few hundred votes, complains that literature highlighting the issue influenced the result?

“It’s very widely drawn and is totally unclear as to what is and isn’t included,” James Legg of the Countryside Alliance worries (points out?). “You could find ordinary day-to-day campaigning activity, whatever it might be, could be seen to be for electoral purposes. In other words, we’re losing any sort of objectivity to it. It’s becoming very much a subjective test.”

It will be the Electoral Commission which has to make these judgement calls. You might expect it to welcome these new powers, but you’d be wrong. The bill, it warned in evidence to parliament, “raises real questions of freedom of speech”. It is as deeply concerned by the government’s proposals as everyone else.

The Electoral Commission faces a “bureaucratic nightmare”, Plaid Cymru MP Jonathan Edwards, a former Citizens Advice employee, believes. His party is worried about the impact the changes could have on the devolved administrations. The bill specifically refers to Westminster elections, but Edwards doesn’t think they can be viewed in isolation from the local and devolved contests. “Often campaigns will cross over, so therefore it wasn’t clear to me, as someone who’s worked in the sector, how employers would be expected to dissect the terms of the bill.”

Perhaps there would be more clarity if the government had given the legislation more time to be improved before bringing it to the Commons. MPs have been left aghast by the lack of pre-legislative scrutiny. The political and constitutional reform committee has issued an emergency report calling for it to be withdrawn completely, saying it is “seriously flawed” precisely because of a lack of consultation.

The truth is this bill is not so much being rushed as rammed through parliament. Its Commons stages will be over by mid-October, leaving it set to enter the statute book by the end of the year. “I understand there are some incentives to get this done by a certain date so organisations can have certainty before the next election,” says Stables of the NCVO, but adds that they would’ve preferred more time.

Both sides privately acknowledge the meetings between the NCVO and the government are not going well. There is a complete standoff over whether the text of the bill leaves charities vulnerable or not. The government lawyers say one thing, the charities’ experts say another.

In the meantime all the talk in the Palace of Westminster is of the politicking which underpins the lobbying bill. “The government’s fobbed everyone off so far,” one MP says. It’s an attempt to get at the unions and make it harder for them to reduce their ability to campaign.” Even government figures week implicitly acknowledge the change is being sought to shift the rules of the game against Labour. “This is not about targeting particular people,” one source close to the leader of the House, Andrew Lansley, says. “This is about making sure there is a level playing field.”

Usually, political parties jostling for advantage like this only really matters to Westminster types. It is ugly and undignified and will not have a decisive influence on the outcome in 2015, after all.

This time is different. The fear is the ability of charities to carry out their vital campaigning work could end up as collateral damage in a much bigger struggle for power.

Three years down the line, the charities David Cameron championed with his promises of a “Big Society” are now asking whether they are about to be gagged – just when they need their voices most of all.

UK Gagging Bill: who said what

LansleyThe controversial Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill yesterday passed its second reading. The legislation includes a proposal to cap the spending of charities in election years which has been widely criticised, earning it the nickname “the gagging bill”.

Despite the bill passing its second reading by 309 votes to 247,  Sky News reported that “the comfortable margin masked significant opposition across parties.”

The Guardian provides a rundown of the key questions related to the bill, including the cause of the controversy: “Charities are unhappy that their political campaigning could fall under restrictions for the first time. Legal advice obtained by the National Council of Voluntary Organisations said it could have a chilling effect. Helen Mountfield QC warns of uncertainty about what the bill means by ‘for political purpose’, saying it could ‘put small organisations and their trustees/directors in fear of ‘criminal penalty if they speak out on matters of public interest and concern’.”

A near-united NGO sector has slammed the proposal. “The Lobbying Bill represents a real threat both to the quality of debate on public policy in this country and charities’ ability to champion the needs of the poor and vulnerable through campaigns such as Make Poverty History,” said Oxfam.

‘What began as a bid to clean up politics and make the process more transparent has ended up as an attempt to restrict people and individuals engaging in politics and exercising their democratic rights of free speech,’ said anti-fascist group HOPE not Hate.

‘The government’s rushing through a new law which, if it passes, will stop us running the type of campaigns which have made us who we are during the year leading up to elections. Put simply, the new rules will make it almost impossible for campaign groups, charities and others to campaign in the way we do during the year before elections,’ said 38degrees.

The National Council for Voluntary Organisations have now written to Chloe Smith, the minister in charge of the bill, outlining their concerns.  A coalition of conservative think tanks, including the Adam Smith Institute, Big Brother Watch, Centre for Policy Studies, Institute of Economic Affairs, Taxpayers Alliance have criticised the “significant failings” of the bill: “The lack of clarity in the legislation further exacerbates its complexity, while granting a remarkably broad discretion to the Electoral Commission. The potential tidal wave of bureaucracy could cripple even well-established organisations, while forcing groups to reconsider activity if there is a perceived risk of falling foul of the law. This self-censorship is an inevitable consequence of the bill as it stands.”

Moreover, the Electoral Commission have stated the bill raises “real questions around freedom of speech” reported The Independent. “There may be circumstances where we would need to ask someone to take down a blog or a website or stop a rally from happening. That is a significant intervention for the Electoral Commission to take. [But] the change to our remit does give us greater discretion. That gives us significant concerns.”

The bill has also come in for massive criticism from the opposition, with shadow Commons leader Angela Eagle dubbing it “one of the worst pieces of legislation I’ve seen any government produce in a very long time”, the BBC reported. “It’s a sop to powerful, vested interests; a sinister gag on democratic debate in the run-up to the general election; a shameful abuse of the legislative process to make cheap, partisan points. This is a very bad bill,” she adds.

Independent columnist Owen Jones argues the bill is undemocratic: “Warnings of threats to democracy should be sparingly issued: they contain the risk of undermining an argument through hyperbole, of making us numb to genuine menaces. But be under no illusions: the Government’s catchily titled Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill is an audacious stab at many of our hard-won democratic freedoms.”

Meanwhile, Conservative MP Douglas Carswell adds that the bill does little to tackle the problem of lobbying: ‘My main concern, however, is what is not in this Bill. Big corporate interests serious about changing public policy don’t mainly focus on Parliament. They go up the road to Whitehall. It is there that the nexus of influence between big corporate interests and big government lies. The Bill does little to change any of that, and fails to sort out the revolving door between big Whitehall departments and various vested interests. Who inputs directly into the civil servants as they draft policy and rules? Who has a quiet word with the new non-executives at the department? We do not know.’

Labour’s Stephen Doughty, in one of the more colourful addition to the Commons debate, stated that the bill has “whiff of Zimbabwe”.

Andrew Lansley, sponsor of the bill has defended it as tool for making “our democracy more accountable”: ‘The Transparency Bill has three key aims: to make it clear who is lobbying the Government and for whom; to make third-party campaigning at election times subject to clear rules; and to provide assurance that trade unions know who their members are.’

Chloe Smith also attempted to calm some of the charities’ fears: “At the 2010 General Election, very few charities were registered as third parties. Provided they continue to campaign as most of them always have – that is, they are not promoting the electoral success or otherwise enhancing the standing of parties/candidates – charities will not be affected by this legislation,” Smith added.

You can read a transcript of the Commons debate here , or watch it here from 12.47.