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House of Commons must save our freedom of speech

United Kingdom
Gagging law

Bryony Walker handing a petition backed by over 130 organizations in support of Lord Harries' amendments to him. It gained 160,000 signatures in under five days. © Clare Hammacott

It disturbs me that in an age of increasing disillusion with Politics (note the big ‘P’), an unprecedented attack has been launched by the British government – in the year before an election – to stifle civil society’s voice. Little comment has been made by the mainstream media, which begs the question, Why? Why has it been left to a vote in the House of Commons later today to determine whether a dangerous and unworkable piece of legislation, which threatens the very fabric of our democracy, will be made into law?

Last year, the clumsily worded and poorly drafted Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill travelled unscathed through the House of Commons. The Joint Select Committee on Human Rights commented that it was ‘unacceptable’ that they had ‘not been able to report on a Bill that raises significant human rights issues, before it has left the [House of Commons], on account of the unnecessary speed at which the Bill has been taken... This amounts to an abuse of the Parliamentary legislative and scrutiny process.’

Liberal Democrat and Conservative ministers purported the Bill would rid British politics of the menace of US-style super-PACs (Political Action Committees), whereas in actuality, Part One of the Bill promises to do very little to protect against corporate lobbyists distorting elections. Maina Kia, UN special rapporteur on freedom of peaceful assembly and association, noted: ‘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.’

Indeed, Part Two of the Bill targets charities and campaign groups, threatening to silence the people-powered organizations that represent non-partisan interests. A seemingly absurd move in a society where people exhibit increasing faith in third-sector organizations rather than political parties. In response to the indecent threat that this Bill poses, the Commission on Civil Society and Democratic Engagement was formed in September 2013. The Commission brings together such unlikely bedfellows as the Countryside Alliance and the League Against Cruel Sports, as well as over 130 other prominent organizations, ranging from Oxfam to Cancer Research UK, all deeply perturbed by the Bill. It is the Commission, headed by Lord Richard Harries, which was responsible for securing two crucial defeats in the House of Lords (in relation to staff costs and constituency campaigning), which went some way toward lessening the dangers posed by the Lobbying Bill.

Today, there is still a fight to be won to preserve freedom of speech. The House of Commons must accept the amendments made in the House of Lords. Liberal Democrats would do well to listen to the esteemed Baroness Williams of Crosby if they wish to avoid further embarrassment and defeat: ‘The gap between the deliberations in this House [The Lords] and the deliberations starting in the other place [The House of Commons] tomorrow, are frankly ludicrous. They do not enable the other place to take into account the very careful and deliberate thoughts that have been given in this House, not least by the Right Reverend Lord Harries of Pentregarth and his very impressive Commission.’

I return to the question: Why? Why does the government want to quash organizations that stand for our civil liberties? After the debate in the Lords yesterday I made calls to MPs to see if they knew how today’s vote was likely to swing. A nameless MP responded in an irritable manner, informing me that he planned to reject the amendments, because he was immensely angered by campaign groups that encouraged members to contact their MPs on mass. He was determined in his resolve to ensure that the whole third sector pay as a result.

This charade affirms that people-powered movements really are transforming our political system. And that politicians are beginning to feel those ripples, too.

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