Lobbying Bill will silence churches and other religious organisations
“Blogs and websites face being shut down and rallies could be prevented under a controversial new law designed to tackle political lobbying, Britain’s election watchdog has warned. Jenny Watson, head of the Electoral Commission, said that the Government’s proposals were so broad that they posed ‘real questions around freedom of speech’ and that legislation may even be impossible to enforce…Ministers hinted that the plan may have to be altered yesterday after it took a battering in the Commons. One MP described the legislation as the ‘worst Bill ever to be placed before Parliament’”So says The Times (£). And an alliance of think tanks and campaigning groups have joined a general chorus of disapproval, including the IEA, TFA, CPS, TPA, PEN, BBW and the ASI, who warn of the Bill’s ‘fundamental failings’:
“Part II of the bill threatens the ability of charities, research and campaigning organisations to inform the public debate, fulfil their missions and raise awareness of important issues. The current drafting would capture a huge number of organisations who would not presently be considered as relevant to electoral law and who do not receive any state funding. It also threatens to dramatically expand the range of activity regulated far beyond any common sense understanding of commercial lobbying.”Being concerned with the public good and the amelioration of society, most churches and religious organisations are charities. Many of the issues they campaign about – the sanctity of life, relief of poverty, housing the homeless – also fall under the aegis of registered charities.
All of these will be regulated under the provisions of the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill, which passed its Second Reading last night. If it becomes law, a church that campaigns against (say) euthanasia or abortion – for (say) a Christian candidate and against (say) a sitting atheist MP who favours liberalisation on these issues – would be subject to such stifling red tape and bureaucratic accounting procedures as to be intimidatingly prohibitive.
This was the scenario in Oxford West and Abingdon at the 2010 last General Election, when the (‘pro-life’) Anglican Christian Nicola Blackwood defeated Dr (‘Death’) Evan Harris by just 176 votes on a 6.9% swing from the Liberal Democrats to the Conservatives.
The churches campaigned strongly for one of their own, as is (currently) their unimpeded democratic right. Under the provisions of the Bill, their leaflets, flyers, church bulletins and coffee mornings would all constitute ‘political lobbying’ and be subject to a financial cap.
If Dr Harris sensed that his electoral defeat had been down to the campaigning antics of those pesky Christians with their subliminal sermons and subversive coffee mornings, which were really covert campaign meetings to get Nicola Blackwood elected, their erstwhile ‘civic activity’ would be classified along with those big businesses who pour £millions into lobbying and winning government contracts. Church activities will be fused with corporate interests, and Dr Harris would have recourse in law to examine church accounts and challenge the result of the election.
And God forbid that your church might want to sponsor a free school or provide child care. If they were to lobby a parliamentary candidate for these social goods in order to influence such decisions, this Bill moves beyond the mere reasonable requirement for transparency; it seeks to control all ‘non-party’ campaigning in the run-up to elections. As it is currently worded, any group that spends over £5,000 on anything that may in any way be said to affect the outcome of an election will be caught in the quagmire.
The Government insists that Part 2 of the Bill will have no effect on charities and other issue-based campaign groups, as only campaigning that affects the electoral success or standing of parties or candidates would be regulated.
But in Oxford West and Abingdon in the election of 2010, it was the charitable churches and pro-life campaign groups that won it – by a whisker – for Nicola Blackwood. It is inconceivable that their decision to align with and support a Christian candidate was not worth (at least) 176 votes. Ergo, by setting themselves against the pro-abortion, pro-euthanasia stance of Dr Evan Harris, they affected the outcome of an election.
This Bill now places them under criminal liability to regulate their activities ‘for election purposes’ during a pre-election period – whenever that might be deemed to begin (and how exactly is that to be gauged if a snap election is called?). How will the doubts, questions, imprecisions and unknowns not deter charities, churches and other voluntary organisations from engaging in policy debates?
It is inconceivable that the Government is introducing this Bill without any awareness of its autocratic implications. Ergo we must consider the possibility that a Conservative / Liberal Democrat coalition is purposely intent on introducing a Bill which is fundamentally un-conservative, illiberal and undemocratic. It cuts to the foundations of our democracy and constitutes a direct assault on free speech and freedom of religion. This is not a Bill to control lobbying; it is a Bill to curb dissent and impede those who seek to challenge the status quo of the establishment. One hopes and prays that the Lords Spiritual and Temporal will expose its sinister agenda when it comes for debate in the Upper House.