A Bill to silence debate, curb dissent and inhibit democratic engagement
Today all freedom-loving democrats the length and breadth of the United Kingdom look to the House of Lords (once again) to defend our ancient liberties and the health of democracy against this increasingly authoritarian, censorious and coercive Government.
Last September His Grace raised concerns about the (niftily-named and immeasurably soporific) Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill. In short, a bill intended to promote transparency and ensure greater integrity in the democratic process may greatly restrict charities and other groups from speaking out on important matters of public interest. The Government denies this, insisting that charities are already exempt from party political campaigning. But lawyers, charities and a raft of respected organisations (IEA, TFA, CPS, TPA, PEN, BBW, ASI) take a contrary view. The Christian Institute has a helpful explanatory hub.
Today their Lordships vote on Part 2 of this Bill. Bizarrely, legislation aimed at restricting the covert activities of big business, trades unions and the manoeuvres of former politicians using an old-boys' network to enrich themselves actually risks silencing any group of community-minded people which lobbies political candidates on local or national issues. The Electoral Commission said:
"..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."The Government did step back from the brink and made some amendments, but profound concerns remain. There has been some movement on this 'year' limitation: it is now eight months. Since we know that the next General Election will be in May 2015, this Bill, if passed, will restrict freedom of expression from September of this year. Any group which spends over a certain threshold (£20k in England) lobbying potential candidates is defined as being engaged in political campaigning. Quite what happens if the Government calls an election beforehand is not clear: how may one unknowingly fall within the eight-month purdah? And what happens in a by-election? If your group has been opposing a windfarm for a year and your MP suddenly dies, do your costs suddenly constitute an election expense? And how exactly does one distinguish between seeking to influence policy and doing so for electoral purposes?
If (say) your church opposes (say) euthanasia, and you support a candidate who shares those views, your church will be deemed to have assisted that candidate and so be subject to financial regulation. If you publish views contra a pro-euthanasia candidate, you can rest assured that every phone call, flyer and coffee morning will be scrutinised, assessed and the costs totted up. That's okay, you may say: my church wouldn't spend anything like £20k on a political campaign. But nationally they may certainly do so. And if they fail to make the appropriate returns, the Archbishop risks being imprisoned.
But this £20k limit is swept aside by a particularly sinister clause. Under the proposals, any group that spends more than £9,750 on political activity in a single constituency will have to register with the Electoral Commission. It is not remotely clear what happens if your campaign is national or geared to a wider region (whether, for example, the anti-HS2 group will need to divide their budget by the number of constituencies along the route). Astonishingly, that limit includes staff costs, which is an expenditure specifically excluded for political parties. This could greatly affect the work of churches and other non-partisan voluntary groups which may have no direct involvement in an election but which happen to employ an administrator on £10k pa. Any 'substantial' agitation by such a group may constitute political lobbying.
One can foresee lengthy court cases to establish whether monies spent denouncing or supporting political policy were, in fact, designed to affect the outcome of an election, not least because organisations may be subject to these constraints even if they do not name a particular candidate.
But what constitutes political activity? Is not the whole process of ordering lives in community a constant negotiation of one interest against another? Is not participation in the whole of civilised life therefore a political pursuit? Is not campaigning to defend the lives of the unborn as political as the siting of a windfarm, the alleviation of poverty or the care afforded to our war veterans? How may one freely express an opinion on these matters without being seen to be tacitly supporting a candidate who shares one's views?
The lobbying of politicians by any interest group is integral to a healthy functioning democracy. Of course, there should be transparency and statutory limits to prevent abuse, but not at the level of having to scrutinise the conduct or register the interests of every Neighbourhood Watch scheme.
It is principally the uncertainty created by the Bill's imprecise wording which will deter healthy debate and democratic engagement. Your church might think twice before supporting a Christian candidate, just in case they suddenly find they're engaged in lobbying and so subject to registration and a raft of burdensome regulation. 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 today that the Lords Spiritual and Temporal will expose its disturbing implications.
The Government was defeated on an important amendment. Their Lordships voted 237-194 to exempt NGO/charity staff costs from campaign spending thresholds.
The exclusion of staffing costs from campaign expenditure thresholds was a common-sense amendment, tabled by crossbencher Lord Harries of Pentregarth (formerly Bishop of Oxford). It passed with Conservative, Labour and LibDem support. Since staffing costs are one of the larger expenditures associated with campaigning, this amendment will be of enormous benefit to NGOs and charities and in their campaigns.