Wednesday, January 15, 2014

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.


Blogger David Hussell said...

Thank you Your Grace for drawing our attention to this.

Without free speech democracy is a sham. We are half way there already because liberalism has become most illiberal. A plethora of laws are designed to ban debate. Nowadays a bossy, PC form of silencing is the fashionable face of so called contemporary liberalism.
Now it strikes me as very strange that whereas Democracy and Capitalism, in harness together, successfully defeated both ugly Fascism and equally ugly, but longer lasting, Communism; yet now whilst global capitalism flourishes, at least for the wealthy, democracy is under attack from its own representatives, the elected, who seem hell bent on destroying free discussion. Are they so unsure of themselves that they cannot cope with being part of a free market of ideas ?

A muzzled society will soon become an impoverished society, impoverished materially and spiritually, I believe. Moreover a muzzled society will stagnate or worse, decline. Only the spiritually blind could fail to see that threat, now being manufactured in Westminster.

15 January 2014 at 08:39  
Blogger Martin said...

And again our politicians demonstrate that they are unable to produce coherent legislation. If they can't make laws what is parliament for?

15 January 2014 at 09:42  
Blogger IanCad said...

Keep souding the trumpet YG.

Thnks, David HusselL, you've saved me the need to comment.

15 January 2014 at 10:08  
Blogger Mrs Proudie of Barchester said...

Goodness! How dreadful! I was talking to Sir Abraham Haphazard about this only the other day, and he said there are those in the House pushing forward the 'Compulsory Lobotomy of Voters Bill,' and the 'Abolition of Elections Bill,' both of which have government approval. These are dangerous times indeed.

15 January 2014 at 10:42  
Blogger Ivan said...

The professional politicians do not worry. They after all can wait for deferred gratification. They have no need to hold a useful job. Their meal ticket is already provided for - seats on commissions, endless verbiage on speaking tours and maybe even a position on the Federal Reserve. You have an entrenched mandarin class, cross-linked with the banks and the upper civil service, in control of the propaganda organs, that is determined to protect its privileges and deny the same to upstarts.

15 January 2014 at 11:18  
Blogger Lucy Mullen said...

How much do we think that this dog's breakfast of a bill is down to the incompetence of professional politicians, fewer of whom are qualified lawyers and accountants and perceivers of important detail than in the past, when several strands of competence were more usual?

And how much due to a desire to control?

I think it is the latter more than the former, but am not entirely sure!

Undoubtedly a lot of lobbying needs reigning in but you have to have the right net for the right fish, and I think these nets will catch tiddlers, & innocent sealife that are not fish at all while quite a lot of the big fish and horrid looking verminous squid will find a way through!

As for the portuguese men o'war, well they are systemic and get through anything and the big sharks will just bite their way through. (Getting a little run away with the imagery here !!)

15 January 2014 at 11:58  
Blogger Lucy Mullen said...

Actually I meant the former more than the latter. Ahem, merely the opposite of what was meant!!

15 January 2014 at 12:00  
Blogger Lucy Mullen said...

Reining not reigning too. Ouch, Not a morning person. Apologies.

15 January 2014 at 12:02  
Blogger John M Ward said...

Thanks for that clarification, Lucy!

Actually, it is most likely that the mandarins who drafted the Bill deliberately sought control, having the measure of the current batch of elected representatives and railoring its wording so that they can hopefully slip the bad parts past them.

15 January 2014 at 12:10  
Blogger genghis said...

As with the atrocious 'IPNA' Bill, so with this 'dog's breakfast'.

The sole ambition, it seems to me, of all three main parties is 'control; stop; oreder,' and every time a reasonable piece of legislatioon is proposed, all sorts of devices to whittle away what little remains of our ancient freedoms get tacked on in the hope that some squeeze through.

Given or taken 'offence' at anyone or to anyone recently. The Law says you head for the slammer, whether it be a 'golliwog' or a 'nigger'.

We are being legislated out oif existence, and by a bunch of socalled Tories, allied to a bunch of Lib-Dims!

15 January 2014 at 12:17  
Blogger Cam Ma said...

This bill is a measure of the trash which inhabits the modern House of Commons and especially the Cabinet. No longer devoted to public service or to any ideals for the common good, the Etonian cabal at the heart of it is determined to enrich its cronies while closing down the kind of free speech which one day might cause it to be brought into question. Along the way every other kind of freedom of speech, thought and action becomes proscribed. It is laughable to describe the current constitution as a "democracy". It will not reform itself. The only slim, outside, slender chance of reform is by electing a wholly new party, which has none of the ancestral or lucrative ties to government. The only hope just now is UKIP.

15 January 2014 at 12:58  
Blogger David Hussell said...

Cam Ma @ 12.58

I agree. We are a democracy in name only. The mechanics, the outward motions and falsely reassuring activity remain, that's all.

Root and branch change is needed, foremost being a Brexit, plus a cultural change to favour Parliamentary candidates who are both, firstly, skilled at something, and secondly, rooted, connected culturally, to those that they claim to seek to represent.

Career politicians have turned themselves into something apart from the people, and this is creating instability, which these controlling laws seek to crush. It's not rocket science - I can see it !

15 January 2014 at 13:13  
Blogger David Hussell said...

Lucy M @ 11.58

Many thanks.

An interesting "fishy" metaphor (?), very appropriate for an island nation !

15 January 2014 at 13:16  
Blogger graham wood said...

Cam Ma & David Hussell. Agree with your posts and the priority being a Brexit, and "Root and branch change is needed in the whole structure of Parliament.
Agree also that only UKIP are offering Brexit, and the Conservative offer of a in/out referendum of the EU is hollow because the "negotiation" of our terms of membership is completely doomed at the outset.
What is the answer?
Clearly the six demand of the Harrogate Agenda proposals are the only realistic solution to the present political denial of real democracy by all parties.
The demands are simple and revert to the basic structures which should form the basis of government, both national and local.
I am surprised that Cranmer has not already present these for discussion on this blog !

15 January 2014 at 14:00  
Blogger DanJ0 said...

I remember seeing something about this some time ago when I was moaning about the Roman Catholic Church trying to nobble cabinet members by threatening to excommunicate them for voting against its wishes.

15 January 2014 at 15:23  
Blogger David Hussell said...

graham wood @ 14.00

"Simple and basic" sounds good. Then the fulfillment of policies or not, becomes transparent. Over complication, or to use the term thrown around in places like the BBC, "nuanced", is usually code for unnecessarily complicated approaches, all designed to ensure that you, Mr Taxpayer, is unable to tell if it's working or not, with a whiff of academic snobbery thrown in for good metropolitan measure.

Excellent ideas, and very necessary ones, have been marred and made ineffective and expensive by excessive complication, in my experience. The EU is very skilled at adding both weight to an organizations workload, and cost to its payroll, whilst equally skillfully reducing its value for the taxpayer.

15 January 2014 at 15:44  
Blogger graham wood said...

David Hussell at 1544.

David I leave you to judge whether the HA is complicated or not - see
its short and readable text:

Its opening words:
"Our current system of government includes the vestiges of what is known as "representative democracy". That phrase embodies a misuse of the word democracy. People do not hold power: that system cannot – by our definition – be a democracy. We seek to return power to the people. We are concerned with power – who holds it and under what circumstances and controls, and how to get more of it. Above all else, we hold to the core principle that in a true democracy the people must hold the power."

You say "The EU is very skilled at adding both weight to an organizations"

But by definition, adoption of the HA removes us completely from the orbit of the EU with which it is entirely incompatible - its current hegemony would be broken for ever.

15 January 2014 at 18:13  
Blogger Inspector General in Ordinary said...

It is gratifying for us freedom loving types, including what hopefully is the greater of Parliament, to have His Grace around to nail these damnable restrictions on us all. It is quite clear now the Conservatives need to be ‘rested’ and Cameron and his cohorts who keep coming up with this sort of thing given the order of the boot. Perhaps then, what’s left of the Conservative party can reform as they were and roll back the disastrous modern image changes which to an increasing number makes the party unelectable to office. They are being asked to vote for a party which no longer espouses conservatism…

The Inspector offers you all this from the Wiki article on Enoch Powell.

“Powell said, "I was born a Tory, am a Tory and shall die a Tory. It is part of me... it is something I cannot alter".[5]:709 In 1987, Powell said there was no contradiction between urging people to vote Labour whilst proclaiming to be a Tory: "Many Labour members are quite good Tories".[10]:404”

15 January 2014 at 19:32  
Blogger David Hussell said...

graham wood @ 18.13

Sounds better and better.

The Swiss have an interesting direct democracy. Many in the UK would like that. I would.

Representative democracy is busted. Despite its alleged originator, Burke, being one of my "favourites", I think that's it's finished, if we want real democracy that is.

I wasn't around much before the 1950s so I can't judge how well the MPs understood their constituency's inhabitants, but I do believe that they saw themselves as representing, that specific area, from which they came. But all that changed long ago, and now their "seat" is yes, just a pile of people to sit on, ignore or at best humour. Their orientation is quite elsewhere.

As it stands our Parliamentary representative system is a hollow shell of its former self, and needs to be recast I believe.

15 January 2014 at 20:23  
Blogger Mr Integrity said...

Your Grace, a very important Post.

Just what can be done to stop these assaults on democracy? They just push through whatever legislation they want without proper review of the badly drawn up papers.

15 January 2014 at 22:18  
Blogger Malcolm Smith said...

The irony is that lobbying is produced by the very Big Government which tries to control it. This is explained very cogently by Jonah Goldberg in Liberal Fascism (which, incidentally, can be found in PDF format on the internet).
Referring to the US scene, he points out that Big Pharmacy has teams of lobbyists in Washington, but the section of medicine which has almost none is veterinary medicine. The reason is that pharmaceutical companies can't make a move without government approval, while veterinary medicine is largely unregulated. The government leaves the vets alone and the vets leave them alone.
Again, a company might try to keep out of lobbying, but if its competitors seek advantages from government, then it must do the same. He gave the example of Microsoft, which prided itself on having very few lobbyists - until its competitors tried to get the government to carve it up. Something similar happened with Walmart.
The moral of the story: companies are like bee hives. They mind their own business until someone hits the hive with a stick, in which case the bees swarm to Washington (or, in this case, London). But all the government will do is pass laws against bees swarming, while continuing to hit the hive.

15 January 2014 at 23:33  
Blogger David Hussell said...

Malcolm Smith @ 23.33

So as a corollary, if they continue "to hit the hive", but with no, or reduced, means to ensure that any legislation is well directed, and not destructive, this could well lead to serious damage of the relevant industries and activities, making them less competitive and effective ?

If it's true, then it's ironical that:- more government leads to lobbying, leads to perception of "buying" political influence, leads to legislation to inhibit this, leads to more destructive, badly though through legislation, and then harm to economic and other activities. It's a sort of circular causation downward spiral ! The ultimate own goal.

It sounds plausible and fits with MPs insulated, out of touch lifestyle. But is it just a wee bit too simplistic I wonder ?

16 January 2014 at 08:34  
Blogger graham wood said...

Mr Integrity @ 22.18. Just what can be done.... "?

Can I recommend as I did to David Hussell above that you take a look at the Harrogate Agenda's six demands.
These proposals are the only realistic solution to the present political denial of real democracy by all parties.
They are simple and revert to the basic structures which should form the basis of government, both national and local.

16 January 2014 at 08:59  
Blogger Len said...

It is somewhat ironic that this 'governing party' has used the democratic system to gain power and is now in the process of demolishing that very democratic system.
This is how other tyrants have risen to power.

16 January 2014 at 09:35  
Blogger David Hussell said...

graham wood @ 8.59

Well I've now read the Harrogate Agenda. It is truly fascinating.

There needs to be a big national debate and push for change. I'm with Ukip as they are the best offer on the market, in terms of political parties. We desperately need to exit the wretched anti-democratic EU, which we've been tricked into by a series of stages, all supported by lies.

However, at a deeper level, the sheer brokenness of our failing system of representative democracy needs addressing. I envy the Swiss arrangements.

Thanks for bringing this to everyones attention.

16 January 2014 at 11:47  
Blogger non mouse said...

Yes, thanks to Graham Wood for highlighting The Harrogate Agenda. Of course, thanks are also due to the Agenda's originator, Dr. North, to whom His Grace provides a link at EUReferendum.

There is hope - but we need to nurture it.

17 January 2014 at 00:53  

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