The UK Houses of Parliament have passed a bill that limits the extent to which civil society organisations can campaign on issues of general interest in election years.
The ‘Transparency of Lobbying, Non Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill’ does little to limit either corporate lobbying or promote transparency. What it does do is limit the amount that charities and non-profit organisations can spend on campaigning on an issue in England to £20000 a year, £10000 a year in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, including any staff costs. Beyond this amount the organisation would have to register its spending with the Electoral Commission which would oversee and control spending (in ways yet to be defined). These sums already limit dramatically the right to campaign on issues such as climate change, the European Union, combatting poverty, saving a hospital or school from being closed down, or promoting animal rights. Even more problematic is the complicated array of bureaucratic requirements that charities, non-profits and think tanks would have to show they are meeting when they campaign. This will act as a deterrent for organisations to raise their voices.
To quote the bill, the restrictions will apply to any expenditure which ‘can reasonably be regarded as intended to promote or procure electoral success at any relevant election for
i) One or more particular registered parties
ii) One or more particular registered parties who advocate (or do not advocate) particular policies or otherwise fall within a particular category of such parties
iii) Candidates who hold (or do not hold) particular opinions or who advocate (or do not advocate) particular policies or who otherwise fall within a particular category of candidates’
The way clause has been drafted is crucial, because the definition is so wide that campaigning on any politically contentious issue would count: if a charity were to campaign on animal rights and some candidates were advocating similar policies and others not, then the campaign would fall under the restrictions. The kinds of action that could fall under this clause might include writing letters to candidates or parliamentarians, buying advertising in the press, distributing publications in the street, or holding debates. The clause is clear that the campaigning would not have to be explicitly for one candidate or another to fall under the restrictions. This is clearly a severe limit on the ability of civil society to influence the political agenda and inform good policy making.
The ‘gagging law’ raised opposition amongst almost all civil society organisations in the UK, from the rightwing Tax-payers alliance and Countryside Alliance to left wing groups like Compass, from online campaigners 38 degrees to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, to the Womens’ Institute and Friends of the Earth. Many of these organisations have very many more members than any political parties do, and that may well be why members of parliament are apparently so scared of them. The reality is that these organisations enrich political debate and make democracy work by raising public awareness of important issues and have an essential role in promoting a well-informed public capable of making responsible political choices.
Under the cover of saying that they will deal with corporate lobbying and prevent USA style situations where big money buys political seats, the UK government has stealthily brought in legislation that will deal with neither of these potential problems, but severely limits the possibility of civil society organisations to inform the public. This is a travesty of democracy as well as the right to free speech and association, which are guaranteed both through UK as well as European law. We can hope that the law will face legal challenges through the UK as well as European courts, and that it will be reviewed as soon as possible.
The lack of coverage in parts of the mainstream press in the UK of the passage of the bill shows that media moguls who dictate large parts of public debate in the UK are not displeased that critical and independent civil society voices will be more silent. Individual citizens – in principle not covered by the bill if they are not organised – may have to stand up and speak up these coming months to protest against this criminalisation of free debate.