Now that backbenchers have shown that they aren’t afraid to flex their muscles when they disagree with their leaders, let’s hope that they have the courage to throw out the disgraceful, Orwellian “Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill” that is due to receive its second reading in the House of Commons tomorrow. My worry is that rebel Tories and LibDems may think that they should use the vote to demonstrate that they actually are loyal to their front benches after all, but this is an issue that is very significant indeed – almost as important as Thursday’s vote.
Unions, community groups, charities and campaigning organisations would all be hit. On the big issues of the day –
- job cuts,
- whether or not to go to war,
- the future of our NHS,
- attacks on our terms and conditions
– we’d all be gagged.
The human rights lawyer Helen Mountfield QC has warned that charities in Britain will be put in fear of criminal prosecution by the Bill’s curbs on political campaigning by third parties, and she says that it is likely to have a chilling effect on freedom of expression by putting small organisations and their trustees/directors in fear of criminal penalty if they speak out on matters of public interest and concern during the 12 months before an election.
It would cut from £989,000 to £390,000 the amount third-party groups could spend in this period before a general election. The bill would also broaden the definition of what constitutes “election campaigning”, outlined in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendum Act 2000. The new bill says that activity could be deemed to come within the terms of the act if it affects the outcome of an election even if that was not its purpose.
In her legal opinion, Mountfield says the Cabinet Office claims charities will not be covered by the legislation. But she cites a recent report by the Electoral Commission, which warned charities could be covered, to say that the NCVO is right to be concerned. The bill would “have a chilling effect on the expression of views on matters of public interest by third sector organisations”.
Mountfield warns of of uncertainty over what the bill means by “for political purpose”. She writes: “This uncertainty about what the law requires is likely to have a chilling effect on freedom of expression, by putting small organisations and their trustees/directors in fear of criminal penalty if they speak out on matters of public interest and concern.
“The TUC has accused the coalition of legislating out of “pure political spite” rather than genuinely taking action to tackle rich corporate lobbyists.
“Most people will see this bill for what it is – a cynical attempt to deflect growing public concern about the behaviour of rich corporate lobbyists representing hedge funds and private health companies, many of whom donate substantial sums to the Conservative party,” general secretary Frances O’Grady said. (Politics UK)
“Meanwhile unions campaigning to get the voices of Britain’s nurses, factory workers, shop assistants and other employees heard around Westminster are being targeted.”
The bill was published after the final prime minister’s questions before the summer recess. The exchanges were dominated by Ed Miliband’s suggestions that the Conservatives’ general election adviser Lynton Crosby, a tobacco lobbyist, had influenced the government’s decision to drop its plans to introduce plain packaging for cigarettes.
As the government lost a key vote on military action in Syria, it seems Ed Miliband and the Labour Party have increased popularity in recent opinion polls. At last, we are seeing our representatives voting with conscience, and listening to the people who elected them , rather than the Conservative press, and the will of the USA. Apparently, the government is now getting worried about growing opposition to the Bill, so we must hope the LibDems and some Tories will have the courage of their convictions and vote to send it back to the drawing-board.
These are definite signs of a change for Labour and Ed Miliband, with hopeful signs of prospects for a courageous parliament, and a Courageous State.