Freedom of speech is once again  under attack, thanks to a new draft Bill being proposed by parliament which would effectively ban charities and community groups from campaigning on political issues.

The Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill severely restricts what organisations or individuals can say or publish in the run-up to an election and forces grassroots campaigners to submit to an audit of their finances if they are seen to be “lobbying” on any political issue.

Cabinet ministers claim the purpose of the Bill is to stop multi-millionaires and corporate entities from using their money to have a disproportionate influence over political elections.
Campaigners claim it does nothing of the sort. In fact, charities such as Hope Not Hate, Greenpeace, 38 Degrees, and others claim that this Bill deliberately castrates grassroots campaigns whilst not touching the corporate lobbyists in the slightest.

They claim that it would have a “chilling effect” on the democratic process.

Part of the Bill amends existing rules on what groups which are not political parties, can spend on campaigns that are considered to be “conducted .. for election purposes”.

It lowers the maximum that can be spent before groups have to register with the Electoral Commission, from £10,000 to £5,000 in England, and in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland from £5,000 to £2,000.

It also broadens the definition of what counts as spending to include overheads, staff costs – even if those staff members are volunteers. Leafleting, protesting will also be considered as expenditure. In addition, the Bill widens the definition of what counts as election-related activity to include work that could affect the outcome, even if that was not its purpose.

In the past, only those organisations directly involved in engaging in the elections had to register as a Third Party with the Electoral Commission. Under these new proposals every organisation which seeks to influence public opinion, in the 12 months before the general election – either directly or as a consequence of its actions – will now be covered. This will include charities, think tanks, trade associations and even blogs and websites.

It also cuts the maximum amount an organisation can spend in the 12 months before the election by up to 70 per cent and make it a criminal offence to exceed the limit. This could include local elections and by-elections as well as national elections. In short, there would never be a time when it would be safe to speak out on a particular issue – under the current proposals.

Ironically, political parties themselves would not be subject to the same restrictions.
So why is the government drastically slashing the amount that charities and community groups can spend on their day-to-day activities, but are not extending these same restrictions on political parties themselves? Perhaps political parties and corporate influencers are not the target here – as many campaigners believe.

Critics have also argued that the Bill also discourages grassroots organisations from working together or even holding joint events, because they would then be considered a “coalition” which is then subject to even further restrictions.

But in a letter to Cabinet Office minister Chloe Smith (PDF), charities including Shelter, the Salvation Army and the British Heart Foundation have stated that the Bill is too vague and currently “entirely unworkable”.

These claims have been echoed by the Electoral Commission. This is the organisation that will be appointed to enforce the legislation. But even they have expressed grave concerns over the scope of the Bill.

According to a briefing published by the Commission: “The Bill effectively gives the Electoral Commission a wide discretion to interpret what activity will be regulated as political campaigning. It is likely that some of our readings of the law will be contentious and challenged, creating more uncertainty for those affected.

“While we as the independent regulator should be free to decide when the rules have been broken, and how to deal with breaches of the rules, we do not think it is appropriate for us to have a wide discretion over what activity is covered by the rules.

“Our experience strongly suggests that it will not be straightforward to apply the new rules to many specific types of activities. Campaigners will face additional uncertainty if there is a legal challenge to our interpretation of the law. We do not think it is appropriate for us to have the sort of wide discretion over the meaning and scope of the regulatory regime that the Bill as drafted appears to provide.”

The Commission added that the rules are too ‘complex’ and may be unenforceable.

However, others argued that the Bill may be in breach of the Human Rights Act and so could be challenged on that basis.

Rosamund McCarthy, a lawyer and partner at Bates Wells Braithwaite, said that the new laws on non-party campaigners will have a “chilling effect” on charities campaigning, and could be in breach of Article 10 of the Human Rights Act.

She explained that the risk was that charities could campaign on existing policies such as welfare benefits, housing, retention of the Human Rights Act, or climate change and if this position was adopted by one party, and not another, it could be seen to enhance the standing of a party and therefore affect the results of an election.

Angela Eagle, the shadow leader of the Commons , said: “This Bill amounts to a sinister gag on charities and campaigners in the year before the election. The government urgently needs to listen to charities and campaigners who are telling them that these proposals will have a chilling effect on the quality of our national debate.”


David Babbs, executive director for the activist group 38 Degrees said that it could effectively censor civil liberties campaigners from speaking out on issues which matter to them.

He said: “The proposed gagging law would have a chilling effect on British democracy and our right to speak up on issues that matter to us. From May 2014, we would be banned from holding politicians and political parties to account in ways we do all the time at present.

“Community groups, charities and campaigning organisations would all be hit. On the big issues of the day – whether or not to go to war, the future of our NHS, the environment, welfare, immigration, et cetera – we’d all be gagged. Why are they proposing this? Maybe it’s an unintended consequence of a badly written draft law. Or maybe it’s a deliberate attempt by politicians to silence their critics.”

The group are currently circulating a petition, calling on men and women in the UK to place pressure on their MPs to stop the Bill.

 The Cabinet Office however claimed that the Bill was designed to give “greater transparency where third parties campaign in a way which supports a particular political party or its candidates”.

Akashic Times is the UK’s only online, fully independent not-for-profit weekly newspaper that brings you real news from across the globe.

If you want to keep ahead of what is really going on in the world, subscribe to our newspaper via the subscribe button and join our Facebook & Twitter pages. Subscription is completely free ofcourse.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


(Spamcheck Enabled)