The Lobbying Bill has finally killed off whatever vision Cameron and Clegg had for a Big Society, says Ian Leggett.
Andrew Lansley has a real gift - for producing legislation that generates enormous opposition. His Health and Social Care Bill faced such intense opposition that it had to be paused before it finally stumbled over the legislative finishing line. With the Gagging Bill, he's done it again. The sheer breadth of the opposition is remarkable, uniting opinion from across the political spectrum.
When the Institute of Economic Affairs, the Adam Smith Institute and the Centre for Policy Studies (one of the intellectual centres of Thatcherism), as well as the CEO of the Taxpayers’ Alliance join together with with the leaders of the UK's oldest human rights organisation, English PEN, and of Big Brother Watch “to highlight our grave concern about..... a piece of legislation that poses a significant threat to legitimate campaigning freedom of speech, political activism and informed public debate” you know that this is not the usual coalition of bleeding hearts.
An even bigger coalition to oppose the Gagging Bill joined together under the umbrella of the Civil Society Commission embracing organisations as diverse and popular as the RSPB, the WI, Mumsnet, 38 degrees, the Wildlife Trusts and the Countryside Alliance. Collectively they have a combined formal membership that exceeds one million (the WI alone has more members than the Tory and LibDems combined) and an active participation reach – people who sign petitions, write to their MPs, or contribute money - that is probably close to five million. That's a big proportion of potential voters.
In a scathing condemnation of the Gagging Bill the Commission concluded that: “The Lobbying Bill risks profoundly undermining the very fabric of our democracy by significantly limiting the right of organisations – from charities and community groups to think tanks and blog sites – to speak out on some of the most important issues facing this country and the planet. Whether we agree with these organisations or not, their role is essential in order to have an informed, engaged electorate.”
Threatening daily bread and butter of democracy
A theme running through so many of the criticisms is that this bill threatens a fundamental democratic right: the freedom of expression. We are not talking about strikes, demonstrations, protests or other forms of civil disobedience. What is being curtailed are activities such as writing to MPs, organising petitions, informing supporters how MPs or councillors have voted or where candidates for electoral office stand on an issue. These activities are the daily bread and butter of a democracy. They have been a common feature of the work of charities or campaigning organisations for decades – and have been subject to strict regulation by the Charity Commission. There has been no evidence that such regulation has been ineffective, nor abused by charities.
The Gagging Bill will not criminalise the individuals who write letters or sign petitions, but it will make it an offence for individuals – such as treasurers, directors, or other 'responsible persons' – to fail to comply with the range of extraordinarily complex regulations. This is a dangerous and slippery slope. What this bill does is to make into criminals the volunteers and staff of charities and campaigning organisations for doing nothing more than enabling citizens to have a right to a say on issues that are of legitimate public interest and which are in themselves peaceful, lawful actions.
The Brand test
With a growing rejection of conventional political engagement – just look at the Hansard Society's latest audit of political engagement to see that it's not just Russell Brand who has no confidence in our democracy. The Brand test of democratic vitality – the propensity to vote – is dropping like a stone and is now at its lowest level in the history of the Audit. Dissatisfaction is also evident in the way party membership is declining. At best about 500,000 people are members of a political party compared to the five million who are actively involved in charities, campaigning organisations or networks.
When it comes to finding a way to express their values and beliefs or to take part in public debate, it is becoming increasingly clear that people are opting out of political parties and in to charities and campaigning organisations. By seeking to impose a vast web of limits, restrictions and reporting on those organisations, the coalition government is seeking to limit their right to a say on issues that matter to them as individuals – whether it is HS2, airports and other infrastructure, EU membership, climate change or the future of our forests and wildlife. Such a blatant restriction on the freedom of expression is surely open to legal challenge.
With this bill, Cameron and Clegg have killed whatever remained of their vision for a Big Society. In place of more initiative and personal responsibility, the bill will introduce swathes of red tape, so complex that is virtually impenetrable to anyone other than eagle-eyed lawyers. In place of trustees or directors deciding how best a charity's money should be spent, we have the heavy hand of the state telling them exactly how much they can spend. In place of an individual's right to choose how to engage on matters of public policy we have a government that is telling us how we can 'come together' to make their voice heard. It is a blatant attempt to erode the long-existing rights of charities, campaigning organisation or think tanks to choose how to best achieve their objectives.
The Lobbying Bill has been described as a dog's breakfast, but that will not stop it becoming law. Neither Clegg to his great shame nor Cameron to his great embarrassment have acknowledged that on this issue they have got it badly wrong. They may try to split the opposition to the bill by some modest concessions to expenditure limits or time frames. But such tinkering will do nothing to alter the fact that this bill represents both a betrayal of long-held liberal traditions and jeopardises our freedom of expression. For the health of our democracy, abandon the bill now.