Thursday, September 19, 2013

UK Gagging Bill closer to becoming law...

This is only a blog posting because the editor on Google+ has the infuriating habit of crashing during the editing of a long post, leaving no way to retrieve the lost text. This site can handle auto-backup. Why one Earth can't Google+ do the same thing, or is it rocket science? Anyway...

The Gagging Bill continues to progress

I had an email from 38 Degrees, about the continuing progress through Parliament of the poorly thought out attempt at a bill based on Callmedave Cameron's proud boast that he would "do something about lobbying". This bill would be able to be used, if it became law in its current form, to silence bloggers such as myself, preventing us from campaigning on any political issue at all, for a year prior to an election. 

Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs have been pumping out propaganda to suggest that there are no problems with the bill, but as 38 Degrees says, these are mostly myths:-

Myth 1: The new law will stop "big money" buying / influencing elections.
The government claims that this law is needed to stop US-style "super-PACs", run by millionaires, flooding the airwaves with negative political advertising. But they can't point to any examples of millionaire-backed "super-PACS" in the UK actually existing. Perhaps that's because we already have laws banning big money radio and TV advertising.
The way "big money" actually influences elections in the UK is through massive donations to political parties. That's a huge problem, with wealthy donors basically buying influence and peerages. The gagging law does nothing to stop this - millionaire party donors like Lord Ashcroft or Lord Sainsbury can continue to funnel as much cash into their chosen party as they like.
If the government really wanted to stop "big money" influencing politics, they could introduce a maximum donation limit for both political parties and independent groups. That would tackle the current problem and prevent any future rise in "super-PACs", and it's a measure 38 Degrees members would certainly support. Why are they instead targeting charites, community groups and campaigners?
Myth 2. Civil society will still be allowed to talk about issues - as long as they don’t get involved in party politics.
Important issues which ordinary people care about, like trying to protect the NHS, will be a key election issue for most of the political parties.The gagging law would apply to campaigning on most issues that are being contested by different political parties - i.e. any big issue of the day! For example, if one political party made privatising NHS services a key part of its manifesto, then a 38 Degrees campaign against privatising the NHS would be considered ‘for election purposes’ and be subject to the gagging law.
Myth 3. £390,000 is a lot of money. Why should organisations be allowed to spend more? 
In a free society, charities, local groups and ordinary people should be able to come together and campaign effectively. £390,000 is only 2% of what political parties are allowed to spend. Also, the new law says that charities and campaign groups will have to include core staff costs in this limit - something political parties aren’t expected to do.
Groups like 38 Degrees don't need as much money as political parties - we rely on people power rather than expensive advertising agencies. But organising people power does cost some money. 38 Degrees currently costs around £1.1 million per year to run - money spent on maintaining a powerful and secure web site, a small office, a staff team of 15, printing leaflets and posters, hiring church halls for member meetings, and so on. That's all funded by small donations (average donation £10.78) and reported in full in the annual audited accounts.
Banning 38 Degrees from spending more than £390,000 would mean big people powered campaigns like Save our NHS or Save our Forests would be impossible to run.
Myth 4. Charities are happy now that some concessions have been promised
This isn’t true. A wide range of organisations including NCVO, Oxfam, Christian Aid, Countryside Alliance and Friends of the Earth are still warning that the gagging law will have a huge impact on what they can campaign on.
MPs have been claiming that NCVO are now happy with the amendments the government has committed to drafting. In fact the NCVO wrote a piece in The Guardian last week highlighting the problems they still think need solving:
“NCVO and the wider voluntary sector have made it clear that the legislation remains ambiguous and potentially damaging in a number of places. In particular:  

  • The proposed list of activities that could count towards controlled expenditure remains neither clear nor workable
  • The expenditure thresholds proposed in the new bill, both for registration with the Electoral Commission and as a maximum cap allowed, will be damaging
  • The question of how to sensibly regulate groups working in coalition remains to be addressed.”
I decided to find out what the MP supposed to represent me, Duncan Hames, a Liberal Democrat, had been doing about this. I follow what he does in Parliament, as he is supposed to be representing me, and all the other voters in the Chippenham constituency. Most of the time, he seems to me to be doing this by asking ministers easy questions that allow them to churn out smug answers about the wonders the government is performing. But that's just how it seems to me, and your mileage may vary...

On this issue, he is voting in favour of the government. Obviously, I'm not terribly happy about that, so I have emailed him to ask him to try to change the bill. I used the excellent 38 Degrees facility to email my MP, as follows:-

Dear Duncan Hames,
I see from your voting record that you are continuing to support the Gagging Bill.
This law would be used to prevent ordinary Englishmen such as myself from publicly expressing political opinions on our websites and blogs for a year before an election.

I find it hard to believe that you are actually in favour of such an absurdly draconian measure. Please find the time to look at the bill again, and see to it that it does not pass in this form. The whole bill does (deliberately?) nothing like the Prime Minister's stated aim of curbing powerful lobbyists, and would be used to suppress democratic opinions.
In the event that I get anything other than an automated response or a letter with a copy of what a minister says, I will add it here...

I would urge all UK readers to consider writing to their own MP about this, while you still can without breaking the law.

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