two important campaigns aiming to protect our civil liberties: stop the gagging law & review Schedule 7

On August 30th I received a message from the campaign group 38 Degrees about another major government assault on our civil liberties and right to protest. The message began as follows:

I’ve just got back from my summer holiday. I read last week’s email, “38 Degrees under threat”, whilst I was away camping. [1] Not exactly what you want to see when you’re trying to relax!

I must admit I hoped I’d get back in the office and find my colleagues had been guilty of some exaggeration. I’ve spent the last couple of days speaking to lawyers and other experts, to get to the bottom of what’s going on.

I’m afraid it’s really bad. The proposed gagging law would have a chilling effect on British democracy and our right to speak up on issues that matter to us.

The draft law could effectively stop organisations like 38 Degrees from speaking out for the whole year before a general election. From May 2014, we would be banned from holding politicians and political parties to account in ways we do all the time at present. [2]

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, etc – we’d all be gagged.

Why are they proposing this? It’s hard to say for sure. 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.

Either way, they’re trying to rush it through. MPs have their first chance to debate it this coming Tuesday, with crunch votes lined up for soon after that. [3]

Please can you help stand up for democracy and send an urgent email to your MP now?
https://secure.38degrees.org.uk/gagging-bill-MPs

Notes:

[1] 38 Degrees Blog: 38 Degrees under threat http://blog.38degrees.org.uk/2013/08/22/38-degrees-under-threat/
[2] BWB legal opinion http://www.bwbllp.com/knowledge/2013/08/29/bwb-warns-new-laws-on-non-party-campaigners-pose-a-serious-threat/
[3] Bill documents — Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill 2013-14 http://services.parliament.uk/bills/2013-14/transparencyoflobbyingnonpartycampaigningandtradeunionadministration/documents.html

38 Degrees also produced their own short film with contributions from Guido Fawkes, Friends of the Earth, Baston Legal & HOPE not hate, which is entitled “What is the Gagging Law?” and embedded below:

And here is further information about the bill with links

News Coverage:

BBC – Lobbying bill could silence us, say charities
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-23808996
Charity lawyer warns new lobbying bill poses ‘existential threat to charity campaigning
http://www.civilsociety.co.uk/governance/news/content/15918/charity_lawyer_warns_new_lobbying_bill_poses_existential_threat_to_charity_campaigning
The Independent View: Concerns about lobbying bill are not alarmist
http://www.libdemvoice.org/the-independent-view-its-not-alarmist-to-raise-concerns-about-government-plans-for-nonparty-campaigning-35927.html

Reports from experts:

The National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) has made a statement on the bill:
Transparency of Lobbying Bill – unintended consequences or Trojan horse?
http://blogs.ncvo.org.uk/2013/08/18/transparency-of-lobbying-bill-unintended-consequences-or-trojan-horse/

And here is a full briefing on the bill from the NCVO:
http://blogs.ncvo.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/our-briefing-on-the-Transparency-of-lobbying-bill.pdf

The Electoral Commission has said it has “significant concerns” about the bill and that it “may be unenforceable”.
http://www.electoralcommission.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0007/156580/Transparency-of-Lobbying-Non-Party-Campaigning-and-Trade-Union-Administration-Bill-Second-Reading-Briefing.pdf

Then, Thursday [Sept 19th], I received the following update from 38 Degrees which includes a very detailed breakdown regarding the various claims now being made by the government in its response to opponents of the proposed legislation:

In three weeks, MPs have their final vote on the gagging law – a law that would mean ordinary people, campaigning groups and charities would be severely restricted in how they can campaign in the year leading up to an election.

The most recent debate was last Tuesday, and we lost a key vote by only a whisker – if just 16 more government MPs had switched sides, a key part of the gagging law would have been defeated. [1]

The growing MP rebellion was in part thanks to you – tens of thousands of 38 Degrees members flooded MPs with emails, phone calls and tweets. 80 local groups of 38 Degrees members went to see their MP face-to-face. Together, we proved that ordinary people are prepared to fight for their right to campaign on important issues.

Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs are clearly feeling the heat: a growing number of them have started trying to fob us off. They’ve started making all sorts of claims about what the law will and won’t do. They say we have nothing to worry about.

Ros Baston, an independent political law and election solicitor, has taken a look at some of the most common lines MPs have been using when responding to 38 Degrees members and written a detailed document. [2] Here’s 38 Degrees take on that document and why we still think we have something to worry about.

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 charities, 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. [3]

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. [4]

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. [5]

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 [6]:

“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.”

The government is rushing the gagging law through parliament, but we now have just over two weeks to try to convince MPs to vote the right way. The office team are working hard to pull together some ideas of ways to beat this law and you’ll get an email about this soon. But if you want to get back in touch with your MP and ask him or her about some of these myths, please click the link below:

https://secure.38degrees.org.uk/gagging-law-email-mp

If your MP has replied to your email about the gagging law and sent through a different claim you’d like help answering, or if you have some ideas on what we should do next in the campaign, then please get in touch at emailtheteam@38degrees.org.uk.

Notes:
[1] The Public Whip: Clause 27 – changes to existing limits: vote breakdown: http://www.publicwhip.org.uk/division.php?date=2013-09-10&number=82
Twitter: Labour Whips twitter posts, 10 Sept: https://twitter.com/labourwhips
[2] Mythbuster document written by Ros Baston, independent political law and election solicitor, and was formerly Lead Adviser on Party and Election Finance at the Electoral Commission: https://secure.38degrees.org.uk/page/-/Ros%20Baston%20MP%20replies%20mythbuster.pdf
[3] Daily Mirror: Lobby bill: Doctors face being gagged from concerns about NHS privatisation:http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/lobby-bill-doctors-face-being-2263099#.UjiWppM9XMo.facebook
[4] Read our donations policy and see our accounts here: http://www.38degrees.org.uk/pages/donations-to-38-degrees
[5] Oxfam: Lobbying Bill represents a real threat to quality of debate in this country: http://www.oxfam.org.uk/blogs/2013/09/lobbying-bill-represents-a-real-threat-to-quality-of-debate-in-this-country-says-oxfam
Christian Aid: Christian Aid remains deeply concerned at Lobbying Bill: http://www.christianaid.org.uk/pressoffice/pressreleases/september-2013/christian-aid-remains-deeply-concerned-at-lobbying-bill.aspx
Countryside Alliance: The Alliance’s concerns over the Lobbying Bill: http://www.countryside-alliance.org/ca/communities/the-alliances-concerns-over-the-lobbying-bill
Friends of the Earth: U-turn? Nope, the Gagging Bill still gags us: http://www.foe.co.uk/news/gagging_bill_41124.html
[6] The Guardian: The problems posed by the lobbying bill are not completely solved: http://www.theguardian.com/voluntary-sector-network/2013/sep/13/charities-lobbying-bill-problems-not-solved

*

Meanwhile, another campaign is underway to challenge the increasing use of Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000, which UK human rights group Liberty describes “as a breathtakingly broad and intrusive power to stop, search and hold individuals at ports, airports and international rail stations”:

It can be exercised without the need for any grounds of suspecting the person has any involvement in terrorism – or any other criminal activity. This means it can be used against anyone a police, immigration or customs officer chooses. Powers like this are ripe for overuse and abuse. They are invariably used in discriminatory fashion, with stops based on stereotype rather than genuine suspicion.

Click here to read more about Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000 on Liberty‘s website.

A petition calling for a government review of the use of Schedule 7 has been launched by Adeel Akhtar – Akhtar, a stage and screen actor, being perhaps best known for a starring role in the black comedy “Four Lions”, Chris Morris’ satire about a group of Sheffield-based would-be jihadi terrorists.

So far Akhtar’s petition has attracted signatures from over 70,000 supporters. And following the detainment of David Miranda – partner of a Guardian journalist, Glenn Greenwald – Akhtar’s campaign also received a further boost when he was interviewed on the subject by the Huffington Post, Channel 4 News and BBC Breakfast.

MPs are due to review Schedule 7 in October, and Akhtar believes that his change.org campaign may prove crucial in getting the law changed. Before then, he says, he would like the petition to reach 100,000 signatures so that when the time comes, the government will see just how many people are calling for their human rights to be protected.

Click here if you would like to add your own name to this change.org petition calling for the government to review the use of Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act.

*

Update:

On Thursday 10th October I received a follow-up email from 38 degrees. It informed me that sadly, though hardly surprisingly, the government yesterday voted in favour of the new legislation. So it has passed the Commons and now awaits progress through the Lords. Here is part of the message I received:

Yesterday evening, MPs narrowly voted in favour of the gagging law. It now moves to the House of Lords, where it will start being debated in two weeks.

So we haven’t yet seen off this threat to democracy. This is disappointing – I’d love to be emailing today to let you know we’d stopped it once and for all. But it’s in no sense the end. By making the vote so close, we’ve got a strong chance of reversing it in the House of Lords.

I wanted to update you on what’s happened and what happens next. And I wanted to ask for your feedback on what we should do next. But above all I wanted to say THANK YOU, for everything that 38 Degrees members have done so far. It’s been truly amazing and has had a huge impact. […]

There was a fiery debate and a big rebellion in parliament yesterday. Only Lib Dem and Conservative MPs voted in favour. In total, across three crunch votes, it looks like 19 coalition MPs rebelled. [1]

To get 19 Lib Dem and Conservative MPs to vote against the gagging law was in no small part down to the amazing efforts of 38 Degrees members. Working together with some of Britain’s most loved voluntary organisations, we made sure every MP felt under pressure.

Several more Lib Dem MPs rebelled compared to previous votes on the gagging law – after 38 Degrees members and many other organisations ramped up the pressure on them. The leaflets, posters, and meetings we organised made a clear difference. […]

So, what will happen next?

In the coming weeks, the gagging law will be voted on by the House of Lords. We need to try to persuade the Lords to get stuck in and block it. I think we can do it. There are reasons why convincing the Lords won’t be that easy:

  • The Lords are unelected. So we can’t try to influence them “as their voters” in the way we can with MPs.
  • A large number of peers are Lib Dems or Conservatives – and they will be under pressure from their party bosses to toe the government line.

But there are also some reasons to be optimistic:

  • Lords tend to be more willing to challenge government legislation when it has been rushed through and where there hasn’t been proper consultation. That definitely applies this time!
  • Many peers are patrons and board members of voluntary organisations and charities which would be hit by the gagging law. This means they should have reason to be concerned.
  • An independent “commission on civil society and democracy” has been set up with the support of dozens of voluntary organisations – and will provide the Lords with serious recommendations. It is chaired by an influential, nonparty Lord – Richard Harries, the former Bishop of Oxford. [2]
  • 38 Degrees members learnt a lot about how to influence members of the House of Lords from our NHS campaign last year. [3]

NOTES:
[1] There were three vital votes in Parliament last night on the gagging law. The first (amendment 101) was a vote on what sort of expenditure would fall within the law, whilst the second (amendment 102) was a vote to raise the spending limits imposed by the law on non-party organisations. The third important vote was the “Third Reading”, which was a vote on the whole gagging law.

On amendment 101, ten Coalition MPs rebelled (7 Conservative and 3 Liberal Democrats). On amendment 102, fourteen Coalition MPs rebelled (10 Conservative and 4 Liberal Democrats). On the Third Reading, eleven Coalition MPs rebelled (4 Conservative and 7 Liberal Democrats).

In total, it looks like nineteen Coalition MPs rebelled on at least one of the important votes (10 Conservatives and 9 Liberal Democrats). The office team will crunch together the data on the various votes over the next few days and send you info on how your MP voted as soon as we’re confident it’s 100% accurate.
[2] Civil Society Commission website: http://civilsocietycommission.info/

[3] Save our NHS action centre: https://secure.38degrees.org.uk/pages/save_our_nhs_action_centre

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