A gag by any other name....
The 'Transparency of Lobbying, non-Party Campaigning, and Trade Union Administration Bill' will be debated during the largest democratic organisation in the UK's (the TUC) Congress this week. This is no coincidence and speaks volumes about the real intent of what is more readily being referred to as the Gagging Bill.
The Bill would make three major changes to the regulation of campaigning by non-party organisations in the year running up to a general election; breaching these would become a criminal offence. For example, organising the TUC's 2014 Congress or a TUC national demonstration in the preceding 12 months before the 2015 general election would become a criminal offence.
Firstly, it redefines campaigning. At present only activities designed with the intent of influencing an election result are regulated. The Bill will instead regulate activity that may affect the result of an election. As any criticism of government policy can affect how people vote, this would severely limit any organisation's ability to campaign against government policies before an election.
The Bill also slashes the spending limit for third party campaigners by more than 50%, to £390,000. However, by widening the list of costs included in expenditure limits, organisations would be further restricted in their activity. Presently only the costs of election-directed materials and activities such as leaflets and advertisements are regulated but the Bill states that staff time and other costs should now be included within the limit -and while £390,000 may buy a lot of leaflets, any major event also involves significant staff time.
As the costs of all organisations involved in an event are added together and this total counts against the limit for each group involved, the TUC's 2014 Congress would not just take the TUC over the annual limit, it would do the same to each of its 54 member unions. While the TUC conference will be regulated, political party conferences are to be given an exemption in election spending limits.
Organisations that campaign locally face even tougher challenges. Spending has to be allocated by constituency under tough limits. Every penny of spending will have to be tallied and reported - which would severely limit campaigns such as those run by Hope not Hate against BNP candidates, or local grassroots campaigns such as those against hospital closures or road-building.
As a result of this Bill, no organisation that criticises a government policy or that of a political party will be able to overdraw their limited ration of dissent without fearing a visit from the police.
We want to see consultation with stakeholders, building genuine cross-party consensus and allowing genuine parliamentary scrutiny of such an important constitutional issue.
There is widespread revulsion at an attack on basic human rights that is worthy of an authoritarian dictatorship. The proposals gag the TUC, trade unions, every campaign group and even some charities. Even Jenny Watson, Head of the Electoral Commission said that the government's proposals were so broad that they posed 'real questions around free speech'.
Briefing document (600 words) issued 9 Sep 2013