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Friends of the Earth say: Stop the Gagging Bill!

Imagine if Friends of the Earth hadn’t been able to run our Bee Cause campaign. We wouldn’t now have the Government committing to a Bee Action Plan to save Britain’s wonderful bees. Or imagine if we hadn’t been able to run our Big Ask campaign which brought about the Climate Change Act. Or our campaign to bring in doorstep recycling.

This isn’t just a thought exercise. Today MPs are debating a Bill that – if it had been passed 10 years ago – would very likely have curtailed much of Friends of the Earth’s work on our most important campaigns.

That Bill is (deep breath) the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill. But for campaigners, it might be better termed the Gagging Bill. It’s a complex piece of legislation but its repercussions for us are quite simple. If passed in its current form, it could effectively shut down Friends of the Earth’s work from May next year.

You can read the detail on why this could happen in our briefing here. But in a nutshell, the Bill poses a huge threat to us – and to the whole voluntary sector – because it vastly extends the definition of what activities are considered to be ‘for electoral purposes’ in the whole year before an election. And it drastically slashes the cap for what charities can legally spend on these activities – both nationally and in every MP’s constituency across the country.

This could affect Friends of the Earth’s work on, for instance, profiling the environmental policies of all political parties; voicing opposition to fracking in Balcombe or Lancashire; organising demonstrations in alliance with other green charities; and the staff costs of any such work.

You don’t have to take our word for this. Helen Mountfield QC of law firm Matrix Chambers gave her legal opinion yesterday that the Bill’s “restrictions and restraints are so wide and so burdensome as arguably to amount to a disproportionate restraint on freedom of expression.” And the charity lawyers Bates Wells Braithwaites have stated: “We are concerned that the bill could severely restrict civil society campaigning activity and may even be in breach of Article 10 of the Human Rights Act.”

Nor is it just us who are very concerned. A huge sweep of civil society organisations – from the Royal British Legion to Oxfam, from the Countryside Alliance to Greenpeace, from 38 Degrees to the British Heart Foundation – have voiced their steadfast opposition to the Bill’s fresh restraints. The Lobbying Bill has united opinion that would otherwise be utterly divided: from Conservative MP Douglas Carswell to left-wing columnist Owen Jones.

The bill is being rammed through Parliament at breakneck speed. Published the day before MPs went on holiday, reintroduced today two days after their return, its timing looks suspiciously like the Government wishes to avoid MPs giving it proper scrutiny.

But there’s still time to turn it around. Next week – on 9th, 10th and 11th Sept – the bill will be debated again by all MPs. If you can, please contact your MP before then to voice your concerns – ideally, by meeting them face to face. It’s hugely important MPs hear from members of the charities they are about to gag; it might persuade them to think again.

You can read a briefing and FAQs on the Lobbying Bill here.

Blog by Guy Shrubsole, Friends of the Earth, September 3rd, 2013.


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