Britain’s ‘gagging law’ stifles political debate on key election issues, charities warn

Reuters / Nikola Solic
Charities say controversial new lobbying legislation prevents them from campaigning on crucial general election issues, and is a “chilling” assault on free speech.

In a sharply worded letter to government ministers, Britain’s largest charities jointly demanded the UK’s recently introduced “gaggling law” be repealed.

Over 160 signatories, including representatives from the Salvation Army, Save the Children, Greenpeace, Oxfam, Age UK and Amnesty International, called for the Transparency of Lobbying Act to be scrapped.

They said the legislation interferes with charities’ work and is ensnaring them in costly and counterproductive bureaucracy.

The legislation imposes strict limitations on the amount of money charities, voluntary groups and faith organizations can spend in advance of general elections.

Critics warn the Act renders it practically impossible for charities to campaign collaboratively on issues of joint concern such as global inequality, poverty and climate change.

They say the legislation is ambiguously worded, and prohibits them from publishing material that outlines where political parties stand on key issues.

In their letter, Britain’s biggest charities said repeal of the Act by a newly elected government would stop the legislation from coloring future elections, particularly “those due to take place in 2016.”

‘A chilling effect on political debate’

In the run up to May’s election, charities and faith groups are subject to stringent regulations under the Act.

If they wish to spend over £20,000 in England on a campaign that could be construed as political, they are required to register with the Electoral Commission. Failure to do so could result in prosecution.

The sum of £20,000 covers total costs, including employees’ wages. If a group of charities wish to work together on certain issues, the same threshold applies.

Additionally, charities are prohibited from spending more than £9,750 in any one constituency during Britain’s designated pre-electoral period. This period spans roughly 8 months.

In January, an independent commission found almost 67 percent of UK charities, voluntary and faith organizations felt complying with the Act makes some or all of their objectives more difficult to achieve.

The commission’s chairman, Lord Harries, said the legislation has had “a chilling effect on organizations speaking out on issues from climate change to assisted dying.”

The Catholic Church has reportedly sought legal counsel prior to writing to congregations about political issues, while a UK charity was recently chastised for publishing images of its members with MPs.

The silencing of dissent?

Head of the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organizations, Sir Stephen Bubb, says charities shouldn’t have to devote time and resources into “jumping through government hoops.”

Bubb told the Independent it is crucial charities have a voice on issues such as child poverty, homelessness and health in advance of May’s election.

The Labour Party has vowed to scrap the Transparency of Lobbying Act should it win May’s general election. The party’s leader, Ed Miliband, formerly described the legislation as a “gag on charities and campaigners.”

READ MORE:UK govt ‘gags & intimidates’ charities that criticize austerity policies

But Conservative Minister for Civil Society, Rob Wilson, countered Miliband's perspective, calling it “alarmist.” He maintained the legislation does not impact seriously on charities’ capacity to campaign.

A spokesman for the Cabinet Office said the Transparency of Lobbying Act was designed to increase public trust in lobbying.

“The Act was never intended to restrict charities’ freedom to campaign but instead to make the political system more accountable,” he told the Independent.

In January, charities said they were being targeted in a “subtle” yet “menacing” fashion by prominent political figures for publicly criticizing the coalition’s austerity policies.

Their claims were backed up by a report conducted by the National Coalition for Independent Action (NCIA). The research examined charities’ declining campaign role in an increased climate of privatization.

It found that voluntary groups embroiled in government contracts regularly face threats to remain silent on key government policies. Many neglect to speak out on issues plaguing society for fear of losing funding or inviting other unwelcomed sanctions, the report revealed.