The new Tory authoritarians are trying to gag debate

Ministers want to silence charities and social groups for daring to highlight the damaging effects of Conservative policy.

The government’s sinister gagging Bill created an almost unprecedented outcry last week as a broad coalition joined together to tell the government to go back to the drawing board. Organisations as diverse as Shelter, the Royal British Legion and the Taxpayers' Alliance slammed the plans as undemocratic.

Everyone had a very clear message for David Cameron: don’t gag democratic debate just because you might not like what people have to say.

Over the last three years, charities and campaigners have played a crucial role in holding this government to account. It was a coalition of professional organisations including the Royal College of Nursing and the Royal College of General Practitioners that helped lead the charge against David Cameron’s wasteful and damaging reorganisation of the NHS. The Citizens Advice Bureau who sounded the alarm over the introduction of Universal Credit. Shelter that described the bedroom tax as "devastating". Crisis who criticised housing benefit changes for increasing homelessness. And a raft of childcare charities who warned about the closure of Sure Start centres.

It is no wonder that the government want to make it more difficult for charities and campaigners to make their voice heard.

This Bill says it all about this government. They have the wrong priorities and they stand up for the wrong people. Instead of listening to valid concerns from organisations across civil society, they are just trying to ram through legislation to make it harder for them to have their say. Instead of writing a Bill that would stand up to Lynton Crosby lobbying for big tobacco, they are trying to restrict cancer charities from talking about plain packaging. Instead of facing up to the real problem of big money and vested interests in our politics, they are attacking people power instead.

David Cameron used to evangelise about the big society, but now we understand what he really meant. His vision of charity is homeless shelters and food banks to deal with the huge social problems his policies have created, but he certainly doesn’t want his army of volunteers to have a say.

This Bill isn’t the government’s first attack on the vibrancy of our democratic debate; it has been a developing theme. Just look at restrictions on civil and criminal legal aid. The curtailment of the use of judicial review. Attacks on human rights legislation. The clamp down on the use of FOIs. This is a government determined to insulate itself from the crucial checks and balances that a healthy democracy needs.

An article from Chris Grayling last week highlighted this new Tory authoritarianism. He attacked the mainstream charitable sector in the UK, saying "Britain cannot afford to allow a culture of Left-wing-dominated, single-issue activism to hold back our country". Simply because organisations with social concerns dare to highlight the damaging effects of Tory policy.  And of course it isn’t just policy criticism they are afraid of either. The other week the Tories were in uproar because the BFI had deigned to fund a film about the posh boys in the Bullingdon Club.

The House of Commons will debate the government’s gagging law in more detail in committee stage today. We understand that the pressure from campaigners has forced Andrew Lansley to agree one small concession. While we look forward to hearing the detail, it seems at this stage that it will be nowhere near enough. Even if the government improves the definition of controlled expenditure, a multitude of problems remain including the wider list of activities that have to be regulated, the lower thresholds for reporting, the burdensome new reporting requirements and the unworkable proposed constituency rules. In short, the Bill is still riddled with problems.

The government won’t lift their gag by making piecemeal concessions; they must for once listen to civil society and go back to the drawing board.

Angela Eagle is the Labour MP for Wallasey and shadow leader of the House of Commons

Justice Secretary Chris Grayling speaks at last year's Conservative conference in Manchester. Photograph: Getty Images.

Angela Eagle is the Member of Parliament for Wallasey.

SHUTTERSTOCK / MONKEY BUSINESS IMAGES
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The price of accessing higher education

Should young people from low income backgrounds abandon higher education, or do they need more support to access it? 

The determination of over 400,000 young people to go into higher education (HE) every year, despite England having the most expensive HE system in the world, and particularly the determination of over 20,000 young people from low income backgrounds to progress to HE should be celebrated. Regrettably, there are many in the media and politics that are keen to argue that we have too many students and HE is not worth the time or expense.

These views stem partly from the result of high levels of student debt, and changing graduate employment markets appearing to diminish the payoff from a degree. It is not just economics though; it is partly a product of a generational gap. Older graduates appear to find it hard to come to terms with more people, and people from dissimilar backgrounds to theirs, getting degrees.  Such unease is personified by Frank Field, a veteran of many great causes, using statistics showing over 20 per cent of graduates early in their working lives are earning less than apprentices to make a case against HE participation. In fact, the same statistics show that for the vast majority a degree makes a better investment than an apprenticeship. This is exactly what the majority of young people believe. Not only does it make a better financial investment, it is also the route into careers that young people want to pursue for reasons other than money.

This failure of older "generations" (mainly politics and media graduates) to connect with young people’s ambitions has now, via Labour's surprising near win in June, propelled the question of student finance back into the spotlight. The balance between state and individual investment in higher education is suddenly up for debate again. It is time, however, for a much wider discussion than one only focussed on the cost of HE. We must start by recognising the worth and value of HE, especially in the context of a labour market where the nature of many future jobs is being rendered increasingly uncertain by technology. The twisting of the facts to continually question the worth of HE by many older graduates does most damage not to the allegedly over-paid Vice Chancellors, but the futures of the very groups that they purport to be most concerned for: those from low income groups most at risk from an uncertain future labour market.

While the attacks on HE are ongoing, the majority of parents from higher income backgrounds are quietly going to greater and greater lengths to secure the futures of their children – recent research from the Sutton Trust showed that in London nearly half of all pupils have received private tuition. It is naive in the extreme to suggest that they are doing this so their children can progress into anything other than higher education. It is fundamental that we try and close the social background gap in HE participation if we wish to see a labour market in which better jobs, regardless of their definition, are more equally distributed across the population. Doing this requires a national discussion that is not constrained by cost, but also looks at what schools, higher education providers and employers can do to target support at young people from low income backgrounds, and the relative contributions that universities, newer HE providers and further education colleges should make. The higher education problem is not too many students; it is too few from the millions of families on average incomes and below.

Dr. Graeme Atherton is the Director of the National Education Opportunities Network (NEON). NEON are partnering with the New Statesman to deliver a fringe event at this year's Conservative party conference: ‘Sustainable Access: the Future of Higher Education in Britain’ on the Monday 2nd October 2017 from 16:30-17:30pm.