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.

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How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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