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