The House of Commons will today decide whether to give the government's sinister Gagging Bill a Third Reading and send it on to the House of Lords. Because the government want to secure their gag on charities and campaigners before the next election, Parliament will be making that decision with only three half days debate in committee and - incredibly for such a far-reaching Bill - with no pre-legislative scrutiny whatsoever.
This Bill was supposed to be about political reform. Before he was elected, David Cameron claimed that he was going to "take power away from the political elite and hand it to the man and woman on the street". But what does this Bill do? Exactly the opposite. It protects vested interests lobbying while trying to stop ordinary people from having their say.
It says it all about who David Cameron really stands up for.
Just look at the Tory opposition to Ed Miliband's plan to freeze energy prices until 2017. This will save a typical household £120 and an average business £1,800 but the Tories are worried about upsetting their cosy consensus with the 'big six' energy firms. According to one report this week, since the Coalition was formed, ministers at the Department for Energy and Climate Change have met with the Big Six five times more than they have met with consumer groups campaigning to help families with their energy bills. So it was no surprise that the government refused to back our amendments yesterday that would have forced real transparency for energy lobbyists.
David Cameron can try to pretend he wants to give political power to ordinary people, but - make no mistake - this Bill is about gagging them.
By dramatically restricting the activities of charities and campaigners in an election year, this Bill would have a chilling effect on the quality of our national debate. In seeking to slash spending limits, bring in unworkable new constituency rules, ratchet up the administrative burden on small charities and hold people back from issue-based campaigning, this Bill would have a long-lasting and damaging effect on our democracy. I don't normally quote the Adam Smith Institute or the Taxpayers' Alliance, but they were spot on recently when they claimed the Bill "poses a significant threat to legitimate campaigning freedom of speech, political activism and informed public debate".
The government have been on a PR offensive to claim that their meagre amendments solve the problem. They don't. They barely scratch the surface.
The reality is that the government have put their fingers in their ears, refused to listen to the clamour from across civil society and are ploughing on regardless. Their gag is a deliberate and cynical attempt to insulate their record and policies from legitimate, democratic criticism in the run up to an election.
Unless they back Labour's proposals to improve this Bill or take it off the table altogether, Labour will be opposing the third reading this evening. And I hope the House of Lords will then give it the mauling it deserves.
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