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Democratic Voices Within Local Communities Should Be Nurtured, Not Shouted Down

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The government's controversial "gagging" Bill today begins the next phase of its legislative journey through the House of Lords, edging closer to royal ascent much to the dismay of charities and third sector organisations across the UK. Its actual title, the "Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill 2013-14", is grossly misleading. Far from curbing the influence campaigners-for-hire wield over our broken politics, it's charities, NGOs and community groups who will be most heavily impacted upon - in effect censored - by this Bill.

From May 2014, third party groups will be gagged a year before general elections. By law, they will not be able to hold politicians to account or critique government policy. Community groups and charities will no longer be free to protest about local issues- opposing changes to NHS services, voicing concern about environmental issues and alerting the public to 21st Century Britain's growing reliance on food banks will all be banned.

To add insult to injury, the Coalition is ratcheting up the administrative burden on small charities engaged in campaigning activities whilst slashing spending limits. All this points to a government which has little faith in its policies or ability to defend them, and so is instead seeking to clamp down on all opposing views.

Third parties, particularly charities who engage with communities at the local level, play a crucial role in grounding political debate and decisions in the concerns of ordinary people. By preventing these organisations from lobbying Westminster on the behalf of communities, the government will only extend the growing gap between the public and politics. Democratic debate by its very nature should not be the preserve of the few, and yet this Bill will silence the many, whilst leaving the influence of professional political insiders untouched.

Last month the e-campaigning organisation 38 Degrees held a public meeting on the gagging Bill in our own borough of Brent with local MP Sarah Teather. We were disappointed that Ms. Teather voted in favour of the Bill, but this issue is too fundamental to be reduced to fodder for a party political attack line.

Far more important is the fact that, were this Bill to become law in its current form, 38 Degrees would themselves be barred from holding politicians to account, as they did so effectively when they helped force the government to abandon plans to sell off 258,000 hectares of state-owned woodland in 2011. This is a prime example of the benefits reaped by society through strong campaigning roles for organisations other than political parties.

Take the issue of payday lenders. In communities across the UK, the insidious spread of these legal loan sharks - which exploit vulnerable people when they are at their lowest ebb - has since the financial crash become a major concern for residents. Many local authorities have recently taken action to curb these companies' predatory activities by banning access to their websites from council computers, but it was community groups and charities that first spoke out against their activities.

Indeed, forward looking councils recognise that it's only through working in partnership with community campaigners and alternative local loan providers such as credit unions that they will be able to raise the public awareness of more affordable schemes necessary to change financial behaviours. Councillors, third sector professionals and community activists alike are incensed that these groups will be prevented, under the government's new regime, from campaigning for the reform required to make their local areas payday lender free zones.

In sharp contrast to the government's sinister gag, local authorities up and down the country have sought to empower the community and voluntary sector to play a more active part in civic life. Oldham has perhaps gone further than any other authority in actually co-delivering services alongside communities. Through leasing local assets such as community centres and a nature reserve to voluntary groups and charities for a nominal fee, the council has empowered these organisations to deliver key services which government cuts have made it impossible for it to maintain.

Brent Council has sought to launch a new deal for the voluntary sector, working in close partnership with the borough's Council for Voluntary Service (CVS). The council has taken steps to provide a heightened level of support to third sector organisations, most recently securing space and funding for a new Brent CVS Resource Centre due to open in Wembley later this year. As well as a shared office space for charities and social enterprises, this Centre will host a training suite, hubs for start up businesses and a public health promotion service.

The government could learn something from programmes such as these. Leading lights in local government recognise that the voluntary sector is the glue that binds our communities together. Championing the voice of local not-for-profit groups is one of the primary ways in which councils across the country strive to make their areas fairer for all. The gagging Bill will quash these crucial voices and impede healthy democratic debate.

Muhammed Butt is the Leader of Brent Council
Tessa Awe is the Chief Executive of CVS Brent

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