Lobbying Bill Is a Pernicious Attack on Our Freedoms

14/01/2014 17:32 GMT | Updated 16/03/2014 09:59 GMT

When the British public think about international poverty charities such as ActionAid, they immediately think about organisations that hand out food, shelter, medicine and other supplies in times of emergency, such as those we witnessed last year in the Philippines and the ongoing crisis in Syria.

They are right of course; the response of UK NGOs such as Oxfam, the Red Cross, and Christian Aid as well as ActionAid to these emergencies means the difference between life and death for thousands, possibly millions of people. The UK public is rightly proud of the money it raises in these times of crisis.

But what is perhaps less understood is the role that we and our international colleagues also play in supporting the development of communities so that poverty and suffering are hopefully one day eradicated altogether. ActionAid is focussed on this, and funds projects that equip people in poor countries with the information, knowledge and tools to understand and exercise their rights. This human rights based approach to development holds that preventing poverty relies on active and empowered civil society, working in solidarity across the globe, to promote democratic engagement with governments, reduce the incidences of corruption and promote the rights of marginalised people.

When I visit ActionAid programmes in poor countries, it is clear that many people regard the UK as a model of democracy where civil society is strong, inclusive and - crucially - respected by government. Civil society here is as effective as it is broad-based, with hundreds of charities and pressure groups involved in campaigns from all sides of the political divide and all parts of society; from Save Lewisham Hospital to Make Poverty History to the campaign to abolish section 28 (2A in Scotland).

It should worry us all, therefore, that the Lobbying Bill (or #gagginglaw as it has been branded) aims to dismantle that thriving part of our democracy under the dubious guise of preventing American levels of funding from infiltrating our elections. In fact, the Bill would massively restrict the amount that campaigning charities and other UK community groups could spend in the year before an election whilst silencing us with unnecessary red tape. And if you're wondering why US-style funding systems don't yet exist in the UK, it's because they're already illegal.

The government insists that the rules are not aimed at non-partisan campaigning, yet has done nothing to amend the Bill when respected legal advice says otherwise. An unprecedented coalition of charities and campaign groups, led in the Lords by the Bishop of Oxford, has come together to fight the Lobbying Bill, which enters its final stages this week.

It would be very difficult for the British government to pass these kinds of draconian rules yet oppose the scaling-back of similar rights in developing countries.

David Cameron talks about the importance of ordinary voices being heard as part of his "golden thread" of development, just as Nick Clegg talks about democracy and freedom as "fragile and recent" in many parts of the world. In a recent keynote speech at an international summit on openness and transparency, the Prime Minister said,

"It was Amartya Sen who wrote of the remarkable empirical connection between political freedoms and economic prosperity. And, more recently, Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson have argued that open political institutions are critical to whether nations succeed or fail. And I believe they are absolutely right."

He will know from reading these important works that if developing countries take our government's lead and start to drastically clamp down on civil society during election times then it will have a profound impact on their success as nations, and on the real lives of poor and marginalised people around the world.

You can sign a petition against the gagging law here.