Please click here to email your MP with an updated call for action. A brief from 38 Degrees dismissing the briefing Andrew Lansley gave to MPs can be found here
This morning there was a final confirmation from The Election Commission of this getting worse than what we originally published. This involves the ongoing relationship the Stop HS2 campaign has with local Councils. Councils cannot register as third parties, and as it is pretty certain that the total national spend on Stop HS2 activities would exceed £5,000 annually, they would not be able to be part of the coordinated campaign against HS2. Put simply, from May 2014 if the Gagging Bill goes through, councils -all levels of council from Parish Council to County Council- will no longer be able to work with their local action groups.
MPs have taken the first step towards making the current activities of the Stop HS2 campaign illegal, by voting by 300 votes to 249 for the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill on Tuesday. Not only could this bill see the current level of Stop HS2 activities become illegal from May 2014, it could well cut access to the Parliamentary process, or at least limit what people can say and do when petitioning the Parliamentary Joint Committee which would be considering the HS2 Hybrid Bill at that time. Parliamentary insiders have told Stop HS2 that Part 2 of the bill, the bit that turns this piece of legislation into a ‘Gagging Bill’ is, besides being generally aimed a trade unions, specifically aimed at gagging Stop HS2, along with 38 Degrees and the National Union of Students in the run-up to the 2015 General Election.
The Gagging Bill would seek to limit the amount of money that can be spent in the entire year running up to a General Election, not per organisation, but across all organisations both nationally and per constituency, which are working together toward the same end. While it might be unlikely that £390,000 would be spent nationally on the Stop HS2 campaign as a whole, there would be a limit of £9,750 per Parliamentary constituency, with regulation being compulsory for all ‘third party’ bodies opposing HS2 once £5,000 is spent between them. The Gagging Bill sets to limit the amount of money which could be used on ‘election purposes’, with the problem stemming from changing the definition of what ‘election purposes’ consists of.
According to the Electoral Commission who would have to regulate the Gagging Bill, activities and items which could be done for ‘election purposes’ would be:
- Advertising, including placards and banners.
- Websites and blogs.
- Unsolicited material sent to voters (i.e. newsletters).
- Rallies, demonstrations and other events.
- Manifestos and documents discussing policies of political parties.
- Market research and canvassing.
- Media work.
- Transport for the purpose of obtaining publicity.
- All relevant costs are regulated, including staff costs.
Now you might be excused for thinking that this is about what political parties do, but it’s not. In fact it might not be any surprise to know that the rules for political parties aren’t as strict, for example it is apparently ‘too difficult’ for them to attribute staff costs, and political parties are allowed to spend £30,000 per constituency, to a maximum of £19.5m. The list above mentions the things which could be done for “election purposes”, but what would make those activities “for election purposes” under the terms of the Gagging Bill is if they were considered to be:
- promoting electoral success for
- one or more specific parties
- parties who do/do not advocate particular policies
- candidates who do/do not advocate particular policies
- otherwise enhancing (or undermining) the standing of such parties or candidates
- a course of conduct may constitute the doing of one of those things even though it does not involve any express mention being made of the name of any party or candidate
There is no question that the Stop HS2 campaign falls within these definitions. The Green Party, UKIP and Plaid Cymru all oppose HS2 as it is proposed, as do some individual politicians and party associations from the three main parties. Saying HS2 should be stopped is, under these terms, without question promoting their policy stance, at the same time as it would be considered an attempt to undermine the position of other parties or politicians. As shown above, it would not matter if names of parties or candidates are not mentioned, just the saying ‘Stop HS2’ would be enough, because some candidates in the General Election would agree and some would not. The last set of council elections saw both UKIP and The Green Party make gains, which commentators accepted were in part connected to their positions of opposition to HS2, thus influencing the outcome of the election, and of course the year before saw an Independent win on a Stop HS2 ticket.
It gets worse. The legislation as proposed doesn’t cover individual organisations campaigning for or against something, but all organisations within a coalition campaigning for or against something. The requirement will be that each coalition member, no matter how small, has to report the entire coalition spend and register with the Electoral Commission if the entire coalition spend exceeds £5,000. That’s not on a constituency, but on a national basis. If the entire coalition spend exceeds £390,000 nationally, or far more likely £9,750 per constituency in the entire year before a General Election, a criminal offence will have taken place.
For example, in Warwickshire there are only two Parliamentary constituencies affected directly by the route of HS2: North Warwickshire and Kenilworth & Southam. In Kenilworth & Southam, there are a total of 11 action groups. If they were the only groups fighting HS2 in the constituency, they would only be able to spend an average of £886 each for the entire year under what is proposed. However, there are also county-wide organisations opposing HS2: Warwickshire Wildlife Trust and CPRE Warwickshire, who have worked with the action groups, so would therefore each have to apportion half of their HS2 related costs to that constituency, as there are two constituencies in the county directly impacted by the route of HS2. All of the costs apportioned to fighting HS2 in any constituency would have to be agglomerated, whether that be printing leaflets, travel costs, holding public meetings, website costs, signs and placards as well as the costs of any staff time from the professional organisations spent on work which could be seen to be aimed at fighting HS2.
It is certain that current spending levels across some constituencies will be over £9,750 per annum on what will in the future be deemed to be ‘election purposes’. The Gagging Bill would mean that all spending for all groups fighting HS2 up and down the country would have to be added, and that the total cost of this could not exceed £390,000 otherwise a criminal act would have taken place, but with over 100 action groups opposing HS2 to start off with before you add in the NGOs, other organisations and national Stop HS2 bodies, determining whose fault it is would be a legal nightmare. Basically, the whole thing has not been thought through, as it is totally unworkable.
You may think it couldn’t possibly get worse than that, but it does. If the Parliamentary schedule for HS2 is stuck to, or even if it is a bit late as expected, the Gagging Bill would cover some activities relating to the HS2 Hybrid Bill. Whilst attending parliamentary committees isn’t in itself regulated, doing media work around evidence sessions could be. Additionally, petitioners could fall foul of the Gagging Bill, if they made any analysis of or reference to party policies or politicians stances on HS2. So, as an example, if the Woodland Trust were to simply mention that: “HS2 is not environmentally sound”, (which could be seen to advocate the position of The Green Party), or simply to try and get some press coverage around their evidence, then their travel as well as the staff costs of drawing up their evidence may have to be included in the total spend ‘for election purposes’.
However, the Electoral Commission who seem to be very reluctant regulators as things stand, aren’t sure if reactive media work, i.e. not sending out a press release, but giving a comment after a media organisation rings up for a comment would count. The reality is that in this situation, sending a press release would be a moot point, as it would be almost completely impossible for any organisation or individual petitioning the Joint Committee to avoid ‘enhancing or undermining the standing of parties or candidates who do/do not advocate HS2’.
Stop HS2 Campaign Manager, Joe Rukin said:
“To hear that Stop HS2 was one of the organisations the Government were thinking about silencing when they wrote their Gagging Law is massively scary for all of us, but we’ve also got to see it as a compliment, that we have been so effective in just three years that the Government wants to make what we have been doing illegal!”
“There is a public mood to clamp down on back room lobbying and deals involving dodgy connections from those with vested interests, like the fact George Osborne’s father in law is both working within Government and for a high-speed rail firm, or maybe appointing the chair of construction giant Laing O’Rourke to an ‘independent’ HS2 taskforce, but the Government has decided to continue to let them get away with it. Instead, they are taking the opportunity to clamp down on freedom of speech from grass roots organisations they don’t like, whilst claiming this is all about ‘transparency’. We are called ‘Stop HS2’, and have t-shirts, car stickers, websites and placards that say ‘Stop HS2’, what could be more transparent than that? The only thing that is more transparent is the way vested interest groups who will make money from HS2 are being allowed to lobby for it at the heart of a hypocritical Government.”
“This Gagging Bill is just all wrong. You could not have something more opposed to the principle of free speech. The Government don’t like what we have been saying so they want to make our activities illegal, and want to have a whole year when people can’t say too many bad things about them. This piece of legislation could effectively limit what people can say to a Parliamentary committee, if that isn’t Orwellian censorship, I don’t know what is. Grass roots campaigns groups exist to change politicians’ opinions, but they are saying that the only people allowed to effectively campaign before elections are politicians. This Gagging Bill is insane, it’s rotten to the core, and it must be opposed. Forget HS2, this is about anyone to having the inalienable right to say they think what a Government is doing is wrong for a whole year before an election, it must be stopped for all our sakes.”
“Our problem is that our continued campaign might be seen as affecting the next election, and we have already seen that people have gone to the ballot box with HS2 in their minds. No-one would have thought that in the last council elections that the safe Conservative seat of Aylesbury would turn into a UKIP-Tory marginal overnight, and no-one would have thought that the leader of Warwickshire County Council would have lost to the Greens, but both of those things happened and HS2 played it’s part. The last thing the Government want is people making them look bad by pointing out the truth when all we should be getting hypnotised into them our votes.”
An e-petition can be signed here, and additionally an UPDATED letter on the campaigning website 38 Degrees, which is also threatened by this Gagging Bill, for you to send to your MP can be signed here.
Click here to read the latyest briefing from the Electoral Commission on the Gagging Bill.