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Sep 11th, 2013

Gagging law: Meeting Chloe Smith MP

By India Thorogood

38 Degrees members outside Chloe Smith’s office

38 Degrees have been mobilising members all over the country to meet with their MPs about the gagging law. Like many, I feel political parties don’t always represent my views. I often rely on charities and campaigning groups, just like 38 Degrees, to give me a voice.  This is why I decided to meet with my MP Chloe Smith about the limits being placed on these kind of organisations.  Luckily for me, as Minister for Political and Constitutional Reform, she has been leading on this bill.

The day got off to a great start when loads of 38 Degrees members turned up at Chloe’s office to give me some support. They all felt strongly about the gagging law and the effect it could have on their ability to speak out on anything from fracking, to war in Syria. It was really great to have them there. Unfortunately Chloe’s office didn’t feel the same  – little did I know that while I was in my meeting, our members had been told to move on by Norwich police!

I had many questions for Chloe. Unfortunately, in a short 15 minute meeting there was only so much me, and one fellow 38 Degrees member could fit in. Chloe was hesitant to give us too much of her time from the start, because she had a busy day of meetings with constituents (though we saw no one else arrive to the office the duration of our stay!)

What intrigued me most about the bill, was why ministers felt the need to add the second part at all. Wasn’t it powerful lobbyists the bill was supposed to target? I asked Chloe why she felt there was also a need to clamp down on charities and NGOs. Her argument was that the government wanted to ‘take the big money out of politics.’ And she said that the changes were about transparency, about the public knowing where money for campaigns came from.

I was also concerned about the new powers the bill would give to the Electoral Commission. The bill says that if organisations break the rules the Commission  would be able to take “reasonable steps.” I inquired whether this meant websites could be shut down or events could be prevented from taking place by the police. I’d read about this in the news. She would only answer that the Commission would exercise “discretion.” Isn’t that, alone, scary?

I quizzed Chloe on why the government had broadened the activities that the law covered – it now covered activities “connected to” an election. She said she did not believe this was a substantive change. Perhaps, this isn’t really her view though – the government have already tabled an amendment to change the wording back.

She also went further and said that the rules hadn’t really changed at all, that the Royal British Legion for example wouldn’t be affected. Of course, I had to mention that the Legion themselves had come out against the bill.

Chloe told me that the rules we were concerned about already existed and that third parties are already regulated. Of course third parties were regulated. But the new laws are different – for example, the amount they could spend in some periods was being halved!

Chloe managed to dodge questions on the level to which she had consulted with the Electoral Commission and charities. When I asked her ‘were they consulted on the second part of the bill?’ she would only say that she consulted with them “about a lot of things”. The Electoral Commission are another group who’ve expressed their concerns about the changes.

I knew I had to ask Chloe why if the government really believed in the second part of the bill, was it being rushed through parliament. After all, this bill had been introduced before summer recess and was being pushed through as soon as MPs got back into the Commons. Many bills take months, even years. She could only answer that ‘parliamentary schedule is unusual‘!

It was important to get the opportunity to raise these issues with my MP. Whether meeting with her constituents will have any effect on her position will remain to be seen.

Chloe did tell me it was great to see another young person like herself involved in politics. I explained that many young people like me relied on the very organisations she was trying to limit to give them a voice in politics. With dwindling party membership yet 1.7 million members at 38 Degrees, one thing Chloe can’t dodge is the fact that organisations like them matter.

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