Oct 4th, 2013
Gagging law: Meeting with Chloe Smith & Tom Brake
By 38 Degrees team
Yesterday afternoon I met with Chloe Smith and Tom Brake, two of the ministers pushing through the gagging law. I wasn’t allowed to bring 38 Degrees members with me, and we weren’t allowed to film the event. But I wasn’t totally alone – Alice and Ian from the office team came along, and we were armed with over a hundred questions which 38 Degrees members had asked us to ask the ministers via Facebook.
In the meeting, we took the opportunity to ask questions 38 Degrees members had raised. What is the aim of this law? Why is it being pushed through so quickly? How does it benefit democracy to promote a law which will restrict people’s ability to campaign on the issues they care about?
I’m afraid the responses weren’t reassuring, and in some cases they felt downright dishonest. For example, Tom Brake kept claiming that the law only applied if 38 Degrees was campaigning for people to vote for a particular candidate or party. This is despite the draft law making it clear that the restrictions may apply to a campaign “even though it does not involve any express mention being made of the name of any party” (Clause 26(3)).
When I challenged him on this claim, and highlighted that no independent lawyers seem to agree with his interpretation, he just repeated the accusation that we were being misleading. I pointed out to him that we had shared all the legal advice on which our fears were based and invited him to share his legal advice which made him confident we were wrong. He refused. Maybe he doesn’t have any?
I explained to him that 38 Degrees members were probably more likely to believe the verdict of independent experts than they were the claims of a politician trying to rush a law through Parliament. He didn’t seem to like the suggestion that he might be being dishonest! But it wouldn’t be the first time a politician had been less than straight about their legal advice, would it…
Nor was Tom Brake able to address our concerns about the motivation for drastically cutting spending limits for independent groups. He wasn’t able to explain how a 60% cut was reasonable, he just kept saying that he thought it was reasonable! He couldn’t explain why the government hadn’t consulted the electoral commission before proposing this cut. And both he and Chloe Smith dodged questions about whether or not the electoral commission thought the cuts were a good idea.
Chloe Smith took a back seat for a lot of the meeting, but it was pretty clear from her tone what she though of 38 Degrees. At one point she followed David Cameron in copying Michael Winner and telling us to “calm down”! And when we raised the fact that the government had broken a promise to publish their amendments at least a week before the next vote, her sarcastic reply was to say “welcome to the world of weekend working”.
The government have now published their amendments, and it seems pretty clear that they don’t address our concerns. Sir Stuart Etherington, Chief Executive of the National Council of Voluntary Organisations, sums it up:
“The assurances given by ministers on the floor of the house to ensure that charities will still be able to support specific policies that might also be advocated by political parties have not been met.”
I think it probably is worth 38 Degrees members of staff occasionally going to meetings like this. If nothing else, it stops politicians being able to claim that we refused to meet with them. And not all politicians are as evasive and patronising as Tom brake and Chloe Smith were on this occasion. But overall, it was definitely a pretty depressing experience – and huge reminder of just how dodgy party politics can be. It reinforced to me why independent, people powered groups are so important, and why we need to defeat the government’s attempts to stifle us.
The next big moment for the campaign will be the Rally for Freedom of Speech on Tuesday. Can you come? Register for the Facebook event here