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Oct 28th, 2013

Gagging law public meeting with Chloe Smith MP

By India Thorogood

On Friday night constituents of Chloe Smith attended a public meeting about the gagging law. As the last people crammed in to the Norwich North venue, Chloe Smith and her team arrived armed with a handful of papers. She handed out a letter explaining her view on the Bill and telling us that she is “always happy to speak to any constituent of Norwich North about any bill in Parliament…” Clearly Chloe knew how her concerned her constituents were – at least she was taking us seriously.

But from the start Chloe appeared to attack 38 Degrees, she said there had been a lot of “scaremongering” around the Lobbying Bill. Ironically  though, she did have to ‘pay tribute’ to 38 Degrees. As someone who had recently resigned to get more young people involved in politics, Chloe recognised that this was an organisation able to engage a wide range of people in politics.

And looking around the room, you certainly couldn’t argue with her there. Over 100 people had turned up to find out more about the gagging law (I couldn’t even fit in the room!). As well as Chloe, David Babbs from 38 Degrees and Andrew Taylor from People and Planet were on the panel. The meeting was chaired by the local Reverend, he too had concerns about the Bill and how it could affect Christian charities.

Each speaker gave an opening argument on the Bill. Chloe’s was one we had heard many times before – it was all a fuss over nothing. These definitions had existed since the 2005 election so in fact nothing had changed. David was quick to dispel this idea – yes, the definitions had been in place since 2005 – but this Bill took a bad idea, and gave it ‘real bite’. A big enough ‘bite’ that meant charities, campaigners and ordinary people could be silenced.

 As a young person, it was great to hear the opinion of Andrew Taylor from the student-focused  charity People and Planet. He pointed out that if Chloe wanted to get young people involved in politics then leading on this Bill had been the wrong way to go about it! People and Planet are a small charity who merely assist students to lead their own campaigns – yet their work could be severely limited by this Bill. He argued that the government wanted  “young people silenced.”

 There were some fantastic questions from the audience and it was clear that this was an issue that really mattered to the constituents in Norwich North. One woman was angry that the charities she supported could be impacted by this Bill, while ‘the big boys’ – powerful lobbyists – would not be.

 She argued that the public knew what organisations like the British Legion and Oxfam were lobbying on – we could trust charities! What we didn’t know, was who was taking MPs like Chloe out for lunch. Another audience member felt angry about this too, he asked why those who gave big donations to political parties (and then were given peerages!) would be left untouched by this Bill.

Another point was made by an audience member who asked why this Bill broadly attacked those who wanted to have an impact up to a year before an election.  With more and more people disillusioned by politics – this seemed the wrong attitude to take. “Anybody who cares about anything should want to effect a general election”

This meeting made me really proud to be a part of 38 Degrees, not only had so many people turned up, they so eloquently put  forward the case against the gagging law. One 38 Degrees member said“It seems like its ok for charities to hand out bread to people – but not ask why these people have no bread”

After such passionate points from constituents, the Chair asked Chloe if she would support amendments made in the House of Lords. We really hoped that she would consider the concerns of her constituents, but we weren’t holding our breath.

She stumbled and said “I am part of the Conservative government.”

I think many of us were disappointed by this response. But together we had showed Chloe that people did want to be involved in politics – and they wouldn’t stand for being silenced.  Thank you so much to everyone who made the meeting what it was.

Were you at the meeting – what did you think of it? Or are you a constituent that couldn’t make it – what would you have asked Chloe?

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