Charities across the spectrum ranging from the Quakers to the Badgers Trust say they felt gagged by the new Lobbying Act in the run up to the last General Election.
The outcome is revealed in the latest report from the Commission on Civil Society and Democratic Engagement.
Commission Chair, Lord Harries of Pentegrath, describes the findings as ‘very concerning’ and said it raises ‘alarm bells about the erosion of democratic debate’.
The Commission was established following a QC’s concerns that the proposed law would have a ‘chilling effect’ on charities and campaign groups speaking out on issues of public interest.
The Commission’s latest report details the impact the Act had upon charities and campaign groups ahead of the general election.
NGOs reported that they abandoned, curtailed or withdrew completely from speaking out on issues from the environment to overseas aid and tax dodging. Quakers in Britain reported withdrawing from the joint campaign on the Tax Dodging Bill for fear of falling foul of the law and the Badgers Trust reported that it had to largely work alone during the election because other wildlife NGOs withdrew from campaigning.
The Commission is now calling on Government to repeal the legislation, or at least suspend it, before the May 2016 devolved administration elections in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and London.
The Commission argues that, as so many previous anxieties have now become proven outcomes, it is now untenable for the Act to remain in force.
Lord Harries of Pentregarth said:
“Our report shows a significant proportion of charities and campaign groups stepped back from campaigning on issues of public concern ahead of the general election because of the Lobbying Act. Democracy and the right of individuals and groups to speak out are the bedrock of our free society. The Act should now be repealed or at least suspended and substantially amended before it restricts legitimate public debate ahead of further elections.”
The charity leaders’ network ACEVO argues that the Commission’s findings endorse all the concerns originally expressed by critics of the Lobbying Bill and Act.
ACEVO chief executive Sir Stephen Bubb said:
“Freedom of speech has clearly been damaged and that it is time to revisit the Act – it should be repealed or suspended and overhauled.”