MP Nick Brown has backed campaigners’ calls to block a new “gagging law” which could prevent charities from speaking out on important issues.
Organisations fear they could be muzzled, by the bill due to enter the committee stage in the House of Lords this week, if they are caught up by legislation designed to curb the influence of lobbyists.
And Mr Brown accused the Government parties of attempting to stifle criticism in an effort to boost their election chances.
Mum Angela Taylor, from Heaton, Newcastle, a member of the 38 Degrees “campaigning community”, handed over a copy of a 200,000 signature online petition to Mr Brown at the weekend and asked him to try and prevent the bill “being steamrollered through Parliament without proper consultation.”
“Essentially it will clamp down on our basic democratic rights of freedom of speech and expression, gagging campaigning bodies, charities, and have a detrimental impact on civil society,” she said.
The new law, part two of the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill, was designed to stop lobbying firms spending large amounts to support any particular political party or candidate in the months leading up to an election.
It caps the amount that can be spent by any group on “political” campaigning - be it staff time, media appearances or leaflets - at £9,000 per year, per constituency or £35,000 in all of Scotland.
However, charities, voluntary and community groups are worried that its current broad language could see them also fall foul of a changed Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act.
The National Council for Voluntary Organisations have raised fears that a health charity could publish a leaflet highlighting the dangers of smoking, but then be subject to regulation if smoking became a party political issue during an election.
Similarly they claim that a local community group could run into difficulties if they campaigned for or against a proposed bypass and a local candidate subsequently expressed a view on the issue, even if the group had acted apolitically.
Mr Brown was also given both the petition and a copy of a report criticising the bill’s potential effects produced by the Commission on Civil Society and Democratic Engagement, a group led by the former Bishop of Oxford, and including representatives from more than 100 organisations.
The Newcastle East MP welcomed the petition, saying he was “utterely opposed to the bill.”
“I have voted against it at every stage of the House of Commons and I hope the House of Lords throw it out,” he said. “It is fundamentally undemocratic and unfair.
“The bill does very little to curb lobbying but instead regulates people the Government feels are critical of them.”
Mr Brown said that more than 450 constituents had, individually, contacted him to express their outrage at the potential “curb on free speech.”
“Conservative strategists believe it could be worth around six parliamentary seats at the next general election because it will shut down criticism in marginal seats.
“But we need to regulate lobbying, not critics.”