Because it Works – why the Lobbying Bill mustn’t stop charities campaigning

Jubilee 2000 making their point

Jubilee 2000 making their point

Next time Justin Welby wants to have a go at Wonga, it looks like he’ll need a permit from the Electoral Commission first. I’m worried the Lobbying Bill – or Gagging Bill – will stop charities, churches, and civil society speaking out about things that matter.

Campaigning’s a vital part of a living democracy. I remember the Sun ran a ‘Bash the Bishop’ campaign a few years ago, inviting people to tell off the Archbishop of Canterbury after he said something they didn’t like. I liked the headline, I loathed the campaign. But I want to live in a country where newspapers, archbishops, charities and all of us are free to hold different views and say so, loudly if we want to, and whether I agree with them or not.

And I want charities and churches to be free to be controversial when the people we serve need us to. Syria, fracking, food banks, disability rights, fostering – there are many reasons for voluntary groups to speak up and represent people. Charities have a purpose, serving people in poverty around the world in Tearfund’s case, and campaigning’s often a useful way to do what we exist to do.

But the government’s draft Lobbying Bill looks likely to shut us up. When both Conservative Home http://t.co/zWOcBD6UFp and Polly Toynbee http://t.co/eRJRPeGo6p oppose something, I sit up and take notice.

I’m not sure if it’s a deliberate attack on civil liberties or a mess made in a hurry, and Tearfund supports more lobbying transparency (through the Open Government Partnership here for example), but at the moment the bill’s set to stop any group that’s not a political party from talking about anything that might feature in any election campaign – local, Europe, national, referendum or any other kind – and tie us up with vague, expensive and complex regulation. As the NCVO – the voluntary sector’s umbrella group – explains

Jubilee 2000 was a great campaign that worked – the kind of campaign this bill would jeopardise. Party politically, it was neutral, but it changed what politicians did. Tearfund and many others spoke out asking governments to cancel the unpayable debts of the world’s poorest countries. We knew that countries which couldn’t afford it were struggling to make interest payments to countries with far more money. Partly we just thought it was wrong, and partly we could see a chance to use that money to reduce poverty instead.

So far $130 billion of debt has been cancelled. Uganda used the money they saved on debt payments to abolish primary school fees – so children who couldn’t afford to go to school could now start their education. Mozambique have immunised over a million children against deadly diseases. The list goes on. I reckon it would take Tearfund roughly 1,000 years to raise the kind of money our campaigning unlocked – I think we’d spend it even better, but campaigning to get governments to do things on a scale we could only dream of has been a great investment of our time and money. This video follows the story https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gg6yXYIYG08

As Christians, we liked the idea of Jubilee – a special year every 50 years for setting slaves free, forgiving debts, and restoring equality. It’s set out in the bible in Leviticus 25, and mentioned again in Isaiah 61, which Jesus quoted at the start of his ministry. Justice is part of our faith, and campaigning’s one way we live it.

Campaigning doesn’t always work – for example the Jubilee Debt Campaign hasn’t yet won a system for countries to go bankrupt and start again in the way companies and people can. But it often works well for charities, churches, and civil society more generally, as Martin Luther King told us.

Do pray for the government to amend the Lobbying Bill so it doesn’t gag churches, charities and civil society, and do ask your MP to push for the changes it needs. Tweeting @david_cameron and @nick_clegg wouldn’t go amiss either.

Ben Niblett (Head of Campaigns)

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