Greenpeace says UK government’s “gagging law” favours big business and refused to register as a campaign group in run-up to 2015 election
EXCERPT: [John Sauven, Greenpeace UK executive director, said:] “Now Britain is going into a second general election regulated by a law that does little to stop powerful companies exerting secret influence in the corridors of power while gagging charities and campaign groups with millions of members.”
Greenpeace fined under Lobbying Act in "act of civil disobedience"
The Guardian, 18 April 2017
* Exclusive: Greenpeace says "gagging law" favours big business and refused to register as a campaign group in run-up to 2015 election
Greenpeace has become the first organisation to be fined under the government’s Lobbying Act which critics warned would silence legitimate campaign groups.
Ministers said the legislation, dubbed the “gagging law” by charities, would hold corporate lobbyists to account when it was introduced in 2014.
But the act has faced intense criticism from civil society groups which have repeatedly warned that the restrictions it imposes on spending during an election would hamper the activities of legitimate groups.
Greenpeace says those fears have been borne out after the charity revealed it had been fined £30,000 for refusing to register as a “third-party campaigning organisation” in the run-up to the 2015 election.
John Sauven, Greenpeace UK executive director, said the decision not to register was an “act of civil disobedience” and warned that the fine would have a further “chilling effect” on the charities and civil society groups in the run-up to June’s election.
“Sometimes legislation is just wrong and you have to stand up and say so. The Lobbying Act is a democratic car crash; it weakens democracy and curtails free speech.”
He added, “Now Britain is going into a second general election regulated by a law that does little to stop powerful companies exerting secret influence in the corridors of power while gagging charities and campaign groups with millions of members. If the last election is anything to go by it will have a chilling effect on groups trying to raise important issues.”
A spokesperson for the Electoral Commission said its investigation had concluded that Greenpeace had “failed to comply fully with the rules on spending for non-party campaigners”.
“Non-party campaigners are vital to a healthy democracy and we encourage their active participation during campaign periods; however, where a significant amount of money is being spent on campaigning at elections, it is right that voters can see who is spending that money and what they are campaigning for.”
The Conservative government led by David Cameron passed the act as a result of high-profile corporate lobbying scandals. It amended existing rules on non-party organisations introduced in 2000 requiring groups to register with the Electoral Commission if they plan to spend more than £20,000 in England or £10,000 in the rest of the UK on so-called “regulated activities”. Critics say the government’s definition of these activities is so broad it can include any activity that could be interpreted as political.
The act was condemned by a coalition of 160 charities – including the Royal British Legion, Save the Children, and the Salvation Army – as well as a cross-party coalition of politicians.
A government-commissioned review led by the Tory peer Lord Hodgson made several recommendations, including a call to distinguish between activities in support of a specific political party and civil society groups campaigning on matters of public interest. He also recommended tightening the definition of what constitutes a member of a lobbying group.
Sauven said, “Whoever wins on 8 June should heed the advice of Lord Hodgson and amend it.”
Greenpeace said that in the run-up to the 2015 election it visited coastal communities around the UK to campaign for sustainable fishing policies to be included in the parties’ manifestos, holding events supported by MPs and candidates of all parties from Ukip to the Green party.
Greenpeace said it was happy to tell the Electoral Commission how much it had spent on that campaign – as well as another on fracking – but was fined after it refused to register.
Sauven said, “If you’re a corporate lobbyist paid by a tobacco company to fight anti-smoking legislation you’ve got little to worry about, the Lobbying Act does hardly anything to restrict you.
“But if you’re a mass membership campaign group trying to get political parties to make strong commitments on the environment or human rights then watch out, the state can now regulate your campaign, tying you in bureaucratic knots and preventing voters from hearing about the issues that matter.”
He said many charities had therefore decided the safest thing was to “sit out the last election and [they] may do the same this time”.
“The Lobbying Act skews politics in favour of corporations operating in the shadows.”