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Henry VIII, the Lobbying Bill, and rolling back public engagement in politics

Whilst I’m no expert on the democratic record of English monarchs, an alarm bell rang yesterday when I saw that the government were introducing a ‘Henry VIII Clause’ to the Lobbying Bill (the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill).

The Henry VIII Clause? Surely the government would not resort to an outdated archaic process that could undermine the democracy of our legislature – Parliament? Well, it appears they could. Henry VIII clauses give the government significant power to change what Parliament has enacted.

This means that the government can change the ‘primary legislation’ that has been debated, amended and voted on by MPs – those people you voted to represent you. They do this through what is called ‘secondary legislation’, and they don’t have to involve Parliament to do it.

The Lobbying Bill is back in the Commons tomorrow, where our venerable MPs will decide whether to keep the amendments that have been made in the House of Lords.
The Lords’ amendments are welcome and go some way towards the recommendations made by the Commission on Civil Society and Democratic Engagement, which we support alongside over 130 other NGOs. However, they don’t address all of our concerns and really just make a bad piece of legislation a little better.
As I’ve mentioned before, the Lobbying Bill aims to restrict the activities of civil society during the run up to General Elections. For us at Amnesty this is an important time for us to raise human rights with prospective party candidates, raising awareness human rights issues around the world as well as issues closer to home, such as our vocal support of the Human Rights Act.

Whilst both could be considered ‘political’ that latter could potentially be considered quite party-political, because one party may propose to repeal it and the others may pledge to defend it. Does that mean we’re campaigning for ‘electoral purposes’ because of our stance on the Europe Convention on Human Rights and the Human Rights Act? As it stands the Bill is vague on this - and that’s a major part of the problem.

This concern is shared with Maina Kiai, UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association. As he says:

‘What’s the difference between legitimate campaigning and “electioneering”? Is a charity barred from its advocacy work simply because a particular political party or candidate is campaigning on the same platform? How about groups that promote education or crime prevention? Is civil society simply supposed to shut down and shut up for a year every time there is an election?’

Since the days of Henry VIII the UK has raised the bar on political participation. It took a few hundred years, but we saw the abolition of slavery, universal suffrage, the abolition of child labour and the abolition of the death penalty. All of these changes and many more were the result of engaging with civil society activists before, during and after elections.

If politicians are genuine about engaging people in politics it is vital that they continue to raise the bar, not lower it. This is important, not only for domestic reasons, but also because what happens in the UK resonates globally. At Amnesty we are witnessing a disturbing global trend of repressive governments introducing legislation to close down the space for civil society engagement, by criminalising political participation through restrictions on freedom of expression and association.

Our MPs and the government need to do the right thing. They must accept the Lords amendments to the lobbying bill and they must reject attempts to stop civil society being part of the political debate.

About Amnesty UK Blogs
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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