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The perfect storm of 'party political' and the Lobbying Act

Anyone familiar with the work of Amnesty International will know that in some places criticism of the government can get you into trouble.

I nearly fell off my chair last week when I saw that Conor Burns MP had referred Oxfam GB to the Charity Commission for ‘highly political campaigning in domestic British politics’ in a tweet promoting their “Perfect Storm” campaign. According to Oxfam, the perfect storm of policies and practices by the UK government has led to an increase in poverty and a reliance on food banks.

Lifting the lid on austerity Britain reveals a perfect storm - and it's forcing more and more people into poverty.

— Oxfam (@oxfamgb) June 6, 2014

What struck me was that Mr Burns feels that UK government policy should be above reproach from Oxfam and that such criticism is “overtly political”. Surely the role of organisations such as Oxfam and Amnesty is to stand up for the rights of people – which will often result in organisations being critical of governments, including those governing the UK?

Whilst it is tempting to dismiss Burns’ complaint as an overreaction and a storm in a teacup, it does feel that in the current political climate it could demonstrate a taste of things to come.

I've mentioned the Lobbying Bill (which has since been passed as law) before, and the concerns that we and other organisations have – particularly around the law’s potential to restrict the activities of civil society during the run-up to general elections.

For Amnesty’s activists and supporters in the UK, a general election offers a unique opportunity to ensure human rights issues are raised with all prospective party candidates.  It’s an opportunity to talk to our future MPs, MSPs and Assembly Members about global human rights issues such as torture or the death penalty, as well as issues closer to home, such as the importance of our domestic human rights protection in the Human Rights Act, the treatment of asylum seekers, or perhaps to call for an effective inquiry into allegations of UK complicity in torture.

Whilst all of those subjects could be considered 'political', each of those aforementioned ‘closer to home’ issues could potentially be considered party-political. In particular, the Human Rights Act is arguably a political issue: one party may propose to repeal it; others may pledge to defend it. Does that mean we're campaigning for 'electoral purposes' because of we speak out in defence of human rights protection in law, namely in the Europe Convention on Human Rights and the Human Rights Act? If that’s the case, we too could soon be ‘gagged’.

Mr Burns’ intervention sets alarm bells ringing. We hope this isn’t a sign of things to come under the Lobbying Act, which is why we at Amnesty signed the letter published in The Times today championing free speech and the right to campaign on domestic issues that could be seen as political.

If civil society organisations like ours are gagged, it’ll signal a dark day for free speech in the UK.

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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