This Week in Politics with Cllr Liz Townsend

August 6, 2021 4:26 PM

Liz TownsendLast week I referred to proposed changes to the Official Secrets Act and the damning impact this could have on our free press. Guardian editor of 20 years Alan Rusbridger, amongst other journalists and media organisations, has again highlighted the 'chilling effect' this would have on investigative journalism in the public interest. However, the government is digging its heels firmly in and dismissed pleas for a 'public interest' defence recommended by the Law Commission. The Home Office argued this did not "strike the right balance" between press freedom and the "serious harm" that could be caused by leaks. Whilst I completely understand that the government would want to protect itself from journalists digging around in their dirty laundry, this is far more important than 'snog-gate', this undermines a fundamental right of the British people to know what their elected representatives are getting up to in their name and criminalises reporting journalists and whistle-blowers.

The passing of the Policing Bill through parliament whilst introducing some worthy reforms, including longer sentences for domestic abusers, also included legislation that could completely curb public protests that the government deem too loud in tone, and perhaps in message, and see protesters criminalised and jailed for up to a decade. People usually only protest when all other forms of engagement have failed. It is a fundamental right in a confident democratic society to display your dissent through peaceful protest. The Police always have had the ability to exercise their judgement and intervene when they believed that peaceful threshold had been breached.

Freedoms and rights are hard to win and easy to lose, a further attack on our democracy is the Elections Bill going through parliament at the moment. Whilst most of us are aware that it introduces voter ID cards, which research shows will impact millions of the poorest and most disadvantaged in our society, what you may not know is that it also criminalises things that are part of all fair and free elections. This bill imposes limits on actions by charities, groups, unions, and even individuals doing anything considered to be 'intended to achieve a common purpose". This could include shared topics like the NHS, climate change, proportional representation, and even joint campaigns against Surrey's unitary authority bid, we're not just talking about general elections here. Anything action deemed to be a common purpose could easily fall foul of election expenses, and result in exceeding party spending limits which is a criminal offence. Under this Bill the Electoral Commission is gutted and the Secretary of State given widespread powers to judge who is a campaigner and what is joint campaigning.

You'd be forgiven if you thought that all this legislation reminded you of the age old 'bait and switch', a morally suspect technique, where people are lured in by an exaggerated offer, in this case it could be viewed as greater press accountability, greater protection against public protests, greater protection against voter fraud, only to find that things are not quite as transparent as they first seemed, and in fact the concealed price is an eroding of civil liberties more usual in an authoritarian state.

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