Civic freedoms under threat from new laws in UK

Association

Unclear laws meant to prevent radicalisation, terrorism, and corruption are eroding protections for freedom of association in the United Kingdom. According to a 2017 report by Chatham House, anti-terrorism legislation is also creating a fiscal burden for humanitarian NGOs based in the UK. They are facing increasing obstacles to accessing funds, with delays, freezing of funds and in extreme cases complete closure of bank accounts. This trend is not only a consequence of national legislation but also of the banks’ stricter approach to risk in the aftermath of the global financial crisis. NGOs generally accept the need for regulation but often find it excessive and burdensome. While the fiscal and administrative burden on humanitarian NGOs is increasing, it also appears that academics and experts are becoming more conscious and aware of the issue.

Charities hampered during 2017 election campaign

In 2014, the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act, also known as the Lobbying Act, was introduced to regulate non-party organisations' lobbying activities during elections. The new regulation requires groups that spend over £20,000 in England or £10,000 in the rest of the UK on regulated campaign activities over one year prior the election to register with the Electoral Commission as non-party campaigners. Because of the broad, generic definition adopted in the Act, some charities have since been forced to adopt a cautious approach to such work. For instance, charities refrained from providing expertise in the political debate on issues including healthcare, a highly politicised issue during the 2017 general election. The legislation particularly affects small charities that do not have the resources to get legal advice on whether their planned activities are likely to contravene the Act.

Craig Bennett, chief executive of Friends of the Earth, said in regards to the Act: 

“The problem with the Lobbying Act is that it seriously damages charities’ ability to do their job to work for the greater public good. Important civic voices that speak for the most marginalised are being lost. If the act is not reformed, democracy will suffer”.

Vicky Browning, chief executive of the charity leaders network - Acevo, commented as well, stating that:

“A lot of what charities do is small ‘p’ political – social, the environment, social justice, homelessness,” she continued. “You could as a charity talk about the importance of a costed solution for social care – but if Tories don’t have that then you fall foul of charity law. This has built up into a real challenge for charities who are nervous”.

The bill was criticised by a coalition of 160 charities and in a report by the UN Human Rights Council. The concerns were that the Lobbying Act disproportionately impacts civil society and trade unions in comparison with businesses. In fact, the Lobbying Act does not address the activities of in-house lobbyists, who mostly represent companies and are the most substantial influences on the government. An independent commission of the House of the Lords led by Lord Hodson also proposed several amendments to "ensure the clarity and definition of campaigning boundaries". The review recommended distinguishing between "activities in support of a specific political party and civil society groups campaigning on matters of public interest". However, the government rejected the recommendations in September 2017. The first organisation to be fined under the Lobbying Act was Greenpeace, which had decided not to register during the 2015 election. John Sauven, Greenpeace UK executive director said: 

“Sometimes legislation is just wrong and you have to stand up and say so. That’s why we decided to oppose this illiberal law in an act of civil disobedience. The Lobbying Act is a democratic car crash, it weakens democracy and curtails free speech”.
Government announces plans for new civil society strategy

In November 2017, the UK government announced it will develop a new civil society strategy to better coordinate how different branches of the government interact with civil society and address civil society issues. Civil society Minister Tracey Crouch said:

"We believe in the strength of the sector and we want to support the growth of civil society. We want to create partnerships with government and to strength relationships between sectors – public, private and voluntary – and local communities".

The announcement was broadly welcomed by a range of leaders from the UK's voluntary sector.

Expression

Despite constitutional protections, freedom of expression continues to be threatened in the UK as a result of a combination of anti-terror legislation, laws designed to protect official data and new business trends.

Civil society opposes "Espionage Act" 

An overhaul of the 1989 Official Secrets Act has been in the pipeline for the last two years, and following a formal consultation, was due to be completed during summer 2017. The official goal was to give a much-needed review of the legislation related to the digitalisation of the information sphere. However, the Law Commission's proposal released in February 2017 - known as the Espionage Act - raised concerns over the harmful impact it could have on investigative journalism and, more broadly, on freedom of expression. 

The 1989 Official Secrets Act recognises leaking and publishing leaks that are ‘likely’ to damage defence, international relations, law enforcement, or the security services’ work as criminal offences. According to Article 19 and Campaign for Freedom of Information, the new proposal wants the harm test to be changed from ‘likely’ to ‘capable’ of causing damaging. As proposed, this measure could threaten reporters leaking material which is publicly accessible under the Freedom of Information Act with up to 14 years in prison even if the information was deemed capable of but very unlikely to cause harm or damage.

According to ARTICLE 19 Executive Director Thomas Hughes,

“In many countries in the world, secrecy laws are abused to imprison and harass journalists, whistleblowers and civil society, in particular in many Commonwealth countries where these laws are a legacy of British colonial control and oppression. If taken forward, the Commission’s proposals would move the clock backwards, undoing improvements in the UK’s 1989 Official Secrets Acts, and setting a dangerous example of eroding freedom of expression protections, which may be copied by oppressive regimes globally”.

Senior Campaigns and Communications officer of the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) Sarah Kavanagh told one publication: 

"The NUJ has provided a robust response to the Law Commission proposals for a new espionage act. We highlighted historical evidence that the legislation had been used to threaten or silence journalists reporting in the public interest. The proposals should now just be scrapped".

The Open Rights Group commented on the delay in consultations over the law, declaring that:

"These delays reflect the Commission's failure to consider the public interest at the start or to consult sincerely and effectively before they drew up proposals".
Investigatory Powers Act also under review

On 30th November 2017, the UK initiated consultations on the 2016 Investigatory Powers Act, after being cited by the European Court of Justice as the Act grants pervasive access to internet users’ data that does not conform to European legislation. According to Freedom House, as a consequence of this act, internet freedom has recently deteriorated and the UK's surveillance programme has been extended to even individuals not under investigation for national security purposes. Investigative journalists are also under threat as authorities would not have to give prior notice to obtaining their communication data or hack their communication channels.

Law firm sues Guardian, BBC over Paradise Papers

In mid-December 2017, the offshore company Appleby sued the Guardian and the BBC for reporting the leaked documents known as the Paradise Papers that reveal several offshore activities. The files were leaked to the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung and then made public to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists which leads the Paradise Papers project. Three-hundred and eighty journalists from 96 media organisations across 67 countries took part in the project. The disclosure of the information provoked anger and encouraged global debate over tax evasion. The BBC and the Guardian are the only two media outlets involved in the legal suit. The claim does not address the truthfulness of the content but it is perceived by the two newspapers as an attempt to hamper and hinder their investigative journalism.

A Guardian spokeserson asserted that:

“This claim could have serious consequences for investigative journalism in the UK. Ninety-six of the world’s most respected media organisations concluded there was significant public interest in undertaking the Paradise Papers project and hundreds of articles have been published in recent weeks as a result of the work undertaken by partners. We will be defending ourselves vigorously against this claim as we believe our reporting was responsible and a matter of legitimate public interest”.
Concentration of media ownership

According to a 2015 report by the Media Reform Coalition, the UK has highly-concentrated media ownership, with just three companies owning 71 percent of national newspaper shares and five companies controlling 81 percent of local newspapers. A report from March 2017, released as part of a local news matters campaign, shows that almost 58 percent of the population lives in communities which do not have local press coverage of local community issues. in addition, one or two agencies control 85 percent of the localities with local daily newspapers. Figures are particularly worrisome in rural areas of the country.