Disabled people's organisations could find themselves "gagged" when they try to speak out on disability rights in the run-up to elections, if new laws are approved by parliament, a leading disabled peer has warned.{jcomments on}

Baroness [Jane] Campbell has written to disabled people's organisations and charities to warn them that the transparency of lobbying, non-party political campaigning and trade union administration bill could have a serious effect on their ability to campaign in the weeks before elections.

The bill aims to tighten the regulations on spending by charities, community groups, blog sites and other "third parties" during election campaigns.

It would halve the amount these organisations could spend in the run-up to an election before having to register with the Electoral Commission, with the National Council for Voluntary Organisations warning that this would "tie charities up in red tape".

Baroness Campbell has now written to disability organisations to warn them that this could "have the effect of gagging" them, "limiting disabled people's participation in public debate", and could "severely restrict" their ability to "contribute to discussion on national laws and policies".

She adds in the letter: "I am deeply concerned that the clumsy and unnecessary additional restrictions on organisations such as yours, may undermine our attempts to raise publicly issues faced by people sometimes literally without a voice."

Baroness Campbell has urged organisations and individuals to fill in a survey on the website of the Commission on Civil Society and Democratic Engagement (CCSDE).

The results will be used to influence discussions about the bill, which continued its progress through the House of Lords this week.

Baroness Campbell's letter came as the commission published its second report on how it believes non-party campaigning should be regulated in the lead-up to elections.

CCSDE was set up in response to concerns about the bill, and now has the backing of more than 100 campaigning organisations. Its report says the bill's proposals would have a "profoundly negative effect on issue-focussed campaigning activity".

Disabled activist Tony Dean, who was among members of the campaign group 38 Degrees who met with the Liberal Democrat MP Andrew George earlier this month to discuss their concerns about the bill, said the legislation had "very wide-reaching implications for everyone in Britain, because any subject can be deemed to be 'political'".

The parliamentary joint committee on human rights has already warned of "widespread concern" that the bill could see "third parties... dissuaded" from taking part in campaigns, with a "chilling effect" on their free speech and freedom of association.

The government says it is concerned about "undue and unaccountable influence" during election campaigns, and the need to avoid the situation where "it might not always be the best candidate who wins an election, but the one with the richest supporters".

News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com


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