The TUC is seeking an urgent meeting with Cabinet Office Minister Chloe Smith to protest at 'an outrageous attack on freedom of speech worthy of an authoritarian dictatorship' contained in clauses in the Transparency of Lobbying, non-Party Campaigning, and Trade Union Administration Bill.
The TUC is concerned that the Bill will make organising its 2014 annual Congress, or organising a TUC national demonstration in the 12 months before the 2015 General Election, criminal offences.
The provisions to regulate lobbying have also come under fire from the Chair of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee chair Graham Allen MP.
The Bill makes three changes to the regulation of campaigning by non-party organisation in the 12 months before a general election. Breaching these will become a criminal offence. The three changes are:
* Changing the definition of what counts as campaigning. At present only activities designed with the intent of influencing an election result are regulated. The Bill will instead will regulate activity that may affect the result of an election. As any criticism of government policy could affect how people vote, this will severely limit any organisation's ability to criticise government policies in the run up to an election – not just unions, but charities, NGOs and local campaign groups too.
* Reducing the spending limit for third party campaigners to Â£390,000. The amount that third party campaign groups can spend in the year before an election is reduced by more than half to Â£390,000.
* Including staff time and office costs in expenditure limits. Presently only the costs of election directed materials and activities such as leaflets and advertisements are regulated. The Bill proposes that staff time and other costs should now be included in the limit.
As the costs of all organisations involved in an event are added together and this total counts against the limit for each group involved, the TUC's 2014 Congress, or a national demonstration, would not just take the TUC over the annual limit but each member union. While the TUC's Congress will be regulated, political party conferences are given an exemption in election spending limits.
TUC General Secretary Frances O'Grady said: 'It's an open secret at Westminster that this rushed Bill has nothing to do with cleaning up lobbying or getting big money out of politics. Instead it is a crude and politically partisan attack on trade unions, particularly those who affiliate to the Labour Party.
'But it has been drawn so widely that its chilling effect will be to shut down dissent for the year before an election. No organisation that criticises a government policy will be able to overdraw their limited ration of dissent without fearing a visit from the police.
'Of course not everyone agrees with TUC views and policies, but I expect there to be wide revulsion at this attack on free speech worthy of an authoritarian dictatorship. This will not just gag unions, but any group or organisation that disagrees with government – or opposition – policies.'
The Bill was published as Parliament broke up for the summer, and is to be debated as soon as MPs return with a second reading on 3 September. The Committee stage will take place on the floor of the House the week after – the same time as the TUC's 2013 Congress.
The government has broken pledges that the lobbying bill would be published in draft form and subject to pre-legislative scrutiny by a Select Committee. Even though the restrictions on third party campaigning make the Bill a constitutional measure, there has been no consultation process or cross-party talks.