A GROUP of Swindon-based charities say a fundamental pillar of British democracy – freedom of speech – is under treat with a bill being passed in parliament.

A team of around 15 volunteers from charities across the town handed a petition to the MP for south Swindon, Robert Buckland asking him to vote against the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill.

They claim this bill will gag their organisations from raising concerns about Government policy in the run up to the 2015 general election and will strip the groups of their right to say what they think.

Anne Bennett, a member of 38 Degrees, a charity set up to bring about real change in the UK by taking action, handed a petition with around 188,000 signatures collected nationally to Mr Buckland.

“We believe this bill is a threat to free speech and democracy,” said Anne, of Fitzroy Road.

“It is an attempt by the coalition to gag charities from campaigning in the year before an election, and will deny all kinds of organisations and the people they represent the right to tell their MPs and ministers what they want and think.

“Politicians may find it uncomfortable when they are reminded of the promises they have broken or the failure of their policies. They may also not want to hear when the public do not like what they plan to do, whether it is close a hospital, erect a windfarm or take benefits from the disabled.

“But democracy demands that they do hear and that we do have the right to say what we think, which is why it is so important this bill is not allowed to become law.”

Genni Pavane, who volunteers for Amnesty International, said she was surprised it was even being debated when the country is trying to tackle much bigger issues.

“How can they even think of bringing this in?” said Genni, 52, of Toothill.

“It is an attack on democracy. It will affect everyone, not just the charities, as their representatives will be reduced.”

The bill is currently with the House of Lords to discuss following a number of amendments by MPs to address the charities’ fears.

Mr Buckland said he thought it was unfair to call it a gagging bill.

“I support this bill,” said Mr Buckland. “In the US third party political activity is a real issue. People spend huge amounts on campaigning and I don’t think that’s right. It’s important if third parties do cross the line during a campaign that it is transparent. I am happy to work with local constituents to make sure the legislation is a fair as possible.”