campaign expenses fight
Pro-life champion hails 'landmark victory'
BY ANDREW M BRo \VN IN A MAJOR victory for single issue groups such as pro-life organisations, the European Court of Human Rights ruled last Thursday that current British law, restricting the amount of money pressure groups may spend on campaigning during elections, violates the right to free speech.
The 1983 Representation of the People Act outlaws spending in excess of £5 by an "unauthorised person" on promoting or procuring a candidate — for instance by distributing leaflets detailing a candidate's voting record on abortion.
But Phyllis Bowman, National Policy Director of the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child (SPUC), challenged the government in the European Court for breaching her human rights, after she had been prosecuted on three occasions and convicted twice under section 75 of the Act. Mrs Bowman was prosecuted in 1993 for "corrupt electoral practice". She allegedly spent £10,000, during the 1992 general elec
lion, on distributing leaflets about the candidates in Halifax, West Yorkshire.
In Phyllis Bowman v. United Kingdom, the European Court of Human Rights at Strasbourg ruled by 14 votes to six in favour of Mrs Bowman, saying Section 75 of the Act was a disproportionate restriction of her freedom of expression, and ordering the Government to pay £25,000 for her legal bills and expenses. The Government was "disappointed", according to a Home Office spokesman.
Following Mrs Bowman's victory, her solicitor David Price said it was a "landmark decision" which would revolutionise the way election campaigns are run, and open the way for activists such as Mrs Bowman to challenge candidates in relation to a particular issue.
"This could cover abortion, embryo testing, environmental, anti-nuclear or anti-war campaigns, as well as those opposed to development in the green belt," Mr Price said.
"It will open up politicians to greater scrutiny over moral and environmental issues while limiting their ability to control the media during election campaigns." Mr Price said the government would now have to change the provisions of the 1983 Act, either by removing Section 75, or by significantly , increasing the spending limit. ,
Mrs Bowman said it was I
"utter hypocrisy" for politi cians who were in favour of abortion rights to claim that most people supported them but then to refuse to say what their voting intentions were. "I have been charged three times," Mrs Bowman said, "and now have a criminal record having been found guilty and fined twice. On the third occasion I made up my mind that I would not pay a fine if necessary I would go to prison."