All 6 Earl Howe contributions to the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act 2023

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Tue 28th Jun 2022
Mon 14th Nov 2022
Tue 21st Mar 2023
Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill
Lords Chamber

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Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill Debate

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Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill

Earl Howe Excerpts
Moved by
Earl Howe Portrait Earl Howe
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That the Bill be now read a second time.

Earl Howe Portrait Earl Howe (Con)
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My Lords,

“If liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”


George Orwell’s words from 1945 remain just as apposite today. I hope and believe that we are all in agreement that freedom of speech—the right to voice one’s opinion without fear of repercussion—is vital to the proper functioning of a democratic society. This principle is surely no less important in a university setting. Free speech is the lifeblood of a university, allowing students and teachers to explore a spectrum of views, engage in robust debate and pursue their quest for knowledge.

The phrase “world class” is sometimes overused, but our higher education is world class, and it would not be wrong to equate much of its success to the value we place on free speech in this country. You need only look to some of our most influential historical figures to understand how free speech can influence the course of history. Let us not forget that the views of trailblazers such as Emmeline Pankhurst and Mary Wollstonecraft were first dismissed and ridiculed, but their willingness to stand up and argue for what they believed in ultimately secured women the right to vote.

Both students and academics arrive at our universities expecting to be challenged. Yet, we know that fear of censure is increasing and this is having a chilling effect on discourse and debate. There is a growing body of evidence to bear this out: the proportion of students who believe that universities are becoming less tolerant of a wide range of viewpoints has risen to 38%; this figure stood at 24% in 2016. Here, I thank my noble friend Lord Johnson who, as Universities Minister, was one of the first to raise concerns on this important matter, including in his landmark speech at the Limmud conference in December 2017.

I firmly believe that we must address these issues and that the Bill before us is the best way to do so. By way of an example—which happens to be the freshest in my mind—the experience of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education at the University of Warwick highlights that, even if we do not agree with views expressed by others, it does not mean that we have the right to silence them. A student firmly interrogated the Secretary of State’s statement on trans rights. Their views differed greatly but, as the Secretary of State said, the student’s

“right to free speech is vital too”.

Areas of disagreement do not always have to be met with hostility; there is scope to agreeably disagree. I am looking forward to hearing the views of noble Lords during today’s debate, and I thank those who have come to contribute to it.

The Bill will protect lawful freedom of speech and academic freedom on campus. The measures will strengthen existing legislation and address gaps in existing law. As I shall explain, these are very much active measures, not just a means to address a problem once a breach of the duties has taken place. New duties will be placed on higher education providers and constituent colleges to take “reasonably practicable” steps to secure freedom of speech within the law for staff, members, students and visiting speakers. They will be duty bound to pay particular attention to the importance of free speech when taking these steps. Importantly, these duties also, for the first time, clearly extend to “academic freedom”.

In a new measure, the Bill will require providers and constituent colleges to promote the importance of freedom of speech and academic freedom. The Office for Students will be bound by a similar duty. Furthermore, higher education providers and their constituent colleges must develop and publish a code of practice, which must include an overarching statement of the values and procedures they will uphold, and which they must bring to the attention of their students at least once a year.

Student unions are at the heart of many students’ university experience; they offer a distinct space for students to come together and engage in areas particularly close to their heart. This legislation, therefore, contains duties that apply specifically to student unions at approved fee cap providers, which is the majority of registered higher education providers. Like higher education providers and constituent colleges, under this legislation they must take steps to secure lawful freedom of speech. Similarly, they must publish their own code of practice.

At present, there are no effective means of enforcing the current law if higher education providers are in breach of it. This may explain some individuals’ hesitancy to express their views. To address this, the Bill creates a new statutory tort for breach of specified freedom of speech duties by providers, constituent colleges and student unions. This will enable individuals to seek legal redress for the loss they have suffered as a result of a breach.

The higher education sector will play a leading role in delivering the ambitions of this legislation, but the regulator also has an important part to play. The Bill gives new powers to the Office for Students, which will identify best practice and provide guidance on how to secure and promote free speech. The Office for Students will be required to impose mandatory registration conditions on providers relating to freedom of speech and academic freedom, as well as monitoring the compliance of student unions with their freedom of speech duties. As with the lack of an enforcement mechanism, there is currently no specific route for all those who might be affected to lodge complaints relating to freedom of speech. The Bill creates a requirement for the Office for Students to provide a complaints scheme that will provide a right of redress for students, members, staff and visiting speakers. This scheme will be overseen by the Director for Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom, a new position on the Office for Students board. These measures will enhance the strengthened freedom of speech duties and encourage compliance.

On Report in the other place, my colleagues introduced several minor and clarificatory amendments. Two substantial amendments were also tabled. The first creates a duty for providers, constituent colleges and student unions not to pass on security costs associated with free speech events to the organisers, unless there are exceptional circumstances. The second was an amendment on “overseas funding”: this creates a duty for the Office for Students to monitor overseas funding received by higher education providers, their constituent institutions and student unions. This will enable them to assess the extent to which the funding presents a risk to freedom of speech and academic freedom.

I finish by emphasising that the Bill is not about allowing unlawful speech. The right to freedom of speech is not an absolute right and it does not include the right to harass others or incite them to violence or terrorism. This is definitely not a licence to break the law. The Bill is about encouraging varied and thoughtful debate, so that future generations develop the ability to think critically, challenge extreme narratives and put forward new—and sometimes controversial—ideas. I firmly believe that these are essential skills in a modern, forward-facing society. I look forward to the debate ahead of us today and beg to move.

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Earl Howe Portrait Earl Howe (Con)
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My Lords, this has been a memorably good debate. I thank all speakers for the knowledge and personal insights that they brought to it. I am grateful particularly to those noble Lords who felt able to give the Bill a broad welcome and I look forward to their constructive support as it proceeds.

As we heard, by no means all who have spoken were so positive. Some, such as the noble Lords, Lord Wallace of Saltaire and Lord Collins, the noble Baronesses, Lady Thornton and Lady Royall, and my noble friend Lord Willetts are clearly very troubled by the Bill. So it is perhaps appropriate for me to start by addressing some of the deeper-rooted concerns that were expressed.

From the noble Lords, Lord Wallace and Lord Collins, the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, and others, we heard genuine concern that there is no substantive problem to be addressed and that any chilling effect or cases of no-platforming are being exaggerated, possibly even for political reasons. I understand these concerns, but let me try to allay them. The reality is that one needs look no further than the available data and information from the higher education sector itself to see that there is a problem.

In October last year, 200 academics wrote to the Times to report that they had received death threats and abuse simply for expressing views. They did not feel supported by their universities. One of those academics had expressed an opinion about the need to protect women-only spaces, such as refuges, prisons and hospital wards. However, this brought her into conflict with students and staff, who saw her opinions as transphobic. It also caused her to be compared to eugenicists and white supremacists, in addition to being called a bigot. This is just one case among those 200 staff who wrote to the Times.

Several studies, surveys and reports highlight instances in which freedom of speech and academic freedom are being curtailed in the higher education sector. A 2019 King’s College London report showed that 26% of students think violence can be justified in preventing someone espousing hateful views. A similar proportion reported not feeling free to express their views at university for fear of disagreeing with their peers.

There are also high-profile cases in which academics have been harassed for expressing perfectly lawful views. The noble Lord, Lord Macdonald, cited the case of Professor Kathleen Stock, who resigned from her post at the University of Sussex due to fears over her personal safety after harassment from students. There are many similar examples. Professor Rosa Freedman’s door at the University of Reading was drenched in urine. At Oxford a left-wing feminist academic, Selina Todd, had to be given security guards after threats to her safety. Raquel Rosario Sánchez, a PhD student at the University of Bristol, was subjected to a campaign of intimidation by trans activists after agreeing to chair an event, held by Woman’s Place UK, called A Woman’s Place is Speaking Out. I could go on.

There is without doubt a problem with the suppression of free speech on university campuses. I want to be very clear: it is not confined to either the right or the left of political opinion. This leads me on to my next point, which is to address concerns that the introduction of the Bill is politically motivated. Students and academics from across the political spectrum have been impacted by the censure of free speech on campuses. From those on the left to those on the right, there is a real fear about airing what might be controversial opinions. The Bill is designed to protect free speech on a diverse range of topics, including minority ones. Freedom of speech and academic freedom are fundamental principles in higher education. This is not about promoting and protecting one political view over another.

I will clarify a further point, prompted by the noble Baronesses, Lady D’Souza and Lady Garden, and mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Fox. The Bill is not just about eradicating no platform. It is about creating a wider culture on campus, such that everyone feels able to express their views and challenge those of others, even when those views are unpopular or controversial, and to do so without fear of negative consequences. Everyone needs to be aware that when things do not go as they should, there is a meaningful route of redress for individuals.

The noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, followed that up by asking: does this not need cultural change, not just legislation? Absolutely, yes. This needs cultural change, and we welcome initiatives by universities, academics and students to do all they can to move in that direction. But as we have seen historically on issues such as gender equality, race discrimination and human rights, cultural change occurs more readily when backed by appropriate legislation.

I turn now to an issue that has given rise to a number of expressions of concern. I listened carefully to noble Lords such as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Coventry, my noble friend Lord Willetts and the noble Baroness, Lady Shafik, who are worried that the creation of a new tort, as proposed in Clause 4, may lead unintentionally to a deluge of court cases initiated by vexatious, publicity-seeking pressure groups. Nobody, least of all the Government, wishes to see universities burdened in this way. It may be helpful if I explain why I do not think the scenario that some noble Lords envisage is at all likely.

To succeed with a civil claim, a claimant would need to be able to show that a provider, college or student union owes them a duty of care; the category of those potentially owed a duty of care under the Bill is narrowly defined. They would then need to point to a genuine and material loss they had suffered as a result of a breach of the freedom of speech duties. Those tests are not a low bar, and any claimant who pursued their case vexatiously would certainly struggle to prove it. In the background, of course, a vexatious claimant would be assuming a considerable financial risk, not only in the form of their own legal costs but by being potentially liable for those of the defendant. That is why we believe the tort will be resorted to very much as a backstop. The availability of the free complaints scheme through the Office for Students, which will provide a much easier and more straightforward route to redress, should make litigation unnecessary and therefore unlikely in the vast majority of circumstances.

Setting aside for a moment the concerns around the tort, the noble Lords, Lord Wallace and Lord Storey, and the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, expressed a worry that the wider provisions of the Bill would impact on higher education institutions in terms of administrative burdens. I am the first to agree that unnecessary bureaucracy directly impacts on how well higher education providers can do their job; every pound spent on unnecessary bureaucracy is a pound less that is being spent on teaching and research. However, I am also convinced that if straightforward measures can be put in place to protect our core UK values, it is right and necessary that we do so. We have ensured that their scope is proportionate to the risk. To pick up a point made by the right reverend Prelate, we sincerely hope that providers and student unions will embrace the mission to generate rigorous and healthy debate on campus, understanding how vital it is to academia and our country’s democracy.

I turn to the proposal in the Bill to create a new post in the Office for Students: the director for freedom of speech and academic freedom. The noble Baronesses, Lady Thornton and Lady Royall, and the noble Lords, Lord Storey, Lord Wallace and Lord Collins, asked several questions about the appointment of this individual. As has been mentioned, the role was advertised publicly from 13 June 2022. To allay the doubts expressed on that score by the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, and the noble Lord, Lord Collins, I can reassure them that the Government can undertake preparatory actions in anticipation of full implementation following Royal Assent.

Worries were expressed about bias in the appointments process. Freedom of speech and academic freedom are fundamental principles in higher education, not the preserve of one particular political view. The director for freedom of speech and academic freedom will be appointed in the same way that other members of the OfS are appointed, under the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 by the Secretary of State, and this will be done in the usual way in accordance with the public appointments process.

My noble friend Lord Willetts, who I am sorry to see is not in his place, asked why we need the regulatory route as well as the tort. As he is not here, I will write to him about that and copy the answer to other noble Lords.

The noble Baroness, Lady Royall, argued that the Bill establishes the possibility of simultaneous penalties. It is already possible for there to be a complaint through the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education and regulatory action at the same time. The Bill does not change that. These actions perform different functions, with the complaint having the potential to provide the individual with redress but with regulation intended to ensure that provider behaviour as a whole meets its registration conditions using a proportionate approach based on risk.

The noble Baroness, Lady Deech, asked what the difference will be between the Office for Students complaints scheme and the complaints scheme operated by the OIA. While the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education will remain the body for general student complaints about providers, the OfS scheme will focus exclusively on freedom of speech and academic freedom. The OfS will offer a complaints scheme for staff and visiting speakers who cannot complain to the OIA, as well as for complaints about student unions also not covered by the OIA scheme. All those who consider that they have suffered because of a breach of the new duties will have access to the OfS scheme, including students.

On a point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, and the noble Lord, Lord Stevens, I make it clear that it will be for the OfS to make decisions, not the director personally. It is not unusual for a regulator to be able to consider legal matters when making decisions; for example, the Charity Commission already does this in relation to charity law. It is also common practice for out-of-court redress schemes to consider legal issues when making decisions around a recommendation of redress. If alternative dispute resolution bodies could not consider legal issues, they would not be able to fulfil their functions. For example, the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education does this.

Returning to the issue of political bias—I draw this to the attention of the noble Lord, Lord Wallace—it is important to note that the chilling effect on free speech appears to increase when political views are expressed. Studies confirm that this affects people from across the political spectrum. Policy Exchange polling shows that 15% of those identifying as centre or left are choosing to self-censor. The Government are clear that freedom of speech is not about promoting and protecting one political view over another.

The noble Lord, Lord Sikka, asked how providers are supposed to know what speech is unlawful. The Bill does not change the legal position in this country on what speech is lawful and what is unlawful. It will be for providers, constituent colleges and student unions to determine the lawfulness of speech by considering it in the light of the provisions of criminal law, such as the Public Order Act 1986 and legislation such as the Equality Act 2010. That is no different from the process that they must go through already.

My noble friend Lord Willetts asked whether the Bill was designed to protect all legal speech. Once again, as he is not here, I will write to him about that and copy my answer to other noble Lords. However, I say to the noble Lord, Lord Stevens, that there is nothing in the Bill that encourages higher education providers or student unions to encourage baseless and harmful claims or bad science on campus.

Certain noble Lords suggested that the Government were presenting a confused picture to universities on such matters as anti-Semitism. The example of the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism, also referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, was mentioned. First, it is up to providers as independent and autonomous organisations to decide on whether to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism. Secondly, the Government do not see a conflict between protecting freedom of speech and adopting the IHRA definition. I believe the Bill strengthens protections for freedom of speech likely to support Jewish students and staff, who, on a number of occasions, have had their speech shut down by others. However, the Government recognise that the adoption of the definition is necessary but not sufficient, and there is more that providers need to do to make sure that instances of anti-Semitism on campus are not tolerated.

I shall comment briefly on the Prevent duty, mentioned by a number of noble Lords, including the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, and the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald. The Government are clear that the Prevent duty should not be used to suppress freedom of speech. The duty requires providers and constituent colleges, when exercising their functions, to have due regard to the need to prevent people being drawn into terrorism. The legislation imposing the Prevent duty in relation to higher education specifically requires that providers must have particular regard to the duty to ensure freedom of speech and to the importance of academic freedom.

A number of speakers, including the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, referred to the vexed issue of Holocaust denial. I wish to be very clear on this point: any attempt to deny the scale or occurrence of the Holocaust is morally reprehensible and has no basis in fact. In many cases, those who deny the Holocaust also have links to neo-Nazi extremism, anti-Semitic violence and intimidation. The European Court of Human Rights has held that Holocaust denial is not protected speech under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, and our legislation does not change that. For the avoidance of any doubt, this legislation will not protect those who deny the Holocaust.

The noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, asked about the Bill of Rights and specifically how that Bill and its amendments to Section 12 of the Human Rights Act will affect this Bill. The proposals to strengthen freedom of expression through reforms to the Human Rights Act complement the creation of this tort, which is seeking to give greater protection to free speech as well. If anything, the MoJ proposals only bolster the requirement that universities take steps to ensure free speech.

As a general comment, and in answer to those who have asked how the new duty fits with other legal duties a provider, college or student union may have under the Equality Act or criminal law, the duty to take “reasonably practicable” steps means that providers, colleges and student unions can take account of all their legal duties on a case-by-case basis. If another legal duty requires or gives rise to a certain action, it would not be “reasonably practicable” to override that.

My noble friend Lord Strathcarron was worried about the potential clash between this Bill and the Online Safety Bill. It is perhaps a debate for Committee, but I shall seek to persuade my noble friend that there is no conflict between that Bill and the one before us.

The noble Baroness, Lady Royall, raised the issue of overseas funding and asked why the OfS will ask for information about this pre-emptively. We are ensuring that the scope of the new reporting requirement on overseas funding is proportionate to the risk. We recognise the importance of protecting commercial sensitivities so that the sector does not fall behind its competitors in the rest of the world. We must ensure that the Office for Students has the information at its disposal to enable it to better understand the possible extent of influence from a foreign source at a country level. The reasons for that were well articulated by my noble friend Lord Moore.

My noble friend Lord Johnson, the noble Baroness, Lady Shafik, and the noble Lord, Lord Storey, questioned the level of the proposed threshold for reporting the receipt of overseas funds by a university and argued that the threshold should be higher than £75,000, which is the currently intended level. For now, I have listened carefully to the points they made. The Government have struck what they consider to be the right balance, but this is a matter to be determined in regulations, so there will be ample time to discuss it further.

In answer to the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, who asked what criteria will determine what overseas funding is acceptable, we continue to welcome foreign investment and donations to higher education as they are a key part of supporting innovation and development within our universities. Through the Bill, we are simply trying to implement measures that help to safeguard our world-leading higher education sector from those who may wish to interfere with our values. I would be happy to meet the noble Lord, Lord Storey, and other noble Lords to discuss these issues.

Time is now against me, as I have just been rightly reminded. I shall write to noble Lords whose questions I have not had time to address, including my noble friend Lord Eccles and the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, who asked me why the Bill does not cover the rest of the UK. I thank all speakers for their contributions once again. I hope that my responses provided some useful clarification in response to the thoughtful points and questions that noble Lords raised.

Freedom of speech in our universities is under threat: unfortunately, a growing trend aims to prevent anyone from airing ideas that some groups may disagree with or find offensive, and we cannot ignore that. Hence, today, I have set out how the Bill will ensure that freedom of speech is both protected and promoted in higher education. It will strengthen existing freedom of speech duties and directly address gaps in the existing law, introducing clear consequences for breaches of the duties. Therefore, I take pleasure in commending the Bill to the House.

Bill read a second time and committed to a Grand Committee.

Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill Debate

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Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill

Earl Howe Excerpts
I conclude with this point. Protecting academic freedom goes beyond partisan political lines. It provides a solid basis on which academics can feel secure enough to test and challenge the perceived wisdom. No matter how much we disagree on some of the issues—my noble friend Lord Hunt and I have disagreed on some of them—we are at one on protecting the principle of free speech and how we change the culture. As a trade unionist, I come back to that basic point. Codes of practice and understanding responsibilities are the most important things. I hope that, in our debates on the Bill as we go through each clause, we will have that uppermost in our minds.
Earl Howe Portrait Earl Howe (Con)
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My Lords, we have begun our debates in Grand Committee with a group of amendments all of which, in one way or another, address the main duties in the Bill relating to freedom of speech.

Amendment 1, introduced by the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Newnham, would add the words “within the law” and is intended, as she explained, to ensure that the reference to the importance of freedom of speech in new Section A1 is identical to that within new Section A3. Let me straight away assure her that the speech protected by the Bill is only speech that is within the law.

The duty in new Section A1 to have particular regard to the importance of freedom of speech is part of the duty to take reasonably practicable steps to secure freedom of speech within the law. It emphasises the significance of freedom of speech as a concept and ideal, but a provider needs only to take reasonably practicable steps to secure freedom of speech if that speech is within the law. So the reference to freedom of speech within the context of the duty to have particular regard does not need the narrowing descriptor of “within the law”.

This is different from the duty in new Section A3, under which a provider must promote the importance of freedom of speech within the law. The duty to promote is about encouraging a culture of free and open discussion on campus. In this context, the importance of freedom of speech does need the narrowing descriptor of “within the law”.

Amendment 2 seeks to make clear in the Bill that freedom of speech in the Bill is an aspect of freedom of expression under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. I listened with great care to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, and those who spoke in support of what he said. Amendments 3 and 28 also propose definitions of freedom of speech. Amendment 36 seeks to prevent freedom of speech being used as a defence against behaviour which amounts to harassment under the Equality Act.

Freedom of speech is a term that has been used in domestic legislation in a higher education context since the Education (No. 2) Act 1986. It is well understood in that context and there is no intention to change its meaning in this Bill. It is important to note, for example, that it covers both verbal speech and written material, including in electronic form. Accordingly, freedom of speech is a broad concept, and is indeed protected under Article 10 of the ECHR as an aspect of freedom of expression. It is worth adding that Article 10 includes the freedom to receive information from other people by, for example, being part of an audience or reading a magazine, which this Bill does not cover.

There is, in fact, already a non-exhaustive definition of freedom of speech in new Section A1(11), which provides that

“references to freedom of speech include the freedom to express ideas, beliefs and views without suffering adverse consequences”.

We did not consider it necessary to include in this definition a reference to Article 10. The Human Rights Act requires that, so far as possible, legislation

“must be read and given effect in a way which is compatible with”

the rights under the ECHR. We are clear that the Bill is entirely consistent with that requirement.

The activities mentioned in Amendment 3—teaching, researching, engaging in intellectual inquiry, contributing to public debate and criticising any institution—are all covered by the concept of free speech as just described. However, affiliation to an institution and being a member of a trade union body are not per se matters of speech and so are not covered by a Bill that is about speech.

As regards Holocaust denial, referred to in Amendments 3 and 28, let me make clear that any attempt to deny the scale or occurrence of the Holocaust is morally reprehensible and has no basis in fact. In many cases, those who deny the Holocaust also have links to neo-Nazi extremism, anti-Semitic violence and intimidation. The European Court of Human Rights has held that Holocaust denial is not protected speech under Article 10 of the ECHR, as such speech is intolerable in a democratic society, and that Holocaust denial, even if dressed up as impartial historical research, must be seen as connoting an anti-democratic ideology and anti-Semitism.

There is no place in universities for extremist views that masquerade as facts but are in fact complete fiction and are deeply offensive. We certainly do not encourage higher education providers, constituent colleges or student unions to invite individuals who deny that the Holocaust ever happened to speak on campus. However, I should note that it is not the intention of the Bill to change what speech is held to be lawful or unlawful.

I turn to other aspects of my noble friend Lord Moylan’s amendment. It is not necessary to specify that speech that is unlawful, whether because it is in breach of a legal duty, a confidentiality agreement or intellectual property rights, is not included. Finally, on the element of Amendment 28 relating to the Equality Act, and also Amendment 36, it is important to note that, when considering a claim of harassment, courts and tribunals must balance competing rights on the facts of a particular case, which could include the rights of freedom of expression, as set out in Article 10 of the ECHR, and academic freedom, as set out in the Explanatory Notes to that Act. Guidance has specifically made clear that the harassment provisions cannot be used to undermine academic freedom.

Amendments 9, 10, 27 and 42 are designed to probe the meaning of “beliefs”. As I mentioned earlier, new Section A1(11) has a definition of freedom of speech which includes

“the freedom to express ideas, beliefs and views without suffering adverse consequences”.

This builds on the current wording of the Education (No. 2) Act 1986. It is vital that students, members, staff and visiting speakers can speak freely on campus about their beliefs, without damaging their prospects or suffering other repercussions. Beliefs are not the same as views.

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Lord Grabiner Portrait Lord Grabiner (CB)
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I am sorry to interrupt, but the Minister said a couple of times that subsection (11) is a definition of freedom of speech. I respectfully suggest that it is no such thing; it simply says that

“references to freedom of speech include the freedom to express ideas”,

and so on. It is not a definition at all. It merely gives an example of what freedom of speech would be. The point about the amendment tabled by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, in particular is that it requires the introduction of a definition into the Bill, not simply the provision of an example of what freedom of speech might consist of. I suggest that a definition is essential, otherwise you will simply be scrabbling around to see what somebody thought freedom of speech might have meant in 1986. We have a perfectly excellent definition in the human rights legislation and the convention, and I am not quite sure why there is such a determination to avoid the obvious, so to speak.

Earl Howe Portrait Earl Howe (Con)
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I take the noble Lord’s point entirely. I think that I said that the definition I referred to was non-exhaustive. It is quite deliberately non-exhaustive, because it is a definition that we felt was appropriate for the purposes of the Bill. I suppose I could sum up the issue by saying that we believe there is a consistency between the Bill and the ECHR, even if there is not total congruency.

I emphasise that the duty in the Bill to take reasonably practicable steps means that providers, colleges and student unions can take account of all their legal duties on a case-by-case basis. If another legal duty requires or gives rise to certain action, it would not be reasonably practicable to override that.

Amendment 11 would provide that a non-disclosure agreement with a provider does not mean that members, staff, students or visiting speakers could not speak freely. There is an exception for intellectual property. I very much support the spirit of this amendment—in particular, victims of sexual misconduct and harassment should never be pressurised into keeping silent. The previous Minister for Higher Education, Michelle Donelan, strongly supported work in this area. She launched a voluntary pledge in January this year, in conjunction with Can’t Buy My Silence and universities, to encourage providers to commit not to using NDAs to silence victims of complaints of sexual harassment, abuse or misconduct, and other forms of harassment and bullying. To date, 74 higher education institutions and three Oxford colleges have signed up to this. The Government are working with Can’t Buy My Silence to call out those who have not yet done so.

Lord Collins of Highbury Portrait Lord Collins of Highbury (Lab)
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Does the noble Earl not think that that is a good example of where good practice can be adopted not by legislation but by employers agreeing that something is not appropriate? Can he not proudly point to that as somewhere the Government have intervened and change has happened without the need for legislation?

Earl Howe Portrait Earl Howe (Con)
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We certainly hope that this will gain traction. I agree that in most circumstances it is better to encourage voluntary action, as long as it works. This is very much a work in progress.

We have also asked the Office for Students to create a new registration condition to ensure that it properly tackles sexual misconduct. This would have real teeth and would mean that providers could be sanctioned with penalties, suspension from the register or even deregistration. This follows the publication by the OfS of a statement of expectations for providers in this area.

I make the point that we are the first Government who are prepared to tackle this issue. I shall continue discussing with colleagues on both sides of the House how best we can tackle sexual harassment and misconduct in our universities. I therefore have no difficulty in committing to taking this matter away and looking at it further.

Lord Moylan Portrait Lord Moylan (Con)
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Does my noble friend wish to expand at all on my Amendment 13 about “reasonably practicable”? The essential point is that there is an existing duty in the 1986 Act that has two parts to it to take reasonably practicable steps to secure freedom of speech. If my noble friend’s position is that neither the definition of freedom of speech nor the definition of what is reasonably practicable is to be amended, why is he not frank in saying that there is no intention to change the current duty?

Earl Howe Portrait Earl Howe (Con)
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I apologise to the Committee. I know that I have been speaking for a long time, but this is the very issue that I was about to come on to next, if my noble friend will allow me.

Amendment 13, which is the amendment that my noble friend was referring to, seeks generally to strengthen the test for what is “reasonably practicable”. It would mean that, in relation to speech of a political, philosophical or academic nature, it would always be reasonably practicable not to interfere; in relation to other speech, it would be reasonably practicable only if taking that step would prejudice the functioning of the provider. I hope that I have paraphrased the issue correctly.

The Government’s position, supported by the OfS, is that we stand for the widest possible definition of free speech—anything within the law—and that, where debate is particularly contentious, it is all the more important that everyone feels able to put forward their views and arguments and be heard, on all sides.

The “reasonably practicable” wording of the main duty means that providers can take account of all their legal duties on a case-by-case basis. But I must be clear that my noble friend’s proposed strengthened test goes too far in not allowing providers to take account of all the relevant circumstances, including their other legal duties—for example, to prevent unlawful discrimination or harassment, or to comply with the Prevent duty so as to stop students and others being drawn into terrorism. There may be occasions where it is not reasonably practicable to secure freedom of speech of a political, philosophical or academic nature, even if that speech is lawful, and we must not impose a test that has so few exceptions.

If I might address the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, about conspiracy theories, the question of whether espousing a conspiracy theory is lawful depends on what is said. If it is defamatory, it would be unlawful. The point of the Bill is to take a wide approach to freedom of speech as a fundamental principle in a democratic society, but there is nothing in the Bill to encourage baseless or harmful claims, or bad science, on campus, for example.

Amendment 25 seeks to clarify the position regarding balancing the right to freedom of speech with the right to protest. The purpose of the Bill is to protect freedom of speech, but the right to peaceful protest is a fundamental tool of civic expression and will not be curtailed by this Government. Of course, it can itself be an aspect of freedom of speech. If there is a protest against a particular academic because they have said something controversial but lawful, providers will need to decide what reasonably practicable steps they can take to ensure that the academic can speak freely.

The intended effect of the Bill is not to prioritise one right under the ECHR—that is to say, freedom of expression under Article 10—over others, such as the right to protest under Article 11. The requirement to have “particular regard” to the importance of freedom of speech builds on existing provision under Section 43 of the Education (No. 2) Act 1986 and could, in a particular case, prompt a higher education provider to prioritise freedom of speech over another convention right. However, this would remain subject to its assessment of what is reasonably practicable and would need to be lawful.

It is worth noting that a provider’s code of practice under new Section A2 must include the procedures to be followed when organising meetings and activities, as well as the conduct required in connection with them. This will ensure that staff and students are aware of their responsibilities as regards their own conduct.

The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, suggested delaying Royal Assent to allow universities due time. Let me confirm to him now that implementation of the Bill will not be rushed. Various actions need to be taken before the new regime can come into force, including consultation with the sector and the provision of guidance, so providers, colleges and student unions will be fully engaged and able to understand their responsibilities under the Bill.

I turn next to Amendment 30 in the name of my noble friend Lord Sandhurst, which seeks to ensure that codes of practice have a process in place for dealing with meritless claims against staff and students. It is an important point that providers should not have to spend time and resources responding to frivolous or vexatious complaints. However, I should make it clear that the duties in the Bill are imposed on the governing body of registered higher education providers. There cannot be complaints made under the Bill about the freedom of speech duties against staff, members and students of the provider, or visiting speakers, as the amendment suggests. Higher education providers will in any case have their own procedures already in place for handling internal complaints. As for burdens on providers, unnecessary bureaucracy can take up time that could be spent focusing on the academic experience and high-quality teaching, but these measures are absolutely necessary to protect the core value of freedom of speech and we consider that the duties imposed are proportionate and appropriate.

I hope my remarks have provided noble Lords with reassurance about the Bill’s approach regarding the main duties set out in it and that they strike the right balance.

Baroness Smith of Newnham Portrait Baroness Smith of Newnham (LD)
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My Lords, clearly, I have not quite been mandated by my noble friend to accept the noble Earl’s answer, but, given his answer, I shall beg leave to withdraw Amendment 1 and I suspect it will not need to come back on Report. The clarification on the other amendments associated with belief were very helpful, but that might be an area where further amendments are brought on Report. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

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Baroness Thornton Portrait Baroness Thornton (Lab)
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My Lords, this is a very important small group of amendments. It seems to me that the previous group was about what the law should say, while this debate has been about is who it is going to apply to. I was struck by my noble friend Lady Chakrabarti’s description of the academic who might suffer. I was thinking back and remembering, and I need to say that I am an emeritus governor of the LSE, but I think I am absolutely not a member of the academic staff there. When I was at the LSE, I attended a whole year of lectures and I fell asleep at every single one, but I do not think that counts with this.

I think the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, has been very clever in these two groups; his small amendments are exactly how you probe a Bill. I am full of admiration for his ability to do that, and I am grateful. The issue here has been mentioned by most noble Lords, because it is vital in legislation that we define who will be affected by the legislation and in what way. That is why my noble friend Lord Collins added his name to Amendment 26 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Sandhurst. My noble friend Lord Triesman made some very good points, as did the noble Lord, Lord Stevens, and others. I think the Minister will need to continue the discussion on this because by now the Bill team and the Minister will realise that there is a lack of clarity here, which provides enormous risks to the effectiveness of this legislation.

Earl Howe Portrait Earl Howe (Con)
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My Lords, this second group of amendments relates to members and academics, as covered by the Bill, but I will also try to address the questions put to me on related issues.

Amendments 4, 37 and 57 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, and spoken to by the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, seek to probe the meaning of the term “members” in the Bill. The term “member” in the sphere of higher education has a specific meaning as a term of art. It includes in particular a member of the governing council of a university and those with certain honorary positions, such as an emeritus professor. Such a person may not be a member of staff of the institution and so needs specific provision in order to be protected under the Bill.

A member does not include a person who simply studies or used to study at the university, though some might use the term in that way. Current students would be covered by the term “students”. It also does not include a recipient of an honorary degree, which is awarded to honour an individual and does not give any academic or professional privilege.

The term “member” is well understood in both legislation and universities. In particular, it is already a category of individuals which is protected under the Education (No. 2) Act 1986, which sets out the current freedom of speech duties.

Baroness Smith of Newnham Portrait Baroness Smith of Newnham (LD)
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It appears, according to Clause 2, that colleges are constituent parts of universities and are therefore brought into this Bill. Given that Oxbridge colleges refer to people as members, would it be possible for the noble Earl to think about further clarification? While I understand the general point that “members” might have a clear definition, it is not clear in the Bill as currently framed.

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Earl Howe Portrait Earl Howe (Con)
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I would be happy to take this away and investigate. Once I have done so, I would be happy to write to the noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord Wallace.

Lord Triesman Portrait Lord Triesman (Lab)
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I would be grateful for that letter as well. I suggest to the noble Earl that one of my experiences of these colleges is that they do not go back and read anything much later than 1650—I do not mean pm—and they probably do not care. If it is has to be clarified, it is much better that it is clarified.

Earl Howe Portrait Earl Howe (Con)
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I am grateful to the noble Lord. I wanted just to cover another question that the noble Baroness put to me about retired professors. If a retired professor is an emeritus professor, they are protected by the Bill as a member. This is important if they still have a role in the university. If they have no such role, then in practice the provider will not have to take steps to secure their freedom of speech since they will not be speaking on campus or taking part in university life.

I turn to Amendments 22, 26 and 71, which seek to define academic staff for the purpose of the Bill. We have used the term “staff” to broaden the existing reference to “employees” in the Education (No. 2) Act 1986, as not all those who work at a provider have an employment contract or employee status. This term is already used in the current definition of academic freedom in the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 so is an understood term in this context.

“Staff” includes academics who hold honorary appointments for which they are not paid, for example honorary fellows. PhD students will be considered to be academic staff, for example, in so far as they teach undergraduate students. It will be a question of fact in each case whether they are covered as staff or students. The term covers staff at all levels, whether or not they are full time or part time, permanent or temporary. Visiting staff who are perhaps working at the university for a year are also covered. They must be distinguished from visiting speakers who are academics working at another institution, who are covered by the Bill as visiting speakers, rather than as staff of the provider.

I listened with care to the noble Lord, Lord Stevens of Birmingham, and his question about the way in which academic freedom interacts with academic standards. I said earlier that there is nothing in the Bill to encourage baseless or harmful claims or bad science on campus, but it is important to recognise that a provider in this context is an employer, and that its staff will have signed an employment contract and be subject to its employment policies.

Lord Mann Portrait Lord Mann (Non-Afl)
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Under the Bill as currently worded, would the emeritus professor at Sussex University—who was not an employee but would have been covered—who was sacked four years ago for saying that 9/11 was an Israeli plot have had the option of suing the university?

Earl Howe Portrait Earl Howe (Con)
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I do not think it is for the Bill—or indeed the Government—to specify an answer to that question one way or the other. It would depend on the policy of the university as to whether it wished to still regard that person as an emeritus professor if it took exception to what he said. I think that is as far as I can go at the moment, but I am happy to write to the noble Lord, Lord Mann—

Lord Mann Portrait Lord Mann (Non-Afl)
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So, is the Minister clarifying that there is nothing in the Bill that would prohibit the university from sacking that emeritus professor if the university determined that it was appropriate?

Earl Howe Portrait Earl Howe (Con)
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Exactly right.

I was making the point that a provider in this context is an employer and that its staff will be subject to its employment policies. Those policies must, of course, take account of the high regard that academic freedom is held in. However, depending on the circumstances, a provider may need to consider factors such as whether it is appropriate for the academic to continue to teach students; whether the academic has met accepted academic standards for their speech; and the ability of the academic to properly represent the provider in terms of its values and the reputation of the department and the provider.

The Bill recognises the nuances of the potentially difficult decisions that will need to be made under it. The “reasonably practicable” test allows for case-by-case decisions to be made, taking account of all the relevant factors.

Lord Macdonald of River Glaven Portrait Lord Macdonald of River Glaven (CB)
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Does the noble Earl nevertheless recognise that this is one of the weaknesses in the Bill that is causing consternation in universities: that it appears on the face of it to provide what I might describe as malignant actors—the sort of individuals the noble Lord has just referred to—with several new avenues to cause disruption, difficulties and problems for universities, including potentially launching a specific new tort? Is it not a weakness in the Bill that universities are likely to be subject to malignant activity?

Earl Howe Portrait Earl Howe (Con)
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With great respect to the noble Lord, I challenge any university to point to a provision in the Bill that changes the duties and responsibilities it has at the moment to take decisions for itself about what constitutes malignant speech, unsound science or whatever it happens to be. The Government are not trying to interfere in any way with the autonomy of universities in that sense.

Baroness Chakrabarti Portrait Baroness Chakrabarti (Lab)
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I am really quite surprised, because I hoped that the noble Earl was going to respond to my question, which was based on the question from the noble Lord, Lord Stevens, with some magic provision in the Bill or in the parent 1986 Act—if I can put it like that—which ensures that academic standards are specifically protected and held in the balance with the vital freedom of speech. If that is not the case we really do have a problem, because we then have the potential for one of the scientists I described in my hypothetical to sue under the new tort on the basis that they are being dismissed because of their speech and beliefs. The university will say, “No, it’s because of your bad science”, but they could say, “No, it’s because of my speech and beliefs”, and then the university would face costly, lengthy litigation.

Earl Howe Portrait Earl Howe (Con)
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We always have to come back to what the Bill specifies that a university should do, which is to take reasonably practicable steps. That is governed by the circumstances and facts of the case, which the university will have to weigh up: the pros and the cons, the arguments on either side. That is nothing different from what they do at the moment. In a later group, the ninth, I think, we shall come to the issue of tort and, if the noble Baroness will forgive me, I will not cover that now, but I shall cover the questions that she asked me about who exactly we are referring to in subsections (2) and (3) of proposed new Section A1.

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Lord Collins of Highbury Portrait Lord Collins of Highbury (Lab)
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My Lords, I welcome these amendments, because they probe the practical implications of these clauses. The noble Lord, Lord Grabiner, raised the point about the code of practice, and I was going to ask the Minister exactly how the code of practice in new Section A2 would cover the circumstances in relation to these amendments.

At the end of the day, as the noble Lord, Lord Mann, says, organising meetings has all kinds of implications for universities and colleges. Health and safety is a critical issue for the organisation of meetings, and the timing of meetings has employment issues, relating to staff and things like that. There is a whole range of practical issues that could result in having to say to the organisers of a meeting that they cannot have their meeting on that day or in that place.

The Minister may say that the code of practice referred to in new Section A2 talks about the procedures to be followed in connection with the organisation of meetings to be held on the provider’s premises. I want to know about the status of the code of practice and how the office of free speech will look at it. Are we going to end up with universities producing a code which fits all their requirements—health and safety requirements, employment law conditions, staffing issues, security issues and so on—then being tied up with people challenging it through the complaints process, saying, “They said that thing about health and safety as an excuse to ban us having a meeting on the premises.” I have heard it before. I have heard people say, “What has health and safety got to do with it?” or “Why should a maintenance staff member tell us to get out at 8 o’clock when I want to continue this speech and have this meeting?” There are practical implications.

How does a university know that the code of practice it adopts according to new Section A2 will meet the requirements? Will draft codes be circulated? What sort of advice and guidance will universities get—or are the Government simply going to say that this is all about what is reasonably practicable? I have heard those words many times in different contexts, particularly in terms of employment law and conditions. I hope that the Minister can reassure us on these probing amendments. Universities are independent bodies and should be able to manage their own organisation without the interference of outside bodies. I think this is a step too far.

Earl Howe Portrait Earl Howe (Con)
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My Lords, the group of amendments to Clauses 1 and 3 tabled in the name of my noble friend Lord Willetts and spoken to by the noble Lord, Lord Stevens, seek to give higher education providers and student unions the flexibility to move events to alternative premises but not cancel them. The noble Lord, Lord Mann, has also tabled Amendment 6 to the provisions concerning premises.

Under the Bill as drafted, providers, colleges and student unions will already be free to move events to alternative rooms, should that be appropriate. The main duty of taking reasonably practicable steps to secure freedom of speech is linked to the provisions that are the subject of these amendments—those in proposed new Section A1(3). This means that the duty is to take reasonably practicable steps to secure that the use of premises, and the terms on which such use is offered, are not based on the ideas, beliefs or views of individuals or groups. The duty to take reasonably practicable steps therefore means that there is already flexibility.

In any event, a provider, college or students’ union is not required under the Bill to allow the use of their premises at all times and in an unlimited way. It is open to them to offer particular rooms for use by event organisers at specified times. As regards Amendment 6, Section A1(3)(a) refers to “any premises” but could refer to “premises” without changing the effect. It should also be noted that the relevant body can place conditions on the use of rooms.

In this context, it might be helpful to touch specifically on the point raised at Second Reading by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Coventry regarding concerns about the use of faith spaces. I was very happy to meet him some days ago to discuss this. The example given by the noble Lord, Lord Mann, of having an anti-Israel talk right next to Jewish premises, touches on a similar point. Sections A1(3) and (4) on the use of premises essentially replicate the wording of the Education (No. 2) Act 1986, referring to beliefs among other things in that context. As I said earlier, the provisions link back to the main reasonably practicable duty in subsection (1), so it is not an absolute requirement. I think that was an initial cause for concern on this point, so I am happy to clarify that. In fact, the “reasonably practicable” steps wording enables providers to continue to designate spaces for use by faith groups without any obligation for the provider to open those spaces up to other groups, whether or not they have conflicting ideologies.

Under the reasonably practicable steps duty, it would be legitimate for a provider not to offer a particular faith space to any group that wants to hold an event, but to offer another suitable space, thereby upholding the freedom of speech duties and preserving the integrity of the space set aside for the faith group. The legislation enables providers to respect the religious views of those with designated rooms, taking into account the duties under the Equality Act, while still complying with the freedom of speech duties. To pick up a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Grabiner, we anticipate that the Office for Students will publish guidance for providers on how to comply with the duties. We can certainly discuss this with the Office for Students to ensure that it covers this issue, which I hope will provide noble Lords with further reassurance.

I just say to the noble Lord, Lord Collins, that providers are already required under the Education (No. 2) Act 1986 to have a code of practice regarding freedom of speech. The Bill strengthens that requirement. Providers will now need to include a statement of values in their codes of practice that clearly sets out the importance of freedom of speech. Providers should be setting the tone and expectations campus-wide so that everyone is confident to express their lawful views and challenge received wisdom, even if their views are unpopular. Codes of practice will also need to set out the criteria that providers will use to make decisions about the use of their premises for events involving potentially controversial views, as well add the criteria for when exceptional circumstances may apply regarding the payment of security costs. The Bill strengthens the duty on providers already set out in the Education Act 1994 so that all students, not just those who are members of student unions, are made aware of the duties and the code. Once again, the Office for Students will give guidance on this.

Lord Triesman Portrait Lord Triesman (Lab)
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I want to go back to the noble Earl’s point on security costs. I would like to understand a little more what that might involve. My own experience, probably not wholly appropriate, comes from football. Inside many football stadia, including quite small ones, the clubs provide stewards. Sometimes, certainly outside, the police provide security, and sometimes, if it is called for, they also provide it inside. There is a huge argument about who should bear the cost of the police providing security, since it has an often quite considerable impact. In the event that internally provided security, whoever pays for it, is not adequate to the circumstances and the police are called in, who becomes responsible for the costs?

Earl Howe Portrait Earl Howe (Con)
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Amendments 24 and 43, spoken to by the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, exactly address that set of issues, and I was about to comment on them. They concern the duty to generally bear the security costs for events. Understandably, the amendments probe how the costs of the provision of security for controversial meetings should be distributed among appropriate bodies. The duty on higher education providers, colleges and student unions is that they must not pass on some or all of the security costs to event organisers unless there are exceptional circumstances. The criteria for what are exceptional circumstances will depend on the nature of the particular body, and therefore must be set out in its code of practice, for the sake of transparency.

This element of the Bill is exceptionally important. We know that certain minority groups face serious security concerns when speaking on university campuses, as the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, pointed out. My right honourable friend the Minister spoke in the other place about the University of Bristol students’ union imposing a £500 security bill on a student society in order to allow the Israeli ambassador to give a talk. This is simply not right. The cost of securing events should not stand in the way of people having a voice. The Bill as currently drafted protects these groups while also giving autonomy to providers, colleges and student unions to make their own decisions about what constitute exceptional circumstances. This drafting reflects that their resources are not finite and that there may be other relevant factors specific to that institution that will need to be taken into account.

The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, asked about exceptional circumstances and when costs can be passed on. We believe it is important that providers, colleges and student unions have the right to determine what constitutes an exceptional circumstance when considering who should pay for security costs of an event, taking into account, in particular, what is reasonable given their resources and other relevant factors. It is also important that the criteria they use are transparent, so that student societies are aware of them when they are planning an event. If costs are passed on to a student society and it considers that the criteria have been wrongly applied, it will be able to complain to the OfS under the new complaints scheme. Once again, we anticipate that the OfS will publish guidance on the content of codes of practice, including on security costs.

Lord Triesman Portrait Lord Triesman (Lab)
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When the police decide to intervene, it is often not because a host organisation decides that they should or invites them to. They make a judgment, as constables, as to what would constitute a way of securing a peaceful circumstance for the event or for the premises. Nobody knows that it is going to happen unless they decide to do it, and nobody decides who is going to pay for it in advance, but happen it does, and arguments about who should then pay for it occur. How would a code of practice deal with that?

Earl Howe Portrait Earl Howe (Con)
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I am not sure I accept the noble Lord’s argument. If an event is properly planned—which it should be, particularly if it is sensitive or controversial—its security implications should surely be considered in advance. If it involves a police presence, that consideration should surely encompass the cost of that police presence. It would be a very remiss institution that did not look at the effects and requirements of the event in the round before it happened.

Lord Grabiner Portrait Lord Grabiner (CB)
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If I may respectfully say so, that is a terribly important point. It is obviously critical that people give careful consideration in advance as to whether they are going to invite a particular speaker, or whoever it may be, to come along and speak. I made a note of what I regard as a rather important observation the Minister made a little earlier this evening; he said that there is no right to a platform. That is a very important point. If I may say so, it would be helpful to record that point in the code of practice in due course, because if at the outset the relevant university organisation can anticipate a problem, one way of resolving that problem, including the cost question, is simply to say, “There is no right to a platform and we are not going to invite this person to speak”. That also involves necessarily the proposition that each of the university institutions has a very good processing place for room booking and matters of that kind. That is a very important point. I respectfully suggest that the code of practice should emphasise the importance of that discretionary power, which would not give rise to any liability or obligation on the institution under the Bill, if and when it becomes legislation, and that institutions are free to say no from the outset.

Earl Howe Portrait Earl Howe (Con)
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I am very grateful to the noble Lord; I will certainly take that point away and make sure that it is noted.

Baroness Smith of Newnham Portrait Baroness Smith of Newnham (LD)
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Following on from the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Grabiner, could the Minister clarify how the Government envisage the duties in the legislation we are debating today and the Prevent duties? There is already a whole set of pieces of paper and so on that organisers of events in higher education institutions are required to fill in. Are we expecting additional work and additional documents, or would the same set of paperwork work for this legislation as well as for Prevent?

Earl Howe Portrait Earl Howe (Con)
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We are coming later on to a group of amendments that could well encompass the noble Baroness’s question about the Prevent duty, but my answer to her now is that the planning of an event involves a number of considerations: the security costs; whether it impacts in any way on the Prevent duty; whether it impacts in any way on the public sector equality duty; and so on and so forth. This is a set of issues relating to an event that might be considered controversial that will need to be looked at altogether in the round. I cannot say whether there will be a separate set of papers, but if I receive advice on that point, I will certainly write to the noble Baroness.

To conclude, we want these provisions to offer a safeguard to groups that might come under serious security pressures, while also giving providers, colleges and student unions the independence that they need. I hope I have reassured noble Lords on these issues and sufficiently addressed the concerns raised.

Lord Stevens of Birmingham Portrait Lord Stevens of Birmingham (CB)
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I beg leave to withdraw Amendment 5.

Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill Debate

Full Debate: Read Full Debate
Department: Leader of the House

Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill

Earl Howe Excerpts
Debate on Amendment 12 resumed.
Earl Howe Portrait Earl Howe (Con)
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My Lords, as the Committee will be aware, our debate on Monday on academic freedom and associated issues was paused following the contribution of the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton. I should now like to pick up the various strands of that debate and respond to questions and points raised by noble Lords.

Amendment 12 from my noble friend Lord Sandhurst and the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, seeks to ensure that the academic freedom of visiting speakers is protected under this Bill, and that academic staff suffer no detriment because they have exercised their academic freedom.

First, on visiting speakers who are academic staff elsewhere, I assure the Committee that the Bill as drafted already protects such individuals, but as visiting speakers, rather than as academic staff. The protection of academic staff in new Section A1(7) makes clear that the protection is from losing their jobs or privileges at the provider, or from the likelihood of their securing promotion or different jobs at the provider being reduced. In other words, it is effectively dealing with an employment situation. Such protection would not make sense in the context of an academic speaker who works at another institution. This does not mean that the protection is less for such a visiting speaker, but it is different in nature because of the different relationship of the speaker to the university.

As for prohibiting detriment, the amendment would not allow for any circumstance in which the exercise of academic freedom could result in detriment imposed by the provider. It should be noted here that academic freedom enjoys a special status, reflecting the high level of importance that the courts have consistently placed upon it in the context of the right to freedom of expression under Article 10. However, an outright prohibition of detriment against an academic because they have exercised their academic freedom can be right, as there may be circumstances that mean that action by the provider including dismissal is the right response. If an academic has breached their employment contract or broken the law in some way, they cannot rely on a claim of academic freedom to avoid all consequences.

Amendments 14 and 17 seek to amend the definition of academic freedom in new Section A1 specifically to protect an academic’s freedom to criticise an institute at which they work and other activities included in the UNESCO recommendation of 1997. The UNESCO recommendation refers to

“the right, without constriction by prescribed doctrine, to freedom of teaching and discussion, freedom in carrying out research and disseminating and publishing the results thereof, freedom to express freely their opinion about the institution or system in which they work, freedom from institutional censorship and freedom to participate in professional or representative academic bodies”.

Let me make it clear that the definition of academic freedom as currently drafted already covers the questioning and testing of received wisdom, and the putting forward of new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions. This speech is not limited to particular subjects, so it would include speech concerning the institute at which an academic works.

I turn to the UNESCO definition. The Bill as drafted also protects the right to freedom of teaching and discussion, freedom in carrying out research and disseminating and publishing the results thereof, freedom to express freely their opinion about the institution or system in which they work, as I have already said, and freedom from institutional censorship. However, as for freedom to participate in professional or representative academic bodies, academic freedom as defined in the Bill is a specific element of freedom of speech overall. The Bill covers verbal speech and written material but does not cover the act of affiliating with or joining an organisation. I was already aware that this is an issue that the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner of Margravine, was interested in as chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, so I am glad to be able to put that on the record.

Amendment 15, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, and spoken to by the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, distinguishes between freedom of academic speech within the academic context and freedom of speech for academics and other citizens within the wider public sphere. It is important to state first of all that academic speech is protected under the Bill as part of freedom of speech more generally. The protection is the same for academic staff as compared to other staff and students, but the Bill makes clear that academics should not be at risk of losing their jobs or privileges or of damaging their career prospects because of their speech.

The amendment is similar to a previous provision in the Bill that set out that academic freedom under the Bill meant freedom of academic staff within the law and within their field of expertise. The Government listened carefully to the issues raised during the passage of the Bill in the other place, noting the concern that the definition of academic freedom was too narrow. In fact, the provision was a reflection of Strasbourg case law, and we were clear that it should be interpreted broadly, but we wanted to avoid any perception of such a limitation. We therefore decided that it would be appropriate to remove the “field of expertise” provision, which I think was a widely appreciated outcome. I hope the Committee will appreciate that explanation of how the definition of academic freedom in the Bill has developed.

Amendment 16 seeks to remove from the definition of academic freedom the reference to “controversial or unpopular opinions”. The purpose is to understand whether, where such opinions are not based on evidence, they should be included in the protection of academic freedom. The Bill builds upon the definition of academic freedom that already exists within the Higher Education and Research Act 2017. That definition goes back at least as far as the Education Reform Act 1988, so it is a long-standing one, and it includes the freedom to put forward controversial or unpopular opinions. Academic staff in our universities should feel safe to put forward controversial or unpopular opinions and ideas, whether or not they are based on evidence.

As I said at Second Reading, free speech is the lifeblood of a university, allowing students and staff to explore a spectrum of views, engage in robust debate and pursue their quest for knowledge. Limiting freedom of speech to areas that are not controversial or unpopular would make the definition of academic freedom in this context anodyne and narrow. Equally, limiting freedom of speech to areas that are only supported by evidence would unnecessarily narrow the scope of academic freedom under which academic staff should be free to roam the full spectrum of knowledge and ideas.

Amendment 18 seeks to ensure that an academic is fully protected from adverse consequences to their job, privileges and career prospects. The current drafting of new Section A1(6) refers to the risk of being adversely affected. This covers both the risk of adverse effect and the actual adverse effect, since in the latter case the academic must first have suffered the threat before the occurrence. Accordingly, should a member of academic staff find themselves actually adversely affected as a result of exercising their freedom of speech—having lost their job, for example—they would be covered by the academic freedom provisions of the Bill.

Amendment 19 seeks to add further protection for academic staff from the risk of losing responsibilities or opportunities. I assure noble Lords that the Bill as drafted would already protect an academic from such a risk. First, in addition to the wording relating to privileges, there is already reference to the risk of losing one’s job or the likelihood of securing promotion or a different job being reduced. More importantly, I want to be clear that academic freedom for the purpose of the Bill is considered to be a subset of freedom of speech—a distinct element with particular considerations, within that broader concept—so the main duty to take reasonably practicable steps to secure freedom of speech includes the duty to secure academic freedom. If a person suffers loss as a result, whether because of their academic freedom or freedom of speech more widely, then they can seek recompense through the new complaints scheme or, as we shall discuss later, using the tort.

Amendments 20 and 23 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, are, as was explained, intended to probe the practicality and appropriateness of the intrusion of the Bill into university promotion and appointment processes. It is important that the Bill’s definition of academic freedom goes beyond referring to the risk of losing one’s job or privileges and that it should also cover applications for promotion or another job at an institution. This is not currently covered by the existing legislative definition of academic freedom. An academic should not be held back from progressing their career within a university because they have questioned or tested the received wisdom, or put forward new and unpopular or controversial ideas. It is vital that academics can research and teach on subjects and issues that may test the boundaries, otherwise our higher education system would wrongly be limiting itself, which would disadvantage everyone.

Equally, this protection should not be limited to jobs within a university, otherwise academics may find it hard to progress their careers by moving to another institution. That is why we are applying a similar measure of protection to external applicants for academic appointments. The Government believe that freedom of speech in the context of higher education is so important that the provisions set out in the Bill that will apply to the promotion and appointments process are indeed appropriate and necessary.

Amendment 21 seeks to protect academic freedom under the Bill, regardless of the potential consequences for the reputation of the provider. The approach taken in the Bill is to impose a duty on providers to take reasonably practicable steps to secure freedom of speech within the law, including academic speech. A new aspect of this duty is that they must have particular regard to the importance of freedom of speech when considering what steps are reasonably practicable. The requirement to have “particular regard” to the importance of freedom of speech could, in a particular case, prompt a provider to prioritise freedom of speech over another right. However, this would remain subject to its assessment of what is reasonably practicable, and would need to be lawful. This test emphasises the significance of freedom of speech within the law and the need to protect it, where it is reasonably practicable to do so.

I come back to a point I made on an earlier group. Nothing in the Bill prevents a provider looking at the statements or utterances of an academic and considering whether that individual has adhered to their employment contract, whether he or she is upholding accepted academic standards and/or the values and reputation of the department and the university. Again, the reasonably practicable test allows for case-by-case decisions to be made, taking account of all the relevant factors. But it is important to recognise that a provider in this context is an employer, as I said, and that will give them the right to go through the deliberative processes that I have just outlined.

In conclusion, I hope my remarks have provided noble Lords with reassurance that the Bill, as drafted, is sufficient to protect academic staff in exercising their academic freedom

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Lord Collins of Highbury Portrait Lord Collins of Highbury (Lab)
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This has been a really informative debate. Fundamentally, the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, has set it in the proper context. I am not sure which hat she was wearing but whichever it was, this has been put in context; it is about balancing duties.

I must admit that, the more we discuss the clauses in this Bill in detail, the more I think about unintended consequences. If we have existing duties and responsibilities, why have they not worked? Why is it that Governments immediately resort to legislation rather than thinking about what is actually going on and asking what powers that they have could be better utilised? On the first day in Committee, a number of noble Lords made precisely that point. They highlighted where they think that things have gone wrong, but did not see this legislation as being particularly the right mechanism for putting it right. This debate has been extremely useful.

I must admit that I found the contribution from the noble Lord, Lord Mann, enlightening. My tendency is to look at my own personal experience at university—many, many years ago. There was quite a lot of hostility and demonstrations, and certainly some of the extremists that the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, talked about—maybe even the noble Baroness herself, as I suspect that we were both at the same university—frequently tried to stop me speaking on behalf of the Labour Party. By the way, I like the idea that I have the luxury of speaking in a personal capacity; maybe we should tell Conservative Central Office that that is the case—though I am tempted not to do that.

At the end of the day, what we have here is agreement on fundamental principles but disagreement about how you best achieve them. Invariably, there are competing interests at stake when speakers are invited to our campuses but, as the noble Lord, Lord Mann, said, freedom of speech is not a trump card. I make that point to the noble Lord, Lord Moylan. He may be able to qualify his words but, fundamentally, as the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, said, those words do put it into a hierarchy, which I think is particularly dangerous.

Whether we like it or not, universities have a broad range of responsibilities, and not only to academic staff and students; they are also big employers and so have a duty to other staff as well—particularly when it comes to statutory legislation such as that on health and safety, which is something they must take into account when exercising these responsibilities.

As the noble Lord, Lord Mann, said, students have a right not to be harassed or subjected to hate speech. Most importantly, as he said, they have a right to protest and to say that the opinions being expressed by somebody who has been invited to their university are abhorrent. When I was at university, extremist religious faith groups were saying that my sexuality represented an evil thing that needed to be banned and stopped. Fortunately, we have moved on and do not allow that in quite the same way. If a religious fundamentalist came here, I would expect to have the right to say that I found their opinion abhorrent. The noble Lord, Lord Mann, was absolutely right, and the case that he used to illustrate this is an important one.

When I looked at the Bill’s Committee stage in the Commons, I saw that points were made, with reference to the evidence sessions, about how the Equality Act could be used:

“Professor Stephen Whittle from Manchester Metropolitan University acknowledged as much in the Bill Committee, recognising that the Equality Act would afford protection only if the speech were directly addressed to the complainant. That is important because front groups such as Hizb ut-Tahrir, which is not a proscribed organisation but which often espouses antisemitic views, could come on to campus under the guise of freedom of speech.”—[Official Report, Commons, 13/6/22; col. 80.]


There is real concern here about how we must have that balancing act and ensure that people are protected. The example from the noble Lord, Lord Mann, about a family member of someone who suffered the consequences of terrorism, is a really important one.

At the end of the day, we have to try to take into account the sentiments contained in Amendments 29, 32 and 44 and ensure, as the noble Lord, Lord Smith, said, that we recognise those balancing responsibilities. As the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, said, it is important that this proposed law does not inhibit the balancing of those responsibilities. I certainly have a lot of sympathy for the amendments in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Mann.

Earl Howe Portrait Earl Howe (Con)
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My Lords, as we have heard, this group brings together a series of amendments that seek to clarify in the Bill how its duties will interact with other duties and responsibilities.

Amendments 29 and 44 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Mann, seek to ensure that providers and student unions balance their duty to take steps to secure free speech with their duty of care to students, staff and members. Amendment 32 would add this consideration to the duty to promote in Section A3.

I am grateful to the noble Lord for raising this important point and listened with care to the examples he gave. He is quite right that providers have a duty of care to their students under common law, as well as obligations to their staff under employment law. Student unions also have responsibilities to their staff under employment law. It is of the utmost importance that they can fulfil these obligations, providing an environment in which students, academic staff and members can thrive and taking reasonable steps to promote their health, safety and welfare.

As I mentioned, the noble Lord cited a number of examples to illustrate his arguments around the duty of care, one of which was a speaking invitation issued to a convicted terrorist. Inviting a convicted terrorist would likely require consideration under the Prevent duty in addition to the wider points he made on duty of care. I will cover the Prevent duty in more detail when I cover Amendment 69, if he will allow.

Lord Mann Portrait Lord Mann (Non-Afl)
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I thank the Minister but, to clarify, the case I cited was not stopped by Prevent. Prevent was in place. This was an actual example, not a theoretical one, but I do not want to name the college or identify the student in any way. It was perfectly lawful under Prevent; Prevent did not stop it and was not party to it. As an actual example, I think it is a good illustration.

Earl Howe Portrait Earl Howe (Con)
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I was making the point that the case he used to illustrate the issue would have been likely to engage Prevent even if the Prevent considerations had taken second place to the decision to promote freedom of speech. I do not disagree with the noble Lord in the way he suggests.

This leads to the general point that, to assist it to discharge its duty of care, a provider needs to ensure that it has in place effective and robust systems, policies and procedures for supporting and managing students, and that training and awareness-raising is provided for staff. Such a duty of care does not conflict with the duties in this Bill. The requirement to take reasonably practicable steps allows providers to balance that duty with other duties and responsibilities to students, staff and members.

Amendment 35 from my noble friend Lord Moylan would add a new provision to the public sector equality duty in the Equality Act 2010, whereby public authorities would need to have particular regard to their free speech duties. The amendment raises an important point. Providers are subject to different duties, and it is vital that they balance them appropriately. However, the Government are clear that the duties in the Bill will not override existing duties under the Equality Act, nor will those existing duties override the duties in the Bill. The noble Baroness, Lady Fox, cited the briefing from SOAS, which I have read. The briefing is absolutely incorrect to suggest otherwise. We need to remember that the public sector equality duty is a “due regard” duty.

There have been occasions when the Equality Act has been misinterpreted by providers—for example, as to whether the conduct is harassment—but the Office for Students will publish guidance to help bodies under this Act understand their duties and apply them. Providers will be required to take reasonably practicable steps to secure freedom of speech. In deciding what is reasonably practicable, they must have particular regard to the importance of freedom of speech. This does not mean that freedom of speech must always outweigh other considerations but indicates that it is a very important factor and will need to be weighed against other factors, including the public sector equality duty.

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Baroness Chakrabarti Portrait Baroness Chakrabarti (Lab)
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My Lords, I will briefly probe the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, and probe the Minister a bit by way of that amendment. I support the amendments in the names of the noble Lords, Lord Willetts and Lord Stevens of Birmingham.

On the latter, I lament this intrusion into university autonomy, which has been going on for some time. I listened carefully to the point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Fox: what is a university? Clearly, universities are to be places of free speech but also of free inquiry and independence from the state. They predate all the legislation that we have cited, which is really quite special. I am concerned about regulatory creep—not on employment and non-discrimination but on the content of the actual academic enterprise, if I can put it like that.

I broadly support the noble Lords in their common-sense amendments and I do not think anybody should really disagree. I do not want the Office for Students and all the rest of this architecture to be needed, but if it is going to be there then surely the duty to provide guidance should be a “must”, not a “may”, once we have entered this arena.

The amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Moylan—I am using it as a means to probe the Minister—wants the universities to

“have particular regard to the need to … (a) eliminate unlawful interference with freedom of speech within the law and academic freedom”.

Surely he should want them to seek to eliminate lawful interference with free speech too. Some of the problems that he must be concerned about are where people are not putting bricks through windows or breaching the criminal law to intimidate but are just making it not very pleasant to have debate and free speech. If he is to bring his amendment back, I say in a spirit of bipartisanship that that is a drafting problem or has not been completely thought through.

My real probe relates to something that the noble Lord, Lord Stevens of Birmingham, said last time that I found particularly revelatory. Of course a university must be a place of free speech and debate, but it must also be a place of academic excellence, or at least of academic quality. Surely that must sit alongside free speech. A university is not just a debating society or the public square; it is a place of academic improvement, inquiry and even excellence. Despite my politics, I do not shrink from the word “excellence”.

My question to the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, is again on the territory that we opened up with the Minister last time: where in this proposed statute or any other, if we are going to be prescribing duties around free speech, are the duties to protect academic standards? It was the noble Lord, Lord Stevens, who opened up this issue in my mind and I have been worried about it for the last couple of days. If free speech trumps everything, or at least academic standards, and those standards and the duty to maintain them are not prescribed in law, what happens with bad science and fake facts? What happens when a person declares that they must be protected from management, and possibly even from losing their post, because they are just writing and teaching rubbish? Our students, who are now consumers, deserve better.

Earl Howe Portrait Earl Howe (Con)
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I am not sure the noble Baroness was in the Committee when I covered that very point quite near the beginning of our debate today. I tried to cover it on Monday but I expanded on it today as well.

Baroness Fox of Buckley Portrait Baroness Fox of Buckley (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, I am very much in favour of Amendment 31. To put a different emphasis on it from what there has been so far, the amendment by the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, is helpful in making a positive attempt at promoting free speech. The amendment says

“foster a culture of free thought and open-mindedness, in all decision-making concerning the provision of higher education and in conducting and managing research activities”.

It is that bit about promotion that is helpful in terms of shifting the emphasis of the discussion a little bit about how we should view the Bill.

I found that I was reading this small HEPI—if that is how you say it—pamphlet in preparation for the student union group of debates later on. I found it a really interesting little book. The foreword is by Professor James Tooley, the vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham, which has also co-published the book. I should declare my interest that I am a visiting professor at the University of Buckingham. Professor Tooley says:

“For many academics, the focus”


is

“only on the negative, on the ‘sticks’ of the law”.

He advocates that we focus on

“the positive, the ‘carrots’ of the intellectual and social attraction of academic freedom”.

Many people have said that the problem with the Bill is that does not tackle the cultural issues—that it avoids the question of what has happened to the positive association of universities with academic freedom. One of the contributions earlier asked why the 1986 duties have not worked and what the point is of bringing them under the Bill. Quite a lot has changed since those duties were brought in in the sphere of academic freedom, which is why I believe we need to pass a version of the Bill, no doubt amended, but not to use it as a silver bullet that avoids tackling the cultural issues. Anything that the Bill does to foster the promotion of free speech is very important. The main thing that I would urge is that the status quo position of “leave it as it is” is not acceptable. That is the kind of complacency that I hear. Universities will not survive and the academic standards that have just been referred to will deteriorate.

There is a tendency to blame students when we look at what has changed recently; they are either disparagingly written off as “Generation Snowflake” or, more positively, posed as uniquely sensitive to the issues of oppressed identity groups—unlike previous generations, who have never understood suffering—and having a unique insight into them. A combination of both is true. I do not want to blame students, but it is true that, whenever I talk at universities on free speech, many of them talk about it as if it were a value from “ye olden days”. They sometimes say: “We respect your right to think that free speech is important, but we have other priorities.”

I often find that commitment to free speech, on and off campus, is under strain not among the young but among the grown-ups, as it were. At best, there can be a shallow, instrumental lip service paid to the value of free speech, with so many “ifs”, “buts” and caveats that it is barely there. There is hardly a compelling case for the positive virtues of free speech, but rather a grudging acceptance that it is important, always accompanied by an emphasis on how it can play a corrosive and dangerous role in society and lead to a toxic political culture, hate crimes and, as we have heard in this debate, all these charlatan quack scientists dragging down educational standards.

Even the emphasis that the Bill and everyone else want to place on free speech within the law as a qualifier feels a bit tepid, especially when Governments of all stripes have regularly infringed free speech through legislation. As we speak, we have a Government proposing a pro-free speech Bill at the same time as the Online Safety Bill and the Public Order Bill, which are hardly wildly pro-free speech pieces of legislation. On campus, we have seen lots of academics, rather than students, introducing things that have undermined the culture of academic freedom. Whether it is mandated courses in microaggressions or unconscious bias, people feel as though they are walking on eggshells.

It is very important that we use this legislation—this is why I like Amendment 31—to make a positive case for the inviolable moral good of free speech. There was a lot of coverage of the seminar in Cambridge where, as the newspapers described it, students were trained in free speech. One of my colleagues ran it, Alastair Donald from Living Freedom; Andrew Doyle, the author of The New Puritans, spoke on Milton and Dr Piers Benn on Locke. What was really fascinating was that the reports of the students who attended last night said things such as, “I thought that coming to Cambridge would be like this, but it hasn’t been until tonight”. They also said that they often feel constrained in what they can say at university by their own tutors tut-tutting if they say the wrong thing.

When I brought out my book ‘I Find That Offensive!’ in 2016, I was warned that it was exaggerated—of course, it ended up completely underestimating the problem—and that young people would hate it and shun me because it addressed “Generation Snowflake” and the culture of “safetyism”. The truth is that, when it was published, the people who hated it were the educational establishment; it got terrible reviews in all the educational press. The people who really liked it were students. I spent two years doing a tour of all universities speaking about it. The students said, “Phew, it’s a relief to have somebody talking about this. I had never heard arguments like this before. I never really understood the history or philosophy of free speech.” It was not that they all loved me or agreed with me; they were just glad that someone was prepared to have the open discussion and debate.

We have to use this piece of legislation to promote free speech and academic freedom as much as we can. I support Amendment 31.

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Lord Grabiner Portrait Lord Grabiner (CB)
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My Lords, I will be very brief. On the point made a moment ago by the noble Baroness, one of the oddities about the Kathleen Stock case—the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, knows a lot more about this than I do—is that she undoubtedly would have had a claim for breach of contract. It appears that some agreement was arrived at and the matter was settled, but she would have had a very clear and good claim against the employer for breach of contract, without the need for anything in this Bill, which does not advance matters. However, we will come to that at a later moment.

I respectfully support the amendments from the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, but I am not going to get involved in the Moylan debate. I firmly support Amendments 54 to 56 because what is critical, as has become apparent in the course of these debates, is the importance under the Bill of the guidance and code of practice. It is vital that the code of practice that eventually results is an absolutely bullet-proof and really impressive document. The proposals from the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, would achieve that and strengthen the current drafting.

Earl Howe Portrait Earl Howe (Con)
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My Lords, this group of amendments relates to duties and powers to promote freedom of speech under the Bill. Amendment 31, tabled by my noble friend Lord Moylan, seeks to clarify the steps that a higher education provider or college would need to take in order to promote the importance of freedom of speech and academic freedom. This amendment would replace the duty to promote the importance of freedom of speech and academic freedom with a duty to have particular regard to certain matters, including the need to eliminate unlawful interference with freedom of speech and academic freedom and to promote and prioritise the particular importance of freedom of speech.

By replacing the duty as drafted, I suggest to my noble friend that this amendment would in fact weaken the duties under the Bill by replacing a duty to do something—the words, “must promote”—with a duty to “have particular regard”. Providers will already be required, under new Section A1, to take reasonably practicable steps to secure freedom of speech. In doing so, they will need to have particular regard to the importance of freedom of speech. As part of this, we would expect providers to consider many of the matters suggested by this amendment and do not consider it necessary to set these out in detail. Indeed, prescribing the matters to which providers must have regard in this way could have unintended consequences, and result in providers taking a less comprehensive and balanced approach to their duties overall.

My noble friend asked me why specifically I could object to his amendment. There is a good reason, as I have indicated, which is that the amendment would have the effect of removing the duty to promote the importance of freedom of speech and academic freedom. That is a new and important duty, created by the Bill, that will drive forward a culture where freedom of speech is fostered and celebrated and students, staff and visiting speakers feel confident to express their views freely.

Amendment 33 in the name of my noble friend Lord Willetts and the noble Lord, Lord Stevens, seeks to amend the duty to promote the importance of freedom of speech and academic freedom by adding a duty to have due regard to all the other relevant legal duties. We have already discussed the issue of the interaction of the Bill with other duties. The main duty in the Bill is to take reasonably practicable steps to secure freedom of speech within the law. That means that providers, colleges and student unions can take account of all their legal duties on a case-by-case basis. So the duty does not override existing duties under the Equality Act 2010 regarding harassment and unlawful discrimination nor, for providers, the public sector equality duty or the Prevent duty. If another legal duty requires or gives rise to certain action, it would not be reasonably practicable to override that.

I agree that the University of Essex report showed that there were misunderstandings of how the Equality Act should be properly applied, but we hope and trust that the measures in the Bill will, as I said earlier in response to a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Collins, serve to minimise those misunderstandings.

As I have previously said, the duty is derived from the current legislation in the Education (No. 2) Act 1986, so it is not new. Providers have been balancing their legal duties for many years: in relation to unlawful discrimination and harassment under the Public Order Act 1986 for 35 years, in relation to the public sector equality duty since 2011, and in relation to the Prevent duty since 2015. However, the new duty to promote the importance of freedom of speech and academic freedom might mean that a provider speaks out publicly to defend the freedom of speech of a staff member in the face of calls for them to be removed for something they had said, or it might involve giving talks to staff and students on the importance of freedom of speech in democracies.

We come back to an objective that I have mentioned before, which is the need in some institutions for a change of culture. Noble Lords will appreciate that the duty to promote is a high-level duty designed to give rise over time to a change in culture on university campuses. It is not a duty to promote freedom of speech. Rather, it is a duty to promote the importance of freedom of speech. As such, I do not believe that it needs the additional “due regard” duty as proposed.

Amendments 54, 55 and 56 in the name of my noble friend Lord Willetts seek to require the Office for Students to consult on and publish guidance relating to the promotion of freedom of speech and academic freedom, and to require it to give advice on that in a timely manner. Clause 5 inserts new Section 69A into the Higher Education and Research Act 2017. This provides that the OfS may identify good practice and give advice to providers and colleges on the promotion of freedom of speech and academic freedom. This wording is entirely based on Section 35 of the 2017 Act, which provides that:

“The OfS may … identify good practice relating to the promotion of equality of opportunity, and … give advice about such practice to registered higher education providers.”


Accordingly, the provision does not concern the new duty on providers and colleges to promote the importance of freedom and speech and academic freedom in new Section A3 that I have just described. Rather, it concerns the duties of the OfS and the advice that it can give to providers and colleges generally about how they can promote freedom of speech on campus.

I hope my noble friend Lord Willetts will be reassured to know that Section 75 of the 2017 Act, as amended by this Bill, will require the regulatory framework of the OfS to include guidance for providers on the general ongoing registration conditions, which will now include specific registration conditions on free speech in accordance with Clause 6, as well as guidance for student unions on their freedom of speech duties. Therefore, it will be here that the OfS will set out guidance on the new duty under Section A3 to promote the importance of freedom of speech and academic freedom, which must be complied with under the registration conditions.

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Lord Collins of Highbury Portrait Lord Collins of Highbury (Lab)
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Yes. Then we get into a much bigger question, which for me is the most important political question. I know my noble friend has also entered into debates on that issue, including on TRIPS and stuff like that.

I will be interested to hear the Minister’s response to this point. Personally, I do not think that these amendments are in the right Bill or the right place.

Earl Howe Portrait Earl Howe (Con)
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My Lords, this group of amendments relates to impartial research funding. Amendment 34 in the name of my noble friend Lord Moylan would introduce a new duty to require higher education providers to take reasonable steps not to refuse to grant funds for research because of a recipient’s lawful principles or political opinions.

Amendments 45 and 46, also tabled by my noble friend, seek to make clear, first, in respect of donations and sponsorship to registered higher education providers and, secondly, in respect of funding through UK Research and Innovation, that the donor, grantor or provider may never restrict the freedom of speech of those working under the funding. Amendment 53 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Sikka, is about the awards of grants for academic research.

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Baroness Thornton Portrait Baroness Thornton (Lab)
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My Lords, my main regret about this debate is that my noble friend Lord Triesman did not mention the London School of Economics, which is where I went. While we were having this debate, I looked it up and there are hundreds of societies at the LSE. I enjoyed the fact that, if you look at the history of the student union—the student union at the LSE is the oldest in the country—you find that I feature in there, having led occupations of the director’s studio for the nursery campaign in the early 1970s. I was trying to think how on earth we would have coped with this legislation when I was a member of the student union executive at the London School of Economics in the early 1970s.

My noble friend Lord Triesman was quite right. As the noble Lord, Lord Smith, said, I do not think what is in the Bill at the moment meets the test of what will actually work and be able to be delivered by our student bodies. It is too complex. My understanding is that student unions also have the Charity Commissioners as part of their regulation, so that adds extra complexity to this issue.

I think I agree with other noble Lords that the Government need to look at this issue again. The noble Baroness’s amendment might provide a good basis for something that is simpler and which can actually be delivered by 18 and 19 year-olds. I look at the Bill team, and some of them are not that far away from having been rather young. They need to think back to what they would have done in their student days and how they might have been able to protect the right of freedom of speech then.

This is one of those occasions when the Government might need to look at this again and ask whether it will work as it is intended. Have discussions taken place with student union representatives in a process of asking them how this will work and whether it will be able to be carried through?

In case noble Lords are looking it up, my name does not appear but I did lead the occupation of the director’s studio for the nursery campaign.

Earl Howe Portrait Earl Howe (Con)
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My Lords, Amendment 47 in the names of the noble Baroness, Lady Garden of Frognal, and her colleague the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, seeks to change the way in which student unions are regulated under the Bill.

This amendment would remove the duties on student unions in Clause 3, and instead add them to the duties on providers under the Education Act 1994. The addition of these requirements to that Act would mean that the duty would be on the governing body of the provider to

“take such steps as are reasonably practicable to secure”

the various requirements set out in the amendment and no direct duties would be imposed on student unions. Amendment 47 would therefore make Clause 7 unnecessary. I note the wish of the noble Baroness to remove the clause from the Bill altogether.

Extending the legislative framework to student unions at approved fee cap providers under Clause 3 is a significant step, which fills a gap in the current legislative framework. Freedom of speech on our campuses is an essential element of university life. Student unions play a vital role in this, providing services and support, representing their members and working closely with their provider. It is important that these bodies are accountable for their actions.

There are examples of where student unions have failed to secure freedom of speech. Notably, the student union at Swansea University failed to support members of the university’s Feminist Society, who were threatened and abused for supporting Kathleen Stock—a name I am sure we recognise by now. Rather than protect their freedom of speech, the student union removed the society’s email account and profile page from its systems, denying this group an important platform for reaching others. This incident illustrates the need for action to ensure that student unions are subject to duties on freedom of speech, since we cannot allow that sort of behaviour to continue unchallenged and unregulated.

I noted the support for the amendment expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Finsbury, but if we took the approach proposed in Amendment 47, the duty would be on the provider to take reasonably practicable steps to secure the various freedom of speech obligations, as I have said, but there would be no requirement on student unions to comply with those requirements. If they did not, this would potentially only result in an internal dispute with the provider.

Although the Charity Commission is involved in regulating student unions which are charities, that is only in respect of charity law. There would also be no oversight of whether or not providers comply with the duty imposed on them. This means that there would be no enforcement or regulatory action taken if they failed to do so.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly in the context of the new regime that this Bill will establish, there would be no means for individuals whose freedom of speech has been improperly restricted to seek recompense. Since the Bill will impose new duties on student unions, it is also necessary that mechanisms are in place to ensure that compliance with the freedom of speech duties of student unions is monitored effectively and that action is taken if those duties are infringed upon.

The noble Lord, Lord Triesman, read into these provisions a burdensome requirement placed on every single student society in every university in England. I make it clear to him that the duties are on student unions and not student societies, even though they may be affiliated with their student union. In practice, this means that only the student union—that is to say, one union per provider—will be regulated.

Clause 7 therefore extends the regulatory functions of the Office for Students so that it can regulate these student unions. This new provision will require the OfS to monitor whether student unions are complying with their duties under new Sections A5 and A6 as inserted by Clause 3. If it appears to the OfS that a student union is failing or has failed to comply with its duties, it will be able to impose a monetary penalty.

Baroness Thornton Portrait Baroness Thornton (Lab)
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I need some clarification from the noble Earl. I suspect that most of the things that have caused problems have been organised by the societies and all the organisations that are part of the student union. At the LSE, we had a rugby club that invited strippers to its annual dinner—you can imagine how well that went down—but it was not the student union that dealt with that. It was not its job to deal with what the rugby club was doing. This was a very long time ago, but lots of the things that we have been calling in aid in this Bill have not been organised by student unions. Some will have been, but most will have been organised by their constituent parts—the societies and other parts of the student union.

Earl Howe Portrait Earl Howe (Con)
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I take the noble Baroness’s point. Those societies will be expected to abide by a code of practice which will be promulgated to all students. While the societies will not be subjected to the full extent of the regulation that I have been talking about, expectations will be placed on them. I cannot yet tell the noble Baroness what will be contained in the code of practice but, as I have mentioned, that code will receive appropriate publicity.

Lord Triesman Portrait Lord Triesman (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

To be very clear, I have no difficulty at all with the concept that people in student unions who impede the free speech and academic freedom of others must be dealt with. For the record, I do not have a second’s question about that. I just want us to do things in this Bill that we can actually do. I wonder whether the noble Earl, Lord Howe, might discuss this offline with some of us who have helped to run these kinds of institutions in the past to see whether there is a practical solution to the problem that my noble friend has just illustrated. I do not know about the LSE, but I will lay odds that most student unions find out what their rugby clubs have done months after the event, if they find out at all.

Baroness Smith of Newnham Portrait Baroness Smith of Newnham (LD)
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They might find out in the newspapers.

Earl Howe Portrait Earl Howe (Con)
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I would hope that a rugby club would not be responsible for inviting somebody to talk about gender politics.

Lord Collins of Highbury Portrait Lord Collins of Highbury (Lab)
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The Minister is completely wrong about that. It is highly likely that they would, because there is a highly controversial issue around gender, sex and sport. I think he does not fully understand the range of issues that can be addressed by a huge range of societies in the university community.

Earl Howe Portrait Earl Howe (Con)
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I bow to the noble Lord’s superior knowledge on this. If noble Lords will allow, I will conclude.

I mentioned the possibility of a monetary penalty, which was raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Garden. The power to impose a monetary penalty is based on the existing enforcement regime for higher education providers and is intended, obviously, to encourage compliance.

New Section 69B will also require the OfS to maintain and publish a list of student unions at approved fee cap providers. This will make it clear which student unions the OfS has been informed by its providers are subject to the duties in new Sections A5 and A6. It will also require those student unions to provide the OfS with information it may require for the performance of its functions. These are new regulatory functions, intended to ensure compliance by student unions with their new duties. Together with Clause 3, this clause will ensure that freedom of speech is protected by not just higher education providers but student unions.

Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill Debate

Full Debate: Read Full Debate
Department: Department for Education

Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill

Earl Howe Excerpts
I signed the clause stand part proposal from the noble Lord, Lord Willetts. The signatures to it reflect the point that I made at the beginning: this is a non-partisan debate, and it reflects opinion right across the House. I hope that the Minister will listen very carefully, because I would rather him come back and say that there are points on the regulator that the Government want to improve, there may be things that they will change over a period of time, and they will review the Act—if it becomes an Act. But this clause would open the door to courts and litigation that will undermine any good work that the regulator attempts to do, and the debate has shown very clearly that it needs to go.
Earl Howe Portrait Earl Howe (Con)
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My Lords, as noble Lords have indicated, today and at Second Reading, the issue of the proposed new tort is one that has given rise to a number of doubts, questions and worries, which I shall do my best to address. Whether I can entirely assuage those concerns remains to be seen, but I hope that noble Lords find what I say to be helpful at this stage.

Amendment 48 from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Etherton, seeks to make it clear in the Bill that a claim under the tort against a higher education provider or college can be brought only by the individuals specified under new Section A1(2), namely those whose freedom of speech is protected under the Bill. The amendment would also make it clear that such a person must have suffered loss in order to bring a claim. I can confirm without hesitation—and I hope that it is helpful for me to place on the record—that we intend for the new statutory tort to operate as the amendment suggests, which is the usual approach under tort law. This is reflected in the Explanatory Notes.

For someone to make a successful claim via the tort against a provider, the claimant would need to be able to show that the provider owed them a duty of care. Only the class of individuals specified in new Section A1(2) would be able to demonstrate that the provider owed them a duty of care. This is not a question of demonstrating standing to bring a claim, rather a question of demonstrating that they were owed a duty of care—a more limited group that would not, incidentally, include pressure groups.

As for the need to demonstrate that they have suffered loss, the claimant would need to point to a genuine loss that they had suffered as a result of the breach of the freedom of speech duties in new Section A1 in order to claim damages. If we bear in mind that only a person specified in new Section A1(2) could bring a claim, we consider that they would do so only if they have suffered because of a breach of the duties—even if, for example, that loss is injury to feelings and not a monetary loss. I come back to the point I have made before, which may be helpful to the noble Baroness, Lady Fox: we intend the tort to be a backstop, particularly for those situations where an individual disagrees with a recommendation that has been made.

I understand the concern of the noble Lord, Lord Grabiner, that Clause 4 should specify that compensation can be awarded by the courts. There are, as he rightly said, some statutory torts where it specifies this but also torts that do not: for example, Section 138D(2) of the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000. The principal remedy for tort is damages, although, as the noble Lord will know, an injunction and other remedies may also be available. An injunction, for example, could require that a student is readmitted on the course which a provider has removed them from, so we would certainly want a court to be able to order that, if appropriate.

The remedies available for the tort of breach of statutory duty are the same as for tort generally, subject to the intention of the relevant statute. Where the legislation itself provides a remedy, the question may arise whether it is tended to be additional to the general remedies available under the law or instead of them. Where the legislation provides a remedy but there is no express or implied indication as to whether other remedies are also available, there is a prima facie presumption that it is intended to be the only one available. This presumption will not always exist and the question depends in each case on the construction of the enactment concerned. Given this, we think that it is not necessary to specify that compensation is available; it could, in fact, unintentionally limit the court’s powers.

Amendments 49 and 52, tabled by my noble friend Lord Sandhurst, seek to allow the employment tribunal to determine claims brought by academic staff members under the new statutory tort and to make dismissal for exercise of academic freedom automatically unfair. The consequential amendment removes the qualifying period for unfairly dismissed academics and the cap on the compensatory award, and it allows the tribunal to order interim relief. The Bill does not prevent academic staff bringing claims before the employment tribunal, which may take into account a breach of the freedom of speech and academic freedom duties, if it is relevant to a claim before it. Under the current employment law framework, the two-year qualifying period for unfair dismissal is intended to strike the right balance between fairness for employees and flexibility for employers, to ensure that employers are not discouraged from taking on new staff. Where an employee does not have two years’ service, it is still possible to bring a claim for wrongful dismissal in the civil courts.

In answer to the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, in particular, the Bill in fact broadens the range of people covered by the existing freedom of speech duties to ensure that all staff within a provider, college or students’ union have protections and can seek redress where duties are breached. The new duties give particular protection to academic staff, including those who may not have employee status or have been employed for less than two years. It therefore broadens the scope of the current provision to ensure that visiting fellows, for example, have the freedom to research and teach on issues that may be controversial or challenging without the risk of losing their post, privileges or prospects.

The Bill gives specific jurisdiction to the courts to consider claims for breach of a statutory duty, as well as setting up a new complaints scheme. I say to my noble friend Lord Willetts that we think that this is a proportionate approach. Academic and non-academic staff will have sufficient routes for redress, without the need to amend employment law as proposed.

Amendment 50, also tabled by my noble friend Lord Sandhurst seeks to make clear in the Bill that the tort should be only a remedy of last resort and that individuals should first exhaust the free route of redress of the Office for Students complaints scheme. Under the amendment, the court would be able to stay the claim on the application of the defendant. We expect that most complainants will choose to use the complaint scheme of the OfS—or students may wish to go to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education—before considering going to court, as no costs are involved in lodging a complaint.

The noble Lord, Lord Grabiner, spoke of mischief-makers. We consider that the tort is unlikely to lead to higher education providers, colleges and student unions having to deal with a large number of unmeritorious claims. A claimant would need to be able to show that the defendant owed them a duty of care, and they would need to point to a genuine loss that they had suffered as a result of a breach of the freedom of speech duties, as I described. In the case of an unmeritorious claim, the claimant would struggle to make their case. In addition, an unmeritorious claimant would risk having to pay substantial legal costs as a result, not only their own but potentially also the legal costs of the defendant. This, together with the availability of free routes for seeking redress, means that we expect the tort will likely be used only as a backstop.

Lord Grabiner Portrait Lord Grabiner (CB)
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Does the Minister think it appropriate that there should be left in place two possible routes for a complainant—a regulatory route and a Clause 4 route—without there being any guidance whatever in the legislation as to who should or should not go first? At the moment, the Minister is saying, by way of assertion without a scrap of evidence to support it, if I may respectfully say so, that the expectation is that people will use the regulatory procedure first if they are going to make a complaint. At the moment, the legislation does not cater for that problem. Is he satisfied with that?

Earl Howe Portrait Earl Howe (Con)
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My Lords, I hope the noble Lord will accept from me that I am not impervious to the points made by noble Lords from around the Committee on that issue, including the very powerful points that the noble Lord himself made. I will come in a minute to the position I have reached as a result of this debate.

It may be helpful if I just explain first, though, that we should note that, to complain to the OIA, the complainant must generally have first exhausted the provider’s internal complaints process; the same is likely to be the case for the OfS scheme. We anticipate that, in any event, where an alternative dispute resolution procedure is available, the court will be slow to engage with issues arising from the same subject matter, unless and until that procedure has been given reasonable time and opportunity to run to a conclusion. If an individual wishes to bring a tort claim before then, they should provide the court with good reasons for doing so, but that will be a matter for the courts to determine.

However, I have heard the concerns expressed by noble Lords, as well as in the other place, about exhausting other remedies and about the tort generally. We take these concerns seriously and will consider carefully whether anything can be done to address them. I am also happy to discuss the issue of who can bring a claim with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Etherton, if he still considers an amendment along the lines of his amendment necessary.

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Lord Grabiner Portrait Lord Grabiner (CB)
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I apologise: it is probably my fault because I did not convey the point of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, as clearly as I could, and perhaps should, have done, and certainly not as clearly as he inevitably would have. It is not about the earlier 1980s legislation; the fact is that the Bill, if it becomes law, will contain brand-new statutory duties. It is those duties that, if broken, would give rise to the course of action we are talking about.

Earl Howe Portrait Earl Howe (Con)
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I am grateful to the noble Lord. I shall reflect on that point and write to him, if he will allow me to clarify the Government’s position in that way.

I have already set out how we envisage the tort will operate, so I will not repeat that. Suffice to say that, in the view of the Government, the statutory tort will provide an important legal backstop by giving individuals a specific right to bring a claim before the courts. This could include a number of people in different situations. For example, and purely by way of example, it could include students expelled from their course because of their views; organisers of an event that is cancelled, having incurred costs in the process; and a visiting speaker disinvited at the last minute, with the accompanying media furore and perhaps damage to feelings and reputation. There are other instances I could give. Noble Lords who wish to remove this clause need to be comfortable about removing a backstop provision that could offer a remedial route to certain individuals, such as those I have mentioned.

I hope I have been able to set out why we believe that this clause fulfils a duty that we surely owe to those who believe that their legal rights in this area have been infringed.

Lord Collins of Highbury Portrait Lord Collins of Highbury (Lab)
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A number of noble Lords referred to the chilling effect and the Minister did not really cover that point. He keeps talking about this being a backstop, but if its effect is to prevent the invitations and stop the debate, what does he think about that chilling effect? It has completely the opposite effect to what he has been speaking about.

Earl Howe Portrait Earl Howe (Con)
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The point the noble Lord, Lord Collins, makes goes hand in hand with the point that I would like to reflect upon. The issue raised by a number of noble Lords was the sequence of events: whether the Bill should make clearer that the complaints process should have first been exhausted before a recourse to the courts is made. So if I may I will consider the noble Lords “chilling effect” point in that context, as well as in the context of the overall clause, and write to noble Lords accordingly.

Lord Macdonald of River Glaven Portrait Lord Macdonald of River Glaven (CB)
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My Lords, perhaps I might ask the Minister to consider this. He mentioned earlier in his remarks that the question of pressure groups was not really relevant because they would not be an entity to which a duty of care was owed. The problem with pressure groups is their willingness to fund litigation on the part of other people: I think that is the relevance. Would the Minister care to reflect on that?

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Earl Howe Portrait Earl Howe (Con)
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I take that point absolutely. I was not seeking to say that someone well funded by a pressure group could not, in certain circumstances, have recourse to the courts. It was simply a point made about pressure groups in themselves.

Lord Etherton Portrait Lord Etherton (CB)
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I am very grateful to the Minister for dealing with the range of issues that have arisen. So far as my own amendment is concerned—as I have made clear in the past—it is very poor drafting to leave out major provisions that should be going into the Bill and leave it to a statement of the Minister at the Dispatch Box or to be found in the course of reading the Explanatory Notes. I do think my amendment should be put into a proper form in the Bill itself, if necessary by a government amendment.

If, as I think the Minister referenced, it is envisaged that the courts will be able to give remedies other than compensation, again, that is a very important consideration. I would want to consider very carefully whether it is appropriate for the courts to have to find a suitable remedy other than damages in a particular case, so I would very much welcome an appropriate amendment that we could all see if this provision is to remain in the Bill. Subject to that—and I am very happy to have meetings with the Minister to discuss these matters—I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.

Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill Debate

Full Debate: Read Full Debate
Department: Leader of the House

Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill

Earl Howe Excerpts
Lord Collins of Highbury Portrait Lord Collins of Highbury (Lab)
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I will be very brief. There is a danger of this debate widening out too far. In Committee, I advocated to the Minister the UNESCO definition of academic freedom. Of course, there is always that confusion between academic freedom and freedom of speech. I was assured by the Minister in Committee, so I was satisfied with what the Government were saying. I hear what the noble Lord says about quality, but standards of teaching and research are a very important element of our universities; we should not forget that. We should not promote one argument and then undermine the very thing that our universities are very popular for globally. We do not support this amendment. We agreed with what the Minister said before and I look forward to his response today.

Earl Howe Portrait Earl Howe (Con)
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My Lords, as we have heard, the amendments in this group relate to the important issue of academic freedom. I turn first to Amendment 4, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Fox of Buckley, which seeks to amend the definition of academic freedom set out in new Section A1 to make it explicit that academics can voice opinions about the institutions where they work, without fear of adverse consequences.

In responding to a similar amendment tabled in Committee by my noble friend Lord Strathcarron, to which the noble Baroness also put her name, I clarified, as the noble Lord, Lord Collins, kindly mentioned, that the definition of academic freedom as currently drafted already covers the questioning and testing of received wisdom, and the putting forward of new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions. This speech is not limited to particular subjects, so it would include speech concerning the institute at which an academic works. The Bill will therefore already protect the freedom of academics to put forward opinions about the curriculum content adopted by their provider or third-party organisations with which the provider is affiliated.

As the noble Baroness highlighted, there is a reference in the explanatory statement to the UNESCO recommendation. It may be helpful for me to put on record that the Bill as drafted protects academics in a number of the ways listed in that recommendation. Specifically, it protects the rights to freedom of teaching and discussion; freedom in carrying out research, and disseminating and publishing the results thereof; freedom to express freely their opinion about the institution or system in which they work, as I have already said; and freedom from institutional censorship. However, the Bill does not cover conduct which is not speech, such as the act of affiliating with or joining an organisation.

The noble Baroness also referred to the 2015 case of Kharlamov v Russia, and I can confirm the essential features of the case that she set out. Mr Kharlamov was a physics professor who said during a conference that he was unhappy with the nominations process for candidates to the academic senate. The university sued him for defamation. The European Court of Human Rights in due course found in his favour on the basis that the Russian courts failed to fairly balance the relevant interests and establish a pressing social need for protecting the university’s reputation over the claimant’s freedom of expression. I hope that, in the light of what I have said, noble Lords are reassured that this amendment is not in fact needed.

Amendment 5 tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, seeks to probe the workability, as he put it, of new Section A1(7)(b) in Clause 1. Taken at face value, it would amend the definition of academic freedom so that it would no longer specify that an academic should not be put at risk of a reduced likelihood of their securing promotion or different jobs at the provider. I realise that it is a probe. It is correct that this provision is not included in the existing legislative definition of academic freedom in the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 and the Education Reform Act 1988. However, we want to be clear in the Bill that academic staff should be protected in as expansive a way as possible—so not only from losing their job or privileges, but from being less likely to secure promotion or a different job at the provider. If we do not specify that these are also covered, there may be only partial protection. A person might not be fired but might be held back in their career, by not being promoted or given another role at the provider because of something they have said.

As I mentioned, the noble Lord wants to know how this provision will work in practice. An academic will of course need some evidence to support a complaint that they have been wrongly held back because of their views. They may have been told by a colleague the reason why they have not been promoted. There may be notes from an interview that suggest why this is the case. There may be an email which makes this clear. In the face of such evidence, the question will then be whether the provider has failed to comply with its duties under the Bill. I note the noble Lord’s point about the OfS guidance and I will ensure that the OfS also does so. This is the way that evidence in employment law is often presented. It is not new, nor is the concept of protection from not being promoted, since that can be a matter leading to constructive dismissal, which has been a feature of employment law for some time.

I hope that this explanation reassures the noble Lord that this is an important aspect of academic freedom in the context of freedom of speech, and that he agrees that the provision will protect academic staff to the fullest extent.

Baroness Fox of Buckley Portrait Baroness Fox of Buckley (Non-Afl)
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I really appreciated the comments of noble Lords in this short debate. I want to stress a couple of things. This is not about the rights and wrongs of any particular examples I gave; it is perfectly legitimate if people want to support decolonisation or critical race theory, for example, but the point is that it is not imposed. I am also concerned about an ideological conformity that stifles the sort of professional exchanges that the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, was advocating.

I was bemused when the noble Lord suggested that I was almost stuck in some social science nightmare. As the noble Lord, Lord Patten, pointed out, it is precisely the fact that this has now been extended into the hard sciences that may wake up even the noble Lord, Lord Saltaire, to the problems, as perhaps he should look quite closely at the decolonisation of physics, computing or mathematics. The noble Lord, Lord Patten, was right when he said, “Why does everybody not just leave the QAA?” In many instances during the discussions in this House, people talk as though we all run colleges. The problem is, if you are an academic in a college where the college vice-chancellor or principal does not resign from the QAA but rather likes it or cites it, what do they do? I hope everybody tears up their QAA membership because of this, but what if they do not?

The noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, really explained what is at stake here. I was avoiding mentioning Stonewall but, in a way, that is what got me interested in this very thing. It has become compelled speech for individual academics who are told that because of the institutional values that the university has signed up to—for example, around the compulsory use of pronouns and/or a particular attitude to biological sex versus trans identity rights, and so on—if you do not agree, you are open to being accused of bigotry and sent on mandated courses. I was not joking; individual members who criticised the music decolonisation were indeed put under huge pressure by people at the university to go along with this. I said “the university” but I do not always understand the institutions and it is fair enough if the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, wants to correct me.

I will finish with this point. I mentioned the Architects Registration Board. We are in a situation whereby a statutory body that the Government are involved in says that all architecture academics must teach all levels of architecture the realities of the ecological crisis. That is a national curriculum by the back door. It is a difficulty that has to be recognised. I want to take the reassurance of the Minister, who said, “Don’t worry, it’s all taken care of”, but, as the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, explained, references to and uses of these international examples can only strengthen the message, with which the Minister seems to agree, about the legal obligations on university management not to allow these kinds of things to get in the way of academic freedoms. It would be a great reassurance to individual academics to know that this is what the Bill wants to do and to see it spell it out. What harm could it do?

Although I will withdraw my amendment at this point, I do not want the Minister to become complacent. This is a really big, serious contemporary issue that must be taken on board by the Government—indeed, whoever is in government.

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Moved by
7: Clause 1, page 2, line 36, leave out from “speech” to end of line 38 and insert “are to the freedom to impart ideas, opinions or information (referred to in Article 10(1) of the Convention as it has effect for the purposes of the Human Rights Act 1998) by means of speech, writing or images (including in electronic form);”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment proposes a new definition of “freedom of speech” referring to the European Convention on Human Rights, as it has effect for the purposes of the Human Rights Act 1998.
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Moved by
9: Clause 1, page 2, line 38, at end insert—
““member”, in relation to a registered higher education provider, does not include a person who is a member of the provider solely because of having been a student of the provider;”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment excludes those who are members of the provider, solely due to having been a student of the provider, from being a “member” of the provider for the purposes of Part A1 of the Higher Education and Research Act 2017.
Earl Howe Portrait Earl Howe (Con)
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My Lords, government Amendments 9, 12 and 31 are officially classed as “minor and technical” although I would not want to downplay their significance. They will clarify that the term “members” in the Bill does not include a person who is a member solely because of having once been a student of a provider or constituent institution. The term “members” is intended to include those who are not technically staff but are closely involved in university life, in particular members of the governing councils of universities and retired academics who are emeritus professors.

However, the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, tabled amendments in Grand Committee with the intention of probing the meaning of “members” in the Bill; the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, spoke on his behalf. During the debate, several noble Lords expressed concern at the use of the term “without qualification”, as some registered providers and colleges treat their students as members for life. After the debate, my officials looked into the matter and confirmed that this is the position in the case of, for example, the University of Cambridge.

As a result, the Government have tabled these amendments to clarify that alumni of providers and colleges are not covered by the Bill. It is not our intention that providers and colleges should have duties that extend so widely, even to people who have no current relationship with them other than as ex-students. I should make it clear that, if a current student’s freedom of speech is wrongly interfered with, they may still make a complaint even after they have left university. These amendments do not affect that. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, and the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, for initiating in Grand Committee the discussion that brought this issue to light; I hope the House will agree that these amendments are necessary.

Amendment 24, as tabled by the Government, will distinguish between new functions imposed on the Office for Students by the Bill. It will amend the power in new Section 69A(2), in Clause 5, so that it refers to “how to support” freedom of speech and academic freedom, rather than “the promotion” of these values.

My noble friend Lord Willetts tabled some amendments to Section 69A in Grand Committee. When my officials considered these, it came to light that the wording of this provision might cause some confusion. This is because it refers to

“the promotion of freedom of speech and academic freedom”.

That wording replicates Section 35 of the Higher Education and Research Act 2017, which provides that the OfS may

“identify good practice relating to the promotion of equality of opportunity, and … give advice about such practice to registered higher education providers”.

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Lord Grabiner Portrait Lord Grabiner (CB)
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My Lords, I have just a very brief point. I welcome, in particular, the amendments brought by the Government in relation to the meaning of the word “member” in this context. That is an extremely sensible development in the drafting of the Bill. All that I would say is that, certainly in Cambridge, there is not simply an adoption of the assumption that alums are known as members, but that fact is frequently recorded in the statutes of the particular college. It may well be worth reflecting this amendment in the code of practice in due course, so that there can be absolute clarity that the Bill makes this important distinction between what the college statute may say and what the legislation says.

Earl Howe Portrait Earl Howe (Con)
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My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Grabiner. I think that is an extremely helpful suggestion which I will ensure is duly noted.

Amendment 9 agreed.
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Moved by
13: Clause 3, page 4, line 41, leave out “, beliefs or views” and insert “or opinions”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment is consequential on the Minister’s proposed new definition of “freedom of speech” (see the amendment to Clause 1, page 2, line 36 in the Minister’s name).
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Moved by
17: Clause 4, page 6, line 22, after “A1” insert “that causes the person to sustain loss”
Member’s explanatory statement
This ensures that only persons who have sustained loss can bring civil proceedings under the new section A7 inserted into the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 by the Bill.
Earl Howe Portrait Earl Howe (Con)
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My Lords, the Government have tabled Amendments 17, 18 and 19 in response to an amendment tabled in Grand Committee by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Etherton. These amendments make clear on the face of the Bill what we have maintained is already the case: only a person who has suffered a loss as a result of a breach of the specified duties can bring a claim before the courts. This is not limited to pecuniary loss and could include damage to reputation, for example. I am happy that we can make that clear.

Amendment 20, tabled by the Government, provides that claimants must first have exhausted the complaint procedure of the OfS or the OIA before they can bring proceedings under new Section A7. Both Policy Exchange and the Russell Group have called for an amendment along these lines as a considered and proportionate response. This amendment will mean that a complaint on the same subject must have been made to either complaint scheme, and that a decision must have been made under the scheme on the extent to which the complaint was justified.

If a complaint fails because, for example, it is brought out of time under the rules of the complaint scheme, then the complainant will not be able to bring a civil claim. It is useful to note that the OIA has a deadline of 12 months, so the OfS may have something similar. We think that this outcome is right. Equally, if the OfS or OIA dismisses a complaint without considering its merits because it considers it frivolous or vexatious, as they are entitled to do, the complainant would also not be able to bring a civil claim under new Section A7.

However, I should be clear that, if the complainant is unhappy with a decision of the OfS or OIA which means that they would be unable to bring a claim under new Section A7, then judicial review will be available for them to challenge it. The purpose of Amendment 20 is to make clear what we have always said: the tort will operate as a backstop, since we did not anticipate that many complainants would pursue legal proceedings rather than the free-to-use complaint schemes.

I am therefore happy to make this clear in the Bill on the basis that it will alleviate concerns raised by several noble Lords that the statutory tort will burden universities with dealing with unmeritorious and costly claims, as well as potentially undermine the OfS as a regulator and operator of the new complaints scheme. This point has been made by the noble Lord, Lord Grabiner. On this latter point, I should say that the OfS will undoubtedly welcome case law from the courts, since it will help going forward on its decision-making and formulation of guidance.

I will say more when I sum up. I hope that noble Lords will see these amendments as helpful and as a useful response to the debates we had in Grand Committee. I beg to move.

Lord Grabiner Portrait Lord Grabiner (CB)
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My Lords, I thank the noble Earl the Minister and the Minister the noble Baroness, Lady Barran, for the explanations that they have provided in the House, in correspondence and at meetings that we have had. That said, I am afraid that I am still firmly against Clause 4 and believe that the Bill would be improved if it were deleted.

I will not repeat the points I made in Committee, but I summarise my concerns by reference to the Minister’s closing remarks on day 3 in Committee on 14 November, in Hansard cols. 725-30, and the government amendment now before us. My starting position, unlike that of some noble Lords, is that I am in favour of the introduction of the new duties to be imposed on universities, colleges and student unions. The Minister has given many examples of absolutely unacceptable behaviours designed to undermine speech freedom. In short, I agree with the Government that, in light of the developing experience, it is now necessary—unhappily—to enshrine freedom of lawful speech in primary legislation.

We have two very experienced regulators in our higher education system: the Office for Students and the Office of the Independent Adjudicator—the OfS and the OIA. In my view, these new duties should be enforced only by the expert regulators. This would be a natural and logical extension of their regulatory powers and they would bring to bear their specialist expertise in this clearly defined area of educational activity. It is also the case that these regulators are subject to judicial review in the courts. Thus, if the decision-making regulator takes into account irrelevant matters, or fails to take account of relevant ones, or is plainly wrong in law, the complaining party can apply for judicial review. If it is necessary to have what the Minister calls a “backstop”, the judicial review mechanism fits the bill precisely. Given the regulatory and higher education context, I do not believe it is necessary, still less is it desirable, to make express provision giving a civil law cause of action in tort which would enable the claimant to pursue a claim in court against the university, the college or the student union, as the case may be.

In the debates that we have had thus far, it seems to me that three issues have emerged which, taken together, strongly suggest that Clause 4 should be deleted from this Bill. First, I and other noble Lords believe that Clause 4 would be an open invitation to ill-motivated trouble-makers—if the social media is taken at face value, there are plenty of them out there. The trouble-makers would inevitably wish to use the very public platform provided by this new access to the courtroom to advance their own ideological stance.

Secondly, we know that universities and student unions are very poorly funded. We should not be subjecting them to the risk of unnecessary and expensive litigation. That is especially the case when we have an established regulatory structure in the sector.

Thirdly—this point has been made in particular by the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald of River Glaven, but also by other noble Lords—the fact that Clause 4 exists will have a chilling effect on the academic sector. Instead of our universities being places where debate and challenge should constantly thrive, decision-making, for example as to who should be invited to speak and on what subjects, will be inhibited. On the first day in Committee, the noble Earl the Minister pointed out, correctly in my view, that

“there is no right to a platform”.—[Official Report, 31/10/22; col. GC 36.]

That is an important point. It is obvious that college authorities and student unions will bear it well in mind. They will inevitably err on the side of caution and rather anticipate and avoid any risk of Clause 4 litigation simply by not inviting speakers who are or may be perceived to be controversial.

This would produce the very opposite of what is intended by the Bill: lawful freedom of speech will have been denied and we will never know the details. I wonder how many universities, colleges or student unions would invite JK Rowling to speak if Clause 4 were in force. My guess is that they would not invite her. That is a shocking fact and is precisely the result we would wish to avoid.

Ministers have separately sought to justify Clause 4, and I will address the points that have been made on the new government amendment before us. It is said that, in practice, there is nothing in my first issue—the ill-motivated claims point. It is accepted that such claims will be made, but it is said that they will be thrown out peremptorily and that the costs incurred by the university or student union would be recovered from the vexatious claimant. This is pure assertion and speculation. It would not be difficult to formulate a plausible argument that the court would be reluctant to halt at the embryonic stage. Also, if you win, it is never easy to recover your costs: the claimant is likely to be elusive and probably penniless, and the process of seeking recovery is time-consuming and expensive. Why would the Government think it appropriate to subject our universities and student unions to any of this legalism?

Next—this is said to be a key point—the Minister repeatedly describes the new tort as a necessary “backstop measure”. The new amendment takes account of some of the criticisms made in Committee on the Bill as originally drafted. If left as it is, there would concurrently be in place the regulatory procedures as well as the new civil law cause of action, without any rules as to priority or the relationship between the two. The new amendment requires that mediation at the college level and all regulatory procedures should be exhausted before a claimant can use Clause 4. I agree that that clarifies matters, but unfortunately it still leaves us with Clause 4.

The argument now relied on by the Government, off the back of the new amendment, is that the individual claimant should be able to claim damages in court for loss, which could not be done in judicial review proceedings—it is correct that an individual cannot recover damages in a judicial review case. This is interesting, but noble Lords should realise that this represents a significant change of tack by the Government, because the Bill as drafted made no reference at all to losses or compensation. The new amendment gives no definition of loss—it might encompass hurt feelings and financial loss, such as wasted travel expenses and matters of that kind—but it is obvious that we are talking about very small amounts of money.

How do you measure, in financial terms, the damage done to someone whose freedom of lawful speech has been undermined? A judge is not entitled to pick a figure out of the air; there must be a rational explanation for the amount of damages awarded. In my view, there is no substance in the argument that the complainant needs a damages remedy; he, she or it will not be able to prove any serious financial loss. In any event, I suspect that, in the mind of the complainant, damages would not be a top priority; it is more likely that the remedy of a declaration, perhaps coupled with an injunction, would be the aim.

Professor Kathleen Stock has been referred to in relation to other amendments, but I should mention her in this context, in case it is suggested that she is a good example of why Clause 4 is necessary. I have every sympathy for Professor Stock, and I am certain that everyone here also does. From what is publicly known of the case, it looks as though she was treated very badly indeed by her employer, the University of Sussex, and, it seems, by some academic colleagues who should have known better. That said, she could have sued her employers for breach of her employment contract, but, for whatever reason, she chose not to. In the circumstances, Clause 4 would not have improved Professor Stock’s position.

My concern is that Clause 4 will be used by mischief-makers, whereas our real focus in this House should be the effectiveness of the regulatory function in ensuring that these new and important duties are understood, respected and properly enforced. In my view, the supposed financial protection of the individual claimant is a distraction and a sideshow. I believe the Bill would be greatly improved if Clause 4 were deleted.

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Lord Collins of Highbury Portrait Lord Collins of Highbury (Lab)
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My Lords, I have a confession to make: when I spoke at Second Reading, I expressed the opinion that this Bill was not necessary. However, during the process of Committee and the dialogue and discussions that I have had with many noble Lords—by the way, I have no interest as a university leader to declare—I was persuaded that there is an issue to address.

My experience as a trade union official over many years is that, when you want to change behaviour and culture, you do not do it through the courts. You do it through the very mechanism that the Bill proposes: improved and strengthened regulation, and a strengthened code of practice. That is what the Bill attempts to do and I have been convinced that it is necessary from hearing the arguments and all the cases and evidence given. This is not a binary choice: I now accept that the Bill is necessary. However, in my opinion, keeping Clause 4 would undermine the very thing the Bill is seeking to achieve. If you support the Bill, get rid of Clause 4, because it would undermine the very thing we are seeking.

Our approach, throughout Committee and Report, has been not to make this a partisan or party-political issue. We have heard the debate and listened, and I have accepted the need for the Bill. That is why I signed the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Willetts. I expect and hope to divide the House, because this clause needs to go.

Earl Howe Portrait Earl Howe (Con)
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My Lords, I begin by expressing my thanks to noble and noble and learned Lords from all Benches of the House for their thoughtful and helpful contributions to this debate, all of which I listened to with great attention. I think it would be helpful to the House if I begin my response by considering the tort in the round, before turning to the amendments tabled to this clause, bearing in mind the nature of the debate in Grand Committee and the subsequent, helpful discussions that my noble friend Lady Barran and I had with a number of noble and noble and learned Lords outside the Chamber.

The tort has undoubtedly been one of the most controversial measures in the Bill. A number of noble Lords have spoken today to express their opposition to its inclusion in the Bill. However, other noble Lords strongly support the inclusion of the clause. My noble friends Lord Moylan, Lord Frost, Lord Strathcarron, Lord Jackson of Peterborough and Lord Farmer, and the noble Lord, Lord Moore of Etchingham, have written to me setting out compelling arguments for retaining the tort, some of which we have heard today. Many of the arguments have been echoed by the Free Speech Union in a letter to the Secretary of State for Education signed by 49 leading academics, among them, incidentally, Professor Kathleen Stock. Perhaps I might say in that context that I reject the view expressed by my noble friend Lord Moylan that the government amendments, to which I spoke earlier, somehow water down or weaken the tort provision. They address the concerns expressed about the perceived risk of the OfS’s role as a regulator being undermined and of unmeritorious claims burdening universities with unnecessary costs. I am sorry that no noble Lord acknowledged that the government amendments would deal with those perceived risks, in my view, pretty comprehensively.

We are dealing here with a mixture of arguments. Part of the argument advanced for removing the tort is that it is unnecessary and that there are somehow other measures available to achieve the same thing. I think the best place for me to start would be to address that issue. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, suggested in Grand Committee that there would be a common-law tort available, even if the statutory tort was not in the Bill, and that view has been supported by other noble Lords. The Government have looked carefully at that proposition, but we are not convinced that that position is sufficiently legally certain, and for that reason it is not something on which we would wish to rely. I believe that opinion is divided even among noble and learned Lords on the issue.

The purpose of including the tort in the Bill at introduction was to make it 100% clear that a tort will be available, rather than leaving it to the courts to infer whether or not Parliament intended there to be a tort, which in certain cases, they may do. To leave the situation uncertain when we have the opportunity to be absolutely clear would be remiss of us.

The noble Lord, Lord Grabiner, made the point that the tort is not necessary because judicial review is available, whether of a decision by the higher education provider or a decision under the complaints scheme of the Office for Students or the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education. However, judicial review is not available against decisions of a student union, and damages are generally not awarded in judicial review claims. I am afraid I do not accept his argument that damages would never be quantifiable in such cases. Of course, let us bear in mind—

Lord Grabiner Portrait Lord Grabiner (CB)
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I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. With respect, I did not say that they would not be quantifiable. My point was that there would be difficulty in quantifying the figure but in any event, in my view, for what is worth, the figure that you would arrive at would be peanuts, or not much more. That is why I could not really understand the significance of the argument that the reason for the tort was to protect the financial position of a complaining party.

Earl Howe Portrait Earl Howe (Con)
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I am grateful to the noble Lord. It is not the only reason for the tort, as I shall go on to explain. I was going to say that we need to bear in mind that under a judicial review the court would consider standard judicial review grounds, such as a failure to take relevant considerations into account, rather than the substantive issue of whether reasonably practicable steps were taken.

Equally, it has been argued that the tort is not necessary because a claimant could bring a claim for a breach of Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. However, again, this would not be available in relation to student unions because they are not public authorities, and the test for whether damages may be awarded is not an easy one to satisfy. Again, the court would consider whether there had been a breach of Article 10, rather than of the duties under the Bill.

In Grand Committee the noble and learned Lord, Lord Etherton, suggested that we should specify in the Bill what remedies are available in a tort claim. I come back to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Grabiner, a moment ago, which was a helpful intervention because it highlighted the potential role that court proceedings could have in particular cases. The Government’s intention is that damages should be available to compensate the claimant for the loss they have suffered. We can argue about whether the damages are nugatory or more substantial.

There may be situations in which an injunction is appropriate, for example if a student is expelled from their course and so the court orders the provider to offer them a place on the course for the following year. Other remedies may be suitable in some cases, in addition to these—perhaps a declaration. Our view is that where a claimant does not believe that they have been fairly dealt with by the OfS or the OIA, we should leave it to the courts to determine what is appropriate in an individual case.

Various noble Lords have raised concerns that the tort will create a chilling effect, dissuading higher education providers, colleges and student unions from inviting controversial speakers to campus because of fear of litigation. My noble friend Lord Willetts raised this concern; I understand him to believe that the availability of the tort may cause students or academic staff to self-censor over fears of being labelled a controversial speaker or lecturer.

To say that the Government are not convinced by these arguments is an understatement. The stronger counterargument appears to us to be that the Bill as a totality, including the tort and codes of practice, will create a stronger regime that will encourage providers to make sure they are getting their decisions right and will encourage a change of culture across our campuses. That regime and change of culture will deter providers from the notion of simply not inviting controversial speakers and will give greater protection to academic staff to speak out.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood, expressed a concern that has been raised with me in other contexts outside the Chamber—that the OfS complaints scheme will simply take too long to reach a decision. I am glad he raised that point, and I hope I can reassure noble Lords on that score. The OfS will consult on the scheme rules and will publish clear expectations on timetables. It will be held to account on its efficiency and the effectiveness of the scheme by its board and by the Government.

As a possible exemplar, the OIA says of its complaints scheme that it commits to normally sending a complaint outcome within 90 days of receiving all the necessary information. It also says that where a party needs a case to be reviewed particularly quickly, it can request that it be prioritised. Some cases may take six months to review overall, by the time all the information has been gathered, but others may take much less time, depending on the complexity. It is worth noting in this context that the limitation period for bringing a civil claim is six years, so there is little risk of missing that deadline if this approach is taken. I hope that explanation gives some comfort to those who are concerned that a complaint may go into some sort of black hole and not come out again for years and years.

I want to cover another issue that was raised in the context of government Amendment 20, so that it is understood. We do not consider that this amendment would prevent a person seeking an interim or emergency injunction in the courts. Such an injunction would be sought in a case where the claimant wants to prevent a future breach of the specified freedom of speech duties, rather than where a breach has actually occurred—in other words, where there is the threat of a breach. In that case, an individual would not be able to complain to the OfS or the OIA under either scheme, as there has been no breach yet. Accordingly, the requirement to have first exhausted a complaint scheme would not apply and the claimant could in principle go straight to the courts.

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Moved by
18: Clause 4, page 6, line 25, after “A1” insert “that causes the person to sustain loss”
Member’s explanatory statement
This ensures that only persons who have sustained loss can bring civil proceedings under the new section A7 inserted into the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 by the Bill.
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Lord Collins of Highbury Portrait Lord Collins of Highbury (Lab)
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My Lords, my noble friend Lord Sikka knows the Labour Front Bench’s position on his amendment, because I wrote to him about it. He knows that we are very sympathetic to the issues and, like the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, believe that they need to be addressed. Certainly, over the years, all Governments have been focused on sufficient funding of research, through different mechanisms, such as the Medical Research Council and the Economic and Social Research Council—all these bodies through which we have attempted to ensure that research is open and transparent.

One of the problems that my noble friend is seeking to address is the sort of research when somebody decides to ask a question, hoping they know what the answer will be, and those tend to be funders, whether from business or industry. They are seeking a particular outcome and, if they invest in that research and the outcome is not the one they want, of course they will not publish. The noble Baroness, Lady Fox, focused on charities. I keep harping on about my own experience in the trade union movement, but I must admit that we certainly funded research in the hope that it would support our case for greater workers’ rights and higher pay. It did not always come out the way we wanted and we were sometimes not particularly keen to publish it. We did not prevent the academic from expressing the view and certainly did not stop them from publishing it themselves, but we were not necessarily going to promote it.

The Bill is about freedom of speech—we have had a long debate about it. When it comes to academic freedom and research, there are much more complex questions that should not really be dealt with in the Bill. I am fully sympathetic to some of the arguments that my noble friend Lord Sikka made, but this is not the right Bill, and certainly these amendments are not the right ones.

Earl Howe Portrait Earl Howe (Con)
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My Lords, Amendment 23 tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Sikka, seeks to ensure that the provision of grant funding for research does not interfere with the academic’s freedom to edit and publish their research. The only exceptions would be if there was a confidentiality agreement between those giving and receiving the grant made in advance or if a court finds that full publication would threaten national security, public safety or health.

The noble Lord is of course right to be concerned about the provision of grant funding for academic research and, as he acknowledged, we discussed this issue in Grand Committee, although perhaps not conclusively. The approach in the Bill is to place duties on registered higher education providers, their constituent colleges and student unions. I have to say that it goes too far to place duties on others, such as those who give grant funding, and I am also not at all comfortable with the idea of interfering in the private contractual arrangements between parties, which would be the effect of this amendment.

If an academic wishes to seek grant funding, it is for them to agree with the other party what contractual arrangements should apply. That is in fact reflected in proposed new subsection (3)(b) of the noble Lord’s amendment and reflects the Haldane principle: that decisions on individual research proposals are best taken by researchers themselves through peer review—a principle enshrined in the Higher Education and Research Act 2017.

However, in my view it would go too far to require legal proceedings to determine whether full publication of research would threaten national security, public safety or health. First, those are extremely limited reasons, which I appreciate is the noble Lord’s aim, but there may well be other legitimate reasons why the grantor would not want full publication. Secondly, this would potentially open the door to costly and time-consuming litigation. I fear that this may have a chilling effect on grant funding if it deters grantors, which is obviously not desirable; it may also affect the academic, as a potential party to the litigation, who is likely not to have the means to fund their part in it. It does not seem to me that the involvement of the courts in such a matter is appropriate.

Noble Lords have suggested that there is a lacuna as regards transparency in the domestic funding of higher education. I hope that I can allay that concern very simply. The Higher Education Statistics Agency collects data about research grants and contracts, which is publicly available. The OfS collects data that it needs to support its functions, including ensuring that providers are financially sustainable, and publishes this through annual reporting.

Given those points, I hope that noble Lords will agree that this amendment is not necessary.

Lord Sikka Portrait Lord Sikka (Lab)
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I am grateful to the Minister and all the other participants in this debate for the vital points that they have made. This amendment is not about sources of funding. It is about the ability to disseminate research findings when the funder decides that the outcomes are not what they were looking for but are of vital interest to other stakeholders. It is when those findings are suppressed that I am really concerned about. I gave an example from my personal experience but, if you met academics on the conference circuit, many of them would tell you similar kinds of stories. That issue remains, and I do not see anything in the Bill to address it.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, for his comments but I do not think that this is an issue of codes of practice. Codes of practice cannot bridge asymmetric power relationships. The more powerful are going to define the codes of ethics; they do not give anybody any enforcement rights. You cannot go to a court and say, “I want to enforce a code of conduct”, because no law of any kind has been breached. There are issues around adjudication and enforcement. Before long, we will come back to the need for a legal framework.

I am also not convinced by the argument that it is up to the institutions. What can universities do? They are hungry for external money, and will persuade and pressurise academics to get it. Beyond that, they are not really interested in how the academic negotiates publication. They cannot deal with that. Then the academic is left on his or her own versus what the funder desires. Academics may well have spent a long time on their research but they will have nothing whatever to show in terms of any publications, dissemination or conference presentations. They are left on their own versus a very powerful provider of research. The Bill does not do much on this issue either.

The Minister said that this amendment could have a chilling effect on research grants. I do not see how. Let us say that two parties want to negotiate on some blue-sky thinking, develop some new technology to manufacture engines or whatever, and want to consult an academic. If it is agreed that this kind of research would be confidential, that is fine. Nobody is interfering with that. The point is about what your research findings show. For example, imagine somebody is looking at the effects of living in poor housing and suddenly discovers that a two year-old child is breathing mould and is therefore likely to be disabled for the rest of his life. What should they do? Should they be quiet? At the moment, they can be silenced by the landlord. I am giving people freedom. I am saying that they should have the freedom to communicate that living in those kinds of housing conditions is damaging and can kill people. However, the response I am getting from both Front Benches is, “We can’t have that”. That is unacceptable. People reading this debate will see that it is unreasonable. How will we eradicate the conditions that I have just described for people living in poor housing? I have not heard anything in this debate to offer me any comfort on this point.

Nevertheless, I am grateful to noble Lords. Since both Front Benches are opposed to my amendment, or at least do not fully support it, I have no choice but to withdraw for the time being. However, as and when an opportunity arises, I shall return on this issue.

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Moved by
24: Clause 5, page 7, line 12, leave out “the promotion of” and insert “how to support”
Member’s explanatory statement
This clarifies that the new function conferred on the OfS enabling it to identify good practice in freedom of speech matters and to give advice about such practice is not directed at giving guidance to providers about how to discharge their new duty to promote the importance of freedom of speech.

Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill Debate

Full Debate: Read Full Debate
Department: Leader of the House

Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill

Earl Howe Excerpts
10A: Because they consider civil proceedings to be an important means of obtaining a remedy for breach of duties imposed by the Bill.
Earl Howe Portrait Earl Howe (Con)
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My Lords, I am pleased to be back again to debate the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill. I must express my thanks once again for the time and thought your Lordships have given to this legislation. Members of the other place were particularly happy to see the amendment banning the misuse of non-disclosure agreements in cases of sexual abuse, harassment or misconduct, or other bullying or harassment, as proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Collins of Highbury. I am grateful to him for tabling this amendment as a very positive addition to the Bill.

As your Lordships know, the tort has been by far the most contentious issue during the passage of the Bill, but the Government remain firm that it is vital for it to be included. I recognise that the decision of the other place to reinstate the tort as it was originally drafted, without amendment—including the government amendments that were tabled in this House on Report—has been of concern to noble Lords. I am very aware of the strength of feeling in this House regarding the tort clause. I have spoken to many noble Lords individually and listened carefully to the points raised during debate. Ministers have also had useful discussions since the Bill returned to the other place last month and have given further consideration to what form the tort should take.

Before turning to the amendment to the Government’s Motion tabled by my noble friend Lord Willetts, I shall set out once more the Government’s rationale for the tort’s inclusion and offer clarity on issues raised in recent ministerial engagement with noble Lords. I believe that the possibility of bringing legal proceedings is critical. We have said many times in this Chamber that, where issues cannot be solved satisfactorily by other routes, there should be an option to go to court. It is right that cases can be brought, and the court has a range of remedies at its disposal to achieve redress where it is concluded that that is appropriate.

The tort is a crucial part of the package of measures brought forward by the Bill to strengthen the law that protects freedom of speech, with a robust enforcement mechanism as a solid foundation for the new duties. Indeed, it is the view of some in this House and indeed of numerous academics and other stakeholders that, if the tort were removed, the Bill would not have the necessary force to bring about the cultural and behavioural shift necessary to prevent further erosion of freedom of speech on campus.

However, I also want to be clear that including the tort in the Bill will not create a free-for-all with cases being brought to court without due consideration. Indeed, we expect the use of the tort to be relatively rare, as indeed do those stakeholders who strongly support its inclusion in the Bill. The vast majority of complaints will be successfully handled by providers themselves, through the free-to-use Office for Students complaints scheme or via the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education. Examples of where the tort may be used include where complainants feel that their complaint has not been resolved by the OfS or OIA to their satisfaction. In addition, it will be useful in the rare cases where a provider fails to comply with a recommendation made by the OfS or OIA.

There has been a suggestion that the inclusion of the tort will undermine the position of the OfS, but in fact the Bill will give the OfS new wide-ranging powers to investigate when higher education providers, colleges and student unions have breached their freedom of speech duties. It creates the role of director for freedom of speech and academic freedom, who will oversee the new free speech functions of the OfS. The tort is intended to complement those new powers, providing a backstop mechanism on the rare occasions when it is needed. We expect that the courts will generally be slow to overrule the OfS, as the expert in the sector, and the OfS will find any court rulings helpful in developing guidance and considering future cases.

Some noble Lords have expressed concern about the potential implications of the tort for student unions, which they think will not have the wherewithal, including the financial resources, to defend themselves against threatened legal proceedings. It is of course true that by bringing student unions within scope of the Bill, and by giving them new duties, they will become liable for breaches, but what is reasonably practicable for a small student union will not be the same as what is reasonably practicable for a large provider, an issue that the OfS and the courts will have at the forefront of their considerations. Examples of what is reasonably practicable include maintaining a code of practice, having a room-booking policy that covers freedom of speech appropriately and providing training to those who have a relevant role.

Other noble Lords have expressed concerns about student societies, a matter on which I believe I can also offer reassurance. As I have said, student unions will have a duty to take reasonably practicable steps to secure freedom of speech. Importantly, student societies will not themselves be subject to the duties in the Bill. However, those who run societies will be subject to the codes of practice published by their provider, college or student union. A failure to comply could result in disciplinary measures.

Similarly, if a student society is affiliated to a student union, those who run it will need to comply with the student union’s rules. Therefore, if a society is holding an event on student union premises, the student union’s room booking policies will apply, as well as the code of practice. Measures should be in place to ensure the society is aware of the rules that apply and that action can be taken if these rules are broken.

This point is crucial: a complainant would have no course of action against individual students or a student society. Although they may consider whether they are able to bring a complaint against a student union, the burden of proof will be on them to show that the student union has breached its duty to take reasonably practicable steps.

I also wish to address the point that some noble Lords have raised about the potential for the tort to create a paradoxical chilling effect, with providers, colleges and student unions avoiding holding controversial speaker events for fear of litigation. I want to be clear: the best way to avoid litigation will be not to cancel events but to take reasonably practicable steps to ensure that events can take place. There are provisions in the Bill that are intended to encourage a culture change on our university campuses, including a duty on providers and colleges to promote the importance of freedom of speech. A blanket policy of vetting all invitations and deliberately avoiding inviting any controversial speaker could itself constitute a breach of the duties under the Bill.

Finally, I turn to the amendment to the Government’s Motion, tabled by my noble friend Lord Willetts, which replicates amendments tabled by the Government on Report in the Lords. This House, carrying out its important constitutional function, opted to send a clear message to the other place that it should think again regarding the tort provisions. The other place, having thought again, has returned an equally clear message to this House as to the strength of its feeling that the tort should remain in the Bill. I note that, to emphasise that, it was willing to reinsert it without the government amendments tabled on Report in the Lords. In the light of that strong view, I hope the House will acknowledge that action by the other place and instead seek consensus on an outcome that rightly recognises that the tort should be retained but with some sensible amendments to clarify and reassure in relation to the implementation of the regime.

Indeed, I thank my noble friend Lord Willetts for his pragmatic engagement on this issue, particularly in his acknowledgement that the tort has a role to play in the new statutory regime. The Government take the view of the House seriously and therefore support this amendment to the Motion, assuming that it is moved, and I hope that other noble Lords will do so as well.

The amendments provide an opportunity to give clarity about how the tort will operate in practice. Our intention has always been that the tort should be used as a last resort, with the majority of complainants likely to rely on the free-to-use complaints schemes. Similarly, only those who have suffered loss should be able to bring a claim.

When the Government tabled those amendments back in November 2022, four months ago, the prevailing view from the sector and stakeholders was that they offered a good compromise. However, since then the issue has grown in importance, and controversy about the application of the tort has sharpened. It is only right that I share with noble Lords the concerns expressed to Ministers since this issue was last debated in this House, particularly from those the Bill is most designed to protect. In conversations with academics, we have heard serious concern that their freedom of speech is being quietly curtailed.

Given the strength of feeling from those who are genuinely concerned that their jobs are on the line and academic freedom is under attack, I have to be clear with noble Lords that this concern may well be reflected in a move in the other place to amend the Bill still further. I cannot presume to encroach on conversations or proceedings in the other place, but in that event it is only right that I commit the Government further to explore possible opportunities to achieve consensus in the Commons stages. I am therefore content to say that the Government support these amendments. But given that those academics are at the forefront of our minds, I am conscious that this matter may not yet be finally settled, should your Lordships agree to my noble friend’s amendments.

I hope that, alongside the assurances I have given today, noble Lords are persuaded that the tort is a vital legal mechanism that is necessary if we are to ensure that our world-class universities are the home of plural debate. I beg to move.

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Baroness Fox of Buckley Portrait Baroness Fox of Buckley (Non-Afl)
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To clarify, as I stated earlier—this really is important—I do not have a right to a platform and I do not care if people disagree with me. I do not mind if students invite me and then disinvite me. All I care about is if students are bullied into disinviting me. It is for the students that I made the speech, not for myself. Who cares about my feelings? They are of no relevance.

My point is that many academics and students have looked to this Bill and the amendment. The noble Lord, Lord Triesman, has talked to people who want the compromise. I have talked to people who think it is a fudge. Let Parliament decide—fair enough—but I do not think anyone can claim they have spoken to all the academics, and this is the only answer. I think that this is a cop out.

Earl Howe Portrait Earl Howe (Con)
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My Lords, I just say to the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, that strictly speaking there should not be any interventions at this stage of the Bill.

Lord Triesman Portrait Lord Triesman (Lab)
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Because we are not having that kind of iterative debate, I will refrain from making the point that I am not saying that I spoke only to academics who took the same view I might take. I am just saying that if you speak to academics, you will hear as many views as the number of academics you speak to; that is in the nature of the business.

I welcome the process we have gone through because it has alerted people to a very significant problem. A few days ago in your Lordships’ House, I heard somebody say that trigger warnings were now being attached to reading lists of some of the great classics from the English oeuvre. I was just about to embark on a re-reading of Northanger Abbey. If anybody has any advice for me about dangerous pages that I should avoid, I should be extremely grateful to hear it, because I would hate suddenly to find my entire spiritual underpinnings removed while reading Jane Austen.

This debate will leave a legacy. It will make everybody more attentive to the risks to free speech and academic freedom, and I am not at all sad that we have gone through the process if that is the outcome.

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Earl Howe Portrait Earl Howe (Con)
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My Lords, there is little more for me to say, other than to thank noble Lords for their contributions to this debate and for the way in which, amid many doubts and hesitations, Members of the House have been willing to look for compromise and common ground on what I know has proved a difficult set of issues.

I thank in particular the noble Lord, Lord Grabiner, especially for his positive comments and remarks on the role of the regulator, as well as my noble friend Lord Lucas, the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, and, for his words about the need for us all to look for consensus, the noble Lord, Lord Collins.

I simply say to the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, that I too instinctively fight shy of the suggestion that Governments should unduly interfere with the workings of our universities. However, some of his remarks suggested to me that he does not accept that there is a serious problem to be addressed. If that is his view, I believe that he is in a minority in this House.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire Portrait Lord Wallace of Saltaire (LD)
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I think we have a large social problem, which has been partly raised by social media, in the intolerance of the young as a whole and cancel culture. It stretches across our society and we have to deal with it, but it is not purely a problem for universities, nor is it thoroughly based in universities—and it certainly does not result from indoctrination by left-wing staff.

Earl Howe Portrait Earl Howe (Con)
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I am grateful to the noble Lord, but I think we all agree that universities, par excellence, are places that should be safe spaces for freedom of speech, as my noble friend Lord Willetts said, whatever may happen outside the confines of the campus.

As to the timing of the coming into force of the Bill, I can tell the noble Lord that it will not be before the start of the next academic year. The Government need to consult on the regulations and indeed draft them, which will take a little time.

I simply cannot agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, that my noble friend Lord Willetts’s amendments represent a fudge—in other words, a watering down of the tort or a “soft tort”, as my noble friend Lord Moylan put it. With respect to my noble friend, I utterly disagree with him that the amendments send a signal, or any semblance of a signal, to the other place or the world that the Government are not serious about protecting freedom of speech in our universities. The idea of watering down, I suggest, is more theoretical than real.

As I said earlier, the vast majority of complaints will be successfully handled and dealt with without any need to go to court. However, where a complainant believes that that has not happened, they will still have the option of going to court. In other words, the amendments from my noble friend Lord Willetts underscore what we think will happen anyway.

I hope that Members of another place will come round to that view and that both Houses of Parliament will reach the endpoint that Ministers and the Government have felt it their duty to try to achieve, which is consensus.