Grand Committee

Wednesday 2nd November 2022

(1 year, 7 months ago)

Grand Committee
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Wednesday 2 November 2022

Arrangement of Business

Wednesday 2nd November 2022

(1 year, 7 months ago)

Grand Committee
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text
Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Duncan of Springbank) (Con)
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My Lords, if there is a Division in the Chamber while we are sitting, this Committee will adjourn as soon as the Division Bells ring and resume after 10 minutes.

Committee (2nd Day)
Relevant document: 3rd Report from the Constitution Committee
Clause 1: Duties of registered higher education providers
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

Lord Sandhurst Portrait Lord Sandhurst (Con)
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My Lords, I am grateful for the Minister’s observations. I listened to his assurances and the issues he raised with interest. I would like to consider them carefully before Report. For now, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 12 withdrawn.
Amendments 13 to 28 not moved.
Amendment 29
Moved by
29: Clause 1, page 3, line 13, at end insert—
“(ca) an explanation of how to guarantee freedom of speech while fulfilling the provider’s duty of care for all students, academics and staff,”
Lord Mann Portrait Lord Mann (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, in moving Amendment 29 I shall speak to the three amendments in my name; they are identical in wording and impact but are in different parts of the Bill. I do so having personally met, on this related issue, the majority of university vice-chancellors across the United Kingdom over the past two years in advance of the Government’s decision, made by the then Education Secretary, to write to universities asking them to adopt the internationally recognised definition of anti-Semitism and build it into their workings. I have been delivering on that successfully across the vast majority of universities across the UK; that work continues.

I want to highlight some examples of why a duty of care is an essential element of strengthening free speech, not as a balance but as an addition. The principle behind it is very straightforward. I referenced the international definition of anti-Semitism because the argument falsely put by a number of people against it was that it aimed to restrict academic freedom and what people said, particularly in relation to Israel. That is factually and practically untrue. There are no examples of where that has happened. It is neither designed nor written to do so. The reason I have needed to meet so many vice-chancellors, and others at the top of universities, is to ensure that they understand what it means and what it does not mean so that they can apply it appropriately, and so strengthen freedom of speech.

If I may, I will give a couple of examples of where the duty of care comes into its own. A famous filmmaker and political activist, Mr Kenneth Loach, was invited to speak at his old college, St Peter’s College, Oxford. A number of the Jewish students in the college were unhappy at Mr Loach’s previous commentary in relation to the Jewish community. That was their perception and, using traditional student language, they suggested that he was not welcome in their college.

There was a complication, as this was during Covid. What normally would have happened is that Mr Loach would have appeared, and there would have been a noisy protest to signify to him that he was not welcome by a number of the students because of what he had said, and he then would have spoken and life would have moved on. Here, because it was online, the university failed to find a way for those students to register the protest that would have happened in real life. This illustrates brilliantly that one person in that situation had free speech and others objected, but what they required, and are entitled to, was the ability to have their speech; that might have been through a protest—very traditional in student environments—or a countermeeting, but they have an equal entitlement to free speech.

Take that instance as an example. What might a university do now? If that meeting had been timetabled for a Friday night, it would have inhibited the ability of any religiously observant Jewish student to participate in a protest or countermeeting, and so their freedom of speech would have been inhibited by the timing. If the meeting had been located in St Peter’s, that would have been neutral territory, but if it was located, say, next to the Jewish chaplaincy, there would have been an increased aggravation on behalf of those Jewish students, and the protest would perhaps have been wider and stronger. That might suggest that Mr Loach’s freedom of speech, which was not in itself being challenged, would be an impingement if the location of the meeting had been somewhere that was seen to be hostile to a section of the community—in this case, the Jewish students. The publicity for the meeting was “Ken Loach speaks on whatever”, but if it had included swastikas on the head of the Prime Minister of Israel or on the Israeli flag, there would have been an increased incentive for people to shout loudly in protest and demand that he did not speak.

All of that would fall into the category of a sensible duty of care to those students, so that their ability to have their freedom is equal to that of someone who they regard as a controversial speaker—not to restrict the content of what Mr Loach would say, to break up the meeting or to prohibit his right to speak or someone’s ability to invite him. That is an example from before this Bill came forward, but one whereby, if the principles of the Bill are got right, then two sides in an argument can have equal freedom of speech. They may not all be 100% happy but everyone can have their say.

I will give another, more vivid example. I will not give too much detail but it is a real example. Let us say that a convicted terrorist is allowed into the country. I have the ability to go to the Home Secretary—and I have occasionally done so—to say that this person should not be allowed in because they are a threat. If they are allowed into the country, by definition—even if they have served a prison sentence as a convicted terrorist—they are able to speak, including at one of our universities. What happens if a student at that university is the cousin of one of the people murdered by the group of which the individual who is about to speak was a member when the terrorist outrage took place? So we have a student, in this case a Jewish student, whose cousin was murdered, and a member of the group convicted and imprisoned for that offence—with no argument or ambiguity about that—is speaking. Here, the Jewish student demanded that this convicted terrorist not be allowed to speak.

I have argued, previous to this Bill and now, that freedom of speech is absolute; the person is allowed to speak. But there is clearly a duty of care on a university when you have at least one student extremely distraught, for rational reasons, about somebody who was involved in the murder of their cousin speaking in their university. That is not to say that we should ban, stop or restrict, but we must make sure that that student also feels empowered in the situation—perhaps they want to be part of a protest or have a countermeeting. They may need other welfare support in that context. That strengthens freedom of speech; it does not contradict or balance it. This is not a balancing act—it is about everyone having the right to freedom of speech.

I will give a milder example. In the last week I met the vice-chancellor of a university, one of whose very good policies—I will not embarrass or praise them, however you judge it, by naming it—is that all of its academics have been told that it is unacceptable to use the term “Tory scum” in their lectures. It is being directed at government Ministers primarily, whom they clearly oppose on various grounds. One can envisage what might be going on there. The reason this has been done by that vice-chancellor, with due regard to great and wonderful government Ministers, is not the sensitivity of government Ministers but the result of going through the process of thinking through the duty of care. If you were an 18 year-old Conservative-supporting student in that lecture, perhaps in your first term at university, you might be listening to lecturers calling one of your favourite Ministers “Tory scum”.

That is a milder example, but it shows rather good practice. If one wants to put an argument against the Government, turning to abuse to do so is not very effective. It becomes a weaker argument. The student in that position perhaps thinks—I am not making a political point—that there are not masses of Conservative students in solidarity with each other, certainly not in their first year, in certain courses at certain universities. The likelihood is one Conservative-supporting individual among a cohort who they might think are not—who might be delighted at such language and want stronger. But their rights to be empowered are equal. A simple duty of care there does not restrict free speech but improves it.

I will give a final example. A lecturer makes a controversial speech and then, as is very common, there is an immediate external pile-on. The same thing happened to the Jewish students I mentioned in regard to Mr Kenneth Loach. They protested; they were not trying to block him but some of the language used—“We don’t want him in our university”—implied that they were. That was not what they were trying to do, but they got some horrendous anti-Semitic abuse, almost exclusively from people outside the university, because they had dared to challenge Mr Loach.

In this case, a lecturer made a speech which did not appear that controversial when I read it but was deemed so by some. There was a huge email pile-on against the university, attacking that lecturer. The university did not, shall we say, handle it very well. Again, there is a duty of care to the individual. It is one thing to have the right in law to freedom of speech, but the consequences of the speech can be that some people are greatly distressed by the content, or that the speaker is then targeted and needs some support.

Some people—politicians in particular—can thrive in the adversity of debate, but others are more normal human beings. If they are getting abused by thousands of people, or thousands of people are demanding their sacking because they have said something, their reaction will be different. This is not a case in the public domain but one that I am very familiar with; I am happy to give the Minister private detail on it if he wishes. I could go on to give lots of other examples but this is sufficient to make my point.

Again, on not balancing but strengthening freedom of speech, I put it to the Minister that a duty of care would require universities to think through the consequences. Nothing could be clearer than the cousin of someone murdered—that is a factual statement—allowing free speech: that is, not restricting speech but ensuring that they have the opportunity also to have a say somewhere, not in contradiction but as well. They are empowered from within that situation by their own university. If it is an 18 year-old student versus an experienced political hack or social commentator, there is an imbalance of power there. I strongly advise government that this strengthens the freedom of speech legislation. It does not balance it and it absolutely does not weaken it.
Baroness Falkner of Margravine Portrait Baroness Falkner of Margravine (CB)
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My Lords, first, I want to refer to the remarks of the Minister to clarify something; I have not had the opportunity to look at Hansard immediately since he spoke on the previous group of amendments. I think I said on Monday that I was speaking in a personal capacity. The Minister has put on the record that I chair the Equality and Human Rights Commission. However, I was not speaking as the chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, but in a personal capacity.

The reason this is important is because I have taken advice from the Registrar of Lords’ Interests. As the commission’s powers in terms of protected characteristics are so wide, I would be able to say almost nothing were I to adhere to his advice that I should not speak on anything where the EHRC has a policy. For the rest of this debate, to put that correction on the record, I would like to make it clear that I will speak only as chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission when I specifically say so in my opening remarks, and I will always tell the Committee that I am speaking in a personal capacity when I so do.

I would like to speak in a personal capacity to warn the Grand Committee to be extremely careful about the amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Mann, which seems on the face of it to be perfectly reasonable. We do not need to be concerned about his perfectly valid and good intentions, but his peroration has made one extremely concerned about what he would expect to happen through that amendment. The noble Lord referred to the fact that the opponents of a speaker have an equal right to protest or drown out what is being said. He says that their right to be empowered is equal.

Lord Mann Portrait Lord Mann (Non-Afl)
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I am absolutely categorical that the drowning out and breaking up of a meeting would not be acceptable in a democracy, but the right to have a counter-speech or a protest is a fundamental part of democracy.

Baroness Falkner of Margravine Portrait Baroness Falkner of Margravine (CB)
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I think the noble Lord does not quite appreciate how qualified Article 10 rights are under the European convention. It clarifies:

“The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society”.

It goes on to say that those rights can also be circumscribed

“for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others”.

The point here is that they are qualified. The judgment of qualifying those rights, and making decisions about when the qualifications will apply, should rightly lie with the provider and not necessarily be set out in legislation.

The noble Lord referred to the duty of care to students. Of course there is a duty of care to students, but providers have been delivering those duties of care to students, academics and staff throughout this period. There is no evidence to say that they are not capable of doing that, so we can move forward with the Bill.

As I said on Monday, my personal view is that, although the Bill is significant and important in setting out more clearly the importance of differing opinions and viewpoints, the danger we run here is of it leading to so many changes that it actually succeeds in suppressing speech. No one has a right not to be offended. We are in danger of conflating that right not to be offended with safeguarding rights or hurt or distress, which is where we might go were we to pursue this amendment.

Lord Grabiner Portrait Lord Grabiner (CB)
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My Lords, I will be brief. In his remarks, the noble Lord, Lord Mann, gave some extremely significant examples. Some very bad stories are no doubt out there but, with great respect, might it not be more appropriate for such matters to be dealt with in the code of practice rather than in primary legislation? It seems much more sensible to deal with this by way of advice to, for example, university institutions.

Lord Moylan Portrait Lord Moylan (Con)
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My Lords, I take great pleasure in speaking immediately after the noble Lord, Lord Mann, and other noble Lords who have spoken on this topic. I am delighted that my Amendment 35 has been grouped with this interesting debate but I will be taking the discussion in a slightly different direction, which explains my hesitation at leaping in at this point. None the less, I am on my feet and will speak to Amendment 35 in my name, which is in this group.

At least some of us who were in Committee on Monday began to wonder how much this Bill would achieve by way of change, both culturally and in practice. I say that by way of introduction to my remarks on the amendment because I am coming to the question of how the Equality Act is interpreted in connection with the duty, which already exists under the 1986 Act, on universities to protect freedom of speech and freedom of expression. I remind the Committee that, under the Equality Act, all public bodies have a broad duty to

“eliminate discrimination, harassment, victimisation and any other conduct that is prohibited by or under this Act … advance equality of opportunity between persons who share a relevant protected characteristic and persons who do not share it … foster good relations between persons who share a relevant protected characteristic and persons who do not share it.”

The 1986 Act, as I say, has the obligation to protect and advance free speech but, in recent years, we have found that the Equality Act obligation is frequently being interpreted by universities as a reason to take steps to impose their views on equality, diversity and inclusion both on students and in public events. We have seen, for example, gender-critical feminists being turned away precisely because universities have interpreted their presence as contrary to their own public sector duty under the Equality Act.

Amendment 35 does not excuse universities from their public sector/public body duty under the Equality Act—they remain required to fulfil that broad duty. But it does insert a university-specific balancing requirement that requires universities also to have regard to free speech in interpreting this duty. This is a balancing amendment that ensures that potentially contradictory public law duties do not clash with one another. It is for that reason that I advance it but, to be honest, if we do not see something like this happening at various points in the Bill, it is hard to see how current practice and culture will change at all. With that in mind, I recommend Amendment 35; I hope that the Minister will be able to give wholehearted agreement.

Lord Smith of Finsbury Portrait Lord Smith of Finsbury (Non-Afl)
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Might I ask a question of the noble Lord? He spoke about how he was anxious to have the duties under the Equality Act and the duties under freedom of speech promotion sitting alongside each other, but his amendment refers to having

“particular regard to the duty”

of freedom of speech. Does that mean that the duty of freedom of speech would overtake the duties under the Equality Act instead of sitting beside them?

Lord Moylan Portrait Lord Moylan (Con)
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My Lords, that is not the intention. The use of “particular” arises because universities, both as universities and as public bodies more generally, have a range of obligations under the law. All the wording is intended to do here is to say that that particular obligation needs to be taken into account because this Bill relates to freedom of speech in academic bodies. It is not intended to give priority; it is intended to draw attention to, and have particular regard to, that matter.

In natural language—this is of course legalistic language, to some extent—one would say “to have regard particularly to that as among the other obligations that universities have”, but this is how it is expressed in legal language. I assure the noble Lord that the intention is not to trump one over the other but to require a balancing of these existing obligations and put that requirement in the Bill. At the moment, although it might be said that they both exist and it is for universities to balance them, universities are not balancing them in a way that satisfies the intentions of this Bill.

Baroness Fox of Buckley Portrait Baroness Fox of Buckley (Non-Afl)
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I will speak to Amendment 35, to which I have put my name; it relates to amending the Equality Act, as has just been discussed. I will also speak in support of Amendment 69 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Sandhurst, which would strengthen the academic freedom protections of the Prevent duty.

I start with Amendment 69 on Prevent. On Monday, a noble Lord—I think it was the Minister, the noble Earl, Lord Howe, but I cannot find it in Hansard so I cannot say; I wrote it down at the time—said that there is no place on campus

“for extremist views that masquerade as facts”.—[Official Report, 31/10/22; col. GC 21.]

I do not know who said that but somebody did, and it is quite a frequently said thing. I want to probe who the extremists are; indeed, I want to probe who the fact-checkers are in this instance.

During his first unsuccessful leadership bid, the present Prime Minister suggested an expanded definition of extremism to include anyone who hates Britain. It hit the headlines for a while, with people going around saying that there would be Prevent orders thrown at all sorts of people who might have been heavily critical of Britain or the UK. He backed off from it, but my point is that the whole concept of extremism has become so elastic and broadened that it has discredited whatever it was that Prevent was trying to do.

I have had a problem with the Prevent scheme since its inception. Such is the nature of today that, as this is recorded and in Hansard, I want to make it absolutely clear that this is not because I have any soft sympathies with Islamist terrorists of any nature; in fact, if anything, I think that the Government have been rather lackadaisical in not dealing with them more harshly. Putting that to one side, I was always worried about Prevent, particularly in an educational setting.

Prevent asked staff to monitor the behaviour and views of their students and look out for signs of whether they were extremists of a particular type. If you read the original Prevent duties, you will see that universities and prisons were discussed in very similar terms as dangerous breeding grounds for extremism. I ought to say that it is also the case, as is well noted, that while at university I was indeed an extremist—I think we can safely say that; some would say I have not grown out of it—but that is the problem with extremism. If we are talking about what Prevent was really about, which was the rise of Islamist and nihilistic terrorist activity—and there were undoubtedly people on university campuses who were sympathetic to that—then we all have an absolute interest in ensuring that that is dealt with.
However, because nobody wanted to be accused of being Islamophobic, Prevent ended up being a sort of diktat about extremism, and I am concerned that, as broadly applied, it has ended up arguing that students should be restricted in what they are able to think or say, or listen to and so on. This clashes with the idea of universities as institutions dedicated to truth and questioning. It certainly has made people very nervous about the kind of debates that they have. We know that it has been misused, as in the infamous and well-documented case of the postgraduate student who was caught up in Prevent when he was doing research for his PhD.
The Prevent duty—your Lordships will hear this very often—is used as an indication that there are double standards when it comes to free speech. Here are a Government saying that they want to encourage academic freedom and more open free speech on campus, and yet they have created and promoted the Prevent duty. When students ask if there are double standard here, I think they have a point.
More broadly, once free speech is presented as something which should be balanced with and traded off against security issues—that is, as a threat—in the way that Prevent does, then free speech loses its moral authority. We have seen this in the way that students’ attitudes have been shaped over recent years, not by themselves but by the way that we as a society have socialised them into seeing free speech as frightening; hence the demands for safe spaces and to be protected from dangerous speech. There is a sort of moral blackmail that says, “I can’t have that person speak on campus because it means I won’t feel safe”. This is the language that students who are more censorious use, and it is exactly what the Bill is trying to challenge. We have to look at this again.
It is one reason, by the way, why I am worried by the duty of care proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Mann. Again, I understand its intention, but I am absolutely with the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, on this one. The duty of care for students to be protected from harm was exactly the language used last week in saying that Helen Joyce, by speaking on her book, was a threat to students at Cambridge. I always find the harm, distress and duty of care argument problematic.
Finally, on Amendment 35, the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, explained the point about the Equality Act very well, but I think we all received the SOAS briefing on the Bill beforehand. It complains that the Bill requires universities to protect the speech of Holocaust deniers and others seeking to deliberately provoke or offend. It goes on to say that it directs universities to ignore equality law, which in effect is trumped by free speech. It argues that the Bill should be got rid of, because there is a real problem if the duty to ensure freedom of speech overrides the Equality Act.
The point I make, as I made on Monday, is that one of the difficulties is that the Equality Act has been used in a censorious fashion, often because it has been misinterpreted by university authorities. Informally, universities and student unions will say that they need to protect a group of students from harm, as provided for by the Equality Act, and so will ban X, Y or Z; it is frequently used in that way. Students with protected characteristics are dragged out as some kind of stage army, as though all women or all racial minorities have the same views. Those are some of the more dangerous aspects of identity politics.
It is always equality legislation that is used to clamp down on free speech. For me, that is abhorrent. As someone who has fought for equal rights and who wants diversity—diversity of opinion in particular—and to include as many people as possible in higher education, “diversity”, “equality” and “inclusion” are three words that I dread in the context of universities and many other institutions. These words are used to silence or often demonise other people who have different opinions. We have to be careful that equality legislation does not end up drowning out the good intentions of this Bill. If the free speech bit can be strengthened, that is all to the good.
Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Portrait Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle (GP)
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My Lords, I will speak to Amendment 69 from the noble Lord, Lord Sandhurst. The Committee will note the unusual situation, in which the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, and I have both signed the same amendment. That shows that there may be different ways of coming at this issue. My focus is very much on the independent evidence and the statistics about the impact that Prevent has had in universities.

I begin with the leading human rights group, Liberty, which says that the biggest threat to free speech in our higher education institutions comes from Prevent. To quote its director of advocacy:

“There is a substantial irony in the government spuriously accusing today’s students of threatening free speech when, in fact, the true threat to free speech on campus is the government’s own policies”.

The University and College Union briefing is useful to the entire Bill. It notes that

“Prevent has encouraged the policing of mainstream discussion of topics such as British foreign policy and Palestine”.

The Committee might ask how many events this affects. Figures from the Office for Students, from 2019, show that, in more than 300 higher education institutions in England, nearly 60,000 events and speakers were considered under the Prevent duty. Nearly 2,100 appeared only with conditions attached. We do not know how many proposed events and speakers did not even get to that stage because people were scared off by the idea of being tangled in Prevent—but that is 2,100 events.

If the Committee does not want to listen to those sources, perhaps it will look at the inquiry of the Joint Committee on Human Rights of the two Houses, which reported in 2018. I come back to comments I made on Monday about the direction, and indeed the existence, of this Bill. The Joint Committee said that this area relates to

“a small number of incidents which have been widely reported”.

I contrast this with the kinds of examples noble Lords have raised. Remember, it was the Joint Committee on Human Rights of both Houses that noted that Prevent was a significant “chilling” factor on free speech in universities. It said that there is “fear and confusion” surrounding the Prevent strategy.

I note also that research from SOAS academics found that Muslim students on campus were modifying their behaviour because of Prevent, for fear of being stigmatised, labelled as potentially extremist or subjected to discrimination on campus.

My position remains that this Bill is not necessary or productive. However, if we are to have it, it should surely contain Amendment 69, which addresses what a number of independent sources have identified as the most chilling source of restrictions on free speech on campus.

Lord Sandhurst Portrait Lord Sandhurst (Con)
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My Lords, I am grateful for the support that has already been given to Amendment 69 by the noble Baronesses. I can therefore deal with it quite quickly, just to explain what it does.

It would add a new provision to Section 31 of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act. The effect would be that the duty imposed under Section 26(1) of that Act, which I will explain in a moment, will not apply to any decision made by a provider, in effect, which directly concerns the content or delivery of curriculum, the provision of library or other teaching resources, or research carried out by academic staff.

The simple way to look at it is this. Section 26(1) of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act applies directly to a specified authority and imposes a duty to

“have … regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism”—

in other words, the Prevent duty. Section 31(2) provides that, when a specified authority—in other words, an academic institution—is carrying out that duty, it must have regard to the Prevent duty. Such an institution

“must have particular regard to the duty to ensure freedom of speech, if it is subject to that duty”


“must have particular regard to the importance of academic freedom”.

Amendment 69 would clarify what is to be encompassed in that on a more express basis by making it absolutely clear that, where the specified authority is directly concerned with content or delivery of curriculum, the provision of library and teaching resources, or research, the Prevent duty will not apply. That is all it does. It is very simple and clear, and it protects academic freedom. I think that is all I need to say in the light of the speeches that have been made.

Baroness Smith of Newnham Portrait Baroness Smith of Newnham (LD)
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My Lords, on this occasion I speak as myself—I do not think I have to go quite as far as the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner of Margravine, in saying that I speak as myself and not as a Cambridge academic. And I do not have to channel my noble friend Lord Wallace, because he did not give me any briefing notes for these amendments.

The amendments in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Mann, are potentially helpful but I assume that, as with any legislation, the Government are extremely unlikely to say, “That’s a really good amendment. We’ll just take it lock, stock and barrel and put it into the legislation”. That normally does not happen. Even if a Minister agrees in Committee that an amendment might have some validity and value, there is usually a reason why its wording or a particular idea in it would not be quite right. I therefore ask the Minister, in responding to the amendments, to respond instead to the sentiment of what the noble Lord, Lord Mann, is saying.

What is so important about the noble Lord’s three amendments is that they are asking for clarification and an explanation of how freedom of speech would be guaranteed. If this legislation is necessary—like the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, I am still not wholly persuaded that it is—and if we are going to have this legislation, then the least it could do is explain how the Government intend it to work. An explanation of how these freedoms can be guaranteed would be helpful. Whether that should be in the Bill or in a code of practice, as suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Grabiner, is something that can be discussed, but if the Minister could elaborate on that then it would be very helpful.
With regard to the other two amendments in this group, as the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, has pointed out, not all women necessarily think the same way. We do not necessarily all agree even on this legislation, and we are not necessarily going to agree on particular amendments. However, on Amendment 69 and the Prevent duty, as an academic, I have wondered whether that duty is necessarily fit for purpose.
I remember debating that in the Chamber when the legislation was passed in the first place and we tried to secure various amendments. As the noble Baroness pointed out, when the Prevent duty started off, a lot of it referred mainly to Islamist extremism, yet in the five years since the legislation was passed, we have seen other terrorist activity coming from the far right. I wonder whether the Minister feels that the Prevent duty is doing quite what is needed and whether certain amendments might not be beneficial in order to allow academic freedom to be expressed, but also whether we should not at some point think about the framing of the Prevent duty.
Lastly, on the amendment about the equality duty, I have some reservations and hesitations about the term “particular regard” in the framing of the amendment. Again, I ask the Minister—who corrected me on Monday when he suggested that I had talked too early about the question of how the proposed legislation links with other duties such as the Equality Act and the Prevent duty—if he could say at this stage how he envisages the different pieces of legislation interacting. Clearly there is a question of how academics or anyone else seeking to implement the proposed legislation will evaluate to what they should give most precedence. Is particular regard to the Equality Act something that is going to override the present legislation, or is this legislation going to take precedence? How should that be evaluated? While universities may have many lawyers, and there are clearly many lawyers in the Grand Committee, the people making the decisions on a day-to-day basis need legislation that is clear, and does not require people to have a whole set of manuals, in order to ensure that we have the academic freedom that everyone is seeking to ensure.
Lord Smith of Finsbury Portrait Lord Smith of Finsbury (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, I remind the Committee of my declaration of interest as master of Pembroke College, Cambridge, although I am of course speaking in an entirely personal capacity.

I have considerable sympathy with the amendments tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Mann. I fear some of the practical consequences of the amendments as exactly framed, but the principle behind them seems to be rather an important one. The Bill is all about ensuring that universities do what they ought to be doing, which is encouraging and facilitating freedom of speech, expression and ideas, while also encouraging the contesting and debating of those ideas. That is what an academic process has to be all about.

There is a danger in some of the advocacy for this Bill in assuming that only one kind of freedom of speech, rather than all kinds, is to be encouraged and facilitated. Ensuring that what we do here enshrines the principles of contest and debate alongside the principle of freedom of speech is rather important. I am not sure that the precise amendments of the noble Lord, Lord Mann, get us there but it is important that we find a way of doing so.

Turning to Amendment 35, as I indicated in my intervention in which the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, kindly allowed me to ask a question, I am worried about the phrase “have particular regard to” the freedom of speech duty. Universities have to take account of an array of different bits of legislation, such as the Equality Act and the Prevent duty, and their responsibilities as employers under employment law. Now, they also have duties under freedom of speech legislation. They need to find ways of balancing those duties. Putting into the Bill language implying that the freedom of speech duty should trump everything else in all circumstances seems to present us with a problem. It should not.

Baroness Fox of Buckley Portrait Baroness Fox of Buckley (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, I think the difficulty here—this goes back to our earlier discussions—is around what the purpose of a university is. The purpose of a university is not employment or fulfilling equality; it is the open pursuit of knowledge without any restraint to academic freedom. That is the purpose of a university. It should be a space distinct from somewhere else. Surely in some ways a greater privilege has to be given to academic freedom than to those other duties. What has happened is that this has become only one of the many different things that happen on campus so universities have forgotten that academic freedom is the core purpose of a university.

Lord Smith of Finsbury Portrait Lord Smith of Finsbury (Non-Afl)
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I think we are entering dangerous territory if we seek to argue that one bit of law is more important than another. Upholding the duties that are placed on a university generally is something that universities have to do. Giving universities the task of balancing the requirements placed on them under legislation is the way we ought to go.

Lord Moylan Portrait Lord Moylan (Con)
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I think the noble Lord slightly missed the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Fox of Buckley. She was not suggesting that there are various legal duties and one is more important than another; she was making an ontological point about what a university is. Freedom of expression and freedom of speech are built into the DNA of a university. This is not simply a matter of balancing legal obligations. The point she was making is that privileging it is absolutely appropriate because that is what universities are for.

I want to make a further point, if I may. I hear this quite a lot from those who object to taking this forward. Do noble Lords recognise that there is a problem? The noble Lord will have his own experience of academic life, although I appreciate that he is speaking in a personal capacity. The free speech protection duty was last expressed in statute in 1986. The difficulty is that, whereas in 1986 the universities saw it innately as their duty to protect freedom of speech, the years have moved on, and now the university authorities themselves are oppressing free speech—not in every case, of course, but it is tending in that direction. So the circumstances have changed, and the need for some sort of balancing is apparent to many of us but seems not to be to those who speak, to some extent, even if in a personal capacity, on behalf of the academic community. That surprises us.

Lord Smith of Finsbury Portrait Lord Smith of Finsbury (Non-Afl)
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I would not fundamentally disagree with either the noble Lord or the noble Baroness about the free exploration of ideas and knowledge being central to the purpose of a university; that is almost self-evident. However, we need to ensure when we are putting legislation through the House that we are not imposing impossibilities on the people who lead universities, making it very clear to universities, colleges and student unions that they have a responsibility to promote freedom of speech and a responsibility to promote respect for all students within their community, for example. That is a sensible approach to ensuring that the Bill achieves what we all might want it to achieve.

On Amendment 69, I have a lot of sympathy with clarifying the Prevent duty in the way that the amendment suggests. That might be a rather useful way of ensuring that Prevent becomes rather more sensible than perhaps it has tended to be over the last few years.

Baroness Falkner of Margravine Portrait Baroness Falkner of Margravine (CB)
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My Lords, I declare an interest as chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, as Amendment 35 specifically relates to the Equality Act 2010. I hope that my remarks will clarify the intentions of the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, as regards the Equality Act, because I have a great deal of sympathy with what he is attempting to do. I also have an enormous amount of sympathy with some of the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Finsbury, because, in a much more tangible way, they set out what some of the problems are.

I will speak very briefly. My first point is that the public sector equality duty is not specifically concerned with freedom of expression. Our assessment in the commission is that, although there may be some evidence —the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, is a strong one—that more recently this has become a tool used by universities to avoid their duties in terms of freedom of expression, nobody has mentioned that other part of the Equality Act and the public sector equality duty, which is the need to foster good relations between groups who share protected characteristics. Therefore, that duty—the need to foster good relations—allows those who wish to hide behind the public sector equality duty to use it that way. Universities sometimes tend to use the fostering good relations duty a bit too widely, but because it is not circumscribed and does not define what it means, they can so do.

We have guidance on freedom of expression for higher education providers and student unions across Britain. When a university considers whether to permit an event to take place, it must take account of all its statutory duties, as the noble Lord, Lord Smith, referred to. These include Section 43 of the Equality Act, Article 10 of the Human Rights Act, student unions’ obligations under charity law, and the Prevent duty, as well as the public sector equality duty. Balancing is therefore a necessary task that they must do. My sympathy with those institutions lies in the fact that, in every case, every decision will be different depending on the facts of the decision. In that sense, balancing will be a necessary exercise, irrespective of whether his amendment is accepted or not. Having “particular regard” nevertheless places it in a hierarchy.

My concluding comment is simply about that hierarchy. I understand why the noble Lord seeks this, but it would mean that the public sector equality duty would be different for higher education providers compared with other public bodies, which would create additional complexity. It would create a hierarchy. Other public bodies will be concerned with protecting Article 10 rights, and they would then require further amendments to the respective laws that govern them. Our guidance will, we hope, be superseded by the guidance produced by the Office for Students to accompany this Act when it comes into force. I hope that the guidance will clarify the “particular regard” that Amendment 35 seeks to add in.
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.

Given that that is already set out in the Bill, I do not believe that it would be necessary or appropriate to amend the Equality Act. The noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, was quite right in what she said: even if that were to happen, it would not change providers’ legal obligations as they would have to comply with and balance their duties. as they always have done. To pick up a point made by the noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord Grabiner, we anticipate that the Office for Students will issue guidance that will help providers to apply their duties in practice. The noble Lord, Lord Collins, spoke of his fears around unintended consequences but I think the OfS guidance has the potential to minimise those.
Amendment 69 from my noble friend Lord Sandhurst and other noble Lords seeks to amend the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 to ensure that higher education providers must not exercise the Prevent duty in relation to certain functions; the content or delivery of the curriculum; the provision of library or other teaching resources; and research carried out by academic stuff. The Government are clear that the Prevent duty should not be used to suppress freedom of speech; rather, it requires providers, when exercising their functions, to have due regard to the need to prevent people being drawn into terrorism. Importantly, there is no prescription from government or from the OfS regarding what action providers should take once they have had due regard.
The noble Baroness, Lady Fox, mentioned those with extremist views. That is an issue that I mentioned in relation to Holocaust denial, so I will not repeat what I said on Monday in that regard.
The legislation imposing the Prevent duty in relation to higher education specifically requires that providers and colleges must have particular regard to the duty to ensure freedom of speech and to the importance of academic freedom. For that reason, there really is no need for the amendment since freedom of speech and academic freedom are already taken into account when exercising the Prevent duty, alongside protecting student and staff welfare.
To address a point made by my noble friend Lord Sandhurst, it would not be right to go so far as to exclude the content of the curriculum, for example. If a professor wanted to teach in such a way that he could draw students into terrorism, that is something that the provider should consider having due regard to. I emphasise again that it is up to the provider what action then to take.
In conclusion, I hope I have reassured the Committee that the duties in the Bill have been carefully drafted to ensure that providers, their constituent institutions and student unions pay particular regard to the importance of free speech and academic freedom while retaining the flexibility, by virtue of the wording about steps being “reasonably practicable”, to balance the duty with their other obligations and responsibilities to students, staff and members.
Lord Mann Portrait Lord Mann (Non-Afl)
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I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 29 withdrawn.
Amendment 30 not moved.
Amendment 31
Moved by
31: Clause 1, page 3, leave out lines 32 to 36 and insert “have particular regard to the need to—
(a) eliminate unlawful interference with freedom of speech within the law and academic freedom,(b) promote and prioritise the particular importance of freedom of speech within the law,(c) promote and prioritise the academic freedom of academic staff of registered higher education providers and their constituent institutions, and(d) foster a culture of free thought and open-mindedness,sin all decision-making concerning the provision of higher education and in conducting and managing research activities.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment seeks to clarify the steps providers will need to take in order to promote freedom of speech and academic freedom.
Lord Moylan Portrait Lord Moylan (Con)
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My Lords, I rise to continue my minute and curious search for means by which the Bill might achieve some noticeable change. I notice I am grouped with an amendment from my noble friend Lord Willetts which appears to be there to ensure no such change is actually achieved in practice or cultural outcomes, so I think we are well matched. I will continue on this hunt for the prospect of change. In this case, I am not suggesting we amend any other legislation or duty, so noble Lords resistant to change will have to find different arguments to respond to me.

This amendment would amend not existing legislation but the text of the Bill. In new Section A3, the

“Duty to promote the importance of freedom of speech and academic freedom”

is defined in a manner which is pleasing to the Government. It simply says that it is there to promote

“freedom of speech within the law, and … academic freedom for academic staff of registered higher education providers … in the provision of higher education”.

This is insufficiently clear on which duty is being imposed on universities that does not exist already.

Amendment 31, which I have put forward, specifies what we expect universities to do as a result of the passage of the Bill into law. I will not read out everything it says, but it is there to

“eliminate unlawful interference with freedom of speech within the law and academic freedom … promote and prioritise the particular importance of freedom of speech … promote and prioritise the academic freedom of academic staff … and … foster a culture of free thought and”

open markets—sorry, “open-mindedness”. There is nothing wrong with promoting open markets either, but as it happens that is not the wording of this amendment. I am attempting to make clear what it is that we expect universities to do as a result of this duty to promote academic freedom, which the Government agree should exist but have defined in a manner which leaves the whole thing completely open.

There is an acid test to apply to this, which is the case of Dr Kathleen Stock. I do not know her, and I know nothing of her case that I have not read in public sources, so I am not making a special plea on her behalf. I am simply taking the story as emblematic. In her case, the university—I think it is fair to say—did not do some of the things it should have done to protect her and her rights. That could easily still be the case, especially with the amount of time that universities will have to spend on the astonishingly complex calibration of duties and obligations, which are apparently going to remain wholly unamended by this Bill. It has let her down.

The acid test is whether this clause would have protected a reputable academic from losing her post after expressing views which were objected to on essentially ideological grounds. My view is that, as drafted, it would not. The amendment I am moving would and I hope the Government will be able to explain why it should not be adopted when what they are doing is clearly not enough. I beg to move.

Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall Portrait The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall) (Lab)
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My Lords, I should notify the Committee that, if this amendment is agreed to, I will be unable to call Amendments 32 or 33 owing to pre-emption.

Lord Willetts Portrait Lord Willetts (Con)
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My Lords, perhaps this is the moment at which I might intervene on Amendments 33 and Amendments 54 to 56, which are in my name and that of the noble Lord, Lord Stevens. I declare my interests as a visiting professor at King’s College London, an honorary fellow of Nuffield College, Oxford, chancellor of the University of Leicester and a member of the board of UKRI.

I am going to rise to the challenge from my noble friend Lord Moylan. My understanding of the purpose of this Bill is to enhance the protection for freedom of speech in universities. That is an admirable objective and I support it. I have some doubts about the practical effects of this Bill, which this Committee is scrutinising, but the objective is the right one.

The evidence is clear—a point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, in the debate on Monday, which I sadly was not able to attend—that, recently, universities have become overpreoccupied by probably a mistaken interpretation of their equality duties and have put insufficient focus on freedom of speech. I personally think that debates such as the one we are having and the shift in attention to this is already beginning to improve things. It is right, therefore, to look at ways in which we might reinforce the provisions of the 1986 Act. This Bill undoubtedly does that, both by a tort provision and a regulatory provision. I personally think that trying to use both of those instruments is overdoing it, but the powers of the regulator, the OfS, on their own are considerable; they will change the balance.

Amendment 33 would make explicit that this protection for freedom of speech sits alongside other duties, such as those in Prevent and in equality legislation—and also, I may add, labour market protections. I was quite interested in the way that the Minister, in his interventions on Monday and earlier today, has focused so much on employment law and labour market protections. One reason why cancel culture will never be able to do quite as much damage to higher education in the UK as it has done in the US is, paradoxically, because of the different framework of labour market and employment protection that we have in this country. It is quite a challenge to those of us historically in favour of deregulating labour markets. This is a context in which employment protection actually works to protect freedom of speech.

In the debate on the previous group of amendments, the Minister put the point very well that there are other duties in other legislation and what this legislation does is to put an obligation on freedom of speech alongside those. In fact, the main purpose of Amendment 33, I can now see, is to put into primary legislation exactly what the Minister has already assured us of: that this obligation on freedom of speech goes alongside other obligations such as the equality duty or Prevent duty.

One can sense from our debate that there are temptations to go in different directions. One temptation is to say that these provisions for freedom of speech must override other legislation, or perhaps—though we have had less of this—be subservient to other legislation. I do not think that it is the intention of the Government that they should either override or be subservient; they are alongside. I suspect that, as the Committee continues, we will find that there are some people who see an opportunity to make this override equality legislation, some people who want it to override Prevent legislation, and a very small group who would like it to override both. I personally think that the wording in this amendment,

“having due regard for all other relevant legal duties”,

is the right way to make it clear that there is an intention for this to be alongside those other duties.

As to the effect that the other duties have, we heard an important intervention earlier that one problem is that there has been a misinterpretation of the equality duty. The problem is less the actual equality legislation and rather a misunderstanding of it. For me, the most illuminating case is the Akua Reindorf report on what happened at the University of Essex, which was shocking. It was made absolutely clear that what happened was based on misunderstandings of provisions in equality legislation, particularly, for example, that the protections are for gender reassignment, not gender identity. Similarly, the Prevent duty is another important framework of legislation, and we need to ensure that it is balanced with freedom of speech.

I believe that what I am saying is consistent with the Government’s intentions, but something follows from this. If we are indeed to make it clear to universities that they have to balance several different and potentially conflicting legal obligations, they are in a very tricky position. Here I come to the earlier intervention from the noble Lord, Lord Grabiner. It seems to me that they need practical guidance on how we expect them to reach these incredibly difficult decisions on a case-by-case basis.
The Minister referred in his intervention on the previous group of amendments to the guidance that will be issued by the regulator, but that is why Amendments 54 to 56, which I am proposing alongside the noble Lord, Lord Stevens, are so important. Again, they would give force to the assurances that the Minister has just given. The amendments make it absolutely clear that there should be a process of consultation in the development of this guidance, and that it should then be published. It avoids the danger of universities finding themselves being assessed by a regulator when they do not know the guidance which the regulator is using internally to assess what they are doing. I hope that the Minister would find this an obvious, common-sense requirement. There should be a consultation on this guidance and it should be published.
If I might assure my noble friend Lord Moylan, this surely should then satisfy his challenge to us about what is going to be different. The difference is that there will be a regulator with a power to intervene and a set of published guidance on how these tricky decisions should be conducted. That is a different regime from the one we face at the moment. It recognises that universities now face an amount of public scrutiny and assessment of the sort they did not used to have before.
I would love to be in a world where we quite simply trusted universities to exercise these fine judgments on their own. Sadly, rightly or wrongly, that world has gone. Given that we are entering this new world, transparency around what the guidance is, so that universities know where they stand, is a minimum requirement for the extra powers that this law would bring in.
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”


“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.

Lord Hope of Craighead Portrait Lord Hope of Craighead (CB)
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My Lords, I hesitate to intervene in this debate as I am not an academic. I look on the wording of the provisions in the Bill as a simple lawyer. For my part, I like the very simple wording of the existing provision in new Section A3. It is capable of accommodating changing circumstances and the various situations that academic institutions have to deal with.

The problem, with great respect to the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, is that he complicates that simple expression in new Section A3 with a serious of steps that are to be taken. I am not sure that anything he has said is inconsistent with what we find in new Section A3, but I would much rather keep it in the simple form that is already in the Bill without adding to the complication. To put it another way, the noble Lord, with great respect and with very good intention, is perhaps trying to do too much by expanding and trying to explain the duty already in new Section A3.

I do not object to the addition suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, but I do not think it is necessary as, if it is a relevant legal duty, it is already there to be performed; it does not need to be said. As a lawyer, I prefer simplicity—not all lawyers do—and I would like to keep it simple in the way it is already expressed in the Bill.

Baroness Smith of Newnham Portrait Baroness Smith of Newnham (LD)
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My Lords, from these Benches we have relatively little to add. I strongly support what the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, said on various issues, not least about academic excellence because it is not just about academic freedom. Part of the purpose of a university is about educating and engaging in debate, but we are also trying to ensure that the minds of students are being stimulated. It is not just about academic freedom but that is part of it. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, has said, Amendment 31 seems somewhat unnecessary. While on these Benches we support the amendments in the names of the noble Lords, Lord Willetts and Lord Stevens, if the Minister can persuade us that they are all implicit in the Bill and are not necessary, then perhaps they could not be moved.

Lord Willetts Portrait Lord Willetts (Con)
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Briefly, the debate we have just had shows why the amendments are necessary. They do not change the underlying framework of law but make explicit something which otherwise would just be implicit. There are benefits for universities and people participating in them by it being explicit.

Baroness Chakrabarti Portrait Baroness Chakrabarti (Lab)
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My Lords, I forgot to declare my interests as a visiting professor of practice at the LSE and in receipt of research services from a PhD student from King’s College London. To support the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, if this is becoming such a difficult area, it will be tempting for regulators that “may” issue guidance not to do so in a particular contentious area. We go down this road or we do not, to some extent. If there are rows between competing minority interests and around particular foreign policy issues, then if I were a regulator, it would be all too tempting to sit back. That has sometimes been the case in the past, whether with the police or regulators. That is in support of the rather tighter duty that the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, proposes to put on the regulator.

Baroness Thornton Portrait Baroness Thornton (Lab)
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My Lords, I am not going to say very much because this debate has covered most of the ground that we need to cover on how this issue should be decided. However, I always listen to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, very carefully. When he says that simplicity is best, that is probably right. We definitely find Amendments 33 and 54 to 56 the more attractive amendments. As my noble friend Lady Chakrabarti said, they are the common-sense amendments. I am more attracted to them than to Amendment 31 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Moylan.

This debate has shown, and I agree with those who have said so, that while the words in the noble Lord’s amendment are of course very laudable, actually it is the words that go in the Bill and create the law that are important. That is our job here in this House. It is certainly not our job to put words into legislation that might create more confusion and proclaim values at this stage. The Minister will probably tell us how the Government feel about that. My noble friend Lord Smith outlined in the earlier debate what a hard job the leaders of our universities have in balancing their duties and rights. That was amplified by the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, when he spoke to his amendment.

In reflecting on the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, I do not think that this amendment would have stopped what happened to Kathleen Stock. That was a failure of the leadership of her university to fulfil their duty of care to her and their need to promote free speech in their institution. This amendment would not have stopped that, because it is to do with how that university conducts itself.

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.

Given that, I do not think that the changes proposed by my noble friend are needed as this is not about advice on compliance with the new duties imposed on providers and colleges. This is a general provision about good practice, and as such, it is not necessary to make it a requirement rather than leaving it to the discretion of the OfS. I hope that that explanation reassures my noble friend and noble Lords as to how the provisions on the promotion of freedom of speech, and of the importance of freedom of speech, will operate.
Lord Moylan Portrait Lord Moylan (Con)
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My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken in this debate. I hope they will forgive me if, in the interests of time, I respond only to the comments made by my noble friend Lord Willetts.

First, I must congratulate him on his masterpiece of oratory whereby he implicated our noble friend the Minister in his view such that it would appear almost churlish, by the time the Minister came to respond, that he should disagree with my noble friend on almost any matter at all. I have much to learn from him in that regard.

However, I wish to turn to one point made by my noble friend Lord Willetts. It has struck me with increasing force because it builds on something said earlier by the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner of Margravine, and other noble Lords: that nothing will be changed by this Bill and all change will be achieved by the code of conduct. That seems to be the message; in fact, it was almost explicitly the message given by my noble friend. I have been in your Lordships’ House only a couple of years but the tendency I have seen here is to say that, where guidance of a binding character is to be issued, we should scrutinise it and set the terms for it. When it came to what the College of Policing is doing about non-crime hate incidents, it was a united view across the House that the guidance issued by the college should become statutory guidance precisely so that we could scrutinise it.

Here, however, we seem to be taking a completely reverse approach. Nothing must appear on the face of the Bill, and everything must be left to the guidance to be issued by the Office for Students. As far as I can tell—I am open to correction by noble Lords—this guidance is not to be the subject of parliamentary scrutiny nor issued through the “made affirmative” process as a statutory instrument. It is not to come to our attention in any way at all. We are simply abdicating all the guts of the Bill to the Office for Students in how it will apply. I simply say to my noble friend that I find this really rather strange. I am tempted to suggest to him that, if my amendments were reformulated not as obligations on universities but as obligations on the Office for Students to include those things in the guidance, his principled objection would fall away—or is he absolutely determined that the Office for Students should have a completely free hand, with no parliamentary scrutiny, in how this Bill will be implemented if it becomes an Act?

I raise that as a challenge to what I might call the forces of institutional conservatism, which range across the Room—those who wish to see nothing change. Are your Lordships really suggesting that change can be achieved only by abdicating our responsibilities to a relatively new public regulator?

Baroness Chakrabarti Portrait Baroness Chakrabarti (Lab)
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I congratulate the noble Lord, if I may—he congratulated his noble friend in what became an absolute tour de force of a response itself. I have huge sympathy for his general proposition that in this place we allow too much not to be in the statute book and delegate far too much to secondary legislation and even to guidance. It is often something that we do when we are giving overly broad powers and we have made a bit of a mess of the legislation—“Don’t worry, it’ll all be sorted out in guidance.” However, I have to say, in fairness—perhaps I have become part of the new forces of conservatism; that I am now considered a conservative will show you how much politics has moved to the right in this country—that there is a qualitative difference between coercive police powers and pedagogy and creating a culture of learning and inquiry in an academic establishment, which would be very hard to legislate for at the level of detail that I personally would like something such as police powers to be provided for. I have huge sympathy with the noble Lord’s general proposition that bad law leaves a lot of stuff to be dealt with later invisibly by guidance but I am not sure that the analogy with police powers and creating cultures in universities is quite comparable.

Lord Moylan Portrait Lord Moylan (Con)
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I have to say that I am sinking in sympathy on the general principle in this Committee, which is coming at me from every side. Nobody lacks sympathy with what I am saying—in general. It is only in the particular that they object to what might be put forward to practical effect—I am always open to the charge that I may have erred in drafting and may have got the wrong approach, and all that—but without substituting any particular proposal for the ones that they particularly find objectionable in my case. I agree that it is not a suitable parallel. Coercive police powers are not a suitable parallel with pedagogy—I picked it off the shelf—but they are perhaps a suitable parallel with somebody being driven out of their job because of particular views, because that too is a coercive act. If they are not defended from being driven out of their job, and we are simply saying that it will be dealt with by guidance and not in the Bill, what are we doing? They are skewered, because they now admit the need for change but they want it done by somebody else.

I now come to my noble friend the Minister, because I really must wrap up, and we have to move on.

Baroness Smith of Newnham Portrait Baroness Smith of Newnham (LD)
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My Lords, surely there is a difference between something that is appropriate as guidance, where right-minded people would think that guidance was appropriate, versus Henry VIII clauses, where Ministers are seeking to grant themselves sweeping powers over which there is no scrutiny. What we are saying here is not, “Let’s grant Henry VIII powers to a Secretary of State”, but rather that there are appropriate places for things, and on this occasion, guidance is the appropriate place.

Lord Moylan Portrait Lord Moylan (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is absolutely clear that of course there is a difference between guidance and Henry VIII powers but we are not in that field here. We are talking about what our contribution is as legislators and the fact that, on what we acknowledge to be tricky and difficult issues on which the public and leaders of universities would like to know our views, we are saying, “We aren’t going to agree on any of that. We’re going to give it to a body where we have no say and where there is no supervision for us at all, and we will trust them.” Frankly, it is a cop-out.

None the less, I am going to move to a close and thank my noble friend the Minister for the careful consideration that he gave to my amendment. I think that in some ways he is encouraging me to redraft it better for Report, as he pointed out its various flaws. He somewhat failed the acid test I set him of how his clause as currently drafted would deal with the situation of Professor Kathleen Stock. The noble Lord, Lord Grabiner, said that frankly it did not need to because existing provisions already do so and it was simply a failure of the university to apply them. If that is the Minister’s view, I think he should say so. Still, I am grateful to him because he gave very careful consideration to the amendment. With that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 31 withdrawn.
Amendment 32 not moved.
Amendment 33
Tabled by
33: Clause 1, page 3, line 36, at end insert “, having due regard for all other relevant legal duties”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment is to ensure – and make explicit – that the Bill does not impose duties on universities that are inconsistent with other legal duties that apply to them.
Lord Willetts Portrait Lord Willetts (Con)
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My Lords, I would like briefly to—

Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall Portrait The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall) (Lab)
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I should point out to the noble Lord that if he wishes to speak again on his amendment then I will have to put the amendment and it will be open to further debate. Of course, I do not seek to influence the noble Lord in any way.

Lord Willetts Portrait Lord Willetts (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I will resist. I shall not move the amendment, and I look forward to further exchanges.

Amendment 33 not moved.
Amendment 34
Moved by
34: Clause 1, page 3, line 36, at end insert—
A4 Duty to secure freedom of speech and academic freedom: funding and grantsThe governing body of a registered higher education provider must take reasonable steps to ensure that grants of funds by the provider for the purposes of academic research are not refused to—(a) any individual member or group of members of staff of the provider,(b) any member or group of members of the provider, or(c) any student or group of students of the provider,on the grounds, solely or inter alia, that such persons adhere to or propagate any particular lawfully-held principle or political opinion.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment prevents discrimination in the distribution of research funding by higher education providers based wholly or in part on the lawfully-held principles or political opinions of the potential recipient.
Lord Moylan Portrait Lord Moylan (Con)
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My Lords, I struggle on, looking for the prospect of meaningful change. In this case, unlike the previous groups—in one I was seeking to amend an existing statute, while in the last one I was merely seeking to amend the wording of the current Bill—I am motivated by a sense of a lacuna on reading the Bill, particularly at Second Reading, and I made mention of this at the time.

It is a well-known fact that what makes the world go round is money. Money is a very sensitive subject when it comes to universities. It used not to be—it used to be that anyone in a university who mentioned anything as vulgar as money would not be invited back to high table—but now money is an important consideration. The Bill is not silent on money, of course; it has a section on overseas funding. It is not to that section that I am turning my attention. The lacuna that I referred to is that it appears to say nothing whatever about funding coming from domestic sources.

This series of probing amendments—if the Committee wishes me to refer to them, Amendments 34, 45 and 46—try to box the compass, so to speak, of the various sources of money and how they can be used to prohibit free speech. Amendment 34 discusses grants made by universities to academics working for them or within their ambit. Amendment 45 refers to grants made downwards, so to speak, by UK Research and Innovation. Amendment 46 relates to donations that are made to universities. All of these could be used in a manner that was intended to influence, limit or shape freedom of expression within a university.

Sometimes we actually welcome that. I notice that it is a normal condition of cancer research charities that recipients do not have anything to do with tobacco companies. Many noble Lords would welcome that; they would say it was a good interference with freedom of speech and freedom of action attached to a flow of money as a condition. However, once one grants that, one ends up asking where to draw the line. These amendments are intended to test the role of money in doing that.

It has been suggested that Amendment 45 could trip over the Haldane principle, which dates from nearly 100 years ago but is still very properly entrenched in our constitutional process—that decisions on grants for research purposes should not be made by Ministers but must be made independently, and therefore to legislate on the matter at all is to offend the Haldane principle. But it is not, of course, because nothing in my amendment gives Ministers any power at all. There is nothing in the amendment that even relates to Ministers. Rather, it says that we as Parliament would be creating conditions, which we already do, for the operation and manner of operation of UKRI. I do not believe that Amendment 45 conflicts with the Haldane principle at all. I would very much like to hear my noble friend the Minister respond, so I shall not go into further detail.

I now wish to move on briefly to Amendment 53. Reference was made earlier to an unlikely alliance between the noble Baronesses, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle and Lady Fox of Buckley. I find myself here in perhaps an unlikely alliance with the noble Lord, Lord Sikka, for whom I have a very high regard, especially when it comes to anything concerning money—and with universities, given his long academic career as a professor of accountancy.
I resiled from boxing the compass totally; I thought that what this really needs is a further amendment that deals with the relations between corporations—businesses—and universities. I simply thought that if I tried to draft that, with all the various exemptions that may be necessary, I would fall over and make a fool of myself. Hence I rather welcome the amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Sikka, as opening up, at least on a probing basis, the fourth side of the compass, so to speak. We have donations; we have corporate relations; we have grants going downwards within universities, from the university body to its own; and we have grants coming down from higher above, from the research councils and UKRI, towards the universities.
It is intended to cover all flows there might be, probably unsuccessfully, as some may escape, but it is at least a chance to hear from my noble friend what the role of money is. Are we going to blink and just ignore this absolutely huge means of influencing free speech and expression of opinion?
Lord Sikka Portrait Lord Sikka (Lab)
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My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, on this. He mentioned money; I wish I had some, like many other people. Let me declare an interest: I am emeritus professor at the University of Essex and the University of Sheffield.

My amendment seeks to loosen the shackles imposed by private sector research funders upon the ability of academics to publish research. Those shackles have got much tighter with the advent of the research excellence framework, which attaches weight to the external research funding that is raised by universities. Within universities, indeed, any academic these days wishing to be promoted has to show that he or she has managed to secure a lot of research funding.

This research funding comes with lots and lots of strings attached, which raises conflicts of interest. Can your Lordships imagine trying to get some research money to look into gambling or the development of weapons? It would come from the gambling industry or from British Aerospace and others. Then if you produce research which is critical, would they really let you publish it? That is really the question.

I have looked at many research contracts—some colleagues have told me about them—that include clauses which give the funders the final say on whether the research can be published. Funders can vet, and have vetted, the research questions, methodologies and methods, data analysis and the conclusions of the studies. In many cases, draft papers need to be submitted to the funders. I have experienced that myself, and their approval is needed before anything can be disseminated, perhaps at a conference—because many academics present papers at conferences before they submit them to any peer-reviewed journal—so they need to be vetted. Funders can block, delay, or demand changes to the papers because they do not like the research findings, or they may just sit on the paper for a prolonged period to make its research very stale and untimely. Again, I have experienced that, as I explained at Second Reading.

One prominent scholar told a peer-reviewed journal:

“In our commissioned research project, the commissioner’s representative interfered with both the entire study and the publication because I did not let him influence the sample. Instead of random sampling, we should have made a ‘comfort sample’.”

There is a classic example of a pharmaceutical company funding a researcher to compare its branded thyroid drug with a generic competitor’s. The researcher found that the generic products were as good as the expensive branded products. The publication of the research could have jeopardised the funder’s sales and profits so the drug company went to enormous lengths to suppress the research, including taking legal action against the researcher and her university to prevent the paper’s publication.

In the past few days, one UK academic told me that the funder vetted his paper and did not like the negative health effects associated with the consumption of processed food. The funder decided that some cases of negative effects were outliers and were to be eliminated from the paper. It is bit like saying, “Somebody has died from this disease but it is an outlier so let us ignore and suppress it”. The academic concerned refused to accommodate the changes and the paper was never presented at a conference nor published. Another academic told me:

“The funder demanded control of all the raw data relating to the negative effects of a drug. Under pressure, I agreed. Subsequently, the funder would not allow me to release the data to a peer-reviewed journal and I could not publish the study, which was less than complimentary about the funder’s products.”

Over the years, several studies have established links between passive smoking and lung cancer. Tobacco companies have a long history of trying to subvert research by framing the research questions, designing the study, collecting and providing data and even writing the final papers for academics. Industry funding and the quest for research grants have persuaded many scholars to ignore important research questions because they simply will not get funding otherwise. Indeed, in my own field, it is incredibly rare to find research that is critical of auditing or the anti-social practices of the finance industry. None is ever funded by anybody from the City or the world of accounting because that is not the kind of thing that they fund. Many academics also do not do that kind of research because it jeopardises their chances of getting research funding from the world of accounting and the City, so such issues are basically ignored.

The Government are also a culprit. Commenting on a June 2016 report by Sir Stephen Sedley, Missing Evidence: An Inquiry into the Delayed Publication of Government-Commissioned Research, Nick Ross concluded that

“expensively commissioned findings sometimes fail to see the light of day and weak rules are used to bury unwelcome evidence for long enough to make it stale.”

In November 2020, the British Medical Journal published an article, “Covid-19: Politicisation, ‘Corruption’ and Suppression of Science”, which reported four instances of the suppression of science during the pandemic. It was all to do with the government-funded research. One instance related to the suppression of the 2016 study codenamed Operation Cygnus, which documented deficiencies in the UK’s pandemic preparedness. The report was eventually released in 2020 after an outcry in the media and interventions by the freedom of information commissioner. The Government did not want to publish it; their suppression denied the public, parliamentarians and medical communities vital information. The funder of the study stifled the debate.

The BMJ reported that a Public Health England report on Covid-19 and inequalities was delayed by the Department of Health; a section on ethnic minorities was initially withheld and then, following public outcry, was published as part of a follow-up report in 2020. Authors from Public Health England were instructed not to talk to the media about it. On 15 October 2020, Richard Horton, editor of the Lancet, publicly stated that an author of a research paper, a government scientist, was being blocked by the Government from speaking to the media because of a “difficult political landscape.”

Another example relates to what the Government codenamed Operation Moonshot. The project required an immediate and wide availability of accurate, rapid diagnostic tests for Covid. This research concluded that the Government procured an antibody test, which cost £75 million, that in real-world tests fell well short of the performance claims made by its manufacturer. Researchers from Public Health England and collaborating institutions sought to publish their study findings before the Government committed to buying a million of these tests but were blocked from releasing them by the Department of Health and the Prime Minister’s office. Public Health England then unsuccessfully attempted to block the British Medical Journal’s press release about the research paper. The reason for all this was that the research was damaging to the commercial interests of the corporation involved in these tests.

I have provided only a brief glimpse of some of the ways in which academic research is subverted and suppressed and, consequently, scholars and policymakers are denied the opportunity to see the evidence, data and findings. This is damaging to academic freedoms, scholarly endeavours and society as a whole. Amendment 53 seeks to prevent funders exercising undue influence on the design, conduct and dissemination of research. After all, what kind of expertise do they have in these matters? If they had any, maybe they would be doing the research themselves. This amendment makes scholars, their communities and journal reviewers the final arbiters of the quality of research. I urge the Minister and the House to support it.

Lord Triesman Portrait Lord Triesman (Lab)
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My Lords, I can probably do this quite briefly. These are very helpful amendments, which illustrate an extremely important point. To work out why or how the Bill will be useful or effective, it is important to understand what academics do—what life on the ground is actually like and what having a career entails. I want to follow my noble friend Lord Smith of Finsbury’s earlier comments, but I think that is for a later debate. If academics want to pursue a career, there are facts on the ground that cannot be overlooked, and these amendments address them.

There is a longish history to this; I must confess to having my fingerprints on parts of the REF at different times in the past, so I want to acknowledge that I have probably contributed to a problem. Today, if you want to make progress, it is entirely commonplace in universities to expect that, in the last period of assessment of research, you will have produced at least three articles in reputable referee journals. If you have not done so, you will not be promoted and if you do not have tenure, you will probably not survive at all. It is imperative. It is a gating process about which this Grand Committee will do nothing, because it is not in our power, but that is how it happens.

My noble friend Lord Sikka has illustrated an important point about the final element of this. If we are serious about the contestation of ideas, then people are plainly going to have to raise research money to do the research and contest ideas. But they do it in a real world with real constraints and if they do not meet the criteria I have mentioned, their careers are over.
It may well be that in these amendments we could set out what higher education institutions may not do to impede those people even further. I have a suspicion that we may prove unsuccessful, but not in terms of higher education institutions or the research councils; it may be that the people who purchase research will go and purchase it elsewhere rather than run risks of another kind. I have seen that happen as well; it happens in pharmacology quite a lot.
If we think that we can have an impact on it, we plainly have to address the ways in which freedom of speech can be impeded for every academic who thinks that they have a career which involves original research. If we ignore it and it remains the lacuna that has been described, then we have basically ignored one of the key drivers of either academic freedom or impediments to it in our university sector.
Baroness Smith of Newnham Portrait Baroness Smith of Newnham (LD)
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My Lords, I realise that people have been declaring interests at various points during proceedings. As an academic I assumed, having declared my interests at the start of proceedings on Monday for the same Committee that I did not need to rehearse them again. If necessary, I am happy to rehearse my interests at Cambridge University and associations with other higher education organisations.

The noble Lord, Lord Triesman, has begun to flesh out slightly that there is a difference between two types of funding. There is research grant funding which might come from UKRI, where one would imagine it should be funding blue-sky thinking. The ideas in the amendments proposed today—whether they have appropriate wording or not—are that people’s academic freedoms should not be damaged, everyone should have an equal chance to secure funding and that should not be constrained in any way, for example, by one’s political beliefs. It is difficult for anyone to refute that suggestion. However, if an academic proposes to do research for a third party, where that party is looking for findings in a certain area and wants certain things to be done, if they are then engaged in a contract the person providing funding might reasonably say “Actually, I don’t wish this research to be funded”.

This goes back to “unintended consequences”. I wonder whether these amendments work for the contracts or consultancy that academics might be undertaking, which is quite different. If you undertake consultancy, its funder might not want to publish the findings because they do not meet what they expected. It is quite difficult to see how you could constrain a funder in that way, when it is a different sort of research funding to that which a university or UKRI might provide to individual academics. I am not opposing the amendments but I wonder whether some of these things need to be explored a little further.

Lord Stevens of Birmingham Portrait Lord Stevens of Birmingham (CB)
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My Lords, I should take the noble Baroness’s prompt and declare my interest as an honorary fellow at Balliol. I was prompted to speak by what has just been said in respect of the amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Sikka. He makes a very important point but, were this to progress beyond Committee, it would require very careful attention to the wording so as not to produce completely counterproductive results.

I was looking it up as the noble Lord was speaking, and I think I am correct in saying that, in 2019, about a quarter of R&D was via the higher education sector and about two-thirds was through the business sector. There is a sort of make-buy boundary, a decision, for a lot of research funders as to where they will get their research done. It just happens to be a contingent fact that quite a lot of that is done through the university sector, but it need not be. As worded, the amendment would capture, for example, conversations that the Wellcome Trust or Cancer Research UK would want to have with individual academic research teams, particularly about their research methodologies. Those are very productive conversations that improve the quality of research. So I understand the thought, but the precise mechanism perhaps warrants further attention.

More broadly, I oppose Amendment 34 from the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, specifically in relation to its suggestion that statute should be interfering in the discretion that universities have in grant funding allocations where the amendment says that universities would no longer be able to take into account in those grant allocations the lawfully held principles that individual researchers might adhere to. I get the bit about political opinion, but the “principle” bit is, I think, potentially quite problematic. One of the many dictionary definitions of a “principle” is “a general scientific theorem with numerous special applications across a wide field”. If you do not believe in the scientific basis of cell biology and have a particular “principled” adoption of homeopathic beliefs in bio-miasms, you will be driven in a particular direction. It seems to me that universities have a responsibility to say no to putting homeopathy funding on an equal basis with anything else. We want them, in pursuit of their distinctive mission to advance knowledge and education through structured debate and evidence-based reasoning, to be able to say no so that research on certain “principled beliefs” can be disbarred.

This comes back to the confusion that we touched upon on Monday. The Minister dealt with this point in respect of the employment of academics but, when it comes to the grant funding, we cannot have a situation in which universities’ hands are tied and they are not able to make judgments as to the merit on which those grants are allocated across their institutions. It is the inclusion of the phrase “the principles” of the contending grant application that ensures that, unfortunately, Amendment 34 as currently worded is fundamentally flawed.

Baroness Fox of Buckley Portrait Baroness Fox of Buckley (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, I really welcome the contributions of the noble Lords, Lord Sikka and Lord Moylan, on their amendments, because this issue of money is important and it is a good way of getting the discussion going—or not just to discuss for the sake of it.

What I cannot get my head around is how in any way you can legislate on this. I cannot see a way of doing it, even though I think I have added my name to one of the amendments. But it is important to discuss this. As I listened to the noble Lord, Lord Sikka, I thought he made a very strong case for the problem of corporate funding of research if it distorts outcomes. Nobody wants that, but I do not necessarily know that I do not want any corporate funding of research—so the question is how you deal with it.

It is also the case that, these days, some of the big players in terms of funding are charities or NGOs. We mentioned the Wellcome Trust, which I worked with for many years. It is true that the Wellcome Trust would often say, “These are our priorities this year” and you knew that, if you wanted a Wellcome Trust grant, you had to fit your research into those priorities. That had a distorting impact—I am not suggesting it was corrupt in any way, but you knew that was the way that you would get the money. I certainly know people who shifted their focus in order to get the grants.

This is important in terms of academic freedom. I wonder if the popularity of politicians saying, “The evidence shows”, and evidence-based policy being fashionable incentivise a tendency towards politicised research outcomes. There is a sense in which a lot of academics have wanted to be in on the policy discussion, often with outcomes predetermined. There have been times when I have said to Ministers, “Where’s the evidence for that?”, and they have said, “We have commissioned the evidence”—but they were announcing the policy. Do not tell me that it has not happened before because it happens all the time. They have commissioned the evidence from a university, in fact. I am just saying.

The reason why I think it is important that research is completely separate from that is because there is a place where academic freedom is under the surface and genuinely under threat, although I do not know whether the law can change that. I know of two people who put in for research on detransitioning—to raise that issue—and they were told there was just not a cat in hell’s chance of getting any funding for that because it was going to be too controversial. Whether we like it or not, the broad problems around some of the other issues in terms of what you can and cannot look at are affecting what is funded in terms of research, particularly postgrad research. There are a lot of complaints about that when you meet postgraduates.

By the way, that does not mean I do not appreciate what the noble Lord, Lord Stevens, said. It is also the case that people can for ever more moan that they are not getting their research funded when it is actually no good, and that actually, you do want academic judgment. I am just pointing out that politics enters into it.

The one thing that I am really concerned about is that UKRI, which after all distributes billions of pounds of research money, produced a draft equality, diversity and inclusion strategy—my favourite topic—earlier in the year, in January, which is a cataclysm of management-speak and right-on political outlooks. You could write it; you know exactly what it is going to say and do. A lot of it is about its staff, which is fine. I have no objection to that. But I worry when it starts basically to express its political aims. You have to question its impartiality.

As far as I am concerned, in the sciences the money should be given to the best science that advances knowledge; it is not humanities research, which is likely to give us interesting insights, and so on. But UKRI demands of people that apply for it that they deliver on the diversity and equality outcomes. A lot of people who read that immediately thought, “How do I prove that?” That is a layer of work that you have to do that you do not need to do. The document sounds quite threatening: “If you don’t tell us when you apply for this that you’re going to deliver on these things, you won’t get it.” So great science is sidelined in the name of equality, diversity and inclusion. That is something that we have to watch. I do not know if the Bill can do anything. I am hoping it will create a climate of discussion about the importance of academic freedom that will counter some of these trends and some of the secret censorship that goes on behind the scenes.

Baroness Chakrabarti Portrait Baroness Chakrabarti (Lab)
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My Lords, like the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Newnham, I would be grateful for guidance from someone as to how often one is to redeclare interests in the course of Committee. Should one do it in every group that one speaks on? I am sure there is an answer and that this is just my ignorance. I gather that it is once, but is it once a day or once in Committee in total? I have done it today.

Baroness Finlay of Llandaff Portrait The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Baroness Finlay of Llandaff) (CB)
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For clarification, it seems that it is once for the Committee stage rather than each time we speak.

Baroness Chakrabarti Portrait Baroness Chakrabarti (Lab)
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I am grateful to the Deputy Chairman. I hope the Committee will forgive my ignorance; I hope that will help others as well.

I think noble Lords are really on to something here. I have found all the previous contributions compelling. They speak to aspects of my own experience. I have seen the way that funding can either promote or chill free speech, expression and academic inquiry. I understand that there are real challenges in this area. In particular, it is going to be very difficult to compel a corporation in any way to fund research that would be directly contrary to its interests. However, I do not think that we should totally give up on all of this; I do think that my noble friend Lord Sikka and the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, are on to something.

For example, where research has been commissioned, an attempt to use a contract or another document to prevent it being published could be made unenforceable by way of statute. Arguably, when the funder is a public authority, it may be breaching the Human Rights Act in any event—depending on the nature of the recipient of the grant. In legislating in this area, why do we say that it is easy enough to legislate for students’ views on campus but do not try to legislate for something as important as academic funding being used to chill free speech?
Something could be attempted in this Bill. It will not solve the complexity of the problem that my noble friend Lord Triesman described, where people are just given a nod and a wink and told, “You ain’t going anywhere in this town; you’re not going to get funded or refereed”. Some of this stuff is never written down. It is a nudge; it is cultural. You cannot deal with that in statute but, if Ministers and the Government ever abuse their financial relationships with other public bodies, that can be legislated for, to some extent. If corporates—or, for that matter, philanthropists, NGOs or charities; whoever they are, whatever their politics—put clauses into research grants or contracts that the Committee thinks are contrary to our consensus idea of academic freedom and free speech, those gagging clauses can be made unenforceable as a matter of statute. That may be something that the noble Lords who have done the work in this area might want to contemplate for the next stage of the Bill.
Baroness Falkner of Margravine Portrait Baroness Falkner of Margravine (CB)
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My Lords, on this occasion, I declare my interest as chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

I had a lot of sympathy for the myriad examples put up by the noble Lord, Lord Sikka. In fact, beyond sympathy, to address the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, I had some deep concerns. However, on hearing many of those examples, they were entirely familiar to me. I recall having come across them in the media, if nowhere else.

The point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Newnham, about how this amendment would apply to third parties commissioning research was really significant. All manner of bodies use university academics to do a piece of research for them, including collecting and collating survey evidence and/or other evidence—particularly in the social sciences and humanities, where it is a bigger problem because the boundaries are less clear-cut.

In the past, much of our non-statutory guidance has been based on that kind of research because you seek to find an evidence base for whatever you are saying. We have had complaints about some of the stuff we have said; in fact, my daily joy is opening my parliamentary email and finding complaints addressed to me in that capacity rather than the correct capacity. However, when you look into what people are complaining about, you can find that the survey evidence was perhaps interpreted in a certain way or that the methodology does not stand up today to the contemporary standards that one would wish to use. The noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, rightly raised some of the ambiguities that lie there if this serious and important amendment is taken away and reflected back to us on Report.

The noble Baroness also raised the issue of academic standards. You get a great diversity in institutions as regards the quality of research. If you found that you perhaps ended up having commissioned an institution that did not deliver for you, I would hope that any amendment that we might seek to make would emphasise the fact that you can only take reasonable steps and that where it says in proposed new Section A8(2) that

“providers must not require changes to academic research as a condition for a grant”,

the change does not come at that stage; it might come when you look at the data collection.

An example of data collection in our case is that the majority of the UN conventions that we apply tend to have been written immediately after the Second World War, generally between 1945 and 1960, and they use language that muddies the water. The convention on the elimination of racial discrimination is a good case in point because it refers over and over again to nationality, whereas frequently what we look for in racial discrimination is not necessarily the Polish person suffering race discrimination but potentially the Afro-Caribbean or African or Asian person. You commission the research and then you discover that the dataset does not hold up, because nationality was taken into account by the researchers rather than particular ethnicity; you might have wanted a narrower framework.

I urge the Minister, if he is inclined to take on board the amendment, which is significant and important, to clarify those things for us when we come back to this.

Lord Willetts Portrait Lord Willetts (Con)
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My Lords, I will briefly make three comments on this debate; I realise that I will not occupy the same moral high ground as most of the participants in the debate so far.

The reality is often that co-funding, with public money and private money, is going into research projects which are believed to be of value for the British economy. I will give your Lordships a simple example. You may find that some public funding is going into a wind tunnel and some Rolls-Royce money is going into it so that it can research the functioning of a jet engine and improve Rolls-Royce’s capacity to be a market leader in jet engines. A lot of that goes on. Indeed, in a different part of the woods, we are told that more of that should go on and that we should be thinking more fully about how we use publicly funded research to promote business investment. There are lots of reasons for being wary but those type of relationships exist, and if anything, are being encouraged, and would not be possible under the provisions here. That is my first point.

Secondly, the American pressure on us with regard to the research we conduct and then publish, is because by and large they think we are very naive about what they call dual-use research of concern. They think that we publish lots of stuff which is the equivalent of publishing nuclear physics in the early 1930s. There is a lot of pressure from them for us to publish less, and they think we are naive about some of the possible implications of the research. If we are to have research partnerships with these international partners, if anything, the pressures are the opposite of the ones we have been hearing this afternoon.

My third point is really a question for the Minister. This is an issue which raises another angle where there is concern about this legislation. It is marvellous to have a Minister from the Department for Education as well as a Minister from the Cabinet Office. Several provisions of the Bill relate to the activities of BEIS and our research effort. The research activities of universities are not part of the DfE, and it would be good to be reassured that, on many provisions of this legislation which affect research capacity, we will have the voice of the business department, which is the ultimate responsible body, and that there has been suitable liaison across departments so that implications for research and innovation are properly considered as part of our deliberations.

Lord Collins of Highbury Portrait Lord Collins of Highbury (Lab)
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Does the noble Baroness not wish to speak?

Baroness Smith of Newnham Portrait Baroness Smith of Newnham (LD)
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I think I have said everything that needed to be said from these Benches.

Lord Collins of Highbury Portrait Lord Collins of Highbury (Lab)
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I was tempted to declare my own interest as an assistant general secretary of a trade union that used to commission research. Once I knew the question and its answer, I would commission the research. There is that political side; social science is often involved in that sort of thing.

This has been a worthwhile debate. I am pretty certain that this Bill, or even this debate, is not the right place for these amendments.

The noble Lord, Lord Willetts, raised some fundamental points. One of my responsibilities is as the shadow FCDO Minister. In global research, how research—particularly medical research—can be innovative, and who controls and pays for it, is an interesting question. I certainly do not relate that to academic freedom; that is a different, commercial issue.

The noble Lord, Lord Stevens, made the excellent point that, if you are going to do research in a particular medical area, you are not going to be bound by employing someone who has no interest in pursuing that line of inquiry. For me, whenever these sorts of questions come up, the interesting thing about the sort of research done by my noble friend Lord Sikka is that the key is always transparency. Whenever a piece of research is published, I want to know who has funded it. I want to know who is ultimately responsible. To me, that is absolutely the key to this issue.

I was going to ask the Minister about impact; the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, raised this. Students Organising for Sustainability asked whether these duties would present a conflict between some universities’ health departments—at Imperial, for example—that have funding conditional on not recommending big tobacco in their careers service? That relates to advisers and freedom of speech. It would be interesting to hear the Minister’s view on that in relation to the debate on these amendments.

I have promoted debates in the Chamber on the broader issue of commercial research, particularly about who at the end of the day owns and controls the—I have a mental block.

Baroness Thornton Portrait Baroness Thornton (Lab)
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Copyright? Intellectual property?

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.

It is right to be concerned about the provision of research grants and that the process of giving such awards should not be open to abuse in the way that the amendments suggest. However, the Bill already requires in the main duty at new Section A1(1) that higher education providers must take reasonably practicable steps, having particular regard to the importance of freedom of speech, to secure freedom of speech within the law for members, staff and students. This duty includes securing academic freedom. The Bill also states in proposed new Section A1(11) that
“references to freedom of speech include the freedom to express ideas, beliefs and views without suffering adverse consequences”.
“Adverse consequences” would clearly include the refusal of a grant of funds for academic research. Equally, if a donor or grantor insisted on certain conditions that would restrict freedom of speech for the funding they give, the provider should not accept it. If they did, they would potentially be in breach of their registration conditions.
As drafted, these provisions therefore already require a provider to take reasonably practicable steps to ensure that research grants are not refused because of the recipient’s stated lawful principles or political opinions. A member, staff member or student should be able to express their lawful ideas, beliefs and views without suffering adverse consequences; the provider must take reasonably practicable steps to ensure this.
It is clear that higher education providers should not interfere with academic freedom by imposing, or seeking to impose, a political or ideological viewpoint on the teaching, research or other activities of individual academics, either across the whole university or at the department, faculty or other level. Nor should providers seek to influence the academic freedom of staff by interfering with academic research by making conditions on grant funding applications. The duties in this Bill safeguard against these eventualities. Indeed, the Bill protects academic staff in higher education so that they are free to research and teach on subjects that may test the boundaries without this damaging their prospects of promotion or getting a job at another university.
Finally, my noble friend Lord Willetts posed a question about interdepartmental working within government. I can absolutely assure him that UKRI and the Office for Students work closely together all the time. Indeed, approval for the policy that underpins this Bill was subject to cross-government agreement.
I trust that those noble Lords who have proposed amendments in this group are reassured by this explanation, which makes it clear, I hope, that the Bill already covers impartial research funding as required.
Lord Moylan Portrait Lord Moylan (Con)
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My Lords, given the hour, I will be brief on this occasion. I am grateful to my noble friend the Minister for explaining that, despite the fact that there is no explicit mention in the Bill of the large and important topic of money and how it makes universities go round, it is there; it is just that none of us had spotted it. Let us hope that those who are directly within the ambit of the Bill, if it becomes an Act, will be able to spot it. I would have thought that it would have been helpful to have a few words in the Bill to that effect but, no, it is there—only in a subterranean way. So we must all take comfort from that.

I am very grateful to all noble Lords who have contributed. I am particularly grateful that, on this occasion at least, they agree with me that this is an important and large topic. I am simply disappointed that, at least for the two Front Bench spokesmen, it is simply too large to put in the Bill. It is too big; it is too complicated; it is very important but—

Baroness Smith of Newnham Portrait Baroness Smith of Newnham (LD)
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I did not say from these Benches that it was too big to be included. I suggested that there needs to be more discussion and clarification of the issues at stake because they are even broader than the noble Lords, Lord Moylan and Lord Sikka, were discussing. That is not to say that they should not be included.

Lord Moylan Portrait Lord Moylan (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am very grateful for that clarification, which I take as an encouragement to myself and the noble Lord, Lord Sikka, to enter discussions with the noble Baroness as we prepare for the next stage of the Bill to reach satisfactory wording on the topic.

Finally, I simply say how very grateful I am to everybody who spoke in the debate and managed not to say that it should be dealt with in the code of conduct. With that, and given the lateness of the hour—though I suspect the topic may come back—I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 34 withdrawn.
Lord Sikka Portrait Lord Sikka (Lab)
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My Lords, if I may respond to some of the points—

Baroness Finlay of Llandaff Portrait The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Baroness Finlay of Llandaff) (CB)
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For the convenience of the Committee, the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, has already withdrawn his amendment and no one has objected to that.

Clause 1 agreed.
Clause 2 agreed.
Amendments 35 and 36 not moved.
Clause 3: Duties of students’ unions
Amendments 37 to 46 not moved.
Amendment 47
Moved by
47: Clause 3, leave out Clause 3 and insert the following new Clause—
“Duties of students’ unions
(1) Section 22 of the Education Act 1994 is amended as follows.(2) In subsection (1), at end insert “and secures freedom of speech within the law for members of the students’ union, students of the provider, staff of the students’ union, staff and members of the provider and of its constituent institutions, and visiting speakers.”(3) In subsection (2), at end insert—“(o) the use of any premises occupied by the students’ union is not denied to any individual or body on grounds in relation to an individual or society or other body’s ideas, beliefs or views;(p) the terms on which such premises are provided are not to any extent based on such grounds;(q) affiliation to the students’ union is not denied to any student society on such grounds; (r) use by any individual or body of premises occupied by the students’ union is not on terms that require the individual or body to bear some or all of the costs of security relating to their use of the premises.”(4) After subsection (3) insert—“(3A) The code of practice shall set out—(a) the students’ union’s values relating to freedom of speech and an explanation of how those values uphold freedom of speech;(b) the procedures to be followed by its staff and its members who are students of the registered higher education provider in connection with the organisation of—(i) meetings which are to be held on the premises occupied by the students’ union and which fall within any class of meeting specified in the code, and(ii) other activities which are to take place on those premises and which fall within any class of activity so specified;(c) the conduct required of such persons in connection with any such meeting or activity; and(d) the criteria to be used by the students’ union in making decisions about the union’s support and funding for events and activities to which the duties in this section are relevant, and whether to allow the use of premises and on what terms.””Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment suggests an alternative method for placing duties on students' unions by amending the Education Act 1994, and along with the proposed removal of clause 7 seeks to probe whether the OfS should directly regulate SUs or whether they should be regulated via the relevant provider.
Baroness Garden of Frognal Portrait Baroness Garden of Frognal (LD)
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My Lords, I will also speak to the Clause 7 stand part notice in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Wallace, who is absent. I note with interest that the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, referred earlier to the HEPI report on students, which made interesting but fairly depressing reading—particularly with regard to students these days being very reluctant to discuss anything with which they disagree.

These amendments are at the requests of students and student unions, which are very concerned that provisions in this Bill could involve them in costly, time-consuming administration and litigation. Our revised Clause 3 aims to provide clarity on the responsibilities for freedom of speech in a more student-friendly manner. We were also alerted to the problems of geography. Many higher education providers have operations overseas. Does free speech “within the law” mean the law at home or away? There are many Welsh and Scottish higher education providers that have campuses in England as well. Will these duties apply to all of them?

We note that student unions are not public authorities and so are not subject to regulation in the same way. Many of them may be tiny theatre providers; they may be further education providers with a handful of higher education students. Their governing bodies may be a small group of 17 year-old students. Are the provisions in Clause 3 really appropriate for such unions?

If Clause 3 is bad, Clause 7 is even worse. We read in that clause that an individual would be able to refer their complaint to the Office for Students complaints scheme at the same time as pursuing it through a provider or the student union’s internal procedures, which would surely be the appropriate way. It could also be addressed by the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education, or a court or tribunal. How confusing and cumbersome this is. Surely such complaints should not be escalated; rather, they should be dealt with at the lowest possible level. Currently, the adjudicator considers students’ complaints only once the local process has been completed. For the Office for Students to rush in with a monetary penalty would surely be untimely and disproportionate. We really feel that this is not a reasonable use of the Office for Students’ powers.

At a later date, we shall come on to discuss the director of freedom of speech and academic freedom. It is not at all clear how that post will fit in with all these other complaints processes.

As I say, these amendments have been tabled at the request of students and student unions. On that basis, I beg to move.

Lord Triesman Portrait Lord Triesman (Lab)
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My Lords, this is probably the only appropriate place to raise this point. There was a debate earlier in which my friend, the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Finsbury—he may be on the Cross Benches but he is steadfastly a friend—and the noble Baronesses, Lady Fox and Lady Smith of Newnham, took part, about what the core functions of a university are and what its DNA is. I do not resile from what I said about the role of a university in the development of knowledge and the challenge to knowledge, but I would not for a moment suggest that that is the only function.

I come to the other thing that I think universities are fundamentally there for, because the students and student unions are so central to it. Universities are also the place where we see the transmission of knowledge between generations. They are the place in which we try to instil in students the methods best suited to elaborate knowledge and to challenge all spheres of knowledge, and to do so in a way that reflects the fact that it is a community. Those are also fundamental obligations of a university, and it would be very foolish if we were to neglect them.

The strength of the very word “collegiality” is that it means we believe that, in a collegial environment, people should not suppress the views of others, silence others or interfere with their individual rights. Apart from overcoming those negatives, it also cements together a community that has, if I may put it this way, a mutual obligation to proceed with respect. In my view, that is quite central to the DNA of a university.

I make these points because those frequently relatively young people—although it is a much more diverse age group now—are central to what we think about when we think about what universities do and how they should do it. Indeed, we have embodied in other legislation measures to deal with the quality of teaching to ensure that this part of what universities do is at the best standard that can be achieved, and we punish them by not letting them have gold stars or whatever if they fail to do it. Student unions are a part of that education provision, part of that community, and what we try to impose on them becomes extremely significant.

I was looking at this having listened carefully to the noble Earl, Lord Howe, when I last raised the question of how things get policed. I hope he will not mind if I remind him of one of the things that he said. I was saying that if events taking place get out of hand, the police may decide to intervene. The noble Earl said, to paraphrase a little, that he did not really accept my argument. He continued:
“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.”—[Official Report, 31/10/22; col. GC 43.]
I will come on to how that might impact events organised by or in student unions.
The notion that each institution has one student union is flawed. Of course they have student unions, but they also have a wide number of other clubs and societies which are part of that student union. In some universities, when you join the student union you are automatically enrolled in all the others as well, to give you freedom to get around and do all sorts of interesting things. I began to ponder who these people are who would engage in expert planning, particularly if it is sensitive and controversial. I want to share the extent of the issue that this provision would need to grapple with. I will start with a few universities—I will come to all of them in a moment.
At University College London, there are 300-plus such additional societies and clubs. At Manchester University, there are way over 400; at Leeds, way over 300; at Birmingham, way over 500. Newcastle is very poorly served in having only 70. Cambridge has way over 400, as I know the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, will be delighted to hear. Queen Mary University of London has over 500. Oxford says that its number is countless; I have done it a favour and counted them—I got to 540. King’s College London, to which several noble Lords have mentioned their affiliation, has way over 300. Its website enthusiastically mentions that many of them are campaigning groups and that it is quite right that students should organise themselves into groups that go out and campaign. That may mean they get into the sensitive areas that the noble Earl, Lord Howe, referred to in the speech I quoted.
If you extrapolate back correctly, take account of the number of students in all those universities and try to create a sum of how many of these student union groups and societies exist and would therefore be in scope of this legislation, the number appears to be 67,500. I may be wrong on some of the maths, although I like to think I am not bad at it. Let us assume that it is wrong by several per cent; it will still be way over 50,000 on any count. It is probably closer to my higher figure. The idea that all of them will be able to deal with the pressures to be put on them by this legislation is straightforwardly fanciful.
I appreciate that a lot of them will not be controversial at all. We always seem to come back to Cambridge in the course of this. I assume that the University of Cambridge Allotment Society will not pose enormous problems most of the time, although it probably depends on what they grow and whether that is an issue. However, I have no idea what A Society of Ice and Fire (Iron Throne) does. I do not want to speculate, but I bet I will not like it if I ever find out. The Joy Luck Club appears to engage in activities which bring great joy to those who are its members, but not necessarily to anybody else.
I do not make these points to be completely frivolous, although I appreciate that they will be taken as being relatively frivolous. I am just saying that, if what we are saying here is that the whole student union apparatus is to respond to this, we have decided to climb Mount Everest. A lot of people do that—I know that they queue on it—but I have no great ambition to do it. With great respect, the Government will need to think very hard about what they believe students, student unions and all these kinds of bodies, which all exist and may well be doing all kinds of things, can do. They will also need to think about whether it is prudent on the part of a legislature to feel that the bodies that I have described can fulfil the role that the noble Earl, Lord Howe, described to us on Monday—namely, to have thought it all through, taken prudent decisions and come to a conclusion about how to proceed.
My final point is this: of course, it may be that all 67,000 of them will not conclude that they are going to do awful things, but it is still a very small percentage that will create a very large number. That, I am afraid, is something that we have not worked out at all thoroughly and that cannot be made to work through this Bill in the way that is described.
Baroness Fox of Buckley Portrait Baroness Fox of Buckley (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, I thought long and hard about how to approach this debate because I support the autonomy of students to organise separately without interference, not just the academic autonomy that we have talked about—although I would like that. I also appreciate the points that have just been made about students not being excluded from collegiate atmosphere; you want them to be involved in it. On reflection, though, I think that student unions need to be subject to this obligation to secure free speech. However, I appreciate what has just been said about the difficulties in that; I have no solutions but I want to raise some of the issues.

One of those issues is that student unions have become the power brokers of free speech in the new free speech wars on campus. That is the reality of the situation. They can—and often do—withhold affiliation for student societies on the grounds that they disapprove of their views. It makes them a powerful body in this discussion.

One story that really shocked me was when Kevin Price, a Labour councillor who was also a porter at Clare College, resigned from Cambridge City Council when he felt that his conscience could not allow him to vote for a Liberal Democrat Motion that began, “Trans women are women. Trans men are men”. I am not saying that to make a point; these are the facts of the matter. When they learned about his actions, student activists at Clare College, with the support of the college union—I confess that I do not know about Oxbridge because I went to Warwick, but I know that these are not necessarily student unions; my point is that I get confused—held a campaign demanding that this man resign as a porter. They described him as

“unfit both to hold public office and to be in a position of responsibility over students”.

They called him a bigot and a “potential risk” to trans students.

This campaign went on for some time. Nothing happened in the end—although, needless to say, it was very unpleasant for Mr Price—but here were student activists demanding that a member of staff, and not even a member of the academic staff, be sacked. I just think there is something about that story that we can recognise.

The only other story I want to tell involves a group of students at Sheffield University who tried to set up a free speech society in February 2020. When they applied to the student union, their application was declined. Theirs is not the only example of this, by the way; it happened at LSE, which got there eventually, and at Leeds University as well.

The group from Sheffield appealed to the student union. They won—they had some outside back-up—but were told that the student union had identified that the free speech society was on a “red risk list”. This meant that officers would have to attend risk assessment training and that they could not invite any speakers on to campus without first having to submit a list of prospective speakers to the student union three weeks ahead of time for full and final approval.

That is one of many stories that any of the people who have done work on this will tell you. I have been involved in lot of them. Students have contacted me, either through a free speech union or through any number of different activist groups. Despite what the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, asked—“How will all these societies cope?”—I assure him that they are already having to cope with a lot of bureaucratic nonsense if they want to invite anyone on to campus to speak, and it is the student unions demanding it.

I once went and spoke at a student event with 250 people. I was giving a lecture on free speech. By the time I arrived at the event, the students who had invited me—remember, these were 19 year-old kids who had set up a free speech society—looked ashen as if they had gone through a terrible experience. They had because they had had so much trouble about inviting me, but I did not know that at that point. They looked as if they were in trauma. When the event was going on, there were three people sitting in the front row with crossed arms and writing notes. I thought that they did not look friendly. I asked afterwards who they were and was told that they were student union officers who had come in to check what I was talking about to make sure that I did not breach any rules. That was disconcerting.

I then went to the bar and the same three people sat at the table next to us. I said, “Do you want to join us?” They said no, and then they sat at their table in silence. It was a bit like the Stasi keeping their eye out. The students who had invited me said, “That’s what they do. It’s an intimidation tactic”—and it really was intimidating, by the way. I am an old hand and I found it intimidating, so imagine if you are 19.

The outcome of the event was that I did not get them into too much trouble but it was felt that it was too near the mark, so the students had to go on training courses and all the rest of it. The outcome—this is the significant bit—was that the three people who had set up the free speech society at that university said that they were going to drop out of politics because they could not cope with the student union. They did not want the hassle. They had really enjoyed my speech but it was like an ordeal. As it happens, the Committee will be unsurprised to know that this has happened to a lot of students who have invited me to speak, to such an extent that I now warn them off from inviting me to speak and say, “Look, you don’t want the hassle, to be frank. It will cause you a lot of hassle.” So I do not get cancelled before I arrive because I know that it is probably not worth putting the kids through that.

The main reason why I am telling the Committee all this is that it is the student unions that are implementing all this. In that sense, my collegiate feeling towards student unions have evaporated somewhat, but my collegiate feelings towards those students who want to be politically active have extended. I am hoping that, by incorporating student unions and putting free speech at the forefront, this Bill might help students to be free to organise societies as they wish.

Lord Smith of Finsbury Portrait Lord Smith of Finsbury (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, I should probably have declared an interest when I spoke earlier, not just as the master of Pembroke College, Cambridge, but as the chair of the trustees of the Cambridge Union Society. It is not a student union. It has been a place of free speech since 1815 and continues to be so. The student officers of the Cambridge Union Society regularly invite highly controversial speakers with whom there will be substantial disagreement among the student body, but the whole point is to hear views and debate them. That is how these things ought to happen.

I have a lot of sympathy with the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, that universities are not just about the growth and development of knowledge, wisdom and understanding, and the exploration of ideas. That is not just what universities are about. They are also about helping students to learn about life, to learn about being part of a community and to learn about how to live, work and play with other people as part of that community. That is also a crucial part of the learning that comes from a university experience, and we should never forget that.
Having said all that, I absolutely understand that there needs to be a duty in the Bill—if we are going to have the Bill—to promote and facilitate free speech placed upon student unions. However, I much prefer the wording set out in the amendment by the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, to what is in the Bill as it stands. It usefully places the duty of free speech on student unions but in a slightly less prescriptive form than what is in the Bill itself. I ask the Minister to go away and think about whether that could be done in a rather better way than appears at the moment to be the case in the Bill, bearing in mind that we accept that there should be a purpose of free speech embedded in what student unions are all about.
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)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

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)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

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)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

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.

The Bill places clear, direct duties on student unions and gives the OfS a mechanism to regulate and enforce them. I hope noble Lords will agree that the Bill as currently drafted represents the best way of regulating student unions as regards freedom of speech.
Baroness Garden of Frognal Portrait Baroness Garden of Frognal (LD)
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I thank the Minister very much for his reply and all those who have spoken in this short debate. There are more issues that we might need to bring back on Report, but meanwhile I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.

Amendment 47 withdrawn.
Clause 3 agreed.
Committee adjourned at 8.16 pm.