Moved by
Baroness Barran Portrait Earl Howe
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That this House do not insist on its Amendment 10, to which the Commons have disagreed for their Reason 10A.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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