Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill Debate

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Department: Leader of the House
Baroness Chakrabarti Portrait Baroness Chakrabarti (Lab)
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My Lords, I declare interests as a former chancellor of the Universities of Oxford Brookes and Essex, as, variously, a visiting and honorary fellow and professor of a number of universities and constituent colleges, as a visiting professor at the LSE and as, over this last academic year, someone who has benefited enormously from working with a PhD student at King’s College London.

I have always campaigned for freedom of speech and for all other fundamental rights and freedoms, from which it cannot be plucked or separated. I have done this, or tried to do this, on behalf of those who were for the moment vulnerable, demonised and endangered, including those with whom I profoundly disagreed and who have even denigrated the very rights that should protect them.

Today feels like “a bright cold day in April, with the clocks striking thirteen”. This Bill is wrong-headed in principle and clumsy in execution. Freedom of speech is not advanced by particularism, complex or onerous regulation or government tsars but when we each practise what we preach, lead by example and understand that it is the ultimate two-way street in a human rights framework built upon equal treatment, the very antithesis of which is partisan protection and hypocrisy. In short, my speech cannot be free while yours is always treated as a little more expensive or otherwise put practically beyond reach.

This Bill comes amid a wave of anti-rights legislation and rhetoric. In particular, on-street dissent has been criminalised today by the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act and will be eroded still further if the measures copied and pasted from anti-terror law in the Public Order Bill are allowed to pass. Cabinet Ministers and other government sources are on the record for their “war on woke” which, by definition, prioritises opinions that they find agreeable over those that they find uncomfortable in a kingdom that they do not seek to unite.

In a manner reminiscent of Mr Trump across the water, pro-Brexit protesters in 2019 and statue defenders in 2020 were actively encouraged by some of the same Ministers who now seek to impugn climate and race-equality activists and lawfully striking and picketing trade unionists. So higher education providers and student unions have good prior reason to give a critical, sceptical reading to this Bill.

To add insult to injury, we are speaking less than a week after the Government’s introduction of what Amnesty International called the “Rights Removal Bill” and at least one noble Lord opposite called the “Bill of Wrongs”. This proposes to repeal the Human Rights Act without a single enhancement of rights protection but drastic diminution instead. This is forensically important, as the Department for Education relies heavily upon the Human Rights Act in its various explanations and justifications for this opaque Bill.

In particular, while the rights removal Bill has been sold as enhancing free speech, it reduces the positive obligations on public authorities to guarantee rights within their realms and attempts to limit Article 10, on free speech protection, to areas outside the criminal law. That licenses ever-broader anti-speech offences and police powers in the future. So far from being universalist, the Government’s approach to rights and freedoms is not even constitutional or one-nation. Instead, it is contradictory and partisan.

As to the detailed convolutions of this Bill, your Lordships’ House will want to allow significant time for their scrutiny in Committee. In the meantime, will the Government prepare new memoranda explaining how the provisions will interact not just with the Human Rights Act, which they plan to scrap, but with its so-called replacement, alongside the Equality Act and Prevent programme, which has been such a complication of, if not threat to, free speech on campus, and all the other pre-existing regulatory duties on higher education bodies?

How can it be a protection of academic freedom to give more and more power over independent institutions of scholarship to the Government’s Office for Students and the new director for freedom of speech? Who is going to fund litigation for claims and defences of a breach of the new statutory duty, at a time when civil legal aid is virtually non-existent? How will institutions be protected from vexatious litigation by wealthier interest groups in particular? As to the new provisions relating to foreign funding, who should decide which funding is or is not acceptable in our world-class academy? How will our institutions of higher learning be protected from the weaponising of provisions in this Bill as proxies for human rights and other disputes internationally? What are the Government doing about what many academics feel to be the real threats to their freedom—precarious employment, lack of representation on governance structures, directions as to which research to undertake and political interference, including the attack on the arts?

You cannot cancel cancel culture, any more than you can realistically no-platform ideas you detest in the age of the internet. However, you can demonise the courts, the arts, the academy and even the young in a culture war of divide and rule. Some speech is free, it would seem, and some is rather more expensive: that is the real message behind this Orwellian Bill.