Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill Debate

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Department: Leader of the House
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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.