Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill Debate

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Department: Leader of the House
Baroness Garden of Frognal Portrait Baroness Garden of Frognal (LD)
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My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Johnson, who was a very open-minded higher education Minister. This has been a fascinating debate, but quite disconcerting. We have just been dealing with the Schools Bill, a Bill so bad that three Conservative Education Ministers have called for it to be terminated, and now we face another Bill which appears unnecessary, irrelevant and possibly harmful too. When Gavin Williamson, the then Education Secretary, introduced it in the Commons, he was constantly interrupted with questions, complaints and observations from all sides about why the Government were wasting time on such a Bill. We do not interrupt in our House, we listen courteously, and I thank the noble Earl the Minister for carrying out the hapless task of trying to convince us that this Bill is worth our time and trouble.

Higher education institutions are more than aware of the importance of freedom of speech. It is important that young people should be exposed to views contrary to their own, in a caring and learning environment where views should be respected but most certainly challenged where they are prejudiced, ignorant or harmful. No one has a right not to be outraged or offended, although increasingly some young people feel that they should not be exposed to views contrary to their own. I remember a number of revolting students at Oxford in the 1960s and some very robust debate, but I do not think that any of us suffered from it.

The recent HEPI survey, which my noble friend Lord Wallace referenced, is disturbing in the number of young people who do not seem to want to operate outside their comfort zone. But why is this Bill needed? An assessment by the Office for Students found that just 53 out of 59,574 events with external speakers were refused permission in 2017-18. Perhaps that was an unusually slow year for cancel culture and there is a real problem. However, the Bill comes before we have had a proper national public debate about where we think the acceptable boundary sits between speech that is offensive or hurtful but that ought to be permitted under the Bill, and speech that is harmful, divisive and, although perhaps not unlawful, has no place on campus. We have not had that debate, so the Government are rushing into legislation before we have much tangible evidence of the boundaries of acceptability.

Freedom of speech and the free exchange of ideas in pursuit of truth and knowledge are central to our universities’ whole purpose, but where is the evidence that there is a problem? This Bill is unnecessary and unclear. There is a real risk that our universities will be subject to vexatious and frivolous claims, which will cause distress and waste time and may make universities more risk-averse and more cautious about whom they invite to speak. So students will not be exposed to contrary views or be able to frame arguments and responses in defence of their own views.

Of course, we have a right to free speech. We need to be able to challenge people whose views are different from ours. Informed public debate is a vital element of a democratic society. It is vital to academic freedom, however difficult and contentious it might be, but, as has already been mentioned, we already have laws to protect free speech in the Education (No. 2) Act 1986. We really do not need any new laws, particularly ones as contentious as this. We have an Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education—and our thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, for that. Why can it not deal with any problems in this area? The new director seems to have alarming powers, apparently without the need for any legal background.

I turn to no-platforming. As we have already heard, in 2019-20, of almost 10,000 events involving an external speaker, just six were cancelled—that is 0.06%. It is not a major problem and the heavy-handed proposals in this legislation are certainly not justified or needed. It has been said that this is an authoritarian sledgehammer to crack a nut. It might well give universities a reason to stop holding events that would broaden students’ minds.

We oppose the Bill. It is not based on evidence and is not proportionate. Worst of all, it actively undermines the very principle of free speech that it claims to support. Free speech is about the right of every individual to speak truth to power, but the Bill does the opposite. It gives those in power or with power the ability to determine who is free to say what. Far from protecting our freedoms, it is yet another example of the Government’s concerted efforts to take our freedoms away. Given that universities are already required to protect freedom of speech and that research suggests that no-platforming is incredibly rare, the Government should drop this Bill entirely.

As others have said, the likely consequence of all this is that universities and student unions will err on the side of caution and steer away from anything risky—in other words, not more free speech but less—and for those with really outlandish views, there will be a legal stick with which to beat institutions. We have already heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, the great quotation of the principle:

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

We have wasted enough time on the Schools Bill. Please do not make us waste yet more time on this one.