Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill Debate

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Department: Leader of the House
Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Portrait Lord Hunt of Kings Heath (Lab)
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My Lords, I will move Amendment 11 and speak to Amendments 15 and 25, alongside my noble friend Baroness Morris. I also want to speak in support of Amendment 16, being moved by my noble friend Lord Collins. We will shortly come to a very important debate on Clause 4. It seems to me, whatever the outcome of that debate, that at the end of the day and at the heart of the Bill, we are trying to encourage behaviour in our universities which will ensure the freedom of speech that noble Lords have spoken about. I think that it is the codes of practice that will have a pivotal role in ensuring that, backed up by whatever sanctions we eventually decide are necessary, whether we have Clause 4 or not.

I will focus on the codes of practice that each university—and each student union—has to agree to. The OfS is enabled to ensure that those codes of practice are acceptable within the terms of its overseeing of university registration and that they are appropriate to each student union as well. The OfS has a responsibility in the Bill—I think it is a very good responsibility—to publish good-practice advice. I see this as a wholly constructive approach, encouraging the best behaviour you can expect within those institutions.

The concern that my noble friend and I raised in Committee was the extent to which academics and speakers can expect protection in the face of action that is designed to intimidate them and prevent them speaking. We know from the experience of a number of academics—in particular women academics—that such intimidatory action can take the form of open letters demanding that an academic be sacked, vexatious complaints, petitions to publishers demanding that work be withdrawn, campaigns of defamation, smears, demands to prevent an academic being platformed, attempts to prevent events going ahead by threatening trouble if they do, and disrupting events that do go ahead. As I said, the targets of these tactics typically are women academics.

I say to the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, whom I respect enormously, “Where have you been?”, when there has been such trouble for some academics on many of our campuses. We cannot sweep that under the carpet; it is a reality. Professor Kathleen Stock suffered horrific abuse and her university completely failed to defend her until almost the last moment. That was a graphic demonstration of why this legislation in the end is required.

I was very grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Howe, for meeting us to discuss this. What he essentially said, if I may paraphrase it, is that the Bill will protect the right of speakers to put forward controversial or unpopular ideas, and that it will also protect the right of those who do not agree with them to speak up. I absolutely agree with that. But it should not mean that higher education institutes should simply stand passively by while, for instance, hecklers attempt to disrupt planned events that are lawful.

I have seen it argued that such attempts to silence speakers are themselves a form of free speech. But I think that that confuses the right to protest with the right to silence others. Speech that is intended merely to silence the speech of others, far from contributing to knowledge and learning, surely narrows the scope of the educational sphere.

The amendments we have put forward try to make it explicit that the codes of practice of universities and student unions must cover the measures that must be taken to ensure that a person is not prevented from speaking by attempts to drown them out or silence them. They have become known as the “hecklers’ amendments”.

I would like some assurance from the noble Earl that the OfS in its responsibility for the continued registration of universities and in its oversight and monitoring of student unions will give its attention to this matter and that it understands that the issue will be very important to the success of the Bill. I beg to move.

Baroness Morris of Yardley Portrait Baroness Morris of Yardley (Lab)
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My Lords, I rise briefly to support this amendment, to which I have added my name. I will try not to repeat everything that my noble friend Lord Hunt said but will emphasise some of his points.

I too was grateful for the meeting with the Minister. It was very helpful, and I think there was a great understanding of our view and of the problems the Government are having with putting this into legislation. I completely accept that the law has to protect both those who wish to express a view and those who wish to express a contrary view. In some ways, as my noble friend said, this is a “hecklers’ amendment”, but we are old enough both to have done some heckling and to have been the subject of heckling in past years. However, most of the time I was heckling or being heckled, it was not with the intent of stopping somebody else being heard; that is the crucial point.

Universities should be places where there is freedom to put forward a view and freedom to oppose it. I would never want a law of silence, where somebody’s view has to be listened to in silence. If there is an intention to make sure that the opposite point of view, which is legally held, is not heard, that is not the purpose of universities in this country. It never has been and it never should be. There are too many examples of that border being crossed.

Professor Stock has received a lot of publicity and rightly so—she felt obliged to lose her job. However, I have worked with academics who express an interest in sex and gender, and maintain the view that sex is a biological thing and that that should govern the law, and their lives have been made a misery. It is a long time since I have been to a university and talked to academics expressing that view when they have not told stories about it being miserable to be an academic because there is not the environment in which they can openly express their views. They are not people who want to impose an alternative point of view; the idea of putting forward a view is to engage in debate, not to make others say, “Yes, you’re right. Let’s move on.” Engaging in debate is at threat.

I can see that it is difficult to put that into law. It would be impossible; we would be here all day. I hope that putting this into the code of practice gives a clear message to the leaders of our universities that they have to take action, because, quite frankly, some vice-chancellors have not been doing their job on this. They have hidden quietly for too long and not stood up to protect their academic colleagues when they should have done. If that message can go forward in the code of practice, we might begin to reverse this tide.

Lord Macdonald of River Glaven Portrait Lord Macdonald of River Glaven (CB)
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My Lords, I do not oppose this amendment at all. I can see why it might be possible for material relating to this issue to be included in codes of practice. However, it is worth observing that a lot of the behaviour described by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, is patently criminal. It is a great shame that universities, colleges and other authorities do not always appreciate that.

As I said in Committee, a group of masked men letting off flares and shouting threats and abuse about a professor of philosophy inside her workplace is conduct that, in my view, is properly characterised as criminal. It is a great shame that the University of Sussex or other relevant authorities did not see it that way.