Debates between Baroness Noakes and Lord Johnson of Marylebone during the 2019 Parliament

Wed 20th Mar 2024
Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill
Lords Chamber

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Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill

Debate between Baroness Noakes and Lord Johnson of Marylebone
Lord Johnson of Marylebone Portrait Lord Johnson of Marylebone (Con)
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My Lords, I would also like to probe a little more on the meaning of “decision-maker” in a higher education context, following on from the excellent speech by the noble Lord, Lord Wallace.

Universities are often very decentralised in their structures, and power can be distributed quite far and wide. It is not always concentrated in the vice-chancellor’s office; nor is the governance of universities often as clear- cut as it might be. I would appreciate some clarity as the Bill proceeds on who exactly is going to be identified as the decision-maker in particular situations. Do we mean specifically decisions taken by the executive management team of an institution, principally the vice-chancellor? Do we mean, for example, student unions?

I noted that in my noble friend the Minister’s response to the noble Lord, Lord Mann, that student unions were—if I heard her correctly—out of scope, because they are private bodies. This confuses me a little, because I thought the whole purpose of the Bill, from a political point of view, was to address precisely this issue: student unions getting on their soapboxes and making statements about BDS, and all the rest of it. If they are out of scope of the Bill, I really wonder why universities as a whole are still in scope. It is not the vice-chancellors, academics or heads of department who are making these kinds of noises; it is the student unions. If I understood my noble friend the Minister correctly, they are not even covered. I really question why universities are still in scope at all, but that is a question we will come to later in Committee.

The final point on which I would like some clarity from my noble friend the Minister is whether a decision-maker will also be deemed to be an individual academic, who may manage a research budget. Will the use of that research budget by the individual academic be part of the decision-making process captured by the Bill? If so, how will that be squared with the legal duties on the OfS, among others, to promote academic freedom and freedom of speech in our higher education institutions?

Baroness Noakes Portrait Baroness Noakes (Con)
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My Lords, it seems to me that there is a bit of confusion going on. Amendment 7, which takes out the words in Clause 1(7), relates only to who is carrying out the disapproval. It is just amplifying those people whose disapproval is taken into account, to see whether or not the clause is engaged. It is not trying to add different categories of decision-maker, because the reference to decision-maker is clear in Clause 2, which we will come on to in another group. It is that definition that then drives enforcement, et cetera.

I was interested in Amendment 55 of the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman—although I think it is actually the wrong amendment asking for regulations—because it highlights that decision-makers might be individuals under the Bill, which they can be. As I understand it, the definition of “decision-maker” in Clause 2 encompasses some individuals being the decision-maker from whom all these consequences might flow. That was a complete surprise to me because the Bill is titled the Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill—a manifesto commitment related to public bodies. I was completely amazed to find that individuals might be public authorities within the terms of Clause 2, and therefore decision-makers.

I was interested in the noble Baroness’s probing amendment, because I hoped that she would be using that to ask the Minister what kinds of individuals could be decision-makers under the definition that we are using—the Human Rights Act definition. The limited research I have done produced the example of a doctor. When a doctor is carrying out his NHS work, he could be a public authority for that purpose, but when carrying out his private work, he could not be. I did not find much more than that, and I am rather hoping that the Minister will be able to explain to us in rather more detail precisely which individuals are decision-makers within Clause 2.