Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill Debate

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Department: Leader of the House
Baroness Royall of Blaisdon Portrait Baroness Royall of Blaisdon (Lab)
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My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord. I look forward to the answer from the Minister about those complexities —my goodness. I begin by reminding the House of my interest in the register as principal of Somerville College, Oxford.

I start with a quotation often attributed to Voltaire: “I may not agree with what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”. That, in essence, is the right to free speech. I consider that the free expression and exchange of views are fundamental to the academic, social and extracurricular experiences of being at university. Oxford University’s statement on freedom of speech says exactly that on the website and it is endorsed by the collegiate university as a whole.

I welcome the Government’s commitment to the protection of free and lawful speech and debate in higher education, but I do not believe that the Bill is either necessary or desirable. In seeking to fix something that is not truly broken, it could be seen as yet another spark to inflame the culture wars. As my noble friend said earlier, a recent review of 10,000 speaker events across universities found that only six had been cancelled, with four of those due to incorrect paperwork. I fear that the Bill will impose bureaucratic burdens on our precious universities, which are part of the questioning and accountability mechanisms our society needs and deserves.

Freedom of speech in universities already gets fulsome legal protection. The Human Rights Act requires universities to protect freedom of expression under Article 10 of the ECHR. Section 43 of the Education (No. 2) Act 1986 requires universities to

“take such steps as are reasonably practicable to ensure that freedom of speech within the law is secured for members, students and employees of the establishment and for visiting speakers”.

That is a great statement that seems to suffice.

I am concerned about politicisation of this issue. I suggest that such an important role as chair of the OfS requires the best person for the job, and I suggest that perhaps the person in office at the moment is popular with the Prime Minister. The responsibilities of the chair are immense, especially as the Bill provides for the Orwellian director of freedom of speech, who will have sweeping powers, act as judge, jury and executioner in free speech complaints and potentially monitor overseas funding of universities. The fact that the chair spoke via video link at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Budapest calls into question his judgment in relation to free speech. He said that he did not know that he was appearing on the same platform as a notorious far-right, anti-Semitic, racist journalist—a poor excuse. In his speech, he endorsed the recent victory of the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, whose Government have curbed freedom of expression and countless other human rights. The OfS said that the noble Lord, Lord Wharton, was not speaking in his capacity as chair of the OfS. Frankly, that is not good enough.

Today, I learned that Minister Donelan has written to all vice-chancellors suggesting that the Race Equality Charter is

“potentially … in tension with creating an environment that promotes and protects free speech”.

I am speechless. Can the Minister really defend such a suggestion? I am often asked whether wokeism is rife in our universities and specifically at Oxford. I suggest that it is not.

The Bill appears to require in statute that providers place greater relative importance on always securing free speech. It does not make any mention of the other legal duties that universities, student unions and constituent institutions need to abide by, despite the fact that these duties may potentially conflict with securing free speech in some cases, as the noble Lord suggested. Can the Minister say which duties have primacy?

The new statutory tort is far too open-ended. Safeguards against misuse are needed to ensure that this would be a genuine protection for staff, students and speakers. The Government make much of not involving judges in political questions, but I fear that this Bill could encourage frivolous litigation by provocateurs and draw the courts into very difficult political terrain.

The Bill’s current wording around the scope of the OfS’s free speech complaint scheme appears to allow for complainants to escalate their “free speech complaint” through multiple routes simultaneously. This is likely to lead to immense confusion. A situation of competing judgments could undermine faith in local disciplinary processes and in the procedures of the Office of the Independent Adjudicator and the OfS. At present, the OIA considers student complaints only once the local process has been completed. Does the Minister agree that a similar principle should apply in relation to the proposed framework for free speech-related complaints?

The Bill allows simultaneously for the imposition of sanctions by the OfS for breach of a registration condition and for the issuance of recommendations that higher education institutions, student unions and constituent institutions pay fines. Is it the intention that they could be hit by a number of simultaneous penalties? If so, that could be particularly damaging to student unions.

In relation to overseas reporting, the Bill imposes a general monitoring duty on the OfS that the regulator “must” request information pre-emptively from providers, regardless of whether it has reasonable grounds to suspect a risk to freedom of speech, and seemingly without limitation by the country and potentially exposed persons exemptions, despite the risk-based exemptions set out in subsections. Does the Minister agree that it would be sensible for the OfS to request information only where it has reasonable grounds to suspect a risk to freedom of speech and/or a provider being in breach of a freedom of speech duty owing to overseas funding, and that information in scope for any OfS reporting requests should be restricted to funding from certain countries or individuals?

This Bill will represent the first and only direct way in which the OfS regulates student unions. It spells out how the OfS will take enforcement action against student unions it considers to be, or to have been, in breach of the new free speech duties that will be incumbent upon them. Like colleagues from many other universities, I am concerned that the Bill provides only for a disproportionate punitive approach and fails to offer a gradated scheme of interventions short of a monetary penalty.

Benjamin Franklin said:

“Without Freedom of Thought, there can be no such Thing as Wisdom; and no such Thing as publick Liberty, without Freedom of Speech.”

It is my belief that our universities are already proud bastions of freedom of thought and freedom of speech.