Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill Debate

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Department: Leader of the House
Lord Moore of Etchingham Portrait Lord Moore of Etchingham (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, I cannot call the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, my noble friend because I am non-affiliated, but outside this House, I call him my friend. He has been my friend for 45 years. I can testify that his well-known nickname is correct and that he does have double the cerebral capacity of the rest of us, so we should all listen very carefully to anything he has to say.

However, although he made many good points, I do disagree with his conclusion. We must not lose sight of the wider context, and I think there is a slight risk that we might do so in some areas of this House. There is a danger of us suffering from what economists call producer capture. By that, I mean that there are a great many people here who are very close to the top of universities. It is not very surprising that they all tend to think that universities are running themselves quite well and that it is all basically all right. However, I think there needs to be a little more power for the voice of the ordinary student and the ordinary, not-very-important academic who is having a rough time. I was very grateful for and impressed by some of the points made about that by the noble Lords, Lord Macdonald of River Glaven and Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, in particular, who really tried to bring home the reality of these difficulties.

Going back to why the Bill exists at all, it is to do with the fact that the traditional freedom of speech ethos in universities came under threat. In the past, threats to academic life came from without but now they are coming from within. That is the essence of the problem and why the Bill got going. Even though there have been some changes and alterations of behaviour—for example, the establishment in Cambridge University was defeated in its attempt to suppress free speech and real free speech won—there are still examples.

In Cambridge quite recently, the master of Gonville and Caius College—I think she did not fully understand that the word “master” in the Cambridge or Oxford circumstances is a misnomer and you cannot issue orders at all; it is a very unmasterly position—said that the presence of Helen Joyce speaking in that college would be hateful and that, on those grounds, her talk should not take place. I believe that Helen Joyce would not have been allowed to speak had it not been for the fact that Professor Arif Ahmed, the great leader of free speech, was a don in that college and stood up for Helen Joyce, so the meeting finally took place.

There is a problem, and it has not been sufficiently acknowledged by everybody here. Therefore, it seems that there has to be in the Bill—as there was and to some extent still is—some form of deterrent. There has to be something that goes beyond the universities themselves to make them feel a little nervous about where they have got to. Since universities are currently failing in many cases to uphold the duty of free speech, we cannot just depend on people such as the expert regulators, to which the noble Lord, Lord Grabiner, referred.

The idea of a new tort is to change that. The law of tort offers remedy to private citizens when private duties are breached. This is as opposed to the upholding of more general aspirations, as might be achieved, for example, by judicial review. This difference has not been sufficiently acknowledged in some of the things that have been said. If an academic could bring timely action under a statutory tort, that would concentrate the mind of the university at which he or she worked. That university would face a real deterrent to impeding his or her free speech, because a county court could find against it, with legal, financial and reputational consequences. As the noble Baroness, Lady Shafik, said, I do not quite understand how the prospect of some suit about free speech would frighten people who were inviting people in the cause of free speech. If, however, free speech complaints must always be brought first to an internal complaints procedure, the university will be tempted to mark its own homework favourably or to spin out the process. Early complainants will then retire exhausted and later, prospective ones will not even bother to start.

I add that the Office for Students, on which much reliance is being placed, is not necessarily the best arbiter. As its name suggests, it is for students. The people at universities for whom the free speech stakes are highest are not undergraduates but career academics. The statutory tort, pursuant to which injunctive power could be exercised, would give them the strong protection they increasingly need. I therefore oppose the amendment in the name of my real friend, the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, and support the amendments in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Moylan.

Baroness Smith of Newnham Portrait Baroness Smith of Newnham (LD)
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My Lords, I do not want to detain the House too long because I realise that there will be a move to a vote relatively soon. I support Amendment 22 and will politely say a few words against the noble Lord, Lord Moore, if I may respectfully put it that way.

I am an academic at the University of Cambridge, I signed the amendments put forward by Professor Ahmed and I believe in free speech. However, I am concerned that the idea of a tort will do exactly the reverse of what the noble Lord, Lord Moore, just said. If we want to support the junior academics and students, the way to do that is not to have a legal procedure. As a noble Lord on the other Benches mentioned, the people who will benefit most are the lawyers; the people least likely to be able bring these legal cases are students and junior academics, particularly junior academics at an early stage in their careers. Therefore, the whole idea of a tort will do exactly the opposite of what the noble Lord just implied.

I absolutely agree that we need to listen not just to heads of Oxbridge colleges, chancellors and vice-chancellors of universities, and people like me. However, I hope I speak on behalf of students, members of the casualised part of university staff and other academics in saying that this legal provision will not benefit individuals because those who will have the resources to fight are the university bureaucracies, not individuals.

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Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Portrait Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle (GP)
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My Lords, I have attached my name to Amendment 29 in the names of the noble Lord, Lord Collins, and the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, which was so ably presented by the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton. Having heard those two speeches, I will be extremely brief because the case has been very powerfully made. At this stage these are probing amendments, but there is a need for a strong response from the Minister.

As the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, said, there is very grave concern about the nature of public appointments in many areas. If you combine that with the very grave concern that has been expressed from all sides of your Lordships’ House about the Bill and its operation, it makes this a particularly crucial response from the Minister.

I also note that in Committee there was an amendment to put a sunset clause on the Bill. It was not my amendment, but I attached my name to it. It was not brought back so I have not pushed forward with it, but that would have been an alternative way of tackling this problem; in some ways it would possibly have been a stronger way. Given where we are now, at the end of Report, we need to hear some very strong reassurances.

Baroness Smith of Newnham Portrait Baroness Smith of Newnham (LD)
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My Lords, I support the thrust of both amendments, but I am rising to add to my declaration of interests earlier. I noted my role as an academic at Cambridge University. I am also a non-executive director of the Oxford International Education Group. I neglected that because the previous declaration linked to what I was saying. I was advised by the clerks to pop up at some point today. I declared it appropriately in Committee.

Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
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My Lords, I will now address the group of amendments concerning the appointment of the new director for freedom of speech and academic freedom at the Office for Students. Amendment 29, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Collins of Highbury, and very ably presented by the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, seeks to impose extra requirements on the appointment of the director for freedom of speech and academic freedom and their role once in post. Amendment 30, tabled by noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, similarly focuses on the appointment process.

As I said in Grand Committee, I want to be clear that

“the director for freedom of speech and academic freedom will be appointed in the same way as other members of the OfS board, by the Secretary of State under the Higher Education and Research Act 2017.”—[Official Report, 14/11/22; col. GC 751.]

Although this is not officially a public appointment, it will be done in accordance with the public appointments process. This will ensure the independence of the process.

It is not necessary to include the additional requirement of confirmation of the appointment by the Education Select Committee. Such confirmation is not required for other members of the Office for Students board more generally, including the chief executive and the director for fair access and participation, who has a similar level of responsibility. The only role within the OfS which has involved prospective appointees appearing before the Select Committee is that of the chair. It would therefore be disproportionate and an unnecessary level of scrutiny that would set an unhelpful precedent for appointments to both the OfS and other public bodies, including those outside the higher education sector.

As for the involvement of the higher education sector in the appointment through formal consultation—I am afraid I cannot comfort the noble Lord, Lord Wallace—which is envisaged under his Amendment 30, this conversely would threaten the independence of the role.

I turn to the proposed additional reporting requirements to Parliament in Amendment 29. There are already several provisions in the Bill that provide for scrutiny of the operation of the Bill once enacted. Under Clause 5, the Secretary of State can ask the Office for Students to report on freedom of speech and academic freedom matters in its annual report or in a special report. This report must be laid before Parliament. This is based on the approach in Section 37 of the Higher Education and Research Act as regards equality of opportunity.

Under Clause 9, the annual report must include a summary of information on overseas funding and conclusions on patterns and trends of concern. This is based on Section 68 of the Higher Education and Research Act as regards financial sustainability.