Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill Debate

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Department: Leader of the House
Baroness Thornton Portrait Baroness Thornton (Lab)
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My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who will speak in today’s debate and all the organisations and the Library for their excellent briefing on the Bill.

I also thank the Minister for presenting the Bill with his usual clarity and elegance, expressing many aspirations that many of us would agree with about free speech. Having worked with the noble Earl for many years, both as a Minister and in opposition, revising and improving many pieces of legislation, I have come to admire his intellectual acumen and political nous. I fear that he will have to bring both to bear in great measure to justify and succeed in getting what is regarded by many as a shoddy piece of legislation—at best, unnecessary and, at worst, divisive—through your Lordships’ House in its present form.

Labour, unlike the Conservatives, over many years, has always championed free speech. It was a Labour Government who introduced a law guaranteeing freedom of expression. It seems to us on these Benches that, as higher education and our students move out of the difficult and sometimes traumatic time that Covid brought, the Government should be addressing the immediate issues of rent, getting a job and the rise of mental health conditions among our young people. Three out of every four students are currently worried about managing financially, one in four has less than £50 a month to live on after rent and bills, and 5% of students are using food banks to get by. Surely these matters are the priority, rather than focusing on a row largely manufactured in Whitehall based, at best, on flimsy evidence. A review of 10,000 events revealed that only six were cancelled and four of those because of faulty paperwork.

The Commons Minister, Michelle Donelan was asked what evidence lies behind her statements on ConservativeHome that there is

“a cluster of institutions that are in the grip of a close-minded, intolerant ideology—and at the centre of this cluster lie our universities.”

She said that she believed it to be true. This seems a flimsy base for legislation from a Secretary of State who says that he believes in an evidence-based approach. Can the noble Earl please tell the House to which “institutions” his honourable friend was referring? As my honourable friend Kate Green MP said at Second Reading over a year ago,

“it is an evidence-free zone when it comes to underpinning the concerns that he says it is addressing.”—[Official Report, Commons, 12/7/21; col. 53.]

The lack of an evidence base is one challenge the noble Earl will have to face as the Bill progresses through your Lordships’ House, but there are others. There is an understandable concern that the Bill may undermine existing protections against discrimination. That it introduces a new mechanism that some believe may allow hate-filled individuals to sue a university if they feel that their opinion has not been adequately heard may allow extremists, racists and Holocaust deniers to have a voice and a much-craved platform on our campuses. We will need to test these things during the passage of the Bill.

Additionally, we need to ask how the resources to fight those challenges will be found. We will test the effectiveness of the new clauses added by the Government. From these Benches, we will seek to amend the Bill to require an independent appointments process for, and prevent party-political donations from, the new, to-be-appointed director of free speech. We will seek to broaden the definition of academic freedom to include, for example, criticism of institutions, conducting research and joining a union. We will seek to add a sunset clause, so the legislation expires after three years unless an extension is approved through an affirmative SI. We will seek to require the Office for Students to consider competing freedoms when investigating free speech complaints and seek to prohibit the use of non- disclosure agreements by universities in relation to sexual harassment.

I want to raise with the noble Earl the appointment of the director of free speech. This job was advertised on 13 June or thereabouts, which is, of course, the date that the Bill completed its passage through the Commons but had yet to reach your Lordships’ House. The closing date for applications is 13 July—so be quick if you want to apply for this almost £100,000-a-year job. Can the noble Earl address the question of pre-emption? When will the appointment be made if the closing date is 13 July? Will it before the position has been agreed by Parliament? What parliamentary scrutiny will the appointment receive?

Looking at the job description—which I recommend noble Lords to read—the position seems to require no legal background. I hold no brief to create work for lawyers, but surely if we are to have a director of free speech, a person tasked with the job of settling contentious cases, it must be in all our interests for that person to have a broad understanding of the sector, the legal framework around free speech to which I have referred and the sector’s regulatory framework, but these elements are not essential in the job description.

In conclusion, the issue here is evidence, and that is why these Benches have deep reservations about the unintended consequences of this Bill. Its top-down, one-size-fits-all approach demonstrates the weakness at the heart of the Government and their misplaced lack of trust in our academic community. I have great hope that the many noble and learned Lords and the phalanx of chancellors, vice-chancellors and heads of colleges who inhabit your Lordships’ House will cast their eyes on the Bill and between us we might knock it into some sensible shape. At the least we can do no harm, and if we are very successful, we may enhance free speech in higher education. I look forward to the debates to come and the next stage of the Bill.