Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill Debate

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Department: Leader of the House
Finally, I want to respond to the noble Lord, Lord Stevens, because, notwithstanding the comfort offered by the noble Baroness, Lady Fox of Buckley, I think he has a point. The interaction between the provisions in the Bill as drafted and the quality of research and expression of research has not been adequately considered. As I read the Bill, the academic who is put under pressure for the quality of their science being inadequate or anti-science will now have access to the new statutory tort. Of course, if they lose their job, that is a real loss. That problem will not be solved even by the proposition of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Etherton, about pecuniary loss because, by definition, the academic who was putting out bad science or non-science and was not standing up to refereed scrutiny will have pecuniary loss and is going to say, “I deny the climate catastrophe”, or “I deny any human contribution to the climate catastrophe”, or “I deny that tobacco has any effect at all on cancer, and that is my belief, that is my freedom of speech, I am a member of this university, you have put me out of a job and I am suing.” I do not see anything in the Bill that helps potentially beleaguered universities with that challenge.
Baroness Thornton Portrait Baroness Thornton (Lab)
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My Lords, this is a very important small group of amendments. It seems to me that the previous group was about what the law should say, while this debate has been about is who it is going to apply to. I was struck by my noble friend Lady Chakrabarti’s description of the academic who might suffer. I was thinking back and remembering, and I need to say that I am an emeritus governor of the LSE, but I think I am absolutely not a member of the academic staff there. When I was at the LSE, I attended a whole year of lectures and I fell asleep at every single one, but I do not think that counts with this.

I think the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, has been very clever in these two groups; his small amendments are exactly how you probe a Bill. I am full of admiration for his ability to do that, and I am grateful. The issue here has been mentioned by most noble Lords, because it is vital in legislation that we define who will be affected by the legislation and in what way. That is why my noble friend Lord Collins added his name to Amendment 26 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Sandhurst. My noble friend Lord Triesman made some very good points, as did the noble Lord, Lord Stevens, and others. I think the Minister will need to continue the discussion on this because by now the Bill team and the Minister will realise that there is a lack of clarity here, which provides enormous risks to the effectiveness of this legislation.

Earl Howe Portrait Earl Howe (Con)
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My Lords, this second group of amendments relates to members and academics, as covered by the Bill, but I will also try to address the questions put to me on related issues.

Amendments 4, 37 and 57 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, and spoken to by the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, seek to probe the meaning of the term “members” in the Bill. The term “member” in the sphere of higher education has a specific meaning as a term of art. It includes in particular a member of the governing council of a university and those with certain honorary positions, such as an emeritus professor. Such a person may not be a member of staff of the institution and so needs specific provision in order to be protected under the Bill.

A member does not include a person who simply studies or used to study at the university, though some might use the term in that way. Current students would be covered by the term “students”. It also does not include a recipient of an honorary degree, which is awarded to honour an individual and does not give any academic or professional privilege.

The term “member” is well understood in both legislation and universities. In particular, it is already a category of individuals which is protected under the Education (No. 2) Act 1986, which sets out the current freedom of speech duties.

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Lord Strathcarron Portrait Lord Strathcarron (Con)
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My Lords, I speak to my Amendments 17, 18, 19 and 21. We have already debated Amendment 17 at some length. I hope that Amendments 18, 19 and 21 are uncontroversial; I merely hope to tighten up and future-proof for anything that comes in the future. I believe that they address some concerns raised in an earlier group by the noble Lords, Lord Collins of Highbury and Lord Triesman, and the noble Baroness, Lady Fox of Buckley, and I hope they prove agreeable.

Baroness Thornton Portrait Baroness Thornton (Lab)
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I briefly say that I think the noble Earl has three things he needs to address in this group of amendments. The first is academic freedom, which has been referred to before. My noble friend Lord Triesman has brought to the Committee an amendment that deserves consideration, because I think it helps us. The second issue has created quite a discussion—what is the interface between the terms and conditions, the values and employment of an academic and their speech? I am not going to comment on that, frankly; the noble Earl is going to have to tell us what the Government think about that. The third issue, of course, is whether the other issues raised in this group affect the practicality and appropriateness of universities’ appointment procedures. I am not sure at all that that is the case. Those are the three issues I think the noble Earl will have to address, probably the next time the Committee meets.

Debate on Amendment 12 adjourned.