Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill Debate

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Department: Leader of the House
Moved by
Earl Howe Portrait Earl Howe
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That the Bill be now read a second time.

Earl Howe Portrait Earl Howe (Con)
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My Lords,

“If liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”

George Orwell’s words from 1945 remain just as apposite today. I hope and believe that we are all in agreement that freedom of speech—the right to voice one’s opinion without fear of repercussion—is vital to the proper functioning of a democratic society. This principle is surely no less important in a university setting. Free speech is the lifeblood of a university, allowing students and teachers to explore a spectrum of views, engage in robust debate and pursue their quest for knowledge.

The phrase “world class” is sometimes overused, but our higher education is world class, and it would not be wrong to equate much of its success to the value we place on free speech in this country. You need only look to some of our most influential historical figures to understand how free speech can influence the course of history. Let us not forget that the views of trailblazers such as Emmeline Pankhurst and Mary Wollstonecraft were first dismissed and ridiculed, but their willingness to stand up and argue for what they believed in ultimately secured women the right to vote.

Both students and academics arrive at our universities expecting to be challenged. Yet, we know that fear of censure is increasing and this is having a chilling effect on discourse and debate. There is a growing body of evidence to bear this out: the proportion of students who believe that universities are becoming less tolerant of a wide range of viewpoints has risen to 38%; this figure stood at 24% in 2016. Here, I thank my noble friend Lord Johnson who, as Universities Minister, was one of the first to raise concerns on this important matter, including in his landmark speech at the Limmud conference in December 2017.

I firmly believe that we must address these issues and that the Bill before us is the best way to do so. By way of an example—which happens to be the freshest in my mind—the experience of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education at the University of Warwick highlights that, even if we do not agree with views expressed by others, it does not mean that we have the right to silence them. A student firmly interrogated the Secretary of State’s statement on trans rights. Their views differed greatly but, as the Secretary of State said, the student’s

“right to free speech is vital too”.

Areas of disagreement do not always have to be met with hostility; there is scope to agreeably disagree. I am looking forward to hearing the views of noble Lords during today’s debate, and I thank those who have come to contribute to it.

The Bill will protect lawful freedom of speech and academic freedom on campus. The measures will strengthen existing legislation and address gaps in existing law. As I shall explain, these are very much active measures, not just a means to address a problem once a breach of the duties has taken place. New duties will be placed on higher education providers and constituent colleges to take “reasonably practicable” steps to secure freedom of speech within the law for staff, members, students and visiting speakers. They will be duty bound to pay particular attention to the importance of free speech when taking these steps. Importantly, these duties also, for the first time, clearly extend to “academic freedom”.

In a new measure, the Bill will require providers and constituent colleges to promote the importance of freedom of speech and academic freedom. The Office for Students will be bound by a similar duty. Furthermore, higher education providers and their constituent colleges must develop and publish a code of practice, which must include an overarching statement of the values and procedures they will uphold, and which they must bring to the attention of their students at least once a year.

Student unions are at the heart of many students’ university experience; they offer a distinct space for students to come together and engage in areas particularly close to their heart. This legislation, therefore, contains duties that apply specifically to student unions at approved fee cap providers, which is the majority of registered higher education providers. Like higher education providers and constituent colleges, under this legislation they must take steps to secure lawful freedom of speech. Similarly, they must publish their own code of practice.

At present, there are no effective means of enforcing the current law if higher education providers are in breach of it. This may explain some individuals’ hesitancy to express their views. To address this, the Bill creates a new statutory tort for breach of specified freedom of speech duties by providers, constituent colleges and student unions. This will enable individuals to seek legal redress for the loss they have suffered as a result of a breach.

The higher education sector will play a leading role in delivering the ambitions of this legislation, but the regulator also has an important part to play. The Bill gives new powers to the Office for Students, which will identify best practice and provide guidance on how to secure and promote free speech. The Office for Students will be required to impose mandatory registration conditions on providers relating to freedom of speech and academic freedom, as well as monitoring the compliance of student unions with their freedom of speech duties. As with the lack of an enforcement mechanism, there is currently no specific route for all those who might be affected to lodge complaints relating to freedom of speech. The Bill creates a requirement for the Office for Students to provide a complaints scheme that will provide a right of redress for students, members, staff and visiting speakers. This scheme will be overseen by the Director for Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom, a new position on the Office for Students board. These measures will enhance the strengthened freedom of speech duties and encourage compliance.

On Report in the other place, my colleagues introduced several minor and clarificatory amendments. Two substantial amendments were also tabled. The first creates a duty for providers, constituent colleges and student unions not to pass on security costs associated with free speech events to the organisers, unless there are exceptional circumstances. The second was an amendment on “overseas funding”: this creates a duty for the Office for Students to monitor overseas funding received by higher education providers, their constituent institutions and student unions. This will enable them to assess the extent to which the funding presents a risk to freedom of speech and academic freedom.

I finish by emphasising that the Bill is not about allowing unlawful speech. The right to freedom of speech is not an absolute right and it does not include the right to harass others or incite them to violence or terrorism. This is definitely not a licence to break the law. The Bill is about encouraging varied and thoughtful debate, so that future generations develop the ability to think critically, challenge extreme narratives and put forward new—and sometimes controversial—ideas. I firmly believe that these are essential skills in a modern, forward-facing society. I look forward to the debate ahead of us today and beg to move.

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Earl Howe Portrait Earl Howe (Con)
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My Lords, this has been a memorably good debate. I thank all speakers for the knowledge and personal insights that they brought to it. I am grateful particularly to those noble Lords who felt able to give the Bill a broad welcome and I look forward to their constructive support as it proceeds.

As we heard, by no means all who have spoken were so positive. Some, such as the noble Lords, Lord Wallace of Saltaire and Lord Collins, the noble Baronesses, Lady Thornton and Lady Royall, and my noble friend Lord Willetts are clearly very troubled by the Bill. So it is perhaps appropriate for me to start by addressing some of the deeper-rooted concerns that were expressed.

From the noble Lords, Lord Wallace and Lord Collins, the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, and others, we heard genuine concern that there is no substantive problem to be addressed and that any chilling effect or cases of no-platforming are being exaggerated, possibly even for political reasons. I understand these concerns, but let me try to allay them. The reality is that one needs look no further than the available data and information from the higher education sector itself to see that there is a problem.

In October last year, 200 academics wrote to the Times to report that they had received death threats and abuse simply for expressing views. They did not feel supported by their universities. One of those academics had expressed an opinion about the need to protect women-only spaces, such as refuges, prisons and hospital wards. However, this brought her into conflict with students and staff, who saw her opinions as transphobic. It also caused her to be compared to eugenicists and white supremacists, in addition to being called a bigot. This is just one case among those 200 staff who wrote to the Times.

Several studies, surveys and reports highlight instances in which freedom of speech and academic freedom are being curtailed in the higher education sector. A 2019 King’s College London report showed that 26% of students think violence can be justified in preventing someone espousing hateful views. A similar proportion reported not feeling free to express their views at university for fear of disagreeing with their peers.

There are also high-profile cases in which academics have been harassed for expressing perfectly lawful views. The noble Lord, Lord Macdonald, cited the case of Professor Kathleen Stock, who resigned from her post at the University of Sussex due to fears over her personal safety after harassment from students. There are many similar examples. Professor Rosa Freedman’s door at the University of Reading was drenched in urine. At Oxford a left-wing feminist academic, Selina Todd, had to be given security guards after threats to her safety. Raquel Rosario Sánchez, a PhD student at the University of Bristol, was subjected to a campaign of intimidation by trans activists after agreeing to chair an event, held by Woman’s Place UK, called A Woman’s Place is Speaking Out. I could go on.

There is without doubt a problem with the suppression of free speech on university campuses. I want to be very clear: it is not confined to either the right or the left of political opinion. This leads me on to my next point, which is to address concerns that the introduction of the Bill is politically motivated. Students and academics from across the political spectrum have been impacted by the censure of free speech on campuses. From those on the left to those on the right, there is a real fear about airing what might be controversial opinions. The Bill is designed to protect free speech on a diverse range of topics, including minority ones. Freedom of speech and academic freedom are fundamental principles in higher education. This is not about promoting and protecting one political view over another.

I will clarify a further point, prompted by the noble Baronesses, Lady D’Souza and Lady Garden, and mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Fox. The Bill is not just about eradicating no platform. It is about creating a wider culture on campus, such that everyone feels able to express their views and challenge those of others, even when those views are unpopular or controversial, and to do so without fear of negative consequences. Everyone needs to be aware that when things do not go as they should, there is a meaningful route of redress for individuals.

The noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, followed that up by asking: does this not need cultural change, not just legislation? Absolutely, yes. This needs cultural change, and we welcome initiatives by universities, academics and students to do all they can to move in that direction. But as we have seen historically on issues such as gender equality, race discrimination and human rights, cultural change occurs more readily when backed by appropriate legislation.

I turn now to an issue that has given rise to a number of expressions of concern. I listened carefully to noble Lords such as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Coventry, my noble friend Lord Willetts and the noble Baroness, Lady Shafik, who are worried that the creation of a new tort, as proposed in Clause 4, may lead unintentionally to a deluge of court cases initiated by vexatious, publicity-seeking pressure groups. Nobody, least of all the Government, wishes to see universities burdened in this way. It may be helpful if I explain why I do not think the scenario that some noble Lords envisage is at all likely.

To succeed with a civil claim, a claimant would need to be able to show that a provider, college or student union owes them a duty of care; the category of those potentially owed a duty of care under the Bill is narrowly defined. They would then need to point to a genuine and material loss they had suffered as a result of a breach of the freedom of speech duties. Those tests are not a low bar, and any claimant who pursued their case vexatiously would certainly struggle to prove it. In the background, of course, a vexatious claimant would be assuming a considerable financial risk, not only in the form of their own legal costs but by being potentially liable for those of the defendant. That is why we believe the tort will be resorted to very much as a backstop. The availability of the free complaints scheme through the Office for Students, which will provide a much easier and more straightforward route to redress, should make litigation unnecessary and therefore unlikely in the vast majority of circumstances.

Setting aside for a moment the concerns around the tort, the noble Lords, Lord Wallace and Lord Storey, and the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, expressed a worry that the wider provisions of the Bill would impact on higher education institutions in terms of administrative burdens. I am the first to agree that unnecessary bureaucracy directly impacts on how well higher education providers can do their job; every pound spent on unnecessary bureaucracy is a pound less that is being spent on teaching and research. However, I am also convinced that if straightforward measures can be put in place to protect our core UK values, it is right and necessary that we do so. We have ensured that their scope is proportionate to the risk. To pick up a point made by the right reverend Prelate, we sincerely hope that providers and student unions will embrace the mission to generate rigorous and healthy debate on campus, understanding how vital it is to academia and our country’s democracy.

I turn to the proposal in the Bill to create a new post in the Office for Students: the director for freedom of speech and academic freedom. The noble Baronesses, Lady Thornton and Lady Royall, and the noble Lords, Lord Storey, Lord Wallace and Lord Collins, asked several questions about the appointment of this individual. As has been mentioned, the role was advertised publicly from 13 June 2022. To allay the doubts expressed on that score by the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, and the noble Lord, Lord Collins, I can reassure them that the Government can undertake preparatory actions in anticipation of full implementation following Royal Assent.

Worries were expressed about bias in the appointments process. Freedom of speech and academic freedom are fundamental principles in higher education, not the preserve of one particular political view. The director for freedom of speech and academic freedom will be appointed in the same way that other members of the OfS are appointed, under the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 by the Secretary of State, and this will be done in the usual way in accordance with the public appointments process.

My noble friend Lord Willetts, who I am sorry to see is not in his place, asked why we need the regulatory route as well as the tort. As he is not here, I will write to him about that and copy the answer to other noble Lords.

The noble Baroness, Lady Royall, argued that the Bill establishes the possibility of simultaneous penalties. It is already possible for there to be a complaint through the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education and regulatory action at the same time. The Bill does not change that. These actions perform different functions, with the complaint having the potential to provide the individual with redress but with regulation intended to ensure that provider behaviour as a whole meets its registration conditions using a proportionate approach based on risk.

The noble Baroness, Lady Deech, asked what the difference will be between the Office for Students complaints scheme and the complaints scheme operated by the OIA. While the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education will remain the body for general student complaints about providers, the OfS scheme will focus exclusively on freedom of speech and academic freedom. The OfS will offer a complaints scheme for staff and visiting speakers who cannot complain to the OIA, as well as for complaints about student unions also not covered by the OIA scheme. All those who consider that they have suffered because of a breach of the new duties will have access to the OfS scheme, including students.

On a point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, and the noble Lord, Lord Stevens, I make it clear that it will be for the OfS to make decisions, not the director personally. It is not unusual for a regulator to be able to consider legal matters when making decisions; for example, the Charity Commission already does this in relation to charity law. It is also common practice for out-of-court redress schemes to consider legal issues when making decisions around a recommendation of redress. If alternative dispute resolution bodies could not consider legal issues, they would not be able to fulfil their functions. For example, the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education does this.

Returning to the issue of political bias—I draw this to the attention of the noble Lord, Lord Wallace—it is important to note that the chilling effect on free speech appears to increase when political views are expressed. Studies confirm that this affects people from across the political spectrum. Policy Exchange polling shows that 15% of those identifying as centre or left are choosing to self-censor. The Government are clear that freedom of speech is not about promoting and protecting one political view over another.

The noble Lord, Lord Sikka, asked how providers are supposed to know what speech is unlawful. The Bill does not change the legal position in this country on what speech is lawful and what is unlawful. It will be for providers, constituent colleges and student unions to determine the lawfulness of speech by considering it in the light of the provisions of criminal law, such as the Public Order Act 1986 and legislation such as the Equality Act 2010. That is no different from the process that they must go through already.

My noble friend Lord Willetts asked whether the Bill was designed to protect all legal speech. Once again, as he is not here, I will write to him about that and copy my answer to other noble Lords. However, I say to the noble Lord, Lord Stevens, that there is nothing in the Bill that encourages higher education providers or student unions to encourage baseless and harmful claims or bad science on campus.

Certain noble Lords suggested that the Government were presenting a confused picture to universities on such matters as anti-Semitism. The example of the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism, also referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, was mentioned. First, it is up to providers as independent and autonomous organisations to decide on whether to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism. Secondly, the Government do not see a conflict between protecting freedom of speech and adopting the IHRA definition. I believe the Bill strengthens protections for freedom of speech likely to support Jewish students and staff, who, on a number of occasions, have had their speech shut down by others. However, the Government recognise that the adoption of the definition is necessary but not sufficient, and there is more that providers need to do to make sure that instances of anti-Semitism on campus are not tolerated.

I shall comment briefly on the Prevent duty, mentioned by a number of noble Lords, including the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, and the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald. The Government are clear that the Prevent duty should not be used to suppress freedom of speech. The duty requires providers and constituent colleges, when exercising their functions, to have due regard to the need to prevent people being drawn into terrorism. The legislation imposing the Prevent duty in relation to higher education specifically requires that providers must have particular regard to the duty to ensure freedom of speech and to the importance of academic freedom.

A number of speakers, including the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, referred to the vexed issue of Holocaust denial. I wish to be very clear on this point: any attempt to deny the scale or occurrence of the Holocaust is morally reprehensible and has no basis in fact. In many cases, those who deny the Holocaust also have links to neo-Nazi extremism, anti-Semitic violence and intimidation. The European Court of Human Rights has held that Holocaust denial is not protected speech under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, and our legislation does not change that. For the avoidance of any doubt, this legislation will not protect those who deny the Holocaust.

The noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, asked about the Bill of Rights and specifically how that Bill and its amendments to Section 12 of the Human Rights Act will affect this Bill. The proposals to strengthen freedom of expression through reforms to the Human Rights Act complement the creation of this tort, which is seeking to give greater protection to free speech as well. If anything, the MoJ proposals only bolster the requirement that universities take steps to ensure free speech.

As a general comment, and in answer to those who have asked how the new duty fits with other legal duties a provider, college or student union may have under the Equality Act or criminal law, the duty to take “reasonably practicable” steps means that providers, colleges and student unions can take account of all their legal duties on a case-by-case basis. If another legal duty requires or gives rise to a certain action, it would not be “reasonably practicable” to override that.

My noble friend Lord Strathcarron was worried about the potential clash between this Bill and the Online Safety Bill. It is perhaps a debate for Committee, but I shall seek to persuade my noble friend that there is no conflict between that Bill and the one before us.

The noble Baroness, Lady Royall, raised the issue of overseas funding and asked why the OfS will ask for information about this pre-emptively. We are ensuring that the scope of the new reporting requirement on overseas funding is proportionate to the risk. We recognise the importance of protecting commercial sensitivities so that the sector does not fall behind its competitors in the rest of the world. We must ensure that the Office for Students has the information at its disposal to enable it to better understand the possible extent of influence from a foreign source at a country level. The reasons for that were well articulated by my noble friend Lord Moore.

My noble friend Lord Johnson, the noble Baroness, Lady Shafik, and the noble Lord, Lord Storey, questioned the level of the proposed threshold for reporting the receipt of overseas funds by a university and argued that the threshold should be higher than £75,000, which is the currently intended level. For now, I have listened carefully to the points they made. The Government have struck what they consider to be the right balance, but this is a matter to be determined in regulations, so there will be ample time to discuss it further.

In answer to the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, who asked what criteria will determine what overseas funding is acceptable, we continue to welcome foreign investment and donations to higher education as they are a key part of supporting innovation and development within our universities. Through the Bill, we are simply trying to implement measures that help to safeguard our world-leading higher education sector from those who may wish to interfere with our values. I would be happy to meet the noble Lord, Lord Storey, and other noble Lords to discuss these issues.

Time is now against me, as I have just been rightly reminded. I shall write to noble Lords whose questions I have not had time to address, including my noble friend Lord Eccles and the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, who asked me why the Bill does not cover the rest of the UK. I thank all speakers for their contributions once again. I hope that my responses provided some useful clarification in response to the thoughtful points and questions that noble Lords raised.

Freedom of speech in our universities is under threat: unfortunately, a growing trend aims to prevent anyone from airing ideas that some groups may disagree with or find offensive, and we cannot ignore that. Hence, today, I have set out how the Bill will ensure that freedom of speech is both protected and promoted in higher education. It will strengthen existing freedom of speech duties and directly address gaps in the existing law, introducing clear consequences for breaches of the duties. Therefore, I take pleasure in commending the Bill to the House.

Bill read a second time and committed to a Grand Committee.