Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill Debate

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Department: Leader of the House
Lord Bishop of Coventry Portrait The Lord Bishop of Coventry
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My Lords, intense competition for students, jostling for promotion among lecturers, vigorous, often intense and sometimes rancorous debate, with dashes of sharp practice and occasional mob violence—not a preview of some future Office for Students report but a snapshot of the early academic career of Augustine of Hippo. One of his first publications was advice to lecturers and, significantly for this debate, he later asserted that “By force we can make no one believe.” I will make some general points about the Bill and then raise three more specific issues.

Timothy Garton Ash speaks of three “vetoes” that silence the ability of people to express themselves: shouting them down, the “heckler’s veto”; declaring what they say to be offensive, the “offensive veto”; and, in extreme cases, threatening to kill people, the “assassin’s veto”.

Sadly, it seems that we have seen each of these techniques in action within higher education, as some of the evidence submitted to the Bill Committee demonstrated. It may quite reasonably be argued that such incidents are very rare, and that existing legislation already provides sufficient means of tackling such threats to freedom of speech, and to academic freedom, or that such things have always occurred, but I am not so sure that all is well. It is also true, as the survey for the Higher Education Policy Institute found, as we have already heard, that students are increasingly prioritising safety, especially for minorities or vulnerable groups, over free speech. There seems to be a generational difference in what is regarded as legitimate free speech—free speech within the law.

Yet there is also evidence that a significant proportion of students report self-censoring their own views and convictions and are reluctant to voice them in public. Similarly, among some academic staff there was a reluctance to imperil one’s career, possible promotion, publication or application for research funding by expressing views that were perceived to lie outside the overall culture of the institution or department. Those willing to take a different line appear to be senior staff, who either did not seek promotion or a new role or who had already established their reputation.

Freedom of speech and, by extension, the right to challenge, provoke, disturb, upset and sometimes to offend, are matters which are worth protecting in law. But these imperatives derive their true value from how they sustain the fundamental purposes of higher education: seeking truth and developing wisdom. They are not ends in themselves, but the means by which we pursue the truth, which is to our common benefit. Christian faith is rooted in the person who testified to truth in the tribunals of power and who promised the means to discern truth—the spirit of truth so movingly invoked at Lord Judd’s thanksgiving service earlier today. This is a vision of open truth-seeking which the Church has, at its worst, sought to stifle in society, but at its best, has helped to embed in university life.

Truth will set you free. By definition, we are all invited to share in this liberative function, to seek the truth as a basis for our common life. Therefore, although we cannot legislate for civility, my hope is that the letter of this proposed law, which is to protect freedom of speech, might make room for the spirit of the law, which is to seek truth without diminishing or dehumanising others.

Indeed, this Bill alone will not accomplish its objectives or guard against potential harms through purely statutory or regulatory means. Alison Scott-Baumann’s work on free speech provides some deep wisdom on nurturing communities of inquiry through an “etiquette of argument”, as she calls it—a way of communicating over divisive issues without causing harm. We are having a go at developing similar principles of conversation in the Church of England at the moment, with some success. At the core of these principles is a fundamental understanding that the truth that we seek is written into our human dignity; therefore, one cannot be compromised without the other.

I turn to some points of detail. The House of Lords Library highlights continued concerns about the potential confusion between the responsibilities of individual institutions, the Office for Students and its new director of freedom of speech and academic freedom, and the Office of the Independent Adjudicator. While new Schedule 6A provides some helpful clarification, I would be grateful for further assurances from the Minister about the interaction between these various, potentially overlapping bodies.

I share concerns already expressed about the new statutory tort. While the Office for Students will be able to dismiss unmeritorious, vexatious and frivolous claims, there remains a real concern that this provision will lead to increased litigation, including through the small claims court, which universities will inevitably need to defend, incurring expense and time, even if the case is dismissed, as I understand it.

Finally, new Sections 3 and 4 in new Part A1 may be read as posing problems for the provision of premises and facilities that meet the religious and spiritual needs of a range of staff and students—a concern also raised in the written submission of the Free Church Federal Council of England and Wales. I am grateful for the assurances given in yesterday’s briefing that there is no intention to compromise dedicated faith premises. Nevertheless, I would welcome a discussion with the Minister, as requested by the Second Church Estates Commissioner in his letter to Minister for Higher and Further Education, to resolve the matter fully.

Augustine was of course right: “By force we can make no one believe”. But sometimes we need legitimately to use the force of law to restrain actions that adversely affect the rights and dignities of others and to protect the rights we have for free speech and freedom of expression. So, although the Bill needs clarification on a number of matters, it is a measure whose intentions I support. I hope to see how the Bill can be better shaped to serve those intentions.