Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill Debate

Full Debate: Read Full Debate
Department: Leader of the House
Lord Collins of Highbury Portrait Lord Collins of Highbury (Lab)
- Hansard - -

My Lords, I was not going to declare an interest until I heard the contribution from the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, which reminded me that I too had been a visiting parliamentary fellow at St Anthony’s, which I enjoyed very much. I was a joint fellow with a Conservative Peer and we planned a schedule of lectures with competing arguments, so I understand the value of challenging thought and ideas—it is absolutely what makes for progress.

As we heard in the excellent introductory speech from the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, the Bill has had a fragmented and bumpy ride through Parliament. Not many Bills would be introduced in May 2021, and complete their Committee stage in September of that year, and then finally get to Report and final stages on 13 June this year. What a long ride it has had.

The Bill is primarily searching for a problem. Sadly, my noble friend Lord Blunkett could not be with us today, but last week he put it to me that it is all about gesture politics. He said it is “Putting up an Aunt Sally that doesn’t really exist and knocking it down again”. What is the evidence? We have heard views about that. The report of the Joint Committee on Human Rights into free speech at universities in 2018 found that there was no major crisis of free speech on campus. As the noble Lord, Lord Storey, highlighted, the Office for Students said that 0.21% of invitations were rejected. We have heard a lot about the chilling effect, and it has lots of implications; whether it be for financing, through the number of foreign students, or for the number of grants, I have no doubt that it influences the response of institutions.

The noble Baroness, Lady Stroud, referenced the UCU evidence. What I found really interesting about the UCU briefing on this matter is that, when I was at university, academics talked about tenure guaranteeing freedom of speech and guaranteeing academic freedom. Now when a student goes to university, half their teachers are on short-term contracts and likely to be sacked for all kinds of reasons. If that is not a chilling effect on academic freedom, I do not know what is. Let us make sure that we look at the evidence.

My noble friend Lord Blunkett also said to me that this is a distraction from what really matters to the sector and to students. Three out of four students are currently worried about managing financially, one in four have less than £50 a month to live on after rent and bills, and 5% of students are using food banks. In my opinion, that is the real crisis in our universities. Of course, the challenges faced by students reflect what is going on in wider society. As my noble friend Lady Thornton said in her opening speech, unlike the Conservatives over the years, Labour has always championed free speech. It was a Labour Government who introduced a law guaranteeing freedom of expression.

What have we got here? We have a Bill that has gone through the Commons and that will create a director for freedom of speech and academic freedom on the OfS board, as well as a new OfS registration condition on free speech, strengthening an existing duty known as Section 43. It also introduces a statutory tort, giving private individuals a right to seek redress for loss incurred as a result of a breach of Section 43, and so-called enhanced contractual protections for academics with regard to academic freedom. It is very difficult to see that given the stats which I have just mentioned. The Bill also has the addition of a duty to disclose overseas gifts and contracts affecting freedom of speech—which no doubt has persuaded some noble Lords to support it.

Across the House, throughout this debate, I have heard the serious reservations of noble Lords about the unintended consequences of these proposals. I listened with great interest to the contribution of the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, whom I do not often agree with but on this one I completely agree with her. It is those unintended consequences that we should be most worried about. The Bill reflects a top-down, one-size-fits-all approach, which the noble Viscount, Lord Eccles, referred to. It demonstrates a weakness at the heart of the Government and their misplaced lack of trust in the academic community.

I hope the noble Earl will address the concerns raised in the debate, which are shared not only by noble Lords across the House but by the sector. We need to know how the Bill will interact with existing legislation and other duties which relate to free speech and academic freedom, including, as my noble friend highlighted, the proposals to reform the Human Rights Act. Ministers have claimed that the new statutory tort would be a backstop, but what safeguards will there be to ensure that it does not lead to universities having to defend themselves against vexatious and frivolous claims brought by anti-vaxxers, Holocaust deniers and hate preachers?

We have also heard, from the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Coventry, about the interaction between the role of the OfS free speech complaints scheme and the director for freedom of speech and academic freedom, and how they will interact with existing ombudsman and, as the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, said, the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education. We also believe, on these Benches, that there should be a requirement for the new director for freedom of speech to consider competing freedoms when investigating free speech complaints.

The noble Lord, Lord Johnson, raised overseas donations —a late addition to the Bill. As the noble Lord said, will the Government ensure that duties on overseas funding are targeted with risk-based exemptions and proportionate reporting? What sort of extra duties will be placed on universities? We need to have a proper assessment.

I have no doubt that we will return to these issues in Committee. I repeat my noble friend’s assertion: we will be tabling amendments to ensure that an independent appointments procedure is used for the post of director for freedom of speech, and also to ensure it is not a party-political appointment. I do hope the Minister will respond to her questions, specifically those about the post being advertised, the job description, and the requirements of the person specification for the job, which does not seem to address what we are being told the job is about. Certainly, with a closing date of 13 July, will we see this appointment being made before parliamentary approval?

Labour will also seek to broaden the definition of academic freedom, to include for example, criticism of institutions, conducting research and joining a union—something that I think is fundamental to a free and democratic society—and will also propose, as my noble friend said, a sunset clause to the legislation.

There is one thing I wanted to return to in more detail. If there is a problem—and I have heard from noble Lords and I accept there are issues to address—is this legislation the best way to deal with it? Surely, adopting and promoting best practice in our universities and with academics and teaching staff is the real answer. We have a sector that leads the world, and I understand the view of Universities UK that it is important that additional legislation and duties placed on universities that seek to address the small number of incidents that we have heard described this evening need to be proportionate. I have heard and read that Universities UK has stated its willingness to work with the Government on the Bill to demonstrate their members full and firm commitment to freedom of speech, which I think I have heard from across this House. But what I find most disappointing about the Government’s attitude is they have not really examined the vast array of really good practice. How do we encourage good practice? The Manchester guidelines, the Chicago principles or even Robert French’s independent review of freedom of speech in Australian higher education—to name but three—show countries around the world have similar issues, but the point is how they go about addressing them.

If the Government were really interested in promoting and protecting freedom of speech and academic freedom, they would seek to encourage this approach across the sector, as I think was referred to by the noble Viscount, Lord Eccles. It would be far more effective and would not have the unintended consequences that this proposed legislation would have. Such approaches would go a long way to fostering the healthy culture of debate that we all want on our campuses. We have to understand that, sometimes, institutions and student unions will get it wrong. That is the nature of debates on the parameters of free speech, but it is a small price worth paying for a collective and more consensual approach to protecting freedom of speech on campus.

I have heard about the competing pressure on freedom of speech, safe places and respect. As a student 45 years ago—or maybe longer, I suppose—as a young gay person trying to study in that environment, actually, disrespect did turn into hate speech, and hate speech turned into violence. Do not think of words as simply a painful experience, if they encourage violence. That is what we experienced with Section 28—words that said that you cannot preach something in schools because it is a danger to children. That was in Section 28, and it is what we must guard against. Respect is about respecting all; it is not just about a difference of opinion. I want debate but I also want to protect individuals.