Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill Debate

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Department: Leader of the House
Lord Moore of Etchingham Portrait Lord Moore of Etchingham (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, I listened with great interest to what the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, had to say and I sympathised with the anguish he felt as a loyal Conservative supporter trying to deal with the problem the Government have presented him with. As a non-affiliated Peer I do not have that problem, but I share his anxiety about what the Government have done as it seems very vacillating and unhelpful.

I draw noble Lords’ attention to the famous words of Adam Smith that no people of the same trade are ever gathered together, even for diversion or merriment, without at some point conspiring against the public. It is lovely to have so many noble Peers in this House who hold or have held high positions in universities and university administrations—chancellors, vice-chancellors, professors and all the rest of them—but overall they constitute an interest. Their interest, naturally enough, is to believe that they are right, universities are well run and the critics are wrong. I ask them perhaps to consider that none of this would have come about if universities were being well run. These freedom of speech issues are very important and need some bolstering. When so many noble Peers who are associated with universities challenge and reject that, they must be conscious not to behave like trade union leaders in the 1980s who were defending powers that, it became clear, were unacceptable.

Lord Collins of Highbury Portrait Lord Collins of Highbury (Lab)
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As a former trade union leader I am a bit hesitant to contribute, but let me just say to the noble Lord, Lord Moore, that what has been excellent about our consideration of this Bill from Second Reading through to Committee is how, through excellent scrutiny, we have tried to reach a consensus, not a compromise. That is the important thing. On Report I confessed that I had changed my mind about the need for this Bill. I accept that better, more effective regulation will help to change culture in a more sustainable way. All this emphasis on tort does not really help the real problem that we have heard described.

I will be brief. I appreciate the comments of the noble Lord on non-disclosure agreements—a key element in terms of openness and transparency. The duties and responsibilities of the regulator, and how they are applied, will be important; I accept that universities need time to properly do that. But they have been developing good practice and best practice. They have responsibilities to freedom of speech, and I absolutely support that. I stress that the Opposition’s approach to this Bill has been totally non-partisan. I have supported the amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Willetts. I have certainly encouraged him because I have listened across the board as we have moved through each stage, and I think we will end up with a better Bill. In fact, with the consensus that has been reached, we now have a better Bill.

Despite some of the Minister’s concerns about what might happen down the other end, across this House and across all political parties we have reached a consensus; let us put the matter to bed. With our non-partisan approach, I assure him that the Government will have the Opposition’s support on their support for the amendments from the noble Lord, Lord Willetts. We can safely say that this Bill shall pass, and it will pass to defend the freedom of speech values that we all share. That is an important step that we can make.

I hope that the Minister will feel reassured about our approach to this Bill and how we have listened, changed our minds and supported very important consensus changes, which I think will ensure that all academics and university institutions will support this legislation.