Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill Debate

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Department: Leader of the House
Lord Cormack Portrait Lord Cormack (Con)
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My Lords, it is always a great pleasure to follow the noble Baroness; she makes stimulating speeches. She does tend to overegg the pudding a bit; nevertheless, I listen to her with great interest, and I am delighted to follow her.

Free speech is more important than anything else—and we in this place ought to know that better almost than anyone. “The price of liberty,” said Burke—and of course, liberty without free speech is impossible—“is eternal vigilance.” I am glad that we are having this debate because there is currently a tendency among some to be a bit complacent. One thinks of some pretty horrific examples: Kathleen Stock, who has been mentioned by noble Lords on two or three occasions, and JK Rowling.

One of the cancers of our age, which makes the proliferation of coarse speech and crude attack so much easier, is social media. Many in our universities, and others, use this, and many suffer from it, so it is right for us to ask: what can we do about it? But I do not think a Bill like this is necessarily the best way forward.

Those who have questioned the wisdom of the Bill have more than a point. I say to my noble friend—who introduced the Bill with his characteristic gentle elegance and in whom I have as much trust as I have in anyone in political life—that it needs to be significantly improved if it is to go on the statute books and fulfil its purpose. I do not think we need such a Bill but, clearly, we are going to have one, so it is the duty of your Lordships’ House to make it as effective as possible, and as least disruptive as possible.

Speaking as one who has the honour to have been a visiting fellow at St Antony’s College, Oxford, who helped to found the parliamentary fellowship scheme 30 years ago, and who is still admitted to the senior common room—I have also visited many other universities, and I am on the court of Lincoln University—I believe that we have institutions of which we can be truly proud. But it is very important indeed that students are exposed to views and attitudes that they consider to be offensive, because that itself is stimulating. Unless you can produce a counter-argument, you have not understood the argument. It is crucial that our young people are stimulated and exposed to a variety of views, just as they should be exposed to a variety of academic and scientific disciplines. I very much hope that one thing that will be a casualty of this Bill is the so-called “trigger” movement. It has been dismissed, I am glad to say, but it was even suggested that the online version of Hansard should be adorned with trigger warnings that there may be some offensive language to follow.

Lord Cormack Portrait Lord Cormack (Con)
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Indeed, shame. I believe we have had that dealt with.

We know about the counterculture and the cancelling because earlier this year four of us were complained about to the Commissioner for Standards because of remarks we had made in a good, vigorous and brief debate on an amendment to a Bill that sought to end the presence of physically intact males in women’s prisons. The committee, now chaired rather splendidly by the noble Baroness, Lady Manningham-Buller, rewrote some of the rules and guidance, and the fundamental right that Members of both Houses have enjoyed since the Bill of Rights in 1689 was underlined thrice. That is as it should have been, but if we can be threatened even in this place then we have to be vigilant about the defence of free speech. If free speech is eroded in any way in our universities, the institutions from which future Members of both Houses will come, then that does not augur well.

As we know at the moment, democracy has to be fought for. As we know, there is a great power, the second greatest power in the world right now, which is already flexing its muscles in a variety of ways—roads and belts, belts and roads. We have to be a bastion of democracy, but we cannot be a bastion of democracy without having universities and colleges that produce vigorous democrats.