Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill Debate

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Department: Leader of the House
Baroness Falkner of Margravine Portrait Baroness Falkner of Margravine (CB)
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I think the noble Lord does not quite appreciate how qualified Article 10 rights are under the European convention. It clarifies:

“The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society”.

It goes on to say that those rights can also be circumscribed

“for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others”.

The point here is that they are qualified. The judgment of qualifying those rights, and making decisions about when the qualifications will apply, should rightly lie with the provider and not necessarily be set out in legislation.

The noble Lord referred to the duty of care to students. Of course there is a duty of care to students, but providers have been delivering those duties of care to students, academics and staff throughout this period. There is no evidence to say that they are not capable of doing that, so we can move forward with the Bill.

As I said on Monday, my personal view is that, although the Bill is significant and important in setting out more clearly the importance of differing opinions and viewpoints, the danger we run here is of it leading to so many changes that it actually succeeds in suppressing speech. No one has a right not to be offended. We are in danger of conflating that right not to be offended with safeguarding rights or hurt or distress, which is where we might go were we to pursue this amendment.

Lord Grabiner Portrait Lord Grabiner (CB)
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My Lords, I will be brief. In his remarks, the noble Lord, Lord Mann, gave some extremely significant examples. Some very bad stories are no doubt out there but, with great respect, might it not be more appropriate for such matters to be dealt with in the code of practice rather than in primary legislation? It seems much more sensible to deal with this by way of advice to, for example, university institutions.

Lord Moylan Portrait Lord Moylan (Con)
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My Lords, I take great pleasure in speaking immediately after the noble Lord, Lord Mann, and other noble Lords who have spoken on this topic. I am delighted that my Amendment 35 has been grouped with this interesting debate but I will be taking the discussion in a slightly different direction, which explains my hesitation at leaping in at this point. None the less, I am on my feet and will speak to Amendment 35 in my name, which is in this group.

At least some of us who were in Committee on Monday began to wonder how much this Bill would achieve by way of change, both culturally and in practice. I say that by way of introduction to my remarks on the amendment because I am coming to the question of how the Equality Act is interpreted in connection with the duty, which already exists under the 1986 Act, on universities to protect freedom of speech and freedom of expression. I remind the Committee that, under the Equality Act, all public bodies have a broad duty to

“eliminate discrimination, harassment, victimisation and any other conduct that is prohibited by or under this Act … advance equality of opportunity between persons who share a relevant protected characteristic and persons who do not share it … foster good relations between persons who share a relevant protected characteristic and persons who do not share it.”

The 1986 Act, as I say, has the obligation to protect and advance free speech but, in recent years, we have found that the Equality Act obligation is frequently being interpreted by universities as a reason to take steps to impose their views on equality, diversity and inclusion both on students and in public events. We have seen, for example, gender-critical feminists being turned away precisely because universities have interpreted their presence as contrary to their own public sector duty under the Equality Act.

Amendment 35 does not excuse universities from their public sector/public body duty under the Equality Act—they remain required to fulfil that broad duty. But it does insert a university-specific balancing requirement that requires universities also to have regard to free speech in interpreting this duty. This is a balancing amendment that ensures that potentially contradictory public law duties do not clash with one another. It is for that reason that I advance it but, to be honest, if we do not see something like this happening at various points in the Bill, it is hard to see how current practice and culture will change at all. With that in mind, I recommend Amendment 35; I hope that the Minister will be able to give wholehearted agreement.

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Baroness Thornton Portrait Baroness Thornton (Lab)
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My Lords, I am not going to say very much because this debate has covered most of the ground that we need to cover on how this issue should be decided. However, I always listen to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, very carefully. When he says that simplicity is best, that is probably right. We definitely find Amendments 33 and 54 to 56 the more attractive amendments. As my noble friend Lady Chakrabarti said, they are the common-sense amendments. I am more attracted to them than to Amendment 31 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Moylan.

This debate has shown, and I agree with those who have said so, that while the words in the noble Lord’s amendment are of course very laudable, actually it is the words that go in the Bill and create the law that are important. That is our job here in this House. It is certainly not our job to put words into legislation that might create more confusion and proclaim values at this stage. The Minister will probably tell us how the Government feel about that. My noble friend Lord Smith outlined in the earlier debate what a hard job the leaders of our universities have in balancing their duties and rights. That was amplified by the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, when he spoke to his amendment.

In reflecting on the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, I do not think that this amendment would have stopped what happened to Kathleen Stock. That was a failure of the leadership of her university to fulfil their duty of care to her and their need to promote free speech in their institution. This amendment would not have stopped that, because it is to do with how that university conducts itself.

Lord Grabiner Portrait Lord Grabiner (CB)
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My Lords, I will be very brief. On the point made a moment ago by the noble Baroness, one of the oddities about the Kathleen Stock case—the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, knows a lot more about this than I do—is that she undoubtedly would have had a claim for breach of contract. It appears that some agreement was arrived at and the matter was settled, but she would have had a very clear and good claim against the employer for breach of contract, without the need for anything in this Bill, which does not advance matters. However, we will come to that at a later moment.

I respectfully support the amendments from the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, but I am not going to get involved in the Moylan debate. I firmly support Amendments 54 to 56 because what is critical, as has become apparent in the course of these debates, is the importance under the Bill of the guidance and code of practice. It is vital that the code of practice that eventually results is an absolutely bullet-proof and really impressive document. The proposals from the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, would achieve that and strengthen the current drafting.

Earl Howe Portrait Earl Howe (Con)
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My Lords, this group of amendments relates to duties and powers to promote freedom of speech under the Bill. Amendment 31, tabled by my noble friend Lord Moylan, seeks to clarify the steps that a higher education provider or college would need to take in order to promote the importance of freedom of speech and academic freedom. This amendment would replace the duty to promote the importance of freedom of speech and academic freedom with a duty to have particular regard to certain matters, including the need to eliminate unlawful interference with freedom of speech and academic freedom and to promote and prioritise the particular importance of freedom of speech.

By replacing the duty as drafted, I suggest to my noble friend that this amendment would in fact weaken the duties under the Bill by replacing a duty to do something—the words, “must promote”—with a duty to “have particular regard”. Providers will already be required, under new Section A1, to take reasonably practicable steps to secure freedom of speech. In doing so, they will need to have particular regard to the importance of freedom of speech. As part of this, we would expect providers to consider many of the matters suggested by this amendment and do not consider it necessary to set these out in detail. Indeed, prescribing the matters to which providers must have regard in this way could have unintended consequences, and result in providers taking a less comprehensive and balanced approach to their duties overall.

My noble friend asked me why specifically I could object to his amendment. There is a good reason, as I have indicated, which is that the amendment would have the effect of removing the duty to promote the importance of freedom of speech and academic freedom. That is a new and important duty, created by the Bill, that will drive forward a culture where freedom of speech is fostered and celebrated and students, staff and visiting speakers feel confident to express their views freely.

Amendment 33 in the name of my noble friend Lord Willetts and the noble Lord, Lord Stevens, seeks to amend the duty to promote the importance of freedom of speech and academic freedom by adding a duty to have due regard to all the other relevant legal duties. We have already discussed the issue of the interaction of the Bill with other duties. The main duty in the Bill is to take reasonably practicable steps to secure freedom of speech within the law. That means that providers, colleges and student unions can take account of all their legal duties on a case-by-case basis. So the duty does not override existing duties under the Equality Act 2010 regarding harassment and unlawful discrimination nor, for providers, the public sector equality duty or the Prevent duty. If another legal duty requires or gives rise to certain action, it would not be reasonably practicable to override that.

I agree that the University of Essex report showed that there were misunderstandings of how the Equality Act should be properly applied, but we hope and trust that the measures in the Bill will, as I said earlier in response to a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Collins, serve to minimise those misunderstandings.

As I have previously said, the duty is derived from the current legislation in the Education (No. 2) Act 1986, so it is not new. Providers have been balancing their legal duties for many years: in relation to unlawful discrimination and harassment under the Public Order Act 1986 for 35 years, in relation to the public sector equality duty since 2011, and in relation to the Prevent duty since 2015. However, the new duty to promote the importance of freedom of speech and academic freedom might mean that a provider speaks out publicly to defend the freedom of speech of a staff member in the face of calls for them to be removed for something they had said, or it might involve giving talks to staff and students on the importance of freedom of speech in democracies.

We come back to an objective that I have mentioned before, which is the need in some institutions for a change of culture. Noble Lords will appreciate that the duty to promote is a high-level duty designed to give rise over time to a change in culture on university campuses. It is not a duty to promote freedom of speech. Rather, it is a duty to promote the importance of freedom of speech. As such, I do not believe that it needs the additional “due regard” duty as proposed.

Amendments 54, 55 and 56 in the name of my noble friend Lord Willetts seek to require the Office for Students to consult on and publish guidance relating to the promotion of freedom of speech and academic freedom, and to require it to give advice on that in a timely manner. Clause 5 inserts new Section 69A into the Higher Education and Research Act 2017. This provides that the OfS may identify good practice and give advice to providers and colleges on the promotion of freedom of speech and academic freedom. This wording is entirely based on Section 35 of the 2017 Act, which provides that:

“The OfS may … identify good practice relating to the promotion of equality of opportunity, and … give advice about such practice to registered higher education providers.”

Accordingly, the provision does not concern the new duty on providers and colleges to promote the importance of freedom and speech and academic freedom in new Section A3 that I have just described. Rather, it concerns the duties of the OfS and the advice that it can give to providers and colleges generally about how they can promote freedom of speech on campus.

I hope my noble friend Lord Willetts will be reassured to know that Section 75 of the 2017 Act, as amended by this Bill, will require the regulatory framework of the OfS to include guidance for providers on the general ongoing registration conditions, which will now include specific registration conditions on free speech in accordance with Clause 6, as well as guidance for student unions on their freedom of speech duties. Therefore, it will be here that the OfS will set out guidance on the new duty under Section A3 to promote the importance of freedom of speech and academic freedom, which must be complied with under the registration conditions.