Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill Debate

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Department: Leader of the House
I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Willetts for tabling his amendments that brought this issue to light. I believe that this minor change to the wording of the Bill will help to make it clearer to understand and to use in practice. I hope that the House will agree. I beg to move.
Lord Grabiner Portrait Lord Grabiner (CB)
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My Lords, I have just a very brief point. I welcome, in particular, the amendments brought by the Government in relation to the meaning of the word “member” in this context. That is an extremely sensible development in the drafting of the Bill. All that I would say is that, certainly in Cambridge, there is not simply an adoption of the assumption that alums are known as members, but that fact is frequently recorded in the statutes of the particular college. It may well be worth reflecting this amendment in the code of practice in due course, so that there can be absolute clarity that the Bill makes this important distinction between what the college statute may say and what the legislation says.

Earl Howe Portrait Earl Howe (Con)
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My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Grabiner. I think that is an extremely helpful suggestion which I will ensure is duly noted.

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Lord Grabiner Portrait Lord Grabiner (CB)
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My Lords, I agree with the comments and observations made by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, the noble Baroness, Lady Morris of Yardley, and others on this amendment. But I do not support it, simply because I think this is an extremely good example of something that needs to be dealt with carefully in the code of practice. A clear distinction should be made between what one might call a genuine heckle, as opposed to an attempt to drown out or silence a speaker.

I well remember that when I was an undergraduate at the LSE—donkeys’ years ago now, I fear—the history society very unwisely invited the National Front to come to give a presentation. We filled the room out very fully before these people arrived. When the chairman of the National Front, with two or three hoods in close association with him, walked into the room, one heckler shouted out, without any intention to drown out what was about to happen, “Have you been circumcised?” It really brought the house down, and it destroyed the speaker. A good heckle is well worth preserving, but I think it should be dealt with in the code of practice and definitely not in primary legislation.

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Earl Howe Portrait Earl Howe (Con)
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My Lords, the Government have tabled Amendments 17, 18 and 19 in response to an amendment tabled in Grand Committee by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Etherton. These amendments make clear on the face of the Bill what we have maintained is already the case: only a person who has suffered a loss as a result of a breach of the specified duties can bring a claim before the courts. This is not limited to pecuniary loss and could include damage to reputation, for example. I am happy that we can make that clear.

Amendment 20, tabled by the Government, provides that claimants must first have exhausted the complaint procedure of the OfS or the OIA before they can bring proceedings under new Section A7. Both Policy Exchange and the Russell Group have called for an amendment along these lines as a considered and proportionate response. This amendment will mean that a complaint on the same subject must have been made to either complaint scheme, and that a decision must have been made under the scheme on the extent to which the complaint was justified.

If a complaint fails because, for example, it is brought out of time under the rules of the complaint scheme, then the complainant will not be able to bring a civil claim. It is useful to note that the OIA has a deadline of 12 months, so the OfS may have something similar. We think that this outcome is right. Equally, if the OfS or OIA dismisses a complaint without considering its merits because it considers it frivolous or vexatious, as they are entitled to do, the complainant would also not be able to bring a civil claim under new Section A7.

However, I should be clear that, if the complainant is unhappy with a decision of the OfS or OIA which means that they would be unable to bring a claim under new Section A7, then judicial review will be available for them to challenge it. The purpose of Amendment 20 is to make clear what we have always said: the tort will operate as a backstop, since we did not anticipate that many complainants would pursue legal proceedings rather than the free-to-use complaint schemes.

I am therefore happy to make this clear in the Bill on the basis that it will alleviate concerns raised by several noble Lords that the statutory tort will burden universities with dealing with unmeritorious and costly claims, as well as potentially undermine the OfS as a regulator and operator of the new complaints scheme. This point has been made by the noble Lord, Lord Grabiner. On this latter point, I should say that the OfS will undoubtedly welcome case law from the courts, since it will help going forward on its decision-making and formulation of guidance.

I will say more when I sum up. I hope that noble Lords will see these amendments as helpful and as a useful response to the debates we had in Grand Committee. I beg to move.

Lord Grabiner Portrait Lord Grabiner (CB)
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My Lords, I thank the noble Earl the Minister and the Minister the noble Baroness, Lady Barran, for the explanations that they have provided in the House, in correspondence and at meetings that we have had. That said, I am afraid that I am still firmly against Clause 4 and believe that the Bill would be improved if it were deleted.

I will not repeat the points I made in Committee, but I summarise my concerns by reference to the Minister’s closing remarks on day 3 in Committee on 14 November, in Hansard cols. 725-30, and the government amendment now before us. My starting position, unlike that of some noble Lords, is that I am in favour of the introduction of the new duties to be imposed on universities, colleges and student unions. The Minister has given many examples of absolutely unacceptable behaviours designed to undermine speech freedom. In short, I agree with the Government that, in light of the developing experience, it is now necessary—unhappily—to enshrine freedom of lawful speech in primary legislation.

We have two very experienced regulators in our higher education system: the Office for Students and the Office of the Independent Adjudicator—the OfS and the OIA. In my view, these new duties should be enforced only by the expert regulators. This would be a natural and logical extension of their regulatory powers and they would bring to bear their specialist expertise in this clearly defined area of educational activity. It is also the case that these regulators are subject to judicial review in the courts. Thus, if the decision-making regulator takes into account irrelevant matters, or fails to take account of relevant ones, or is plainly wrong in law, the complaining party can apply for judicial review. If it is necessary to have what the Minister calls a “backstop”, the judicial review mechanism fits the bill precisely. Given the regulatory and higher education context, I do not believe it is necessary, still less is it desirable, to make express provision giving a civil law cause of action in tort which would enable the claimant to pursue a claim in court against the university, the college or the student union, as the case may be.

In the debates that we have had thus far, it seems to me that three issues have emerged which, taken together, strongly suggest that Clause 4 should be deleted from this Bill. First, I and other noble Lords believe that Clause 4 would be an open invitation to ill-motivated trouble-makers—if the social media is taken at face value, there are plenty of them out there. The trouble-makers would inevitably wish to use the very public platform provided by this new access to the courtroom to advance their own ideological stance.

Secondly, we know that universities and student unions are very poorly funded. We should not be subjecting them to the risk of unnecessary and expensive litigation. That is especially the case when we have an established regulatory structure in the sector.

Thirdly—this point has been made in particular by the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald of River Glaven, but also by other noble Lords—the fact that Clause 4 exists will have a chilling effect on the academic sector. Instead of our universities being places where debate and challenge should constantly thrive, decision-making, for example as to who should be invited to speak and on what subjects, will be inhibited. On the first day in Committee, the noble Earl the Minister pointed out, correctly in my view, that

“there is no right to a platform”.—[Official Report, 31/10/22; col. GC 36.]

That is an important point. It is obvious that college authorities and student unions will bear it well in mind. They will inevitably err on the side of caution and rather anticipate and avoid any risk of Clause 4 litigation simply by not inviting speakers who are or may be perceived to be controversial.

This would produce the very opposite of what is intended by the Bill: lawful freedom of speech will have been denied and we will never know the details. I wonder how many universities, colleges or student unions would invite JK Rowling to speak if Clause 4 were in force. My guess is that they would not invite her. That is a shocking fact and is precisely the result we would wish to avoid.

Ministers have separately sought to justify Clause 4, and I will address the points that have been made on the new government amendment before us. It is said that, in practice, there is nothing in my first issue—the ill-motivated claims point. It is accepted that such claims will be made, but it is said that they will be thrown out peremptorily and that the costs incurred by the university or student union would be recovered from the vexatious claimant. This is pure assertion and speculation. It would not be difficult to formulate a plausible argument that the court would be reluctant to halt at the embryonic stage. Also, if you win, it is never easy to recover your costs: the claimant is likely to be elusive and probably penniless, and the process of seeking recovery is time-consuming and expensive. Why would the Government think it appropriate to subject our universities and student unions to any of this legalism?

Next—this is said to be a key point—the Minister repeatedly describes the new tort as a necessary “backstop measure”. The new amendment takes account of some of the criticisms made in Committee on the Bill as originally drafted. If left as it is, there would concurrently be in place the regulatory procedures as well as the new civil law cause of action, without any rules as to priority or the relationship between the two. The new amendment requires that mediation at the college level and all regulatory procedures should be exhausted before a claimant can use Clause 4. I agree that that clarifies matters, but unfortunately it still leaves us with Clause 4.

The argument now relied on by the Government, off the back of the new amendment, is that the individual claimant should be able to claim damages in court for loss, which could not be done in judicial review proceedings—it is correct that an individual cannot recover damages in a judicial review case. This is interesting, but noble Lords should realise that this represents a significant change of tack by the Government, because the Bill as drafted made no reference at all to losses or compensation. The new amendment gives no definition of loss—it might encompass hurt feelings and financial loss, such as wasted travel expenses and matters of that kind—but it is obvious that we are talking about very small amounts of money.

How do you measure, in financial terms, the damage done to someone whose freedom of lawful speech has been undermined? A judge is not entitled to pick a figure out of the air; there must be a rational explanation for the amount of damages awarded. In my view, there is no substance in the argument that the complainant needs a damages remedy; he, she or it will not be able to prove any serious financial loss. In any event, I suspect that, in the mind of the complainant, damages would not be a top priority; it is more likely that the remedy of a declaration, perhaps coupled with an injunction, would be the aim.

Professor Kathleen Stock has been referred to in relation to other amendments, but I should mention her in this context, in case it is suggested that she is a good example of why Clause 4 is necessary. I have every sympathy for Professor Stock, and I am certain that everyone here also does. From what is publicly known of the case, it looks as though she was treated very badly indeed by her employer, the University of Sussex, and, it seems, by some academic colleagues who should have known better. That said, she could have sued her employers for breach of her employment contract, but, for whatever reason, she chose not to. In the circumstances, Clause 4 would not have improved Professor Stock’s position.

My concern is that Clause 4 will be used by mischief-makers, whereas our real focus in this House should be the effectiveness of the regulatory function in ensuring that these new and important duties are understood, respected and properly enforced. In my view, the supposed financial protection of the individual claimant is a distraction and a sideshow. I believe the Bill would be greatly improved if Clause 4 were deleted.

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Earl Howe Portrait Earl Howe (Con)
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My Lords, I begin by expressing my thanks to noble and noble and learned Lords from all Benches of the House for their thoughtful and helpful contributions to this debate, all of which I listened to with great attention. I think it would be helpful to the House if I begin my response by considering the tort in the round, before turning to the amendments tabled to this clause, bearing in mind the nature of the debate in Grand Committee and the subsequent, helpful discussions that my noble friend Lady Barran and I had with a number of noble and noble and learned Lords outside the Chamber.

The tort has undoubtedly been one of the most controversial measures in the Bill. A number of noble Lords have spoken today to express their opposition to its inclusion in the Bill. However, other noble Lords strongly support the inclusion of the clause. My noble friends Lord Moylan, Lord Frost, Lord Strathcarron, Lord Jackson of Peterborough and Lord Farmer, and the noble Lord, Lord Moore of Etchingham, have written to me setting out compelling arguments for retaining the tort, some of which we have heard today. Many of the arguments have been echoed by the Free Speech Union in a letter to the Secretary of State for Education signed by 49 leading academics, among them, incidentally, Professor Kathleen Stock. Perhaps I might say in that context that I reject the view expressed by my noble friend Lord Moylan that the government amendments, to which I spoke earlier, somehow water down or weaken the tort provision. They address the concerns expressed about the perceived risk of the OfS’s role as a regulator being undermined and of unmeritorious claims burdening universities with unnecessary costs. I am sorry that no noble Lord acknowledged that the government amendments would deal with those perceived risks, in my view, pretty comprehensively.

We are dealing here with a mixture of arguments. Part of the argument advanced for removing the tort is that it is unnecessary and that there are somehow other measures available to achieve the same thing. I think the best place for me to start would be to address that issue. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, suggested in Grand Committee that there would be a common-law tort available, even if the statutory tort was not in the Bill, and that view has been supported by other noble Lords. The Government have looked carefully at that proposition, but we are not convinced that that position is sufficiently legally certain, and for that reason it is not something on which we would wish to rely. I believe that opinion is divided even among noble and learned Lords on the issue.

The purpose of including the tort in the Bill at introduction was to make it 100% clear that a tort will be available, rather than leaving it to the courts to infer whether or not Parliament intended there to be a tort, which in certain cases, they may do. To leave the situation uncertain when we have the opportunity to be absolutely clear would be remiss of us.

The noble Lord, Lord Grabiner, made the point that the tort is not necessary because judicial review is available, whether of a decision by the higher education provider or a decision under the complaints scheme of the Office for Students or the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education. However, judicial review is not available against decisions of a student union, and damages are generally not awarded in judicial review claims. I am afraid I do not accept his argument that damages would never be quantifiable in such cases. Of course, let us bear in mind—

Lord Grabiner Portrait Lord Grabiner (CB)
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I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. With respect, I did not say that they would not be quantifiable. My point was that there would be difficulty in quantifying the figure but in any event, in my view, for what is worth, the figure that you would arrive at would be peanuts, or not much more. That is why I could not really understand the significance of the argument that the reason for the tort was to protect the financial position of a complaining party.

Earl Howe Portrait Earl Howe (Con)
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I am grateful to the noble Lord. It is not the only reason for the tort, as I shall go on to explain. I was going to say that we need to bear in mind that under a judicial review the court would consider standard judicial review grounds, such as a failure to take relevant considerations into account, rather than the substantive issue of whether reasonably practicable steps were taken.

Equally, it has been argued that the tort is not necessary because a claimant could bring a claim for a breach of Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. However, again, this would not be available in relation to student unions because they are not public authorities, and the test for whether damages may be awarded is not an easy one to satisfy. Again, the court would consider whether there had been a breach of Article 10, rather than of the duties under the Bill.

In Grand Committee the noble and learned Lord, Lord Etherton, suggested that we should specify in the Bill what remedies are available in a tort claim. I come back to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Grabiner, a moment ago, which was a helpful intervention because it highlighted the potential role that court proceedings could have in particular cases. The Government’s intention is that damages should be available to compensate the claimant for the loss they have suffered. We can argue about whether the damages are nugatory or more substantial.

There may be situations in which an injunction is appropriate, for example if a student is expelled from their course and so the court orders the provider to offer them a place on the course for the following year. Other remedies may be suitable in some cases, in addition to these—perhaps a declaration. Our view is that where a claimant does not believe that they have been fairly dealt with by the OfS or the OIA, we should leave it to the courts to determine what is appropriate in an individual case.

Various noble Lords have raised concerns that the tort will create a chilling effect, dissuading higher education providers, colleges and student unions from inviting controversial speakers to campus because of fear of litigation. My noble friend Lord Willetts raised this concern; I understand him to believe that the availability of the tort may cause students or academic staff to self-censor over fears of being labelled a controversial speaker or lecturer.

To say that the Government are not convinced by these arguments is an understatement. The stronger counterargument appears to us to be that the Bill as a totality, including the tort and codes of practice, will create a stronger regime that will encourage providers to make sure they are getting their decisions right and will encourage a change of culture across our campuses. That regime and change of culture will deter providers from the notion of simply not inviting controversial speakers and will give greater protection to academic staff to speak out.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood, expressed a concern that has been raised with me in other contexts outside the Chamber—that the OfS complaints scheme will simply take too long to reach a decision. I am glad he raised that point, and I hope I can reassure noble Lords on that score. The OfS will consult on the scheme rules and will publish clear expectations on timetables. It will be held to account on its efficiency and the effectiveness of the scheme by its board and by the Government.

As a possible exemplar, the OIA says of its complaints scheme that it commits to normally sending a complaint outcome within 90 days of receiving all the necessary information. It also says that where a party needs a case to be reviewed particularly quickly, it can request that it be prioritised. Some cases may take six months to review overall, by the time all the information has been gathered, but others may take much less time, depending on the complexity. It is worth noting in this context that the limitation period for bringing a civil claim is six years, so there is little risk of missing that deadline if this approach is taken. I hope that explanation gives some comfort to those who are concerned that a complaint may go into some sort of black hole and not come out again for years and years.

I want to cover another issue that was raised in the context of government Amendment 20, so that it is understood. We do not consider that this amendment would prevent a person seeking an interim or emergency injunction in the courts. Such an injunction would be sought in a case where the claimant wants to prevent a future breach of the specified freedom of speech duties, rather than where a breach has actually occurred—in other words, where there is the threat of a breach. In that case, an individual would not be able to complain to the OfS or the OIA under either scheme, as there has been no breach yet. Accordingly, the requirement to have first exhausted a complaint scheme would not apply and the claimant could in principle go straight to the courts.