Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill Debate

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Department: Leader of the House
Lord Macdonald of River Glaven Portrait Lord Macdonald of River Glaven (CB)
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My Lords, since the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, is not present, it is my great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Cormack. In doing so, I refer to my entry in the register of interests as a former warden of Wadham College, Oxford and an honorary fellow there and at St Edmund Hall, Oxford.

I disagree with noble Lords who perceive no problem to be addressed, but I agree with noble Lords who have argued that the Bill addresses those problems in the wrong way. A few years ago, around 2014, when I was working in Oxford, I attended a public lecture given by the dean of the law school of a leading American Ivy League university. My role was to respond to his remarks before the topic was opened up to audience participation. He was addressing the question of free speech and to my consternation—and of course I paraphrase him somewhat—he posed the argument that free expression could most accurately be seen as a weapon of power in the hands of elites who were licensed by law to employ it to repress the disadvantaged and marginalised. In this sense, as he saw it, limits on the right to free expression could be seen as protective and in some circumstances even liberating. Language was power, and to police it could therefore be radical and affirming. In my responding remarks, I strongly disagreed with him and suggested that it was all right for him to be playing with such ideas, with all his copper-plated US first-amendment protections, but in Europe, where legal protections for free speech have always been more contingent and conditional and have had a more painful, bloody history, he was playing with fire.

It is important for us to acknowledge that, eight or so years later, those ideas that I first heard expressed in an Oxford lecture theatre have become a little more mainstream. It is more common than it should be, including in the UK, to hear free speech categorised as a threat to safety, when it is not being decried in some intellectual circles as an Enlightenment sham. It is perhaps less common than it should be to hear it described as the greatest historical progenitor of human progress.

The reasons for that shift, particularly on the left side of politics, are complex. There are some genuinely progressive elements in play: the growing understanding of the importance to society of protecting minority rights; distaste for racism, sexism and homophobia; and hostility to unfounded discrimination. It is surely an unalloyed good that terms of racist, sexist or homophobic abuse are no longer acceptable and that these forms of speech have, by broad consensus and even by law, been curtailed. However, the inroads into untrammelled speech are now going somewhat further than that, and there is a danger that we are beginning to descend into a world where feeling trumps fundamental rights, including the right to free speech. In universities, that is a hopeless direction of travel.

We should of course not overstate the position. In my old university, the University of Oxford, there is a powerful attachment to the fundamentals of free speech, driven from the top. Oxford’s official free speech statement, which I drafted along with Professor Timothy Garton Ash, is explicit that robust intellectual exchange and views that shock, even which offend, are bound to be part of the currency of discourse in higher education, that this is part of the lifeblood of the university and that it should be welcomed in the interests of truth and learning. Of course, that lifeblood is stilled if feeling —a sense of being offended—becomes the determinant of what may acceptably said. That is the risk that I assume the Bill is intended to address, and I think we should be frank and acknowledge that that risk exists.

HEPI’s survey was analysed by the think tank in this way:

“The results show clearly that students have become significantly less supportive of free expression.”

I will not run through all the statistics, but some of them are alarming: 79% of students believe that students who feel threatened should always have their demands for safety recognised; 61% say that when in doubt their university should ensure that all students are protected from discrimination rather than allowing unlimited free speech; the proportion of students who agree that if you debate an issue like sexism or racism then you make it acceptable has doubled to 35%; 86% of students support the no-platform policy of the National Union of Students while only 5% say the NUS should not limit free speech or discussion; 39% of students believe that student unions should ban all speakers who cause offence to some students; and the proportion of students who think that academics should be fired if they teach material that heavily offends some students is now 36%, up from 15% in 2016. So the direction of travel is towards a greater censoriousness and the prioritising of feelings and something called “safety” over more traditional free-speech values.

It is noticeable that no-platforming incidents, which newspapers routinely attribute to universities themselves, almost invariably result instead from decisions taken by very small numbers of students at poorly attended student union meetings. However, we have to acknowledge, as some noble Lords have, that this is the country—our country—in which a distinguished philosopher was forced from her university job for expressing, in an entirely lawful and respectful manner, gender-critical views: in other words, for exercising her free speech and her right to academic freedom. The fact that we all now probably suspect that Professor Kathleen Stock would struggle to gain future employment at another UK university without facing protests and boycotts even if she wanted to, which I understand she does not, is deeply worrying. I myself have had the experience more than once of young non-tenured academics lowering their voices when expressing to me views that they fear might not find favour with the bulk of their colleagues. That is troubling.

However, the Bill does not address these problems in the correct way, and I will swiftly indicate why. The first reason is bureaucracy. My experience of additional levels of bureaucracy is that they are not usually liberalising; quite the opposite—they tend to weigh down those to whom they are intended to administer. Will these new processes free up discourse, or will they do the opposite and encourage sclerosis?

The second is legal action. I can imagine many ways in which the process envisaged by the Government could become a tool of abuse, consuming time and resource to an uncomfortable degree.

Thirdly, the precise role and powers of the director of free speech—having listened to the speech by the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, with such pleasure, I was rather hoping he might apply for the position himself but, frankly, I do not think he would get past the vetting process—it is important that the independence of universities is protected and they do not become the plaything of quangos. Universities to the greatest extent should be self-governing institutions, and I am not attracted by the idea of a director of free speech running around issuing edicts that may or may not be workable on the ground. And how is all this to coexist with university anti-harassment policies? Harassment by speech occasionally exists and universities have to deal with it. It is not clear that Ministers have given sufficient thought to that.

My last reason is Prevent. Many of us argued when the Prevent duty was applied to universities that it created tension with existing legislation requiring universities to uphold free speech. At Oxford, we resolved this difficulty by deciding that the Prevent duty to address so-called non-violent extremism speech—in other words, the apparent requirement contained in the Prevent legislation for universities in some circumstances to block speech that was perfectly lawful, as the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, noted—was to be viewed and applied within the context of pre-existing rights, including the right to free speech. That seemed to work well. Does the Minister agree that, if the Bill is passed, the Prevent duty as it applies to universities will be subject to the free-speech strictures contained in the Bill?