Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill Debate

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Department: Leader of the House
Lord Mann Portrait Lord Mann (Non-Afl)
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I begin by saying that, although I do not know how many others here have, I have on more than one occasion been banned, or attempted to be banned, from speaking at a university. I was last issued a banning order by the University of Nottingham in 2009, I believe, which I ignored. Various people were running around with tape recorders. The argument put forward then was that I might say something offensive because I was speaking at the Jewish society.

In the 1980s I was banned, and I had to have a meeting reorganised in a local hostelry. I was banned then because—it was very simple and straightforward—I had had the audacity the year before to visit the state of Israel. I spent four days there with the Government, but I also spent four days with Fatah, the Palestinian liberation organisation on the West Bank. It seemed to me a balanced visit, and very interesting and educational. But I was banned from speaking at a university and in two other universities my publicity was withdrawn, which made it rather difficult for anyone to attend a meeting because they did not know that one was taking place.

So this is not a new problem—and nor is it a new problem in terms of debate. I recall well the speaker tour of the Paedophile Information Exchange across universities, which took place in 1978 and 1979. Many universities had such speakers; the content was not illegal but without question it was an organising campaign for that organisation, much more than an educative one. That was certainly my assessment of it. I recall in 1985 the banning of Jewish societies, on the basis that they were bound to be racist because they were full of racists and therefore should not be allowed any space in a university. I make the point simply to inform the debate—we are not talking about a modern phenomenon.

I want to pick up one particular point from these amendments: the proposal on Holocaust denial. It is true that Holocaust denial is not a criminal offence in this country, unlike in other countries, such as Germany and Austria—I think seven or eight countries across western Europe have that. To me, that does not seem a sufficient reason not to have such an egregious denial of history in this legislation. It would be a positive outcome if the Government wished to go further in terms of criminal justice. That would be done by a separate department, with separate legislation, and it may well get some support. In this context, it seems that provisions on the acceptability of entirely turning history on its head would be helpful to our universities, although the main problem we have these days is of course Holocaust distortion and minimisation. I would not suggest going further into a much greyer area, but I think this proposal ought to be considered very strongly by the Government.

Lord Macdonald of River Glaven Portrait Lord Macdonald of River Glaven (CB)
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My Lords, I declare an interest as the former warden of Wadham College, Oxford, and as an honorary fellow there and at St Edmund Hall, Oxford.

I have a great deal of sympathy with the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, in which he identified a problem but suggested that this Bill was not the right way to confront it. As the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, rightly said, the problem is a very deep-seated cultural issue that I doubt will be dealt with significantly by this legislation, should it pass. It is my experience of running a college that has led me to feel rather queasy about some of the slightly nightmarish, as I see them, schemes and bureaucracies proposed by the Bill.

Of course, there is an issue. The case of Kathleen Stock is the most egregious example. In my view, she was disgracefully mistreated by her university and professional colleagues, not to speak of the students at the University of Sussex, some of whom seemed to be clearly breaking criminal law with the demonstrations they mounted against that highly respected academic. Young men—they seemed to be men—wearing balaclavas, holding flares and chanting threats against her seemed to me clearly to represent a breach of the criminal law, and it is a great shame that the university did not see it that way.

However, it is not just Kathleen Stock. The events in a Cambridge college over the past few days have also been deeply disturbing. The idea that a writer such as Helen Joyce, who I would regard as entirely in the mainstream, should be regarded by the most senior figures in that college as unacceptable as a speaker seems deeply depressing and redolent of a cultural problem, not just in that college.

An amendment put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, therefore attracted my interest. It is the one that relates to the question of a hecklers’ veto. The way I perceive it, the issue in universities is not so much that events are being stopped by demonstrators standing outside chanting and making a nuisance of themselves; it is the more or less cowardly response of university and college authorities who decline to host events when they fear or are warned that that sort of response will eventuate. This is a true hecklers’ veto. I have some sympathy with that amendment, although I share again the hesitation expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, that the Bill should contain a clause which is anti-free speech, if you like, rather than it being consistently pro-free speech.

I have great respect for the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, but I strongly disagree that Article 10 is somehow deficient for our needs in this area. On the country, it provides generous and comprehensive jurisprudence on the right to free speech; it is suitably qualified and well understood by our courts, public bodies and public institutions. It is certainly well understood in the University of Oxford, the university I have been most associated with. I think Article 10 is entirely fit for purpose and I strongly support the amendment from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, to reference it in this legislation. It would provide consistency and legal certainty, so I hope the amendment will not in the end be controversial with the Government.

Baroness Chakrabarti Portrait Baroness Chakrabarti (Lab)
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My Lords, I did speak at Second Reading, so I really am not going to make a Second Reading speech; I am not going to say I am not and then do it. Although I have been clear that I think the Bill is a mistake that will lead to a great deal of time-consuming, heartbreaking and expensive litigation for our universities, which should instead be engaging in what they should be engaging in, including creating the culture that we all want, I say in some sort of spirit of bipartisanship to the noble Lords and Ministers opposite that the amendment from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, is a learned and friendly gesture indeed.

All these amendments and everything that I have heard so far merely emphasise the dangerous complexity of legislating so clearly in the realm of a convention right without referring to it at all, save the statement that the Minister is required to make on the cover of the Bill about compatibility with Article 10. It is clearly the Government’s intention that this Bill, wrong-headed though I think it is, should comply with Article 10, so to try to redefine Article 10 in a slightly different way in the body of the Bill is a mistake that adds to the complexity and the danger for different regulatory bodies, be it the Equality and Human Rights Commission or the Office for Students. The noble and learned Lord has helped by making it clear that freedom of speech within the law in the United Kingdom means compliance with Article 10 of the convention. Frankly, that was pretty much the case before incorporation by way of the Human Rights Act.

I take the point from the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, that, with the resurrection of the former Justice Secretary and Deputy Prime Minister, he wants to future-proof and hopes for the scrapping of the Human Rights Act, but even the rather botched and misnamed Bill of Rights Bill purports to comply with Article 10. It is jumping the gun to try to define freedom of speech within this sector differently from the way it is defined in every other aspect of UK law and life.

I also say to the noble Lord, whose libertarian instincts on free speech I share, that, as a matter of jurisprudence and law, he is mistaken in a number of ways. It is all very well banging the drum for the common law, but there literally was no actionable right to free speech in this country until Article 10 was incorporated by the Human Rights Act. There could be under a future Bill of Rights, but there literally is not this magic thing in the common law that will protect people’s free expression without Article 10. Why? Because Parliament is sovereign and every other law that impacts on free speech will trump the free speech that I believe the noble Lord wants to see. Evidence for that lies in the issues around policing and all the other things that he has touched on in the Chamber in his time in the House. Parliamentary sovereignty will trump common law, and without Article 10 there is currently no actionable right to freedom of expression in this country.

With respect, his Amendment 28 fails to achieve what he would like. It is much more limiting a protection than the protection in the extensive jurisprudence of Article 10. For example, to say:

“‘Freedom of speech within the law’ means”

freedom of speech that

“is not prohibited by law”

is somewhat circular.

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I was genuinely shocked in the cases of Kathleen Stock and Jo Phoenix, who are more experienced academics, when their own union branches sided with the people who were calling for them to be driven out of their jobs. As somebody who spent a long time as a trade union rep in what was then NATFHE, I am shocked by that turn of events. I am pleased that the Free Speech Union exists, but this is about a recognition in the Bill that workers’ rights need to be protected across the board. If the Bill can do something to make that clear, that would give some comfort—even though I want the trade unions to start fighting for their members, as a better remedy.
Lord Macdonald of River Glaven Portrait Lord Macdonald of River Glaven (CB)
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My Lords, I thought it axiomatic that references to academic staff in the Bill included all academic postholders, whether tenured or on short-term contracts. I had assumed that they were included. It would be very useful if the Minister could confirm that, because there is no doubt that academics who are working on short-term contracts are more vulnerable in this field than others. I myself had the experience of speaking to young academics—junior research fellows and so on—in that situation, who are a little nervous about expressing views which are, if I can put it this way, outside the cultural mainstream. They need particular protection in this area, so I would be grateful if the Minister could confirm that “academic staff” includes those on short-term contracts as well as those enjoying tenure.

Lord Grabiner Portrait Lord Grabiner (CB)
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My Lords, is this not another example of why it would be helpful to have a definition provision in the Bill? If there was one, “academic staff” and “members” could be defined, and there would not be any debate about who did or did not fall into one or other of these categories.

In this context, it is worth bearing in mind another point. All universities, as institutions, will have either statutes—as in Cambridge, Oxford and some other universities, such as Durham—or their own constitution. You would glean from the constitutional documents of the institution who is a member of the academic staff and who is a member. We are a bit in the blind here, because in order to determine whether person X is a member of the academic staff or person Y a member of some institutional college, you will have to look at the constitutional documents of the organisation to find the answer. It would be quite helpful to have it in the Bill as well, so that there could not be any misunderstanding. Also, we could end up protecting through the Bill people who, strictly speaking, might not fall within the relevant definition of a particular institution. In that sense, the Bill could improve the position of individuals who are, to use a loose expression, associated sufficiently with the world of academia and who are deserving of cover here.

For example, there is a big difference in Cambridge. Once you are a student in a college, you are a member of that college for life. That may not be true in other universities—I do not know. For example, it probably was not true at the LSE; I do not remember. It is certainly true of any college in Oxford and Cambridge, so it is a bit unsatisfactory not to have a sufficiently clear definition applicable to everybody.

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Earl Howe Portrait Earl Howe (Con)
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Exactly right.

I was making the point that a provider in this context is an employer and that its staff will be subject to its employment policies. Those policies must, of course, take account of the high regard that academic freedom is held in. However, depending on the circumstances, a provider may need to consider factors such as whether it is appropriate for the academic to continue to teach students; whether the academic has met accepted academic standards for their speech; and the ability of the academic to properly represent the provider in terms of its values and the reputation of the department and the provider.

The Bill recognises the nuances of the potentially difficult decisions that will need to be made under it. The “reasonably practicable” test allows for case-by-case decisions to be made, taking account of all the relevant factors.

Lord Macdonald of River Glaven Portrait Lord Macdonald of River Glaven (CB)
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Does the noble Earl nevertheless recognise that this is one of the weaknesses in the Bill that is causing consternation in universities: that it appears on the face of it to provide what I might describe as malignant actors—the sort of individuals the noble Lord has just referred to—with several new avenues to cause disruption, difficulties and problems for universities, including potentially launching a specific new tort? Is it not a weakness in the Bill that universities are likely to be subject to malignant activity?

Earl Howe Portrait Earl Howe (Con)
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With great respect to the noble Lord, I challenge any university to point to a provision in the Bill that changes the duties and responsibilities it has at the moment to take decisions for itself about what constitutes malignant speech, unsound science or whatever it happens to be. The Government are not trying to interfere in any way with the autonomy of universities in that sense.