Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill Debate

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Department: Leader of the House
Baroness Shafik Portrait Baroness Shafik (CB)
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My Lords, I speak in support of Amendment 22, to which I have attached my name. I declare my interest as director of the London School of Economics and Political Science. It is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, whose remarks I very much agree with. I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Barran, and the noble Earl, Lord Howe, for the constructive way in which they have engaged with all of us throughout the passage of this Bill.

It was made clear in Committee that Clause 4, as drafted, was not fit for purpose and that statutory tort would provide an avenue for vexatious, costly and damaging cases to be brought against universities by troublemakers far more concerned with self-promotion than free speech. The clause would have the perverse effect of limiting free debate and exchange of ideas on our campuses by creating exactly the kind of chilling effect that it aims to prevent. Student unions in particular would be frightened of inviting anyone at all, given this risk of lawsuits.

LSE hosts literally hundreds of events every year, which are all open to the public, and as its director, I have chaired hundreds of them. We work very hard to foster an environment where free speech and critical thinking are encouraged. I feel strongly that the solutions to the chilling effect, which I acknowledge exists, lie in education, dialogue and codes of practice, not the courts. Peers in the US, a far more litigious country than ours, are now petrified of inviting any speakers at all for fear of the consequences they may face. I fear that this legislation could take us to a similar position.

I was grateful that Ministers acknowledged that changes were needed and that significant revisions have been tabled on Report. Despite those positive moves, which are very welcome, I am still convinced that Clause 4 remains both unnecessary and potentially very harmful. I believe analysis and redress should be overseen by the regulator, as the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, has said. The existence of the tort system would call into question the working and judgment of that regulator, as well as universities’ own procedures. It would open up our institutions to potentially long, drawn-out and unnecessary complaints brought by individuals with axes to grind, time on their hands and, potentially, the financial backing of those with an agenda. I do not believe that having to go through existing complaints procedures would deter those kinds of individuals.

The potential costs of time, effort and money in highly constrained circumstances are unduly high. Of course, we would have to ask about loss, as the noble Lord, Lord Grabiner, very eloquently noted. Who has sustained this loss? It is still very indeterminate and the legislation as drafted does not require that loss to be material. Is it monetary, reputational or temporal? Is there a minimum threshold for the loss? Could it be the price of hurt feelings or the unquantifiable effects of media attention? All those things are highly intangible. There is still far too much uncertainty and confusion, and too much potential for this tort to be misused or have the perverse effect of stifling freedom of speech, which would be contrary to the other, more meritorious, objectives of this legislation. I concur with the proposal to remove the tort, as I believe it will be counterproductive.

Lord Moore of Etchingham Portrait Lord Moore of Etchingham (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, I cannot call the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, my noble friend because I am non-affiliated, but outside this House, I call him my friend. He has been my friend for 45 years. I can testify that his well-known nickname is correct and that he does have double the cerebral capacity of the rest of us, so we should all listen very carefully to anything he has to say.

However, although he made many good points, I do disagree with his conclusion. We must not lose sight of the wider context, and I think there is a slight risk that we might do so in some areas of this House. There is a danger of us suffering from what economists call producer capture. By that, I mean that there are a great many people here who are very close to the top of universities. It is not very surprising that they all tend to think that universities are running themselves quite well and that it is all basically all right. However, I think there needs to be a little more power for the voice of the ordinary student and the ordinary, not-very-important academic who is having a rough time. I was very grateful for and impressed by some of the points made about that by the noble Lords, Lord Macdonald of River Glaven and Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, in particular, who really tried to bring home the reality of these difficulties.

Going back to why the Bill exists at all, it is to do with the fact that the traditional freedom of speech ethos in universities came under threat. In the past, threats to academic life came from without but now they are coming from within. That is the essence of the problem and why the Bill got going. Even though there have been some changes and alterations of behaviour—for example, the establishment in Cambridge University was defeated in its attempt to suppress free speech and real free speech won—there are still examples.

In Cambridge quite recently, the master of Gonville and Caius College—I think she did not fully understand that the word “master” in the Cambridge or Oxford circumstances is a misnomer and you cannot issue orders at all; it is a very unmasterly position—said that the presence of Helen Joyce speaking in that college would be hateful and that, on those grounds, her talk should not take place. I believe that Helen Joyce would not have been allowed to speak had it not been for the fact that Professor Arif Ahmed, the great leader of free speech, was a don in that college and stood up for Helen Joyce, so the meeting finally took place.

There is a problem, and it has not been sufficiently acknowledged by everybody here. Therefore, it seems that there has to be in the Bill—as there was and to some extent still is—some form of deterrent. There has to be something that goes beyond the universities themselves to make them feel a little nervous about where they have got to. Since universities are currently failing in many cases to uphold the duty of free speech, we cannot just depend on people such as the expert regulators, to which the noble Lord, Lord Grabiner, referred.

The idea of a new tort is to change that. The law of tort offers remedy to private citizens when private duties are breached. This is as opposed to the upholding of more general aspirations, as might be achieved, for example, by judicial review. This difference has not been sufficiently acknowledged in some of the things that have been said. If an academic could bring timely action under a statutory tort, that would concentrate the mind of the university at which he or she worked. That university would face a real deterrent to impeding his or her free speech, because a county court could find against it, with legal, financial and reputational consequences. As the noble Baroness, Lady Shafik, said, I do not quite understand how the prospect of some suit about free speech would frighten people who were inviting people in the cause of free speech. If, however, free speech complaints must always be brought first to an internal complaints procedure, the university will be tempted to mark its own homework favourably or to spin out the process. Early complainants will then retire exhausted and later, prospective ones will not even bother to start.

I add that the Office for Students, on which much reliance is being placed, is not necessarily the best arbiter. As its name suggests, it is for students. The people at universities for whom the free speech stakes are highest are not undergraduates but career academics. The statutory tort, pursuant to which injunctive power could be exercised, would give them the strong protection they increasingly need. I therefore oppose the amendment in the name of my real friend, the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, and support the amendments in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Moylan.

Baroness Smith of Newnham Portrait Baroness Smith of Newnham (LD)
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My Lords, I do not want to detain the House too long because I realise that there will be a move to a vote relatively soon. I support Amendment 22 and will politely say a few words against the noble Lord, Lord Moore, if I may respectfully put it that way.

I am an academic at the University of Cambridge, I signed the amendments put forward by Professor Ahmed and I believe in free speech. However, I am concerned that the idea of a tort will do exactly the reverse of what the noble Lord, Lord Moore, just said. If we want to support the junior academics and students, the way to do that is not to have a legal procedure. As a noble Lord on the other Benches mentioned, the people who will benefit most are the lawyers; the people least likely to be able bring these legal cases are students and junior academics, particularly junior academics at an early stage in their careers. Therefore, the whole idea of a tort will do exactly the opposite of what the noble Lord just implied.

I absolutely agree that we need to listen not just to heads of Oxbridge colleges, chancellors and vice-chancellors of universities, and people like me. However, I hope I speak on behalf of students, members of the casualised part of university staff and other academics in saying that this legal provision will not benefit individuals because those who will have the resources to fight are the university bureaucracies, not individuals.