Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill Debate

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Department: Leader of the House
Lord Sikka Portrait Lord Sikka (Lab)
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My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Moylan. I declare my interests. I am an emeritus professor at the University of Essex and the University of Sheffield. I have spent some 43 years in the higher education sector. I have spoken at academic venues all over the world and I have welcomed scholars and other speakers from all over the world.

I just cannot see the need for this Bill. I have not encountered the problems this Bill is trying to deal with. There is more diversity of views on university campuses than at party-political conferences, but I do not see the Minister trying to introduce the notion of free speech for party conferences. Maybe because the Government’s problem is that they are really attacking civil liberties and clamping down on dissent. After all, young people have to learn to express their views and they just do not like it.

The Government claim that the Bill protects free speech, but there is no indication in the Bill or the Explanatory Notes, as far as I can see, of when free speech crosses into hate speech. What are the boundaries? When does one become the other? Free speech is a social construct; it is always in the process of being made but is never finally made. It is shaped by contemporary discourses. On that basis, I am willing to argue against racism, but I will never provide a platform to anybody who is willing to argue for racism. Does that make me unbalanced? I doubt it. I am trying to prioritise social justice over some vulgar version of free speech, and the two inevitably clash. I hope the Minister will be able to tell us how we mediate this clash—how does the Bill deal with this?

In his introductory remarks, the Minister said that the Bill strengthens freedom of speech and academic freedom, but I can find no evidence of this in its proposals. Academic freedoms include freedom of inquiry, investigation, publication and dissemination, and these are all under threat from the funders and the Government. I will give some examples. Too many funding contracts include clauses that give funders the final say on whether research can be published. They can and have blocked, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, the publication of unwelcome findings—they just do not like it.

A classic example is a pharmaceutical company that funded a researcher to compare its branded thyroid drug with generic competitors. The researcher found that the generic products were just as good as the expensive branded products. The publication of that research would have jeopardised the funder’s sales and profits, so the drug company went to incredible lengths to suppress the research, including taking legal action against the researcher and the university to prevent them publishing the findings. I do not see the Government outlawing any of this or dealing with that problem in the Bill.

Over the years, several studies have focused on links between cancer and passive smoking, and tobacco companies have secretly funded research specifically designed to refute these links. They design the research questions and collect and provide the data, and, in the final analysis, their employees write parts of the paper, which has an academic’s name on it, so that they can gain political advantage from the research.

Industry funding drives researchers to study questions that do not upset the funders, which often means that they focus on maximising benefits and minimising harms related to the particular funder’s products or services. That is unacceptable. Uncomfortable questions are simply not asked. I am an accountant, and you would be hard-pushed to find an industry-funded piece of academic work that examines audit failures in any depth—there are not many studies on it, because people know that they will not get the funding if they want to do that kind of research.

The Government themselves have eroded academic freedoms. In November 2020, the British Medical Journal published an article titled:

“Covid-19: politicisation, ‘corruption,’ and suppression of science”.

It documented four instances of government suppression of research during the Covid pandemic. In one case, the Government procured an antibody test that fell short of the performance claims made by the manufacturer. Researchers from Public Health England and collaborating institutions pushed to publish their study’s findings before the Government committed to buying a million of these tests, but they were blocked by the Department of Health and the Prime Minister’s office. Subsequently, Public Health England unsuccessfully attempted to block the BMJ’s press release about the research paper. The key issue here is the conflicting commercial interests and consultancies of Ministers and their advisers—they just did not want to see this piece of research.

I will give a personal example. Some years ago, I secured a small grant from the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales to examine the resignation letters submitted by company auditors. By law, they have to say whether there are circumstances in connection with their resignation that shareholders and creditors need to be aware of. This was a big study. Only 2.5% of the auditor resignation letters at plcs were accompanied by any statement listing the reasons. Almost all filed a nil return, even though there were headlines and front-page news stories about scandals within days of the auditor resigning. There is massive legal non-compliance. We submitted the findings to the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales, but it was not happy about them. There was no correspondence, and it was all done on the phone: “We will tell you”, “We will come back to you, and then you can come back to us”. Years and months passed by, and it never published the information. I have been in the game long enough, so, in the end, I knew what to do: I found alternative means to publish papers from this—but not everyone can. I never went back to any accountancy bodies for research grants again.

My point is that the Bill does nothing to check the funders’ influence on academic research, and it completely fails to advance academic freedoms. I hope that the Minister will give serious thought to this is. If not, I will consider tabling some amendments to further explore these points.