Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill Debate

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Department: Leader of the House
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.

Lord Stevens of Birmingham Portrait Lord Stevens of Birmingham (CB)
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My Lords, picking up that last point, I support the amendments in this group that expand the definition of what constitutes an academic, but I wonder whether the Minister in his response can provide reassurance on the interaction between the academic freedom requirements of the Bill and the ability of universities to ensure high academic standards. Most of the amendments before us relate to the question of what constitutes freedom of speech, rather than academic freedom per se. I think the Minister said a moment ago that nothing in the Bill prevents bad science on campus. The corollary of that should be that nothing in the Bill should prevent universities preventing bad science on campus.

We cannot have a situation in which the academic freedom protections are used to allow those who do not believe that smoking causes cancer to continue at a medical school or those who believe in creationism to lecture in the physics faculty rather than the theology faculty, to cite a well-known example. Indeed, the University of Manchester had the discretion to take action against its PhD student who, noble Lords may have observed, is pursuing a thesis on paedophile masturbation, which is deemed not to meet sufficient academic standards. Yet under the definition of academic freedom here, those views could affect the likelihood of that person’s promotion or securing different jobs at the provider.

Baroness Fox of Buckley Portrait Baroness Fox of Buckley (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, if a science department employs people who do not believe in science, that does not seem to me to be a free speech issue. Even with the PhD thing, they can have those views in the bar and nobody will care, right? It is about what they teach. I am not suggesting that people should be able to carry on doing their job if they are not able to do their job, but they should probably never have been employed or signed up for the PhD in the first instance.

Lord Stevens of Birmingham Portrait Lord Stevens of Birmingham (CB)
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The noble Baroness is making precisely the point I was seeking to draw out. As we discussed at Second Reading, freedom of speech is not the same as academic freedom. We need to make sure that, in protecting both appropriately, we do not stand in the way of the kind of management action that it would be reasonable for universities to take. In a nutshell, we are saying that universities are not a single space. There is a space for freedom of speech, particularly in respect of students, but the classroom is a place for verified expertise. Perhaps in his response the Minister can give us the assurance that nothing in the Bill will stand in the way of universities continuing to exercise that function.

Baroness Chakrabarti Portrait Baroness Chakrabarti (Lab)
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My Lords, first I need to apologise—I forgot to declare my interests in the debate on the previous group. I refer to my academic interests as set out in the register. I also forgot to thank the Minister and his colleagues for the meeting they had with many of us last week, which I for one found very helpful in trying to unpack such a complex area.

This is a vital group of amendments in probing the class of people protected by the new duty, which dovetails with what will come later—the new statutory tort. I suspect that, in replying, the Minister will try to give comfort that the class defined in new Section A1(2) is intended to be a very wide class and to cover tenured and non-tenured academic staff, postgraduate teaching students, et cetera. I am instinctively for that.

I would even go further and say that universities are vital centres of the communities in which they are situated. They have a wonderful economic and cultural impact in the towns, cities and rural areas where they exist. One of the many things that they contribute is public lectures and meetings, where people who have never even attended university themselves get the opportunity to come and hear from world-class academics and other speakers. That is all wonderful, but it creates challenges in relation to these very divided times we live in.

One of the smaller questions that I put to the noble Earl’s team last week—for me, this is a grey area; I am not an expert in education law—is the relationship between subsections (2) and (3) and whether there is potentially an even wider group of people who may be protected and therefore have the benefit of the statutory duty. To be clear, and to go back to my comments in the first group, I want freedom of expression to be protected for the broadest group of people in our society, subject to the caveats and balancing exercises in Article 10. If a member of the public comes to a public lecture, I do not want them to be unnecessarily censored, manhandled or thrown out just for having a different point of view, even though they are not a member, staff member or student of the university. I am confident that that is properly protected by Article 10. The beauty of Article 10 is that it does not really invite lots of financial damages and therefore does not cause too much of a nightmare for the university. However, now we are talking about a statutory tort and pecuniary damages, so we have to be a little bit careful about whether the point in subsection (3) about

“securing that … the use of any premises … is not denied to any individual or body”

is not too broad in relation to bodies which are not even constituent parts of the university.

I know that the noble Earl’s team have views about that, and I certainly believe that the Government’s intention is that only the people covered by new Section A1(2) get access to the statutory duty. Subsection (3) is not intended by the Government to throw the statutory duty wide open to anybody who is thrown out of a meeting for heckling, et cetera; but I urge caution, because this clause will be read expansively, not least because of the duty in Section 3 of the Human Rights Act to which the noble Earl referred in his earlier remarks. Maybe he will have something to say about that.

Even if every heckler who is ultimately thrown out will not be protected, because subsection (3) is not intended to expand upon subsections (2)(a) to (2)(d), we have quite an issue—that is, quite an expansive category of beneficiaries under “visiting speakers”. I am absolutely clear that to make sense, “visiting speakers” here must mean putative visiting speakers, otherwise there is no point to this paragraph. So many of the stories noble Lords have complained about are about people who could have come, would have come, were invited, were nearly invited but were never quite invited because of the atmosphere there, or were denied. So, I am quite clear in my own mind that in subsection (2)(d), “visiting speakers”, must and will include—and will be found by a court to include—potential, putative speakers.

I put the scenario to the noble Earl last week of the meeting that takes place to discuss the speaking programme. A controversial name is mentioned, and the decision is ultimately made that that person is not to be invited because of fear of controversy. People are tweeting after the meeting, because that is what people on Twitter do—I am not in that category—and we now have potential litigation from the putative speaker, whatever level of controversy they excite.

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Moved by
5: Clause 1, page 1, line 17, leave out “securing that” and insert “not denying”
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Lord Stevens of Birmingham Portrait Lord Stevens of Birmingham (CB)
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The noble Lord, Lord Willetts, sends his apologies for an unforeseen family emergency, so I will formally move Amendment 5 and speak to Amendments 7, 8 and 38 to 41.

Given that these originate with the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, noble Lords can be assured that they are pragmatic and constructive amendments that will not necessarily detain the Committee for terribly long. Their aim is simply to make clear that universities should be allowed to move events around the campus without cancelling them, on the grounds that it should be reasonable to move a controversial and possibly noisy event so that it does not occur, for example, next to an exam hall at exam time. It is reasonable to move an event so that it happens on a part of the campus that makes event management easier or so that it does not conflict with other events at the same time.

Some people may argue that these flexibilities might mean the surreptitious or indirect cancelling of events, but other parts of the Bill address this concern. Indeed, to pick up the point that the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, made earlier, in fact they may make it easier to invite people and expand the number of speakers invited to campus, knowing that these flexibilities exist. Per the rest of the Bill, universities and student unions would remain liable to sanction if they had in fact cancelled an event, not merely moved it, and the Office for Students would be able to respond to a complaint.

In a nutshell, these practical amendments that we hope the Government might consider as the Bill progresses would simply provide sensible if narrow discretion to universities and student unions to decide where and when events happen.

Lord Mann Portrait Lord Mann (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, my Amendment 6 is on the same principle: unintended consequences. The Government would be very foolish not to listen in and to amend the Bill accordingly.

When I was a student leader, I had a range of tactics. With this Bill, I could put those tactics into play very easily. At the moment I go around a huge number of universities in another role; I was at one this morning. A week ago I was at a very prestigious one, in the vice-chancellor’s office. I did a recce in preparation and spotted a meeting room. If I was at that university, or knew someone in a society at that university—such as, let us say, the anarchist society—I would get invited there and, if I wanted to be disruptive, have a rolling meeting. The meeting would simply continue and continue. Some activists and campaigners would do that. They may not glue themselves to the door, because that would be criminal damage and they would be removed, but it would be possible to keep a rolling meeting going. I can recall one that was kept going for six weeks, not in the vice-chancellor’s office but in the registrar’s office. That is possible. I suggest that that would be an unintended consequence of this.

There are also groups that could get themselves invited in with the sole aim of maximising disruption, in order that they get their meeting broken up—in essence, they get thrown out—and then they can sue. This would be, by definition, extremist groups on the fringes. That would be, and has been in the past, a tactic employed. There was a whole period of time when various extremist activists were trying to do this. With this Bill, they would have a perfect opportunity. So this small tweak, giving that flexibility to a university, would have a profound impact.

There is one other good reason. If one wanted to be politically aggressive, when booking a room one could insist that an anti-Israel meeting, to use one example, was located in a room next to a synagogue or the Jewish chaplaincy. That would seem egregious to me. It could be—this happens a lot in the United States at the moment—directly in and among the Jewish student accommodation, the Hillel accommodation, which would be more than egregious. To give universities the flexibility for that bit of common sense, which they apply routinely in these isolated examples, would be a way of stopping those unintended consequences and would help the Government in their objective and their free speech proposals.

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Earl Howe Portrait Earl Howe (Con)
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We are coming later on to a group of amendments that could well encompass the noble Baroness’s question about the Prevent duty, but my answer to her now is that the planning of an event involves a number of considerations: the security costs; whether it impacts in any way on the Prevent duty; whether it impacts in any way on the public sector equality duty; and so on and so forth. This is a set of issues relating to an event that might be considered controversial that will need to be looked at altogether in the round. I cannot say whether there will be a separate set of papers, but if I receive advice on that point, I will certainly write to the noble Baroness.

To conclude, we want these provisions to offer a safeguard to groups that might come under serious security pressures, while also giving providers, colleges and student unions the independence that they need. I hope I have reassured noble Lords on these issues and sufficiently addressed the concerns raised.

Lord Stevens of Birmingham Portrait Lord Stevens of Birmingham (CB)
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I beg leave to withdraw Amendment 5.

Amendment 5 withdrawn.