Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill Debate

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Department: Leader of the House
Lord Storey Portrait Lord Storey (LD)
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My Lords, this debate started with the noble Earl, Lord Howe, talking to us about the importance of free speech at our universities; he used the word “discourse”. He told us briefly what the Bill was about—first, putting further duties on higher education, which would be done by a code of practice. The Government are very good at developing codes of practice; they are just not very good at following them. I hope that if this code of practice appears, the Government will make sure that it is followed.

The Minister also told us that there would be a director of free speech. I wonder whether the former editor of the Daily Mail will be pushed into this job, or whether the position will be filled in a proper way.

Every single person I have listened to in this Chamber has rightly said how important free speech is and has stressed the importance of free speech in our universities and colleges. Quite a number of noble Lords have referenced Professor Kathleen Stock. I have to say that the way the University of Sussex handled that matter meant that it was not the University of Sussex’s finest hour. However, very few Members have mentioned all the other people who have been shouted down, abused, insulted and, in some cases, lost their jobs—through the institution called social media.

In a liberal democracy, citizens have, thank goodness, the right to speak their minds on the great and small issues of the day. Whether that is on a soapbox at Hyde Park Corner or in a lecture theatre in a university, the hallmark of our society is freedom of speech. Fundamentally, it is the right that makes our universities among the best in the world. We must remember, however, that with this great freedom comes great responsibility to uphold the law of the land. You can speak your mind on the most controversial issues, but allowing your argument to devolve into, for example, racism or xenophobia, is patently unacceptable and so it is also unlawful for individuals or organisations to hide behind freedom of speech while inciting hatred and violence. Speech has its boundaries. Protecting the human rights of some individuals should not entail infringing the rights of others.

There will be occasions when universities judge that in the interests of the safety and well-being of their collegiate body it is not advisable for a particular speaker to lecture on campus as their presence may either dangerously inflame passions or otherwise threaten students. It is a difficult decision to make, but it is a power that Governments retain when they decide to refuse entry permits for certain overseas visitors who are invited to speak at events; likewise, it is a decision that must remain the prerogative of individual universities, which have a duty of care and well-being for all their students. I fear that if passed, the Bill will strip those institutions of this ability to make those important decisions on behalf of their students’ safety and will subject universities to unending and needless lawsuits.

In truth, the Bill is just not needed, as my noble friend Lady Garden said. We have heard a lot of noise from the Government about how free speech is being curtailed on university campuses, speakers are being no-platformed and students are apparently unable to speak their minds. However, the Office for Students has found no evidence of free speech being systematically suppressed on campuses. Further, of all the speaker requests made to universities from 2019 to 2020, only 0.21%—I stress that—were rejected. Could the Minister tell me where is this “epidemic of suppression” the Government have been droning on about? Why are we spending hours on this legislation, subjecting university authorities to a potential landslide of civil suits and rendering universities less able to safeguard their students, all to rectify a problem that, if it exists, is very minor—0.21%. Is it really an issue?

The Bill sounds like a dog whistle for right-wingers who feel that universities are hothouses for left-wing thought and action. They are the very same right-wingers who shout “foul” when critics take aim at their ideas, be it the British Council, as my noble friend Lord Wallace said, or the BBC et cetera. The Government should not be entertaining this group of people at all, not least with a Bill such as this which opens up a Pandora’s box for our already stressed universities.

Those same stressed, and now threatened, universities are on the cutting edge of research, often doing world-leading work in conjunction with our international partners. It is vital this work continues, so I welcome the Bill’s inclusion of new, easier reporting requirements that will allow more seamless research agreements between our universities and our most trusted friends around the world. But the Bill could go further. We should also raise the reporting threshold for such agreements, so that small partnerships with other friendly nations are not needlessly held up by red tape.

Like the noble Lords, Lord Johnson of Marylebone and Lord Stevens, I welcome the addition to the Bill of countries exempt from the before-mentioned reporting standards. This will ensure that research partnerships with our most trusted allies will be unencumbered by the regulatory friction that can so often stall the best of agreements. Is the Minister worried that enforcing reporting requirements on non-exempt countries might have a chilling effect on foreign investment in our universities? I should be very appreciative if he could meet me and other concerned Peers at a later date to discuss this issue.

In closing, the Bill does more harm than good for our nation’s most important centres of education. Far from encouraging unfettered speech, I think we all need to recognise that language is a powerful weapon, and we should all be aware of the harm it can cause. We live in an age when we are, I hope, more aware of people’s feelings and of how words can affect people’s well-being and mental health. Protecting hurtful speech in the way the Bill does is not conducive to a more understanding society.