Thursday 17 May 2018
[Mr Virendra Sharma in the Chair]
Local Authority Overview and Scrutiny Committees
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the First Report of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, Effectiveness of local authority overview and scrutiny committees, HC 369, and the Government Response, Cm 9569.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship once again, Mr Sharma. Today’s debate will consider the report of what is now the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee. At the time it was the Communities and Local Government Committee, but what’s in a name change, after all?
The report looked into the effectiveness of local authority overview and scrutiny committees, which is an important subject. Perhaps it is a bit technical, and does not catch the main headlines in the popular press, but local government delivers important services to our local communities, including social care services for the elderly and children, emptying the bins, sweeping the streets, running libraries, and producing housing. Those are all important services, and it is important that they are done well and that the performance of authorities is scrutinised and monitored effectively.
Let us go back, for those of us who can remember, to how scrutiny came about in local government. We used to have a system—indeed, some councils are going back to it—in which all councillors were involved in the decision-making process, in the sense that they were members of committees. Then we had the idea that the Cabinet system, because it worked so well at national level, should be replicated at local authority level. Cabinets were set up in local government, and a number of councillors were appointed to them. I think someone either in Westminster or Whitehall then had the thought, “What do we do with the rest of the councillors who are not on the cabinet, who now haven’t got committees to be on?”
Councillors perform a very important role as representatives of their local communities. Acting in their wards on behalf of their constituents is key to their role. Then someone thought, “What else can we do with them; they are sitting around the town hall, city hall or county hall with nothing else to do? Scrutiny committees are a good idea—we’ll have those.” I think it was a bit of an afterthought on top of the cabinet system, although people who devised it at the time might say that it was not. Unfortunately, for some authorities, it has remained an afterthought—somewhere we can put to one side those councillors who do not have much to contribute anywhere else or, sometimes, councillors who have too much to say somewhere else and are a bit of a nuisance to the leadership of the council. Those in the leadership put such councillors on a scrutiny committee, and hope that they will go away and do something that does not really affect them.
Unfortunately, some councils see scrutiny as a problem. People can raise difficult issues that should not be raised, and sometimes it can become an issue of party political contention. Opposition councillors get put on scrutiny committees to make the life of the ruling party difficult, and ruling party councillors get put on them and told not to ask any difficult questions, because questions can always be raised in their group meetings afterwards. Councillors tell us that that is what is said to them.
However, there are very good examples of scrutiny; like Select Committees in this House, councillors challenge the executive, take on issues, investigate thoroughly and comprehensively, produce good reports and, rather than simply looking at something after the event, take policy initiatives and help to develop policy. Sometimes when there is a complicated issue—perhaps there is a general understanding in the council of where they want to get to, but not of how to get there—scrutiny committees can be really good at delving down and doing what they call “task and finish” to identify the key issues and technical difficulties, and come to agreed, well thought through conclusions. There are some really good examples of effective scrutiny.
There are good examples of councils going outside their council body and getting witnesses, expert witnesses and advisers in to help them, as Select Committees do. Unfortunately, such examples are rare. When councillors are asked why they do not get people from their local university to come in and help—those experts would probably be quite happy to be part of their local community engagement and democratic process—the response is often, “Oh—can we do that?”
We recommend looking at examples of best practice. Councils should learn from one another, and from the best examples of how to conduct scrutiny independently and effectively, by drawing in advisers from outside and engaging with the public in a meaningful way. Sometimes the way the public are engaged with—sitting at the back of a room while a council officer reads a report that has been written well in advance—is not very good. That does not engage the public, but we are looking at different ways of doing so. Taking scrutiny out to the community, setting up websites, and using social media are ways in which councils can develop and enhance scrutiny, as some of our Select Committees do.
This weekend I am going to Birmingham because the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, together with the Health and Social Care Committee, is doing an inquiry into social care. We are going to talk to the citizens’ jury that we have established to provide information and evidence to the inquiry. It is the first time that our Committee has done that. The Committee is also doing an inquiry into the high street. We are using a website to try to get the public engaged in feeding in their information about what is happening in their high street, and what they think should happen. We would like to see such initiatives reflected in local government. Sometimes they are, and local authorities can learn from one another as well.
The key recommendation of our report is about the culture in local government. Do those in the leadership, both politically and at officer level, see scrutiny as important? Do they see it as part of the council’s function, and as something that can add value to council decisions, or just as a bit of an irritant that can be put to one side and forgotten about? That was key to our recommendations. The reality is that if councils value scrutiny and want to make it work, they can do it, even if they may do it slightly differently in different authorities.
I do not want to keep hon. Members for too long this afternoon, but the Committee made a number of specific recommendations. The Committee’s key observation was that Government guidance on scrutiny has not been updated for a long time. The Government have accepted that, and they will produce new guidance—we had a positive discussion with the Minister about that at the evidence session. That is a good starting point, because it means that we can look at some of the other recommendations positively. Scrutiny committees should report not just to executive members of the council, but to the whole council. Again, the Government have accepted that, and we welcome it.
We recommended that scrutiny officers should have the necessary skills to help members of scrutiny committees to do investigations into detailed policy matters. We should not just have a clerk system in which someone says, “We’re here to keep a record of attendance and get the witnesses in the right places.” It should be about helping members with proper monitoring and policy development. The Government have basically accepted that recommendation as well.
Another issue was scrutiny of elected mayors and combined authorities. When any deal is done, it is really important to look at scrutiny, and ensure that resources are available for it. Those mayors and combined authorities are a further step removed, in some cases, from the people who elect them. The arrangements can be complicated, and it is important that there is proper scrutiny of them. The Government have accepted that point as well.
Moving on to issues on which the Government’s response has been less enthusiastic, and those issues that need more consideration, the Government did not accept that a summary of the resources spent on scrutiny should be published each year alongside the summary of resources spent on the executive. The reality is that, in many councils, when cuts are made scrutiny is one of the things that gets cut, because it is a bit of an inconvenience and nobody will miss it if it does not happen. Of course, the executive looks after itself. That does not happen on all councils, but there is sometimes a feeling that that happens, because the executive makes the budget recommendations. We thought that saying to councils, “Look, just publish those figures,” was an interesting way of demonstrating the extent to which they fund scrutiny, compared with other functions of the council. The Government said no to that. It seemed to us a fairly harmless recommendation, and we do not understand why the Government did not support it.
The Committee also said that a statutory scrutiny officer should be appointed in every council. Why not? They exist in unitary authorities and in counties, but not necessarily in second-tier authorities—the district councils—which perform very important functions. Why not a statutory scrutiny officer there as well?
The issue of what information is available to scrutiny committees is absolutely key. Following our report, I have done two or three talks to councillors on scrutiny committees and scrutiny officers. Everyone started nodding at the point we raised the issue of what information is available. So many times councillors on scrutiny committees have been told, “You can’t have that information; it is confidential.” There are examples of councillors having to use freedom of information requests to get information from their own councils. That is ludicrous. It is nonsense. The words “commercial confidentiality” often appear as the explanation and the excuse.
The Government’s response in that regard was an attempt to be helpful. They said that there should not be a blanket refusal to provide information and that information should be dealt with on its own merits. The very helpful point was made—I hope it is given some prominence in guidance to councils—that when contracts are let by councils, clauses should be put in to make it clear that information can be relayed to councillors and not just to a handful of people on the executive. Companies tendering for work should understand that right from the very beginning of the tendering process, before contracts are let. The Government need to build on that in the guidance because it is an absolutely key point—if the information is lacking, scrutiny cannot be done.
In many councils, more and more functions are not delivered in-house but are contracted out to private companies. Officers delivering a service in house can be called before the scrutiny committee, but if the information about a private contract is classed as commercially confidential, the contract cannot be scrutinised and nor can the service to the public. At the end of the day, that is the key point. Addressing that issue is fundamental to getting scrutiny right in an age when so many services are now delivered by third-party contractors. We must make sure not only that the information is available but that those individuals who are running the contract have to come before the scrutiny committees as well.
We also called for scrutiny committees to look at the work of local enterprise partnerships. Billions of pounds of public money is spent by LEPs, which are almost unaccountable to any part of the democratic process. The Government were receptive to the idea and said that there should be proper oversight and transparency of the operation of LEPs. They said that they would go away to think about that and write to the Committee. I know that the post is occasionally slow in this country, but I think the letter has got lost in the post. We have not received it yet. I hope the Minister has one in his pocket this afternoon to hand across the Chamber.
We are writing it now.
Okay. Clearly, I think it is an important issue. Who else is going to oversee the spending and work of the LEPs if not council scrutiny committees? That is very important.
There is something that somehow got lost altogether in the Government’s response. Currently, councils have a right to oversee their own activities and the officers who perform them, although they need to do more about commercial companies. There is a very good set of rules for the health service. The service can be scrutinised by local council scrutiny committees and the health service bodies have to provide information. Officers have to come to scrutiny committees and be questioned about that. What about the other important public services?
The Department for Work and Pensions provides a lot of services at local level. So do the police. I know that the police have their own scrutiny arrangements for local police panels—I do not know whether they are quite the same—but certainly, lots of public services, such as those delivered by the DWP, are very important at local level. They do things that affect the public locally, but there is currently no local oversight. We suggested that they should be put in a similar position to health service bodies and that officials should have to provide information and evidence and be available to appear before scrutiny committees. The Government seem to have missed that out altogether in their response, as though they were a bit uncomfortable about it. I know that it might mean talking to one or two colleagues in other Departments, but it is a good proposal and one that would help transparency and monitoring of Government activity as well. I hope the Minister will be able to say a bit more about that this afternoon.
We look forward to the Government’s guidance, as well as clarification of the one or two issues that I have identified, including that long-awaited letter, but to a large extent, at the end of the day it is down to councils. We can give them guidance, but we need to encourage them to take account of the report and to work with each other to improve scrutiny.
I know that the Local Government Association is starting to look at the issues. We had a very helpful letter just before the debate from the Centre for Public Scrutiny, which has an important role to play. It gave evidence to the Committee and is now working with the LGA on how to deal with a number of matters in a practical way. They are looking at the issue of councillor training, and at examples of good practice. They are looking at how councils can be helped to understand their responsibilities. I hope that they are going to look at the idea we recommended, which the Government said they were going to talk to the LGA about, of doing some pilots on the election of chairs of scrutiny committees.
Councils are, in the end—the Committee is very clear about this—locally elected bodies, and on the Select Committee we are all, by and large, localists who believe that things can be best done and organised at a local level, but we thought the idea of having chairs elected by the home council was quite a good one. We did not want it to be imposed on councils, but we suggested one or two pilots to show what could be done. The Minister might be able to let us know how far that has gone.
We certainly welcome the work that the LGA is now doing with the Centre for Public Scrutiny to take those ideas forward. We look forward to the guidance that the Government are eventually going to produce on the basis of the report.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma, for what I believe is the first time. It is also a pleasure to follow the Chair of the Select Committee and his presentation of the report. It is a unanimously agreed report that all members signed up to and agree with, and I speak as one who serves on the Committee. I spent 24 years as a local councillor before being elected to this place—no doubt you served many more, Mr Sharma. I know that the Chair of the Select Committee served in local government, as did the hon. Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist)—I think she continues to serve.
The hon. Lady has stepped down.
I came up through the committee system. When I was elected leader of the council, the Deputy Prime Minister at the time offered me the opportunity to pilot the cabinet structure. I said, “I think I have enough on my plate without piloting this cabinet structure, thank you very much, Mr Heseltine.”
The advantages of the committee system have to be remembered. All councillors served on committees and committees were held in public—there was great interest in what they debated. There was a political benefit as well, in that officers produced reports and until the time they voted on a report, whether a councillor was in the political group in charge or in opposition, they could oppose and amend the report and put in new recommendations of a political nature, which divorced the officers from the political side of the decision making, but it also enabled the ruling group to row back from something that was possibly not in the public interest of their area. That was one of the advantages.
The big disadvantage was that the process was very slow and often cumbersome and uncertain. That is why almost every council in the country moved to the cabinet structure as quickly as they could. Its disadvantage is that decisions are made in private; they are not transparent to the public. Although cabinet or executive meetings are held in public, the most important decisions are taken in private before those meetings take place. Up and down the country, very few members of the public bother to attend cabinet or executive meetings, and the press—and councillors, in general—have given up interest. That is a really serious drawback.
Overview and scrutiny is a vital part of our democratic process. I will come to some of the recommendations that I am disappointed the Government did not accept in a minute. I take the view that overview and scrutiny are two separate things. Overview is the development of policy. The ruling group on a council should take ownership of it and really drive it as a means of developing policy for the whole council. Scrutiny is about examining decisions that have been made or are about to be made, and ensuring that they are fit for purpose, that they are the right decisions and that they are justified.
I served for 24 years on Brent London Borough Council, which is very confrontational, and we reached a constitutional settlement whereby the chair of scrutiny had to be from the opposition and elected by full council, exactly as the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts) said. We were the pioneers. The two major parties agreed that that was the right way to go. At every council meeting, the chair of the scrutiny committee reported directly to the council with a written report on their scrutiny work, and there were questions to the chair of the scrutiny committee at full council. At times it was embarrassing for the ruling group, but there was proper scrutiny of the decision-making process.
I also served for four years as chair of the forward plan select committee, which sounds pretty horrendous. We brought together colleagues from across the council to scrutinise the expected work of the executive to ensure that they were delivering on their plan and that the responsible councillors knew what they were talking about. It was similar to the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee: whenever anyone visits our Select Committee, it is very hard for them to determine which political party its members are from, because we all want to improve the Government’s work and we are not party political. It is a model of good practice.
If scrutiny is not properly resourced, it tends to be an inconvenience. Senior officers say, “It would be a lot better if we could just get on with the job, rather than having to account to councillors.” The chief executives and chief officers of certain local authorities downplay scrutiny because they find it inconvenient; it gets in the way of getting the job done. I have less sympathy for that view, because the reality is that good scrutiny improves decision making, improves services and ensures transparency in the public eye.
I hope that when the Government issue their guidance on public scrutiny they will look at such measures. I am a localist—I believe it is absolutely right that local authorities make their own decisions about their processes —but it is good practice that the chair of scrutiny be elected by full council, and ideally that they be a member of the opposition. It is then up to them how to play it, but I suspect that if the opposition play it sensibly—if they call the executive to account, as opposed to playing party political games—the scrutiny will be very effective. That is a key item.
I also have concerns about private and confidential information that is not disclosed to councillors. I take the view that all information should be available to councillors on reasonable request, unless the legal officers certify that it should not be made available. The presumption should be that all information is available to councillors, not selectively. If there is a contractual or other reason to keep it secret during the decision-making process, that is reasonable, but once the decision has been made all information should be made available so that it can be properly scrutinised. I worry that serious errors—not underhand dealings—are often made by local authorities. There are concerns about how contracts are let and about decision making, and there are conflicts of interest among both councillors and council officers. That needs to be exposed in the glare of publicity, and the best way of doing that is through the scrutiny process. I hope that the Government will look at that in the guidance that will be issued, because it needs to be firmed up considerably. Because some local authorities do not take scrutiny seriously enough, we should publish the amount of money and resource available. It must be scrutinised, and the executive and senior officers must be held to account. That would enable us to see a proper comparison.
There is an opportunity here for a great renaissance in local government scrutiny. The executive or the cabinet makes decisions on behalf of the local authority. There is now a whole series of academy trusts—schools that are outside the control of the local education authority—so why should the local authority not scrutinise their work? I know that Ofsted does that, but why should the local authority not look at what matters for local people? As the hon. Gentleman said, why should the local authority not scrutinise the police in certain cases? In my experience, health authorities fight tooth and nail to prevent information being provided to scrutiny committees. Even though they are required to provide information, they put every blockage they can in place. Then there is the fire service. I could go through every public service that affects a local area. Why should local authority scrutiny not be used to examine the services that are provided to the public?
We could go even further and be even more radical. We could look at the central Government resources that are applied to a local area. Perhaps they could be scrutinised by the local authority—I suspect that there may be some resistance to that idea from the Government. This is an opportunity to expand the role of local authorities and local councillors, who do a brilliant job of reporting issues that concern their constituents. We could empower them even more. By empowering them, we would give them an opportunity to shape the place they live and work in. That would put oxygen into the life of local authorities, and would encourage not only the press but local people to participate in their local authority’s work. At the moment, I am afraid the mood is, “Well, they just get on with it. We vote once every four years, or once every year, to elect local councillors, and unfortunately that doesn’t do the job.”
The Minister is new to his role, and was not responsible for writing the Government response to our noble report, so perhaps he can reconsider some of our recommendations in the light of this debate. That would show that he is not only reading and absorbing our reports, but listening to what we have to say.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. After I came to this House, I joined the Communities and Local Government Committee, as it then was, last September. I was a local councillor, so taking part in the Committee’s inquiry into overview and scrutiny in local government was an easy passage into the Committee’s work. I felt confident in contributing to the inquiry. I have stood down as a councillor in Gateshead Council, which was a great regret to me. I think councillors have a huge role to play in representing their communities, but we cannot be everywhere.
Almost one year since my election, I am pleased to speak in this debate on the Committee’s report. It gives me a great chance to thank the many witnesses and the contributors to the report, and to acknowledge the huge contribution made by local councillors, especially back-bench ones whose job is to scrutinise the work of council executives and to take part in overview and scrutiny.
The report highlights a number of issues, which have been discussed by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts) and the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman). I want to talk about three things in particular: resources, information and training for councillors. There were a great many other recommendations, but I shall touch on those three.
First, in order to have effective scrutiny, which can contribute greatly to the running and effectiveness of an authority, it is important to have adequate resources in order to support members of the council in their work, as we have in Select Committees. To get to the nitty-gritty of council business, someone needs a lot of time, concentration and knowledge. Like my colleagues, therefore, I was disappointed when the Government did not agree to survey what resources are going into overview and scrutiny. It is important for authorities to be clear about the need for overview and scrutiny committees to be resourced so that they can work effectively. By not conducting that survey, I am afraid that—as colleagues have said—we are letting those who may not be so enthusiastic lie low. I very much hope that the Minister will look again at the need to gather information about resources available to the committees.
Secondly, apart from officer time, a really important resource is information. One of the issues raised during our inquiry was the ability of committee members to access information about the council or about services provided by third parties and external organisations. Too often, committees are told that such information is covered by commercial confidentiality, so they are not able to look effectively at whether a contract is being performed as it should be and whether it is providing value for money. It is a positive move for the Government to say that local authorities should look at that positively, but we need to be much firmer about saying that those who scrutinise either council services provided by external parties or even internal services have the right to the full information necessary. We need greater transparency and better availability of information, so that it does not have to be dragged from authorities or external bodies, but is available to committees when they need it, when considering important reports.
Thirdly, I will touch on training. My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East mentioned the letter we had from the Centre for Public Scrutiny, which talks about some of the work it is doing to strengthen scrutiny. It is important that elected members are very clear about how they go about scrutiny work, that they have the tools at their disposal to make the most of the information they have, and that they can do an effective job of scrutinising the work of the local authority, whether looking into particular services or at regular key performance indicators. It is important that people have the training and knowledge to know what they are doing, basically, and too often that is avoided.
I welcome the fact that the Government have accepted that idea that overview and scrutiny committees should report to full council. It is important that the role of overview and scrutiny and its significance are recognised and that there is space for the committees to report to full council, so that all council members are aware of what is happening and the important issues they are facing.
That is as much as I wanted to say. I certainly commend the report, and I hope that the Government will think again about some of the areas that we have pointed out.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma.
I am grateful to my hon. Friends the Members for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts) and for Blaydon (Liz Twist) and the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman), and I bow to their superior experience as councillors. I was a councillor for six years. It is a hard job, and I respect everyone who stands up to represent their community, putting their head above the parapet. I also have experience of the committee and scrutiny systems, and I have to say that as a back-bench councillor I preferred the committee system—I felt that I had more input—but I can see that that might depend on which local authority it is.
Scrutiny has to be a good thing. It is right and proper that the executive are held to account, that thorough assessment is made of whether policies represent real value for money, and that there is ongoing monitoring of how they affect the public. Scrutiny should not just be retrospective; it should also ensure that policy making can be improved. That is how we see scrutiny in Parliament —we hold the Government to account in debates such as this one, for example—and there is some parallel with local government, but sometimes councils do not always give their scrutiny committees the wonderful support and resources that we have in this place for our Select Committees. We have Committee Clerks, training, a wealth of resources and availability of information, which is why Select Committee reports such as the one we are discussing are so highly regarded.
Another issue in local authorities is that party politics can sometimes be more single state. As we know, in some parts of the country the Conservatives dominate, while in others things are the other way around. That is how constituents want it, which is quite right—it is democracy. However, that can have an impact on scrutiny. In some authorities one party sometimes has to hold itself to account, which can make life difficult for individuals. What incentive is there for a back-bench councillor to criticise his or her own ruling executive’s policies? To do so has been described, in some instances, as not a great career move. That is something to think about. Our Select Committees have a mix of Members and some are chaired by the Opposition, so they are truly cross-party, with real legitimacy and standing as a result.
All that means we have to be more nuanced in how we look at local government. One size does not fit all and, as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East, there is the culture. At their best, overview and scrutiny committees should be regarded as constructive, and as a critical friend, but there is a tendency, I fear, for some council leaders to see them as a challenge. That might be because of the political make-up of the council, but it might be an ingrained attitude—the executive makes the decisions, which are made in the best interests of the people, so challenging them is somehow disloyal. The report acknowledges that and points out that the culture at the top determines whether scrutiny is seen as effective.
Culture also determines whether councillors get the correct information to do scrutiny properly. That is a key issue that has been mentioned a number of times. When I was on the scrutiny committee, I had 24-page reports given to me the day before a meeting. I was also doing a full-time job, so that did not encourage effective scrutiny—it was in fact another way of discouraging it, which can be done either by giving no information or by giving so much information, in such detail, that no one reads it.
My hon. Friend makes a good point about how councils work. Their challenge is greater than ours here in the House of Commons, where not only do we have independent Select Committees, but even Government Members are a little more removed from Ministers on a daily basis than councillors are from the cabinet members. Councillors are often in the same room with cabinet members, or part of groups that make the decisions for which cabinet members are responsible, in a way that does not happen in the House. It is a bigger challenge, so getting that culture right is key.
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend: it is a challenge, but it is one that we must look at. I am pleased that the Government are responding and will produce good practice.
I shall single out two or three of the recommendations. I feel that a statutory scrutiny officer for all councils is fully justified. Yes, councils can make their own choices, but such an appointment at a senior level can only help to raise the standing of scrutiny, prevent it from being marginalised and make suggestions to the executive about how it could work better in future.
I register my support for the scrutiny of local enterprise partnerships. There is much that is wrong with local enterprise partnerships, not least their lack of transparency and accountability. I believe that scrutiny needs to follow the public pound. It should not matter if services are in-house or outsourced through complex partnerships or contracts; the public have a right to know how their money is spent, because they are all taxpayer-funded services. Councils can outsource their services, but not the responsibility for them. Part of that responsibility is allowing them to be scrutinised. I agree with the hon. Member for Harrow East that a lot of other public services affect the local area: the police, the fire brigade and academy schools. They should all be subject to scrutiny, because everything that happens there affects the local resident. Surely, that is what local councils are about: what affects their local residents.
I would like to single out the recommendation to increase the funding for the scrutiny of metro mayors. Perhaps if we had more resources in this regard we would have never had the scenario where the last Mayor of London avoided accountability over the release of funding for the abortive garden bridge, even though the stipulated conditions were not in place for that to happen. Taxpayers have been forced to pick up the £46 million bill.
I thank the Committee for its report, which contains some sensible recommendations. It is a challenge to improve the scrutiny of local authorities, because of their different make-up and how they differ from central Government, but we need to accept that challenge; it is an important function in any democracy. I was impressed by the remark the hon. Member for Harrow East made about putting the oxygen back into scrutiny by engaging the public again. Too often the public elect their councillors and do not think about them again for the next four years. They need to look at the decisions that those councillors make. Scrutiny is an important way that they can be involved in that.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma, I think for the first time. I congratulate the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts) on securing the debate. I thank him and the members of his Committee for their important work. I stand here in some trepidation, responding to a debate in which I think I am the only parliamentarian who has not been a local councillor at some point.
There is still time.
One job at a time, perhaps. Collectively, there is probably over half a century’s worth of local government experience in the room. I pay tribute to that service. The hon. Member for Sheffield South East said that this may not be a topic that attracts front-page headline news, but nevertheless it is an important topic. It is a credit to him and his Committee that they took the time to thoroughly investigate a topic that deserves scrutiny but that otherwise may not have had the chance to be debated and aired in this place.
Scrutiny is fundamentally important to the successful functioning of local democracy, so I welcome the opportunity to reflect on the Committee’s findings. It has a key role to play in ensuring local accountability and the efficient delivery of public services. Scrutiny committees can play a key role in voicing the concerns of local people. I hope the Government response makes it clear that I value the role that scrutiny can play in supporting accountable and transparent decision making and the effective delivery of council functions. The principal takeaway point for me from the Committee’s report, which the hon. Member for Sheffield South East alluded to, is that the organisational culture determines whether scrutiny works well. Where there is a culture of welcoming challenge, the scrutiny process in councils is effective.
I would like to start by setting out the core principles that underpin Government’s approach to scrutiny, before turning to the specific recommendations of the report. First, councils are democratically elected bodies and are ultimately accountable to their electorate. Secondly, as a localist, I take the view that councils are best placed to know which scrutiny arrangements will suit their own individual circumstances. Thirdly, Government have a role to play in ensuring that councils are aware of what effective scrutiny looks like and how best to carry it out. Lastly, overview and scrutiny is just one part of the wider accountability framework for local government, along with the requirement to publish certain information online for transparency, the requirements for independent audit, the complaints process and the presence of independent local media.
The rationale behind the Government’s response was, therefore, to accept those recommendations that would increase councils’ understanding of the importance of scrutiny and how to conduct it, but to tread carefully with the requirements that would place additional requirements on local authorities or reduce their flexibility to decide for themselves which scrutiny arrangements to put in place.
I will turn to some of those specific recommendations. The Committee’s first recommendation clearly will enhance councils’ understanding of the importance of scrutiny and how to conduct it. The Committee pointed out, not unfairly, that statutory guidance was updated more than a decade ago. I was more than happy to agree to update that. I am keen that the new guidance is of genuine use to councils and is not just a tick-box exercise that simply restates their legal obligations. My Department is already at work with the sector to ensure that it delivers the right messages in the right way. Broadly, the guidance will seek to ensure that councils know the purpose of scrutiny, what effective scrutiny looks like, how to conduct it effectively and the benefits it can bring. More specifically, it will cover some of the specific things that were heard today, such as reports to full councils or the role of the public. I look forward to publishing that revised guidance before the end of this year.
The hon. Member for Sheffield South East and the hon. Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) raised the concern of public scrutiny of local enterprise partnerships. The Committee’s report seemed to suggest that it was the exception rather than rule. I want to reassure hon. Members that I agree fully that local scrutiny is essential to holding LEPs to account. The local enterprise partnerships national assurance framework is set by central Government and LEPs must comply with it to receive funding.
Last year, one of the Department’s non-executive directors, Mary Ney, led a review into LEP governance and transparency. We are in the process of fully implementing all her recommendations; but I agree there is more to do to ensure that LEPs and local partners collaborate effectively to deliver better outcomes for the public. That is why we are currently undertaking a Minister-led review that will consider the role of local scrutiny in LEP governance. It will also bring forward reforms to LEPs’ roles, leadership, accountability and geography. It will be published in the coming months.
I apologise to the hon. Member for Sheffield South East and his Committee that he has not received the letter that he is due. I will ensure that gets to him in short order, to set out what has already happened and what is happening to improve governance and scrutiny for LEPS.
I thank the Minister for that reassurance. We will get a letter in short order saying that something will happen in the coming months. Could the Minister be more precise about what “the coming months” might mean?
I would love to be, but the review is being conducted by my colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry), so I do not have the exact timing to hand. The review was announced through the industrial strategy White Paper. I am sure that we will share as much information as we are able to with the Committee. The hon. Gentleman knows that, alongside that, the assurance framework is in the process of being reviewed and updated. That work is going on with people in the industry, including the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy and officials. I will make sure that all that is contained in the letter, with as much transparency on timing as we are able to give.
Another key concern that the Committee raised was that scrutiny seemed to be a second-order matter for combined authorities. I assure hon. Members that I take accountability in these new authorities very seriously. I am confident that the framework we have put in place provides the basis for a robust and consistent approach to scrutiny for combined authorities across the country. In particular, the Combined Authorities (Overview and Scrutiny Committees, Access to Information and Audit Committees) Order 2017 was a key step in implementing devolution deals, and will ensure effective accountability for the new budgets and powers that have been devolved.
Members raised the question of resourcing. The Government announced at the last Budget that they will make available to mayoral combined authorities a £12 million fund for financial years 2018-19 and 2019-20 to boost Mayors’ capacity and resources. Combined authorities are free to use that to ensure that scrutiny and accountability arrangements are effectively resourced and supported.
I turn to the recommendations that the Government are considering. Access to information was raised by all three Back-Bench Members who spoke—my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) and the hon. Members for Blaydon (Liz Twist) and for Sheffield South East. They made a persuasive and compelling case that we should have a hard look at that area. As a new Minister, I tell my hon. Friend that the point about information was the one thing that really stuck with me. In our response to the Select Committee, we committed to looking at that and deciding how best to manage it.
I agree that scrutiny committees should be able to access the information they need to do their jobs effectively. I can see that some executives might seek to deny committees access to that information if they do not appreciate their obligations or understand the value of scrutiny. I want to take soundings from the sector and figure out how best to move forward before committing, but hon. Members’ case that this is something we should consider carefully will stick with me, and I will ensure that I take it away. If we decide that new measures are appropriate, I will of course come back to the Select Committee with those.
My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East and the hon. Member for Sheffield South East also raised the role of elected chairs. My officials and I will speak to the sector and think about how best we can establish the impact of elected chairs on the effectiveness of scrutiny committees. In general, chairs should be selected on the basis of their skills, experience, integrity and objectivity, not of how amenable they are to the executive. Although the new guidance will remind councils that they already have the option to elect rather than appoint a chair, it is right that every council should decide for itself how to select its members.
Let me say a few words about some of the recommendations about which there is a small difference of opinion, which I hope I can explain. On the point about councils publishing a summary of resources, although the Government require councils to publish certain information for transparency purposes, making available details of the resources allocated to scrutiny would be difficult in practice, for the simple reason that councils often do not have a dedicated scrutiny officer or staff. Instead, they pull in resources as and when they are needed, so it may be difficult for them to produce accurate figures.
I remember that a former Secretary of State—namely, Sir Eric Pickles—believed absolutely in transparency, such that he insisted that every council must publish every item of expenditure in excess of £500. Given that I do not think that policy has changed, what is the problem with asking councils to publish what should be a considerably higher figure than £500?
I agree that transparency is important, and I am glad that my hon. Friend supports the transparency agenda, which the Government continue to lead. Transparency is of course the best disinfectant and the best way for accountability to work in practice. There is a practical difficulty with trying to aggregate lots of small expenditures, which is why there is a £500 threshold in the transparency code. I agree that £50 here, £25 there and another £100 there may add up to a greater figure, but identifying all the individual components may be tricky. However, I agree that transparency is important.
The hon. Member for Blaydon mentioned training. In its report, the Select Committee suggests that the training offered to members and officers does not always meet their needs, and that the Department needs to better manage the funding it provides to the sector. Having looked into the training offer, I remain broadly happy with it. It already includes a specific two-day course for new or aspiring scrutiny chairs, and I am comfortable that, for now, it meets the needs of the sector.
I note that the Local Government Association wrote to the Select Committee to provide further details of the overwhelmingly positive feedback it has received about its training programme. The Committee will be aware that our new memorandum of understanding with the LGA sets out our expectation that it will remain responsive to feedback and ensure that the training it offers remains relevant and effective. However, I agree that training is important, and I hope that the response the Committee gets from the LGA reassures it that what is in place is at least a good foundation.
I thank the Minister for those comments. Will he ensure that all authorities not only know that the training offer is there, but encourage their officers and members to take it up? We heard that not all authorities do that, so it would be really helpful if the Government, through the LGA, stressed that point.
The hon. Lady is right. I note that in its oral evidence, the LGA recognised the need to get into councils that might not be doing scrutiny as well as they should. I think it will have taken that message away as a result of coming before the Select Committee and engaging on this topic, and I will pass that message on, too, to ensure that it was heard loud and clear.
I am not sure whether the Minister covered this point. He spoke about the importance of access to information and about considering how that can be improved, but he did not make it clear whether that applies just to information held by councils themselves or to information held by other public bodies, such as the Department for Work and Pensions, the police service and the fire service, just as it already applies to the Department of Health and Social Care and its bodies at local level. Does he accept that scrutiny committees have a right to scrutinise and access information and witnesses from those other public organisations?
I was talking specifically about information relating to councils’ own functions in the first instance. On the broader point, which was also raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East, there are existing mechanisms for health and crime because, when those structures were set up, those were the agencies that the sector felt it did the most partnership working with. I am happy to talk to the sector to find out whether there is appetite for a greater ability to scrutinise other bodies, whether that process would work practically, and whether the burden it would put on authorities is appropriate. It is important to recognise that many of those other parts of the public sector are scrutinised separately, and to ensure that there is not duplication of scrutiny. Every public agency tries to focus on its day job, so we need to get the balance right between having appropriate scrutiny and not duplicating scrutiny, which would mean taking focus and resources away from agencies doing their job.
I thank the Minister for giving way a second time on this point. I hope that, having looked at that and talked to the sector about it, he will write back to the Select Committee with his findings. It is difficult to see where the Department for Work and Pensions has a spotlight shone on it often and effectively at local level. I recognise his point about putting burdens on local government. This is intended to be not a burden but an opportunity, which local authorities may take up if they wish. There would not be a requirement to scrutinise other bodies, but authorities would have the opportunity to do so if they wished.
I will of course write to the hon. Gentleman when we have had conversations with the sector on that point.
I want to clarify the point about information, which goes absolutely to scrutiny. I made the point that the presumption should be that information should be available. Rather than the current position, in which officers grudgingly give information to scrutiny committees and suchlike, it should be for the legal officer to say why information should not be available. Will my hon. Friend look at that specific point in detail and come back to the Select Committee?
Hopefully I can reassure my hon. Friend. The main point that I have taken from the debate from all contributions is about access to information and ensuring that it is not unreasonably withheld. It is tricky to get the balance right, making sure that time is not wasted and that information that is genuinely commercial or commercially sensitive in some other regard is protected. However, I have heard that message loud and clear and it is a fair point, so I will go away and think about it in more depth.
Of course, such conversations with the sector are already happening and if there is a path to do something different, we will consider it. I would be loth to commit to something now, but I can commit to examining the issue properly and seriously, given the weight and force of the arguments made.
It was reassuring to see that the Committee’s report acknowledges that scrutiny is working effectively in many councils. We should recognise that. Of course, we should accept that in some places it does not work as well as might be expected, but it does have a key role to play in ensuring local accountability and the effective delivery of services so it is important that councils know how to do it properly. I have committed to working with the sector to update the guidance, ensuring that it meets the needs of councillors and their officers, and I am happy to give further consideration to some of the topics I touched on earlier.
I thank hon. Members who have contributed to the debate. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to discuss this important topic. We are talking about scrutiny and, as was raised in Members’ comments, Select Committees, and in particular the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, which I am privileged to appear before, are a great example of how scrutiny can work in practice. It works best in this place—as it should in local authorities—when done on a collegiate basis, with people putting the interests of the public whom they serve first and working as a constructive friend of the people who are trying to make decisions. This Committee is a fantastic example for local authorities and the local government sector to look at. It is a pleasure to work with it, not just on this issue, but hopefully on other issues in the months to come.
I thank the Minister for his response—whether it was positive or not will depend on the outcome of those further consultations. He gave us a general indication that he recognises the important role of scrutiny in local government, which is done well in many councils and not so well in others. Improvement is down to the sector, working with the Centre for Public Scrutiny. We look forward to receiving the guidance, which will be really important, and further information about how LEPs might be more effectively scrutinised.
The Minister has clearly got the message about information for scrutiny committees, which is very important, both within the council and hopefully more widely as we look at providing information to other public bodies. We look forward to his coming back to us on that point. Hopefully the Committee’s report and—eventually—the Government’s collective response can mean not just an improvement in scrutiny, which of itself is not the endgame, but an improvement in the public services that our constituents receive from their local authorities.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the First Report of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, Effectiveness of local authority overview and scrutiny committees, HC 369, and the Government Response, Cm 9569.
Freedom of Speech: Universities
[Sir Henry Bellingham in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Fourth Report of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, Freedom of Speech in Universities, HC 589.
It is a pleasure to speak in this Chamber with you in the Chair, Sir Henry. I am grateful to the Liaison Committee for giving us the opportunity to discuss the Joint Committee’s report; to the Minister for being here; to the members of the Committee, particularly those who are here; to the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock), who represents the Scottish National party; and to the Labour Front Bencher, my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South (Gordon Marsden).
The inquiry started because the then Minister for higher education, the hon. Member for Orpington (Joseph Johnson), who is now a Transport Minister, made a number of comments about there being a problem with free speech in universities. Bearing in mind the importance of free speech to the Joint Committee on Human Rights, and its importance in universities, we thought it right to look into the matter.
Let me remind Members that the Joint Committee is half Lords and half Commons. We are very fortunate because we have members not only from the main parties—the Conservatives and the Labour Opposition—but from the SNP and the Liberal Democrats, and we have Lord Trimble from Ireland, so we are a very broad-ranging and sage Joint Committee. It also includes a former Lord Chief Justice, in the shape of Lord Harry Woolf. We are all strongly committed to human rights and wanted to look at whether there was a problem with freedom of speech in universities—freedom of speech being one of the most basic human rights.
The right to free speech is of course a foundation for democracy. It is important in all settings, but especially in universities, where education and learning are advanced through dialogue and debate. It underpins academic freedom. Universities are places where ideas are developed. A diverse range of interesting and sometimes controversial topics should be debated.
Of course, that has always been the case. Back in the day, when I was at York University—that was not recently—we had heated debates and lots of protests. If ever someone from the South African apartheid regime came to the university, we were all out protesting and demonstrating. We demonstrated and protested against the Government in relation to their policy of internment in Northern Ireland. We protested for women’s rights. You name it; we were debating and protesting about it. That has always been the case, and it remains the case to this day, when additional issues are causing concern. Just as we protested about the National Front, so today’s students protest against the British National party. They have protests and controversial debates about Syria. We certainly never discussed trans rights when I was at university, but that is now the subject of heated debate at universities. The need to have controversial debates is not new, and free speech, particularly at universities, is very important indeed.
I think it is true to say that when the Joint Committee went into this inquiry, having heard the Minister say that there was a problem, we went in with open minds. We were not sure whether it was just a case of a flurry of stories from the Daily Mail saying, “All students have become snowflakes and are shutting down other students’ right to debate,” so we went in with an open mind. Indeed, I was quite sceptical about whether there really was a problem. But it is also true to say that at the end of all the evidence—we heard evidence from university administrators, student unions, student societies, particularly Jewish societies and Islamic societies, campaigners such as Peter Tatchell, trans rights protagonists and, indeed, Members of the House of Commons—we were all convinced that there was a problem and that the Minister was right to raise it. The question we considered was what was causing the problem and how it should be solved.
The Minister, when raising this matter, had said that the problem was students. However, we felt that the problem was not only students inhibiting one another’s time and opportunity to speak, but a number of other issues, such as the Prevent duty, the Charity Commission, university bureaucracy and the complexity of overlapping guidance. However, just as a starting point, we all ought to be clear that the phenomenon of people wearing masks and bursting into meetings, threatening and intimidating people and trying to stop them speaking, is not the right to protest; it is actually criminal activity.
None of us on the Joint Committee feels any sympathy at all with people who say that they are exercising their right to protest but come in with masks on and set off smoke bombs. We have an unequivocal view about that. For a start, we do not know whether those who have been doing that are actually students, because obviously they are masked. Sometimes, when their identity is disclosed, it turns out that they are not students. They should be charged for breach of the peace, threatening behaviour and any other criminal offence that suits the occasion, but certainly if they are students from the university and they are coming in with masks over their faces, they should be disciplined. That is not the right to protest; it is an inhibition on other people’s right to free speech.
It was a particular irony that, according to one newspaper report I saw, the masked protestors were coming in to protest that the university should be a safe space. Nothing is less safe than someone who is wearing a mask breaking into a meeting and threatening people, so we have no truck with that. However infrequently it happens, it absolutely must be stamped down on.
I will give hon. Members just a couple of examples. In March, the King’s College London libertarian society invited speakers in. The debate had been under way for about 30 minutes when a group of between 16 and 20 hooded and masked protesters stormed the front entrance of the Strand campus building, jumped over the security barriers, ignited smoke bombs and forced their way into the Safra lecture theatre. In the process, they knocked a security guard unconscious, and he was taken to hospital. A number of other staff and students were injured during the violent protest. Actually, we should not dignify that with the name “protest”. We are totally against it. We cannot have the disruption of meetings.
We also heard evidence from the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg), who in February had gone to speak at a meeting of the politics and international relations society of the University of the West of England in Bristol. Again, people with scarves over their faces and wearing dark glasses burst into the room. They were shouting that the hon. Gentleman was a bigot and various other insults and, as he made clear, it was evident that they just wanted to stop the event. There were 300 people there who wanted to engage in a serious discussion and four or five people who were determined to disrupt it. That is totally unacceptable, whether or not they are students.
Aside from the issue of people bursting into meetings, there are other inhibitions on free speech that we discovered through the evidence we took. We were concerned about the guidance issued by the Government in relation to the Prevent duty deterring some students, particularly Muslims, from inviting or questioning speakers they wanted to hear. The Joint Committee feels that the Government absolutely have an obligation to keep us safe and to keep the country free from terrorism, but the Prevent guidance is so widely drawn, particularly as it relates to universities, that undoubtedly some believe that they are in danger of breaching it and that they could be reported and get into trouble if they invite certain speakers. The Prevent duty states:
“When deciding whether or not to host a particular speaker,”—
university bodies, including student unions—
“should consider carefully whether the views being expressed, or likely to be expressed, constitute extremist views...or are shared by terrorist groups.”
It might be that I am a vegetarian and my views on vegetarianism are shared by a particular terrorist group, but does that put someone in breach of the Prevent duty? We felt that the duty is in a good cause, but it is widely drawn in such a way that it inhibits free speech. We therefore ask the Government to review the Prevent duty. It is about time it was reviewed generally, but perhaps they will do it with a view to looking at its impact on free speech.
Universities in England and Wales have a duty to promote free speech. It is different in Scotland. We had the benefit of the Scottish National party’s hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry), who helped us contrast the situation in Scotland with that in the rest of the UK. Under the Education Act 1986, universities in England and Wales have a duty to promote free speech, but the problem is that the way some of them go about it ironically ends up inhibiting free speech.
Hansard cannot show this, but hon. Members can see this organogram showing the process that students have to go through when applying for a meeting. There are application forms to fill in and time limits to comply with. Some universities require students not only to name the speaker in advance, but to give a biography of them and provide an advance copy of the speech they will make. That would not be possible with any of the speeches that I make in universities, because I prepare my speech on the train. The point is that it is inhibiting. It is all about risk aversion, what people cannot do and tying them up with bureaucracy.
Newcastle’s code of practice for freedom of speech for external speakers warns against people communicating in a way that might unreasonably offend others. That is not acceptable. We should have free speech, even if it is found to be offensive by some others. Southampton talks a lot about speakers holding controversial views. The whole point about a debate is that it is two different views and therefore people should not shy away from controversy. Some of the university procedures are controversy-averse, which we thought was in opposition to free speech.
Another organisation that is controversy-averse is the Charity Commission, which is having a chilling effect on free speech. Its guidance warns student unions that they could risk their charitable status if they have controversies that could risk their reputation as a charity. We think that the Charity Commission goes way beyond the law and is having a chilling effect on students’ free speech.
No speaker has the right to speak in a university, but students have a right to hear who they want to hear irrespective of whether others might find it offensive or insulting. There is a place for meetings of, say, people who have been victims of sexual assault or those of a particular religion, but we cannot have the whole campus being a safe space with the lowest common denominator.
There is an overlapping set of guidance from many institutions, including the Equality and Human Rights Commission, so the Joint Committee drew up our own guidance. The Committee is heaving with lawyers with good political judgment, and we have expert legal advice—when you have the Lord Chief Justice on your Committee, you get the law right. That is what we have done, so we have saved the Minister and his Department any effort. We have issued guidance on free speech for universities and students when organising events. It states, “You can say whatever you like, so long as it is not against the law, and this is what the law is.” One simple piece of guidance is what is needed, because guidance under the Prevent duty, from the Equality and Human Rights Commission, from the Charity Commission and from the union administrations is all too much. We know that students have other things to do in their lives—I will not name them, and I probably do not even know what they are now—so they have to get on with their lives and they cannot be bound up with bureaucracy.
I thank the Minister for the way he has responded. His predecessor spoke a lot about this subject, but I could not detect any action. This Minister is actually doing something and has brought people together, so I am confident that, with the good work under way on our Committee, with the shared commitment that we all have to freedom of speech, and with the Minister’s action, we can enable debate to flourish on university campuses, which is what we all want to see all across the country.
This inquiry is one of the most important that we have undertaken in my three years on the Joint Committee on Human Rights. As we have heard, we received some very disturbing evidence. Free speech is indeed a foundation for democracy in society, and universities are places where many of tomorrow’s leaders learn how to explore ideas in a way that prepares them to engage in and influence wider society, so it is critical that free speech is secured in universities. A key part of all students’ education is the ability to engage in dialogue and contentious debate. Universities have a legal duty under the Education Act to secure freedom of speech within the law, both for students and for visiting speakers.
If we do not prepare students to engage in dialogue in an environment that promotes free speech, there is a serious danger that we will risk promoting extremism and factionalism within wider society. Only by understanding different views and beliefs and by, as one of our witnesses said, countering bad ideas with good ones, will we build community cohesion and break down prejudice and discrimination in wider society, which, at worst, as we know, can lead to violent disturbances within our local communities. That is something that none of us wants. Indeed, it is one of the purposes of the Prevent strategy. It is ironic that the strategy is in many ways defeating one of its key objectives in the way that it is applied at universities. I will come on to that in more detail shortly.
For the record, I will set the legal scene, which the Committee is now well versed in. Article 9 of the European convention on human rights states that,
“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.”
Article 10 sets out the right to freedom of speech and a right to,
“hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority”,
“can extend to the right to say things which may...disturb the listener”,
and which the listener might find offensive or even shocking. Free speech is not an absolute right. There are limitations on it to ensure that it is not exercised in a way that causes harm to others by, for example, inciting murder, violence or terrorism or stirring up racial hatred or hatred for other groups, or if it is defamatory or malicious or constitutes harassment. We found that within university settings the inhibitions and restrictions on free speech went much further than that. A number of factors were limiting free speech at universities. I will summarise them briefly, and go into detail about some of them.
As we have heard, there were incidents of unacceptable intimidatory behaviour by protesters intent on preventing free speech and debate. Unnecessary bureaucracy was imposed on those organising events. There was some confusion about what the Prevent duty entailed; for example, some students were frightened about the possibility of being reported for organising or attending events, and of being investigated, as a result, as potentially involved in extremism, which might draw people into terrorism. There was considerable confusion about that.
Other factors were regulatory complexity and confusion, confusion over the Charity Commission guidelines, and unduly complicated and cautious guidance from the Charity Commission itself about what student unions could or could not do in organising events and permitting speakers to attend. Safe space policies were often incorrectly used. Indeed, we did not find the concept of safe space policies helpful at all. It was applied too broadly and vaguely. We found that student unions were inconsistent in the way they applied the regulations on allowing them to hold events at the student union. The different types of group might include faith groups, groups with non-religious views, or groups with views on the Israel-Palestine conflict, right-wing or left-wing views, pro-life or anti-abortion views, and views on transgender issues or Islamophobia. There were many minority views and beliefs—a huge swathe. University authorities’ oversight of the issue, under the legal duty to secure free speech that I mentioned, was inadequate. Another matter of concern was the chilling effect—an undercurrent of restraint among students, both as to their speech as individuals and as to the large number of events either not held at all or inhibited, and of which there was no report, although students wanted them to be held.
Members of the Committee are not aware of one reason why I was concerned to hold the inquiry, which is a personal experience I had at one university. I shall try, in giving examples, not to name the particular university, as I think that might be unhelpful. I had been asked to speak about work I had done in Parliament —so, ironically, it was all in Hansard—on sex discrimination in relation to abortion. I was speaking in a room slightly smaller than this Chamber. The back wall was entirely glass windows and on the other side of it was a large courtyard or quad. To my right was one pop-up banner describing the organisation that had invited me to speak—the university Life organisation, on which two small feet were depicted. After I began to speak about what I had done in Parliament, which is on the public record, a university official in uniform came into the room and said, “Your event is causing offence.” There was a startled silence in the room, particularly from me. The official said, “It is causing offence to the students who are sitting in the bar on the other side of the quad.” They could not possibly have heard a word I was saying. It could only have been the sight of the banner. I was certainly saying nothing unlawful at all. We came to a compromise in the end. The official suggested that if we drew the giant curtains across the back of the room, so that the students in the bar could not see what was going on, we could carry on with the event and I could finish my speech. I know that that is not the only time when there has been an endeavour to put restrictions on parliamentarians at universities.
I was concerned about the issue and pleased about the inquiry, because I think the chilling effect and unreported inhibition of speech is far wider than we recognise. Often the chilling effect inhibits students with minority views, and that emboldens students who want to silence or censor views they consider wrong or offensive. I was more convinced about the resultant chilling effect by evidence from Professor Adam Tickell, the vice-chancellor of the University of Sussex. He said he had been unaware of the scale of the problem:
“It was only in preparation for this session that I became aware of the cases”.
Those cases included students being interviewed by Prevent officers, students subsequently telling the student union president that they were afraid to speak their minds, and Muslim students saying they were afraid to go to their campus prayer room. That is evidence from one of our witnesses that there is more to the issue than the public have been aware of for some time.
I join the Committee Chairman, the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), in thanking the Minister for the interest he has taken in the issue. He told the Committee that just as important as the evidence of restrictions is
“what is hard to measure: the large number of events that do not happen at all, either because organisers are worried about obstruction or because the overzealous enforcement of rules makes them seem more trouble than they are worth.”
He added that,
“some of this is quite difficult to gather evidence for.”
I thank the Universities Minister for the lead that he is giving, and for the fact that he told the Committee that he would hold a
“summit to thrash out not only where the responsibilities lie but to make sure that they do not cut across each other and in so doing achieve the opposite of what all these guidelines are meant to achieve, which is to promote free speech.”
I should be interested if the Minister would today update the House on what he is doing to take forward what he said, and how he expects to tackle the issue in the coming months. It has become clear to me as we have examined the issue that it will not be resolved purely by the publication of our report, however important the Committee may think it. We have highlighted an issue that will take considerable tackling by a number of organisations and bodies.
I want to talk in a little more detail about the Charity Commission.
My hon. Friend makes a powerful case, and I am most grateful to the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), the Chair of the Committee, for the way she led the inquiry.
Does my hon. Friend agree that perhaps universities and, indeed, student unions could take a more proactive role and encourage debate, rather than waiting for debates to come up, and seeing whether they are lawful and whether they should go ahead? They could perhaps take a more overt stance. The range of issues debated in universities is often pretty narrow. I look at the range of debate here and the global concerns about the problems of youth unemployment or, for example, the situation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo over the last 10 to 20 years, where 6 million people have been killed or died as a result of civil unrest and other disturbances. I rarely see debates in universities on these incredibly important matters. They tend to be confined, albeit on important issues, to a fairly narrow range.
The hon. Gentleman makes a pertinent point, as always. I will refer back to it in a moment in relation to the Charity Commission’s guidelines. The actual wording of clause 43 of the Education (No. 2) Act 1986 imposes an obligation on university governing bodies to take
“such steps as are reasonably practicable to ensure that freedom of speech within the law is secured”
on both university and students union premises. I have written underneath, “proactive”. This is a proactive clause. It requires them to take steps to secure free speech, so I entirely agree. It does not help, for example, when, as charities, students unions have been told that they can devote resources to or campaign only on issues that further their charitable purposes. The Charity Commission has interpreted this—I think, and our Committee agrees —in a far too narrow way. The Charity Commission guidance for students unions indicated that it would consider it acceptable for charitable students unions to comment on
“street lighting near the campus”
because the issue affects students as students, and therefore fulfils their charitable purposes. The Charity Commission would consider it unacceptable for students unions to comment publicly on issues that do not directly affect the welfare of students as students, such as,
“the treatment of political prisoners in a foreign country.”
That is the Charity Commission’s own example, illustrating the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford.
The Minister told our Committee that the Charity Commission guidance should
“go further and facilitate the promotion of free speech. It should be giving students’ unions the permission to host debates about controversial issues and expose students to a wide range of viewpoints. That should be the core purpose.”
That is quite right. It is not just preferable that free speech is promoted and protected in universities. It should be a prerequisite for any university that is going to achieve its educational purposes. I am pleased that the Charity Commission has acknowledged as much this week and has announced in response to our report that it will create new guidance in this area. Helen Stephenson, chief executive of the Charity Commission said yesterday:
“charitable students’ unions, universities and other higher education providers can challenge traditional boundaries, encourage the free exchange of views and host speakers with a range of opinions, including those who might be controversial or divide opinion.
These activities are entirely in line with their aims to promote education.”
That is a pleasing response to our report.
I believe this year is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Karl Marx. He was born in Trier in Germany. He was effectively expelled from Germany because he was the editor of a newspaper that exercised the right of free speech. For those students perhaps slightly to the left of some of us here today, I point to the example of Karl Marx, who was the victim of university or town authorities in Trier, because he wanted to exercise free speech. From whatever political point we look at it, free speech is absolutely vital to secure the rights of individual citizens, as he was trying to do in that case.
That is an excellent example. I hope it will also encourage students to the right of Karl Marx, because I have spoken to a number of students who have recently said, “I wouldn’t admit to being a conservative on campus.”
Our Committee concluded that the concept of safe spaces, having been extended to entire university campuses, is unhelpful. It is not only unhelpful. If minority views are supressed across the whole campus, but they are not views that are promoting terrorism or inciting the kind of activity I referred to earlier, the concept is actually against the law, impinging on the right to free speech under article 10 of the European convention on human rights. A number of students unions tried to argue in evidence to us that it was necessary to limit speakers who cause harm through speech—harm caused because people might find speech disturbing or upsetting. As our report says, however, this is counter or detrimental to free speech. Regarding safe spaces, we say:
“Whilst there must be opportunities for genuinely sensitive and confidential discussions in university settings, and whilst the original intention behind safe space policies may have been to ensure that minority or vulnerable groups can feel secure, in practice the concept of safe spaces has proved problematic, often marginalising the views of minority groups. They need to co-exist with and respect free speech. They cannot cover the whole of the university or university life without impinging on rights to free speech…When that happens, people are moving from the need to have a “safe space” to seeking to prevent the free speech of those whose views they disagree with. Minority groups or individuals holding unpopular opinions which are within the law should not be shut down nor be subject to undue additional scrutiny by students’ unions or universities.”
I hope that university authorities will take careful note of that.
On the Prevent strategy, we had quite some evidence. I want to reiterate what the guidance says. As our report states, under the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015, the guidance states that higher education bodies,
“when deciding whether or not to host a particular speaker…should consider carefully whether the views being expressed…constitute extremist views that risk drawing people into terrorism or are shared by terrorist groups.”
Those are important words—“risk drawing people into terrorism or are shared by terrorist groups”—if a little wide, but the issue of terrorism is critical. The guidance goes on:
“In these circumstances the event should not be allowed to proceed except where”
the educational bodies
“are entirely convinced that such risk can be fully mitigated”.
That is the legal position, but I will also cite some of the evidence we received about that and about hate speech.
An organisation called CARE, Christian Action Research and Education, stated:
“One common occurrence is that certain speakers who are perceived as ‘extremist’ are being denied the chance to speak at universities, to discuss their ideas, and have their ideas challenged by others in an open debate. First, this drives any such ideas underground. Second, the definition of extremism, as identified in the Counter Extremism Strategy…is very broad, incorporates non-violent as well as violent forms of extremism, and does not necessarily relate back to the concept of terrorism. In his recent judgment in the case of Mr Salman Butt, Ouseley J confirmed that the Prevent duty is a duty to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism and does not refer to all forms of extremism…Nonetheless, no steps have been taken by the Government to confirm the correct interpretation and scope of the definition of what constitutes ‘extremism’ and its impact on the Prevent duty.”
Some student groups, for example, have been prevented from holding events because the Church from which the speaker comes is considered fundamentalist or, in other words, extreme. Such an individual has not the slightest intention of drawing people into terrorism. I ask the Minister and his colleagues to look again at the counter-extremism strategy to ensure that its broad definition of extremism, which has been used by some universities, is not used to prevent free speech at universities.
Hate speech results from the use of threatening, abusive or insulting words, or the displaying of written material that is threatening, abusive or insulting and therefore intended to cause the person harassment, alarm or distress, or to stir up racial hatred. Although that is the definition of hate speech, and, as we were told in evidence,
“it is meant to be used narrowly in relation to any speech that fulfils the particulars under the Public Order Act 1986…over time, the phrase has become embedded into everyday language to describe any statement that some may find ‘offensive’.”
At universities, there is an increasing tendency to conflate offensive speech with hate speech, which
“has resulted in a far greater willingness to countenance censorship.”
Several pieces of evidence to our inquiry showed that that was the case. As a result of those common misunderstandings, freedom of speech at universities has suffered. I would be grateful if the Minister looked at CARE’s evidence to the inquiry in particular, so that an appropriate application can be made in universities.
I will give a few examples of the kinds of issues that were mentioned to us in evidence. We were told of a university that introduced “emotional risk assessments” in December 2016 that were used in an “invasive and heavy-handed way”. They have resulted in the students’ association telling student groups
“what they can and can’t do and say”.
In some cases, all of a student group’s activities, including weekly meetings, events and emails, that were to be sent to outside students or speakers had to be approved in advance by the students association. That meant that one or two people in the students’association office could basically make the operations of that student group impossible. For example, they rejected events because they were “too provocative” and they would not allow discussions that made specific reference to the Manchester terrorist attack or Hurricane Gregory, in case those specific incidents of suffering caused upset.
Another group was not allowed to have a stand at a freshers’ fair unless it was unmanned. A group at another university was told that it had to provide the name of any invited speaker, the topic and an outline of their talk 21 days in advance of the event.
We were told that at other universities there was a culture not only of safe spaces and hurtful speech but of trigger warnings:
“Students are encouraged to catastrophise when they hear something controversial or challenging rather than to engage with new ideas robustly.”
That is hardly a preparation for the world of work.
An ethics society was told that it could not hold an event because it would be asking for volunteers during it, and that contravened university policy guidelines. On further inspection, it was found that no such guidelines existed within the union or the university. Another group was told that it would be refused affiliation with the students union on the grounds that it was
“violating union policies regarding discrimination and equal opportunity”,
but on reading the union policy, no such violation was found. Several groups, particularly pro-life groups, were prevented from holding events or exhibiting material at freshers’ fairs that, on further investigation, was found to be used in primary schools and in further education material.
There are real problems for many groups in arranging external speakers and organising events. The Alliance of Pro-Life Students said that,
“pro-life societies are often given undue burden to host events”
“subject to mediations to which other societies are not”.
Humanist groups said that student unions and universities,
“repeatedly shut down expressive conduct deemed by them to be wrong, offensive, or harmful, particularly with regards to criticism of religious beliefs”.
Such groups told us that,
“student unions were making arbitrary decisions about the views to which students should be exposed.”
They say that “many student unions” do not have clear or coherent democratic policies in place, which means that voting in a certain way, or no-platforming, or getting
“safe space policies into official union policy is surprisingly easy. If unions had better guidelines for democratic policies, and their union officials faced actual sanctions for disregarding freedom of speech, the union, and therefore the university environments, would become both more democratic and more open to diverse viewpoints.”
As I have said before, the issue will not be resolved overnight. I am encouraged that the Minister is determined to address it. It is clear that since our report more instances have come to light. For example, a colleague on the Committee received an email from UK Lawyers for Israel this week that expressed a number of concerns about specific policies on university campuses, including ticketing requirements and restrictions on advertising. It says that, although our report mentions that some pro-Israel events were disrupted, that happens on many occasions. The impact of such disruptions can be not only burdensome regulations and requirements for future events; the cost, time and administrative burden, and the need to protect people from hostile protests leaves students who run such societies exhausted and put off from hosting events. In an echo of another of our comments, UK Lawyers for Israel said that universities must impose penalties on students who incite, encourage or participate in the disruption of meetings.
It is a very full report; there is much more to it. I thank the Minister for his interest and look forward to his response and future action.
Hon. Members may be interested to know that I plan to start the wind-ups at 4 pm.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry. I rise to speak as a member of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, and it is a pleasure to do so. I have greatly enjoyed my brief time on the Committee, and I thank and congratulate our Chair, the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), on her leadership and on bringing together an important and timely report.
The Committee has recently been debating the extent to which everyone in the country feels that they can identify with the language and existence of rights. Even for those who do not immediately speak the language of rights or who do not think within a legal framework of rights, the right to freedom of speech immediately resonates. Our right to stand up and say what we like within the law and in the way we choose is entirely central to how we live our personal and political lives. To feel that that right may be being inhibited in universities is particularly worrying. I say that as someone who taught for a number of years at King’s College London and also taught at the University of Leicester; I did both very happily. I never came across anything of the like that we have discussed in this report, but those were simpler times.
The truth is that, as the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham laid out so clearly, we have a problem in some of our universities in the way in which students’ right to free speech is being inhibited. There are three basic methods by which it is being inhibited, which have been discussed by my colleagues, and of course they are: protest, shutting freedom of speech down; political attitudes of no-platforming that prevent people from being heard; and an unhelpful risk-averse bureaucracy, which is jamming up the process of holding events altogether.
It is particularly pertinent in the framework of university life that these problems are occurring, because “university” —the word itself—is intended to encompass everything, and to be open and broad, bringing in a range of views and people, in order to extend the learning and experience of those who come through it. Yet in too many cases we see the signs of a changing attitude that is preventing that from being the case.
It is obviously the case that protest itself is a form of freedom of speech, right up to the point where it inhibits somebody else’s right to express themselves. Cases were brought to our Committee’s attention. In particular, in what is now a reasonably famous case from, I regret to say, King’s College London—a university where I taught—masked protesters broke into a peaceful debate and set off smoke alarms, so that the building had to be evacuated, which completely shut down the discussion that was going on. That is absolutely unacceptable in the moment, but it has even greater ramifications because, of course, once a student event has been disrupted, at cost to the student body and to the university, those carrying out a risk assessment of such events in the future will take a much harder line. That means that every protest of that kind endangers the freedom of speech at future events.
Much the same is true with no-platforming. We were told that there were actually very few registered cases of individuals being no-platformed. However, once a policy of no-platforming on a particular issue is established, it means that there will not even be a discussion as to whether people should discuss that issue, because if they do not conform to the strictures laid down by the university or the student body they will not even have a chance to be no-platformed, because they will not even be considered as potential speakers.
We must encourage students and those working in universities to remember that if someone stands on a platform and breaks the law by giving a speech, it is the speaker themselves who is culpable; it is not automatically the student body or the university that must carry the can. Of course, if a speaker has previously broken the law and it is possible that they might use their platform to do the same thing again, that puts the university or student body in a slightly different area. However, ultimate responsibility must lie with the people who express such views, not with their audience or the organisers of the event. It is that which we need to be mindful of.
I completely concur with the statement by the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham that we cannot expect speakers to have to submit their speeches in advance if they have never done anything wrong before. There is the example of the journalist Peter Hitchens being asked to submit his speech before he spoke to a student body as a prerequisite to his being able to stand on a platform. That can only be a veiled form of censorship.
Lastly, I turn to the bureaucratic process itself. I am a Conservative and so people would not expect me to stand up and extoll the virtues of bureaucracy. Bureaucracy is a little bit like jam; a little bit of is very good and very effective, but three pints of it is too much. So we find with the examples that we have seen from a number of universities where there is an excess of risk aversion.
What really happens through such byzantine processes is an attempt to prevent anything vaguely risky from happening, and in my experience that is not the purpose of university life. Indeed, university life is a time to take risks, experience new things and hear new thoughts. I say to the people who find themselves in this situation and pondering these issues in universities that there is absolutely no contradiction between adhering strictly to one’s own world-view and having an open mind. Unfortunately, awareness of that fact has been lost.
I commend to the Minister the recommendations that our Committee made. I am very pleased to hear that he held a summit—I think it was on 3 May—that brought together the National Union of Students, the Charity Commission and a number of other relevant bodies, at which this bureaucratic issue was discussed. I hope that our Committee’s report was part of the discussions then, and that those present were able to consider the principles that we have pulled together as a very simple legal and—I believe—effective way of ascertaining whether an event is acceptable.
The first point we make is that everyone has the right to freedom of speech within the law; the second is that universities should seek to expose their members and students to the widest possible range of views, while ensuring that they act within the law; the third is that if a speaker breaks the law, it is the speaker themselves who is culpable; and the fourth is that protest itself is a legitimate expression of freedom of speech.
With all that in mind, and as long as there is a clear and clean system of redress for those who feel that any of those principles are being inhibited, we will have a much better framework to ensure that students do not find themselves having to worry about the events they attend or the events they are holding, or having to worry about being unable to stand up for what they believe in.
I second the remarks made by my hon. Friends the Members for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) and for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) that there is a danger—albeit a danger that I do not believe is currently very present in many of our universities—that we encourage a sort of intellectual monoculture in certain places, which would be the physical equivalent of the echo chamber that we hear about among groups on Twitter, whereby people only listen to their own views and only get feedback from people who are in broadly the same position as themselves, and whereby it might be considered acceptable to invite only four or five speakers from the same political party during the course of a year. I do not believe that that is in the spirit of a university education.
I end with one perhaps slightly over-dramatic quotation, which was written on the donors’ board in the old library at my university. I will spare everyone the Latin, but it is a quotation from the Book of Daniel:
“Many shall pass by and knowledge will be multiplied.”
We cannot hope for knowledge to be multiplied unless a plurality and a multitude of views are expressed and heard within our universities.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry. It is also a pleasure to speak to this report. I commend the Committee for it. It is a very interesting read, and I am pleased to hear that the Minister and the Charity Commission in England will pay some attention to its recommendations. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s speech later.
I was pleased to hear from all the members of the Committee who have spoken so far that they, too, agree that universities should be places of debate and discussion, disagreement and dispute. It is only by disputing the status quo that knowledge moves on, that the sum total of human knowledge is expanded, and that we learn more. Academic freedom, university autonomy and the right of scholars to think and do and say as they will are essential elements of universities. They are indispensable if we want to see universities be universities, and if we want the benefits to society that come from having universities.
The right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) reminded us of how heated debate has always been part of university life. It certainly figured in my time as a student. Representing Edinburgh North and Leith, I must mention the role that academic freedom and freedom of speech played in the Enlightenment. Those freedoms were so important in incubating the freedom of thought and the rebellion against orthodoxy that underpinned the expansive thoughts of Enlightenment figures. Without those freedoms, we would not have had that Enlightenment, and we would not have the world as we know it today. Free speech has created our world and continues to create it anew.
In that context, I am pleased that universities in Scotland seem to be maintaining those freedoms rather well, and that the Scottish approach to regulation appears to be more effective than the rather heavily laden approach being taken in England. I was certainly pleased to hear from the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) that England’s Charity Commission is now agreeing to reissue guidance. That was certainly something that figured heavily in the report. It is clear that students and university bodies are finding things confusing, to say the least.
Freedom of speech is not an indivisible right. It does not sit alone and gleaming like some immutable, omnipotent deity. It does not exist outside of human interaction or outside of society. There is no free speech without stout defence of it and without rational and reasonable care taken of the privilege. There is no free speech where we allow hate speech. Those repressed by the violence of hatred are not free to speak. Those cowed by hate speech aimed at others are not free to speak. Those practising hate speech are not speaking; they are shouting so loudly that they are excluding other voices. Hate speech is the enemy of free speech, and we should not allow it. That does not mean, however—many Members have made this point—that we should ban speakers we do not like or intimidate their supporters. The example given by the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham was upsetting. It is depressing to think that people think they can force their opinions on others in that way or intimidate them in that way. Masked protesters are no better. Intimidation does not defeat hatred; it inflames it.
Our defence of free speech, and of the privilege of discussing possibly awkward topics, has to be stronger and more open. The report goes a long way towards making that possible, in a way. Our defence against hatred has to be rooted in a society that will not accept it, and in a broadside of opinion that says that tolerance and patience are virtues that we value, and that stand above personal advantage or tribal instincts.
I certainly had great sympathy with what the right hon. and learned Lady said on safe spaces and on free speech in universities. Safe spaces exclude people as much as, if not more than, they protect people. Closing down debate by protest, exclusion or intimidation is censorship by the mob and cannot, in any mind, be the way in which we would want universities to function. Is it really the message that we want the students of today to learn? Do we want to say that the safest way of dealing with ideas that we find distasteful, opinions we dislike and people whose views we find abhorrent is to ignore them, shut them out and think that they will have no further effect on us? That surely would not be a sensible thing for them to think, and I think that there are significant parallels to be drawn with the Prevent legislation since it, too, appears to suggest that bad things will go away if we do not look at them.
It cannot only be me—it clearly is not—who looks at the effects of the Prevent legislation on our universities and questions how effective it is. As outlined in the report, having universities and student unions jumping through hoops to satisfy regulators about events on their premises is hardly likely to be the greatest blow any terrorist group has ever faced. It is only 20 years since the Good Friday agreement was made. That ended the troubles by rational means, and I cannot believe we have forgotten that it was not achieved by closing down debate in universities. In fact, some people might remember that a previous Government sought to deny “the oxygen of publicity”. That was a farcical policy, which did nothing to address the underlying issues.
Vetting the thousands and thousands of speakers who present in universities every year is not a solution, or even a partial one. Cairncross, Blunt, Maclean, Burgess and Philby did not need a “Moscow is swell” event at Cambridge to persuade them. The time and effort spent by universities and student unions on monitoring and adjudicating on events seems to me to be wasted. In my view, positive relationships between communities and public organisations are the key to preventing recruitment and radicalisation. That takes time and effort; it takes years and years of building trust, and it is far too easily destroyed by careless comments and attitudes.
I recommend Scotland’s approach on this to England’s regulators and policy makers. Do it in a spirit of seeking mutual benefit, and that is what you will move towards. To the students, let us say, “Do as you will. Attend meetings or don’t, listen to speakers or don’t, but engage in the debates; think for yourselves. This is a time of your life that, as we all know, passes all too quickly. Suck it in, soak it up, make it count and enjoy it. And in the meantime, tell Government to back off—they always need to be told.”
It is a great privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry, and it is a great privilege and honour to follow the introduction of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), who so eloquently presented the conclusions of the Joint Committee on Human Rights. I also pay tribute to the Committee members present—the hon. Members for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) and for Brentwood and Ongar (Alex Burghart), who spoke so thoughtfully.
I am here because I am the Opposition spokesperson and therefore have to respond to the debate, but I hope that I also bring other things to it. Having long been a member of Select Committees in the past—particularly education Committees—I appreciate the importance of the evidence-driven process, rather than obiter dicta being floated out sometimes, to be massaged and expanded by the mainstream media. All politicians want to get our message across, and some of us succumb rather too rapidly to that temptation.
I also come to the debate bearing many of the tenets that I was taught, including the process of thesis, antithesis and synthesis. Historians are told to look at those things, but students of many other humanities disciplines depend on them, too. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock) for reminding us of the importance of the Enlightenment; the Scottish Enlightenment, in particular, played a part in that process. The classic statement of Enlightenment libertarianism—I will not quote it completely accurately—was by Voltaire and went something like, “I might hugely disagree with your opinions, but I will defend to the death your right to express them.”
Those are important principles. It is very good that the Joint Committee’s report, although it did not give us a great historical exegesis, went right back to some of those first principles and, importantly, to the Education (No. 2) Act 1986, which forms a useful context for its proposals.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham was absolutely right, and not in any way immodest, to say that the members of her Committee have a hugely broad area of experience. Inevitably, not all Select Committees can have that. From that point of view, it is incumbent on us all, whether in government or in opposition, to carefully examine what has been said. For my part, I think the members of the Committee have delivered an admirable synthesis, in fairly crisp and straightforward terms. With all those lawyers, it would have been very easy to get bogged down in lots of legal terms. The test is whether someone outside the legal world could pick up that document and find it useful, helpful and understandable. I think they could.
My right hon. and learned Friend talked about context. Context is important. We are all tempted, from time to time, to go off into flights of philosophical fancy and great principles, but we need to come back to context from time to time. She drew briefly on her time at university. I was at university slightly later than she was. I was at Oxford, which is always a little behind everybody else on some of its revolutionary activities. In fact, when I arrived in 1973, I found that we were in the process of occupying university buildings to get a student union—something that had been discussed and argued about some five years earlier in other universities—but I will let that pass.
Context is important. This year, we mark the 50th anniversary of two sets of activities—one involving students, the other involving free speech—that importantly changed our world. One of them, of course, was the wide-scale student protests in the 1960s. Baroness Bakewell, a Member of the upper House, only the other week presented a marvellous programme on television about the context of the French évènements in that respect, and how they changed French society. In that same year, 1968, Enoch Powell gave his infamous “rivers of blood” speech. Both those events still have resonance for us today when discussing what the bounds to student protests and to free speech should be. Those are important layers of context.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham was absolutely right to say that context changes the things that students, or the general public, want to talk about. Without disrespect to the hon. Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy), who is no longer in his place, I am suspicious of the idea that we can tell universities, “You should be talking about this, that and the other.” Students will talk about what students want to talk about. There may be more bread and butter discussed today at some points than there would have been when my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham and I were at university, but the crucial thing is that there should be spaces in which a broad number have that ability to talk. I am suspicious of the idea that we—particularly those of us who are perhaps rather more removed from their student days than others—should pontificate about what student unions should do, or choose to do. I think that way sometimes madness lies.
The report rightly talked about the potential dead hand of bureaucracy and inhibition. Sometimes, with the best will in the world, institutions and stakeholders get excited by the project and go ahead to develop things that sound thoughtful, but end up in an horrendous organigram, such as the one that my right hon. and learned Friend showed us. None of us is immune from that, but we need from time to time to cut away at it and, indeed, to make fun of it. When we were talking about bureaucracy I was reminded, as an historian, of the famous phrase in Philip II’s empire, “If death came from Madrid, I would be immortal.” That sense of bureaucracies or powers bringing those things to themselves and thinking that they have all the answers can produce that sort of position. It is reasonably clear where the boundary lies of breaching the right to free speech, and the example that my right hon. and learned Friend gave in that respect is a very important one.
I will touch briefly on the comments by the hon. Members for Congleton and for Brentwood and Ongar. The hon. Member for Congleton laid out well some of the ridiculousness of the hokey cokey of regulations. The particular account she gave of the curtains reminded me of the famous phrase in “Measure for Measure”,
“man, proud man,
Drest in a little brief authority”.
It happened to be a man in that case, and presumably it was on the occasion that the hon. Lady mentioned. Sometimes people get off on that sort of thing. While I welcome the Charity Commission’s response to the report, I do not think it is immune to that either. The examples that the hon. Lady gave reminded me—to take a medieval parallel—of scholastics trying to decide how many angels could dance on a pin.
The hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar talked about rights and about the law. I am sympathetic to that, but we must all remember that the law itself is not an immutable concept. The laws, from time to time, disadvantage citizens in our society and need to be challenged. Some 50 years ago, gay people in this country were mildly celebrating the passage of the Sexual Offences Act 1967. Principles are not always the same. If we look up at the screen today, what is being debated in the other Chamber? Homophobia, transphobia and biphobia. We might have different views on the importance of those relevant to other things, but context changes things.
It is important that we have those things in mind. We have heard today that there is not a pervasive problem of freedom of speech at our universities, and that some of the press accounts of widespread suppression of free speech have been out of kilter with reality. The Committee members did not find the wholesale censorship of debate that media coverage had suggested. That is not to say that the report does not draw attention to a number of important factors limiting free speech, and there is inevitably real confusion about how regulations apply to student unions. That is why it was important that the Committee undertook its student union survey, which showed that 25 out of 33 student union officers said that restriction of free speech was not a problem at their university.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I will not, I am afraid. I have little enough time to speak, so I will continue.
The chief executive of Universities UK recently said:
“Tens of thousands of speaking events are put on every year across the country, the majority pass without incident.”
It was a little curious that the Minister’s predecessor, the hon. Member for Orpington (Joseph Johnson), repeatedly expressed concerns about some of the impacts of student-led activities, such as no-platforming and safe spaces, in—in my view—a slightly lurid fashion. There is a clear line between frank speech and what whips up and can specifically promote hate, or be abusive. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham touched on that.
It is also important that we consider the role of Government and other organisations in this process. The National Union of Students has a no-platform policy for a handful of racist, anti-Semitic and extremist organisations, some of which the Government themselves have banned. Is the Minister opposed to that policy? How clear does he need to be about which of those groups he wants to see on campus?
Earlier this month, as we have heard, the Minister set out some proposals and thoughts. I think he felt a little constrained about what he could say because of the views of his predecessor. Bringing together that group, as he did, is potentially a productive mechanism. Can he spell out some of the conclusions of the summit and, as importantly, who is to be held accountable for taking them forward? The Government must not try to micromanage free speech on our university campuses; some of the problems raised by this report need addressing, but they will not necessarily be addressed by micromanagement from Government.
Finally, I come to the implications. Academics of both right and left persuasions have always and often been arresting and controversial figures, so it is important that the broader questions about academic autonomy and freedom are recognised by the Government. Throughout the passage of the Higher Education and Research Act 2017, the Opposition were clear that the new Office for Students should not be a micromanagement process for this. In terms of this activity, what does the Minister believe his responsibilities are, as opposed to those of the Office for Students, in terms of drawing up guidelines? If they are too widely drawn, they will produce some of the problems we have heard about today.
This is an excellent report, and I commend it. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham talked about the fact that the Committee had saved the Government a lot of time; I would also say money and possibly civil service time. Although I know very well that civil servants are loth to take anything simply as is, I suggest that the report could be a very important blueprint for solving some of the inevitable tensions and dilemmas in this area.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry. I congratulate the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) on securing the debate and thank everyone who has contributed to it.
Like the Joint Committee, I approached this issue with a fairly open mind. That said, I have a bent, so far as free speech is concerned. As president of the debating society at university, I was totally happy to countenance inviting a senior member of the British National party to come and speak, even though I found, and still find, his views abhorrent, because I felt that the only way to deal with them was to challenge him. I invited Tariq Aziz, who was then the Iraqi Foreign Minister, but he was no-platformed by the Home Office at the time, so my members had to make do with Mark Owen from Take That instead.
I came to this with an open mind, but I clearly started from a position that free speech should be encouraged. We live in an open society and open debate is particularly important. If our democracy is to flourish, someone having views that are offensive to someone else is not sufficient reason to prevent them expressing those views—but expressing them does not mean that they should go unchallenged. Rather than trying to stop that person expressing such views, what we want is open debate.
I also approached the debate very conscious that, today, a word or a couple of words in a sentence that someone utters can completely characterise and define their position. It is easy, as universities go through these issues, to get to a point where they might think that someone is an unacceptable speaker because of how their views have been represented. They react to how the views have been presented, rather than listening to the argument. For all those reasons, it is important to be cautious in how we approach the issue.
When I appeared before the Joint Committee, four or five weeks into this job, I carefully calibrated how I expressed my position: I not only expressed concern about a creeping culture of censorship, but suggested that measuring whether we have free speech on campus by events that happen is not in itself sufficient. We do not know about the events that do not happen or, more importantly, about the events that happen but in a different way from how they would have happened had they been able to go ahead freely.
As Universities Minister, I have been going around universities speaking directly to students. I found it slightly amusing that, before I spoke at one university—the Universities Minister doing a Q&A with students—they had to read out the safe space policy. I just had to smile. I visited another university to discuss a number of issues, including free speech, and it was suggested to my team that, if we really wanted negative headlines, we should go ahead. I said, “Why don’t you invite lots of students from other universities nearby? You have the Universities Minister, and it would be good for them to be involved.” They said that they couldn’t invite them because they thought they would cause trouble. They were going to manage the invitation list. A video had to be played at the start of the event. As I spoke to my team about it, I ended up asking myself whether it was really worth doing the event at all. That is how censorship happens. I could see that I was second-guessing myself and what I was going to say. I am the Universities Minister. I hope that I might have some controversial views, but hopefully none that are sufficient for me to be turned away from speaking at any of our universities.
It is based on that experience, and the number of letters that I now receive from students across the country, that I have come to the view that the Committee is actually on to something here, in two important respects. The first is the bureaucracy and rules around free speech, whether from equalities law, the Charity Commission, which regulates student unions, or a university’s own policies, or a particular student union’s own policies. At best, it is so confusing that a well-intentioned person could somehow end up seeing censorship as the way to promote free speech, which is a contradiction in terms. At worst, it is very easy for wreckers to use that bureaucracy to frustrate views that they do not agree with and do not think belong on campus.
The Committee is not only on to something really significant here, but its work, which is even-handed and level-headed in its approach, provides a very good basis on which to proceed. It is a cross-party Committee and it has members from both Houses; it is not the Government party trying to use free speech as a wedge—that is the last thing I want to do. Free speech on campus should not be seen as a proxy for some of the wider culture wars in our society. If anything, it should be about helping universities with what they are best placed to do: fostering open debate and the free exchange of ideas. There are often clashes, but those clashes should be seen as positive, rather than something we want to rail against or stop.
I very much welcome the Committee’s report and its recommendations. I have been a Minister for a number of years now. When Ministers receive Select Committee reports, we often spend our time scratching our heads and thinking how to respond by doing the least we can and then moving on. However, this report provides a very strong basis for the Government to do what we can to promote free speech. That is why I held a summit, attended by the National Union of Students, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the Office for Students and the Charity Commission, so that we could all work together to resolve this issue in a way that works for all our universities.
The Committee has thankfully come up with not only a set of recommendations, but its own guidance. We are looking to produce uniform and simplified guidance, and the Committee’s work means that we can proceed in haste to produce that for the start of the next academic year.
I apologise for interrupting the Minister while he is in full flow. On the summit, which was advertised and which we are told went well, it would be helpful to both Members and the Joint Committee if he could provide a synopsis of what was actually agreed and who was tasked with doing some of those things.
Absolutely. I will write to the Committee and I am willing to share that correspondence with the hon. Gentleman. It will include how the Government plan to proceed with the recommendations and the outcome of the summit. The Equality and Human Rights Commission holds the pen on the new guidance and regulations, so it will drive it, rather than Ministers or officials in Whitehall.
The Committee is on to something in highlighting overlapping and confusing regulations that frustrate, rather than promote, free speech. It mentioned the role of the Office for Students. Because the debate is almost out of time, I will set that out clearly in my follow-up correspondence.
I will mention something that I do not think the Committee touched on: the issue of culture. My hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Alex Burghart) touched on the risk of a political monoculture developing on our campuses, so that, by default, certain ideas are seen as unacceptable. If free speech is to work, the same standards should be applied to all ideas, rather than believing that certain ideas should not be held because they are unpopular or unfashionable. Nigel Farage should be as welcome on campus as Jon Lansman, for example.
I also think that protest has a place. We want active debate, but we also want active and peaceful protest. However, protest becomes unacceptable when it is a deliberate attempt to prevent an event from taking place because the protestors disagree with the ideas that will be aired there. This is very difficult to solve, and it is one area that the Committee did not look at, but we really need to tackle it in order to ensure that our universities truly are bastions of free speech.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the Fourth Report of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, Freedom of Speech in Universities, HC 589.