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Public Bill Committees

Debated on Monday 20 September 2021

Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill (Ninth sitting)

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairs: Sir Christopher Chope, † Judith Cummins

† Bacon, Gareth (Orpington) (Con)

Britcliffe, Sara (Hyndburn) (Con)

† Bruce, Fiona (Congleton) (Con)

† Buchan, Felicity (Kensington) (Con)

† Donelan, Michelle (Minister for Universities)

† Glindon, Mary (North Tyneside) (Lab)

† Hardy, Emma (Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle) (Lab)

† Hayes, Sir John (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con)

† Holden, Mr Richard (North West Durham) (Con)

† Jones, Mr Kevan (North Durham) (Lab)

† McDonnell, John (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab)

† Nichols, Charlotte (Warrington North) (Lab)

† Russell-Moyle, Lloyd (Brighton, Kemptown) (Lab/Co-op)

† Simmonds, David (Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner) (Con)

† Tomlinson, Michael (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury)

† Webb, Suzanne (Stourbridge) (Con)

† Western, Matt (Warwick and Leamington) (Lab)

Kevin Maddison, Seb Newman, Committee Clerks

† attended the Committee

Public Bill Committee

Monday 20 September 2021

[Judith Cummins in the Chair]

Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill

Before we begin, I have a few announcements. I encourage Members to wear face coverings except when speaking or if they are exempt. That is in line with the Commission’s recommendations. Hansard colleagues would be extremely grateful if Members could email their speaking notes to Please remember to switch electronic devices to silent. Tea and coffee are not allowed during sittings. I also ask Members to declare any interests before we resume line-by-line consideration.

I am a trustee at the University of Bradford union. I have received payment from the University of Sussex to provide educational opportunities, and I have received money from the University and College Union.

I am vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group for friends of Durham University

Clause 3

Civil claims

Amendment made: 4, in clause 3, page 5, line 21, at end insert—

“(aa) a constituent institution of a registered higher education provider, in respect of a breach by the governing body of the institution of any of its duties under section A1, or”. —(Michelle Donelan.)

This amendment is consequential on NC1.

Question proposed, That the clause, as amended, stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 1 and 2 strengthen freedom of speech duties on registered higher education providers and extend them to students unions at approved fee cap providers. Clause 3 plugs an identifiable and substantive gap in the current legislative framework by providing individuals with a route of redress for loss suffered as a result of a breach of these freedom of speech duties. Clause 3 therefore creates a new statutory tort. This enables civil proceedings to be brought against a higher education provider in respect of a breach of the new duties under section A1 of the Higher Education and Research Act 2017, or against a student union in respect of a breach of the section A4 duty.

Individuals can still complain in the first instance—for free—to their higher education provider or student union if they consider that there has been such a breach. They can subsequently complain for free to the new complaints scheme that will be operated by the Office for Students, and students will still be able to complain for free about their provider to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education. However, the statutory tort will also be available, although we are clear that it is intended to be a route of last resort.

If that is to be a last resort, as the Minister claims—I take her at her word on that, because she is an hon. Member—someone could as a first step go to the courts. Will she ensure that they can do that only if they have exhausted all the other opportunities?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comment. The problem is that if someone is a visiting speaker at a university, there would be no internal process that they could follow. We want to be as comprehensive as possible and allow this option to be available.

I will make some progress and then give way.

As individuals will be able to seek redress for free via the OfS or the Office of the Independent Adjudicator, we expect individuals to make a complaint to the OfS or the OIA before relying on the tort.

I thank the right hon. Lady for giving way.

I refer the Minister to the Office for the Independent Adjudicator’s written evidence, where it said:

“It is generally accepted that it is not good practice to have multiple routes of ADR redress for the resolution of a complaint because it can make the landscape difficult to navigate and make it harder for individuals to make the right choice for them—particularly if they are vulnerable.”

I wonder how the OIA’s concerns can be satisfied by the clause the Minister is moving?

I thank the hon. Member for their comments. It is a good point that students, academics and visiting speakers all need to know the routes available to them. That will be a fundamental part of the new director’s job; I fully anticipate that they will not only set out comprehensive guidance, but communicate with all the different individuals so that they know the options available.

Going back to the evidence, one of the points made by the OIA is that

“if a student isn’t fully informed or does not understand”—

bearing in mind its previous point about vulnerable students—

“all the consequences of their choice, the decision they make may not be the most beneficial for their particular circumstances.”

The evidence points out that people rarely make a complaint relating just to freedom of speech; rather, it often involves many other different aspects, which the director of freedom of speech would not be able to address. This is a highly complex and difficult procedure for an individual student to be able to understand and navigate, and I am not sure that written guidance from the Office for Students would fully address that.

One thing we must be clear on is that the current system is not working. It is failing individuals who are having their freedom of speech breached, as we also heard from multiple sources in the evidence. At the heart of this Bill is unlocking a greater choice for individuals, whether that is going down the OIA route or the one-stop shop of the director who will be responsible for free speech and academic freedom. While it is true that at the moment not many cases that are brought forward are purely to do with freedom of speech, I argue that that is because we need this Bill in place and the new director in their position.

Given that individuals may not want to incur the legal costs and risks associated with bringing a claim before the courts, we do not expect this provision to give rise to many claims. It will operate more as a backstop for complainants, to cover claims by individuals who may feel they have no other recourse.

I will, but we are going to have to let me do more than two lines at a time or we will never get through the Bill.

I am grateful to the Minister. She talks about last resort, and in response to my last intervention she said that that could not be put in legislation because external speakers will need it. Is she therefore saying that external speakers have no form of redress apart from the tort—that they do not have access to the other forms of redress?

To clarify my comments, I believed that the hon. Member was talking about going through internal processes before addressing the tort.

There will be a variety of options available. Going to the director will be the free option and the first instance, but we cannot mandate that they have to have gone through the internal processes of an institution, because those will not be available to everybody that the Bill seeks to represent.

For example, this clause will provide a means of redress for individuals who do not have employment protections, such as visiting fellows—the point I was making earlier. Let us bear in mind that the purpose of the tort is to bolster the enforcement of the new freedom of speech duties on higher education providers and student unions, so that there are clear consequences for those who breach those duties.

The clause will ensure a clear route to individual redress for all who have suffered loss where freedom of speech duties have been breached, and will give those duties real teeth. This is therefore a vital part of the Bill, as part of a suite of measures to strengthen free speech in higher education.

I was not expecting to speak so soon; I thought the Minister might speak at greater length on this.

I want to know who has standing in this matter. In my hon. Friend’s interpretation, is it the same person or people who have standing in the complaints process, or is it anybody? I might have got this wrong, but I cannot identify the breadth or narrowness of who has standing in these cases.

I am sure the Minister has heard my right hon. Friend’s question. It is certainly not clear to me who has standing, and I hope she will come to that. It is quite clear from the questions that have been posed by my colleagues that there is so little clarity about how this is going to work. I have not seen any reference to the Charity Commission, for example. Where does the Charity Commission fit into this? Surely it is part of the process for students to refer a complaint to that organisation, but there has been nothing about it in any of the papers from the Government that I have seen, nothing in debate, and nothing, so far, during two days of debate in this Committee.

It is worth pointing out that what is proposed in the Bill does not come cost-free. The impact assessment estimated that the cost of compliance with the Bill would be around £48.1 million. Bearing in mind the points I have made previously about the overlap with the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education and the confusion that some students will have, it seems fairly ludicrous that the Government wish to spend £48.1 million replicating something that already exists in another form.

I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention, and she is absolutely right: this is not just something that already exists, but something that exists relatively cost-free. The cost of £48.1 million that she has mentioned—which is the Department’s estimate of what the Bill will cost student unions and universities across the country—should not be ignored.

We sought to remove the whole of this clause through amendment 30. We are of course disappointed that it was not accepted—although I sort of understand why that was the case—but I am sure that the House of Lords will be extremely interested in the clause. While we do not believe this Bill is necessary, we have been doing our very best throughout this process—as my right hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington said last week—to be constructive about mitigating the problems and costs of what we think will be a disastrous piece of legislation, in terms of its impact on our students, student unions and universities. However, we feel that this clause is a huge mistake, because as we have heard, it enables individuals to seek compensation through the courts if they suffer loss as a result of a breach of the freedom of speech duties.

In its submission, the Russell Group—as so many have said—puts it like this:

“The lack of clarity over how a new statutory tort offering a route to civil legal claims around free speech will interact with existing internal and external complaints procedures”

is absolutely—well, it did not say “shocking”, but I think the Russell Group is very frustrated and concerned about it. It also said:

“At present, internal grievance and complaints processes offer staff and students significant opportunities to seek redress when they feel their right to free speech has been infringed. These include comprehensive rights to appeal. In the event internal processes do not conclude in a way that satisfies an individual, then students can take their grievance to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA)”—

a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle. The Russell Group also said:

“Where free speech concerns interact with employment decisions, university staff have recourse through employment law and tribunals.”

It is pretty clear that the system was working. Perhaps it could have been tightened up—maybe there could have been better practice across different institutions—but I see that as a failure by the Government to engage with the sector and the OIA, and to work with the Charity Commission and all the other representative bodies to bring about a better or a tighter system, rather than resorting to this clunky Bill, which is so onerous, burdensome and potentially hugely costly to the sector.

We are against this clause for three reasons. First, as I have said, we believe it is unnecessary. Secondly, we believe it could create a culture of lawfare, as it is described in legal circles, that will take vital money away from students and researchers. Thirdly, we believe that it will ultimately restrict free speech, rather than the opposite: it will be the inverse, an unintended consequence, as we have talked about on so many occasions.

Let me start with the point that this clause is unnecessary. The creation of the tort, as has been said in the opening interventions, duplicates other avenues for complaints. Students and staff have already raised complaints with their institution, which will be dealt with via an internal complaints process. Students can then complain to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator. So far, so good.

The Bill, however, introduces a new route to make a free speech complaint to the Office for Students— for staff, obviously, and speakers. Suddenly we have two routes, or channels, over and above the Charity Commission. We believe that this tort will make the whole process incredibly messy and expensive. It risks creating confusion among students in particular about where they should lodge their complaint against a university. Where will they be getting advice? There is no order of complaints outlined in the Bill, so it is not clear how the processes will interact with each other, particularly if complaints are launched with different bodies at the same time. If this provision is to be introduced, it would be better as some sort of backstop.

The Russell Group says:

“The Bill also fails to explain how the tort will interact with existing modes of redress and the new complaints process”.

It also says:

“An amendment to the Bill that make clear the new tort is intended to act as a backstop to the existing grievance processes in place would help ensure its introduction genuinely adds an additional layer of protection for individuals with free speech concerns who have suffered loss. This would reduce the risk of the tort creating extra bureaucracy, causing confusion for claimants faced with multiple complaints processes, or undermining existing disciplinary procedures.”

It is worth pointing out what the remedies are when somebody brings a complaint forward. If the OIA upholds a complaint, it has a variety of remedies at its disposal—academic appeal, or disciplinary or fitness to practice procedure. Under the Bill, if the complaint related to freedom of speech, the OfS can offer a remedy to the student only for the freedom of speech concerned, as opposed to the OIA, which can offer a remedy for any aspect of the complaint that is upheld. Basically, the OfS is offering a narrower source of remedies than is currently available under the OIA. If anyone is confused listening to me, then, my goodness, just imagine how an 18-year-old undergraduate would feel trying to grapple with what the best route forward is for them.

Exactly. Where is the flow chart to help someone navigate through this? It is certainly not clear to any of the representative bodies—the student unions and so on—and it is going to be impossibly difficult for the average 18-year-old or 19-year-old to comprehend.

In its evidence, the OIA gave an example where a group of students may have the same complaint regarding freedom of speech, but go down different routes: one down the OfS route, one down the OIA route, and one down the court route—maybe because they have enough finances behind them. Each of them ends up with a slightly different solution to exactly the same problem. That is the reality of the Bill. I fail to see how enough guidance could provide clarity for each individual student. We could have a very varied system, where individual students do not know where to go and complaints are not upheld properly. Alternatively, in the case of the OfS, students make a number of complaints and only the freedom of speech issue is dealt with, not the other, resulting issues that could be to do with the way that the course is being taught. It is as confusing as anything.

I will address those points in due course. It is the possibility of students going through different bodies that is quite alarming and that will cause even more complication and complexity.

To go back to the point I was making about the processes, the then Secretary of State for Education himself said during the Second Reading debate that although

“this legal route is an important backstop, we do not want all cases going to court where they could otherwise be resolved by other means.”—[Official Report, 12 July 2021; Vol. 699, c. 50.]

I think that is what we all want, but it is certainly not clear to any of us how that is going to work in practice, particularly given the several bodies that can advise and take cases from students. The Bill as it stands does not ensure that the legal route is a backstop. During the evidence sessions, we heard from Smita Jamdar of Shakespeare Martineau—the only lawyer—who was called on by the Opposition. She gave striking and clear evidence and advice. She said:

“Built into certain types of court proceedings—judicial review, for example—is the expectation that you will first exhaust all alternative remedies, and that would include any internal remedies available under the complaints process. However, that is not the case in statutory torts; you could bring a claim outside the processes”––[Official Report, Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Public Bill Committee, 7 September 2021; c. 50, Q93.]

That must be a real concern: the simple fact that you can bypass all the processes and go straight to court. The clause should therefore be removed or at least amended to reflect the Government’s own views on how they wish the tort to operate.

My second point is on facing the prospect of “lawfare”. We have wider concerns that the Bill will create a culture of lawfare against universities. Clause 3 does not restrict the tort to those who personally feel that their speech has been restricted or those who have been directly affected. It therefore risks opening up vexatious claims against universities from those who seek to do them harm. As Dr David Renton and Professor Alison Scott-Baumann said in their written evidence, the Bill means that,

“any lecture, seminar or guest speech could lead to a lawsuit.”

They pointed out that the statutory tort element of the Bill will open the floodgates to civil litigation and forms of lawfare, most likely from well-funded American groups on the hard right, or perhaps groups such as the Chinese state Communist party.

I find the hon. Gentleman’s argument—I am being polite—paradoxical, or perhaps even contradictory, if I am being slightly less polite. On one hand, he and other critics of the Bill say that there is not a problem and that the Bill is not necessary, because these matters are not as numerous or severe as some suggest, despite our witnesses claiming that there is a culture of fear and a climate of silence. If there is not a problem, where does he imagine this welter of complaints will spring from? If there is not a problem and universities are dealing with these matters satisfactorily internally and settling people’s concerns, it will be hard to imagine the effects he set out in his remarks.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I will come on to a few examples of how that might play out, because I have given a lot of consideration to the extent of this issue. Given the evidence of certain witnesses in the evidence sessions, there are concerns out there—certain concerns are greatly exaggerated, but there are concerns. We have to take those on board, which is why we are approaching this in a constructive way.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington said, the real concern, which I would like to believe that the right hon. Gentleman would accept, is that we will see ambulance chasers, for want of a better term. There will be people putting their cards around student campuses who are looking for opportunities to be mischievous and to make money out of situations that can be manufactured on our campuses.

Further to my hon. Friend’s point about the “no win, no fee”, “where there’s blame, there’s a claim” culture we have in other areas of law, there is no limit on how long ago a perceived breach of freedom of speech took place. The clause refers to a “person”. There is no definition of who that person is. Does it relate to academic staff or students? How long along were they at the university? Are they someone in the vicinity who happens to feel infringed by something that has happened on the campus? It is such a broad definition. There is no limit on how long ago something could have happened and who could bring these claims forward.

I will come on to that. We have an amendment to that effect, which would ensure that this is not some kind of free-for-all and that we do not open the floodgates, as described by Dr Renton and Professor Scott-Baumann.

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has ever been involved in litigation, but I have—not in a professional capacity, as a solicitor, which I am, but as the subject of litigation. It is traumatic and personally debilitating not only for the individual but for their family. We need to remember that most people do not enter into litigation lightly, and it is unlikely that these young people will do that. I think they will think very seriously and carefully before going to court to make their claims.

I absolutely take on board the hon. Lady’s point. I can answer her question honestly, and say that I have been involved in litigation at least once. I agree that young people would not enter into it lightly, and nor would academics of older years. It can be utterly corrosive to the individual and quite self-destructive; it is the sort of thing that people would want to avoid. My point is that some people will, through organisations, seek to engineer circumstances that play into their machinations on campus. We have to be extremely careful of that, because those people can be incredibly well-funded, as was made clear in the point I mentioned earlier.

I am sympathetic to what the hon. Member for Congleton has said. However, we have been there in the past, with organisations and rich individuals funding cases. I can remember cases being funded by the late Sir James Goldsmith—I was involved in one—in which action was taken against a range of individuals and organisations, to step up to the plate on a number of issues of his concern which, at the end of the day, I do not believe had any merit. His son is a definite improvement on that, if nothing else.

Yes, that is a good example of what can happen where individuals or organisations are so well funded. It can be really overwhelming and frightening to an individual or organisation when they are faced with that. Universities will be extremely concerned about this. Local government is shying away from taking on developers or other organisations because it does not have the funds. It cannot justify to the public defending whatever position it has had to take for good, democratic reason. However, it then finds itself up against it because the developers have much deeper pockets.

In a lot of cases, won’t the universities settle anyway just to stop litigation, so money will be going out of the university sector? But my concern, which I raised with the witnesses, is that state actors such as the United Front, which is active on our campuses promoting the Chinese Communist party’s philosophy, have very deep pockets to fund whatever they want to fund.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his point. I know that he is very well informed on that issue. There are bodies out there that would wish to do institutional harm on our campuses. But there is also the reputational damage that these actions can cause. Many will seek resolution out of court, and that will become more and more obvious. It is a real concern that this will see haemorrhage much-needed funding away from our universities and student unions.

Universities UK made the point that these measures will bring about a “compensation culture”, and it was not the only one. Many have said that the great fear is that they will lead to the rise of spurious or vexatious claims and that the Bill provides little protection from a funded and co-ordinated campaign, which could be launched against several institutions, as my right hon. Friend the Member for North Durham alluded to.

Many universities and student unions are concerned that they will spend significant time and money fighting these battles. They have just emerged from the pandemic; funding is challenging, and the viability of student unions, in particular, is threatened. The prospect of the £48.1 million cost—of providing information to students, of the reporting and of the potential claims—is extremely concerning.

Ms Jamdar from Shakespeare Martineau said:

“Some of the cases may be small claims, where even if the university is successful in defending the claim, it will not recover its legal costs. Even getting rid of vexatious claims by striking them out can be expensive.”

So there are significant costs for the university whatever happens. She also said:

“a few thousand pounds in every case could be spent getting rid of claims that are either very trivial or unmeritorious generally.”––[Official Report, Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Public Bill Committee, 7 September 2021; c. 48, Q90.]

Do the Government really want to take money from hard-hit students and place it into the hands of far-right holocaust deniers or, as mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for North Durham, those state actors wishing to do us harm? If this clause is to be kept in the Bill, then it must, at the very least, be amended to ensure that there is a maximum fine, at a level that universities and student unions can afford. We will come to that in due course.

In its written evidence, the sector—Universities UK, the Russell Group and others—raised the idea of introducing amendments outlining an explicit threshold of harm before someone could make use of the tort, or restricting the tort to those directly affected, thereby reducing the volume of claims that could be taken to court. That is to restrict it to those with genuine grievances—a point made in the Russell Group’s written evidence. It adds, very usefully:

“This would be consistent with the protections provided in the Defamation Act 2013 passed by the Conservative-led government of the day, while still offering a route to redress for individuals directly affected by any failure to protect freedom of speech or academic freedom.”

We must remember—we have made this point on many occasions over the last few days—that many HE institutions and colleges are quite small. The Association of Colleges reminded us of that. Some of the smaller, specialist colleges or HE institutions may have only 2,000 or 3,000 students. They will not be able to cope, administratively or financially, with these additional burdens.

Clause 3 will ultimately take vital money away from teaching students and important research, as well as taking away the funding that student unions and universities need to address the crisis in mental health and the violence against women on our campuses. We therefore believe that it should be scrapped or at the very least amended.

The third point I mentioned was the unintended consequences. We have heard, from not just the National Union of Students but academics, representative bodies and the only lawyer, that this tort could, ironically, end up restricting free speech on campuses. If universities and student unions are put at risk of burdensome, costly legal action, they may decide not to invite controversial speakers. We have heard that from universities and student unions themselves, so we should not be surprised by that if this tort remains in the Bill.

Professor Layzell, representing Universities UK, said in the evidence sessions:

“There is a concern around the litigation and making both student unions and universities more risk averse”.––[Official Report, Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Public Bill Committee, 13 September 2021; c. 125, Q272.]

That concern is, I think, widely held. Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, the vice-president for higher education at the National Union of Students, said:

“I think a direct unintended consequence of this Bill could be that student unions would become more risk averse to inviting speakers, because they just cannot handle the bureaucracy; they just cannot handle the prospect of having to pay lots of money in the case of litigation.”––[Official Report, Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Public Bill Committee, 13 September 2021; c. 136, Q302.]

Patrick O'Donnell, president of the University of York students’ union, said:

“The danger with the government’s statutory tort is that it will have a chilling effect—students’ unions or their student groups weighing up inviting an external speaker may well conclude that the risks are outside of their control yet too great. The government should work with us to broaden and deepen engagement with controversial views—not cause students to risk-assess the life out of campus.”

I did not have time to table an amendment, but I hope that the Minister and other Government Members will look at whether we should include in the Bill FE student unions as well, bearing in mind the resources of FE college student unions. I refer the Committee to the evidence given by the Association of School and College Leaders. I hope this is something that the Minister will take away to look through, because if the legislation is too complicated for junior common rooms, surely it is too complicated for a small FE college.

Costly and burdensome, is what we were told on Thursday.

Institutions and student unions would therefore become risk averse and avoid inviting speakers, for fear of financial repercussions if they are subsequently cancelled. As a result, there would be fewer speakers, fewer debates and, we believe—not just us, but the whole sector believes—an overall reduction in free speech.

Let me give some examples and come back to the point put to me by the right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings about what that might mean. I was reading about the former Home Secretary, the former right hon. Member for Hastings and Rye—I never had the opportunity to speak to her in the Chamber, although I spoke to her outside it, and I had time for her. She was due to speak at the UN Women Oxford UK society in March 2020, and I remember her response when she was barred from speaking, following a vote in the UN Women Oxford UK committee on her role in the Windrush scandal. The invitation was withdrawn an hour before she was due to speak. Those sorts of things have happened through the decades on campuses and across our universities. It was the society’s decision. Would I have done it? I would not have done that; I would have seen it through. I would much prefer to hear from someone and to put the point to them face to face. Sadly, that was the society’s decision.

What would happen with the tort in the Bill? What would Ms Rudd, the former right hon. Member, do? Would she take the society through some legal process, or threaten to do so, or would she just walk away? Rather than getting involved in some sort of complex legal process, which might have damaged her reputationally and made everyone look stupid, I imagine she would have walked away. Certainly, that is what I would have done. What happened, however, which I think is telling, is that the University of Oxford deregistered UN Women Oxford UK from its affiliated societies and asked it to apologise to Amber Rudd. The university concluded:

“We have determined that the cancellation of this event was not carried out in accordance with university procedures, codes of practice and policies, in particular that of the freedom of speech.”

I believe that was handled very well by the university and perhaps not so well by the society itself.

What damage was caused to Ms Rudd, other than in terms of her time and her train fare or whatever it was? Was her reputation damaged? I do not think that it was. In fact, even her daughter tweeted:

“Can not believe mum was ‘no-platformed’ at my old Uni yesterday. Mum doesn’t need the platform and travelled to talk for FREE”—

good for Ms Rudd, travelling to talk for free. It is a shame that the society did not allow her to speak on campus—though of course that was their prerogative.

Let me speak next to the case of the academic Selena Todd, who was dropped from the Oxford International Women’s Festival hosted by Exeter College for her views on transgender rights issues. That decision prompted the OfS to warn that there is a legal requirement on universities to take steps that are reasonably practicable. Again, I think it was a shame that she was dropped—these sorts of debates should be had—but it was the organisers’ decision. I believe, as I think do most of us, that there is good practice out there; we keep citing it. We heard about the work of Professor Jonathan Grant of King’s College London, who has created a collaborative, co-operative process between the students’ union and the university to ensure that all the steps are gone through before the invitation goes out, so that there is no subsequent problem and the person can be heard.

The third example that I want to raise—

Before the hon. Gentleman gets into his third example, I would like to go back to his second example; otherwise, I shall lose count of his examples. The point about the former Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, is not the inconvenience to her. Of course, one regrets the fact that it might have wasted her time and cost her her train fare, but that really is not the point. The point is that her opinions, which, broadly speaking, we take to be mainstream, were, in effect, prohibited. That is not compatible with a university environment that is, one would hope, there to stimulate debate, discussion, challenge and argument. It is not compatible with a free and open society.

We have tabled amendments proposing how universities and student unions should find their way through that, and we will come to some of them later.

To finish, I want to raise the much-cited case of David Irving, who was uninvited from speaking to the Oxford union as long ago as 2001 because of pressure from academics and members of the student union, who were furious that he was being given a platform for his views on the holocaust. A High Court judge had previously described him as “racist” and “antisemitic” during a libel trial. During the evidence sessions, one of the witnesses hypothesised:

“If I am disinvited because I am David Irving—I have published a book and then I was disinvited because people read the High Court judgment—what is the material loss to David Irving? I suspect that it is quite small, but we do not know. That is the level of detail that the legislation does not take us to.”––[Official Report, Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Public Bill Committee, 13 September 2021; c. 102, Q211.]

The contradiction in using that example is that the Bill would not make any difference, because it excludes the Oxford Union. The very thing that Government Members are worried about will not be dealt with, because the Bill excludes the bodies that have done this in the past and includes bodies that have never done it, such as further education college student unions. It is a blunt implement pointing in the wrong direction.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The examples that are being cited by lobbyists—perhaps more on the Government side—of where there is perhaps an issue are centred around those bodies. Currently, as we debated on Thursday, they are not included in the Bill.

We believe the tort should be scrapped. We believe it is unnecessary, encourages lawfare against universities and will ultimately end up restricting discussion and debate on our campuses. At the very least, we believe it should be amended with maximum fines. A threshold of harm should be introduced, and it should be restricted to those who are directly affected.

FE colleges would love the luxury of having a high-profile, well-known speaker come to visit them; that would be a wonderful problem for them to have. As I am sure the Minister is aware now that she has both briefs in her grasp, however, that is often hugely difficult for them. To exempt JCRs and not FE colleges—I am not aware of a single incident involving free speech ever having been raised at an FE college—seems slightly absurd.

Indeed. It is important to repeat just how burdensome the measure will be for colleges. For decades, they have rarely had issues, but the burden is now being placed at their door.

The difficulty with the inclusion of FE colleges is that, broadly, they are regulated by Ofsted; they have a completely different framework; and they have no relationship with the Office for Students, except in relation to some of the courses that they may run, although they usually do that via other affiliated institutions. Including FE colleges therefore brings into their sphere a whole new regulator that they have never dealt with before, creating even more bureaucracy and confusion.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right: there is yet another body to stir into the mix. We have not heard from the Government about how that will play. It further underlines the extraordinary complexity that the legislation will bring to our campuses, colleges, student unions and HE providers across the UK.

I repeat that all bodies mentioned the need for an exhaustive process, so that every sinew is strained to ensure that any complaint goes through the university, the Office of the Independent Adjudicator and perhaps the Charity Commission before it is escalated. There is an absolute desire—it has been demanded—that the tort should be a backstop to the existing grievance process. Otherwise, people will rush to lawyers’ doors, or the lawyers will rush to them, to seek damages at great expense to individuals, and to SUs and institutions in particular. On Second Reading, the previous Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Gavin Williamson), claimed that the tort would be a backstop, but the Bill, as drafted, does not make that clear.

We believe that the clause is unnecessary. We fear that it will encourage vexatious claims and create additional bureaucracy, and we have talked about the £48 million that it will be incumbent on universities and SUs to fund. We believe that the clause will cause confusion to claimants about their various routes to redress through Ofsted, the Charity Commission, the OIA, the OFS and the universities themselves. The clause will also undermine existing disciplinary procedures. For those reasons, we oppose it and wish it to be removed in its entirety.

We have heard why the clause is dangerous, and I will talk briefly about two reasons why it should be opposed.

First, I will touch on the real chilling effect that I believe the measure will have on institutions. It is a lawfare charter, or an ambulance-chasing lawyer’s charter. Lawyers will go around knocking at institutions’ doors, and they will say to those three students who did not fill in the paperwork correctly to register their student club, “Do you think you’ve been slighted?” because the clause gives them the right to seek damages if the club is not registered. Those people, not the students or staff, will push the boundaries in all different directions.

There are people out there who look to make a quick buck when law is bad. In the past, we have had to rewrite law in this place and remove such opportunities because we had allowed massive loopholes. The easiest and cleanest way to stop that from happening is by following the evidence that we have heard, according to which the tort should be a backstop, not a front foot. At the moment, the Bill allows it to be a front foot.

The Amber Rudds of this world may not go running to the lawyers, but lawyers may come knocking on the door of a poor student or someone on a casual contract who is struggling to pay their rent. Large numbers of university academics struggle to pay their rent day in and day out, because their occupation is a very poorly paid one with low job security, except at the very top. We all have experienced something similar after car crashes, and it drives people crazy. It drove me crazy when I had a little prang at Bradford airport, which did not even cause a dent on either car, because for months afterwards I had lawyers ringing me and saying, “Do you want to claim compensation for whiplash?” The crash caused no damage to me whatsoever, but if I had been struggling to pay my rent or make ends meet, that would have been a temptation. I am afraid this clause opens up that possibility.

The first way to stop that happening is by requiring people to pursue the complaints procedures internally. I do not understand the Minister’s point about an external speaker being unable to complain using an internal process. In fact, we heard how an hon. Member in this room had managed to complain, although it was difficult. Perhaps external people should be able to complain internally. I think most people would like there to be a clear complaints process for external speakers as well.

I remind the hon. Gentleman that even though the complaint that I made was upheld, it was futile, because only a year or two later there was an attempt to no-platform me again by the same group, in the same college. That is why this Bill and the recompense—this tort that we are talking about now—are so necessary.

The hon. Lady is exactly right that it is necessary to clarify that process to ensure that it is streamlined and clear, but under this Bill she might have complained first to the institution, the next time to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator and the next time to the person for free speech. There is no process for creating case law, for want of a better word, and setting a decent precedent. There is no precedent to be set here.

In fact, there are so many ways to complain that it will frustrate the process even more. It would be better to say, “This is the process you have to go through,” so the regulator can see that there is another complaint coming through about the same thing and can escalate it. One way would be to require people to go through a single process; first a free process in the institution and then a free process with one of the regulators. I am easy about whether it is with the Office of the Independent Adjudicator or the director for freedom of speech, as long as it is clear what powers they have.

If all ends are lost or the complainant feels that those offices have come to the wrong decision, they can take it directly to tort. That would allow a quasi-appeal process. At the moment, the director for free speech does not have an appeal process, so if someone thinks that it has come down on the wrong side, they will be stymied and unable to do anything. If it were clear that after going to the director for free speech, people could go to courts for tort, there would be an appeal process.

We do not know who the director for free speech is. Although I trust lots of people who are experts, everyone is fallible and will sometimes make the wrong decision. It seems wrong and unfair to rely on the director for free speech alone to make decisions that people will always be happy with. The director will not rely on case law or precedent, because they will be a law unto themselves when it comes to precedent.

The other way of making this tort section half-decent would be to limit costs. Most student societies have probably about £100 in their bank account. Are we asking a student society, which we have been told will be covered by this provision, to have a liability that is beyond what is in its bank account? Or are we saying that the student union should hold the liability for every single private student association?

Let me make the situation very clear. A student club in a university is a private association of private individuals, which sits under the university and chooses to affiliate to the union. In this Bill, we are proposing, as a Parliament, to include such associations and make their actions a liability of the student union. I know of no other organisation that is liable for the actions of a group of private clubs that happen to affiliate to it. It would be like making working men’s club associations or Conservative club associations—I cannot remember their detailed names now—liable for what happens in every single constitutional club or working men’s club in the country. It is absolutely bonkers, wrong and beyond the pale to engage in giving institutions this level of liability for small clubs that have very little to do with them, apart from an affiliation with them and the fact that one or two students might be members.

Another simple thing that could be done with the tort is to make it very clear that damages can be sought only if damage has been caused directly by the institution or the student union, not just by some of its affiliate bodies, over which it might have no regulatory role. The other way to make the tort sensible and limited is to put a cost cap on it. At the moment, unlimited liability means that institutions and student unions will settle, because there is a risk. If there is no cap, they cannot go to court and say, “We think we might have a bit of an argument here, and we think we have made best endeavours.” As the Minister will say, it is about best endeavours, and there is no case if the university has done its best and things still could not go ahead. That argument will be irrelevant, because if there is unlimited liability, there is a real danger that the university will say, “Okay, we’ll pay out £1,000 out here, and we’ll pay it out there.” Soon, those thousands of pounds will be tens of thousands of pounds.

That could cripple a student union in one go. I know that Government Members might not really understand this, but most student unions are small institutions that have only a few thousand pounds in their bank account. They do not even have £10,000. This idea that student unions are some big organisation that people can draw some sort of tort from is so out of touch with the sector.

It is so disappointing. I might disagree with the need for this measure to be in a Bill—I think that the same thing could have been done through regulation or by bumping up the Office for Students within its framework, but we can agree to disagree on that, and it is the Government’s right to introduce legislation if they wish—but bringing in a tort destroys the whole point of trying to secure people’s free speech. It will mean that student unions will say, “No, we can’t have your societies registering with us at all. We can discriminate against all, or we have to regulate every single thing that you do, so now you just cannot affiliate.” With all those student societies—including the student politics society that I will speak next week or the week after at Sussex University, or the Labour club at Bradford University where I plan to speak in a few weeks’ time—the universities will just say, “It’s too complicated. We’ll shut them down.”

It will be the same for Government Members. They consider free speech societies to be so important, and I agree; they are important for a student’s educational experience. Those societies and the Conservative clubs, or Conservative Future clubs—whatever the youth wing of the Conservative party is called nowadays; I can never keep up—will all be automatically disaffiliated. We have already seen that happen in Oxford; I am not making this up. Oxford University student union did it with the UN women’s society. The student union just disaffiliated that society, which still exists and still meets. The society can be as rude as it was with Ms Rudd, because it is no longer affiliated.

We need to be clear that we want societies to be affiliated, and we want them to come under general provisions of good conduct, but they cannot be held liable because it is too much of a risk for the trustees of the organisations, the council members of the institutions or the governors of those bodies. That is why the clause needs to be totally redrafted and amended, or, even better, taken out. Even as it stands, this route is the most expensive and burdensome for someone to go down, and they will not go down it unless their lawyer—“no win, no fee”—offers them indemnity. The amounts that people pursue will be a pressure upwards, not downwards, because we know it will cost in the ten thousands or twenty thousands to pursue a case through these means. There is no way that the charges will be accepted for less than that.

I am deeply against the clause. I beg the Minister to consider the amendments, just to make sure there are safeguards so that this cannot go mad—I should not say “mad”—or blow up in our faces. If she is determined about the tort, there are safeguards she can put in, but I genuinely think there are significant things under the current regulations. If she wants, she could include the ability for the Office for Students and the adjudicator for free speech to have greater fining powers when institutions go via that route, so there could be a financial penalty, but the penalties would be seen in a one-track process without ambulance-chasing lawyers after them.

The arguments have been cogently made by my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown. I have one simple question. Clause 3 states:

“A person may bring civil proceedings against”,

but who is that person? Who has standing in this? The schedule, which sets out the complaints scheme, it is very specific about who has standing in paragraphs 1, 2 and 3, and in paragraph 4 to a certain extent. It designates that an eligible person means,

“a person who is or was…a member or member of staff of the students’ union, or…a student, member or member of staff of the provider, or…a person who was, or was at any time invited to be, a visiting speaker.”

That is not set out in clause 3. I might have misread it; perhaps it is written down somewhere, but I cannot find it in the legislation at all.

If there was a link between the appeals process as a process that was exhausted and then an individual went on to the tort, they would probably be able to rely on the definitions set out in the schedule, but at the moment there is no definition at all. That is why I ask the question. I am not being obstreperous. I simply cannot find it in the Bill.

I will give an example. If I buy a ticket to attend a lecture or speech that is then cancelled, am I a person who is eligible to bring civil proceedings as a result of the damage—no matter how slight—caused to me by not hearing that person? Do I have standing? Can I sue the provider, the student union, or whatever? I just want clarity on that. Whenever we introduce a tort, it is a bit like that American baseball film—“If you build it, they will come.” If we create a tort, the lawyers will come, as will other organisations that wish to make money, or in some way frustrate the process of trying to secure freedom of speech, The clause as it stands could be counterproductive.

I want to make a simple point. People volunteer to be elected to student unions, and the president, vice-president and those on the executive committee are the ones who usually have the political fight to get on there. It is largely around the nature of the students and what activities they want to pursue. However, there are some people who altruistically become the trustees. It is completely altruistic and goes beyond making a political point by standing for president or to be on the executive committee.

What worries me is that, as soon as we get into litigation like this, the student body does not have the resources to settle the claim. One way around that is expensive insurance, but even that might be beyond some of these bodies. I am fearful of it then falling onto the shoulders of those trustees, who could incur quite significant financial costs. Even the fear of that may well prevent people coming forward as trustees. By inserting this into the legislation, we are building a dark hole for people to fall into, and I think it could cause considerable problems.

I do not understand why we cannot rely upon the complaints procedure set out in new schedule 6A of the Higher Education and Research Act 2017. If that does not, as the Minister says, cover visiting speakers and such, I do not understand why can we not amend the schedule to make it all-encompassing?This is abysmal legislation, and here we are—the Opposition—virtually rewriting it for the Government. I suppose we are trying to mitigate the damage that will be done if it passes the whole House unamended. If we are going to legislate in this way, let us at least not undermine the ability of young people to participate in the structures that actually do develop their concept of what democracy is all about.

That is what we are doing here, I think. We are putting large numbers of people at risk, and if they are not at risk, we are putting them off participating in bodies that perform a service, not just for students but wider society.

Question proposed, That the clause, as amended, stand part of the Bill.

Clause 3, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 4

General functions

Amendments made: 5, in clause 4, page 6, line 2, after “providers” insert “and their constituent institutions”.

This amendment and the Minister’s other amendments to clause 4 make clear that the OfS’s new functions relating to freedom of speech extend to constituent institutions of registered higher education providers.

Amendment 6, in clause 4, page 6, line 3, after “providers” insert “and their constituent institutions”.

See explanatory statement to Amendment 5.

Amendment 7, in clause 4, page 6, line 8, after “providers” insert “and their constituent institutions”.—(Michelle Donelan.)

See explanatory statement to Amendment 5.

I beg to move amendment 73, in clause 4, page 6, line 8, at end insert—

‘(2A) The OfS will compile an annual review of registered higher education providers, ranking their compliance with their duties under sections A1 to A3; to be made publicly available by such means as the OfS considers appropriate.”

In moving the amendment, I draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, which details my role as an academic at Bolton University.

I was speaking at the weekend at a dinner with a group of friends who are academics. We addressed in conversation how we could ensure that universities will comply with the terms of the Bill, should it become an Act, as I expect it to do. I talked about the amendment we debated earlier––I will not seek to do so again, Mrs Cummins, because you would not let me––in which I recommended a periodical report. I suggested quarterly, but I am open-minded about what that period might be and its precise terms.

There is an alternative that I now suggest in the form of an amendment to this clause, which is for the OfS and, in particular, the new director, to provide information annually about compliance with the duties in new sections A1 to A3 and to make that publicly available. It would be less onerous, so it would pass the test that the Minister set of not being excessively bureaucratic, which was the argument that she used—in my view rather surprisingly—in resisting my first amendment, although she said that she would give it further consideration, for which I am grateful. It would certainly pass that test, but also give reassurance that universities will be expected to respond, and respond consistently.

My doubt about the legislation is not about its principles––I agree with them entirely. It is not about the practice, which I expect to be effective. It is more about the universities and how they respond. I suspect that, if we are not careful, it will be a variable response. Some will feel that they can comply with these duties more straightforwardly than others and some may even be reticent to do so. I am very keen to avoid creating what might be described as a littered landscape of all kinds of universities acting in all kinds of different ways.

I recognise the point that the right hon. Gentleman is making about how when a list is compiled, it can be influential on students choosing a university. They often look at rankings. My concern about the amendment is with the resource implication. I have mentioned before about higher education provided by FE. How much resource would student unions have to comply with this duty by putting on these kinds of events? Could smaller universities or colleges be downgraded in the ranking he referred to because they do not have the resources to offer the greater breadth that, for example, Oxford or Cambridge would be able to offer?

It was at Cambridge that I had the discussion with the academics that I mentioned, by the way. I am involved with some postgraduate work there, which is not registered in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests because it provides no financial reward, so it is not a pecuniary interest, but I mention it in passing for the benefit of the Committee and others.

The hon. Lady is right that there is a challenge in respect of smaller providers, and I accept that. A good point was made in the earlier part of our consideration about FE colleges and about thresholds. There does seem to me to be an argument around thresholds. I would hope that that would become clear in the guidance. The hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington made a good point about that. Good practice will necessitate the new director establishing some protocols that do not allow the free for all that he suggested might be the consequence of not being clear about the sort of things that would stimulate his interest and lead to further steps. To be honest, I think that the good practice detailed in the Bill would include the director making clear his expectations of universities. The Minister will no doubt confirm this when she speaks, but I find it inconceivable that the director will not set those expectations out in guidance. He is missioned, after all, to provide advice, and it is inconceivable that that advice will not include some mention of the kind of circumstances in which universities might want to draw matters to his attention.

There is an argument to go further and to say that, if universities are going to take any steps which they think might inhibit free speech, they should, before doing so, report to the director. That might also be included in guidance. If there were an issue about the curriculum, where a course was in the eyes of some people contentious and there were changes to practice which were unconventional—all things that we have debated previously in our scrutiny—there is an argument that that ought to stimulate some report to the director. That is not what I am suggesting here. You will recognise that, Mrs Cummins, and call me to order if I carry on talking about it too much.

What I am proposing is very straightforward: simply, that there is an annual review of registers of higher education providers and that they are publicly ranked. This is not uncommon for universities; indeed, they are well used to that approach. Student satisfaction, for example, is gauged and universities are ranked accordingly. Over time, we have become more accustomed to universities being required—helpfully, I think—to be very open about what they are doing and how well they are doing it. It helps students to make informed choices and it helps others to assess the success and effectiveness of the regime in different places of higher and further education.

The Minister might find this amendment altogether more agreeable. Last time, I said that I anticipated her seizing on my amendment with enthusiasm and, frankly, I was a little disappointed that she did not. The response was rather less fulsome than perhaps I had hoped. This is a more modest suggestion; it is in line with her concerns about bureaucracy and in keeping with the idea of the existing practice of the OfS, but it would provide more structure and the prospect of greater consistency. I am hoping that both the shadow Minister and the Minister will recognise the amendment as a helpful addition to the Bill, entirely in the spirit of its purpose, but one seeking to improve it in terms of compliance and consistency. On that basis and awaiting that enthusiastic response, I will leave it there and reserve the right to speak again and decide whether to press my amendment.

I wish to grab the amendment with some enthusiasm, but maybe in the wrong direction from what the right hon. Gentleman is hoping for. I do worry about bureaucracy, particularly among smaller institutions, and the general cost and responsibility and burden that falls with it. As I said the other day, I believe that the demands that the Government are looking to place on institutions through this legislation is just another example of the head office wanting yet more reports from various institutions. It will be another form to fill in, and the Government will do what they want with it—maybe just sit on it, like so many reports.

I struggle with the amendment, because I think it misjudges the benefit of bureaucracy. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, we have tabled amendments on looking for best practice. We want to understand what is good out there, as well as examples of events being cancelled unduly. That is of interest to all across the sector, it is right and it is proportionate, but ranking universities according to their obligations under the Bill would be impractical and undesirable. I will expand on those two points in just a moment.

I understand what the right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings is trying to do. Would it help him to know that there were consultations on the national student survey—the annual review of student satisfaction—and that one of the questions looked at related to free speech? Might that satisfy his aim, without having a negative impact on smaller providers, which will end up further down the rankings because they lack the resources to put on the events that wealthier institutions can?

I thank my hon. Friend for that suggestion.

What the amendment proposes is impractical. In evidence, we heard about the undefinable nature of the chilling effect. One of the Bill’s stated aims is to erode that effect, but how can the OfS be expected to rank universities on how they do that? As my right hon. Friend the Member for North Durham put it:

“Getting your head around the idea of self-censorship is like having blancmange in your hands.”––[Official Report, Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Public Bill Committee, 13 September 2021; c. 95, Q194.]

How is it substantive? How is it made quantifiable and therefore a true measure?

On that point, I want to get to the bottom of this issue of good practice. As the hon. Gentleman knows, clause 4 already states:

“The OfS may…identify good practice relating to the promotion of freedom of speech and academic freedom”.

As well as giving advice—dealt with in the next paragraph—the identification of good practice will end up ranking universities, because where good practice is identified it will be clear, and where it is absent it will be equally clear.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that point of clarification, but even where good practice is identified, that is a qualitative judgment being made, in this case, by an individual or perhaps a small team of people; and while that is accepted and understood, and most people recognise good practice when they see or hear it, how it is quantified into some measure is a concern. Is it a matter of giving five points for this and three points for that? How is a genuinely substantive and transparent ranking system that people can understand to be arrived at? I understand the right hon. Gentleman’s intention, but I believe there are better ways of under-standing where there is good or bad practice. One of the witnesses, Sunder Katwala, said:

“self-censorship and chilling effects are cultural points”.––[Official Report, Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Public Bill Committee, 13 September 2021; c. 103, Q214.]

When you need to do some quantitative analysis, how do you quantify what is essentially a cultural phenomenon?

The point made by the chief executive of the OfS was that

“Regulatory burden is not necessarily a bad thing,”

unless “it is disproportionate.” She added:

“The way through this is to ensure that our response is proportionate and risk-based”.––[Official Report, Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Public Bill Committee, 13 September 2021; c. 113, Q245.]

I would say that what is coming from the OfS is some direction. They might want some sort of reporting, but it has to be proportionate to identifying risk, rather than some sort of beauty parade showing how different universities are performing.

In their impact assessment, the Government claimed that non-legislative work, including the OfS-led review and guidance is not sufficient to solve the problems identified. Non-legislative proposals would not have the desired effect because they are based on a voluntary approach. The amendment is fundamentally illiberal, putting the OfS in the position of an ombudsman that sits above the sector. Dr Greg Walker, the former chief executive officer of MillionPlus, was concerned about the OfS becoming an arbiter. He described it as being much like the British Board of Film Classification. How would that work? The Association of Colleges reminded me in our meeting that the OfS is provider-blind. How, then, can it be expected to rank institutions? The former Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Gavin Williamson), said on Second Reading:

“The OFS will also play an important role in identifying best practice and providing advice in relation to the promotion of these rights.”—[Official Report, 12 July 2021; Vol. 699, c. 50.]

Why have not the Government put that in place more, rather than potentially wasting thousands of pounds on implementing this legislation?

The amendment goes beyond identifying best practice and advice and into intrusive review and value-based judgments on a university’s attempts to navigate freedom of speech issues.

The hon. Gentleman is being generous in giving way. What he describes is not uncommon when we look at universities. We heard earlier that student satisfaction is measured. Student satisfaction is, by its nature, a subjective judgment: students gauging their view of their university—the teaching, care and stewardship. Of course those judgments are subjective, but they are none the less valuable.

I understand that. My understanding of that student survey is that they complete it and assign a score, on different categories and measures, to how the university has met their expectations, to try to quantify that experience. It covers teaching, accommodation and how the curriculum has been delivered compared with their expectations. That is a positive thing.

The Opposition do not believe that there is a need for ranking. It is a qualitative measure and I think it is a stick to beat and bully those the Government may not like. I have real fears about the Bill. Increasingly, I sense that it is the work of the McCarthyite tendency, and the amendment would simply aid them in their subjective assault on the sector.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Cummins. I say to the right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings that God loves a tryer. He has come back with another amendment to try to quantify the need for the Bill. As I said last week, I feel uncomfortable with the Bill’s intervention in areas where it should not go.

I look back, possibly with rose-tinted spectacles, to the halcyon days when Conservatives argued for smaller states, less intervention and less red tape. The Bill—and the right hon. Gentleman’s amendment—puts more red tape and bureaucracy on institutions. We have just had a discussion on tort. I look back fondly to great Conservative speeches that argued for less regulation and how we should keep lawyers out of things wherever possible. Today we have a Government who argue for giving a freedom charter to lawyers, which I have never been in favour of.

There is a—perhaps inadvertently—useful part to the amendment: it might produce the evidence for the need for the Bill in the first place. One of the problems with the Bill is that we have seen very little evidence, in terms of figures, for why it is required. If the amendment is an attempt to provide that, it seems to put the cart before the horse. One problem, as my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington said, is how we quantify this, because these will be value judgments that vary from year to year for institutions. Let us be honest: the institutions themselves will have no control over them at all, because student unions and other organisations will invite speakers and get challenged, which will be problematic.

I understand what the right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings is trying to do in terms of justifying the existence of the Bill, but I am not sure that the amendment will do that. I also, like my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington, do not understand how we would do the ranking and how we would quantify it. What we found throughout the evidence sessions is that, although we have such things as the Chicago principles in terms of freedom of speech, it becomes a very subjective test. Trying to rank universities simplistically like this would be very difficult.

Also, if we agree that limitless legal actions could be taken against universities and institutions, lumbering them with financial burdens, we will put more burdens on them if they have to quantity these things every year to the Government. I think that would be unwelcome to our university sector. The sector is telling us that it has gone through a very difficult time during covid and that it needs more money. I do not think that any of us would not argue for more money for the education sector, but we are giving them additional burdens.

I come back to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown: these institutions are not one size fits all. There are some very small organisations that will find having to do this every year burdensome. I accept that the right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings has moved from where he was last week in terms of wanting it on a more regular basis, but there will be huge burdens. It would be unfortunate to tie up academic time and money in compiling lists that I am not sure will be the top thing that students will look at when they decide which academic institution to go to.

As discussed, the amendment seeks to introduce a requirement on the Office for Students to publish an annual report that would assess and rank higher education providers on their compliance with their freedom of speech duties. Schedule 1 to the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 sets out existing reporting requirements placed on the OfS. Paragraph 13 of that schedule requires it to prepare a report on the performance of its functions during each financial year. That annual report already summarises the regulatory activity of the OfS as undertaken in that year. Following the Bill, that report will be able to include the regulatory work that the OfS has undertaken in relation to the new registration condition on freedom of speech and academic freedom, as well as information on the operation of the new complaints scheme.

In that context, proposed new section 69A in clause 4(2) of the Bill also provides that the Secretary of State may, by direction, require the OfS to report on specific freedom of speech and academic freedom matters in its annual report, or in a special report. Both those reports must be laid before Parliament, so they will be subject to scrutiny and can be considered by the sector itself. Members should be aware that another provision of the Bill—paragraph 12 of proposed new schedule 6A in clause 7(2)—requires the OfS to conduct a review of the complaints scheme or its operation and to report the results to the Secretary of State at the Secretary of State’s request. To impose further reporting, as required by the amendment, could be overly bureaucratic. However, as previously discussed, I am happy to reconsider the reporting requirements. I hope that that will satisfy my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings. I will take the matter away and continue to consider it.

The Minister is becoming increasingly characterised by her willingness to listen, and that is the mark of any good member of the Government. All people who have been Ministers know that Bills improve through scrutiny—I am thinking of the right hon. Member for North Durham, and I am looking around for others. The right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington was an aspirant Minister—an aspirant Chancellor, indeed. Governments that listen usually end up with better legislation, so it is of great credit to the Minister that she is listening to the scrutiny and responding with the tone that she is.

The hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington said that freedom is hard to quantify and that the measures in the Bill will be hard to measure. Freedom is like happiness. Neither is absolute, both are hard to define, but the pain of the absence of either is keenly felt and better cured. That is what the Bill tries to begin to do. I am anxious that it has the effect that the Government desire, and keen that we produce some means by which we measure that effect. The amendment may not be the ideal way of doing so, but I am grateful for the comments that have been made from across the Committee recognising that my attempt is to make the Bill as consistent in its application as possible, and as clear to those who will have to work with it.

On the basis of the Minister’s welcome willingness to listen and respond subsequently, and with one final caveat, I am minded to withdraw the amendment. The caveat is on my point about universities being obliged to report to the new director in those instances where there are matters of contention, such as changes to the curriculum, courses that are not run, or events that are stopped in some way. I have no doubt that that might form an amendment when this matter comes to the other place. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Ordered, That further consideration be now adjourned. —(Michael Tomlinson.)

Adjourned till this day at half-past Five o’clock.

Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill (Tenth sitting)

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairs: † Sir Christopher Chope, Judith Cummins

† Bacon, Gareth (Orpington) (Con)

Britcliffe, Sara (Hyndburn) (Con)

† Bruce, Fiona (Congleton) (Con)

† Buchan, Felicity (Kensington) (Con)

† Donelan, Michelle (Minister for Universities)

† Glindon, Mary (North Tyneside) (Lab)

† Hardy, Emma (Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle) (Lab)

† Hayes, Sir John (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con)

† Holden, Mr Richard (North West Durham) (Con)

† Jones, Mr Kevan (North Durham) (Lab)

† McDonnell, John (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab)

Nichols, Charlotte (Warrington North) (Lab)

† Russell-Moyle, Lloyd (Brighton, Kemptown) (Lab/Co-op)

† Simmonds, David (Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner) (Con)

† Tomlinson, Michael (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury)

† Webb, Suzanne (Stourbridge) (Con)

† Western, Matt (Warwick and Leamington) (Lab)

Kevin Maddison, Seb Newman, Committee Clerks

† attended the Committee

Public Bill Committee

Monday 20 September 2021


[Sir Christopher Chope in the Chair]

Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill

Clause 4

General functions

Question proposed, That the clause, as amended, stand part of the Bill.

The Office for Students, as the regulator of the higher education sector in England, provides a valuable independent service that helps to ensure that our universities are institutions to be proud of. Universities have historically been centres of inquiry and intellectual debate and bastions of free thought from which new idea can emerge to challenge the current consensus. The OfS is therefore ideally positioned to positively impact on our universities. Our aim is to strengthen freedom of speech and academic freedom in higher education.

The clause strengthens and extends the current legislative framework on the duty of the OfS, enabling it to fulfil that role. The clause amends the general duties of the OfS in the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 to include that, when performing its functions, it must have regard to

“the need to promote the importance of freedom of speech within the law”


“to protect the academic freedom of academic staff at English higher education providers”.

The clause also inserts section 69A into the 2017 Act, with the provision that the OfS “must promote the importance” of freedom of speech and academic freedom in higher education. That is central to the Bill’s aim of changing the culture on campus so that freedom of speech can thrive. Section 69A sets outs provisions about OfS advice on good practice in relation to the promotion of freedom of speech and academic freedom, and gives the Secretary of State the power to require the OfS to report on freedom of speech and academic freedom matters.

I believe that the clause is essential to extending the general duties of the OfS to ensure the promotion and protection of freedom of speech and academic freedom within higher education. It is therefore a necessary and important part of the Bill.

My only comment, which has been made throughout the debate, is about how much responsibility goes to the OfS and how much should remain with the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education. We still have profound concerns about how the measures will work between the various bodies, but we will not divide the Committee.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 4, as amended, accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 5

Regulation of duties of registered higher education providers

I beg to move amendment 54, in clause 5, page 6, line 39, at end insert—

“(4) The OfS must ensure that the ongoing registration conditions of each registered higher education provider that is eligible for financial support include a condition requiring the governing body of the provider to report to the OfS each year on the number of events that have been cancelled following a complaint about the opinions held by a person due to speak at the event.”

This amendment would require higher education providers to report to the OfS each year the number of events that have been cancelled following a complaint about the opinions of the speaker, as part of OfS registration conditions.

It is a pleasure to see you back in the Chair, Sir Christopher. The amendment is straightforward. It is a shame that the right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings is not present, because I know that such amendments are quite close to his heart.

In the debate on amendment 73, we expressed concern about the burden and responsibility being placed on the sector, which we felt was inappropriate because that measure could not be applied. [Interruption.] I welcome the right hon. Gentleman back to his place. We believe there should be some means of quantifying data, which is important to understanding the scale of the issue. One of the problems has been in trying to recognise the nature and extent of the claimed problem. Our amendment seeks simply to ensure an annual registration or report detailing the number of cancelled events following a complaint.

As I mentioned in debate on amendments 72 and 73, we have to be careful about the burden of bureaucracy being placed on the sector, and appreciate that institutions already have a similar duty—the Prevent duty—as part of what is termed the “accountability and data return”. On that, I point out that the last results of that input showed that 99.8% of external speaker events went ahead, which suggests that the system is working largely as planned.

It reminds me of that great commercial many years ago from one of the beer companies. An individual passing through the offices hears the phone ringing and thinks, “That’s strange. It sounds like one of those old Bakelite phones. I’d better look in the office to see what’s going on.” He walks in and sees dust-covered furniture there. He finds the phone, dusts it off and answers, saying, “You’ve got the wrong number.” As he leaves the office, the sign reads “Carlsberg Customer Complaints Dept.” There is a little bit of that with this. How many will we actually see go through this office?

The data has been cited so often in our debate, but we have to ask how much of a problem this is in terms of events. There are increasing claims of self-censorship from witnesses and Government Members, but the data shows that 99.8% of external speaker events go ahead and suggests that the system is working. That leads directly to the quantifiable evidence of no-platforming issues. Professor Grant, whom we heard from in evidence, made it clear that

“It is not about the process of inviting people on to campus and worrying about no-platforming and cancel culture. The data there says that it is a non-issue.”––[Official Report, Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Public Bill Committee, 13 September 2021; c. 120, Q259.]

The events data will also help to rebut claims made by the likes of Professor Kaufmann, who, oddly, claimed:

“The no-platforming incidence is really the crux of the issue, which the Bill will address.”––[Official Report, Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Public Bill Committee, 13 September 2021; c. 90, Q184.]

It is hard to address something that, clearly, hardly exists. The Government’s own data from the Office for Students shows only a tiny percentage of cancellations. That is the only report that was available. In 2017-18, it showed that of 62,000 events, just 53 were rejected, or about 0.1%. The cancellation of some of those events had nothing to do with people’s views.

Where evidence is available, there is little evidence of a big problem. According to the Russell Group, the figures were 0.09% of all events cancelled in 2017-18, 0.23% in 2018-19 and 0.21% in 2019-20. The organisation Wonkhe did its own survey of 61 student unions, which showed that just six of 10,000 events were cancelled.

The amendment would also have the benefit of addressing the concerns raised by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy’s regulatory policy committee, which said:

“The evidence underpinning the proposed intervention and its intended effects is not strong.”

The committee supported the Department presenting

“concrete and well-founded examples of the ‘chilling effect’ and the consequences in those circumstances.”

That is what we want to see from the Government.

In the evidence sessions, a couple of witnesses talked of the effects of the Bill becoming apparent over the next 10 years. I am thinking particularly of Professor Goodwin. Well, 10 years is a long time to wait for something to appear. I do not think that any of us have the patience for that. Members will see from our amendments that we wish to review this regularly and within a period of time after the Bill becomes law to see its progress and whether it is doing any good or the burdens are causing considerable financial costs and other issues on campuses.

Of course, it takes time for Bills to embed and for change to be seen, but we do need to see some sort of evidence to support the approach. We are proposing amendment 54 for that reason. We believe that it is vital and in all our interests that there should be quality data to illustrate the nature of any issue, if there is one out there, and perhaps also its scale. As I have said, the numbers we have so far suggest that there is not. That is why we believe that it is important that amendment 54 is agreed to.

As we have heard, the amendment seeks to ensure that registered higher education providers who are eligible for financial support are required to report to the Office for Students each year on the number of events that have been cancelled following a complaint about the opinions held by a person due to speak at an event. I agree with the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington that we need to be careful about the bureaucratic burden that would potentially be placed on the sector. However, I have already made a commitment to this Committee to take away the point about reporting and whether we need to go further in terms of our ask on the face of the Bill. We do, however, have to ensure that we are not duplicating existing information requirements under the Higher Education and Research Act 2017. Under section 8 of that Act, the OfS must ensure that the ongoing registration conditions of each registered provider include certain conditions relating to the provision of information to the OfS. This section has been implemented by the OfS through registration condition F3, which applies to all registered providers, not just those that are eligible for financial support from the OfS, commonly called approved fee cap providers.

I thank the Minister for giving way; she is being very generous. Can she explain why the OfS does not appear to have been reporting regularly in the last few years?

The hon. Gentleman makes a point about the previous activities of the OfS, whereas today we are focusing in this Bill on freedom of speech. This is a new set of requirements, with a new director, that will be coming into force, and they will be doing an annual report, as we have already discussed.

To come back on that point, this is a genuine and sincere question, and it would apply to anyone in the Minister’s position—I appreciate that she has been in the role for 12 or 15 months or so; I cannot remember, but it would apply to her predecessors as well. Since 2017-18, there has been a rising concern in certain circles about an issue. If it was possible to get that data in 2017-18, why has it not been asked for since? I would have thought that that was incumbent on the Department for Education, and on the Minister and her predecessors.

The OfS did publish data around no-platforming, but as we heard from several of the witnesses who appeared before the Committee, no-platforming is just the tip of the iceberg. It is the chilling effect that we are dealing with in the Bill. To minimise that, and focus just on no-platforming, is to fail to understand the gravity of the issue that we are trying to tackle.

The governing body of the registered provider is required to provide the OfS with such information as it may specify to assist the OfS in performing its functions. The registration condition also requires providers to take such steps as the OfS may reasonably request to co-operate with any monitoring or investigation by the OfS, which may include providing explanations or making staff or documents available. In addition, following Royal Assent to the Bill, we will fully expect the OfS to consult on the detail of the new registration conditions relating to freedom of speech, in accordance with the statutory provisions on consultation in section 5 of the Higher Education and Research Act 2017.

This process will enable the OfS to best understand what is required from the providers in order to comply with the new conditions, including by way of reporting and information. Adding a further separate information requirement to the 2017 Act would cause duplication with section 8 and the existing registration conditions and could also increase bureaucracy. As I have said throughout the Committee stage, I will commit to take away the issue of reporting and seeing how we could go further.

I had hoped to speak for a moment against the amendment but, before the Minister concludes, I draw the Committee’s attention to the written evidence that was submitted by Professor Kaufmann, I believe after he gave his verbal evidence. He confirmed that the number of cancelled events is tiny—just a handful among some 10,000—and he gave us some very interesting survey data about the much deeper and widespread crisis in our universities of the chilling effect of self-censorship.

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. That point was laboured by many of the witnesses we saw in evidence. As I said to the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington a moment ago, this is much more than an issue of dealing with no-platforming; we are trying to address the chilling effect.

I am slightly confused. The Minister is saying that the OfS has been collecting the data, but why has it not been reporting on it? The difficulty with the chilling effect is how quantifiable it is. This is about hard data and events that have been cancelled or no-platformed. The amendment would provide hard data, rather than reliance on some mystical ability to mind-read or judge how chilled someone feels in a particular environment.

I heard the hon. Lady, but yet again the Opposition are failing to grasp the severity of the problem we are trying to deal with, and so honour our manifesto commitment to squash the issues with free speech on our campuses. Those issues are much more entrenched than simply no-platforming. We have heard that from various sources, academics and students alike, who have told us that they have felt curtailed in their ability to speak out on certain issues, to teach certain topics, and so on.

I will be delighted to hear more. I hear the Minister and the point made by the hon. Member for Congleton. I want to repeat the words of Professor Kaufmann, who was a star witness for the Government, if we may use terms like that:

“The no-platforming incidence is really the crux of the issue, which the Bill will address.”––[Official Report, Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Public Bill Committee, 13 September 2021; c. 90, Q184.]

Those are his words, not my words, which is why I am asking—as was put differently by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle—why that data has not been available for the past few years. The reason it was not being reported was that there was clearly no issue.

I think it is quite clear, from my own words, that the Government do not feel that no-platforming is the crux of the issue; the issue is a chilling effect. We have been very open about the fact that the number of no-platforming incidents is low, but the Bill is about the broader issue of the chilling effect.

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way on the issue of the chilling effect, which I described earlier as the fear that pervades many of our universities. That was made clear by the witnesses who came before the Committee. Dr Ahmed said:

“You can distinguish between hard censorship and soft censorship…Soft censorship is where there is not any regulation, but people know—people sense it themselves, because they know that if they say this, or they say that, or if they present these views, they will be regarded adversely. If they are a student, they might be ostracised.”––[Official Report, Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Public Bill Committee, 7 September 2021; c. 9, Q13.]

That fear affects academics and students, and it is damaging the calibre and quality of our universities across the land, which is why the Minister is right about the chilling effect.

I agree with my right hon. Friend, but I fear that we are slipping into a debate on the necessity for the Bill itself, which we have already had at great length on Second Reading. I close my remarks on the amendment.

I hear the Minister. I believe that the amendment was a constructive suggestion, and we would have liked it to have been formalised in the Bill, but I will not press it to a vote. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

The Office for Students is the regulator for higher education in England and as such it has a vital role to play in ensuring that our universities and colleges continue to be spaces where views can be freely expressed and debated, without fear of repercussions. The OfS regulates English higher education providers by way of registration conditions. The current registration condition requires higher education providers registered with the OfS to ensure that their governing documents uphold certain public interest governance principles. Those include principles that relate to protecting academic freedom and taking reasonably practicable steps to secure lawful freedom of speech. Therefore, the OfS already has experience with freedom of speech and academic freedom.

To protect freedom of speech and academic freedom to the fullest extent, we need to create a new mandatory initial and ongoing registration condition in the Bill. Clause 5 amends the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 to provide the legislative framework for the creation of the new registration conditions. Proposed new section 8A of the 2017 Act requires the OfS to ensure that the registration conditions of higher education providers include certain specific requirements. They must include a condition that the institution’s governing documents are consistent with its freedom of speech duties and that it has adequate and effective governance arrangements to secure compliance. They must also include a requirement that the governing body of the higher education provider complies with its duties under new sections A1 to A3 of the 2017 Act, as inserted by clause 1 of the Bill. Finally, in the case of approved fee cap providers, a particular category of registered providers, the ongoing registration condition must include a requirement to keep the OfS informed of their student unions.

Clause 5 will ensure that the registration conditions relating to freedom of speech and academic freedom are aligned with the duties imposed on higher education providers by the Bill. The OfS will be able to ensure compliance with the new registration conditions by using its powers of enforcement, such as the power to impose monetary penalties. The creation of these new, stand-alone registration conditions will highlight the importance of freedom of speech and academic freedom. It will make the obligations of higher education providers more up front and it is therefore a central part of how the Bill will work. I urge that clause 5 stand part of the Bill.

I am sure the Committee will be delighted.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 5 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 6

Regulation of duties of students’ unions

I beg to move amendment 77, in clause 6, page 7, line 10, at end insert—

“(3A) Any monetary penalty will be limited to a maximum amount set out by the Office for Students decided in consultation with representative bodies of universities and of students’ unions.”

This amendment would ensure that there is a limit on the penalty to be paid by an individual or institution as a result of this legislation.

With the amendment, of course, we have clause 6. The concern that we have throughout the Bill is the additional burden that it will place, as we have said so many times, on the universities, colleges and others that will be covered by it, as well as the student unions. We have to put this in the context, which I have cited before, of what is going on and what the Government seem to be doing, which is centralising powers in bodies that are not necessarily independent in the way that they are suggested to be. I really am very worried, like my right hon. Friend the Member for North Durham, about how this really centralising and very authoritarian Government are introducing red tape and placing more burden and more cost on institutions and student unions. We see this in other fields as well.

What is clear from this legislation and what we have heard in evidence is just how much responsibility will fall to student unions. The regulatory burden that they will face is really disproportionate. They are already subject to the regulation in this area by the Charity Commission. However, in the Bill, there is no mention of it, even in the schedule, as far as I can see; perhaps the Minister can point it out to me in due course. I cannot see anything about the Charity Commission, which is the regulator of student unions. Looking at the Bill, we would not even know that the Charity Commission existed or had any remit over student unions. It is not in the body of the Bill; it is not even in the schedule—it is nowhere. Perhaps it is the case that the Government want to leverage out the Charity Commission from any say in what goes on in our universities. Perhaps the Minister could address that point specifically. As has been said before, how will the Office for Students and the Charity Commission engage? Student unions are unincorporated associations, so it is not clear how these penalties will apply in practice. Also, the proposals covered in the Bill do not recognise the devolved nature of student unions’ governance, as we have said before. For example, a chair of a society may not follow an agreed procedure, which could result in an invited speaker needing to be disinvited once due process was followed.

I will continue to make this point, because it is an important one that needs to be made: not all student unions are wealthy institutions. As I have already mentioned, the Bill includes higher education organisations and further education colleges that might not even have any full-time officials working for their student union, but will have to comply with this heavy piece of legislation.

The problem with the Bill is that it has been written in the belief that every university is like the Russell Group universities, forgetting the many York St Johns and Liverpool Hopes out there, which are much smaller institutions but still part of the higher education landscape. How on earth would some of those student unions be able to afford to comply with the legislation, as the Minister is asking them to?

My hon. Friend is right, and that is a point I was going to come on to. I was just looking through my notes about the Office of the Independent Adjudicator and I saw that it said its membership has increased from 150 providers in 2014 to almost 800 providers in 2021, and that is an absolute plethora of universities, colleges, and so on. They are all of different sizes. An agricultural college might have a couple of hundred students, or as could a specialist performing arts college, a music college or drama college. What on earth will this measure do to such institutions, in terms of their liability and responsibility? They will certainly not be able to afford and sustain societies in their student unions.

It is incredibly concerning and there is almost a failure in the Bill to accept the burden that will head the way of these colleges from Government. I think we heard that really clearly from Hillary Gyebi-Ababi, the vice president of the National Union Students. She talked about the huge financial impact on the sector, saying:

“If I am being completely honest, a lot of stuff in the Bill is really, really concerning, such as measures under which people could get monetary sanctions for breaches of freedom of speech.”––[Official Report, Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Public Bill Committee, 13 September 2021; c. 128.]

In another evidence session, my right hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington made the point to Professor Kathleen Stock that

“The Bill itself lays a huge range of conditions on student unions and university and academic institutions, and then it brings in potentially draconian sanctions, but we do not know what the sanctions are”.

Professor Stock replied:

“I can see that it is a risk.”––[Official Report, Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Public Bill Committee, 7 September 2021; c. 14.]

Professor Layzell of Universities UK also gave evidence, saying:

“Again, we would want the sanctions to be proportionate. I think I would look at it in the context of us all wanting to do better in this space.”––[Official Report, Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Public Bill Committee, 13 September 2021; c. 126.]

On Second Reading, a point was made by my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Mary Kelly Foy):

“In fact, Durham University has informed me that, far from encouraging a wider range of views, the threat of sanction could actually result in a more risk-averse speaker programme.”—[Official Report, 12 July 2021; Vol. 699, c. 106.]

A great many more people from across the sector, including from student union bodies, have registered that concern about how they see the Bill having the reverse impact to the one intended, and having a chilling effect of reducing free speech and debate on our campuses, irrespective of their size.

Since becoming shadow Minister, I have met the National Union of Students several times—remotely, of course—and I am pleased to support amendment 77, which it helped to construct and which would introduce an upper limit on the fines. It is vital to have visibility of what sanction or cost there will be. There needs to be a schedule of the maximum penalty an institution could face. How will it be proportionate? Will it depend on the number of students at a college, or will it depend on the nature of the transgression? How on earth will it work?

I am in complete agreement with my hon. Friend. Going back to the point regarding student unions, a one-size-fits-all fining system could find that for a student union with a much lower income and smaller resources, the proportion as a percentage would be much higher, which is why, as my hon. Friends propose, we need consultation with representative bodies of universities and student unions. If we want to impose the same punishment in relative terms, that could then be done accurately.

The frustration from right across the sector is that there has not been more consultation, discussion and engagement about the issue and how to address it, and how to deliver legislation that might be workable across the sector with the representative bodies, the Government and so on.

My concern is that this measure is another example of how the matter has been left wide open, and that is problematic for the bodies—in this case, the National Union of Students and the various student unions. In the short time that I have had in terms of exposure to the sector, I say to the Minister that it has a profound and growing distrust of the Government because of this legislation. It feels as though the sanctions have been designed to damage or nullify student unions. On that note, I will sit down.

I make this simple point. Like my hon. Friend, I have met the National Union of Students to talk about the legislation. One question asked was, “What have the Government got against young people?”, because this seems to be an attack on an organisation that young people rely on. I do not understand it. If the legislation is to act as a deterrent against poor behaviour, the Government need to set out what the deterrence is. If there is an element of risk if procedures are not adhered to, that needs to be set out. Normally when introducing sanctions, at least there is a tariff system of some sort. In this legislation, there is no tariff. We are completely in the dark.

The obvious solution is to simply consult people about what the levels should be and how they should relate to certain types of behaviour. In normal circumstances when we impose sanctions, that is what Governments do. Even when it comes to criminal sanctions, there is extensive consultation. Certainly when they introduce civil elements of a sanction, there is detailed consultation throughout with the relevant parties, but that has not taken place in this case. All the amendment would do is ask the Government to sit down with the relevant bodies that will be affected so that they can agree, or at least be consulted on, the nature and level of the sanctions that will be introduced, and—we have referred to this in previous debates—a realistic maximum that does not break the institutions that the Government seek to work with.

When the Government introduce contentious legislation such as this, it is best to take people and the organisations that will be affected with them. The best way of doing that is to engage them in consultation and discussion about the detail of the legislation as it is rolled out. I hope the Minister can give us some assurances—

It is important to set out in this Bill the thresholds of the compensation that can be paid because that will also help the court process. We heard in evidence that a large amount of the cost to the court could come from arguments and wrangling about what the actual damage cost is. If that is laid out by the OfS, that reduces the burden of the cost to the courts.

There is the process of the tort, the process of the civil actions that will take place and the process of the monetary penalties imposed by the OfS. The courts eventually, after precedents have been set, will arrive at some level of compensation. Unless we can set out a legal tariff early on, it will be up to the courts and anything could happen.

Maybe I am unfairly anticipating what the Minister will say, but I assume it will involve the words “guidance”, “waiting” and “after the Bill”—perhaps not in that order. Therefore, if this will be looked at in guidance after the Bill in consultation, does my right hon. Friend agree that it should be put in the Bill right now?

Confidence in legislation is secured through engagement, consultation and, where there is disagreement, an understanding to disagree. Then when the Bill is taken to the Floor of the Commons, the confidence of Members has been gained because there has been that thorough consultation. Unless that is done, Members are voting for a pig in a poke. Unless the detail of the regime is set out—in particular, the tariffs and what the maximum will be—how can people vote for this legislation, knowing what its implications are?

To go back to the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown made, let us distinguish between what the courts will do—they will set the level in due course through precedent and so on—and the scheme. The sanctions, the tariffs and the maximum monetary penalties are to be set by the Government. I therefore make the very simple point that when Governments set tariffs in this way, to gain the confidence of the House it is usually best to explain what the tariffs will be.

Again, to stress the point about consultation, as I was trying to explain previously, if this is not done in consultation with student unions, especially small student unions at smaller higher education institutions, this will bankrupt them. I am sure the Minister does not wish to be the person responsible for the bankruptcy of a number of student unions up and down the country. I therefore advise that the consultation and guidance be done before Members of Parliament get to vote on the final Bill.

It is just the simple approach of talking to student unions and saying, “What effect would this tariff have on you? Would it push you over the edge? Would it bankrupt you? Is this an appropriate sanction? Would it act as a deterrent? Would people appreciate the risk that they are undertaking by non-compliance with the OfS’s requirements on these individual bodies?” Universities and student unions will almost certainly be consulting their insurance providers about the potential risk and the level by which they have to insure themselves to ensure that they, quite properly, exercise their fiduciary duty of protecting their organisation in the light of that risk. How can they do that if they do not know what is coming at them down that tunnel? The light that is coming at them could be a huge train hitting them with a huge fine.

I could not agree more. As my right hon. Friend described it—he has years of experience in this place—the concern is about how we go through the process of devising and constructing legislation by using a collaborative approach. If we do not pursue that, it could readily be interpreted as wishing to intimidate student unions, which is my real fear. The Bill is designed to act as a big, stamping foot and say, “We’re not going to tolerate this kind of behaviour any longer.” The Government could simply have created a schedule and worked with the student union bodies to devise what the implications might be for insurance, as my right hon. Friend describes, and what would be a proportionate way to introduce some kind of sanctions scheme.

That is what generated my question. Why are the Government targeting young people in this way? It would not take much for the Minister to go away and to come back and give the House an indication, at least before Report, of the types and level of sanctions the Government are considering. When the Bill goes to the other place, there will be some insistence on that.

It is very rare for this House not to have some indication of the scale of a sanction that is being introduced in criminal or civil law, because it is seen as unfair. In both the Commons and the other place, there has been a consistent standard of behaviour: when the Government impose sanctions they undertake considerable consultation, so that people have confidence in the legislation that is passed, and in the institution that will adjudicate on the monetary penalties levied. I speak as someone who has been trying to amend Government legislation for about 23 years, even when my own party was in Government. It is a very simple point—nothing more than that—but it is important and is at the heart of the legislation.

Under the amendment, that the monetary penalty that the Office for Students can impose on student unions for breach of their duty to protect freedom of speech will be subject to a maximum amount, set by the OfS and decided following consultation with representative bodies of higher education providers and student unions. However, the Bill already provides that the amount of the monetary penalty is to be decided by the OfS, in accordance with regulations made by the Secretary of State; the regulations will of course be subject to parliamentary scrutiny. This mirrors the approach taken in section 15 of the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 on monetary penalties imposed on higher education providers.

Given what the Minister was just saying about the promise from the previous Secretary of State, will she say precisely when that will be? She is obviously aware of something that I am not. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington says, we would like to see that before Report.

I am not going to set out a detailed timetable, but I assure the hon. Member that there will be sufficient consultation with both the sector and student unions.

Further to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington, the Minister mentioned parliamentary scrutiny, and I want to press her on this issue. She should be able to give us at least an outline of whether we will know about this before Report, before Third Reading and before it goes to the Lords. When will parliamentary scrutiny happen? On something as important as this, surely we should have some indication from the Government.

This is in line with how we have done legislation before, and to have in the Bill the details of the exact things that the hon. Member is asking for would not be appropriate.

I will give way to the right hon. Gentleman, but if I can then make some progress, I might actually answer some of the Opposition’s questions.

What would be helpful—before Report, at least—is to have some discussion on the draft regulations. I understand that it is not possible to publish the regulations formally, but we could have a discussion on the draft regulations before Report, so that Members can at least be assured of the range that the Government are thinking about with regards to the monetary penalties.

Our process here is in line with section 15 of the 2017 Act. It is suitable for secondary legislation that will be subject to sufficient parliamentary scrutiny.

The regulations will make provision about the matters to which the OfS must or must not have regard when imposing the penalty. We intend to ensure in that way that the penalty is set at a reasonable and proportionate level. In making the regulations, careful consideration will be given to student unions’ status and financial position, and their varying sizes,.

I hear the Minister, and she is a decent individual—I am sure that she means well and I trust her—but one cannot say that a speeding fine is proportionate to the driver when one person can afford it and another can ill afford it. We have repeatedly made the point that there is an absolute diversity of institutions, so there is real concern about the measures.

The Government are on a bad wicket already, and given the way that they are going about this, they will lose the faith and trust of the sector, particularly of student unions. I urge the Minister to take on board the suggestions made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington to bring the draft regulations as early as possible before Report, to give us an indication of where the Government are heading with the measures.

I think what is actually important is to have sufficient time for engagement and consultation with the sector and student unions, for the very reasons given about their varying size, financial assets and so on. Rushing the regulations would have an effect contrary to what Opposition Members are arguing for.

It is important to note that the power of the OfS to impose a penalty will be subject to the safeguards set out in schedule 3 of the 2017 Act. That reflects the approach taken to the monetary penalty under section 15 of that Act. We see no reason to deviate from that tried and tested approach.

I thank the Minister for giving way again—she is being generous. To make it as simple as possible, we would like to know when we will find out what the maximum penalty will be. She talks about parliamentary scrutiny and the need for consultation. To be as clear as possible, will we know before the final vote on Third Reading?

I think that I have been quite clear, but I shall be even clearer: the regulations will be passed via secondary legislation, when there will be an opportunity for hon. Members to scrutinise those decisions. We want to ensure adequate time for consultation with the sector and with students unions to get that right.

The Minister is being incredibly generous. She said that the Government do not want to rush the regulations and need time to go through the proper process. I remember that in March last year, when former Home Secretary Amber Rudd was no-platformed at Oxford, the previous Secretary of State—bless him—said, “Right, that’s it. We’re going to bring forward this legislation.” Here we are, 18 months later. There has been plenty of time, and this has been on the cards for some time, particularly because the legislation has been driven by the right hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Gavin Williamson). It would have been possible to produce the draft regulations if the proper consultation process had been gone through. I really fear that they are being held back for political reasons, and that student unions are going to be hit hard.

I have reiterated many times, as Hansard will show, that it is not our intention to hit, penalise or alienate student unions. We are talking here about proportionate measures to protect freedom of speech. We will ensure that there is a consultation and that the voices of student unions are heard so that the regulations are right.

The Minister mentioned “proportionate measures”, so will she commit to ensuring that the regulations reflect the size of the institution or student union, and the ability of the student union to comply? I am worried because if, after consultation, there is a flat rate, that would be disproportionate.

Before I finish, I will repeat what I said a moment ago. In making the regulations, careful consideration will be given to the status and financial position of student unions and their varying sizes. I hope that having that confirmation on the record will satisfy hon. Members.

I hear what the Minister says. It is so frustrating because we want to be constructive. We want to mitigate the damage of the Bill, but it has been so badly conceived, with so many gaps in it, so much information lacking, and so much left to guidance, it is really problematic. It should be for all of us across the Committee, to accept this. We will vote for our amendment, and hold back on the clause.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

We know the important role that student unions play in ensuring that freedom of speech can thrive on our university campuses. We therefore know how vital it is for the current legislative framework to be extended to student unions and approved fee cap providers—a category of registered higher education providers—as provided for by clause 2. It is necessary to have mechanisms in place to ensure that the freedom of speech duties of student unions are monitored effectively, and that action is taken if the freedom of speech duties are infringed.

Clause 6 extends the regulatory functions of the Office for Students so that it can regulate the student unions. It does that by inserting new section 69B into the Higher Education and Research Act 2017. That new provision will require the OfS to monitor whether student unions are complying with their duties under proposed new sections A4 and A5, as inserted by clause 2. If it appears to the OfS that a student union is failing, or has failed, to comply with its duties, the OfS will be able to impose a monetary penalty. That will enable the effective regulation and enforcement of the freedom of speech duties of student unions by the OfS.

The power to impose a monetary penalty is based on the existing enforcement regimes for higher education providers, and is intended to encourage compliance. Proposed new section 69B will also require the OfS to maintain and publish a list of student unions and approved fee cap providers. That will make it clear which student unions the OfS has been informed by these providers are subject to the duties in new sections A4 and A5. It will also require those student unions to provide the OfS with information that it may require for the performance of its functions.

These new regulatory functions are intended to support the new duties in clause 2. Together with clause 2, clause 6 will ensure that freedom of speech is protected not just by higher education providers but by student unions and across campus. I believe it is a necessary and important part of the Bill, and I beg to move that it stand part.

It was not just our amendment 77. The nub of the problem is how student unions are being muscled by the Government to do certain work for them. I cannot help but use the word “authoritarian” throughout, but this heavy jack-boot seems to be stamping down on student unions across the country, particularly the smaller ones, which will not have the scale, finances or resource to sustain the obligations that the Government are putting on them—particularly if that is the Government’s aim. Maybe their intention throughout all this is to see the demise of student unions and maybe some alternative structure to replace them.

I found this the most disappointing part so far because we are talking about issues of equality. The Minister said she had the higher education and further education brief because they wanted to bring more equity into those areas. We know what will happen under the Bill: the student unions with money and resources will be able to comply and continue, and the student unions without them will not; they will not be able to offer what they have been able to offer so far. It is incredibly disappointing for the Minister to say that secondary legislation will be where the consultation happens. That is an incredibly disappointing response from the Minister. I hope she will recognise that what the Bill actually does is create a system where only the elite universities have functioning student unions and the rest of the students can do without.

Labour cannot support this clause in its entirety. There are many points that could be highlighted. New section 69B(9) states::

“If a students’ union fails to comply with a requirement under subsection (8) and does not satisfy the OfS that it is unable to provide the information, the OfS may enforce the duty to comply with the requirement in civil proceedings for an injunction.”

God, the heavy hand of Government! It is like the opening credits of Monty Python with that hand coming down from the clouds and stamping on the little person, and that is the case for student unions across the country.

I stand corrected. The hon. Member obviously misspent more of his time than I did watching that. Whatever part of the anatomy it was, it was coming down rather heavily on the small person. That is what the Government are seeking to do. It is quite clear that the intention in No. 10 and its policy unit is to drive out student unions in this case and change the representation on how bodies may be affiliated on our campuses.

Too much of the clause is down to guidance and none of it has been done in collaboration with student unions. Student unions are not professionally organised with huge resources behind them to counter this and take the Government on. I would have thought the Government would be much more willing to work with student unions and with the National Union of Students and say, “We want to collaborate with you. We do understand there is this issue, and you perhaps appreciate there is a bit of an issue in certain places. How is it that we go about best addressing this issue across certain campuses?”, realising that it is not the case across 98.9% of events. We cannot support this. The obligations and duties on student unions are far too onerous, and we will be voting against the clause.

As we have heard, this is one of the most worrying parts of the Bill because it seeks to regulate private associations even further. It is a very dangerous step because it starts to undermine freedom of association and the ability of people to do what they wish. Student unions, of course, came under the regulation of their institutions through the Education Act 1994. That Act also allowed students to opt out, which was widely touted to be an attempt to bring in an Australian-style opt-in for student unions, in the hope that it would destroy them, as happened in Australia. That failed, and more than 25 years later this is the next attempt to try to undermine and obliterate student unions and to obliterate the poorest or most fragile parts of our HE sector.

For the juggernauts in Oxford and Cambridge, half of their student activities will not even be regulated. The OfS will be able to delve into the work of a local debating club in a small specialist institution with maybe 300 to 400 undergraduates, but it will not be able to touch the Oxford Union. It will not be able to touch a junior common room in Oxford, but it will be able to touch the junior common room at Lancaster University, because it is run in a different style. It is total inequality and really concerning.

Then we are having another regulator. We already have the HE regulator. The case law starts with Baldry v. Feintuck, which was one of the biggest cases. Baldry was a Conservative MP, and Feintuck was president of Sussex’s student union, and then he went on to be my primary school teacher.

It does possibly explain a lot. He was also clerk to one of the parish councils that I served on, so our lives have been intertwined.

That case said that student unions are excepted charities. As a result of the Charities Act 2011, student unions are not only excepted charities and therefore exempt, but regulated directly by the Charity Commission. As charities, they have a duty to be non-partisan, to be balanced and to ensure that they fulfil all the requirements of the Charity Commission, and we know that the commissioners have great powers to step in if charities are being partisan. So we have a great deal of regulation for student unions already.

Of course, in the HE sector, which this clause covers, student unions are part of that broader assessment that Ofsted has to make when assessing the student unions of the further education college, so now we have a fourth piece of regulation.

I want to give a tangible example, just in case the Minister has missed this. This regulation, as written here, will apply to Basingstoke College of Technology’s student union. By dint of the college being OfS-registered, because of its HE provision, its student union, which is currently governed by some 17-year-olds keen on running Rag Week, will have to comply with the regulations written here and, as we have heard from the Minister, there will be a fine of an undisclosed amount if they do not, yet still JCRs will not have to comply. Does the Minister not accept that applying this to every single student union, regardless of whether it forms part of an FE college or an HE college, is a little over-bureaucratic?

My understanding is that this relates not just to the student union’s activities be in the HE sector, but to the whole of the student union’s activities, even in the FE part of the institution, so student unions in that sector may face more administrative and regulatory burdens than their parent institutions. It is a bizarre situation. That is why this whole provision must be withdrawn, or voted against, or at least rephrased. The Minister must make sure that this is restricted to only that part of the activity that is HE, and that the regulation is light-touch, and she must make reference to how this relates to Charity Commission regulation. That does not apply for higher education institutions, because they are not regulated by the Charity Commission; they are exempted charities. Since 2010, student unions have not been exempted, so they have to register. They are regulated charities, and this measure is totally contradictory to the current regulation.

It might be useful if I clarify for the hon. Member that, where student unions are registered charities, charity law will still apply to them. The OfS will only regulate student unions on freedom of speech matters.

Of course I understand that, but a complaint is not simple and will not be simple. For example, a charity that is seen to prejudice one part of speech, particularly political speech, would be in breach of charity regulations already, because we cannot privilege one part of speech or one part of activities as a charity because it is political speech. That is quite right, excepting the ruling of Baldry v. Feintuck, which says that political party associations of students can be supported within the student union if it is self-organised, because it is not the political activity it is supporting but the educational activity of students mocking up being in a political party, so they can hold mock elections and so on.

There is detailed case law and detailed legislation. The danger is that this Bill runs roughshod over that. People would have two places where they could complain. The complainant can go to the Charity Commission, where there is a basis of case law that is already very nuanced, and they can go to the OfS, where there is no case law and no such basis. Because we know the OfS will not necessarily be built with lawyers or making its decisions based on case law, the danger is that we will end up getting semi-contradictory decisions.

Baldry v. Feintuck says that student unions are free to support a Conservative club, for example, and to give money to that student Conservative club for its operations, as long as it offers the same amount of resources to the Labour club, the Lib Dem club or whatever different clubs might come along. There is a danger, however, that free speech regulation will say, “Actually, the regulations need to be different and will require the clubs to accept a broad range of views.” That is different from the basis on which those clubs have been set up.

I ask the Minister to reconsider ensuring that there is a direct reference to the Charity Commission and to the order of priorities in which someone would make a complaint to a student union. Currently, they could make a complaint to the institution, to the Charity Commission and the OfS.

And the OIA. I would appreciate the Minister doing that, because it is a minefield. We heard as much from the representative of Universities UK, who said that they were deeply worried that this would confuse the matter and make things more difficult in terms of regulation.

Before I finish, I will touch on the finances. Universities effectively have the powers to raise finances through their recruitment of students and the research grants they get. Universities live and die, in that sense, in their corporate actions. Student unions, for the most part, raise no money themselves. Gone are the days of the student bar and the student club. If Conservative hon. Members think that student unions get money from those, I am afraid they are misguided. The vast majority of student unions rely solely on a grant from the university. They are solely dependent on the university, higher education institution or further education institution.

Listening to the debate, I am quite perplexed. On the one hand, the Opposition argue there is no problem with free speech, but on the other, they argue that once the Bill is introduced, virtually all student unions will be fined because they will be breaching it, and they will not be afford the fines. I am a bit confused about the argument here.

My argument does not necessarily only deal with fining; I am talking about regulation as opposed to fining, and we have had a debate on that. The point on fining is that we are worried that we will end up seeing a chilling effect and people coming forward vexatiously. That is a real concern—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for North West Durham groans, but he should stand up and say why he groans—give a speech or make an intervention supporting the Bill. He has said very little.

I think that is a bit unfair. I do not quite understand where the hon. Gentleman thinks all of these vexatious claims will come from, and why they are about to happen. Why, in this instance, with student unions specifically, does he think that there will be millions of vexatious claims trying to close them down at the drop of a hat?

We have heard that “where there’s a blame, there’s a claim”. We have seen it in road traffic, and we have actually seen an increase in litigation in the higher education sector, which is deeply worrying. Government witnesses talked about the commercialisation of the HE sector and students demanding that they get the results that they want.Those demands have actually led to universities being more restrictive in what people can say. This will increase that.

The evidence that the hon. Member is pointing to is on students and their universities, and I can quite understand that. This point, however, is all about student unions, so I would like to understand why he thinks that student unions will be targeted, rather than education providers.

Because, so far, student unions have not had that contractual relationship, with the ability of students to take them to court for failing to fulfil a service. That is my point about where the money comes from. At the moment, the student gives the money to the university. The contract for a basic service is between the student and the university. This extends that, so the student then has a direct contractual relationship with the student union.

If the hon. Member thinks that every single student will agree with what their student union is doing, and that no student will try it on, then I am afraid that his university experience was far too bland. My experience was of debate and contestation, and of people arguing and wanting to push the boundaries—quite rightly. This will not help that, because it will regulate student unions in a way that means they cannot then defend themselves properly. The reason for that is the financial point, which I was trying to come on to.

The university gets money from the student. They then give a grant—usually a small one—to the student union, which then spends, effectively, the university’s money. My understanding is that, according to the Education Act 1994, the university has an oversight role for how that money is spent. Yes, the student union can spend it how the students want, but within a framework that the university sets out and lays down. If the student union is liable, whose money are they liable with? That is what I am trying to get at.

If the OfS puts forward financial sanctions, whose money are they sanctioning at the student union? The student union’s money is just the university’s money, held in trust and spent on behalf of the university. Would student unions need to raise unrestricted monies, somehow? We know that most student unions do not raise unrestricted monies any more, because gone are the days of the bars. Or would student unions, if they were fined by the OfS, need to use their restricted university grants on this? If so, that clashes with the concept that that university grant is restricted to only the educational activities of the student—not for liability claims against the union. It seems strange that they would face this double regulation, and money able to be drawn from all different quarters, when they have no money themselves.

It is a bit unfair to call the hon. Member for North West Durham—my neighbour—“bland”, but anyway. Surely, what will happen is that student unions will take out indemnity insurance, whether they need to or not? That, again, is more money going away from education and into the coffers of insurance companies.

Either they will get indemnity insurance, or they will find a way to be covered by the institution’s indemnity insurance, which, again, defeats the whole point that student unions are regulated directly. We might as well regulate the institution, which would then have a duty—as they already do—to ensure that the student union is following the rules.

Another alternative is, of course, based on examples like the one I gave of Basingstoke College of Technology’s student union, and the other smaller student unions that exist out there. They simply stop having a student union and stop engagement, because some of these smaller colleges and institutions, which I have drawn attention to several times, could not afford the insurance. Those unions do not get much money from their colleges, which are their main providers, and therefore might not exist in the future. It would be a devastating impact of this Bill if we ended up with fewer student unions around the country.

We have talked in great detail—possibly too much for some Members. The point is that, in regulating the institution, where it is institutional money and resources, the regulation already flows down to the student union. That is the argument that the Minister has used for the junior common rooms. That already exists.

Double regulating the student unions actually confuses the matter. It makes it more difficult for complainants to seek redress, because student union premises are usually university premises. Who are they seeking redress from? Also, it potentially produces financial settlements that student unions would not be able to pay and that the university would effectively have to bankroll, but it would not allow the university to make representations to the OfS, in this case because the representations are directly with some 17-year-old who is the president of the union. It makes no sense whatever.

The legislation should be, as with the Education Act 1994, in the institution, which then supports the students to get it right. That is why the clause should be withdrawn. It would be a better Bill for it.

Question put, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Clause 6 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 7

Complaints scheme

Amendments made: 8, in clause 7, page 7, line 41, after “providers” insert “, their constituent institutions”.

This amendment and the Minister’s amendments to Schedule 7 secure that the free speech complaints scheme applies to constituent institutions of a registered higher education provider.

Amendment 9, in clause 7, page 8, line 15, after “provider” insert “or of a constituent institution of such a provider”. —(Michelle Donelan.)

See explanatory statement to Amendment 8.

I beg to move amendment 35, in clause 7, page 8, line 20, leave out “or was”.

See the explanatory statement for Amendment 37.

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment 36, in clause 7, page 8, line 24, leave out “at any time”.

See the explanatory statement for Amendment 37.

Amendment 37, in clause 7, page 8, line 25, at end insert—

“(2A) An eligible person specified under sub-paragraph (2) may not make a complaint if more than five years has elapsed since the date to which the claim relates.”

This amendment narrows the eligibility requirements for the free speech complaints scheme so that an eligible person may not make a claim if more than five years has elapsed since the date to which the claim relates.

Clause 7, of course, is about the complaints scheme. In that constructive vein that we have spoken of many times before, we want to make some small detail improvements and changes that clarify, or are more appropriate than, what is currently referenced—hence amendments 35 and 36. The amendments are intended to address the scheme and seek to introduce tighter, but not unreasonable, requirements for someone to go through the complaints scheme.

Amendment 37 stipulates the narrowing down of the eligibility of someone who comes forward to seek redress. The Bill seems to appear to remove any minimum requirements for standing. As it stands, the OfS scheme is open to anybody who is or was a member of staff, of the students’ union or of the provider, or who was at any time invited to be a visiting speaker. That opens up a can of worms. Just think, through the aeons of time, how many people could be eligible to make claims against universities and students’ unions through the scheme. It would really widen the scope of eligibility with two significant consequences.

The first consequence is regulatory. A broader standing has the potential to overrun the OfS scheme with a flood of complaints, much like the issue of tort, as we discussed earlier. What is to stop the 43 people mentioned in the examples given by the witness Bryn Harris all lodging freedom of speech complaints under the scheme the day the Bill passes? Nothing. As it is written, they are all eligible for it, even though some date back to—I am trying to recall the earliest I can recall—2013 or 2015, and certainly before the five years we propose.

The second consequence is the effect on administrative justice. Could the Bill, as written, introduce an element of retrospective administrative decision making? Given that the legislation is so clunky and full of holes, it is disappointing that we heard from only one lawyer. I am pleased that we put forward one, but I regret not putting forward a second in order to get a broad perspective on the Bill. I am sure that two lawyers would have picked the whole thing apart. However, Smita Jamdar from Shakespeare Martineau—the one lawyer we heard from—said,

“Until quite recently I would have been confident that, as a matter of rule of law, you could not retrospectively apply conditions in that way. However, I am less confident about that than I have been in the past. I think there are regulatory trends that say that people do sometimes try and retrospectively shift the goalposts.”

In such cases, judicial review could step in—or so the Minister may claim. However, Ms Jamdar said,

“Normally, you would then potentially be able to go for judicial review, and say that this is a decision that is in breach of public law principles, either because it is irrational or in some way procedurally flawed. However, under the Bill you would not have that right because you cannot challenge the decisions of the free speech champions.”––[Official Report, Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Public Bill Committee, 7 September 2021; c. 58, Q112.]

My colleagues and I will address the concept of appeals later, during the next grouping of amendments.

However, although it may be true that the scheme has the power to weed out some vexatious claimants, if “eligible persons” is expanded too broadly, it will be left to the Office for Students to sift through numerous complainants. That could have the effect of taking away resources from the operation of the scheme, undermining its effectiveness and therefore the purpose of the Bill.

We are still none the wiser about the scale of the operation under the Office for Students. How many people will it employ, and will they be full time? Will the director of free speech be full time? The chair of the Office for Students is not full time. How much of that director’s professional time will be devoted to this matter? How many people will they have within that, and at what budget? As it stands, we are concerned that the measure will open the floodgates. That is why, under amendment 37, we propose that the period should be limited to five years, counted from the date to which the claim relates.

Amendment 35 would allow only current students, members or staff of a provider to make a complaint to the Office for Students complaints scheme. A key aspect of the Bill is that it provides new routes of redress to individuals who have suffered loss as a result of a breach of the new freedom of speech duties. That includes where students have been expelled from courses or where staff members have been dismissed from their jobs. The amendment would prevent former students, members and members of staff accessing the new complaints scheme.

Of course, the duty will have been owed to such individuals while they were at the provider. In circumstances in which they have subsequently left the provider, however, it is also important that they are still able to access the complaints scheme. For example, we must ensure that, if a provider breaches its freedom of speech duties in a way that leads to a staff member leaving their role, that staff member is still able to access the complaints scheme, otherwise the Bill would be fundamentally undermined.

May I explore that a little further to understand that? Are we saying that the former Secretary of State could go back to the University of Bradford, a fabulous institution, which I was delighted to get the chance to visit, and say, “I had this particular issue” whatever number of years ago—I assume something like 15 years, but perhaps longer—would he be able to do so under the Bill as drafted?

The time limit refers to amendments 36 and 37, which I will proceed to, but indeed we are not setting a time limit. It would depend on what had happened and the facts that were available. It would be investigated. I am not convinced that getting into a speculative hypothetical will help today’s discussion.

Amendments 36 and 37 seek to impose on the face of the Bill a time limit of five years as to who may bring a complaint to the OfS complaints scheme. As drafted, proposed paragraph 5(2)(a) of new schedule 6A in clause 7 sets out that the complaints scheme

“may include provision that…complaints…must be referred under the scheme within”

a specific time frame. That reflects similar provisions in the Higher Education Act 2004, enabling the Office for the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education to set a time limit for its scheme. The OIA only considers complaints made within 12 months of the date that a higher education provider told the students of its final decision. That is considerably shorter than the five years in the suggested amendments. To refer back to the point made by the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington, that needs to be decided by the director and in the guidance and regulations. We are not setting out a timeframe in the Bill. That would come in the detail.

May I clarify whether a time limit will be set out, if not in the Bill, in the guidance produced later?

To clarify, in the Bill there is no time limit, but our full expectation is that there will be one in accordance with precedent, such as that of the OIA. There will be a reasonable time limit, set in conjunction with the voices that have been heard, of the sector and of the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington, who made his suggestion today. Accordingly, when the OfS sets out the details of the complaints scheme, it will be able to set an appropriate time limit. It is not necessary to set that out on the face of the Bill, as I have stated.

I hear what the Minister has said and I absolutely take her at her word. I therefore very much look forward to seeing that specified in the guidance. So, there will be a time limit, otherwise there will be an almighty problem, not just for universities and student unions, but for the OfS. It could become a ridiculous situation. Given what has happened with claims in Northern Ireland and elsewhere, for example, as the Government have sought to introduce limits there, I imagine some consistency from them in applying a limit here. Will the Minister confirm whether she is considering amendment 35—likewise amendment 36—for inclusion in the Bill, rather than letting the matter be dealt with in guidance, otherwise we will press it to a vote?

Amendment 35 would seek to allow only current students, members and staff of a provider to make a complaint, which would rule out those who had been expelled or lost their job as a result of free speech so, absolutely, we will not consider it for inclusion.

I hear the Minister. I take on board her comments on amendment 37. The matter will be considered and the result issued in guidance. However, we will press amendments 35 and 36 to a vote.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

Amendments made: 10, in clause 7, page 8, line 21, after “provider” insert—

“or constituent institution (as the case may be)”.—(Michelle Donelan.)

See explanatory statement to Amendment 8.

Amendment 11, in clause 7, page 8, line 23, after “provider” insert—

“or constituent institution (as the case may be)”.—(Michelle Donelan.)

See explanatory statement to Amendment 8.

Ordered, That further consideration be now adjourned. —(Michael Tomlinson.)

Adjourned till Wednesday 22 September at twenty-five minutes past Nine o’clock.