Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill (Eleventh 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
Wednesday 22 September 2021
[Sir Christopher Chope in the Chair]
Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill
Amendment proposed: 36, in clause 7, page 8, line 24, leave out “at any time”.—(Matt Western.)
See the explanatory statement for Amendment 37.
Question put, That the amendment be made.
Amendments made: 12, in clause 7, page 8, leave out lines 40 to 42 and insert—
“(i) a student of the provider, or
(ii) a member or member of staff of the provider or of any of its constituent institutions, or”.
See explanatory statement to Amendment 8.
Amendment 13, in clause 7, page 9, line 6, after “provider” insert “or constituent institution”.
See explanatory statement to Amendment 8.
Amendment 14, in clause 7, page 9, line 18, after “provider” insert “, constituent institution”.—(Michelle Donelan.)
See explanatory statement to Amendment 8.
I beg to move amendment 38, in clause 7, page 9, line 27, at end insert—
“(e) A free speech complaint is not to be referred to the OfS under the scheme if a complaint relating to the same subject-matter is being, or has been, dealt with by the Office of the Independent Adjudicator.”
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment 39, in clause 7, page 9, line 37, at end insert—
“(1A) In reaching a decision under subsection (1)(a), the OfS must consider the other legal duties of governing bodies and students’ unions, such as but not limited to those under the Equalities Act 2010 and section 26 of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015.”
This amendment would require the OfS to consider other legal duties incumbent on higher education providers and students’ unions when reaching a decision as to the extent to which a free speech complaint is justified.
Amendment 40, in clause 7, page 9, line 42, after “may” insert—
“issue guidance, give a warning or”.
This amendment would allow the OfS to issue guidance or give a warning, instead of a recommendation, to governing bodies or students’ unions against which a complaint has been upheld.
Amendment 41, in clause 7, page 10, line 2, at end insert—
“(2A) In assessing whether to issue guidance, give a warning or make a recommendation, the OfS must consider the seriousness of the free speech complaint and whether the governing body or students’ union to which the complaint relates has repeatedly breached its freedom of speech duty.”
This amendment would require the OfS to gradate the penalty it issues to a governing body or students’ union according to the seriousness of the complaint that has been upheld against it.
Amendment 42, in clause 7, page 10, line 21, at end insert—
“(8A) The scheme must provide an appeals process for governing bodies and students’ unions that have had free speech complaints upheld against them.”
This amendment would require the free speech complaints scheme to have an appeals process for higher education providers and students’ unions.
New clause 8—Guidance on making a complaint—
“(1) Notwithstanding clause 11, this Act cannot come into force until the Secretary of State publishes guidance for students, university staff, and others setting out which complaint route each should pursue, through which regulatory bodies, and in which order, when making a complaint relating to freedom of speech.”
This new clause would ensure that those engaging with universities knew which was the appropriate route to make complaints in the first instance, and how to escalate the process should that be necessary.
Clause, as amended, stand part.
It is a pleasure to see you back in the Chair, Sir Christopher.
The amendments collectively address the issues of duplication and confusion we see in the complaints process and identify what we regard as an essential matter, which is the serious omission from the Bill of an appeals process. Our proposals are designed to clarify certain points.
Amendment 38 is designed principally to clarify the relationship between the Office for Students and the Office of the Independent Adjudicator, the ombudsman. In the witness sessions, I asked the chief executive of the Office for Students, Nicola Dandridge, whether she could imagine any situations in which one body or individual might go to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator and another to the Office for Students, and how that might be reconciled. She replied:
“That is exactly the sort of thing that we need to make clear. I do not see that that is an insuperable problem. We just need to make sure that we have sorted it out and that there is clarity for everyone involved.”––[Official Report, Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Public Bill Committee, 13 September 2021; c. 111, Q237.]
That is one of those answers that we sometimes get, where there are a couple of double negatives and we are left wondering how nuanced a particular point is. In an online comment, Jim Dickinson of Wonkhe said that is not good enough and that we cannot informally discuss how to arrange the relationship when in the Bill itself there is no provision to lay out the framework. That is the root of the problem: the lack of clarity between both bodies is a serious structural issue in the Bill, which therefore needs structural modification.
We have the prospect of what I understand in legal terms is referred to as res judicata issues, which is the possibility of a case having already been decided if the same aspects apply. In its own impact assessment, the Department for Education said that in its cost-benefit analysis, one of the costs of the implementation of the complaints scheme was the cost to students of not knowing which route to go. During a meeting I had a while back with the University Alliance, it stressed that there was serious confusion between the responsibilities of the OIA and the OfS. The Universities UK advisory board has also said that the Bill could duplicate the existing complaints system of the OIA.
The OIA itself says:
“We remain concerned that having two complaints schemes for student complaints, with overlapping but not identical remits, is very likely to cause confusion and put additional pressure on students having to choose where to take their complaint about freedom of speech issues.”
“We are concerned that creating a second complaint route with overlapping, but not identical remits, will be confusing for students and add complexity for higher education providers as well as students’ unions and other student representative bodies advising students.”
We have the situation where it is possible for an incident to result in some individuals complaining to the OfS, others complaining to the OIA about the same incident and both receiving a different remedy, depending on the context of the complaint. In the case of David Palmer, a Catholic chaplain at the University of Nottingham, the student could go to the OIA, and David Palmer could go to the scheme. It was the same issue: two bodies, two remedies. That leads to an administrative nightmare.
Amendment 39 would require institutions to balance out other legal duties in the assessment of free speech complaints. Danny Stone of the Antisemitism Policy Trust told us:
“The Prevent guidance that followed talked about freedom of speech and moral obligations to address harms. We have seen it in Government guidance from 2008 about free speech, which said that everyone can be safe and not intimidated at university. In fact, the human rights memorandum for this Bill says that there will be competing freedoms, but it suggests leaving it to the end point: the universities. You have heard from people today who say, “Well, the universities aren’t getting it right.” My view is that it should be on the face of the Bill”.––[Official Report, Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Public Bill Committee, 13 September 2021; c. 129, Q283.]
Even the former Education Secretary, the right hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Gavin Williamson), said:
“the right to lawful free speech will remain balanced by the important safeguards against harassment, abuse and threats of violence as set out in the Equality Act 2010, the Prevent duty and other legislation, none of which we are changing.”—[Official Report, 12 July 2021; Vol. 699, c. 49.]
I accept that those duties already exist, but why not make it clear in the Bill that they interact with freedom of speech issues?
I can answer that question quite swiftly. We cannot get into the business of listing every single law in every Bill. The Bill, as the hon. Gentleman will recognise, does not supersede, contradict or replace existing law in relation to the Prevent duty—which is not a law, actually—or the Equality Act 2010. It is quite simple: we cannot get into the practice of having legislation where we list every other law on the face of each Bill.
I think it is important that there are references to other legislation in the Bill. Such elements are critical to the foundation of a freedom of speech Bill.
Amendment 40 would allow the scheme to result in a warning rather than a recommendation or a fine. This is about recognising that in most, if not all, cases, there is a fine line. It would allow universities to make judgment calls that were wrong and give them room to change their mind, rather than leap towards fines. We heard, for example, from Bryn Harris, who commented on how to balance
“the potential conflict that we were talking about, between the Equality Act”—
harassment provisions “and this Bill”, which would have to
“have guidance to help universities navigate this very fine line.”––[Official Report, Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Public Bill Committee, 7 September 2021; c. 80, Q168.]
Hand in hand with the guidance—not mandatory—is warnings, or gentle persuasion. The vice president of the National Union of Students, Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, said that it is
“really concerning, such as measures under which people could get monetary sanctions for breaches of freedom of speech. Not only will that involve lots of bureaucracy for universities and student unions to make sure they are complying with the Bill, but it will take away from their ability to freely and fairly facilitate freedom of speech on campus.”––[Official Report, Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Public Bill Committee, 13 September 2021; c. 128, Q281.]
That, of course, will have a disproportionate impact on smaller institutions, as we have heard. We have repeatedly made the point about the smaller institutions, typically higher education bodies, but also further education colleges, that were not consulted at all in the drawing up of the legislation.
It is a shame that the evidence from the Association of Colleges came late. I want to draw Members’ attention to it. I said previously that the provision would apply to 170 FE colleages, and in its evidence the AOC gives the number as 169. It states that if the Government are able to exempt junior common rooms from the legislation, they should be able to exempt FE colleges, as there is no evidence of issues relating to freedom of speech in any FE college. As my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown has already mentioned, FE colleges are additionally regulated by Ofsted.
It is indeed surprising and disappointing, if not a failure of the process, that the further education colleges were not consulted. That point has been made clear and loud by the Association of Colleges, which feels alienated from this process, yet it will bear the same burdens as higher education institutions.
Turning to amendment 42, it is vital to include an appeals process. Appealing an administrative or judicial decision is the hallmark of any liberal democracy. The existing process overseen by the Office of the Independent Adjudicator does have an appeals process, but revealingly the Bill promises none. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle put that point to the only lawyer that we heard from in oral evidence, Smita Jamdar of Shakespeare Martineau. My hon. Friend asked her whether she was
“supportive of the idea of the right to appeal decisions made by the freedom of speech director, as submitted from Universities UK”,
to whch Ms Jamdar replied:
“Absolutely. As I alluded to earlier, my concern about having a stop at the OfS is that that individual may be required to interpret law, so they may well be required to decide if something is defamatory, harassment, contrary to the Equality Act or potentially a public order offence. I find the idea that those legal judgments cannot then be appealed to the people who are actually able to make legal judgments really quite worrying.”––[Official Report, Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Public Bill Committee, 7 September 2021; c. 57, Q111.]
Both the OIA and Universities UK highlighted the fact that in the Bill the Government are proposing a director of freedom of speech who is judge and jury in decisions on universities, and there is no right to appeal. Professor Paul Layzell from Universities UK picked up that point when he said, in what I think was a masterly understatement:
“I think we would have a concern.”––[Official Report, Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Public Bill Committee, 13 September 2021; c. 126, Q276.]
The OIA has an appeals process. Why does the OfS not have one or one that will be included in the Bill? Universities UK says there would be
“no right to appeal an OfS decision.”
It says that if there were a decision that a university student union felt was genuinely unfair, it would be forced to implement it, irrespective of whether it felt there was a right of reply. UUK underscored the fact that existing routes, such as the OIA, have an appeals mechanism. UUK feels that this is absolutely appropriate, and such a mechanism must be brought into the OfS scheme as well.
New clause 8, which stands in my name and that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington, has become significantly more relevant since we tabled it. The Minister has consistently referred to guidance in her replies to more or less all of our amendments. Now, she has the chance to let us see that guidance before the Bill is put in the statute book. We urge that that guidance be made available, before Report and certainly before the Bill passes into law.
We are not the only ones who want to see that in legislation. I recall Professor Stock’s comment:
“The Bill is quite vague, so it is going to need a lot of guidance, concrete examples and accompanying notes.”––[Official Report, Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Public Bill Committee, 7 September 2021; c. 6, Q3.]
In his testimony, Dr Ahmed said:
“With regard to tension with other legislation, I suspect there might well be tension with the Equality Act and difficult decisions to make about a breach of the duty to promote freedom of speech versus the duties imposed under the Equality Act, so I think there are issues that guidance should be able to sort out with regard to what counts.”––[Official Report, Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Public Bill Committee, 7 September 2021; c. 18, Q31.]
If the relationship between the duties in this Bill and the Equality Act 2010 are to be decided in guidance, as Dr Ahmed suggests, surely we have to see the guidance before the Bill is enacted. The force of the Equality Act 2010 could be undermined through the backdoor, with no parliamentary scrutiny. As Smita Jamdar said:
“I would have thought that one of the most useful things the OfS could do is give the guidance, and look at this through its regulatory lens.”––[Official Report, Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Public Bill Committee, 7 September 2021; c. 58, Q113.]
As I have said repeatedly, we need to see guidance on this before Report or, at the very latest, before the Bill receives Royal Assent. All these amendments tighten up the legislation, reduce or delete duplication and confusion, and underline the importance of an appeals process for all bodies, so that they can challenge any ruling from the OfS director of free speech.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir Christopher. I have to correct the record on the number of FE colleges affected. I originally said 170, then I said 167, but for the record this relates to 165 FE colleges.
My hon. Friend talked about amendment 39 and the reason we want to set out in the Bill the different pieces of legislation that could have an impact on free speech. The oral evidence we heard shows that there is confusion about how the Bill will interact with existing legislation.
UUK asks that the Government
“clearly outline how this Bill will interact with existing legislation and other duties which relate to free speech and academic freedom”.
Sheffield Hallam submits that:
“the Bill would set a higher standard for freedom of speech expectations, with consequent potential difficulties in relation to the 1986 Education Act, the 1998 Human Rights Act and the 2010 Equality Act.”
There is a lot of confusion about how the different pieces of legislation will fit together. I accept that my amendment might not be perfect in resolving that confusion, but that is the purpose behind it, so I hope that when the Minister replies she will acknowledge that the reason for tabling it was to offer some clarity to universities. How do they balance existing legislation with this new piece of legislation, which is meant to give freedom of speech?
Graduated sanctions are fairly standard practice in most situations for most organisations. Anyone familiar with employment law will understand that someone gets a written warning and then perhaps a final written warning—there are stages to go through before reaching the final sanction. That is what graded sanctions are about. At the moment, the OfS has only one option, which is to enforce compliance through monetary penalties. Many times we have discussed the different sizes of student unions and their different capabilities and amount of resource behind them. For a smaller student union, perhaps with only one or two full-time members of staff, surely there could be some form of graduated sanction, before moving into the heavy-handed fining system proposed. That is what we want to look at—the guidance and support before we reach sanctions.
As a primary school teacher, I like to think that I have some knowledge of the best way to ensure that people behave and work together well. As every good parent knows as well, we encourage and support before we reach, “You’re going to bed,” or, “You’re grounded.” The amendment is about putting in some reasonable steps before getting to the final stage.
My hon. Friend is explaining exactly what Trevor Phillips described. He said that a regulator does not go to the final fine or nth degree immediately; it works with, issues guidelines or goes in to provide support, and sometimes that is compulsory. The amendment would provide for what our witnesses said needs to happen.
The University of Cambridge submitted:
“A range of sanctions would allow for interventions which are more proportionate to the facts of individual cases, recognizing that some cases are more likely than others to constitute evidence of repeat or serious breaches of duty.”
Professor Kathleen Stock said:
“This legislation says that there should be a positive duty to promote academic culture. That could be a very positive, forward-looking initiative; it does not have to be heavy-handed, although obviously it has the capacity to be punitive. But there is also the dimension of encouraging universities to examine what the value is of academic freedom”.––[Official Report, Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Public Bill Committee, 7 September 2021; c. 7, Q6.]
As my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown mentioned: lots of witnesses said that we do not have to move straight to fines; there can be a range of sanctions.
A more concrete example of a good approach to graduated sanctions is that of the Advertising Standards Authority. It focuses on guidance before punitive action. Its website states:
“The vast majority of advertisers and broadcasters agree to follow ASA rulings and for those that are having difficulty doing so, rather than punish them, our aim is to work with them to help them stick to the Advertising Codes. However, for the small minority of advertisers who are either unable or unwilling to work with us, some of the sanctions at our disposal can have negative consequences.”
That is one example of a regulator encouraging and supporting before moving to punitive sanctions. The amendment, too, is saying, “Let’s have a look at a range of options.”
Regarding the appeals process, it is slightly bonkers—my right hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington pointed this out to me the other day, which made me chuckle—that we have more rights to appeal a parking ticket than a decision of the director for freedom of speech. If people get a parking ticket, they can make an informal appeal to the council, giving evidence and an argument as to why the ticket should not have been issued, but with the director for free speech there is no appeals process. That is slightly silly.
Most systems and organisations, such as Ofsted or the OIA, allow some form of appeals process—some way of going back to them to say, “I would like to appeal the decision. I don’t think you saw this piece of evidence.” Generally, with most regulators, an attempt at some form of appeal is involved, bringing it into line with existing practice. The amendments are sensible and straightforward. They would give people the right to appeal and provide for graduated sanctions, and I hope the Minister will accept them.
New clause 8 is a simple request to the Minister to issue some form of guidance about the relevant route for appeals before the legislation comes into force. I think it is quite significant. We are introducing a complex system of complaints and processes, as well as the potential for civil action. It is not much to ask that we get absolute clarity, so that those who will implement the legislation or be the victims of it know how the complaints system will work. I would welcome a commitment from the Minister that we could take to the Floor of the House to reassure people.
With regard to the issue about the rush to sanction, my only comment is that we are dealing with a pretty contentious area, where an element of mediation might resolve most of the problems. Previous progressive equalities legislation that some people have initially opposed has not involved heavy sanctions. In the main, the results have been resolution and progress through a process of education, engagement, mediation and resolution. I think the rush towards sanction will undermine the ability to mediate.
I apologise, Sir Christopher, for not being here at the outset. I always take the opportunity to declare my interests in the Register of Members’ Financial Interested. I am interested particularly in the University of Bolton.
Mediation would be an option available to the director. When the director receives a complaint or identifies a problem, I have no doubt that he will have at his disposal a range of mechanisms for dealing with it. This is not an either/or; it will depend on the severity of the problem, and sanctions will occur only where the matter is not dealt with satisfactorily. I do not think it is an either/or.
It would be helpful if we got on the record from the Minister the process that the Government envisage the director undertaking. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that it is not an either/or, but let us make that explicit on the face of the Bill. If we can get a statement from the Minister to that effect, I will be happy.
I use the example of a parking ticket, but even with a speeding fine—I admit nothing—there is the offer of going on a course to address speeding behaviour. We are not even building that into the Bill. I would welcome the Minister making a statement that she expects the director to undertake that process of engagement, mediation and warning before arriving at a sanction, which could be counterproductive to that process of engagement.
Amendment 38 seeks to ensure that a complaint cannot be made to the new OfS complaints scheme if a complaint relating to the same subject matter is being or has been dealt with by the OIA. Proposed new schedule 6A to the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 enables the OfS to design the scheme. We expect it to provide that a free speech complaint is not to be referred to the OfS if a complaint relating to the same subject matter is being or has been dealt with under the student complaints scheme of the OfS. This is stated in sub-paragraph (2)(d) of paragraph 5 of schedule 6A to the Higher Education and Research Act 2017. I hope that reassures Members that this provision is already present in the Bill.
Amendment 39 seeks to set out on the face of the Bill that the OfS will have to consider the other legal duties placed on a higher education providers and student unions when making their decisions under the complaints scheme. Under clause 7, we fully expect the OfS to make a decision under the new complaints scheme as to whether an individual has suffered adverse consequences as a result of a breach of freedom of speech duties set out in proposed new sections A1 and A4 of the 2017 Act, as found in clauses 1 and 2 respectively. Those provisions are clear that the duty is to take “reasonably practicable” steps to secure freedom of speech.
The Bill does not say that the freedom of speech duties override other duties, and so it must be read consistently with other legislation. Let me be clear also that it would not be reasonably practicable for a provider or student union to act in a way that meant it was in breach of its other legal duties. Accordingly, when the OfS considers whether there has been a breach of freedom of speech duties, it will already have to consider all the circumstances, including other legal duties on the provider or the student union. I am grateful to be able to clarify this important point, and I hope that that reassures Members that the Bill does not override existing legal duties set out in the Equality Act 2010 or those under the Prevent duty.
Amendment 40 seeks to provide that when the OfS finds a complaint to be justified, it can issue guidance or a warning, not just a recommendation. Amendment 41 would require the OfS to take into account the seriousness of the complaint, as well as whether the provider or student union had repeatedly breached the freedom of speech duties. Paragraph 7(1) of proposed new schedule 6A to the Higher Education and Research Act 2017, as set out in clause 7, provides that the OfS “may make a recommendation” to a provider or student union where it considers a complaint to be wholly or partially justified. “Recommendation” is defined in paragraph 7(3) as a recommendation
“to do anything specified…or…to refrain from doing anything specified”,
and it may include a recommendation for the payment of compensation. To be clear, the OfS is not required to recommend the payment of compensation as part of its decision. However, where an individual has suffered adverse consequences as a result of the breach of these duties, it may be appropriate to do so.
In respect of the aims of amendment 40, the current drafting of the Bill gives the OfS sufficient flexibility to recommend to the provider or the student union that it should review its internal processes to ensure that they are fit for purpose, or that it should provide additional training to staff members. The OfS does not have to introduce penalties. A recommendation can cover any aspect that is relevant to the complaint, and in that sense it could be considered similar to providing guidance, or indeed a warning, on compliance with the freedom of speech duties in the future.
On amendment 41, as a matter of good decision making and the principles of public law, the OfS will need to take into account all relevant considerations when making decisions on complaints. This means that issues such as the seriousness of the complaint, and whether the provider or student union was repeatedly at fault, can be considered. The Bill provides for the OfS to set up the complaints scheme. The scheme must include certain provisions and may include others, as set out in the Bill. The OfS will be responsible for developing the finer detail of the scheme, and the Government expect that that will be done in thorough consultation with the sector and wider stakeholders.
I should have waited an extra moment, because I think the Minister just answered my question, which was about who else would be involved in the consultation. She mentioned wider stakeholders. Will she clarify whether that includes the National Union of Students?
Absolutely; we would expect the OfS to consult the NUS, as well as additional student unions and student representative bodies, to ensure that it hears a comprehensive range of views when developing the guidance. That will ensure that the details of the scheme can be developed as appropriate, as it would not be appropriate for primary legislation to set out every aspect of the detail. That is similar to how the complaints scheme operated for the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education when it was established. The structure of the complaints scheme was set out in the Higher Education Act 2004, but its details were developed subsequently. I hope that that reassures Members that the Bill as drafted ensures that justified freedom of speech complaints can be dealt with by the OfS in the way that is most appropriate to each individual case.
Amendment 42 would allow higher education providers and student unions to appeal against a decision of the OfS under the complaints scheme. Clause 7 provides that the OfS may make a recommendation where a freedom of speech complaint is found to be wholly or partially justified. That gives rise to recommendations that are not legally binding, although of course we expect providers and student unions to comply. That is in line with many other redress schemes, including the scheme operated by the Office of the Independent Adjudicator, against whose recommendations there is no right to appeal. I think there is a little bit of confusion about that in the Committee, but I hope that I have clarified that on the record. As the recommendations are not binding on a provider or an student union, it is not necessary for there to be a route of appeal, because they are not legally required to comply.
In a case of non-compliance, of course, the complainant would have the option of bringing proceedings before the court via the new statutory tort. In doing so, the decision of the OfS in its complaints scheme, including reasons for the decision, will be part of the evidence put before the court. The approach of the complaints scheme is “distinct from” where a legally binding sanction is imposed on a provider by the OfS as a result of a breach of one of its registration conditions.
I thank the Minister for that point about the OIA, but the OIA website states:
“A student or provider may ask us to consider reopening our review if they have new evidence that could not have been given to us earlier or think there is an error in the Complaint Outcome… Requests must be made within 28 days of the date of the Complaint Outcome or Recommendations.”
That sounds awfully like an appeals process.
There is no formal right of appeal. If a provider or student felt that there was a factual error, of course that would be outlined in the guidance by the OfS director in relation to this Bill as well.
In the case of a monetary penalty, which is something that hon. Members have raised multiple times, there is a right of appeal set out in schedule 3 to the 2017 Act. That will be available if a monetary penalty is imposed because of a breach of the new freedom of speech registration conditions in clause 5 of the Bill.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for drawing attention to the connection between this legislation and existing provisions. In the guardian of free speech’s dutiful determination to preserve that freedom, it is right that the watchdog barks before it bites. Equally, however, and as with some of the examples given in evidence by Professor Kaufmann, Professor Goodwin, Dr Ahmed and Professor Biggar, it seems to me that there has to be a righteous severity in the cases of those who cajole, bully, intimidate and cause fear across our universities, for that is exactly what is happening.
I absolutely agree with my right hon. Friend, which is exactly why we are bringing forward this legislation, which really will have teeth to tackle the issue at hand.
I hope that hon. Members are reassured that for binding decisions made by the OfS there is already a route of appeal in place, and that it is not necessary to have a route of appeal against non-binding recommendations.
New clause 8 would require the Secretary of State to publish guidance before the Act comes into force, setting out which complaints routes to use and in which order. The Bill provides for two new specific routes for redress: a complaints scheme operated by the OfS and a statutory tort. These replace what is currently available for breach of section 43 of the Education (No. 2) Act 1986, which is judicial review, giving the duties real teeth. These new complaint routes will be available in addition to other possible complaint routes, depending on the circumstances for students: the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for higher education and the employment tribunal for employees.
It is of course important that individuals are well informed about the most appropriate route for their complaint. For example, in certain cases a student may decide to go to the OIA rather than the OfS, for instance where freedom of speech is only a small part of their complaint. That is because the OfS will be able to make recommendations only on the free speech element of the complaint. The OIA and the OfS currently already work together in a variety of ways, and the Government will work with them to ensure that these processes are clear and accessible, so that students understand their options and both schemes are free of charge.
It is important to note that proposed new schedule 6A to 2017 Act, as set out in clause 7, will allow the OfS to provide in the scheme that it will not consider complaints where the same subject matter is being, or has been, dealt with by the OIA. A similar provision will apply the other way around, so the OIA will not consider complaints already dealt with by the OfS. As for the use of the tort proceedings, the Government expect that in most cases this will be used only as a last resort, as the Committee has already discussed, noting the availability of free routes of seeking redress.
Finally, it is likely that employment cases will be appropriate for those who have had employment disputes where there might be a number of employment-related issues to consider, not just academic freedom. The tribunal will be able to consider the question of academic freedom and alleged breached of the duty in this context, although the Bill does not give them jurisdiction to hear freedom of speech cases. New schedule 6A will enable the OfS to provide in a scheme that it will not consider complaints where the same subject matter is being, or has been, dealt with by a court or tribunal.
Now that I have made clear what each complaint route does and who they will be suitable for, I note that the main provisions of the Bill will not come into force until the day set by the regulations. One of the reasons for that is to allow time for the OfS to develop the new complaints scheme and draft comprehensive guidance, including guidance on the new complaints scheme, and consult as appropriate.
I hope hon. Members are reassured that the Government will work with the OfS to ensure that clear guidance is in place before the duties in the Bill come into force and the new complaints scheme and the tort become available. This will ensure that individuals are aware of their various options when seeking to bring a freedom of speech-related complaint.
The strengthened freedom of speech duties set out in clauses 1 and 2 will ensure that higher education providers and student unions are under clear legal obligations to take steps to secure lawful freedom of speech and academic freedom. Nevertheless, it is important that individuals can access a route to raise complaints where they have suffered a loss as a result of a breach of those duties.
Clause 7 ensures that by providing for the establishment of a new complaints scheme within the Office for Students for complaints relating to a breach of the new freedom of speech duties. This will operate alongside the complaints scheme run by the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education, a scheme for students with complaints against their provider.
The OfS complaints scheme will provide an accessible, free route for individuals to bring freedom of speech and academic freedom-related complaints against a higher education provider or student union where they have suffered adverse consequences as the result of a breach of duties in new sections A1 and A4 respectively. The scheme will be overseen, as we have talked about extensively, by the new director for freedom of speech and academic freedom.
The scheme will be available for those to whom duties are owed under new sections A1 and A4—students, members, staff and visiting speakers—which will significantly extend access to redress in terms of freedom of speech and academic freedom cases. There is currently no similar route for anyone other than students to bring complaints against their provider.
I know it was not strictly in our amendments, but I hope that before the Minister sits down she will respond to the points made about the inclusion of further education colleges, and how all this relates to the 165 further education colleges that are registered as higher education providers.
To respond directly to the hon. Lady’s point, we think it is right that FE colleges are in scope within the Bill. They are already regulated by the OfS when they put on courses of higher education, so this is not a change for them. They are already subject to working with that regulator, as well as Ofsted and so on. It is right that we ensure that this provision is comprehensive and that we protect freedom of speech for students who are studying higher education in further education settings as well as those studying in higher education settings.
Students will continue to be able to raise complaints with the OIA, but will also benefit from the new complaints scheme in the OfS. Students will have the option to raise freedom of speech and academic freedom-related complaints via the OfS scheme, or to raise their complaint with the OIA, as they can now. Where a complaint has been found to be wholly or partially justified, the OfS will be able to make a recommendation to the higher education provider or student union, which could include a recommendation to pay a specified sum in compensation or, for example, a recommendation to reinstate a complainant’s job or place on a course.
Without this new complaints scheme, staff in the higher education sector and visiting speakers would have no access to a cost-free route to seek redress against a provider, and there would be no way to complain about the student union. This clause provides a free complaints route to individuals, whether higher education staff, students, academics or visiting speakers, to seek redress for an improper restriction of their lawful free speech. The scheme will ensure an accessible route to individual redress that is backed up by new, strengthened duties provided in this Bill.
So much of what is being promised will be guidance or provided in due course by the OfS, but it is far from concrete in the way the witnesses asked for. I am surprised and disappointed that the Minister has still not made one reference in the entire time this Committee has been sitting to the Charity Commission and the role it will have in this system. It is far from clear how the OIA and the OfS will work. I appreciate that it has been said there will be some guidance on that, but as we have said throughout, there is a duplication here that will be extremely hard for people to navigate way through.
My right hon. Friend expresses the nature of the problem: it is as clear as mud. It will be impossible for most students to navigate their way through this, and that may be a major part of the problem.
I have taken on board some of the Minister’s comments on our amendments. However, I really think the appeals process should be written into the legislation at this stage, and therefore we wish to press amendment 42 and new clause 8 to a vote. This part of the Bill is clearly important, but there is so little clarity about how it will work in practice. It must therefore be a real concern to all of us. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Amendments made: 15, in clause 7, page 10, line 29, after “provider” insert
“, a constituent institution of such a provider”.
See explanatory statement to Amendment 8.
Amendment 16, in clause 7, page 10, line 32, after “provider” insert
“, a constituent institution”.—(Michelle Donelan.)
See explanatory statement to Amendment 8.
Amendment proposed: 42, in clause 7, page 10, line 21, at end insert—
“(8A) The scheme must provide an appeals process for governing bodies and students’ unions that have had free speech complaints upheld against them.”—(Matt Western.)
This amendment would require the free speech complaints scheme to have an appeals process for higher education providers and students’ unions.
Question put, That the amendment be made.
Clause 7, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Director for Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom
With this it will be convenient to discuss new clause 7—Independent Advisory Body to advise the Director and OfS on the operation of the scheme—
“(1) Following the passing of this Act, the Secretary of State shall establish an independent advisory body (IAB) to give independent advice to the Director and OfS on the operation of the Act.
(2) The independent advisory body shall comprise of representatives of Universities UK, the Universities and Colleges Union and the National Union of Students.
(3) The advice of IAB shall be public except where mutually agreed by the Director and the IAB.”
This new clause would establish an advisory body of representative bodies within the sector to advise the Director and the OfS.
We come to the responsibilities of the director for freedom of speech. Amendment 78 simply seeks to ensure that one of the director’s roles is to report on the OfS’s free speech functions to a representative sample of sector bodies—something that we believe is vital. We heard from the witnesses in the evidence sessions about the potential power that the director could have. English PEN raised concerns about whether the director will be an adjudicator, a regulator or an advocate—it is not clear. Given that they will have such wide-ranging powers, it is surely only right that their reports are shared as widely and with as many stakeholders as possible.
This amendment is about collaboration—not a top-down approach, but a sector-wide, collaborative approach. Although I do not believe the post is needed, Trevor Phillips said in his evidence:
“The important point about this post is that he or she should be a protector of the freedom of expression of students and academics”.––[Official Report, Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Public Bill Committee, 7 September 2021; c. 21, Q39.]
How can one be a protector of the freedom of expression of students and academics without involving sector-wide bodies that represent those concerned?
New clause 7 seeks to ensure that the director is advised by an independent advisory board comprising representatives from each of the sector bodies. My right hon. Friend the Member for North Durham repeatedly alerted us to his concerns that the director could be used as a prop by an extremist Government—of any persuasion, as he made clear—to alter the parameters of the right to freedom of speech and academic freedom. Smita Jamdar raised concerns that retrospective administrative decision making and application is already on the rise.
The new clause is about ensuring greater protection for freedom of speech and academic freedom, and holding the director accountable to the advice they receive. It is vital that the board be made up of the constituent parts of the sector because of their value and expertise, and because they are on the ground, facing the reality of how this will work in practice. I hope the Government are attracted to this very progressive new clause and accept it. Since they have voted against our amendment to ensure that an appeals process is written into the Bill, the buck will now stop with the director. As we have said throughout, this is a dangerous centralisation of power in an individual. Professor Kaufmann said that the appointment would inevitably be political, and it is likely, as others have said, that this person will be partial to certain perspectives. This incredibly influential and powerful individual may not necessarily have the interests of all at heart when they decide on cases and incidents on our campuses.
Surely, stakeholder engagement is vital if this problematic Bill is to become effective on our campuses and in the higher education sector. One of the problems with the Bill, and one reason why it contains so many issues and loopholes, is that there has not been enough stakeholder engagement over the past 18 to 24 months. Here is an opportunity to amend the Bill to establish an advisory board of sector bodies to help the direction of the director for free speech.
New clause 7 outlines that that board could comprise Universities UK, the University and College Union and the National Union of Students. Any advice that the independent advisory board comes up with should be made public, because there should be the utmost transparency in the operation of the board and the delivery of its advice. That should be agreed between the director and the board.
In my view, this issue will evolve over time. Some of the issues that are contentious today may not be in the future, and some issues that we cannot foresee at the moment may well become contentious. On that basis, the director is going to be in a difficult position unless there is a strong network of advice provided to him or her. Amendment 78 would establish in the Bill the independence of that advice and the inclusiveness of the range of bodies from which the director will receive advice. As I have said, this is a bad Bill, but if it is going to go through, this provision would give confidence to those who implement or respond to the legislation.
In some ways, I feel for the director, because their position is vulnerable and they could be the butt of a lot of contentious debates. Having an advisory body provides a buffer—protection for that individual against being targeted in relation to key decisions. It is much better for the director to arrive at a decision having consulted a range of independent bodies. I am convinced that there will be an element of consensus about the implementation of most of the legislation, but when it comes to this issue, one needs advice from those at the coalface who are dealing with this on a day-to-day basis. Amendment 78 would make that possible.
I am sure that, as the Minister has said, the director will want to engage in those discussions. However, including in the Bill this provision for a more formal body, the independence of which is guaranteed in legislation, would strengthen the advice and therefore give the director much more authority. The amendment is designed to enable the whole system to evolve over time in response to the challenges that emerge. Some issues relating to freedom of speech that we would not even have discussed 10, 15 or 20 years ago have evolved into contentious matters. The only people who can advise us on that are those who deliver the legislation.
Most of the witnesses did not want their role to be simply that of a one-off witness to the Committee; they had an ongoing interest, and they wanted to continue to engage through their professional bodies or institutions. Amendment would 78 give them the opportunity to do so with guaranteed independence and an element of authority, working alongside the director. I see the amendment as constructive, and I hope the Government will take it on board.
As we have heard, amendment 78 and new clause 7 seek to introduce an advisory board to work with the new director for freedom of speech and academic freedom and to advise the Office for Students on the operation of the Bill when it is enacted. Clause 8 provides that the director for freedom of speech and academic freedom will be responsible for overseeing the performance of the OfS free speech functions, including the monitoring and enforcement of free speech registration conditions, the new student union duties and the new complaints scheme.
As part of those responsibilities, the director will be responsible for reporting to the other members of the OfS on their performance of the OfS free speech functions. This reflects a similar provision in schedule 1 of the Higher Education and Research Act 2017, which makes the director for fair access and participation responsible for reporting to other members of the OfS on the performance of OfS access and participation functions.
With respect, the Bill brings the student unions under the direct control of the OfS, and, as it is, the student unions do not have a direct voice through the Office for Students. I accept the Minister’s comments so far, but can she explain how the NUS and students can feed into the director for freedom of speech?
When the new director is in place, they will produce comprehensive guidance in consultation with the sector, including student unions. I am confident that the individual who is awarded the position will be someone who listens and works collaboratively across the sector.
Not only will the measure ensure oversight of the role of the director for freedom of speech and academic freedom for the rest of the OfS board, but it will allow the OfS to better co-ordinate and monitor its free speech functions. It is, of course, important that the OfS should be held to account in the performance of its functions. That is one reason why paragraph 12 of proposed new schedule 6A, which clause 7 will insert into the Higher Education and Research Act 2017, will require that the OfS conduct a review of the complaints scheme or its operation and report the results of that review to the Secretary of State, where such a report is requested. The Secretary of State may also require the OfS to report in its annual report, or a special report, on matters relating to freedom of speech and academic freedom. That report must be laid before Parliament, as laid out in clause 4.
The Government expect that the OfS will consult widely, including with sector representatives, as I have made clear throughout the Committee, when developing the details of the complaints scheme, as well as on changes to the regulatory framework. There will be guidance to help providers and student unions to comply with their duties under clause 4, which specifically provides for the OfS to give advice to providers on good practice on the promotion of freedom of speech and academic freedom. It is important that the OfS works closely and effectively with the sector, including with student unions—freedom of speech is no different in that respect.
There is no need to set up the bureaucracy of a non-statutory advisory body, as suggested by the amendment. The OfS is independent of the Government, so to do so would simply duplicate its role as set out in the statute.
With the greatest respect, the Minister has just said that the OfS is independent of the Government, but the chair of the OfS is a Conservative peer, who was a Conservative Member of Parliament. We cannot say that the OfS is independent of the Government when we all know that its chair sits in the House of Lords and takes the Conservative party whip.
The hon. Member has made that point before. The chair of the OfS was appointed accordingly, and the director for freedom of speech and academic freedom will be as well. I hope that Members are reassured that the Bill already ensures the accountability of the director for freedom of speech and academic freedom, and the OfS itself.
This is a common-sense suggestion about engaging and involving the various sector bodies to assist the director. The director’s role will be a fairly lonely one, sat in a swanky office somewhere, and the amendment represents a constructive suggestion. As we have said from the start of proceedings on the Bill, we are trying to put forward ideas to mitigate some of the damage that the legislation may cause. Engaging those at the coalface, as my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle put it, who see how the measures play out in practice, will be really important.
I do not accept the Minister’s suggestion that the director for freedom of speech is going to be an independent person, or that the chair of the Office for Students is independent. People can make all sorts of suggestions about the process that was followed, but the Opposition has profound concerns, as most people do, about how that was pursued. We also have concerns about what will happen to the director for fair access and participation when that position is filled in a matter of weeks. It seems as though there is a siege mentality at the OfS, and a very determined attempt to centralise powers. I wish to press the amendment to a vote.
Question put, That the amendment be made.
I beg to move amendment 79, in clause 8, page 11, line 23, at end insert—
“(d) providing an annual update made available to students’ unions and higher education institutions on—
(i) the number and nature of complaints made to OfS regarding freedom of speech; and
(ii) examples of what OfS believes to constitute unacceptable infringements of freedom of speech as set out in this Act.”
This amendment would help monitor this impact of the legislation and assist student unions and higher education institutions to stay within the law as set out in the Act by providing examples of bad practice.
The amendment stands in my name and that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington. It simply seeks an annual update that would be made available to student unions and higher education providers to enable them to understand the nature and scale of the complaints being made to the OfS about freedom of speech, along with examples that the OfS believes to be infringements of freedom of speech as set out in the Act. The amendment seeks to address the undefinable nature of the so-called chilling effect and help institutions and others to navigate this tricky territory. As Dr Bryn Harris noted,
“one way to resolve the potential conflict that we were talking about, between the Equality Act and this Bill, would be to have guidance to help universities navigate this very fine line.”––[Official Report, Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Public Bill Committee, 7 September 2021; c. 80, Q169.]
Although the amendment does not relate to the guidance to be published by the OfS, it would inevitably form part of a wider subset of guidance that universities and student unions could look to to help them craft their codes of practice to try to make this work in reality—day to day, and week to week—on campus. That would, in turn, help student unions to reduce their budgets and the cost to their members, and it would help to reduce the costs for higher education providers as well, because they would be able to rely on what we imagine will be an expanding set of guidance examples. That is important because, as the Government’s own impact assessment states,
“SUs are the main affected groups that we expect to incur costs including: familiarisation costs; compliance costs: the direct costs of complying with the regulation and enforcement”.
My real concern is what the intended or unintended consequences of the legislation will be for the viability of our student unions. Irrespective of our political positions, we know that their vitality and viability is important to life on our university and further education campuses.
The amendment would also provide evidence of whether the Act was working. Thomas Simpson said in evidence:
“The test for success is in 10 years’ time, when it is more embedded.”––[Official Report, Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Public Bill Committee, 7 September 2021; c. 63, Q125.]
I am not sure we can wait that long. If it is to work—I do not believe it will—it needs to be effective immediately. We need to see some significant changes in the months of the first year. If the test for success means waiting 10 years, how can the Government claim to be meeting the test if there is insufficient data to back up the claim? That is why reporting is so important. As I have said before, the OfS already collates data on the number of events that are cancelled as a result of the Prevent duty. The amendment is simply an expansion of that duty.
I want to speak to the amendment because it is important that there is public understanding of what the amendment calls the “nature of complaints made”. I am not sure whether the amendment would add anything to the regular reviews and reports in the amendment proposed by my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings, which the very thoughtful Minister—she has promised to do a lot of thinking following comments made during this Committee—is going to consider.
It is essential that there is a good, clear understanding of the deliberations of the director. I very much support clause 8 and having the office of an individual who is responsible for looking at this kind of issue. It is really important that there is clarity on the deliberations and decisions of the director about the concerns referred to him.
I want to highlight an example of the nature of complaint that we are talking about. Yesterday, after the Committee last sat, an article entitled “Oxford college run by former equalities head apologises for hosting Christian conference” appeared in The Daily Telegraph. It said:
“New case of 'cancel culture' as Worcester College acknowledges 'distress' caused to students.
An Oxford college run by the former head of the equalities watchdog has apologised to students for hosting a Christian conference…In what has been described as the latest incident of ‘cancel culture’ at British Universities, Worcester College acknowledged the ‘distress’ that it had caused students by hosting a Christian Concern training camp… Christian Concern held its annual week-long Wilberforce Academy at the beginning of September, whilst Worcester College was closed for the summer break. The evangelical… group says that more than 100 young people were ‘very warmly welcomed, including by the Provost, received many compliments from the staff, and were not aware of any complaints or concerns’.”
However, students, presumably from Worcester College, are
“understood to have complained that the curriculum for the residential camp was Islamophobic as it included a discussion on the ‘nature of Islam’”.
No, but it is my opinion that the endeavour is to cancel this in the future.
The definition of Islamophobia was actually debated in this place just a few days ago. The Under-Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall North (Eddie Hughes), said:
“we cannot accept a definition of Islamophobia that shuts down legitimate criticism and debate. Freedom of speech is the foundation of a healthy society, allowing for debate and disagreement underpinned by the values that bind people together—tolerance, equality and fairness.”—[Official Report, 9 September 2021; Vol. 700, c. 204WH.]
It seems to me that the mere discussion of the nature of Islam, which seems to be the allegation here, cannot possibly be construed as Islamophobic.
I entirely endorse what my hon. Friend is saying. Once the master had apologised, it is unlikely that the conference would be run there again. That is the point. Often, the people who issue these apologies are not malign or malevolent, but weak and weary or befuddled and bemused. This master may not be the brightest spark in the fuse box—we do not know—but clearly he was not shining brightly on this occasion.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that comment.
Finally, the Wilberforce Academy has been held at Oxbridge colleges for the last 11 years. I have actually spoken at one of its conferences; the students who attend the conference are serious young people seeking to inform themselves about issues of the day. We need to encourage that, not shut it down.
Amendment 79 would make the director for freedom of speech and academic freedom responsible for providing an annual update to higher education providers and student unions on the number and nature of freedom of speech complaints that the Office for Students has dealt with, as well as examples of unacceptable infringements of freedom of speech.
It is important that the OfS is accountable for the operation of the complaints scheme. That is why clause 4 provides that the Secretary of State may require it to include a special report in its annual report on matters relating to freedom of speech and academic freedom. Such a report must be laid before Parliament so that Parliament and the sector may scrutinise it. Equally, paragraph 12 of proposed new schedule 6A to the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 provides that the Secretary of State may request that the OfS conduct a review of the complaints scheme or its operation and report on the results.
As for what the OfS believes constitutes unacceptable infringements of freedom of speech, it will issue guidance to providers and student unions to help them to comply with their duties under the Bill. In particular, it will consult on and issue changes to the regulatory framework, under section 75 of the 2017 Act, which states that the OFS
“must include guidance for the purpose of helping to determine whether or not behaviour complies with the general ongoing registration conditions.”
That guidance may specify
“descriptions of behaviour which the OfS considers compliant with, or not compliant with, a general ongoing registration condition”
as well as
“factors which the OfS will take into account in determining whether or not behaviour is compliant”.
Similar guidance will be included for student unions.
I do not want to get into the individual example, because I am not fully familiar with the details. My hon. Friend the hon. Member for Congleton said that she was concerned that that event would not happen in future because of that apology. I will look into the details.
Clause 4 also provides that the OfS may identify good practice relating to the promotion of freedom of speech and academic freedom and give advice about that to providers. The Government expect the OfS to work with the sector and a range of relevant stakeholders to ensure that there is clear and relevant advice to help higher education providers and student unions feel confident in fulfilling their duties. I therefore hope that Members will be reassured that the Bill ensures transparency in relation to freedom of speech functions at the OfS, and that guidance will be given to the sector to help it to understand how it comply with its duties. However, as I have previously committed, I will take away the issue of reporting and consider what more we can do on it.
I thank the Minister for her remarks, which I accept at face value. I look forward to seeing what form the reporting will take. We would be very open to having some input on how best we can make that work. We do not want to be burdensome in terms of placing bureaucracy on anyone, but I think both sides of the House agree how useful reports can be to help people understand how this legislation might work in practice, by providing not just data but examples. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
I beg to move amendment 85, in clause 8, page 11, line 23, at end insert—
“(1A) A person may not be appointed as the Director for Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom if the person has at any time within the last three years made a donation to a political party registered under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000.
(1B) The person appointed as the Director for Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom may not whilst in office make any donation to a political party registered under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000.”
This amendment would ensure that the Director of Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom had not donated to any political party in the last three years and that they may not make any further donations to political parties for the duration of his tenure.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
New clause 9—Appointment of the Director for Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom—
“(1) The appointment of the Director for Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom shall be subject to a confirmatory resolution of the relevant Select Committee of the House of Commons.
(2) The Secretary of State shall when appointing the Director for Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom have regard to the views of an Independent Advisory Body.”
This new clause would require the appointment of the Director for Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom to be confirmed by the Education Select Committee, and for the Secretary of State to consult the Independent Advisory Body when appointing the Director for Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom.
New clause 11—Review of the appointment process for the Director for Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom—
“(1) The Secretary of State must conduct a review of the appointment process for the Director for Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom within six months following the calling of a new Parliament.
(2) Any review conducted under subsection (1) must assess the suitability of the appointment process for selecting politically impartial candidates.
(3) The Secretary of State must lay the report of the review before Parliament.”
This new clause would require the Secretary of State to review the appointment process for the Director for Freedom of Speech within six months following the calling of a new Parliament, and lay the report of this review before Parliament. The review must include an assessment of the suitability of the appointment process for selecting politically impartial candidates.
It is pretty obvious what little faith we have in the potential appointment of a director of free speech. Often in life, it is not a case of what is said but who says it. We can look at this legislation and then try to interpret what is behind it. It seems obvious that this is a clear next stage in the Government’s power grab over the supposedly independent Office for Students. Until recently, the OfS was genuinely independent, but that power grab is laid bare for all to see in the Bill.
To put that in a wider context, it is fair to say that the Government have widely abused the public appointments process. It is not clear whether the director of free speech will be recruited through open competition or essentially appointed by the Prime Minister. On numerous occasions, I have raised the appointment of Lord Wharton as chair of the Office for Students. He is a Conservative party donor and takes the Conservative party Whip. He is a political appointee, so it is not a good record. To clarify, people can of course be donors. But in this case a person is appointed to the independent Office for Students one month, and the next month, having taken a pay cheque from the Government, he pays £8,000 to the Conservative party.
I would like to see the director of free speech appointed through the Committee on Standards in Public Life. On the wider problem of political appointees, I read just a few weeks ago that another of the Prime Minister’s mates, Ewen Fergusson, who happens to be another Bullingdon lad, was appointed to the Committee on Standards in Public Life. The pattern that is emerging is not good for anyone across the political spectrum. It is vital that trust in all these systems is maintained, irrespective of who happens to be in power. That trust can be eroded quickly and we have to ensure that all of us do our best to uphold it.
Many academics view what is happening as a creeping appointment of Government Members, not just to these sorts of bodies but to museums as well. I mentioned earlier the resignation of Sir Charles Dunstone as chair of the Royal Museums Greenwich, which was prompted by the Government’s refusal to reappoint an allegedly decolonising trustee, Aminul Hoque.
Our cluster of amendments seek to limit the interventionist role of Government in supposedly independent positions in public bodies. The concern about that role was highlighted by Professor Biggar in oral evidence, when he said:
“someone like me, who thinks there is a problem—and I guess the Government do, given the legislation—wants a director who has a certain partiality of that kind.”––[Official Report, Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Public Bill Committee, 7 September 2021; c. 22, Q40.]
That is clear then, isn’t? We want a partial person to be going into the independent Office for Students to preside over this important role of the director of free speech.
Dr Ahmed said:
“There are always concerns with the regulator—that it has to be impartial—and there are also concerns in this particular case.”––[Official Report, Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Public Bill Committee, 7 September 2021; c. 20, Q36.]
Dr Ahmed was a Government witness, and I think he was referring to the case of Lord Wharton. Another witness, Smita Jamdar, a lawyer from Shakespeare Martineau, said:
“you could end up with somebody who is effectively an appointment of whatever Government is in place at the time, and who does not necessarily have any skills or expertise to make those judgments but is the last word on them. Again, in terms of freedom, that does not feel terribly free.”––[Official Report, Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Public Bill Committee, 7 September 2021; c. 57, Q111.]
Does the hon. Member agree that it is important that, although these individuals are independent, they are also accountable? Does he recognise, as I do, having been part of a number of confirmation hearings for individuals appointed by the Government to significant roles in which they are expected to exercise independence, that that public, cross-party scrutiny—in this case, through the Education Committee—ensures that individuals can be questioned, and that the concerns that have been highlighted can be addressed, before the person assumes office, and that that happens in public and in a transparent manner?
What the hon. Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner said about transparency is correct. There might be a Select Committee looking at the individuals, but unlike the US system, there is no power of veto to stop those individuals being appointed. If a party has a majority, it will have its person, whether other people like it or not.
My right hon. Friend makes a very important point. That is one of the failings of our process in this country. I came across that when looking at international trade and the trade deals that might be struck by the US representative body. In the US, a trade deal would go before another Committee, which would have a veto on the criteria of the deal and whether it should be approved. The same thing should apply to this as well.
My hon. Friend might recall that the Education Committee did not approve the appointment of Amanda Spielman as chair of Ofsted, but that was ignored by the Government and she was appointed. It does not even say in the Bill that there would be scrutiny through the Education Committee, which is something the Minister could at least clarify.
I was not aware of the case of Amanda Spielman, but we are increasingly seeing this sort of interference across the board. I have mentioned the case of the museum, and there is also the case that my hon. Friend has cited. What we want to do is put checks and balances in the system. If we were in government, we would expect the Conservative party to be saying the same of us. An honest and appropriate approach is needed. My right hon. Friend the Member for North Durham mentioned the US system, which is far tighter than so much that we have in this country. I just do not understand how the US can be doing it so well, yet we are not.
We have ended up in a discussion about the US system versus our system, but the US system also has substantial flaws. One thing on which we probably agree on both sides of the House is that we want to see a minimum rate of corporation tax across the globe, which looks like it will probably be held up by Committees in the United States. There is give and take in both the systems that we are looking at. The hon. Gentleman suggests that the US’s system is perfect or is something that we should be moving towards, but it actually allows vested interests to block really sensible proposals that are liked by many other countries around the world. I would like him to reflect on that in his comments.
I agree that the US system is not perfect, but would my hon. Friend support something like the NHS appointments commission, which the Labour Government introduced? It took Ministers and politicians out of the process of appointing people to health boards, and took as its bedrock the principles on standards in public life, which were the main criteria in taking decisions. Would that not be a better system, rather than allowing the Government of the day to appoint who they want?
I am not going to continue the debate about the United States, although there are some virtues in its system—appointments to the Supreme Court spring to mind. To bring matters back to hand, Dr Ahmed, whom the hon. Gentleman has quoted, was very clear. He said:
“There is no evidence that I am aware of that there would be any problems with the appointments process.”––[Official Report, Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Public Bill Committee, 7 September 2021; c. 20, Q37.]
When it comes to credibility, he said that what matters is having someone who has “guts and principles.” That is what we need in this role—someone who can grasp the nettle. The prickly nettle is the absence of free speech, which is becoming increasingly common in our higher education system.
It sounds as though we may be being slightly selective in our quotes from Dr Ahmed, because I take something slightly different from what he said. I take on board the point that the right hon. Gentleman has made, but I reiterate that, as Dr Ahmed has said:
“There are always concerns with the regulator—that it has to be impartial”.––[Official Report, Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Public Bill Committee, 7 September 2021; c. 20, Q36.]
That is where we have real concerns about the direction of travel with the OfS.
To clarify, and to put this as succinctly as possible, we are asking for the person to be appointed on the basis of what they know, not who they know. That is pretty much what all these amendments amount to. I draw the Committee’s attention to the appointment process for the OIA chair, because it looks much fairer. It focuses on the need for relevant skills and expertise, and the chair is
“appointed through fair and open competition in line with the Nolan Principles because of the value and relevance of their skills and experience.”
The OIA is not Government-owned or funded, and the chair is appointed as an independent trustee. That is the kind of thing that we are looking at here. If we refer back to the evidence given by UUK and many others, including the lawyer, we can see that they were looking for someone with some kind of legal experience and knowledge of the sector, who was appointed independently. Everybody from those evidence sessions would say the same thing if they were sitting here: “Let’s have some independence in this process.”
It is absolutely fine, and I appreciate it. The Universities UK advisory board said quite explicitly that openness and transparency are needed in this appointment.
I wanted to come on to the models that we could be using to improve the appointment of the director for freedom of speech; we recognise that the Government are determined to have such a position. In the Office of the Independent Adjudicator, nine of the board of trustees, including the chair, are independent director-trustees. They are appointed through a fair and open competition in line with the Nolan principles, as my right hon. Friend the Member for North Durham has just mentioned, based on the value and relevance of their skills and experience. From what we heard in the evidence sessions, it was not absolutely clear what skills and experience the director for freedom of speech might need, but we certainly had some insight into the values that they might have.
In December 2016, the Cabinet Office published its governance code for public appointments, in which it was made clear that all public appointments should be governed by the principle of appointment on merit. I accept that there were conflicting views in the evidence sessions on whether the director should have legal experience—personally, I believe that that is necessary—but surely we can all agree that the position should be awarded on the basis of merit, as defined by the Government’s own governance code.
I mentioned the appointment of Ewan Fergusson, the friend of the Prime Minister. One hundred and fifty people were candidates for that position. The fact of a close friendship between Ewan Fergusson and the Prime Minister is a good reason for that person not to be appointed. Certainly, were I in that position, I would not be appointing friends, for the very reason that perception is everything—for credibility, perception is vital. I urge the Minister to consider the inclusion of our proposal in the appointments process for the director and to look further into how to protect the appointment from political persuasion. That was my final point.
The simple point is that this is possibly one of the most contentious appointments in government, because it deals with contentious issues. Without some element of robust non-partisan protection in the appointment process, the whole operation of the Bill might be undermined. That is why extra safeguards are needed to ensure a buffer between the individual and party political activity. That is what one of the amendments seeks to address.
Historically, universities were set up by royal charter, specifically to ensure that Governments of the day were not meddling in appointments at university and that free speech was thus preserved. That was the ancient, as well as the more modern right of universities. Surely there is a requirement for those principles to be extended to the body that will now interfere in the operation of universities. Otherwise, we undermine the whole principle of independence, autonomy and therefore free speech in our higher education sector.
I caution Government Members. There have been reports recently of a pattern of behaviour by Government of making appointments of, in effect, members of and donors to the Tory party—some have described them as cronies. That evidences, I think, an attitude in some parts of Government that overrides the very principles that my hon. Friend refers to and, to be honest, the traditional practice that we have come to expect of Governments. We are nearing a limit on that.
It is worth pointing out that we have no written constitution in this country. Everything we have is based on practice and tradition, because of the lack of a written constitution. Our university sector has always acted as a counterbalance to any Government of the day in offering criticism and scrutiny, forming another counterweight in our democracy. Any attempt to undermine that by politicising it through a political appointment exercising the powers in the Bill should concern each and every one of us. Governments and parties change and, as I said before and was agreed with, the people sitting on the Government Benches would be very concerned if the proposals in the Bill were those of the Labour party and we were wishing to exercise the kind of political control over the universities of the day that the Government do with this Bill.
To follow up on that point, we and a large number of organisations and individuals will be extremely interested in the appointment of this individual. If there is any whiff of a political appointment, it will completely undermine the Bill and the Government’s intentions, whether we agree with them or not—I caution them on that point. That is why building additional safeguards into the Bill is important.
I have been a strong supporter of the establishment and development of Select Committees. As shadow Chancellor, I argued for a greater role for Select Committees in the formal appointment of the Governor of the Bank of England and others. If we cannot secure the role of the Select Committee in the confirmation of an appointment, it would be valuable to hear the Minister’s views on a pre-appointment hearing. As the hon. Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner said, that would at least provide an opportunity for greater scrutiny of the individual and the process.
I caution the Government. There is often an element in a piece of legislation that can unpick the whole of the legislation’s import. I think this is a banana skin waiting to be stood upon if the Government are not careful and do not ensure that the process is above reproach and free from any party political interference. That could poison the well altogether.
As I have already stated, I have deep concerns about the Bill. It comes back to what we define as freedom of speech. In the evidence sessions, we found different views and different incidents, in terms of no-platforming and organisations being stopped from using buildings. The hon. Member for Congleton raised Christian Concern. I have read its website. It holds some quite extreme views, and I could understand why it would cause offence to certain students. In my opinion, it is down to the institution whether they allow such an organisation’s event to take place. For example, a gay student would be concerned that the organisation in question was questioning things such as the ban on gay conversion therapy. I understand why people might think that is what their institution should be about—disagreements.
I am actually very glad that the right hon. Member mentioned that point. That is the other issue that was mentioned in the press report that appeared to cause concern to the students who complained about it. Conversion therapy is going to be the subject of a Government consultation. It is a current, contentious issue, on which people have different views.
They do. I think it is up to an institution whether they allow people to complain, if they want to complain about that. I am a bit concerned that Gerald Batten, a former UK Independence party leader, who has some quite horrific views on Islam, for example, wrote the foreword to one of the organisation’s documents. Putting that point to one side, people can complain about these organisations, which is good. I personally think it is down to the institution to decide whether it should allow its buildings to be used.
As I have said before, the reason the appointment is so important is that the individual will have a lot of power in deciding what is defined as freedom of speech. In the Bill, we skirt around the issue; we have not got a clear definition of freedom of speech. We know from the discussions that we have had in Committee that the definition varies between different individuals. The right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings, whom I have huge respect for, said that it is about people’s principles. That is what concerns me, because people’s principles are very different, and that is the problem. Today, it will be the Conservatives who can make political appointments, because they have a majority in this Parliament. They can appoint who they wish. But what happens if we have a Government of a very different complexion—they could be extreme right or extreme left—who want to put forward someone who will interpret the definition of freedom of speech? That could have a chilling—I will use that word again, because it is the in word—effect on the way the state or the Government of the day dictate to independent institutions what they can and cannot discuss, and what they can and cannot do. I say again that the Bill is very unconservative in that respect.
I do not think my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington is asking for something radical. I know it is out of favour with the current Government, but he is basically saying that we should have a system underpinned by the Nolan principles. Sir Christopher, you are long enough in the tooth to know why those principles were brought in. Let us be honest: they were brought in during a very squalid period of our history in the early 1990s, when individuals connected to the Government of the day were involved in some quite unsavoury practices. I am always wary that things such as the Nolan principles should not become like tablets of stone. However, they have served us as a nation well, not just for national appointments, but in local government and other institutions. We should ensure that people are appointed on merit and because of their abilities and expertise in an area.
If the Government’s current direction of travel is to ignore the Nolan principles in large part, I would be quite relaxed about it, but we have a Prime Minister who is determined to put a Government stamp on an array of institutions, from museums right through to universities. It concerns me that we do not have safeguards in the Bill as regards an individual who will have a lot of power.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his remarks about me, which he knows are reciprocated. He is always worth listening to and has great experience, both in this House and in Government. However, almost in the same breath, and certainly in the same intervention, he challenged the idea of principles—I was quoting Dr Ahmed about that, by the way—and then made a case for the Nolan principles. He is implicitly accepting that there is a series of measures that can be established and that are the proper means by which the new director can do his job. If we can devise and implement the Nolan principles, I am sure the new director would advise and implement principles in a similar vein.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention, but he is confusing people’s political principles with the Nolan principles. If Dr Ahmed was suggesting that the Government believe passionately in the Nolan principles, I would have no problem with that, but I do not think that is a fair interpretation. Do the Government have form in this area? They clearly do in the appointment of Lord Wharton as the head of the Office for Students. I actually quite like the individual as an individual, but what are his qualifications for that job, apart from having been the former Member for Stockton South?
Another qualification might be being a very keen supporter of the Prime Minister on Brexit. However, in response to my hon. Friend, yes, we need that, and we are flying blind on the job description. It is quite common for public appointments to have a job spec. I have been involved in appointments, and we usually use that in the process.
What usually happens, in the best of practice, is that the selection process is done blind—the names of the individuals are not included and just the CVs are looked at. I doubt that that was the case with Lord Wharton, because I am not sure he would have passed the tests for the individuals. Do I have a problem with political appointments? No, I do not—but say they are political appointments. That is fine, if the Government want to do that.
What is particularly important about this role, however, is that this individual will have a lot of power to determine interpretations of free speech and what is discussed on our campuses. When the Bill becomes an Act, it will tie the courts up for years, frankly, because case law will bounce backwards and forwards on some things, and the role of the director will be challenged on numerous occasions. With no disrespect to any lawyers in the room, anything that feeds lawyers I have a gut distaste of, and the Bill will do that. A blatant political appointment cannot be right.
The Bill will be stronger if it has a system to ensure that the individual is independent, using the Nolan principles. I cannot understand why the Government are opposed to that.
Amendment 85 seeks to ensure that the director is a person who has not donated to any political party in the last three years, and it would prohibit the director from making donations to political parties for the duration of their tenure. New clause 9 seeks to set out additional requirements for the appointment process of the new director for freedom of speech and academic freedom at the Office for Students, requiring approval by the Education Committee and that the Secretary of State take into account the views of an independent advisory body. New clause 11 would require the Secretary of State to conduct a review of the appointment process for the director within six months of the calling of a new Parliament. That review would assess the suitability of the process for selecting politically impartial candidates. The Secretary of State would be required to lay a copy of the review report before Parliament.
The director for freedom of speech and academic freedom will be appointed in the same way as other members of the board of the Office for Students, under the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 by the Secretary of State. I assure Members that that will be done in the usual way, in accordance with the public appointments process. I emphasise, as has been demonstrated in our sittings, that freedom of speech and academic freedom are fundamental principles in higher education; they are not the preserve of one political party.
The Minister is genuinely very generous in giving way. She always lets me in, and I appreciate that. Will the job description for this brand-new role be written, as discussed previously, in consultation with the sector, including the National Union of Students, so that we get the right description to ensure that we get the right person?
We are going very off topic. We have a lot of clauses to get through, so I will continue.
There will also be important oversight built into the system when the director has been appointed. The director will be responsible for reporting to other members of the OfS on the performance of the OfS’s free speech functions. That reflects a similar provision in paragraph 3(1)(c) of schedule 1 to the Higher Education and Research Act 2017, which makes the director for fair access and participation responsible for
“reporting to the other members of the OfS on the performance of the OfS’s access and participation functions.”
That will not only ensure oversight of the role of the director for freedom of speech and academic freedom, but the rest of the OfS board will also allow the OfS to better co-ordinate and monitor its free speech functions.
I therefore hope that Members will be reassured that the appointment of the director will be in line with the usual public appointments process and that the role of the director is ultimately overseen by the rest of the OfS board.
The Minister is not giving way.
Hopefully, the next time the Minister stands up she might be able to clarify whether the appointment of the director for freedom of speech and academic freedom will be subjected to a pre-appointment process with the Education Committee, in the way that Amanda Spielman was when she was appointed to Ofsted, for example, and in the way that the Committee deals with other educational appointments? Will we have that pre-appointment hearing?
Indeed. The purpose behind new clause 9 is to have a process whereby the appointment goes through the appropriate body in the House of Commons, which we suggest is the Education Committee.
The bottom line is that we do not see any safeguards in the process. We do not see any checks or balances to ensure that this individual does not abuse the power and influence that they may weald. It is important to have some trust in the appointment process, which is why new clause 9 says the appointment should go through the Education Committee, ideally with some pre-appointment consideration. There are many advantages to that, not just in terms of the power to veto.
The Education Committee should have more say anyway. It is important to empower these bodies, as my right hon. Friend the Member for North Durham described when he talked about the veto processes that exist in the US system but that we seem to ignore completely. Those are the sorts of checks and balances that we want to see introduced.
The reason for talking about the Education Committee is that people said in some of the evidence that they wanted democratic oversight. We are fully aware that the Education Committee is balanced by who has the majority in Government, so there would currently be a Conversative majority, but it is still an important democratic safeguard to have a separate body to scrutinise the appointment and have a veto. I hope that is something the Minister will take away and seriously consider.
I am sure that the Minister is listening to these points. I think the Education Committee should have certain powers and status, and its involvement in these processes would be useful. I would even widen this to a broader panel if possible, with sector involvement as well, because experience, expertise and understanding of the reality on the ground is important. Having someone parachuted in because their political persuasion suits the Prime Minister is not a good way to govern such an important part of our democratic landscape.
The concern is that there will be a clear differentiation between—
The Chair adjourned the Committee without Question put (Standing Order No.88).
Adjourned till this day at Two o’clock.
Elections Bill (Fifth sitting)
The Committee consisted of the following Members:
Chairs: † Sir Edward Leigh, Christina Rees
† Anderson, Fleur (Putney) (Lab)
† Badenoch, Kemi (Minister of State, Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)
† Bell, Aaron (Newcastle-under-Lyme) (Con)
† Bristow, Paul (Peterborough) (Con)
† Clarkson, Chris (Heywood and Middleton) (Con)
† Furniss, Gill (Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough) (Lab)
† Gibson, Peter (Darlington) (Con)
† Grady, Patrick (Glasgow North) (SNP)
† Harris, Rebecca (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty’s Treasury)
† Hollern, Kate (Blackburn) (Lab)
† Kruger, Danny (Devizes) (Con)
† Mayhew, Jerome (Broadland) (Con)
† O’Hara, Brendan (Argyll and Bute) (SNP)
† Randall, Tom (Gedling) (Con)
† Shelbrooke, Alec (Elmet and Rothwell) (Con)
† Smith, Cat (Lancaster and Fleetwood) (Lab)
Smith, Nick (Blaenau Gwent) (Lab)
Adam Mellows-Facer, Chris Stanton, Committee Clerks
† attended the Committee
Public Bill Committee
Wednesday 22 September 2021
[Sir Edward Leigh in the Chair]
Before we begin, I will make a few preliminary remarks. There is a load of stuff here about face masks, mobile phones, and food and drink, but do what you like, within reason. We now begin line-by-line consideration of the Bill. The selection list for today’s sitting is available in the room. It shows how the selected amendments have been grouped together for debate. Amendments grouped together are generally on the same, or a similar, issue. Please note that decisions on amendments do not take place in the order that they are debated but in the order that they appear on the amendment paper. The selection list shows the order of debates. Decisions on each amendment are taken when we come to the clause to which the amendment relates. Decisions on new clauses will be taken once we have completed consideration of the existing clauses of the Bill. Members wishing to press a grouped amendment or new clause to a Division should indicate when speaking to it that they wish to do so.
On a point of order, Sir Edward. On Monday evening, the House considered an instruction motion that had been tabled in the name of the previous Minister, the hon. Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith). The motion changes the scope of the Bill and includes different types of electoral systems. Having had four evidence sessions in which we were unable to question witnesses about different electoral systems, I wonder whether you, Sir Edward, have had any indication from the new Government Whip, the hon. Member for Castle Point, about whether more evidence sessions will be timetabled so that the Committee can take evidence from expert witnesses on different electoral systems.
I thank the hon. Lady for that point of order. I have had no communication from the Government. Regarding more time, it is perfectly in order for the Committee to come to an agreement, either between the usual channels or by way of an amendment, to allow more time. I will leave it to the hon. Lady to discuss with her colleagues and the Government whether they want more time. I am sure that my colleagues and I will be perfectly open to that, but it is entirely up to the Committee. We are in your hands.
Further to that point of order, Sir Edward. I share the concerns of the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood. It is outrageous that the Government should seek to parachute in something in addition to the scope of the Bill without any debate. There was no debate on Monday night, because the Minister, the right hon. Member for Tamworth (Christopher Pincher), did not engage with the House. He turned up and read a pre-prepared statement. He did not engage. He did not even take an intervention from his opposite number. It is farcical that it should happen in such a way that no questions were answered and there was no scrutiny. This did not appear from thin air. The Government knew that this was happening; yet I believe they held it back from the Committee. I think it is only right that the Committee should have a chance to bring back expert witnesses so that we can have testimony from them on what this crucial part of the new scope will mean for the entire Bill.
I can only repeat what I said to the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood. That is a perfectly fair point, and if the hon. Gentleman wishes to table an amendment to that effect, I am sure that the Government will listen very closely. I am completely in the hands of the Committee.
We will start with clause 1, and the question that it stand part of the Bill. Members will note my grouping and selection, and that several detailed matters relating to voter ID will be covered in debates on amendments later today. Clause 1 introduces the schedule on voter ID. I would be grateful if Members could please restrict their remarks to the principles of the proposals. That is quite important. I am sure that we can have a very wide-ranging debate that will be more like a Second Reading debate, but remember that there are loads of amendments later, so there is no point in getting into detail now. We will have plenty of time to discuss the detail.
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward, and to progress the passage of the Bill. I pay tribute to my predecessor, the Minister of State for Disabled People, Work and Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith), for her great contribution to the proposals in the legislation. I ask the Committee’s forgiveness if I am not as sharp as she has been on the details. This is very new to me, following my taking on this position, but I look forward to taking the Bill through Committee and the upcoming stages.
I begin by introducing clause 1, which delivers the Government’s manifesto commitment to introduce photographic identification for voting at polling stations. I will first focus on the principle behind the measure, and why it is essential to the protection of our democracy. The details of its operation will be addressed later, when discussing the contents of schedule 1. I am sure the Committee will agree that it is paramount that we protect the security and integrity of our ballot, so that our elections will remain secure well into the future. The process for voting in polling stations in Great Britain has had no significant changes to security since the Ballot Act 1872. A system used in the Victorian era, when everybody was well acquainted with their neighbours, is simply not fit for the 21st century.
As my predecessor set out many times, there are undeniable vulnerabilities in our system that let people down because they can lead, and have led, to votes being stolen by unscrupulous individuals. We cannot sit idly by and tolerate that. Where there is the opportunity for fraud, we must act, particularly when we have the power to stamp it out with such a straightforward, simple policy. Just because someone is not regularly burgled does not mean that they stop locking their front door. Showing photo identification is an entirely reasonable and proportionate way to confirm that someone is who they say they are.
Many people would question why a requirement to show identification at polling stations is not already in place. In fact, the majority of the public—66%—have said that it would make them more confident in the security of the voting system. To suggest that specific groups, such as young people or those from an ethnic minority background, would automatically not be able to access the freely available voter card, based on assumptions about the work that will be done, is to unfairly diminish the agency and desire of those groups to participate. I will be unambiguous in setting this out: anyone who is eligible to vote will continue to have the opportunity to do so.
I welcome the Minister to her place, and appreciate that she is obviously quite new to this area. I wonder how she feels able to back up what she just said about different demographic groups not having any trouble accessing free ID. The Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency does not hold data on the ethnic background of people who hold a driving licence, and the Home Office does not hold data on the ethnicity of those who hold passports. Given that those are the two main forms of ID, how is she confident that any particular ethnic group will not be disproportionately affected by the policy?
I am happy to answer that question. As we produce guidance, we will be able to give more details on the specifics, but the fact is that it is an insult to say that someone from an ethnic minority background will have difficulty procuring ID. That is nonsense.
No, no—I have given way. I am also, as the hon. Lady will know, the Minister for Equalities. I have spent a year working on the disproportionate impact that covid has had on people. Being able to collect data is critical, but assuming from the get-go that people are disadvantaged on the basis of their background is stigmatising, and denies them their agency.
Let me finish. I do not know the conversations that the hon. Lady has had with other people. I think that she will find that on this issue I will be very robust, and I will not stand in this House and have ethnic minorities denigrated with the assumption that they need the Labour party or the liberal left to hold their hand in order to vote. We have had pilots, and there is a lot of evidence to show that this policy does not discourage people from voting.
On a point of order, Sir Edward. I never said anything about ethnic minorities in my intervention on the Minister. I said that data on different ethnic groups was not collected. I never made any comment about ethnic minorities. I just wish to make that clear for the record.
The hon. Lady has made her point, and I am sure that the Committee will have heard it.
The hon. Lady talked about the DVLA not collecting data on the ethnic background of people, so we know the point that she was making. As I said, I will be unambiguous in setting this out: anyone who is eligible to vote will continue to have the opportunity to do so. I hope that for the rest of the Committee we will be able to have a civilised debate, and not one where we bring in issues that are not pertinent to the matter at hand.
I share the Minister’s distaste at the suggestion that people do not have that access and that agency. Is it not the case that the existing elements of voter fraud in the system fall disproportionately on ethnic minority populations, as we saw in Tower Hamlets in the Bangladeshi community?
I completely agree, and I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point.
I want those listening to the debate to be clear that we will work with them, and for them, to ensure that the implementation supports their participation, and I hope that on that principled point the Opposition will stop their negative and discouraging narrative on the future of the measures. Voter identification is a simple, proportionate and effective means to strengthen the integrity of elections. For those reasons, I urge that clause 1 stand part of the Bill.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir Edward. I welcome the new Minister, the new Government Whip and the new member of the Committee, the hon. Member for Devizes. They missed out on the pleasure of the four evidence sessions that we enjoyed last week, but obviously those evidence sessions—I will make the point again, Sir Edward—were not sufficient to cover all the clauses due to the instruction motion that was passed on the Floor of the House on Monday evening.
It is incredibly disappointing and bad form on the part of the Government to approach the House with a constitutional Bill that fundamentally changes huge swathes of how we vote and exercise our democratic rights as a society without that level of scrutiny. The instruction motion included a change to the voting system that previously happened only under referenda. I note the alternative vote referendum that we had about a decade ago. If we are to change our voting system in this country, not with referenda and not even with consideration on Second Reading or in Committee evidence sessions, I question the accountability to which hon. Members feel they can hold themselves.
Clause 1 requires voters to show photo ID at elections. I believe that in a democracy it is right that voters choose their leaders, but in the Bill we see a reversal of that: it appears that the leaders are trying to choose the voters who participate in elections. There is no doubt that requiring photo ID at a polling station is an additional barrier to voting. No one can argue—I welcome interventions from Government Members—that putting an additional requirement on a voter before receiving their ballot paper is anything other than likely to drive down turnout. If we wish to strengthen our democracy, as the Opposition wish to, one of the best ways that we can do that is to drive up turnout, because bad actors thrive when turnout is low. I wish the Bill were about encouraging participation in elections and democracy, and driving up turnout, because that would make it harder for bad actors to manipulate and twist our election results.
I have been a member of the Labour party since 2004 and I have never been asked to produce photo ID to participate in my local party or national party events, to stand as a Member of Parliament or to be a member of the shadow Cabinet. The hon. Member will remember from the evidence sessions, because he was a member of the Committee then, that an example was given about the parliamentary selection in Tower Hamlets. I imagine that Tower Hamlets will be brought up a fair bit in Committee.
Where there are isolated issues, the Labour party has a process by which it can put constituency parties into what we call special measures. There are additional requirements to take part in our internal democracy where there has been evidence of fraud in the past. That probably backs up my point that the incidents that we have seen are very geographically specific, whereas the legislation covers England, Scotland and Wales. We are penalising huge swathes of the country by putting additional barriers between them and participation in democracy, when at best we have found tiny pockets. Indeed, the Committee heard evidence that personation at polling stations was incredibly isolated.
The hon. Lady speaks about the evidence, but we heard from Richard Mawrey, who is without doubt the most qualified person to speak about this. He said:
“On whether lots of cases are going undetected, the answer is undoubtedly yes. It is very difficult to prove fraud, and when you have proved it, it is very difficult and time-consuming to prove who benefited from it.”––[Official Report, Elections Public Bill Committee, 15 September 2021; c. 17, Q16.]
Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. This is not an isolated issue, as the hon. Lady seems to think.
The same witness also said:
“Not only was there electoral fraud in the sense of false votes—almost all postal votes—"
the Bill does nothing to resolve that issue—
“but the system developed so there was misuse of public funds”.––[Official Report, Elections Public Bill Committee, 15 September 2021; c. 5, Q2.]
I think the point that he was trying to make on the Tower Hamlets example—I may misquote him slightly—was that they were working through all the types of electoral fraud and bad actors were in play. There was an injustice, and I make absolutely no defence of the electoral fraud that went on—I would be quite upset if anyone accused me of that—but is important to point out that elections were overturned and the law worked. Richard Mawrey also told the Committee:
“Voter ID at polling stations, frankly, is neither here nor there. Personation at polling stations is very rare indeed, because it is so dangerous—if someone turns up to a polling station and says, “I am Mr Jones of Acacia Avenue”, and somebody says, “I know Mr Jones; you are not him”, the next thing is a policeman’s hand on his shoulder and he’s up at the local Crown court”.––[Official Report, Elections Public Bill Committee, 15 September 2021; c. 15, Q13.]
We know, based on the evidence from witnesses whom hon. Members are quoting at me, that the clause, deals with something that is not the major issue. I feel that we are somewhat missing the wood for the trees.
Does the hon. Lady accept that although it is quite possible for someone to go in and say, “I am Mr Jones of Acacia Avenue,” and for the polling clerk to say, “No, you’re not,” they are probably not going to know all 10,000 voters. The requirement to produce a simple piece of ID to confirm that it is Mr Jones of Acacia Avenue is not a barrier.
It is a barrier to someone who does not have that form of ID, which is the whole point of the clause. One witness also made the point that we are asking people who do not have the forms of ID mentioned in the Bill to go through the process of getting a free voter ID card. The people who do not already have those forms of ID are more likely to be excluded from society or disadvantaged. By the way, the Bill contains no detail about how those free voter IDs will be issued and administered, or how much that will cost.
We know fine well that that additional barrier risks creating a postcode lottery. In my constituency, for example, two councils administer elections: Wyre Council and Lancaster City Council. If they were to administer voter ID cards, it would be unlikely, I suspect, that they would both have the same requirement for people to come forward. Some of my constituents may be able to go to the Civic Centre at Poulton on a Tuesday afternoon between 3 pm and 5 pm, but nothing in the Bill gives us the power to ensure that Wyre Council extends that period with evening drop-ins. Lancaster City Council could have a completely different approach, however. We are therefore saying to some voters, “It will be easier for you to access the ID than for others.”
The fact that there are no basic requirements in the Bill is something of an oversight, as I am sure the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton will agree. I hope that we can amend that kind of thing to improve the Bill, so that we do not end up with some councils making photo IDs incredibly difficult to access.
The hon. Lady made a number of bold assertions about those who do not have voter ID. I simply ask her: where is the evidence to support them? The research supports the Government’s proposition. IFF Research interviewed 8,500 residents by telephone, and found that 98% of the general population has appropriate forms of ID. For black, Asian and minority ethnic people and people with protected characteristics, that figure rose to 99%. Where is the evidence for her bold assertions?
The Government’s own research showed that 2 million people did not have ID, and 17% of those people said that they would not apply for a locally issued identity document. A further 23% said they were not sure that they would apply. Does the Government’s own research not prove that we risk disenfranchising millions?
I think the hon. Lady is confusing two different things. Those 2 million people are not necessarily 2 million people who are on the electoral register and are not necessarily 2 million people who would have voted anyway. Is she not mistaking correlation for causation and confusing the issue? My hon. Friend the Member for Broadland showed what actually happens when he cited evidence of an improvement in the participation of ethnic minorities and other groups in the electoral process.
I am a little confused by the Minister’s intervention. There was a petition on the Parliament website about using digital IDs to access things online. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport responded to that petition using the statistics that I have used today. If one Government Department is using one set of statistics and the Cabinet Office—or presumably now the Department for Levelling Up and whatever it is—is using different statistics, does that not just show that one arm of Government is apparently not speaking to another arm of Government?
I am very happy to respond to the point the hon. Lady has just made. Different pieces of research are used for different outcomes. My argument was that she is confusing two separate things. The point my hon. Friend the Member for Broadland was making was specifically related to voter ID, and we should not mix and match different petitions and different polls that are used for different purposes as evidence, when the questions being asked are not pertinent to the matter being discussed.
The Minister is right to say that there is a lot of different research done on who holds what ID, and it appears that there is no central understanding in Government about who holds what. That leaves us, as a Committee, high and dry in terms of knowing what impact this policy will have on different communities.
The Committee heard evidence from Gavin Millar QC, who pointed out that if Tower Hamlets was the reason for introducing voter ID, it would be
“an example of a hard case making very bad law, and I would counsel against that.”––[Official Report, Elections Public Bill Committee, 16 September 2021; c. 108, Q165.]
I was going to ask the hon. Lady whether she accepts that Labour constituency associations that are in special measures should have special photo ID requirements. Would she at least support photo ID in those parts of the country that have particular problems with administering their elections?
I look forward to the hon. Gentleman’s bringing forward an amendment to the Bill along those lines, and I am sure we would be interested in having conversations across the Committee Room about how we might be able to support him in amending his Government’s Bill in such a way. I look forward to speaking to him after the Committee to see whether I can be of any assistance to him on that matter.
It is quite clear from the evidence we heard that the voter ID requirements will make it disproportionately more difficult for some people with disabilities to vote. We heard evidence from the Royal National Institute of Blind People, and we realise that anyone who is blind or registered partially sighted is very unlikely to have a driving licence, which immediately rules out one kind of ID.
Because of the poverty disabled people face, they are also less likely to have a passport, and the Committee heard evidence of concerns that the Cabinet Office had not sufficiently engaged with disabled groups, charities and campaigns in drafting this legislation. There are issues further on in the Bill—I am sure we will come to them later, so I will not go into any detail—about the changes to accessibility having a double whammy effect on disabled voters’ access to elections.
Labour will reject clause 1, and that is consistent with the position we have taken since the first day that the Conservatives mooted this policy.
It was not just mooted by the Conservatives; the Electoral Commission has for many years recommended that we introduce some element of identification into the voting process. We have identification at the registration process; would the hon. Lady abandon that as well in her noble goal of increasing turnout?
I am glad the hon. Gentleman has mentioned the Electoral Commission, because of course it did not specify that this very tight form of photo ID should be introduced by the legislation. Its recommendation was much more open-ended. The Government have come forward with the tightest, most restrictive, most excluding form of voter ID. Trials took place ahead of the legislation being presented, but I believe it was only in Woking where this very tight form of voter ID was trialled. I do not know Woking well, but I am sure that it is not very representative of the whole United Kingdom.
The situation in Northern Ireland actually came about over a much longer period. The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute somewhat of an expert on these issues, but in Northern Ireland we did see huge swathes of personation going on in the 1980s. The politics in Northern Ireland in the 1980s was very different from the politics that we see in England, Scotland and Wales in 2021.
I have been trying, both on Second Reading and in Committee, to tease out where the Northern Ireland comparison comes from and how the Government believe that the situation we have in the United Kingdom in 2021 in any way resembles that in Northern Ireland in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, which led to the change. Nobody has managed to give me an answer to explain what the similarities are and why the Northern Ireland example is being used to advocate this change.
Order. We cannot have an intervention on an intervention.
The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute is right. Hundreds and hundreds of people lost their vote in the general election in, I think, 1982—it was before I was born. [Interruption.] It was in the 1983 general election. As a response to that, legislation came forward to require forms of ID, which were initially not photo ID, to protect the integrity of the ballot in Northern Ireland, where quite clearly organised crime was being used to disenfranchise literally hundreds and hundreds of voters in constituencies across Northern Ireland and, arguably, to skew election results.
Does the hon. Member for Darlington want to make the case that that is happening right here, right now? I would be very interested to hear whether he thinks that, in his constituency, hundreds and hundreds of voters have had their votes stolen through personation—perhaps at the general election in which he was elected. If he thinks that that is the case, I would be very interested to hear him make the case, but I do not think we can draw a direct comparison from Northern Ireland in the 1980s to England, Scotland and Wales in 2021. Does the Minister still wish to come in on that point?
I am very interested in the shadow Minister’s points, because she is saying that what happened in Northern Ireland in the 1980s is very different from what is happening here now, yet she is advocating keeping the rules the same as they were in 1872—150 years ago. That is extraordinary. We have not changed anything since the 19th century, yet she is saying that what happened in the 1980s is not applicable now. That is quite extraordinary.
I am really thrilled that the Minister has made that point, because I have been the shadow Minister for democracy and elections for the Labour party since 2016 and I think that, in every single speech, I have made the case that electoral law in this country is fragmented and confusing. In fact, we heard from witnesses that we need to solidify—
But this Bill does not solidify all our election law into one single, cohesive piece of legislation that campaigners can use, that gives voters confidence, and that makes it easier for our election judges to use the law and apply it correctly. Election law in this country is so fragmented and confusing. The Law Commission has published reports calling on the Government to come forward with a single piece of legislation to bring all this law together, rationalise it and make it more straightforward and simple. This Bill just adds to the massive catalogue of legislation that we have—different Acts from here, there and everywhere. This Government are doing nothing to make it simpler; they are just adding another layer of complication to it.
Earlier in the hon. Lady’s remarks, she asked for evidence of where election results have been impacted by personation. I urge her to look at Peterborough, my constituency, where council results have absolutely been affected by personation, and I ask her this question. In evidence, we heard from the chief executive of Peterborough City Council, Gillian Beasley, who installed CCTV at polling stations. Why does the hon. Lady feel that the chief executive of Peterborough City Council needed to do that?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for sharing the example of Peterborough. I thought Gillian Beasley gave some really strong evidence to the Committee. The Opposition found the example of the CCTV very interesting, as it is a way in which the current law can be used to combat isolated pockets of personation. Gillian Beasley said,
“I would say that we have seen less personation in polling stations in the recent past. Probably our last prosecution was some years ago, and that is because there are some tight measures not only in polling stations, but around ensuring that we have a good electoral register.”––[Official Report, Elections Public Bill Committee, 15 September 2021; c. 21, Q23.]
She also talked about the resource implications of implementing voter ID, saying that,
“we will probably see a surge at what is the busiest time for electoral services”.––[Official Report, Elections Public Bill Committee, 15 September 2021; c. 18, Q19.]
That draws me on to the evidence we received about the clause from the Association of Electoral Administrators. It is an organisation I meet with regularly, because I think it is important that, as legislators, we understand the implications of the laws we make on those who have to administer them. During my time in this Front-Bench role, electoral administrators have consistently told me that elections are often only just delivered securely because of the pressures in local government right now.
Local government has been on the frontline of Tory cuts, and I make no apology for saying that. Our town halls and civic centres are struggling, and elections offices are incredibly understaffed. Speaking for my own electoral administrators in Lancaster and Fleetwood, the staff work incredibly hard. In the run-up to an election, they work seven days a week, and they work incredible hours. I believe that all they do is work and sleep in order to deliver our elections and democracy securely. I pay tribute to all our electoral administrators. They often pull this off under increasing pressure. The snap elections in recent years have meant that they have often been unprepared, particularly in 2019, when the election coincided with the annual canvass. They are under incredible pressure.
Electoral administrators and councils were very clear in their evidence that, if voter ID were to be brought in, they would expect to see a surge in applications for the free voter ID in the run-up to an election, when there is incredible pressure with last-minute registrations and people checking that they are on the electoral register. Since the introduction of individual electoral registration, there has been an increase in people double-checking that they are on the electoral register. It would be nice to see something in the Bill that allowed electors to check whether or not they were on the roll, rather than just re-registering in the few weeks before an election, which puts additional pressure on electoral administrators when their pressures are at their greatest.
Peter Stanyon from the Association of Electoral Administrators said in evidence to the Committee that the applications for voter ID will come in
“when the pressures in the electoral offices are at their greatest.”
Because the Bill has absolutely no detail on how the free IDs will be administered, he asked:
“Will it require attendance in person? Virginia mentioned posting out ID—will that be permissible in the remainder of the UK?”––[Official Report, Elections Public Bill Committee, 15 September 2021; c. 44, Q59.]
Virginia McVea was the witness who gave evidence from Northern Ireland. The Minister is very welcome to intervene to make the position clear. That would be very helpful. As Peter Stanyon was saying, we do not know any of the detail at this stage.
We are being asked to vote on something with absolutely no detail. We have no idea what resource implications the Bill will have on electoral registration offices. We have no idea whether the free IDs will be posted out or whether people will have to apply in person at civic centres and town halls. We have no idea whether there will be a basic standard of expectation that people will apply for their voter ID in person, but will only be able to go on a Monday, Wednesday or Friday. None of those basic details is on the face of the Bill. We are being asked to legislate on something that we cannot be confident will be accessible to the people we have been elected to represent.
There is a £120 million bill for the taxpayer to bring in this policy, which we heard in the evidence sessions is basically designed to address something that is incredibly rare and very difficult to do. It does not seem like a good use of taxpayers’ money. In the last 10 years, there were four cases of voter personation fraud, and that was out of 243 million votes cast.
I would like to make this comparison, and then I will give way to the hon. Gentleman.
I want to compare those four cases to the trials, which took place in just a handful of council areas, all of which are in England and are not representative of England, Scotland and Wales. Some 2,000 voters were turned away in the 2019 pilots, of whom around 758 did not return to cast their vote. That is just in the pilot areas. Look at the single figure numbers of cases and the hundreds of people in just a handful of trial areas who basically turned up at the polling station and did not have the right ID so went away and never came back. We are disenfranchising scores more people than we even hear accusations of voter personation.
The hon. Lady says that there were only four cases. Of course, there were only four cases that we are aware of. That goes back to the point that was made throughout the evidence sessions: it is an incredibly easy thing to do, so we do not know the quantity. As my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme said, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. I have to ask her what an acceptable level of voter fraud is. Are four cases of fraud okay? Do we just let that go, and say, “It’s fine. There’s a cost-benefit analysis to a bit of electoral fraud.”? How many election results have to be overturned before we say that this is actually an investment worth making?
I do not think that any elections have been overturned, as the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute says from a sedentary position. We have to work on the basis of what we know, and what the facts are. We can only go on the cases that are reported, but we know that 758 people in just a handful of councils were turned away and did not come back. That is an unquestionable fact.
I think we have to assume that they were. [Hon. Members: “Why?”] Because of all the evidence that we heard as a Committee. I make no apologies to the Minister—she was not here for the four evidence sessions. We did not hear convincing evidence that this is a widespread problem. That is just not what we heard from the witnesses. We know the statistics on how many people were turned away and did not come back.
Rob Connelly from Birmingham raised concerns that the pilots did not reflect the community that he represents:
“One of our concerns with the pilots was that they did not reflect a large urban area, such as Birmingham, Manchester or Liverpool… It has been calculated that about 2% of people have not got ID. That is the equivalent of 15,000 people in my electorate.”––[Official Report, Elections Public Bill Committee, Wednesday 15 September 2021; c. 56, Q85.]
That is in Birmingham alone. A huge number of people—thousands, or tens of thousands—in cities up and down the country will have to go through the process of applying for this free voter ID card, on which there is no detail in the Bill. How can we be expected to vote for something on which there is no detail?
Returning to where I was before I took quite a lot of interventions, I think Ministers and Government Members are living in some kind of alternative reality. Perhaps they are watching too much Fox News. Our elections do not lack integrity. We consistently hear that in reports from the Electoral Commission and when our elections are observed from overseas. I am proud of our British democracy, and of the way we do elections in this country. I am confident that every Member of this House, whether I agree with them or whether we wear the same colour rosette at elections, and everyone who is sitting in this Committee Room was elected legitimately and got the most votes in their constituency. If any Member wishes to question whether they were legitimately elected to this House, I would be very happy to hear them say that they think they won unfairly.
I think the hon. Lady is confusing the purpose of the Bill. It is to protect the voter, not to ensure that our election results are kosher. I was elected with more than 25,000 votes. Anyone who was unable to vote lost their right. It would not have affected the legitimacy of my winning. The fact that she is saying that shows that she is still missing the point that many people lose their right to vote because another person has voted on their behalf. When I stood for election in 2010, I saw it happen at first hand. It is not reported, and a crime of deception is very difficult to see. She needs to acknowledge that point.
I am a little confused by the Minister’s intervention. That would be reported because the person would have a tendered ballot and that information would be available. The point is—we heard it during evidence—that this policy has been brought in for UK Parliament elections with large electorates and we did not hear one witness say they thought a major election had been swung by mass fraud.
On the example of referendums, I campaigned in the EU referendum for remain, but I do not question that leave won because it would be unthinkable to enact personation fraud on such a scale.
Is it not precisely the point that the EU referendum was not swung by a voter fraud of fake leave voters turning up and stuffing the ballot boxes, but by the voter fraud of telling people that there would be £350 million a week for the NHS, that food prices would go down and that the NHS would not be harmed—it was swung by the frauds that are now being proven as precisely that by the state this country is in?
Order. Can we all calm down? It is getting very lively.
Sorry, Sir Edward. We do get very lively when we are debating democracy and elections, and whether truths are told in referendum campaigns, but I will not stray into that territory with the hon. Member for Glasgow North.
Never in British history has an election been undermined due to mass fraud, so I find the idea of spending millions of pounds to fix a problem that barely exists to be an obscene use of taxpayers’ money. I would like to see the Minister strengthen our democratic integrity by encouraging voter participation. Millions of people in this country are missing from the electoral roll. Regardless of whether they have the right voter ID, we do not have a process in this country of automatic electoral registration. We know fine well who is entitled to vote. We know huge amounts of detail from Department for Work and Pensions and Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency records, and we make no effort to use that information to bring in a system of automatic voter registration to ensure our electoral rolls are as accurate as possible so that people have no barriers to participating in democracy.
I love elections. I am a democrat and I absolutely think democracy is a brilliant system, but it pains me that millions of our fellow citizens are not registered correctly, and there is nothing in the Bill that makes it easier for that to be brought in any kind of automatic way or to use big Government data in other ways to encourage participation. There is nothing about how we could engage with groups with disproportionately lower voter turnout, such as young voters. There is nothing about investing in our young people or schools to encourage young people to take part in democracy. I am a big supporter of extending the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds, but I will not stray too far into that because it is not part of clause 1.
There is so much that the Bill could have done to extend democracy and encourage more people to take part. Instead, it puts up expensive barriers that cost taxpayers money and make it harder for legitimate voters to participate in our elections. I feel disappointed because when the Elections Bill was mooted, I thought the Treasury Bench had finally heard my repeated calls about the Law Commission’s report about solidifying our election law into a single cohesive piece of legislation that could modernise our democracy for the 21st century.
Instead, we get a Bill that is basically an attempt at voter suppression. It comes straight from the Trumpian Republican playbook from the US. Republican states are requiring photo ID at polling stations because they know it makes it easier for them to win elections. There is nothing in the Bill that says how accessing that voter ID will work. If we look to the US, we see that in some Republican states a gun licence is okay, but a student ID is not. I wonder what the political motivation for things such as that are. I would argue that the types of ID included in clause 1 of the Bill are totally—
No, but I have heard nothing yet from the hon. Lady that is out of order. However, she has made her point. You can make a point powerfully; you do not have to keep repeating it. But she is in order so far.
Thank you, Sir Edward.
Millions of people cannot afford the privilege of carrying photo ID. Passports and driving licences cost money, so I would argue that this measure is a paywall to democracy. In all, 3.5 million citizens, which is 7.5% of the electorate, do not have access to any form of ID. Also, in the Windrush scandal we saw how members of some communities can struggle to provide official documentation and the severe consequences that that can have; that was backed up by evidence that this Committee heard from witnesses.
It is incredibly disappointing that the Government have continued to plough on with photo ID plans, seemingly turning a blind eye to the millions of people who they appear to be disenfranchising. The simple truth is that instead of holding water, the Government’s arguments in favour of photo ID contain more holes than a leaky sponge.
Today, we are considering clause 1, which—frankly—tarnishes our reputation as a leading democracy across the world. I make no apology for saying that it takes a leaf out of the Republican party playbook. So we will vote against it in the stand part debate.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward, and my—what a lively start we have got off to!
I intend to speak to the principle of the Bill, because we will come to amendments later. Despite my point of order, it is interesting that the American electoral system keeps being referred to, because it speaks to the wider issue of faith in elections. We have seen some disgraceful activity by the former President in America, which leads to an undermining of the basis of democracy.
There is no doubt that electoral fraud has taken place in this country, and I struggle to think of another crime that we would be willing to say we do not need to do anything about. I struggle to think of another crime where we say to the victims, “Well, it wasn’t many of you, so we’re not going to bother with it”. There is a very important principle about where we stand in this place.
The right hon. Gentleman seems to be saying that currently there is no law to stop electoral crime. Laws to stop electoral crime are in place at the moment and they seem to be working; as we have heard, Tower Hamlets and other elections have been refought. Does he accept that there are existing laws to tackle exactly what the Bill intends to tackle?
I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point, because, of course, Richard Mawrey said in his evidence that the threshold for proving in electoral law as it currently stands is too high to really get over the bar. By bringing in an extra set of checks and balances, we hopefully get away from the point that we would have to try to prove these cases to get over what is a very high electoral bar.
Following up on the point about Tower Hamlets, is it not also worth noting that that election petition was brought by a small group of volunteers, working on a cross-party basis, who put up their own money and used their own time to investigate the issue in Tower Hamlets? If they had not done so, that entire piece of work would not have been done. That helps to demonstrate how difficult it is to get a petition such as that off the ground.
I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention, because what we heard in evidence was that the financial threshold is exceptionally high for people to get over. We also heard in evidence that people did indeed risk their entire financial situation—they faced bankruptcy—to take that matter forward. There is an old phrase: criminal proceedings, or taking things to court, are free to everyone in this country just as everybody in this country is free to dine at the Ritz, but quite a lot of people are precluded when the bill arrives.
The right hon. Gentleman was asking whether anyone could think of another crime in this country that people are just allowed to get away with. According to the House of Commons Library, the cost of tax evasion to the UK Exchequer in 2018-19 was £4.6 billion. When will this Government bring forward legislation to stop the vast amount of tax evasion going on in this country?
The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point, which is why I am proud that this Government have closed the tax gap to the smallest in the G20—not least through the IR35 legislation that has just gone through, which is a very important piece of legislation. This Government have done more than any other to close that tax gap as much as they can.
However, the hon. Gentleman has almost proved my point about the importance of making sure that we have full faith in the electoral system, because he has once again basically said to the Committee that the referendum on EU membership was fraudulent because he did not agree with the political arguments that were made. There is a very fine line to be drawn here.
Politics is about disagreement—that is the strength of a democracy. I am not coming at this from a leaver’s point of view: I voted remain, and I made points in that election that were defeated in political argument. The referendum delivered a definite outcome, and it was then incumbent on this House to make sure that we delivered the outcome of that democratic referendum. We had another general election, which returned a Government who, despite not having a majority, had said that they were going to deliver that referendum result, and we then went through two and a half years of wrecking procedures in the House of Commons. I know, Sir Edward, that you will more than remember what happened over that period.
Order. This is going very wide of the topic.
The point I am making, drawing on the comments that have been made, is about faith in the electoral system, and this clause creates those levels of faith. It is all very well trying denial and complacency about where we are today, but we have to accept that we now have a mass media system in the world that makes it very easy for conspiracy theories to grow and be built very quickly. We must be in a position to ensure that our elections are deemed to be as safe and secure as possible.
I was disappointed on Second Reading that, when I intervened and asked Members about the recommendations of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, those recommendations were pretty much dismissed out of hand. It was argued that they did not apply in this country, but the OSCE has made it clear in its reports that the security of our elections cannot be guaranteed without voter ID, and that is a very important point.
Those who have done election monitoring will know that many countries in the G20, let alone the G7, ask for voter ID, and I fear that we are in a period of history where democracy—which is a precious thing, and must always be developed and worked on—is under threat from those who refuse to accept election results. I am basing those comments more on what has happened in the United States than what has happened in this country, but what happened there is pervasive because of mass media. This Bill is trying to ensure that the perception of the security of elections, which is a very important thing, is clear in people’s minds.
From the very beginning, there has been entrenched opposition to the idea of voter ID. The hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood—who I have a great deal of respect for, as she knows, and I enjoy serving on these Committees with her—talked about cuts to local government funding, but my council, Leeds City Council, is spending £10 million on the European city of culture campaign. The council bid for it before the referendum, then we left, so it is not getting the money and it is spending £10 million on it. It cannot say that it is being starved of funds when it is spending £10 million on something that is pretty irrelevant and certainly creates some lively debate in my home city.
When we come to debate the voting age—I know that we are not discussing that now—there will be some very important points to make about how the UN defines who is a child by saying that anybody under the age of 18 cannot fight on the frontline. Again, it appears that we are dismissing international bodies to suit the argument that is being made on the day.
I end my remarks by simply saying that this clause is a very important part of the Bill, ensuring that people have faith in our electoral system and that we do not allow a growth in voter fraud. We heard in evidence that bringing cases of voter fraud to court involves meeting an exceptionally high bar and that the financial constraints mean that people are not willing to bring those cases forward, so we cannot close our eyes and say that voter fraud is not happening because it is not getting to the courtroom. The proposals in the Bill go a long way to making people feel that when they cast their ballot, they have an equal say in those ballots, compared with people who may want to act criminally.
I always suspected throughout the passage of the Bill, whether on Second Reading or in our evidence sessions, that there was absolutely no evidence that voter ID cards would address an identified problem. In the evidence that we heard in four sessions over two days, not even the Government’s star witness said that personation was a sufficiently big issue to make voter ID cards essential to tackling it. Overwhelmingly, every single person who spoke to us about the subject said that the issue that needs addressing is postal vote fraud.
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman was not paying attention to Councillor Peter Golds during the evidence session, who turned around and said on a number of occasions that personation was a relevant thing in Tower Hamlets. Was the hon. Gentleman asleep during that evidence?
I assure the hon. Gentleman that I was not asleep; perhaps he should temper his language somewhat. I suggest he reads Councillor Golds’s evidence, which I will come to in a moment. He talked in such great detail about postal vote fraud: it was the biggest issue in Councillor Golds’s extremely detailed and voluminous file. In fact, he was reduced to anecdotal evidence about personation and a gentleman with large feet and red shoes. That is the nub of where he was. Every person and even the Government’s star witness, as I would class Councillor Golds, was unable to give any evidence that personation at polling stations was a major problem.
The hon. Gentleman dealt with Peter Golds there, but what about the case in Peterborough? Surely the requirement to introduce CCTV that Gillian Beasley told us about says it is not an anecdotal problem. It is a real problem. That step has had to be taken in Peterborough for deterrence. The Bill enables deterrence without the expense of CCTV.
Again, I will not use the language that the hon. Member for Peterborough used, but read the evidence. Gillian Beasley said that
“we have seen less personation”—[Official Report, Elections Public Bill Committee, 15 September 2021; c. 21, Q23.]
in recent years; she followed that up by saying that postal voting is her concern. The Government are looking in the wrong place and they know that. They are doing it for reasons about which one can only speculate.
I am grateful for the second opportunity to address this. We heard from Mr Mawrey QC, who is also an election judge. In his judgment in the Birmingham cases, which I referred to during the evidence session, he said that
“there is likely to be no evidence of fraud if you do not look for it.”
The whole point is that we need to look for it.
With all due respect to the hon. Gentleman, if a Government ignore the problem in front of their nose and then run about trying to find evidence of a problem when there is no evidence that that problem exists, I suggest they are wasting their time. The problem to be addressed is around postal voting. Richard Mawrey said that Birmingham, Slough and Woking were all cases that involved postal vote fraud; voter ID was “neither here nor there.”
I absolutely will. My position is that there is no evidence whatsoever. Policy must be made on the basis of evidence. We have a limited time in this House in which to act and legislate. It is a waste of that precious time, I believe, for a Government to run around looking to create a problem to find a solution for. We should address the problems that we know exist, and those problems that have to be attacked.
Even Lord Pickles, in his evidence, said:
“I did not recommend photo ID”. ––[Official Report, Elections Public Bill Committee, 15 September 2021; c. 16, Q13.]
He also said that fraud
“is not endemic within the system”,––[Official Report, Elections Public Bill Committee, 15 September 2021; c. 8, Q5.]
However, somehow, Lord Pickles has now embraced this voter ID card with the zeal of a convert. It is further evidence of a Government with a solution looking for a problem.
Councillor Golds gave chapter and verse on the problems of postal voting in Tower Hamlets, and he was extremely convincing. Fair play to Peter Golds and the people who he has been working with—they have identified a serious problem—but to try to segue that into pretending that ID cards at polling stations will somehow solve what we saw at Tower Hamlets is frankly nonsense. It is not there.
I will in a moment. Ailsa Irvine, of the Electoral Commission, admitted that
“we are starting from a high base of public confidence.”––[Official Report, Elections Public Bill Committee, 15 September 2021; c. 46, Q64.]
There is confidence in this system—that the system works and is sufficiently robust.
I will in a moment. There is nothing perfect. There is no way on earth that we can stop every sort of crime, but this Government and this Committee should concentrate on identified problems, rather than seeking to find problems and then provide a solution as they see fit. Now, there were two hon. Gentlemen bobbing.
Just briefly, on Councillor Golds’ evidence, he did make reference to the Jehovah’s Witnesses who had been marked as having voted on the register in the polling station when, of course, they would not have done. I appreciate that it was anecdotal evidence, but does that not go to the heart of how difficult it for someone to realise that they are a victim of electoral fraud? If a non-voter was a victim of personation, they would not go to look for it.
Nobody on this side of the room is saying that electoral fraud should not be punished. It absolutely should be punished. It should not be tolerated and should never be tolerated. Any victim of it deserves justice. However, that must be evidence-led and proportionate. This is neither.
I am incredibly grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I wish to provide clarity, in respect of the report by Lord Pickles. I have a copy in front of me. Recommendation No. 8 states:
“The Government should consider the options for electors to have to produce personal identification before voting at polling stations. There is no need to be over elaborate; measures should enhance public confidence and be proportional. A driving licence, passport or utility bills would not seem unreasonable to establish identity. The Government may wish to pilot different methods. But the present system is unsatisfactory; perfection must not get in the way of a practical solution.”
The hon. Gentleman is making my point for me. He did not recommend ID cards. He did not. If he mentioned taking a utility bill, he is not talking about registering for and receiving a voter ID card. As he said, he did not recommend it. In the first bit of evidence, Lord Pickles says he did not recommend voter ID cards.
The hon. Gentleman has made the point, quite rightly, that there is electoral law in place that can be used to prosecute fraud, but we heard in evidence that there is a very high bar for people, not least financially. Prevention is better than prosecution. Preventing electoral fraud from happening in the first place is surely better than trying to prove it has happened and prosecuting.
At the risk of repeating myself, nobody is saying that we should not root out electoral fraud and that it should not be punished to the full extent of the law, but this Bill, and particularly voter ID cards, will not solve it. If there were a Bill in front of us that said, “We will beef up the Electoral Commission. We will give the police more powers of prosecution. We will allow greater transparency in how we find and prosecute people who are cheating the system,” it would have unanimous support, but the Government are trying to pretend that the introduction of voter ID cards will stop this, and that is simply not the case.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there are different types of prevention of electoral fraud? One was outlined in the evidence from Peterborough. The witnesses said they could put up CCTV cameras, which would cost them nothing because they would borrow them from the police. That is a much more proportionate measure to prevent fraud, and there would not be the risk that it would stop people and put up a barrier to voting.