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Diversity and Freedom of Belief: Public Institutions

Volume 704: debated on Wednesday 24 November 2021

3. What recent discussions she has had with Cabinet colleagues on diversity and freedom of belief in public institutions. (904382)

I regularly discuss these important issues with other Ministers, as does the Minister for Women and Equalities. Freedom of belief and speech are vital pillars of our democratic society, and no one should be silenced for expressing their legitimately held opinions. Freedom of speech in universities is already protected by law, but there is no effective enforcement mechanism. The Government are therefore taking steps, in line with our manifesto, to strengthen academic freedom and free speech in universities in England.

My hon. Friend may be aware that John Cleese recently felt that he needed to pull out of speaking to the Cambridge Union following the revelation that it had blacklisted certain people from speaking. Although the union’s president has now rowed back on the claim that a list of banned speakers exists, will my hon. Friend outline what the Government are doing to promote freedom of speech and belief in our universities to make sure that students are exposed to a range of views even though they may themselves disagree with them?

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. Indeed, John Cleese was quite right to highlight this issue. However, it should not be up to comedians to educate students on core values such as freedom of speech and freedom of belief; the universities themselves should do that. Those that seek to bully, harass and intimidate others because of their views risk undermining our precious freedoms. Such behaviour should not and will not be tolerated on university campuses. That is why we have introduced the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill to strengthen freedom of speech and academic freedom in universities and ensure that individuals can seek redress.

Across the United Kingdom, women in public institutions are being hounded for the belief that sex matters in life as well as in law. I have in mind the case of Professor Kathleen Stock at Sussex University, but there are many other women suffering the same fate who do not have such a high public profile. What support can the Minister offer to such women?

I thank the hon. and learned Lady for bringing that question to me. She is absolutely right. I have been appalled by the disgraceful treatment of Professor Kathleen Stock. I think that we, as a Government, should do more, and I am personally looking into what we can do in terms of workplace harassment and bullying, which a lot of that behaviour falls under. I hope that I will be able to work with the hon. and learned Lady on this issue more closely.