Motion to Take Note
That this House takes note of the protection of freedom of speech in universities.
My Lords, if ever there was a time when free speech was vital, not only in our universities but in general discourse, it is now. I am therefore especially pleased that there are two maiden speakers today who both have special and different perspectives on the topic. We all look forward to their contributions and wish them well in this and all their future work in this House.
Many Members of this House will have been students when there were troubles of one sort or another, depending on the age. Indeed, we may have cut our teeth on some of them. There were protests, sometimes violent, in the past, but never have those protests been so widely or indiscriminately launched and never have the university authorities been so complicit in allowing the free exchange of ideas to be closed down. Nor, in my experience, have students ever been so self-censorious. They claim a right not to be offended, but we cannot secure freedom of expression if we all also maintain a right not to be offended. That closes down the freedom of speech of others and, as explained by my noble friend Lady O’Neill in a recent Theos lecture, offence is subjective. Only that which is unlawful should be banned.
Free speech is under attack because of a widespread culture of victimisation and grievance. People are fearful of the consequences if they express unpopular views and so they stay silent. Academic freedom and freedom of speech are the poorer for it. There is a pincer movement between students blocking speech they disapprove of and the operation of the many laws imposed on universities to promote and control speech, which I will explain.
Universities have a unique responsibility to promote and secure free speech, not only for the advancement of public knowledge but for the training of our future leaders and professionals. Universities are bound by statute to give external speakers a platform, provided that they are speaking within the law. Extreme but lawful views should not be repressed but challenged. But extremist speakers are not being challenged because the students themselves are silencing the challengers.
The freedom of expression, belief and assembly is protected by the European Convention on Human Rights. But restrictions are allowed, as are prescribed by law, which is necessary in a democratic society and for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.
According to a ranking by Spiked magazine, 80% of universities and 61% of student unions censor speech to some extent. Some of the London universities are among the worst. They mandate explicit restrictions on speech, including but not limited to bans on specific ideologies, political affiliations, beliefs, books, speakers or words, and students may even be expelled on the grounds of their controversial views.
The National Union of Students and some other unions have invented a safe space policy, the gist of which is that students should always feel, “comfortable and safe”. Any idea that has the potential to upset students or cause discomfort is seen as a problem. Some beliefs are branded as dangerous and to be repressed. So the protection of safety for some students means that others are labelled as dangerous and hateful. The NUS wants all campus speech to be empowering, non-judgmental and non-threatening. If it is not, it will be shouted down, obstructed or banned.
These are some examples of students closing down freedom—some are ridiculous, some are serious. Examples include the banning of sombreros at a student fair; banning Halloween costumes and Bibles; and the requirement to refrain from using hand gestures that denote disagreement, such as applause. Pro-life groups are banned, as are Coca-Cola and a Nietzsche reading group. Students are allowed to opt out of difficult topics and have to be given a so-called “trigger warning” that something in the lecture may upset them. Oxford banned a magazine with articles defending colonialism. A Muslim woman who had been assaulted in Egypt during the Arab spring was stopped from giving a talk at London Met on the need for a sexual revolution in the Middle East.
Speakers are banned for holding politically incorrect views about transgender issues or even for addressing the free-speech problem. The NUS has a no-platform policy that blocks what it defines as racist, fascist, transphobic and rape-denying speakers, so it is no to the name of Cecil Rhodes but yes to the millions of funding given to universities by Middle Eastern despots who in their states repress the freedoms so dear to our students. Students have stopped speeches by many politicians, including some of your Lordships. York cancelled an International Men’s Day debate about the challenges that men face in education and employment. You could not make it up.
The worst case was the dismissal of the Nobel Prize winner Sir Tim Hunt from his position at UCL after a poor joke about women scientists. Those who objected to him could not themselves begin to measure up to his achievements in science and the promotion that, in practice, he gave to women scientists. Lecturers and authorities are bowing to students’ whims. There is an academic boycott of Israel, which has been condemned by the Prime Minister and is discriminatory—and some Israeli or Jewish students do not get to enjoy the safe space that the NUS guarantees to others.
While interesting, lawful speech is being stopped, at the other end of the spectrum, illegal and authoritarian speakers are not being blocked or challenged. We cannot deny that, whether radicalised at university or not, some of our own terrorists are graduates of British universities—for example Jihadi John from the University of Westminster, and the underpants bomber from UCL. Other students’ minds are being filled with unlawful material about homophobia, hatred of minorities, apostasy and the repression of women. The think tank Student Rights logged 123 extremist speakers on campus in 2014—speakers who called for religious law to prevail over democracy, the enslavement of women, support for convicted terrorists and intolerance of minorities and non-believers. At several universities, speakers rejected the idea of freedom of speech and called for the death penalty for homosexuality and fornication.
The NUS conference in 2015 resolved to work alongside the organisation CAGE, an organisation which had praised Jihadi John, supported jihad against British soldiers abroad, and was close to the killer of Lee Rigby—although the NUS later said that it would not work with CAGE. What is so sad about the speeches on religious jurisprudence at universities is that they are sermons, not open to debate or challenge, which are after all the best way to open young minds, especially in current circumstances. Not only is that poison allowed to spread, it is actually against the law, and the universities are failing in their duty to apply it.
This is a quick run-down of the laws—arguably too many—that mean universities must monitor free speech. The Education (No.2) Act 1986 requires them to secure freedom of speech within the law for members and visitors. They are obliged to maintain a code of practice in relation to speakers. The Public Order Act 1986 bans race hatred. The Education Reform Act 1988 provides for protection of academic freedom. The Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 bans threatening and abusive behaviour causing alarm and distress. The Protection from Harassment Act 1997 does what it says. The Terrorism Acts 2000 and 2006 ban its glorification. The Charities Act 2006 applies to student unions. The Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008 bans the inciting of hatred on the ground of sexual orientation. The Equality Act 2010 includes an obligation to foster good relations between different groups on campus. In sum, freedom of speech is what is left only after the law is taken into account—no harassment, defamation, hate speech, discrimination and incitement to violence. Encouragement of terrorism and inviting support for a proscribed terrorist organisation are criminal offences.
Given the evidence of effective exposure to terrorism in our universities, it is hard to object to the motive behind the Prevent policy and guidance, introduced by the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015—nor is it new. It has been estimated that 17 UK graduates have been involved in terrorism and some have gone to Syria, and those who wish to recruit can easily target university students. The Prevent guidance requires universities to ensure that where there are speakers with extremist views on terrorism or who preach non-violent extremism they should be challenged with opposing views at the same event, rather than be banned from speaking. But they should allow the event to proceed only where they are “entirely convinced” that the risk can be “fully mitigated”, not if there remains any doubt. So where a lecture falls into this category of extremism, the university may impose conditions to ensure openness and peaceful debate.
This is difficult stuff. Many of the phrases that I have just used require definition and great sensitivity, balancing implementation and the need for academic freedom and freedom of lawful speech; and there are practical difficulties in getting advance notice and ensuring that the audience can challenge. Yet the need for lawful speech only is clear and indisputable. It applies not only in universities, but in the nation generally, that we should not call for killing, hatred of minorities or the subjugation of women.
Nevertheless, the NUS is opposing the Prevent policy, although it is hard to take that union seriously given its inability to distinguish between unpalatable views, which it is happy to ban, and the unlawful. The union calls it racist, that it will mean lecturers spying on students and will inhibit controversial ideas. Some 500 lecturers objected to it, those self-same lecturers who have been supine in the face of student censorship and the visits of extremist speakers. It suggests that it is hard to deny the actuality of terrorism and its student supporters. There is no evidence of lecturers spying on students: they are actually quite reluctant to do anything for fear of being accused of being racist. The bus bomber in Tavistock Square 10 years ago was noted by his lecturer as an extremist without any following intervention.
So what is to be done about these increasing limitations on free speech? We need to be helpful and supportive to universities, for they bear a heavy burden. First, they and their lecturers should know, or be trained in the law. It is not right to shelter behind the excuse that student unions are autonomous bodies, for they are not. They are subject to charity laws and many of the other laws I have listed. The lecturers should know that they have a duty to promote good relations between different groups on campus, including in student unions under the Equality Act. They should be told that boycotts are racist, discriminatory, undermine academic research and are contrary to the global knowledge goal of the International Council for Science.
Rather than citing health and safety laws as an excuse for closing down an event where there are likely to be protests, the universities should challenge the protesters and carry out the risk assessments they are obliged to undertake. Prevent training and explanation should be mandatory for all student union officials. Above all, more work needs to be done to make the prevent guidance user-friendly. Words such as British values, extremism and radicalisation need to be defined. A compendium of all the relevant laws and definitions should be compiled. Students should be told in no uncertain terms to stop being sanctimonious ninnies and to drop illusions of victimisation.
Will the Minister ensure that these steps are taken? The time is ripe for national leadership from Universities UK on the whole issue, not fence-sitting. An apology is owed to Sir Tim Hunt. Come back Cardinal Newman. In his The Idea of a University he said that,
“it is a place of teaching universal knowledge”.
That phrase should be emblazoned on the literature of every fresher manual. Students should be armed with the procedures to defend it. I beg to move.
My Lords, the noble Baroness’s speech was absolutely masterly. I have not enjoyed a speech so much, or agreed with a speech so much, in the whole time I have been here in the House of Lords—with the exception of one or two that I myself made and have reread.
I have absolute sympathy with everything that the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, said. The only addition I would make before resting my case is that I think we need not just protection but much more promotion of freedom of speech in our universities by those who are meant to be the leaders of our universities—the vice-chancellors, heads of colleges and others, who need to come out from cowering in their common rooms and offices to take on these issues much more themselves.
I believe that freedom of expression is vital. I also think that freedom from intolerance seems central to the very idea of the university as a community of thinkers, and should be absolutely central to the soul of any university—if universities and institutions can have souls. I may need the advice of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ely on that, perhaps at a later stage outside the Chamber. I respect the freedom of universities to run their own affairs as independent bodies corporate and to take their own individual approaches on how they protect freedoms with their own codes of practice. Freedom of speech rankings were produced by Spiked, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, has already referred—I had not come across it until lately, and am now an avid reader and may even become a subscriber to this magazine. It was much publicised back in February for purporting to show that only one in five universities absolutely subscribes to total freedom of speech, according to red, amber and green dashboard rankings.
These are just league tables based on qualitative evidence, with all the inaccuracies and unfairnesses that sometimes league tables have. So I did a bit of my own research and picked on a particular university: Exeter. It seemed to be very good and lo and behold it turned out to get an emphatic green from Spiked. Why was it given that award for supporting freedom of speech? Well, maybe it has to do with its seemingly excellent code of practice. Perhaps the students are a rather quiet bunch who do not like rioting. Perhaps it has a strong vice-chancellor and strong college councillors who have stamped on some of the issues to which the noble Baroness referred.
My own instinct tells me that good, firm leadership is needed. When corporate outfits, whether they are political parties, churches, great national companies or indeed universities rot, they generally rot from the head down because there is inadequate leadership from the top. The best form of protection of freedom of speech within universities comes from the strong and active promotion of freedom of speech. I shall give two examples of where I wish there had been that promotion. They both come from this month. Cambridge University asked a scholar called Dr Starkey to take part in a promotional fundraising film, but there were some protests from students and some faculty members who doubtless wanted to preserve their budgetary position, so it simply airbrushed the good doctor out of the film and carried on. I have heard nothing from the vice-chancellor of Cambridge University about this, and whether this is in the interests of freedom.
Secondly, also this month, across in Oxford, scholars, young and old, are disapproving of Cecil Rhodes. There is nothing wrong with that; it is their right to disapprove of what Cecil Rhodes said and wrote. However, they are now demonstrating and chanting “Rhodes must fall”—which means that they want to see the statue of Cecil Rhodes in Oxford pulled down, for all the world as if he were Saddam Hussein or, after the wall came down, a dictator like Lenin.
I ask, in conclusion: have the students of the University of Oxford lost their sense of irony? They are suggesting by pulling down a statue of Rhodes that they should follow what ISIS is doing in iconoclastically pulling down statues of which they do not approve in the Far East. I think that universities serve the purpose of freedom of speech not by being silent but by coming out and showing leadership on issues like this.
My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick, has, with regret, had to withdraw her name, so I now join in thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, for introducing this important debate, and for such a comprehensive overview.
As she set out, this is an issue of growing concern. There is indeed no right not to be offended. Matters we might find offensive can sometimes serve the useful purpose of making us challenge our assumptions and views, analyse why we find something offensive and sift out what is intrinsically bad from what makes us feel uncomfortable. Universities UK has suggested that by providing an environment for debate, universities create a forum for differing and difficult views to be discussed and challenged. This gives students the opportunity to develop important skills in the analysis and refutation of accepted ideas, positions and modes of behaviour. If students only ever hear and discuss ideas with which they agree, their education will not have served them well. Indeed, it would be a sorry university experience which never took them out of their comfort zone.
A classic example of our long-standing regard for freedom of speech came in the 1930s with the famous King and country debate at the Oxford Union in February 1933. The motion,
“That this House will in no circumstances fight for its King and Country”,
was carried by 275 votes to 153. It is one of the most widely reported and discussed debates at the Oxford Union. There are varying opinions as to how far it influenced Hitler and Mussolini into thinking that the British were pacifists who would present little opposition to potential aggressors.
Interestingly, the Cambridge Union had staged a similar pacifist debate in 1927, also carried by 213 votes to 138, but it went unreported. Both universities felt unfettered in debating issues which could well have caused offence and expressing views which could have been seen as seditious. But that was before the days of instant, widespread communication. Email and other forms of social media mean that simple messages can go viral, without reflection, analysis or context. The process that used to allow for thinking before writing has been abbreviated into a process of communicating without finding out the facts or considering wider implications. People today respond rapidly, if not instantly. They react on the spot. Under these circumstances, any boundaries for freedom of speech become much more difficult to define.
The Prevent strategy sets out that:
“Colleges have a clear and unambiguous role to play in helping to safeguard vulnerable young people from radicalisation and recruitment by terrorist organisations”.
Equality policies also state that homophobic, sexist and racist language will not be tolerated. Inevitably, there will be grey areas where freedom of expression will appear to be curtailed to take regard of the care of students. It is impossible to legislate for all the occasions when this might arise. Universities, more than ever, have a requirement to ensure that channels of communication remain open between staff, students and outside organisations.
This requires a whole new skill set from the academics of yesteryear. They are rising to the challenge. As Universities UK relates, the actions undertaken by institutions will vary, but will normally include participation in multiagency work, training student-facing staff to improve awareness of the signs of violent extremism, developing policies relating to external speaker requests, supporting interfaith activities, and many more. I ask the Minister: what are the Government doing to ensure that universities are supported in these endeavours and not stifled by legislation?
Exposure to a whole range of ideas remains an important part of university education. Universities perform a vital role in providing a safe place for views, beliefs and even prejudices to be challenged and debated constructively. We have a great tradition of being a tolerant society. Tolerance does not mean indifference, but creates a multicultural nation that draws strength, rather than conflict, from its differences. Even the National Union of Students, which has great regard for the care of students, asserts that the right to freedom of speech is integral to any democracy. It is too precious to lose.
My Lords, I, too, say what a splendid speech we had from the noble Baroness, Lady Deech.
I am chairman of a commission on religion and belief in modern-day Britain. We are issuing a report next month. I want to share with the House two points that have come out of evidence we have taken right across the United Kingdom. The first is the importance of tolerating difference: the learning of respect for other people’s views—even when those who listen strongly disagree with what is being said—and of the benefits of that disagreement with what they are listening to.
The second point, which the Government should take into account, is the unintended consequences of important counterterrorism legislation, in particular the rhetoric that accompanies it. One of the problems with it is that the Muslim population in this country—we have heard a great deal of evidence about this—feel that they are “other”, as they put it, that they do not belong. They feel that they are not trusted. There is a much greater need for dialogue, discussion and listening to those with whom one disagrees.
Therefore, universities are places of learning outside of the academic studies followed by undergraduates, postgraduates and so on. It is a crucial setting for argument, dissent and opposing points of view. I was particularly dismayed by students who have been preventing robust discussion by speakers of whom they do not approve. I was particularly shocked by the examples that the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, gave in her speech. Yesterday in Questions, the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill, reminded us that freedom of speech includes the freedom to offend. That should be censored only for very good reason. I perhaps should add that the freedom to offend does not include a duty gratuitously to offend.
There is a very difficult balance to be struck between the necessary excluding of extremist, unacceptable speakers on campus—which, as we have again learnt from the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, is not necessarily followed by those who should be dealing with it—and academic freedom of speech. It seems to me that the Government should be careful not to add to excessive restrictions on academic freedom to discuss the issues that our commission believes need urgently to be exposed to robust debate.
My Lords, it is with great pleasure that I give my maiden speech, and I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, for calling this important debate and for her superb speech.
It must be because I work in education, but in the last month I have found it impossible to lose the sensation of joining a new school: a complicated set of rules to learn, overseen by a kindly but authoritative headmistress, with plenty of older boys and girls to look up to. And, of course, the wag who makes everyone laugh, played, on the day of my introduction, by my two year-old daughter Hope, who, as I entered the Chamber, shouted, “Daddy” from up in the Gallery. Having read Walter Bagehot at school, I now understand that this House is not only “efficient”, but the most “dignified” part of the British constitution. Its hallmark is the great courtesy and kindness shown by everyone—the doorkeepers, clerks, Peers and staff. It makes the House a joy to spend time in, as well as a huge privilege.
For their wisdom and guidance, I thank my Whip and mentor, my noble friend Lord Younger of Leckie, and my supporters, my noble friends Lady Evans of Bowes Park and Lord Nash—the noble Baroness being responsible for giving me my first job in politics. I also thank another former boss, the noble Lord, Lord Mendelsohn, for his advice. He once bought me the box set of “The Godfather” and said, “Watch this, it’ll teach you everything you need to know about politics”. I am not sure how well Don Corleone would have got on at this end of the Palace.
In 15 years of working in policy and politics, I learnt that every successful political party must have a deep compassion—a love, in fact—for the British people, their history and their culture. I have also learnt that politics is at its most powerful when it seeks to ensure that everybody, especially those who are disadvantaged or excluded, can play a full part in our island story. I call this idea progressive conservatism, and it lay at the heart of the 2010 general election manifesto, which I had the honour of authoring. That document was called Invitation to Join the Government of Britain, although when drafting it I did not expect that the first people to RSVP would be the Liberal Democrats.
Nevertheless, the coalition Government I was very proud to serve were a radical and reforming Administration, and some of their greatest achievements were in education. The policies on free schools, turning all schools into academies and the pupil premium have roots in a report I wrote in 2005 for Policy Exchange, called More Good School Places. But, critically, they draw on Labour and Liberal Democrat ideas, too. There is a strong history of bipartisanship in school reform, so it is a particular honour to take my place in this House with so many former education Ministers, including my noble friends Lord Patten and Lord Baker, the noble Lords, Lord Blunkett and Lord Adonis, and others—yet another reason why this House still has so much to offer.
The purpose of education is much disputed, but for me it is best summed up in the words of Martin Luther King, who said:
“Intelligence plus character—that is the goal of true education”.
This sums up the philosophy behind the group of primary schools I founded. Floreat Education aims to help children flourish by giving them a knowledge-rich curriculum, while explicitly and purposefully developing their character virtues. Our first two schools opened in September and we will open three more in 2016.
A true education, I believe, allows young people to draw on the accumulated knowledge of civilisation to develop what Aristotle called phronesis, or practical wisdom. Its goal is to give people power to become the authors of their own life stories, to think critically and to seek truth. Nowhere is the pursuit of truth more important than in our universities. John Stuart Mill said that truth unchallenged becomes dogma, so we all have an obligation to seek out views that differ from our own. This can be uncomfortable: we prefer to hear information that supports what we already think. Psychologists call this confirmation bias, but it is an impulse to be resisted, not indulged.
Freedom of speech, then, is not a luxury of liberal democracies; it is the sine qua non of intellectual progress. Of course, it is right that no freedom exists unfettered. Given the threats we face, it is right that incitements to violence and hatred are against the law. But it is a profound mistake to believe that every view we hold is shorn of imperfection and should never be challenged. Our centres of advanced learning must be at the vanguard of attempts to find universal, ethical truths about the way we should live. That is impossible unless people are free to speak, to challenge, and to seek common understanding.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord O’Shaughnessy on an excellent maiden speech—albeit a little short due to the time restriction—and welcome him to your Lordships’ House. We are lucky to have someone who has spent so many years thinking about education, our country and how to improve it, not least as head of research at one of the country’s most distinguished think tanks, Policy Exchange, but also, of course, advising our Prime Minister as his director of policy. It is always good to be surrounded by smart people. We can only welcome the enhancement of this House by someone who has been described as a new Aristotelian promoter of positive psychology in education. Clearly, we will hear much more from someone who is fizzing with ideas and enthusiasm on his next steps in public service of this country.
I warmly congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, on securing this debate and on her excellent speech. We could all be forgiven for thinking that such a debate was unnecessary because, if universities are for anything, surely they are for a pluralism of thought, a debate of ideas and the fundamental principle that everything should be challenged in order to strengthen it. The noble Lord, Lord O’Shaughnessy, has reminded us that John Stuart Mill said that if an opinion,
“is not fully, frequently and fearlessly discussed, it will be held as a dead dogma, not a living truth”.
Sadly, as the noble Baroness and others have said, our universities are in danger of becoming anything but the place for free speech.
I was moved to speak in this debate partly because of actions of my alma mater, the University of Southampton. In April of this year it was due to host a conference, the entire premise of which, backed up by a homogenous list of speakers—the usual suspects—was to question the right of Israel to exist as a nation state, and essentially to call for its elimination. No other nation state had ever had its right to exist questioned at Southampton University. I followed the example that my noble friend Lord Patten would have welcomed of writing to the vice-chancellor to ask for his leadership in this matter. We corresponded because I was upset by the university’s failure to lead on this, but I did not get very far.
However, the response from the Academic Friends of Israel was much more dignified than mine, in refusing to call for the conference to be cancelled or even for balance to be added to the programme. Instead, they simply chose to exercise their own right to free speech, to publicly criticise the one-sided nature of the programme, and to expose the questionable biographies of some of the speakers.
Contrast this with events of the previous autumn, when an Israeli professor, Mark Auslander—whom I have never met—was due to give a talk at Southampton on the subject of optical sensors: not views about the State of Israel, just views about science and technology, a field in which Israel has apparently long been a world leader. Almost unbelievably, the lecture had to be cancelled due to intimidation. This was suppression of free speech, combined with the worst of the politics of identity. Protestors were so afraid of what an Israeli might have to say about optical sensors, that they would not even hear him out. Perhaps they were interested in hearing about optical sensors, but not from an Israeli.
As our own Prime Minister has said:
“It is absolutely right that in Britain's universities, students and faculty should be able to criticise Israel, just as they can criticise any country … But it is absolutely wrong that in any of our universities there should be an environment where students are scared to express their Judaism or their Zionism freely”.
The problem is, of course, bigger than Southampton, bigger than Israel and bigger even than anti-Semitism. It is not confined to the UK. Speakers ranging from Condoleezza Rice, the IMF head Christine Lagarde, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, have all been invited to speak at American universities and then had their invitations withdrawn due to howls of protest from students.
There is room for hope. The University of Chicago has recently published a report in which it says:
“It is not the proper role of the University to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable or even deeply offensive”.
I commend this conclusion and sincerely hope that other universities will follow suit, both in the US and in the UK.
Indeed, this House, too, can be an example. Whether it is on defence and security, the economy, welfare or public services, we strengthen our democracy by coming here and airing our disagreements, improving our arguments and bolstering our understanding. Let us hope that university campuses will allow Professor Auslander and other distinguished academics from around the world the same courtesy.
My Lords, I, too, am very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, for securing this debate and for opening it so forcefully. It is much more entertaining, I can tell your Lordships, to listen to the noble Baroness in this House than to be subjected, as I was in the 1970s, to her powerful academic freedom as my tutor when I read out a tutorial. I hope that I do better today.
I want to focus on the damage that is being done to freedom of speech in universities by the guidance that has been issued by the Government under the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 to address non-violent extremism. Your Lordships will recall that, when the Bill was debated earlier this year, this House persuaded the Government to include references to the importance of free speech and academic freedom. The guidance was approved by this House and by the other place in September. The guidance is not directed at speech that encourages terrorism because that, of course, is already a criminal offence. There is no definition of non-violent extremism. The Minister for Security, Mr Hayes, told the House of Commons in September that the concept would be defined in a forthcoming Bill. It would be very helpful if the Minister, when she comes to reply, could tell the House when that Bill will be published.
This guidance is drafted in very restrictive terms. It says that a university must prevent a speaker being heard in relation to non-violent extremism unless the university is “entirely convinced” that the speaker will be answered so as to remove “any doubt” that the risks of non-violent extremism will be “fully mitigated”. If taken seriously, this would impede debate on many sensitive subjects. I entirely share the Government’s analysis of the seriousness of the threat to our society posed by terrorists and their sympathisers, and I agree that the root cause of the current wave of terrorism is a perverted ideology. The central question, however, is how best to combat such beliefs, and the essence of the principle of free speech is that the answer to dangerous ideas is more speech, not less speech.
The principle, in this context, marches together with pragmatism. Requiring universities to close down debate whenever there is any risk of an extremist not being adequately answered will not drain the poison; it will make it harder to detect and it will confer on such ideas a banned status that will make them only more attractive to the potential audience. We need to confront and challenge the non-violent extremists in universities so as to expose the poverty of their reasoning and their contempt for the values of our civilised society. We are in danger of losing our confidence in free speech, one of the central values that define the society that we are defending against the terrorists. It is ironic indeed that, in answer to the non-violent extremists’ attack on our core values, the Government are weakening one of those very values—freedom of expression—and are doing so in the very place, the universities, where freedom of speech is so vital to the health of our society.
I, too, take the opportunity to congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, on bringing this debate about. I would be very glad to engage in metaphysical conversation with the noble Lord, Lord Patten, about the soul of the university sometime outside the Chamber. I am more concerned for us to promote and understand the importance of religious literacy in the defence of free speech, and the church’s engagement with a number of institutions in seeking to make the most of the Prevent agenda without throwing aside openness and readiness to engage in full debate.
One of my heroes in theology is Peter Abelard who, in the 12th century in Paris, by taking risks with academic freedom at the time in his Sic et Non lectures, had students flocking to Paris. While recognising that at the heart of study was risky engagement, he put himself at risk under an oppressive church authority at the time to set people free. This is the foundation of western education, which we must continue to promote. Universities must be places where there is passionate and forensic debate, actively promoted. That is not only a statutory obligation; more importantly, it is at the heart of any scholarly purpose, as we discover the truth with one another and for ourselves.
At the heart of Christian teaching is the recurrent theme of reconciliation. The churches are all committed to building resilience in conflict transformation. It strikes me that universities are places where students may first learn about intellectual and community conflicts. If we allow the dominant agenda to become the refusal to be exposed to being offended, we deny ourselves the rich opportunity to be agents of the transformation of conflict through positive engagement.
Many years ago, I was preaching at a midnight mass and someone came into the church and said, “You are all hypocrites”. I said, “Well, come in, there’s always room for one more”. We all need to engage with people, even those who are different from us, recognising that people have the right to challenge us and to speak out against us. However, we need to make that positive engagement and to continue to believe—and to encourage our students to have the character and the confidence to believe—in the power of persuasion around our own truth claims and what we want to make of them. This is how I believe that universities serve the resilience of our democracy.
If there was more than one right reverend Prelate here this afternoon, I am sure we would agree on all sorts of things, but there would be other matters where there would be considerable debate and disagreement between us. This serves a robust and generous pluralism. This must be cherished in our universities and must not be undermined by excessive institutional caution or by the unintended consequences of laudable policies to tackle hate crime and extremism. Where the clash of ideas flows from strongly held moral and ethical convictions, it is even more important that our universities actively enable and support the patterns of debate and good disagreement which are at the heart of learning and intellectual exploration. It is a vital area of learning that we do not aim at a strangely disconnected tolerance of almost everything but at the serious critical engagement with unpalatable ideas while still honouring the integrity of the person expressing them.
My Lords, it is a great honour to stand up in your Lordships’ House for the first time. I echo the expression of gratitude to which the noble Lord, Lord O’Shaughnessy, gave voice. I have been very touched by the kind and generous welcome that I have received from Members of the House who have shown me the ropes. I am also very grateful to the parliamentary staff who see me trying to look purposeful and businesslike as I walk around the House from one corridor to another, wondering whether it is the corridor that I was in five minutes before. They conceal the fact that they know that perfectly well, so I am grateful to them, too.
I have received a lot of welcome advice about what I may say and, probably more importantly, what I should not say on this occasion. I know that I have to avoid controversy, which I will certainly try to do. I also know that I have to be brief. There appears to be a division of opinion on the extent to which the House welcomes autobiographical information. I will exercise economy in that respect. One noble Lord suggested that I should at all costs conceal the fact that I am a lawyer. I thought that that was going too far, so I confess that I have been a barrister for 30 years or so.
The matters to which the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, referred so eloquently matter a lot, in my view. I apologise to my noble and learned friend Lord Brown for stealing his thunder, since he was going to use exactly the same dictum, but I draw the House’s attention to some remarks of Sir Stephen Sedley in the Divisional Court. He said:
“Free speech includes not only the inoffensive but the irritating, the contentious, the eccentric, the heretical, the unwelcome and the provocative provided it does not tend to provoke violence”.
He went on to say, memorably:
“Freedom only to speak inoffensively is not worth having”.
That is clearly right.
Something is going on in our universities. I understand from those who know more about this than I do that it is a development which has gathered pace over the last five years or so. It may have travelled from America to some extent, but it is certainly gathering pace now in our universities. Why should that be so? Obviously, I do not know but one can speculate that the overprotective parenting of my generation may have played a part. One can speculate that the increasing tendency to demonise one’s political opponents, away from your Lordships’ House, has also played a part. One can also surmise—the chronology works well in this respect—that the advent of social media has lent force to this very unwelcome development. Facebook, Twitter and a lot of others, whose names I do not know, make it easy to form crusades, express outrage en masse—what could be more fun than that?—and identify and pillory people who are traitors to the cause.
This is a very substantial problem. As identified by the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, the failure of the universities to exercise their statutory obligation to promote free speech is letting our students down, causing them to weaponise hypersensitivity and will send them out into the wider world oversensitive and inclined to engage in emotional reasoning, not critical analysis.
My Lords, I am privileged to welcome the noble Lord, Lord Trevethin and Oaksey, to this House and, indeed, to these Cross Benches, and congratulate him on a most delightful and insightful maiden speech. I would have expected nothing less of so conspicuously successful and well-respected a practising Silk, whose advocacy at the Bar I have enjoyed, admired and, indeed, benefited from periodically over the years. I cannot pretend that the noble Lord always persuaded me that he was right, but that could have been the fault of his case, or perhaps my fault, and certainly not his. I have no doubt that in the years to come he will from time to time lay aside his practice and make valuable contributions to our proceedings, as he did today. I greatly look forward to his doing so.
I join others in congratulating the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, on securing this debate and introducing it so comprehensively, eloquently and, indeed, compellingly. I had intended to say one or two things about the Prevent strategy and countering extremist ideology. Universities really ought to be the Speakers’ Corners of the educational process. It is better by far to hear, challenge and reject extremist or, indeed, any other erroneous views than to ban them, but the fortnightly column of the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, which appeared in today’s Times, says more succinctly and persuasively than I could all that I would have wished to say on the subject. Of course, today he and the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, have valuably elaborated on that. Therefore, I pick up instead on a rather different thread of the debate, following on from what the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill, said at the end of the last Oral Question yesterday—namely, that,
“there is not and cannot be a right not to be offended”.—[Official Report, 25/11/15; col. 698.]
Of course, this, too, has been discussed by many speakers today.
Listening recently to one of Professor Roger Scruton’s admirably provocative talks on BBC Radio 4’s “A Point of View”, I was struck by what he had to say about taking offence. There is time only for one short quotation:
“One last word about the art of taking offence. Nowhere has this art been more assiduously cultivated than on American campuses … the professor may now be required to issue ‘trigger warnings’, lest he stray into areas that might trigger the memory of some traumatic event in the life of the student. Visiting speakers with heretical views about feminism or homosexuality are also preceded by trigger warnings. Some campuses even provide safe rooms where the trembling students can retire for consolation should they have been exposed to the contamination of an unorthodox point of view”.
I hope that our universities will not succumb to quite that degree of lunacy. As the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, observed earlier, we have started some way down this road but perhaps, not yet at least, to safe rooms. A safe room would surely be a very poor substitute for the college buttery.
Finally, on the question of offensive speech, I return briefly to Lord Justice Sedley’s famous judgment in the Redmond-Bate case. As my noble friend has just observed, he has already shot my fox. It is worth reminding ourselves of the final sentence of the paragraph in which Lord Justice Sedley deals with all this. He says:
“We in this country continue to owe a debt to the jury which in 1670 refused to convict the Quakers William Penn and William Mead for preaching ideas which offended against state orthodoxy”.
The lower courts in that case, and indeed in some earlier cases concerning a breach of the peace, had taken a wrong turn. They had decided that action should be taken against those exercising their right to free speech rather than those unreasonably provoked to violence by it. We should ensure that we do not make that mistake again.
My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, on securing this debate and delivering a rather brilliant tutorial. I declare certain non-financial interests: I am the honorary president of Conservative Friends of Israel; the unpaid director of a company that provides support for the All-Party Britain-Israel Parliamentary Group; and a trustee of the Yavneh Foundation Trust, a charity which owns the land and buildings in which a Jewish academy school operates.
In recent years, an environment of censorship, hostility and intimidation has emerged on university campuses across the United Kingdom. This current trend and the actions of some student bodies increasingly risk threatening freedom of speech at universities—places where debates and dialogue are fundamental. It can be difficult for Israel-supporting students to hold discussions on some campuses because of the prevailing attitude among many students and academics. By enabling extremist-linked organisations to speak on campuses but formally adopting boycott, divestment and sanctions —BDS—against Israel, the NUS has demonstrated selective discrimination.
The BDS campaign has actively sought to delegitimise Israel since 2005. Astonishingly, it has also consistently opposed efforts to bring Israelis and Palestinians together to work towards peace. BDS leaders advocate boycotting cultural exchanges between Israeli and Palestinian artists, and condemn educational co-operation between Israeli and Palestinian universities.
I am also concerned about what is happening here in Britain. In March 2015, staff and students at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies—SOAS—voted strongly in favour of a full academic boycott of Israel. The boycott campaign specifically called for cutting ties with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where BA students from SOAS itself can spend a year studying. In June 2015, the national executive committee of the National Union of Students voted to boycott Israeli companies and formally align itself with the aims of the BDS Movement. Yet, quite unbelievably, only a few months earlier the NUS executive committee had voted against a motion condemning Islamic State terrorists on the grounds that doing so could be considered Islamophobic. Principally, the academic boycott campaign is a major infringement on the right to free speech and directly impacts on the ability for academic co-operation between the two countries.
One answer to an academic boycott can be greater collaboration between academics in the UK and their counterparts in Israel. This Government and the British Council, together with the Pears Foundation, have taken a lead on this, most strikingly with BIRAX—the Britain Israel Research and Academic Exchange Partnership—which has many projects. Funding has been awarded to leading universities in Britain and Israel: Cambridge, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Manchester, Nottingham and Oxford; and the Hadassah School of Medicine, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the Galilee Research Institute, Technion, and the Weizmann Institute of Science. The University of Manchester and Technion in Haifa partnered in 2013 to collaborate jointly on research projects focusing on heart disease, stem cell and genetic research. There are many other areas of collaboration. In cybersecurity, for example, the bilateral UK-Israel academic partnerships are the University of Bristol and Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv; University College London and Bar-Ilan again; and the University of Kent and the Ministry of Science and Technology at Haifa.
Britain, Israel and society as a whole have much to lose if this sort of collaboration is stopped. The funding of these programmes should be not only safeguarded but enhanced. Does my noble friend the Minister agree with me that academic exchanges can help undermine those who wish to boycott and stifle freedom of speech? Will she confirm that Her Majesty’s Government will not only safeguard the programmes I have mentioned but extend and enhance them?
My Lords, we are all deeply grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, for unleashing an energising and vital debate. During the debate, we have learned of horrendous stories of where universities and the students within them have abused their desire to seek knowledge and instead have become the guardians of ignorance. I had the great privilege of speaking at the Cambridge Union just two weeks ago, addressing a large group of medical students who are using information technology as a mechanism to drive medical analysis, particularly in the continent of Africa. That is a great example of how students continue to become proactive and intelligent in pursuing issues rather than just fighting over ideas.
One of the greatest activists of our age was Mother Teresa. She said that at all times we should preach—in her case, preach Christianity—and teach,
“but only use words when necessary”.
I am sure the House needs no reminding that silence is sometimes a very powerful way to speak, but so is taking action. I have been associated, as have many of us, with an organisation called Enactus, which works in 53 universities across the UK with nearly 4,000 students. The thousands of students associated with Enactus—formerly called SIFE, or Students in Free Enterprise—actively use their time while at university and frequently thereafter to give voluntary hours in order to create enterprise that empowers others to have meaningful, economically effective lives.
The noble Lord, Lord Leigh, referred to the bizarre thinking of the University of Southampton in reference to a recent debate. By contrast, it was the University of Southampton which, at the recent Enactus World Cup in Johannesburg, in front of 5,000 students, won the Enactus World Champion award for the best international project of any university. It shows that in the same establishment, by taking a different approach, students can learn how to speak by acting proactively.
Specifically, the University of Southampton’s students had devised an interesting way in which human waste could be used for fertilising agricultural lands. That human waste and fertilisation gave empowerment to, and provided business enterprise for, groups of people who, before, had been locked out of the economy. That won the global prize ahead of projects from 36 other countries.
That opportunity for university students to use their time articulating, thinking about, discussing and engaging with ideas and targeting those ideas effectively in voluntary work—giving 180,000 hours to the Enactus organisation in the United Kingdom and, globally, more than 6 million hours of voluntary time and commitment, all of which impact on more than 2 million people annually—is a very constructive way of making sure that free speech is maintained. By acting decisively in the interests of wider communities, students learn how to think with an open mind.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lady Deech on introducing this very important debate, which is enlightening us all as we go along.
I speak as president of Birkbeck in the University of London. It is the home of the Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism—the only centre in the UK and one of only two in Europe whose mission is to promote the understanding of anti-Semitism. My noble friend Lady Deech asked what is to be done. Studies and institutes such as this can investigate the state of freedom of speech in our society.
Most recently, the institute has been dealing with what it calls the “new anti-Semitism”—a reference to when criticism of Israel and the policies of its Government are condemned as being anti-Semitic. There is no absolutely no consensus on this, and the noble Lord, Lord Polak, has just made a strong case on this very issue. Some colleagues in the academic world have chosen to boycott their corresponding faculties in Israel; others believe in engaging in debate with those they disagree with. I oppose boycotts. I believe in fierce and engaged debate, as indeed do the Israelis.
I turn to a different story. Recently, students at the University of Ottawa decided to cancel yoga practices. They made the case that it was derived from, and therefore usurped, a religious observance of another culture and should not be used as a keep-fit routine. Members of the transgender community recently denounced the film “Zoolander 2”, in which Benedict Cumberbatch stars as an androgynous model. In our highly individualised and narcissistic society, when groups—often of young people and often using social media—feel threatened and hurt by the contempt and mockery of others, they seek ever more protection for their feelings. That has to be resisted.
There is already an overabundance of laws that control or restrict what can be said. My noble friend Lady Deech gave a whole raft of them but she did not mention the laws of libel or slander. Of course, laws cannot control what is thought, and universities are about thinking. Universities, more than anywhere else, equip people to think clearly and consistently, and to express their views within a safe and collegiate atmosphere. They should be the custodians of our free speech, not a challenge to it. If such a challenge comes from the student body, university authorities must be given the strength to resist it. Those who want to “no platform” speakers and ban meetings need to be confronted directly about their fears and objections. Discourse is the way to deal with ideas that we dislike. We need to keep that discourse going.
My Lords, I too congratulate my noble friend Lady Deech on securing this important debate and on her brilliant speech.
Everyone agrees that freedom of speech is essential for a functioning democracy. Unfortunately, it means different things to different people. To me, it is the right to criticise the actions of those in authority—Governments and powerful institutions, including religions and those in religious authority. Freedom of speech does not carry a right to gratuitously offend. Actions deliberately causing fear and distress are, rightly, against the law. While we should all uphold true freedom of speech, we also need to be on guard to ensure that it is not used as a force to harm or silence the weak and vulnerable.
Although I have real concerns about banning speakers who sometimes challenge conventional thinking, my main concern today is the treatment of religion and religious expression in universities. Despite government programmes such as Prevent, extremist preachers all too frequently use freedom of speech to incite hatred against others or to undermine democratic institutions or the rights and beliefs of others. At the same time, they are the first to react with bluster and threat to criticism of their actions. University authorities seem loath to act against such people.
Today, raising concerns about the behaviour of some young Muslims who bring disgrace to their faith carries the risk of being labelled as Islamophobic. The smear “Islamophobia” is often used to stifle even the mildest criticism. Another argument advanced by both people of religion and those in secular society is that religion is a personal matter and therefore beyond questioning and criticism. I strongly disagree with this view. Religion is not some sort of endangered way of life that excludes it from legitimate questioning and debate. If religions claim to hold eternal truths and the solution to many of the ills in society, they must open themselves up to robust challenge and questioning. Freedom of speech must include the right to challenge without fears of instant smears of anti-Semitism, Islamophobia or any other religious phobia.
As a Sikh, I believe, particularly now, that religion should allow and encourage the querying of teachings on social issues which, to some, may seem out of kilter with accepted norms and, at times, even out of kilter with common sense. In speaking to Sikh and other faith groups, I always say that if a practice seems to go against common sense, it must be challenged—in places of worship, universities and other walks of life. Universities are ideal places in which to conduct discussions affecting society. Such discussions can and should be probing but they must be conducted in courteous terms and never be used to demean or belittle.
My Lords, we are in the bleak shadow of the mass murders in Paris by those who hate our way of life and all that we cherish, including free speech. These psychopathic killers blaspheme against Islam and play into the hands of bigots who seek to stir up hatred against Muslim communities. Nothing in Islam authorises the cowardly massacre of innocent unarmed women, men, children and babies.
The great American jurist Louis Brandeis explained the value of free speech in near absolute terms. He wrote that,
“the fitting remedy for evil counsels is good ones”.
Like the rest of Europe, the United Kingdom does not go as far as the United States in protecting free speech as near absolute. We recognise that the right to free speech must be qualified to respect the rights of others, the prevention of crime and the protection of national security. As Anthony Lewis, the biographer of the First Amendment, wrote,
“in an age where words have inspired acts of mass murder … it is not easy to believe that the only remedy for evil counsels ... should be good ones”.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, said, we have ample legislation in this country protecting public order and criminalising the incitement of racial and religious hatred and the glorification of terrorism. Its enforcement, however, is problematic and can often create a Catch-22. What matters much more than legal protection is a vibrant culture of liberty. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Polak, and others who have rightly criticised boycotts that I successfully advised University College London that the boycott of Israel by academics was unlawful, and it ended.
What is lacking is the spirit of liberty among those who seek to deny a platform to controversial speakers. A week ago, high security had to be invoked to protect Germaine Greer when she gave a lecture at Cardiff University. She defied a fierce campaign to stop her delivering it on the ground that she had expressed transphobic views. As many have said, the governors and students of our universities should not deny a platform to anyone unless there is a clear and present danger of violence or the insidious abuse of freedom of speech by those who glorify terrorism, such as jihadi extremists and radical clerics inciting hatred and violence under cover of religion, or terrorists using social media to spread filthy messages that brainwash vulnerable young men and women into supporting their vile crimes.
The Government’s heavy-handed approach to defining extremism has not assisted universities. I echo the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, and say that the Government use far too broad a concept of “extremism”, capturing anything that constitutes,
“vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values”.
The concept of “British values” is vague enough to run the risk that those who strongly disagree with the Government and their actions will be treated as un-British and subversive. That has led to many university institutions cancelling events to be on the safe side. Unwittingly, they have opened themselves up to legal action on the basis of Section 43(2) of the Education (No. 2) Act 1986, which forbids universities to deny the use of their premises to any individual or group on the grounds of their beliefs, views or policy objectives.
I say to the Government, as well as to universities, that we should encourage more rather than less speech and debate, provided always that it does not deny the very essence of liberty and make a mockery of free expression.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, for making possible this debate. I shall draw your Lordships’ attention to two threats to free speech on the campus. In four minutes I have time for only two threats, but I think that they cover most of the ground.
The first threat comes from the Government. The state has a duty to protect its citizens from terrorism. The Government have conceived of that duty in part as preventing university students from being what they call “radicalised”. The Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 requires universities to,
“prevent individuals from being drawn into terrorism”.
This is construed as part of their duty to “care” for “vulnerable” students. Universities are required to assess the risks of students being drawn into terrorism and extremism, and to train staff how to assess those risks and “challenge extremist ideas”. Universities must seek government guidance on which speakers to allow on campus. In this guidance terrorism and extremism are frequently conflated, as the noble Lords, Lord Pannick and Lord Lester, have pointed out, although very occasionally the drafters remember that one can hold extremist views without being a terrorist.
I turn to the second threat. The National Union of Students has opposed the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act on the grounds that it will lead to mass campus surveillance and the criminalisation of Muslims and black people. The universities should be kept as “open democratic spaces”. All this would carry more conviction if student bodies were not themselves a big threat to free speech on the campus. Student unions in many universities run “no platform” policies for speakers whose views they consider reprehensible, even though they are legal. For the NUS—and this is the key—keeping students “safe” is paramount. Bristol University Students’ Union runs a “safe space” policy aimed at ensuring students’ safety from harassment. However, keeping students safe turns out to include keeping them “safe from radicalisation”. So, despite the verbal skirmishes, the Government and students are quite united on the need to protect students from harmful ideas, differing only slightly in their definition of what they regard as harmful.
I must come clean: I hate the doublespeak that runs through the public pronouncements that I have read on this topic. How Orwell would have shuddered. The facts are pretty clear: universities have a statutory duty to uphold free speech and are bound by the Public Order Act to ban incitement to racial and religious hatred. So they have a duty to uphold free speech within the law. Similarly, the security forces have a duty to keep the country safe from terrorism wherever it sprouts—prevention does not stop or continue on the campus. What I deny is that university students are an especially vulnerable species needing special protection against being abused or radicalised. Students are adults: they can vote, fight and die for their country, drive, drink alcohol and so on. Why should they be treated as adults in one branch of life and as children in another?
In particular, I think it is an abuse of thought and language to extend the good liberal notion of protecting people against harms to the decidedly unliberal notion of protecting them against harmful ideas.
My Lords, I echo the thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, for introducing this debate so splendidly.
In the dark days of January 1941, President Roosevelt looked forward to the time when we would have a world where everyone was free to worship and free from want and fear. At the top of his list, though, he looked to a world where everyone would have freedom of speech. Some 50 years after that, I had the great privilege of conducting some seminars in democracy in Bucharest, shortly after the fall of the ghastly tyrant. In those 50 years a large chunk of Europe, having emerged from a devastating war, had never known the meaning of freedom of speech. It was a marvellous experience to meet young people who had kept their spirits up by listening to the BBC World Service and who now felt that they were citizens of a country where they could indeed speak freely, expose the evils to which they had been subjected and look forward to a brighter day.
Since then, intolerance and intimidation have gone viral—one of the bad results of the internet. We now have a situation, graphically described not only by the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, but by two admirable maiden speakers and others, where freedom is “cabined, cribbed, confined” in every university in the land. I am surprised, in the aftermath of Paris, that no one has yet quoted Voltaire. His words have always been my watchword on this subject: “I may dislike what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it”. Those words should be emblazoned over the door, or gate, of every university in the land. What we need in this year of Magna Carta—noble Lords must forgive my mentioning this yet again—is a charter of freedom for our universities, where young people are told that they must always exercise respect, good manners and tolerance towards those with whom they can perhaps never agree, but with whom they must always be prepared to listen and to debate. And there is no better place to make those points than in your Lordships’ House.
We should also bear in mind that when you are dealing with the young, to ban is to provoke. We need a vigorously tolerant society—that is in no sense an oxymoron—where the best of British values are espoused. If I had to sum up British values in one sentence, I would say: the promotion of freedom untrammelled and unconfined.
My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend Lady Deech for her brilliant and complex opening speech. I speak on this subject from the perspective of somebody who has taught on the university campuses in Belfast since 1975, while freedom of speech was most violently contested within the United Kingdom. We had speakers coming to give lectures, such as visiting judges, who were blown up and shot at or had their police guards killed. A law lecturer, Edgar Graham, was shot on the steps of the library—a particular sacrilege, in my view. These events punctuated the life of the university and those assaults were consistent. All the actions I have just described were by the IRA but the loyalist killers had a habit of killing academics at home. My dear friend and departmental colleague Adrian Guelke was shot in his bed and my Irish history colleague Miriam Daly was murdered in her own kitchen.
Even when the violence at that level quietened down for a while and we were able to have, for example, the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, visiting Belfast to give an important lecture on his book Politicians and the Slump, there was the constant flow of poison-pen, threatening letters to academics. They were anonymous but, again, deeply challenging to the principle of free speech. It was an achievement that somehow or other the principle of a liberal education was kept alive by both universities in this period, in part because academics such as the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, were willing to come to Belfast at a dangerous time to speak to our students.
Even in the post 9/11 world and with the coming of peace in Northern Ireland, we are not free from these difficulties. In 2007, the chairman of our Islamic society was one of those who burnt himself to death in the attack on Glasgow Airport, sadly, having made the journey from Belfast to be there. In the last few months, noble Lords will have been aware from coverage in the Guardian and elsewhere that the vice-chancellor of my own university made the decision to cancel a meeting in the aftermath of Charlie Hebdo. He then reversed it, I am glad to say, following criticism of his failure to protect free speech, but that was again on the evidence of sensitivities.
We have to say frankly that one of the sensitivities is that our university authorities fear being accused of Islamophobia more than they want to consider the implications of terrorist acts. This is not because they are in any way sympathetic to terrorist acts but because they know that they will not be blamed for them. They rightly consider, however, that they might well be blamed for Islamophobia. Their attitude towards the Prevent programme, which has been discussed today, is determined to some degree—let us put it kindly—by a lack of enthusiasm for the programme on the part of the Government, who anyway do not love them enough or give them enough money.
I heard what was said by the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, and very pointedly by the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, about some of the otiose elements of the Prevent programme. In my view, frankly, there have been some impractical and possibly dangerous attempts to intervene in the life of universities. However, I want noble Lords to consider this. Were the Government to retreat from the underlying principle that the issue is not just terrorist activity but the ideologies which promote terrorism, would that be a good thing, particularly for the balance of forces within the Muslim community?
I am not convinced that the agnosticism which the Government adopted during the long years of the Northern Irish Troubles—as if Irish republicanism of the most militant sort was absolutely fine as long as nobody was killed—really helped the peace process. That was the attitude of the British Government for three decades. In a liberal democracy, we have to consider whether agnosticism about these most central questions at the heart of our thinking is for sure the way forward. It is entirely legitimate to raise issues about an inhibition of free speech as a result of the Prevent programme, but one also has to consider in our discussions the very serious questions the programme attempts to face up to.
I will conclude with this point. I listened carefully to the very important speech of the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss. I accept the point she made about how important it is, at a time of division, to maintain a dialogue in universities with those people whom one disagrees with. I absolutely accept that universities are a key place for that. During the Troubles, I attempted to maintain a dialogue with IRA prisoners and others who were my students. I am not convinced that anything in the Prevent programme prevents academics carrying on these sensitive dialogues today, even though I accept that the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, raised points of detail which are worrying.
My Lords, as somebody who has been involved in the governance of universities at the LSE, Newcastle and Lancaster for more than 30 years, I strongly welcome this debate and thank the noble Baroness for it. It is an immensely important subject, as the debate has underlined.
First, I would like to raise an issue that to me seems pretty important: what is the purpose of a university? What is the ideal—let us not be afraid of that word—of a university? I suggest to the House that the ideal of a university is a community of scholars seeking truth, hopefully on an interdisciplinary basis, and that to civilised society this is an absolutely indispensable contribution. Universities are coming under a lot of quantitative pressure these days, with measurement here and there of their performance or the other thing. This sees them more and more as a facility for servicing the machine of society as it is.
It is important to say that I am not a Luddite. But what I fear is happening is that we are neglecting the qualitative considerations—the imaginative and visionary considerations—that lead to the originality of thought and research which are the guarantee, in the long term, of the well-being of our society and indeed of its material success. This debate is related to all that because if we are to have a search for truth, you must have controversy. Differences must be brought into the open and people must be encouraged to be brave and put their ideas forward. In the context of argument, discussion and analysis we move forward.
There will always be those who have very unimaginative, cruel and vicious objectives. Let us hear those views, deal with them in open discussion with confidence and win the argument. We were discussing at some length this morning and this afternoon the Prime Minister’s Statement on the possibility of bombing in Syria. This is going to be a very significant issue, but we should not lose sight of the fact that, ultimately, the war—if we must use this negative term, which I hate using—will be won by the battle of the mind. Decent views, civilised views and responsible views have to win the argument. That is how it will be won. We have to be very careful, when we start discussing the rules and regulations of debate in universities, that we are not giving up or losing faith in our own confidence in what makes our society worth having. It would be a damnable outcome of all the tensions, stresses and dangers—and there are huge dangers—that we live under at the moment if we ended up having ourselves destroyed the society we want to have.
My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Deech. I was sitting next to her when she delivered her speech, and it was fascinating to watch the way the House slowly fell more and more silent listening to what was one of the great parliamentary speeches of this Session. I was slightly alarmed immediately afterwards that by the time that she and the noble Lord, Lord Patten, had finished, they had mentioned the two main points that I was going to speak about. I am of course the last speaker before those charged with answering on behalf of the parties come back in, but I hope that I will have something to say about both the Prevent strategy and Cecil Rhodes.
First, I declare an interest as somebody who has had their own personal demonstration against them attending as a speaker on a campus. It is a great privilege to have had that. I could not express better than the noble Lord, Lord Bew, did the significance of Prevent as a strategy against the advance of violent extremism. It is not without its faults but it is really important. I was at the beginning of the conversations which invented Prevent and everything that followed 7/7. However, I always felt that there was one problem in the heart of the delivery of Prevent, which was the enormous importance given to the police as its delivery agency. The police have two roles: they are in that community meeting, working with people to try and strengthen communities against extremism, but they are the same organisation that then arrives in darkened vans with balaclavas and machine guns and takes away the children of that community. That is a dilemma that can only be made worse if those responsible for other organisations do not join the police in handling Prevent.
Further education and higher education authorities are absolutely vital in that, because they are the first in loco parentis for these young people away from home. If they are not seen to understand the significance of Prevent, it will just be left to the police; and if you do not disagree with the police when you are a teenager and a young adult, you are not really alive. It would be very wrong for the 500 lecturers who the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, mentioned to try and walk away from their responsibilities in this regard.
In turning to Cecil Rhodes, I make another declaration of interest. I put my old college tie on this morning—the duster from Christ Church. For three years there, where I am now an honorary student, I never noticed when walking past Oriel that the four-foot statue of a man waving a hat was Cecil Rhodes. This is political correctness turned into political madness. There is nothing wrong with political correctness—calling people what they want to be called, whether it is black and minority ethnic, Inuit et cetera—and there is nothing wrong with demonstrations. But to try and reverse or rewrite history is the most ridiculous student practice I can think of—and I have indulged in some myself, so I have some record of that.
If we go down this line, we will have to take down the picture of Henry VIII in the Great Hall at Christ Church, on the basis that he burned first Protestants and then Catholics. Above all, we will have to take down the Roman emperors outside the Sheldonian—grow up please.
My Lords, this has been a very stimulating debate, and along with other noble Lords I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, for a very trenchant and excellent introduction to it. I very much enjoyed the two maiden speeches that we heard today—I found them both enlightening and amusing, which is just what maiden speeches should be. I congratulate the two Members concerned.
Like any good liberal, when it comes to freedom of speech, I refer myself back to JS Mill, who provided us with a very robust defence of freedom of speech. I will quote one of the seminal bits of Mill. It has been quoted often, but it is worth requoting it:
“If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind”.
That is a very interesting view in the context of universities and the arguments that we have been having in the debate in the Chamber today. He then goes on to argue that even if an opinion is false, the truth can be better understood by refuting the error, and that since most opinions are neither completely right nor completely false, allowing freedom of expression allows the airing of competing views as a way of preserving the “partial” truth of various opinions. Freedom of expression, he argues, allows for personal growth and self-realisation.
It is vital for us to recognise that. I could not agree more with the views that have been expressed about how supine so many of our universities—or their administrations—have been in the face of on the one hand the pressures on them from students’ unions, resorting constantly to the safety argument, and on the other hand the pressures on them from the Government. As the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, said, part of the problem perhaps here has been the Government, in terms of their imposing rules that are too stringent. I shall come back to that point later. What Mill was saying fits in with and echoes very well all that we have heard today about how important it is that universities should be the places where we allow even extreme views to be argued over and defeated in debate, rather than just arbitrarily silenced.
Mill of course recognised that there is a need for some sort of rule of conduct to regulate the actions of those with extreme views. He proposed that this should hinge on what he called a “very simple principle”, the principle of harm. He says that,
“the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others”.
He then goes on to give an example which I found quite amusing, because it fits in so well with the society in which he lived in the mid-19th century, which saw riots against the Corn Laws. He said that someone should be at liberty at any point to suggest, in a speech or in writing, that corn dealers are starving the poor. Such a view would be acceptable, but it would not be acceptable to express it outside the home of a corn dealer, because this might constitute,
“a positive instigation to some mischievous act”.
This principle of harm has indeed underlain much of the debate since then about the limits of freedom of speech and the balance necessary between protecting this right and others such as: privacy, where we can think back to the debates over Leveson; security, with today’s debates over that and extremism; and democratic equality, for example in the sort of debates we had about women’s suffrage in the first part of the 20th century. There is no reason to assume that there is something inherent in freedom of speech that means it should implicitly trump all these other freedoms.
In the 1980s, Joel Feinberg at Oxford argued that the harm principle set the bar too low and suggested instead an offence principle—which we touched on today. He said you can legitimately prohibit some forms of expression because they are offensive and that the prevention of offensive conduct is properly the state’s business. Others referred to the remark of Onora O’Neill—the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill—that there is no right not to be offended.
In general, the principle of not causing offence is much more difficult to apply because what is offensive to one person is of course not offensive to another. It seems, too, that in some cases these two principles—one of harm and the other of offence—get mixed up. Take the Germaine Greer case that has been referred to. The “no platform” decision was made basically because it was thought that the views were offensive to the transsexual community, but the justification that the student union provided was based on harm—that it could not guarantee the safety of the speaker or of the meeting. Student unions have used that constant plea for safety, and the risk of harm, when they called for “no platform” decisions. Arguably, our university authorities have given way to that much too readily.
When we first talked about the Prevent strategy, it seemed firmly rooted in this harm principle: we are limiting freedom of speech to maintain security, to prevent impressionable and sometimes vulnerable young people from speakers and activities that might cause them to be drawn into extremism. I share the view of the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, that in this sense these are young adults with the right to their own views and we are perhaps kowtowing too much to the notion that they are vulnerable in the extreme. As the UUK briefing that we received makes clear, attending university, especially where a student leaves home for the first time, involves significant upheaval from existing social and support networks. In some regard, this means that the university has the responsibility—as the noble Lord, Lord Blair, mentioned—of loco parentis.
When the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, from the Opposition Benches replied to the debate on the Prevent regulations in September, he stressed the importance of the need,
“to apply common sense and avoid stereotyping”.—[Official Report, 17/9/15; col. 2054.]
That is the danger of codifying the harm principle into laws and regulations. In the original draft regulations it was put to us that all speakers going to universities should provide, two weeks ahead of going, a summary of what they would say and any overheads they would use. That got very short shrift around this House, as noble Lords may remember. The noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill, remarked that when she went to speak at universities—as she does very often—she rarely knew the night before precisely what she would say.
From these Benches, we somewhat reluctantly accepted that the new regulations were necessary, partly for the reasons put forward by the noble Lords, Lord Bew and Lord Blair, given this age of terrorism and particularly where social media are so important. We agreed very much that common sense was necessary, and rather regretted the necessity of bringing the regulations forward. We share with UUK the worries about the statement in the guidance that events should be cancelled unless the university authorities are,
“entirely convinced that such risk”—
that is, the risk of people being drawn into terrorism—“can be fully mitigated”. Is that not much too a high a bar to set? Does it really make sense? There will always be some doubts and risks. You can never totally eliminate risk.
I come back to where I began: the best defence of free speech is free speech itself. Universities are institutions where there should be open and inclusive discussion. Their aim is to foster critical thinking among both students and staff. If extremist ideas are to be challenged it is in such an environment. It is vital that we as a society maintain their integrity in this regard.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, on securing this debate. In an utterly remarkable speech—it was compelling and comprehensive—she outlined many issues that found an echo across this Chamber. Indeed, she drew our attention to a remarkable list of incidents and events, set out the very broad responsibilities and duties in legislation that universities must adhere to, and also warned that people using the notion of sermons not speakers allowed for a variety of things to take place that have been difficult. She highlighted perhaps the National Union of Students’ worst years and its identification with Cage. We hope it will not follow that path again. I thank her again for securing this debate. It has been absolutely excellent.
I also welcome the noble Lord, Lord O’Shaughnessy, for his immaculate and impressive speech and on his entry into this House. The noble Lord has had a remarkable career at Policy Exchange and working for the Prime Minister. I have been thoroughly impressed with his work at his new organisation, Floreat Education, and the schools it has delivered. That is truly outstanding. As a former employer of the noble Lord, I am so pleased that I did not say when he handed in his letter of resignation, “You are making a big mistake”. He is one of the most thoughtful and imaginative thinkers and an outstanding leader in education. He will make a fantastic contribution to this House and we welcome him hugely.
I also welcome the noble Lord, Lord Trevethin and Oaksey, who made an absolutely outstanding maiden speech. He is a very distinguished Silk, and I believe is described in Chambers as having a “Rolls-Royce mind”. We were given our first drive around in his mind today. I understand that he is a specialist in professional indemnity. He has done a great deal with the investment industry, the pensions industry, tax advisers, auditors and professionals in the financial services industry. I suspect he has been pretty busy these last few years. I hope that his wisdom will come into our House on more occasions. I was very interested in his phrasing, particularly when he referred to the “weaponising of hypersensitivity”. These sorts of insight will be great additions to this House. We welcome him warmly.
This has been an extraordinary and outstanding debate with a great deal of agreement, most importantly the firm assertion of the need for freedom of expression—freedom of speech and academic freedom—balanced by a sensible and appropriate restriction to liberty on occasion. I will just make a few observations on freedom of speech, on Prevent and its responsibilities, and on some issues around the future.
Our universities are great places of learning, where contrasting and competing views, with freedom of research, thought and ideas, are generated and debated. They are great places of socialisation into our society and our values. Universities are places where controversial ideas must be able to be heard, debated and challenged. The encouragement, development and nurturing of independent thought is at the heart of the purpose of tertiary education. The process of learning is at the heart of universities. As my noble friend Lady Warwick has said, freedom of speech and the ability to question orthodoxy and present challenging views is its essential purpose.
The principle at the heart of how we should apply this was very well expressed by my noble friend and colleague Lord Rosser when he expressed support for the new Prevent guidance. He stressed the need to apply common sense and avoid stereotyping if the widespread acceptance of the need for these regulations was to be secured. This principle was endorsed by the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp of Guildford, in her excellent speech.
How do we institutionalise common sense? I believe that university leaders need to be more strident advocates of their own positions. We should congratulate them on much of the work that they do. Universities have many policies and procedures; they take a great deal of care in dealing with some of these most difficult problems. They do not always get the answers right, but it is certainly incorrect to say that they have not taken their responsibilities seriously.
Set against this good practice are some issues around student unions. My noble friend Lady Warwick has made these comments on many occasions and they were echoed very strongly in the House. Warnings about the current approach of the National Union of Students were very well articulated by the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky. The existence of student union policies and practices which seek to bar lawful free speech causes us deep concern; so do the findings of a survey on the censorship of free speech on campuses earlier this year, which highlighted calls for many organisations to be banned and student unions lobbying for universities to place warnings on course texts which contain anything potentially upsetting. That point was made forcefully by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood, earlier in this debate.
Listening to and rigorously questioning speakers about controversial issues is vital training for undergraduates and a life skill that universities are uniquely equipped to teach. Banning speakers whose views are antithetical to one particular group undermines the university’s role in defending our society’s values, which include the freedom to differ or even the freedom to insult.
While I am addressing freedom of speech, I want to address briefly a matter raised by the noble Lords, Lord Leigh, Lord Polak and Lord Lester of Herne Hill: how Israeli academics, Israeli students, Jewish students, Jewish societies and others have been dealt with. This is a matter of great concern to us, particularly as safe space has always seemed to have been denied to this group. I restate the view of my noble friend the shadow Foreign Secretary that the Opposition wholly and totally reject the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement and its objectives; they have no place in our party and no place in our universities. It is not just that they are antithetical to any attempts towards peace in the region in which they profess to play a role, but they are against our values and our notions of what universities should be. It is a source of regret that they appeared.
In this context, I say to my noble friend Lady Bakewell, who also raised this issue, that we compliment the outstanding work of the Pears Institute at her institution. She identified the new antisemitism. The All-Party Parliamentary Group against Antisemitism has also done so and made some recommendations recently about what should be done at universities. Will the Minister address its recommendations in her comments?
Like the noble Lords, Lord Bew and Lord Blair, we support the need for Prevent. The threats are there; they are very real. People from universities have been identified in planning terrorism and have been present among foreign fighters. This is not new. In 1994, the bombing of the Israeli embassy and a Jewish community centre in north London were the product of people who had been at universities. One of those convicted was, I believe, a very strong university activist at Leicester University. However, the attacks we face now have a very different dimension and it is right that we have Prevent at universities. The noble Lord, Lord Bew, made an important point about complexities and concerns in relation to its implementation. I refer again to the view of the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, that its successful adoption will depend on its careful implementation.
The noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, made the important point that Muslim students must feel engaged in this. I accept that we must do this, and I also accept, as does our party, that the purpose of Prevent is to drive a very strong wedge to isolate the very small number of Muslim students who wish to adopt this form of behaviour. I would be grateful if the Minister would tell us how the Government see its implementation and any issues or lessons for the future.
On other issues about the future, the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, made a very important point about the internet and the use of social media. We see from some of the language used on these things, the bullying and intimidation, even the way some people’s comments are used to great detriment and the way that campaigns are organised, that we are likely to have more rather than less of these conflicts and issues present on our campuses. It is a matter which I hope the university authorities are very alive to, and it means, in my view, that we should support the notions of the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, on what training and other things are required. Training, education, leadership and character are always the sorts of things we should look to continue to instil in our university leaders.
In these challenging times, it is no easy task for universities to identify when the pursuit of freedom of ideas and expression crosses a threshold and becomes extremism or intolerance. We have to make sure that we allow for these views to be confronted, as the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, and my noble friend Lord Judd said. We should not let these fester underground, because it is not just about protecting universities but about defending the strength of our values and our society. We should not, as my noble friend Lord Judd said, lose faith and confidence in our society and our ability to challenge these things; we must always confront them. We must make sure that we do not shy away from our responsibility when it comes to our universities.
My Lords, as the noble Lord has just said, this has been an extremely interesting and informative debate. I thank all noble Lords for participating, particularly the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, for initiating this debate and for her extremely powerful contribution. I congratulate my noble friend Lord O’Shaughnessy and the noble Lord, Lord Trevethin and Oaksey, on their maiden speeches. It is clear from their contributions today that they are going to be great assets to this House. On a personal note, it was an honour for me to introduce my noble friend a few weeks ago and an added bonus that I get to congratulate him from the Dispatch Box today.
The Government recognise that freedom of speech and academic freedom in universities is a key component in their success. University autonomy from the state has been a central principle in this country for many hundreds of years, and it is one that this Government respect. The principles of academic freedom and freedom of speech at universities are enshrined in statute, as the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, pointed out. The Education Reform Act 1988 requires universities to ensure,
“that academic staff have freedom within the law to question and test received wisdom, and to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions”.
The Education Act (No. 2) 1986 provides that,
“persons concerned in the government of any establishment ... shall take such steps as are reasonably practicable to ensure that freedom of speech within the law is secured for members, students and employees of the establishment and for visiting speakers”.
The preservation of autonomy allows universities to fulfil their role in society as places of debate and discussion, where ideas can be tested and developed.
I have no doubt that the strong principle of autonomy in the UK higher education sector is the reason our universities are such a fertile ground for research and the advancement of knowledge. With 1% of the world’s population, the UK produces around 8% of the world’s academic publications and receives more than 14% of citations with the highest impact. This is a record to be proud of, and to preserve and promote. However, while respecting the importance of freedom of speech and academic freedom at universities, it is also important that the sector acts as a partner of Government in rooting out and challenging extremism. This is an endeavour in which all public institutions have a role to play.
As noble Lords have mentioned, the recent tragic events in Paris have illustrated that the emergence of ISIL presents a heightened threat to our national security. The murder of Fusilier Lee Rigby in May 2013 was a chilling incursion of extremism on to the streets of our own capital, and since then the departure of at least 750 UK-linked people to Syria has provided further grave cause for concern. The intelligence agencies tell us that the threat is now worse than at any time since 9/11.
As part of the response to this threat, we must continue to combat the underlying ideology that feeds terrorism, as the noble Lord, Lord Bew, so powerfully stated. Terrorist groups look to set mood music that is anti-democracy and anti-West and in opposition to debate and freedom. This can be a starting point, but we must try to turn and prevent people being drawn on to that path. This is a challenge for all our community. Schools, universities and colleges are in a unique position to give young people the confidence and ability to challenge extremist ideology robustly. The noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, rightly pointed out that students are adults and questioned why they need special protection. He is right, but, as the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, said, the stage of life when many students attend university can also be a particularly vulnerable time for them. Students may have left home for the first time and be cut off from the support networks with which they are familiar, so there is also a duty to protect students against extremist narratives, which can push them towards radicalisation.
In this context, the Government have introduced the Prevent duty, which many noble Lords mentioned today, on a wide range of bodies. Higher education institutions are covered by the duty, which is part of a broader effort by the education sector. As the noble Lord, Lord Blair, said, it cannot simply be left to the police. We all have to play our part. Schools and colleges have a vital role to play. We are all aware of the disturbing events that came to light last year at several schools in Birmingham. They were catalogued by Peter Clarke in his report published in July 2014. It is important that we address the effects of extreme narratives on students before they arrive at university.
As part of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015, which is concerned with reducing the risk of people being drawn into terrorism, Section 26 placed a statutory duty on specified authorities to,
“have due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism”,
when exercising their functions. As noble Lords are aware, this is referred to as the Prevent duty. The duty came into force in July this year, with the exception of the higher and further education sectors, for which it came into force this September.
The Prevent duty is about protecting people from the poisonous and pernicious influence of extremist ideas used to legitimise terrorism, and making sure that key bodies across the country play their part and work in partnership to do this. The duty is categorically not about oppressing freedom of speech or stifling academic freedom and debate. Indeed, they are key weapons in our armoury against extremist ideas, a point many noble Lords made. The duty is about making sure that radical views and ideas do not flourish and cannot go unchecked.
How universities and colleges balance the Prevent duty with the need to secure freedom of speech and promote academic freedom is extremely important and, as we heard from several noble Lords, difficult. It is not easy, but freedom of speech has never been an absolute. It has always come with challenges and responsibilities—something with which we will always grapple. During the passage of the legislation that placed Prevent on a statutory footing, concerns were raised in this House on behalf of the HE sector about whether this duty would lead to university administrators being overzealous in banning events and speakers. This problem was raised today, and I will return to it shortly. This is in no way the intention of the duty. The legislation makes explicit that in carrying out responsibilities under this duty universities must have regard to their duty to promote freedom of speech.
Striking this balance is clearly not easy, which is why we have worked very closely with the sector and with HEFCE, which will be monitoring compliance with the duty, to make sure that the guidance and advice we give to institutions recognise the need to balance these two things. I pay tribute in particular to Universities UK, which has been an instrumental partner in working through these difficult issues.
There are signs that progress is being made. We know that in 2014 some 70 events took place featuring extremist speakers on and off campus across 30 or more institutions in England and Wales. Due to increased awareness and much better assessment of risk by universities, in part due to better engagement with Prevent in the run-up to it gaining a statutory basis, that number is significantly lower in 2015. It is vital that we continue to maintain our efforts.
A couple of points were raised by noble Lords. The noble Lords, Lord Pannick and Lord Lester, expressed concerns about the Prevent guidance. We have made clarifications to it to make it more workable for institutions, taking into account responses from the sector during the consultation exercise, but we continue to learn and make sure that the guidance is as clear as it can be. I assure the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, that we do not expect universities to cancel all events. We expect them to put in place a system for assessing the risks associated with planning events and to take action to mitigate those risks where they are identified. That action may include ensuring that any extremist views are challenged when an event is allowed to proceed. We do not expect universities to be disproportionately risk-averse; they just need to be aware of the dangers and risks. I will be very interested to read the report referred to by the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss. We are very keen for all views on how we make sure this duty works.
The noble Baronesses, Lady Deech and Lady Sharp, also asked about the Prevent guidance. We will certainly look to ensure that it is practical and helpful to all those who are implementing it. We are continuing to work with Universities UK and others to develop further support and advice that helps universities in this challenging area.
A number of noble Lords mentioned the approach of the NUS. As I think I have made clear, we believe Prevent is a hugely important part of protecting the welfare of students at universities. We were disappointed by the anti-Prevent motion passed at the NUS conference in March, but we are encouraged by the NUS leadership’s subsequent commitment not to work with Cage. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Mendelsohn, and the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, that at times the NUS has taken a rather inconsistent approach to free speech.
The noble Lord, Lord Pannick, asked about the definition of non-violent extremism. The Bill he was referring to is the counter-extremism Bill. As yet there is no set publication date, so I cannot give him any further information at the moment.
The Prevent strategy is about balancing the principle of freedom of speech at universities with the duty to address the danger of radicalisation. As we have heard today, we have seen student bodies assert that there is also a balance to be struck between the principle of freedom of speech in universities and the need for students of all kinds to feel that their campus is a safe place where prejudice against them will not be tolerated. This endeavour has led to the practice of “no platforming”, as mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, the noble Lord, Lord Lester, and others. It is a long-standing policy of the National Unions of Students, which has been an increasing focus in recent months.
The Government’s position on this debate is that universities and student unions must make their own decisions on who speaks at their universities. They should do this within the context of clearly set-out policies and procedures. They should weigh up the risks associated with any speaker or event, and take their decision based on those risks.
On discrimination at universities, which no platform in part attempts to address, I am grateful for the chance to reiterate that staff and students from all backgrounds, religions, cultures and communities must be welcome in our higher education sector. The UK has one of the strongest legislative frameworks to protect people from harassment and abuse, especially racial or religious persecution. For example, the Equality Act 2010 protects groups against discrimination, harassment and victimisation, and Part III of the Public Order Act 1986 and the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 provide protection against criminal offences related to race. There are other relevant statutes, and organisations such as Universities UK, the Equality Challenge Unit and the National Union of Students have provided helpful summaries of the law that universities and student unions are able to bring to bear in combating discrimination.
Noble Lords raised other specific points. I assure my noble friends Lord Leigh and Lord Polak and the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, that the UK Government do not support academic or cultural boycotts of Israel. Indeed, the UK has engaged in 60 years of vibrant exchange, partnership and collaboration with Israel, which does so much to make both our countries stronger. I was very interested to hear about the work of the Pears Institute, which was mentioned by the noble Baroness. I congratulate it on the great work it is doing.
The responsibility for ensuring that students do not face anti-Semitism on campus rests with universities, which have the tools they need to tackle it. Clearly, if anti-Semitic incidents continue or increase, we must look to do more and we will, of course, make sure that we do whatever we can to stop this. Universities UK has undertaken considerable work to promote safer campus communities and support universities in this area and has received direct support from BIS to do so.
As a number of noble Lords mentioned in their comments, no one has the right not to be offended; unfortunately, at times we have seen debates shut down based on limited or no evidence of any safety or welfare risks other than that unpalatable views may be expressed. Having said that, there is a responsibility to ensure that all students feel able to take part in debate free from intimidation. This has not always been the case, and the NUS has a role to play to help ensure that those with the loudest voices and those with the most aggressive and vocal followers are not allowed to silence others.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, is absolutely right that universities are uniquely placed to provide the intellectual and robust challenge to extremist narratives, and they must continue to do this. However, we have seen incidences on campus when there is no desire for debate, where the speaker will not accept or listen to any challenge, and even where the speaker will not accept a question from women. In these cases the university has to impose conditions on the event.
The principles of academic freedom and freedom of speech in universities are tenets central to our globally successful higher education system. These principles are enshrined in statute but in both cases the drafting makes clear that these principles must be respected “within the law”. As I have already said, freedom of speech is not an absolute right—it comes with responsibilities and challenges, and it is important to remember that.
The Prevent duty and the support and guidance we give to universities and colleges through our network of Prevent co-ordinators and from within the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills should help universities address the task of promoting these principles of freedom of speech within the law while also recognising the very real and tangible threat we face. In particular, the Prevent strategy ensures that universities act as partners with other public institutions in combating radicalisation and the rise of extremism. Recent events, as I have said, have reminded us how crucial this endeavour is.
Once again I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, for reminding us of both the importance of protecting freedom of speech in universities and the important issues that arise in ensuring this is done within the law, and I thank all noble Lords for their valuable contributions.
My Lords, I have been struck by the consensus across all parties this afternoon on the problems that have arisen in universities. I thank the Minister for her awareness of this. I have also been struck by the wit, wisdom and erudition of our speakers this afternoon and for the quotations they have been able to bring up from their memories, no doubt from their past university education. Not least have I been struck by the expertise and wisdom of our two maiden speakers, who certainly chose the right forum for their maiden speeches and impressed us all with their different perspectives here.
Talking of erudition, it was interesting that we have so many university speakers here, as well as lawyers. It is true that I did a good job of teaching the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, but I also have to confess that in that first tutorial I had that lightbulb moment, which I am sure many tutors here have experienced, when you realise that the student in front of you is cleverer than you are.
I think that four messages have come from the debate this afternoon. One is that Universities UK must be encouraged to demonstrate backbone—if that is what one does with backbone. After all, university teachers have been trained and have spent their lifetimes balancing and critiquing, and I would have hoped for a bit more push from the Government to encourage UUK to do its job both in opening up free speech and in observing the law.
The second message is that there are problems with the Prevent strategy, most particularly in relation to definitions. We cannot wait for those definitions—we need them now. Many of the problems that people have pointed out in relation to the Prevent guidance would be resolved if meetings where we suspect extremist speakers are saying unpleasant and illegal things were opened up. I fear that the difficulty is that those speeches take place in a closed environment. The students themselves stop those who want to challenge the speaker. The meeting may be held in a closed room and open only to certain categories of people. It is essential for the Prevent guidance to work and for extremism to be challenged that we have open meetings where other students can come in a safe environment and have their say as well as the speaker. That would resolve the difficulties we all feel there are with the Prevent guidance.
Finally, we say to Oxford University, “Stiffen your backbone, too, in relation to Cecil Rhodes”. After all, think of the good that has been done with his money. Maybe it was ill-gotten, but we have had more than 100 years of Rhodes scholars, some of whom are here; many others have returned to their countries to be leaders and mentors. As the noble Lord, Lord Blair, said, if we start taking down the statues and images of all those who have offended over the centuries, indeed, this Palace would be stripped bare.
Once again I thank noble Lords for their most interesting and valuable contributions, and I urge the Minister once more to make sure that UUK and the NUS live up to their responsibilities.