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Universities: Anti-Semitism

Volume 773: debated on Monday 27 June 2016


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to counter anti-Semitism on university campuses in the United Kingdom.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper and, in doing so, draw your Lordships’ attention to my interests in the register.

There is no place in our society for bigotry, hatred or any form of racism, such as anti-Semitism. Higher education institutions are committed to challenging intolerance on campus. They have a clear responsibility under the Equality Act 2010 to provide a safe and inclusive environment. Universities UK has established a task force to consider further measures to address harassment on campus, and it will report in the autumn.

I thank my noble friend for her helpful Answer. Will her department consider the basis of the definition of anti-Semitism to be that proposed by Sir Eric Pickles and subsequently adopted by the UK College of Policing and the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance? It specifies that anti-Semitism manifests itself when double standards are applied to the state of Israel, requiring of it behaviour that is not expected or demanded of other democratic nations. Will the Minister assure us that it cannot be right that British Jewish students in universities should be intimidated by overaggressive anti-Israel activity on their campuses?

My noble friend is right: the definition Eric Pickles used was the EUMC working definition, which provides a valuable description of some of the ways contemporary anti-Semitism is manifested. He is also right that it has been included in operational guidance for the police since 2014. Universities may well want to consider it. One of the issues that the Universities UK task force, which I mentioned in my previous Answer, is looking at is how better training can be undertaken for university staff to help them understand the many different forms that anti-Semitism can take.

My Lords, the president of the National Union of Students sets a deplorable example. Is the Minister aware that in the past few days a Jewish law student at the University of York has obtained £1,000 and an apology from the student union? Is it not wrong that an individual student had to take up this case himself? Although I do not know the position in the University of York, does she agree that it is often the weakness of vice-chancellors, who refuse to promote the ideas of toleration and of universities as places of understanding, that is at the root of this problem?

I thank the noble Lord for that question. I am pleased, excepting what Zachary had to go through, that he got an apology and compensation, but I entirely agree that it is unacceptable for students to have to face this. Incidents of anti-Semitism must be taken seriously and investigated swiftly. Many universities do that, but the new Universities UK task force, which I mentioned, is looking at what more can be done. It is considering a number of specific actions in relation to anti-Semitism: an improved need for data collection to ensure that incidents are recorded effectively; the importance of a complaints procedure that protects the identity of students who are fearful of coming forward; and, as mentioned, the need for better training to make sure that university staff understand the different forms that anti-Semitism can take because it is not acceptable on university campuses.

My Lords, while sympathising with members of the Jewish community who have been ill-treated, does the Minister agree that they are not alone in frequently being subjected to abuse and discriminatory behaviour in universities and elsewhere? It is the duty of the Government to ensure that all communities are equally protected against irrational hatred and abuse, particularly in today’s unpredictable and difficult times.

I agree with the noble Lord. Indeed, the Universities UK task force is looking at harassment on campus and, in particular, at what more can be done by the HE sector to prevent and respond to incidents of violence and sexual harassment against women, hate crimes generally and other forms of harassment, including anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. This task force is looking at a broad array of issues to ensure that the HE sector ensures that students can live and learn safely in a spirit of tolerance and understanding.

My Lords, in my diocese, a pro-Palestinian student body forced the University of Essex in 2013 to cancel a speech from the Israeli deputy ambassador over concerns about his safety. While, of course, fully supporting what the Government are doing in this area, how can freedom of speech and extremism be more clearly distinguished so that we can take appropriate action against racism and anti-Semitism of all forms but also maintain academic free speech?

I completely agree that freedom of speech and academic freedom are the bedrock of our higher education system. We fully support universities that show strong leadership in allowing controversial and sometimes offensive ideas to be aired, but most importantly debated, to make sure that universities are doing what they should be doing, which is robustly challenging theories and making sure that students can argue and talk down hatred that is being perpetuated.

My Lords, the life-changing referendum result indicates a nation which is less tolerant and less accepting of diversity. What dialogue is the Minister having with universities to ensure that a proper complaints procedure is in place so that anyone suffering from anti-Semitism knows exactly where they can go?

As I said in a previous answer, the Minister for Universities and Science has specifically asked the Universities UK task force to consider some specific actions. One is improved collection of data about incidents, so we can make sure we understand the scale of the problem, and another concerns the importance of a complaints procedure that protects the identity of students who are fearful of coming forward. The task force is planning to provide a range of recommendations and actions to Ministers in the autumn. Universities UK is planning a national conference post-the publication of those recommendations, in November, so that there can be a full discussion of the issues that it has found in the evidence it is collecting.

My Lords, I disclose an interest as patron of the Woolf Institute, which is devoted to improving interfaith relations, primarily between the Abrahamic faiths. I note the very clear answers that the Minister has given, for which I thank her, and note what is implicit in the questions asked by other noble Lords. But I would like to know whether she agrees that, although Universities UK plays a very important role, it is also very important that the Government should show, in a material way, that they support what others are trying to do?

I hope very much that my answers today show that the Government are taking this seriously. We asked Universities UK to set up this task force and will be listening very carefully to its recommendations. We want to see a tolerant environment where students can learn. We take the seriousness of this issue fully on board, and I hope I have shown today that the Government are indeed making it a priority.