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Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill

Volume 826: debated on Tuesday 13 December 2022

Third Reading


Moved by

My Lords, let me begin by thanking noble Lords for their important contributions during all stages of the Bill’s passage through this House. As we have debated, freedom of speech is critical to modern society and is the lifeblood of our higher education sector. This Bill will establish new mechanisms for ensuring that freedom of speech is properly protected.

The discussions we have had since the Bill was introduced in this House have resulted in important clarifications, which we debated on Report last week. For example, we discussed the very definition of freedom of speech. I am pleased that we have introduced amendments which make clearer what we mean by that term, referring to Article 10(1) of the European Convention on Human Rights as it has effect in the UK. I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, for spearheading the discussions on this point.

We have also addressed drafting problems to which noble Lords drew our attention. We have avoided inadvertently giving alumni the same protections as current students. We have also clarified that the new power given to the Office for Students to give guidance on supporting freedom of speech is not related to the duty on higher education providers and their constituent colleges to promote the importance of freedom of speech and academic freedom. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, and my noble friend Lord Willetts for their amendments in Committee that brought these issues to light.

We have also made a breakthrough on an important issue. Building on the progress made in the other place, we have agreed to ban the use of non-disclosure agreements by providers and colleges in cases of sexual misconduct, abuse or harassment, or other forms of bullying and harassment. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Collins of Highbury, for tabling this amendment, which the Government supported. Significant progress has been made in this area in the last year, with many institutions signing up to the voluntary pledge not to use NDAs launched by the previous Minister for Higher and Further Education, my right honourable friend Michelle Donelan, in conjunction with Can’t Buy My Silence. I am sure this amendment will be celebrated when this Bill is brought back for consideration by Members of the other place.

I turn now to the provision which has generated the most discussion: the tort. Last week, the House decided to remove the relevant clause from the Bill. The Government will naturally reflect on this verdict and the arguments advanced to support it very carefully indeed. Of course, I am disappointed that noble Lords were not persuaded by the government amendments, which we tabled to ensure that a person could bring a claim only if they had suffered a loss and that claims could be brought only after a complaint scheme had been used. I will not repeat the arguments in favour of retaining the tort, subject to those amendments, as they have already been rehearsed at some length. However, Ministers continue to believe that those arguments have genuine force and validity.

On Report, the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, raised some remaining concerns about the new powers of the Office for Students and how they might impact on commercial partnerships of higher education institutions, in particular university presses. I hope the noble Baroness has received my letter. If it would be helpful, I would be more than happy to meet with noble Lords who remain concerned to clarify those points, as needed. The noble Baroness also asked whether the Office for Students could refuse to give evidence to, for example, the Education Select Committee. We have spoken to the Office for Students, which has reassured us that it would co-operate fully with requests from Select Committees.

As a latecomer to this Bill, I have been struck by the level of engagement with it. That means there is a long list of people to thank—perhaps too many to mention by name. There has been an extraordinary number of constructive and helpful contributions, both during our debates in the Chamber and in discussions outside it.

These have included the noble Baronesses, Lady Thornton, Lady Smith of Newnham, Lady Garden, Lady Morris of Yardley, and Lady Chakrabarti; the noble Lords, Lord Collins, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, Lord Triesman, and Lord Hunt of Kings Heath; my noble friends Lord Willetts, Lord Johnson, Lord Moylan, and Lord Sandhurst; the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Coventry; and, last but definitely not least, the noble, and noble and learned, Lords on the Cross Benches: the noble and learned Lords, Lord Hope and Lord Etherton; the noble Lords, Lord Grabiner and Lord Macdonald of River Glaven; and the noble Baronesses, Lady Shafik, Lady Deech, Lady Falkner, and Lady Fox of Buckley.

There are many other noble Lords on all Benches whose speeches in debate have lent weight to our proceedings. While we may not have been in agreement on all these issues, I am heartened that the constructive debate heard in Committee and on Report has fostered a consensus in this House on the need for this Bill. I thank all of your Lordships for your engagement.

Lastly, I would like to express my profound gratitude to the stalwart members of the Bill team: Sophie Cahill, Jamie Burton, Vicki Stewart, Zoe Forbes, Samer Almanasfi, and last but definitely not least, Suki Lehrer. Throughout the last six months, they have provided nothing short of superlative support to me and to my ministerial colleagues, my noble friends Lord Howe and Lady Penn, and who have worked long hours, never without a smile on their faces—sometimes virtual, on Teams. Ministers, and indeed the House, are in their debt. I also express my personal thanks to my noble friend Lord Howe. In my words, he has definitely done the heavy lifting on this Bill with his professionalism, concern and extraordinary attention to detail, which are all well known in this House.

We send this Bill back to another place with, I hope, the same ambitions as when it reached your Lordships’ House. We need to support a higher education sector in which students and staff are free to speak their minds and engage in contentious debates. I believe that this Bill has the potential to make a crucial contribution to that aim, and I wish it well.

My Lords, I thank the Minister. I also thank the noble Earl, Lord Howe, for the way in which he handled Committee and Report on the Bill, and the various consultations. It was a model of how Ministers should engage. We had a very constructive process with the Bill, for which I am, and all of us are, very grateful.

This Bill was drafted by the last Secretary of State but five. It was eventually inherited by the current team in the Department for Education, with what I dare say was an element of surprise as well as interest: it was, after all, initially drafted almost entirely by Policy Exchange through a range of papers, and Policy Exchange had based its analysis very heavily on American as much as British sources. There were therefore oddities in the Bill, which I hope we have ironed out as we have gone through.

Many of us were very much concerned about the potential for this Bill to damage university autonomy and extend state authority, including Members on the Conservative Benches and others. There are a number of areas in which we have made considerable progress on the defence of freedom of speech. For many of us, there is the removal of civil tort, not simply the reduction of the weight of the civil tort on universities. That remains to be sorted out in the Commons. I hope that the current ministerial team will reflect very deeply on whether to insist on its own amendment or to accept the amendment which a substantial majority in this House produced.

There is also the outstanding issue of the appointment of the new free speech champion. I very much hope that the Government will take particular care in finding a candidate for that position who will be accepted—possibly even welcomed—by the sector he or she sets out to regulate.

Still outstanding is the question of the degree of overlap between what is set out in this Bill, the recent National Security and Investment Act and the current National Security Bill. All of them impose new duties and new reporting requirements on universities, some of which have not yet entirely been ironed out, particularly for the National Security Bill—I hope we will be able to do that as it proceeds through the House.

I thank in particular the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, and the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, who took the burden when I was away for part of Committee, as well as our team, including Sarah Pugh in our Whips’ Office. I know that the Bill team must have worked extremely hard throughout this. One recognises that civil servants are often not thanked enough for the criticisms they accept and the burdens they undertake.

Our universities are a huge national asset. They are an important part of our soft power in the world and a major source of our international income. We all need to be sure, as we have done in considering the Bill and as we look now at the National Security Bill, that we do not damage our universities in dealing with some of the problems and threats which they face, sometimes from their students, sometimes from visiting speakers, and sometimes from foreign powers, because they are such a large part of what makes this country very special.

My Lords, I thank both the Ministers, the noble Baroness, Lady Barran, and the noble Earl, Lord Howe, and also the Bill team for their accessibility and friendliness throughout the whole of this process. I also congratulate the noble Baroness on her list of commendations of noble Lords who have participated, and wish to second that. Obviously, I need to thank my noble friend Lord Collins, who is probably on his feet in the Grand Committee, which is why he is not here. He did most of the heavy lifting around the Bill, particularly around the—for our part—unlamented Clause 4 and the non-disclosure amendment, which the Government accepted and for which we are very grateful indeed. I also thank Liz Cronin in the Lords office and our team in the Commons, Jonny Rutherford, Vicky Salt and Tim Waters, who provided us an enormous amount of support, which, as the Ministers will know, you need when you are in opposition and dealing with complex pieces of legislation. The stakeholders have also provided us with great briefings; of course, some of them are serving vice-chancellors and heads of colleges here in this Chamber.

The question at the outset was whether the Bill was necessary at all. The answer is that the jury is still out, but probably not quite as out as it was at the beginning of the process. I think we can say with some confidence that we are sending back to the Commons a piece of legislation that is much improved from the one we started out with. The reason for that is twofold. The Ministers and the Bill team engaged seriously all the way through this but this House also engaged in a non-partisan, cross-party examination of the Bill, and I congratulate noble Lords on that.

There are still some outstanding matters which will need further attention, such as the role of the students union, but also the issue that the noble Baroness referred to, which is Clause 8, previously Clause 9. I and my noble friend Lady Royall, the noble Lords, Lord Patten and Lord Wallace, and others raised the risk of duplicating security regulations and the risk that the Bill might pose to the business community, the commercial relations and the trading futures in which our universities have been successful.

I definitely welcome the Minister’s invitation to have a meeting, because I think the Russell group and others need to further discuss this whole matter, particularly when draft statutory instruments and guidance are under consideration. I am grateful to her for saying that. We were still being approached about this as late as last night, because there are still serious concerns among some of our academic community.

I add my thanks for what has been a really interesting Bill. It is slightly outside my normal remit of health and equalities, but I have very much enjoyed being the number two to my noble friend Lord Collins and working with noble Lords on the Bill.

My Lords, while I hope the Commons will look again and restore some version of Clause 4 and material remedies for victims of cancel culture on campus, I am still really glad that we have passed the Bill. I think our deliberations have been worth while and even now are having an impact, so I thank all involved.

A highlight for me was when the noble Lord, Lord Collins of Highbury, made his “confession” last week that he had originally thought the Bill “not necessary”, but

“during the process of Committee and the dialogue and discussions … I was persuaded that there is an issue to address.”—[Official Report, 7/12/22; col. 222.]

That is a win, in my book. Credit, then, to those who have spoken so articulately on threats to academic freedom, but also to those who have been open-minded and listened. Does that not remind us of the gains of hearing all sides of a debate, the importance of free speech and why it is so valuable?

In another instance, I have a confession. The noble Baroness, Lady Royall of Blaisdon, was keen to correct any impression I had given that the University of Oxford was creating a hostile environment to academics who might oppose moves to decolonise classical music. I apologise if I was too sweeping, but I am in touch with music scholars who are extremely worried about the dogmatic atmosphere surrounding the classical music canon, disparagingly dubbed

“white European music from the slave period”.

They claim that the debate on the topic is toxic and mired in accusations of racism, so I enthusiastically welcome the University of Oxford’s insistence that this is just not true. Perhaps this shows that university authorities can be sensitised to the reputational damage of not defending academic freedom or their own academic staff’s reputation if they disagree with critical theory orthodoxies. That is a shift away from worrying only about the reputational damage of being mislabelled as bigots by campus activists, and I think the Bill has helped.

A final positive note: I was shocked last week when the UCU, the trade union of Edinburgh University, shamefully demanded that the university cancel the screening of “Adult Human Female” organised by their own colleagues, Edinburgh Academics for Academic Freedom and—not a good example of collegiate atmosphere. I was nervous that Edinburgh University would succumb. After all, it had only recently given into pressure to cancel the titan of Scottish Enlightenment philosophy, David Hume. But no, the university stood firm. The documentary will be shown at the university’s theatre tomorrow night, despite transphobic accusations—

I do not know. I apologise; I am trying to be gracious.

Perhaps the debate we have had has already given authorities a bit more backbone, and therefore I congratulate and thank everyone concerned for allowing a freer spirit and discussion around academic freedom to take place, at least outside this place.

My Lords, in the interests of balance I will speak very briefly. It is important to say that there is not conviction in all parts of your Lordships’ House that the Bill is, in its current form, in any way necessary. Attempts to address some of the attacks on freedom of speech—including the influence of commercial sponsors and funders in universities, the impacts of casualisation, and low pay and insecurity for academics—were not allowed into the Bill, so not everyone is convinced that the Bill should go forward.

My Lords, perhaps I can acknowledge that, in the spirit of free speech, we have heard different perspectives in our final remarks. I pick up on the description by the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, of the collaborative spirit and cross-party working, which make us all so privileged to work in your Lordships’ House.

Bill passed and returned to the Commons with amendments.