[Relevant documents: Fourth Report of the Joint Committee on Human Rights of Session 2017-19, Freedom of Speech in Universities, HC 589/ HL 111; Eighth Report of the Joint Committee on Human Rights of Session 2017-19, Freedom of Speech in Universities: Responses, HC 1279/ HL 162; Letter from the Chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights to Rt Hon Gavin Williamson MP, Secretary of State for Education, regarding the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, dated 24 June 2021; and Letter from Rt Hon Gavin Williamson MP, Secretary of State for Education, to the Chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, regarding the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, dated 7 July 2021.]
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
I wonder how many of us here ever pause to reflect on how very fortunate we are to be able to do what we are doing right now—discussing freely a subject that many of us will feel passionate about. I suspect that most of us accept without pause that this is what democracy is all about. In short, we take freedom of speech and open debate for granted. Nothing that is precious in life should ever be taken for granted.
The privileges that we are enjoying today and that underpin any successful democratic society are essential and fundamental to a free and liberal society. Genuine academic freedom has long been a cornerstone of our world-leading universities. Their mission to stretch the boundaries of human learning, knowledge and wisdom was only possible because they were free to challenge the views of the time. Without their courage and without the bravery of those who defended their right to speak out, the world would be a much darker place today. Those challenges—those dissenting voices—have not always met with approval or agreement at the time. Some paid dearly for their intellectual independence. Take those trailblazers who argued for gay rights or women’s suffrage, or Charles Darwin, whose theory of evolution was considered blasphemous and deeply offensive by many but which we now accept as simple truth.
One reason why students from all over the world flock to our universities is they know—or expect—that they will not only get a first-class education but hear a broad range of views and opinions. Academics, whom our outstanding universities similarly attract from a global talent pool, expect to be able freely and fiercely to seek out the truth. What they do not expect and should not tolerate is being prevented from hearing those views or even being silenced themselves. Freedom of speech is a fundamental right in any civilised country but especially for students and faculty in higher education, which has always been a crucible for new ideas and ways of looking at the world. Staff and students should be free to discuss, debate and debunk other views.
Fear of censure is deeply saddening and has a chilling effect and spread on campuses. There continue to be too many reported instances where students or staff have been silenced or threatened with a loss of privileges or even dismissal for airing views or opinions that others disagree with. I have previously spoken about how that growing intolerance cannot be allowed to take root and I made it clear that if universities would not protect free speech, the Government would.
I turn to the reasoned amendment, which Mr Speaker has selected. The Government have been clear that the Bill protects lawful speech only. Unlawful speech on campuses will not be tolerated. To be clear, nothing in the Bill encourages higher education providers or students unions to encourage baseless or harmful claims or bad science on campus. We should be proud of our life-saving covid-19 vaccine roll-out, and we are pleased to see that more than half of 18 to 24-year-olds have already received their first dose.
It is the right hon. Gentleman. I agree totally about freedom of speech, which is one of the best things about this country and one that I am proud of, but what data is the Secretary of State using? If he looks at the Office for Students’ data for 2017-18, he will see that the instances he referred to amount to 0.009%. In an entire year, there were 17 cases among more than 500 academic institutions. What data is he basing his claims on?
I apologise for causing such offence to the right hon. Gentleman by referring to him as “the hon. Gentleman”. It was not right to ignore the fitting status that he holds in this House. I am sure he will not take too much offence by that. In terms of what we are tackling, we are talking about principles and the need for people to feel able to speak freely and challenge ideas. One of the great challenges we face on campuses up and down the country is that so many people are concerned they cannot speak out and give their views because they may be censured by those academic institutions.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. So much of the legislation that goes through this place is the nuts and bolts for things that the Government must do to ensure good government and the delivery of all the things that we wish to see. However, we must not be blind to the fact that this place is also about principle, and the principle of free speech needs to be defended. There are unfortunately too many instances where people feel as if they cannot speak as freely as they wish.
Does the Secretary of State believe in evidence-based policy making? If so, can he cite the evidence for the problem that he is seeking to address? It appears that he is manufacturing a problem in order to have today’s debate.
We are talking about principles. We are talking about the fact that what we want to do is give people the opportunity to have that freedom. Do you know what was so saddening, Madam Deputy Speaker? When we first announced the intention that we would take this action if it was necessary—
What we hoped we would see is universities across the country taking further action, but what was so saddening was that so many people contacted me directly to express their concerns about being able to speak freely on campus at the universities where they worked. They were not able to put down their name and address, because they were concerned about the repercussions.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) rightly said that it would be a tragedy if Darwin had not felt that he had the freedom and ability to challenge established thinking. We have to remember that there are Darwins out there who will be challenging the consensus, and we always need to ensure that all our great institutions deliver the freedoms that we expect them to deliver. We are a free and democratic society, and we should never be in a position where we are not doing everything we can to deliver freedom of speech. Does it not seem odd—in Parliament, of all places, where freedom of speech is there to be protected, relished and enjoyed—that the Labour party is not necessarily challenging and trying to amend the Bill, but wants to actively vote it down? It seems perverse that the Labour party is not supporting the principles of freedom of speech and is not doing everything we can to ensure that students and academics have as much freedom as possible to explore ideas.
As we look at how we protect free speech, we should all be appalled that a report by King’s College London only two years ago found that a quarter of students believed that violence was an acceptable response to inflammatory speech. The same report showed that a similar proportion of students were beginning to keep their beliefs and opinions to themselves because they were too scared to disagree with their peers.
If I could just make a little progress, I will give way to the hon. Lady.
I am sure the whole House would agree that this intolerance is simply intolerable. Recent research by Policy Exchange revealed that 32% of those who identified as fairly right or right have refrained from airing views in teaching and research, with 15% of those identifying as centre or left also self-censoring. This is both unwise and unhealthy. Our universities must not become spaces where ideas are debated within a narrow consensus, with those who challenge majority views subject to censorship. Last year, I warned vice-chancellors that this situation could not and would not be allowed to continue. Although some have taken action, we cannot sit by while others do not. Our students and faculty quite simply deserve better.
As the Secretary of State talks about people being scared on campus and what he has asked vice-chancellors to do, I wonder whether he has the data in front of him for sexual harassment and sexual violence cases, which are rife on our university campuses. On the deep principles that he holds, what exactly is he doing about that, and when can I expect a Bill on that? That is surely a principled priority that the Government would want to take.
It absolutely is. I am sure the hon. Lady was about to come on to the amazing work that the Office for Students has commissioned to ensure that all universities take the action required, including looking at whether that is a condition of registration for universities, which, as she will understand, is absolutely fundamental for universities to be able to operate.
The Bill will protect lawful freedom of speech and academic freedom on campus. We are strengthening the legal duties that exist and ensuring that robust action, including imposing fines, will be taken if they are breached. The central core of the Bill is clause 1, which amends the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 to extend the duties of higher education providers relating to freedom of speech and academic freedom. That will ensure that those freedoms are protected and promoted within higher education in England.
As we actively protect students from racism, antisemitism and other forms of discrimination, higher education providers will have to take responsibility and reasonably practicable steps to secure lawful freedom of speech for their staff, members, students and visiting speakers. That includes a duty to secure the academic freedom of academic staff. It will mean a change in ethos as well as culture. Providers will be under a duty to promote those fundamental values, as well as to maintain a code of practice setting out how students and staff should act so as to ensure compliance with that duty.
Freedom of speech does not begin and end with providers. As a matter of principle, every student at every university in every corner of the country should have the same freedom and the same rights. Students unions must not be allowed to silence or intimidate other students within a university. That is why clause 2 requires students unions and providers to take “reasonably practicable” steps to secure lawful freedom of speech for their members, students, staff and visiting speakers.
As now, the right to lawful free speech will remain balanced by the important safeguards against harassment, abuse and threats of violence as set out in the Equality Act 2010, the Prevent duty and other legislation, none of which we are changing. This is not an ideological effort; it is about fundamental fairness and common sense. These legal duties are key to ensuring that the higher education sector in England continues to be an environment in which students, staff and visiting speakers are not just able but welcome to freely express their views, as long as those views are lawful. The reason we need this effort is because the existing legislation provides no clear means of enforcement, nor does it give a specific right to individuals to seek compensation for breach of freedom of speech duties, leading to concerns that it does not offer serious, sufficient or significant protection.
This is why clause 3 introduces a new statutory tort that will protect visiting fellows, students and other individuals who may not be able to seek redress through employment tribunal. Though this legal route is an important backstop, we do not want all cases going to court where they could otherwise be resolved by other means. We are therefore providing that the Office for Students, the regulator for higher education in England, will play a more active role in strengthening freedom of speech and academic freedom standards in higher education.
Clause 4 imposes new freedom of speech duties on the OFS, including requiring it to promote the importance of freedom of speech within the law and the academic freedom of academic staff at higher education providers. The OFS will also play an important role in identifying best practice and providing advice in relation to the promotion of these rights.
The OFS will have a more direct route to regulate the freedom of speech duties under clause 5, which requires the OFS to set new registration conditions relating to freedom of speech and academic freedom. This clause will ensure that the registration conditions relating to freedom of speech and academic freedom are aligned with the duties on higher education providers imposed by the Bill. The OfS will be able to ensure that these are complied with by using its usual powers of accountability and enforcement, such as the power to impose fines.
As I have said, it is vital that students unions are also doing their bit to ensure freedom of speech on campus. Clause 6 extends the regulatory functions of the OfS so that it can effectively regulate and enforce the new freedom of speech duties that we are placing on students unions. The OfS will monitor compliance and have the power to impose fines.
When I heard the Universities Minister discussing this matter on the radio some time ago, she suggested that these proposals in the Bill could enable holocaust deniers to seek compensation. Do the Government really want to protect people like that and those sorts of repugnant views? Why is that the Government’s priority?
As the hon. Lady will know, it is absolutely clear that this Bill will never create a platform for holocaust deniers. She is probably familiar with the Public Order Act 1986, the Equality Act 2010, which was introduced by the Labour party, and the Prevent duties introduced in 2015. If made an Act, this legislation will never create the space to tolerate holocaust deniers.
There is at the moment no direct way for anyone to complain about freedom of speech matters other than for students against their higher education provider. This scheme will provide a route to individual redress for all students, staff and visiting speakers to back up the new strengthened freedom of speech duties provided in the Bill for providers and students unions.
The Secretary of State is describing all the protections that will go to the OfS. I simply ask, will any of those protections provide for compensation and regulation in cases where people are raped or sexually abused on university campuses and have no redress? Will that freedom, for those students, be included? Will they be able to get compensation when their universities mismanage their cases?
I refer the hon. Lady to the comments that I made some moments ago; we have asked the Office for Students to look into this whole area to see how we can get this redress. She probably noted that I mentioned some of the conditions of registration for higher education institutions that can be part of that process. That is an area that we are looking at and have asked the OfS to address directly.
The OfS will be able to make a recommendation to the higher education provider or students union, which could include, for example, a recommendation to pay a sum in compensation, or reinstate the complainant’s job or place on a course. The scheme will be overseen by the newly created position of director for freedom of speech and academic freedom within the OfS. The director will oversee the various free speech functions of the OfS, including compliance and enforcement. The provision in clause 8 means that there will be an individual in the OfS who has exclusive focus on championing these key values in our higher education sector.
Clause 9 gives effect to the schedule to the Bill, which contains minor and consequential amendments to other legislation. These amendments are necessary to give effect to the main provisions of the Bill, and to make all the relevant legislation work seamlessly and consistently.
Of course, Government action in this area cannot by itself be enough. Cultural change is essential, but, as we have seen in so many areas, such as gender equality or anti-discrimination, cultural change occurs more readily when it is backed up by law. I began by saying that many of us take freedom of speech for granted. The facts on the ground and in universities tell us that this must change. By introducing concise, clear consequences for any breach of a freedom of speech duty, these legislative changes will preserve, protect and safeguard free speech, and open debate in our universities right now, tomorrow and for years to come. Some day—not long from now—our children will thank us for what we do today. I commend the Bill to the House.
I beg to move an amendment, to leave out from “That” to the end of the Question and add:
“this House declines to give a Second Reading to the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, notwithstanding the need to ensure legal protections for freedom of speech and academic freedom, because the Bill is a hate speech protection bill which could provide legal protection and financial recompense to those seeking to engage in harmful and dangerous speech on university campuses, including Holocaust denial, racism, and anti-vaccination messages.”
Let me start by making absolutely clear the importance that the Labour party attaches to freedom of speech and academic freedom. Indeed, it might be useful for me to remind the House of the histories of my party and the Conservative party on this issue. The Labour party is the party that enshrined the Human Rights Act 1998 in domestic law, guaranteeing legally protected rights to freedom of thought, conscience and expression. That Act is one of the most important legal measures we have to protect the rights of every citizen of this country. How did the Conservative party respond? By seeking to undermine those rights, voting against their enshrinement in domestic law and subsequently threatening to take them off the statute book altogether.
Nobody should be fooled into thinking that the Conservative party has now changed its stance. Recently, the Conservatives introduced a new law with significant consequences for freedom of expression. The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill creates a new criminal offence if a person performs an act that causes “serious inconvenience”. It is a dangerous curtailment of the right to protest, which is fundamental to democracy. That Bill and the one before us tell the House and the country everything they need to know about how this Conservative Government really approach our right to freedom of speech and expression. A group of individuals coming together to protest could face criminal charges for causing serious inconvenience, but because of this Bill a group spreading division and hatred on university campuses would be not just legally protected but able to sue a university or student union that tried to stop them. That is what we on the Opposition Benches object to, and what the whole House should object to: a Bill that amounts to legal protection for hate speech. It has no place on campus, no place in our society and no place on our statute book.
The Secretary of State claimed a moment ago that a legislative framework—including, I was pleased to note, Labour’s Equality Act 2010, to which he referred—to prevent the spreading of hate speech is already in place, but that was not the view of the Government’s Minister for Universities, who, as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood), acknowledged that holocaust deniers could be protected under this Bill. If the Minister responsible for this legislation believes that the Bill protects or could protect holocaust deniers, that should be a sufficient reason for any Member of this House to oppose it.
It is right, as the Secretary of State said, that we have laws to prevent hate speech, but is not at all clear that they will prevent the kind of harmful speech that will be protected under this Bill. It may not always be the case that there is a victim of harassment as prescribed under the Equality Act if, for instance, there is a meeting to discuss holocaust denial at which only those who support those horrific views are present. Conservative Members have no response on how existing laws will prevent harmful conspiracy theorists—such as anti-vaxxers—who could be protected on campus. Does the Secretary of State’s Bill protect the misinformation that causes damage and concern about vaccines and their efficacy, such as was spread by Professor Andrew Wakefield?
Not only could holocaust deniers have their right to speak on campus legally protected, but if they feel they are denied their right, they could take universities and student unions to court to seek financial recompense. They would be able to seek a pay-out from universities, seeking to cash in on public money—students’ tuition fees—that should fund teaching and learning.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it also opens the door to states that wish to do us harm? There is a lot of open source evidence about the Chinese communist party using students here to propagate anti-Hong Kong stories and other propaganda on behalf of the Chinese Government. Under the Bill, we would have to allow them to go ahead because otherwise they could take us to court, allowing the harm that they could do to students of Chinese origin who might take a different view.
As the House will know, my right hon. Friend commands great expertise on issues of national security, and the Secretary of State must satisfactorily answer his question for the House. I know he would agree with my right hon. Friend, with me and with all right hon. and hon. Members that anything that could put our national security at risk, call it into question or give succour to those who seek to harm this country would have to be prevented. If the Secretary of State can put that assurance on the record now, I know that my right hon. Friend would be grateful for it.
Indeed, there is a great deal of concern among students from Hong Kong about the fact that they are being silenced in university campuses up and down this country. They have not had the freedom to speak on campus, which is why this Bill is so important—so that different voices, be they Hong Kongers or Uyghurs, are able to speak on campus and not be silenced by much larger groups. That is exactly why this legislation is so incredibly important. I would love to hear from the hon. Lady what freedoms she actually does think are worth protecting.
I am not sure whether the Secretary of State was suggesting that Hong Kong students and Uyghurs are silenced on our campuses, which is of course is what we are talking about in this Bill. I am not aware of instances that the Secretary of State has evidenced of such people being silenced on campuses. Indeed, this is a problem with his whole Bill: it is an evidence-free zone when it comes to underpinning the concerns that he says it is addressing.
I thank the hon. Lady for giving way. Sadly, she is misinformed, as there have been a number of instances where minority students have felt themselves silenced as a result of much larger groups of student bodies putting pressure on, especially within student unions, to silence them. This is why this legislation is so incredibly important; those students, be they of Hong Kong or Uyghur descent, should always have the ability to be able to talk openly and freely on university campuses so that these challenges can be properly exposed.
I am sorry, but I do not think the Secretary of State has been able to answer my direct question about instances of Uyghur and Hong Kong students being deterred from speaking on our campuses. He talks in general terms about some groups being silenced—I agree with him that that is wrong, and I will come on to that point in a moment—but I have asked him to present specific instances to the House. If he cannot do that this afternoon, and I understand that he may not have that information in front of him, perhaps later he will put that evidence in the House of Commons Library so that we can all examine it before the Bill goes into Committee.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady, for whom I have a great deal of respect—I would like to put that on the record—but she is wrong about that. There have been instances, and I am happy to give her detail of them, of groups of Hong Kong students in British universities being surrounded, physically intimidated and verbally intimidated by students from the Chinese mainland who are also students in this country. This is not isolated; unfortunately, there is a theme of this kind. I know that she would not want to associate herself with this kind of thing.
I am sorry, but the Secretary of State, in his rant, just does not get it, does he? He knows as well as I do that the Chinese communist party is using universities—placing students and funding activities there. If this Bill goes through as outlined, the Chinese communist party will be able to propagate its propaganda, and if a university was to turn around and say no to it, it could then use this Bill to argue for freedom of speech. He may wish to give a safe haven to that type of activity, but I do not.
My right hon. Friend makes the point perfectly.
I want to ask the Secretary of State about some other uncertainties that the Bill creates. I think he is seeking to say to the House that the Bill would not protect holocaust deniers. However, if a university did not want to provide a room to holocaust deniers, would the proposed speakers be able to seek compensation through the tort created by clause 3? What if nobody turns up to a meeting that has been booked? Would it be lawful to advertise such a meeting? What about other forms of free speech? Will anti-vax campaigners be protected under the Secretary of State’s Bill? Does he believe that a university should be liable under the Bill if it seeks to stop the spread of dangerous misinformation from guest speakers? What about those seeking to spread conspiracy theories or to sow division in our communities? Does he really believe not only that this kind of harmful, hateful, divisive speech should be legally protected on campus, but that those seeking to peddle it can take a university to court for interfering with their right to do so? Those of us on the Opposition Benches believe that there is no place for that on our campuses, and that is why we will be voting for our reasoned amendment this evening.
We have other objections to this Bill. Actually, I cannot understand why the Government think it is needed. An assessment by the Office for Students found that just 53 out of 59,574 events with external speakers were refused permission in 2017-18. Perhaps that was an unusually slow year for cancel culture and there is a real problem. However, last year a survey found, as we have heard, that of 10,000 events with external speakers, only six were cancelled.
Is not the point that free speech is stifled because people will not even bring these events forward? The hon. Lady must understand from having sat in loads of constituency Labour party meetings how people were silenced for years under the previous Labour leader. In fact, they were driven out of her party, so surely she can understand how that is also happening in education institutions today.
I can assure the hon. Gentleman that my experience of CLP meetings is not that they are silent. However, he does raise a serious point about the chilling effect that I think the Secretary of State, too, suggested. But that cuts both ways. I believe that, subject to this Bill, universities and student unions will become much more fearful that if they host certain events, or allow them to be hosted, they will come under much more pressure to host other unsavoury events, and that that will mean they will stifle debate altogether.
If I may say to the hon. Gentleman, I think it will also mean that the campus will not feel like a safe space for some students. If it is possible for people to come on to campus and assert their right as holocaust deniers to have a meeting room, albeit perhaps to discuss the issue privately, the campus will not feel like a welcoming and safe space for Jewish students.
What is fundamentally wrong with this Bill is that it begins in the wrong place. It has started before we have had a proper national public debate about where we think the acceptable boundary sits between speech that is offensive or hurtful but that ought to be permitted under this Bill, and speech that is harmful, divisive and, though perhaps not unlawful, has no place on campus. I might have been more willing to accept this kind of legislation had that debate taken place across the country and had we had that discussion about boundaries and where we think we sit. Instead, the Government are in a rush to legislate, in the absence of much tangible evidence.
I was talking about the small number of events for which we have evidence that they have been cancelled. I accept the hon. Gentleman’s point that there will be events that we do not know about that did not take place, but we cannot make legislation on the basis of anecdote and speculation. The figures we have really do not support the idea that there is a crisis of free speech on university campuses. All I can say to the Secretary of State is that if he believes otherwise, will he call on the Office for Students to gather and publish that data every year, so that we can see what sort of legislation might be needed?
The Government’s plans, I am afraid, seem to be based pretty much entirely on a report by Policy Exchange, referenced by the Secretary of State and referenced in more than one third of the footnotes of the policy paper that Ministers published in advance of the Bill’s publication. The Government’s paper cites the report’s finding that around one in three academics—I think the Secretary of State referred to this—who identify as being politically right or fairly right have stopped openly airing opinions in teaching and research. He referenced other figures in relation to left and centre-left academics.
Let us examine a bit more of the data. Ten currently serving academics said that they were self-censoring right-wing views. I agree that widespread academic self-censorship would be deeply troubling, but the numbers we have are modest and do not, in my view, really make the case for a legislative response when the Government’s priority right now should be students’ recovery from the pandemic, making up the learning they have lost and securing their futures. Even if I am wrong, and the Secretary of State is right that there is a chilling effect on campus and that legislation is required to deal with it, do we need this Bill to do it?
The point is not whether I think self-censorship is acceptable—I do not—the question is whether legislation is the right response to it. I just believe that at a time when we have many other priorities to deal with on our university campuses—[Interruption.] There should be no self-censorship of lawful and honourable views, but it is not acceptable to make legislation and use valuable parliamentary time to deal with a small number of cases that could be dealt with more effectively without legislation. The reason I say that is that we already have the legislative framework we need on the statute book.
Section 43 of the Education (No. 2) Act 1986, “Freedom of speech in universities, polytechnics and colleges”, reads almost identically to new section A1 under clause 1 of the Bill. It creates a legal duty to promote freedom of speech for students, staff and visiting speakers. Similarly, the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 already creates a duty for the universities regulator to protect academic freedom.
The hon. Lady is always incredibly generous, and it is much appreciated. I hope that I always repay the compliment in return when she intervenes. I am sure she will also be able to set out the steps under the existing legislation that an academic, a student or, potentially, a visiting speaker who has been cancelled could take.
No, I would not like the Secretary of State to intervene again while I am still answering the question he asked me a moment ago. The problem with the Bill and clause 3, which creates a new route for individuals, is that it is more harmful in its effect. It opens up the possibility for vexatious litigants and their lawyers repeatedly to bypass internal complaints procedures, repeatedly to bypass the Office of the Independent Adjudicator route or the Office for Students route and go straight to the courts, undermining confidence in those procedures, undermining the funding of universities and student unions and causing confusion about the routes for redress that speakers should be able to take advantage of.
I am going to make a little bit of progress, because I know that many others want to come into the debate. The Bill before us tonight is wasting legislative time by repeating provisions already found in law to address a problem that has not been evidenced by the debate so far today. I recognise that the Joint Committee on Human Rights raised concerns that the current legislative framework was complex, but the Government’s plans seem only to complicate things further by duplicating legal duties and creating new legally actionable wrongs that would operate in parallel to university and student union processes. It seems impossible that the Bill will leave the position clearer than it is currently.
Let me be generous and assume for a moment that, despite the provisions that already exist in our laws, this Bill is needed, that in the face of the evidence we have heard so far there is a crisis of free speech on campuses and that the Bill will remedy the situation. Let us see if it succeeds on its own terms. It does not. It is a mess of duplication, poor definition and ill-thought-through provisions that will set back free speech. Let me start with an easy problem: the extent of the Bill. It applies to registered higher education providers and to student unions, and immediately we appear to hit a gap in coverage. Oxford and Cambridge colleges are not included in the register kept by the Office for Students. Does that mean that if a violation of free speech takes place in a building owned by, say, Balliol college, Oxford, instead of by the University of Oxford, it is not within the scope of the Bill? Or if it takes place in a pub in the city of Cambridge owned by the university, and someone is removed from the pub for offensive but legal speech, could they take legal action against the university?
Who are members of the university for the purposes of the Bill? MillionPlus, for example, has asked whether it would cover emeritus professors. Is it desirable to risk the Office for Students, a body whose board is appointed directly by politicians, effectively becoming a state censor of controversial topics? Why does the Secretary of State believe that clause 3 is needed? Why does he think that we need a route straight to court, bypassing university complaints procedures? If he does believe that a route to court is necessary, can he say whether there will be any limit on the damages that could be awarded? Does he not understand that, as Universities UK has warned, this risks giving a free pass to vexatious litigants and their lawyers?
Even if we thought the Bill were needed, it is poorly drafted and counterproductive. Today, we are debating a Bill that has been put forward in response to a problem that exists largely in the mind of the Secretary of State. Even if the problem did exist, the Bill would not be needed because its core provisions already exist in our laws, and even if new legislation were needed, the Bill creates more problems than it solves and is poorly drafted. In short, in every way that a Bill can fail, this Bill fails.
However, the real menace is what the Bill will achieve if the Conservative party is able to get it on to the statute book. It will enshrine legal protections for harmful and divisive speech. The kind of speech that we would not tolerate in this House would be protected in universities across the country. The Bill creates a new legal framework that allows for those responsible for such harmful speech to take legal action against universities, eating into the resources that ought to be educating our young people and supporting our world-class research programmes. The Bill is unnecessary and it is poorly drafted, but above all, it is deeply wrong and those of us on the Labour Benches will not support it. I commend our reasoned amendment to the House.
As the Chairman of the Education Committee, the right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), is now unable to take part in the debate this evening, we will go directly by video link to Carol Monaghan. Just before the hon. Lady begins, I should tell the House that after her speech there will be an immediate time limit of eight minutes, and that that could soon be reduced to a much shorter time limit, depending on how many Members decide at the last minute not to speak, which is a phenomenon that we face quite often at present. That is why we will start with a generous time limit; it is up to Members how we progress after that.
Education and Scots law are devolved, so I will keep my comments brief; hopefully, that will help move things along this evening. However, the issue of free speech is also pertinent to Scotland.
Many concerns have been raised about academic freedom and the role universities play in championing free speech. This Bill is being presented in a worrying climate, where particular views or political positions can lead to calls to remove lecturers from their positions or students from their courses. Free speech within the law includes the right to say things that, though lawful, others may find upsetting, but it cannot be exercised in a way that causes harm to others.
The law prohibits speech that incites murder or violence, stirs up racial or sectarian hatred or is defamatory or malicious, but, as I said, it does not prohibit speech that others might find upsetting or offensive. There is always going to be a challenge in correctly balancing that, but in a democracy it is important that those who hold views that may differ from one’s own are allowed to voice them.
Healthy debate on challenging topics has long been an important component of university life, but recently that has come under threat. According to the recent Joint Committee on Human Rights report on freedom of speech in universities, student societies should not stop other student societies holding their meetings: the right to protest does not extend to stopping events entirely. I agree with the shadow Secretary of State that there have been very few incidents, but unfortunately there have been examples of events having been stopped and speakers prevented from speaking.
Every one of us will have made comments for which we find ourselves attacked rather than challenged. An environment that seeks to close down debate is unhealthy. It is important to understand and, when appropriate, to challenge difficult points of view. The move towards a cancel culture should cause any functioning democracy grave concerns. I am a teacher by profession, and in my former life I often presented students with difficult views and difficult positions so that they could research the topic, inform themselves and produce their own balanced argument. That is how we develop our own opinions—through hearing different things that are challenging and forming our own position on them.
Although there may be some good intent behind the Bill, it should be approached with caution. To be clear, this Government are curtailing academic freedom by ordering blog posts by academics to be removed. They have told English schools not to use materials from organisations promoting the end of capitalism. I am not convinced that this Government can ever be the champion of free speech; they seem to support free speech when it suits their purposes and oppose it when Conservative ideals are challenged.
More practically, there are concerns about how the Bill will operate. Under the Bill as it is, any lecture, seminar or guest speech could end in a law suit. The Bill is almost unique in the breadth of its provision. In a normal judicial review, if someone wishes to challenge a decision of the Government, they must have standing—in other words, they must be affected by the decision that they wish to challenge—but in this Bill there is no “standing” requirement: any person, business, campaign group or organisation can sue. There are concerns that particular groups, especially well-funded ones, may be able to sue universities in respect of speakers who are there simply to provide debate and a challenging argument for students.
There are also concerns about the ability of universities to balance the new requirements with other statutory obligations. According to the Russell Group, there is a risk that the duty to promote free speech might indirectly undermine universities’ efforts to comply fully with the public sector equality duty, which includes duties to eliminate unlawful discrimination, harassment and victimisation and to foster the participation in university life of affected groups.
While I recognise many of the issues being discussed here today, it is important that a proper balance is struck between freedom of speech and discrimination. While the SNP will participate in the debates on the Bill, it is important to say that this is a devolved issue, and we will be participating as and when we feel it is appropriate.
Before I turn to the substance of my speech, I want to take on a matter raised by the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green). She was calling, “Where’s the data in this?” There has already been one set of answers with respect to the chilling effect, which we cannot measure, but the issue here is also quite important in terms of the importance of free speech.
I am a scientist by training. All the transformations in science—every single one—have been a challenge of an existing paradigm. They have often been opposed, often by the Church; we heard about Darwin, but there was Kepler and Copernicus and others at the same time. There have always been challenges to existing science. That has been a thousand times more important than anything we can measure, and we cannot judge it in advance. I just make that point about the importance of free speech. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said that free speech is a fundamental principle. That is why it is a fundamental principle and why we cannot simply go on a percentage here and a percentage there.
This country—this Parliament, in fact—has for over 300 years enshrined our right to free speech in law. The 1689 Bill of Rights became a symbol of hope for the rights of people everywhere. It is the most fundamental of freedoms, and it became a symbol everywhere. In 1948— we talk about holocaust deniers; that was the most sensitive time for these sorts of arguments—it was enshrined as article 19 of the universal declaration of human rights, which said:
“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
Today that right is under threat. I am amazed that the Labour party has not recognised that, but let us see how we get on. It is under threat in the very institutions where it should be most treasured—namely, our universities. I will return to some facts on the matter in a minute.
Freedom of speech only matters where it is controversial, when it is challenging. That is why the greatest characterisation of free speech is the one attributed to Voltaire, who said:
“I may detest what you say”—
I think that was the original phrasing—
“but I will fight to the death for your right to say it.”
I generally try not to detest or even dislike my political opponents, although there is one Labour Member who attacked J. K. Rowling in the most disgraceful terms. I would not for a second want to see him cancelled, but I want to see him here, debating the issue, because he would lose the debate. That is our protection in terms of free speech—not obliteration, but challenge.
Voltaire understood that creativity and progress in a society are dependent on acts of intellectual rebellion, dissent, disagreement and controversy, no matter how uncomfortable, but today the cancel culture movement thinks it is reasonable to obliterate the views of people it disagrees with, rather than to challenge them in open debate. The interesting element of the latter part of my career has been watching the change to this.
Social media has had an extraordinary impact. It has accelerated the growth of online lynch mobs, magnified their effect and facilitated their organisation. Today there is a terrible outbreak of intolerance in modern society: the so-called culture wars, which remind me of nothing so much as McCarthyism in the United States. When I first, as it were, came of age politically, this was still in living memory—both McCarthyism and the end of Stalinism. This is like the early stages of a totalitarian repression in other countries.
Precisely. The hon. Lady prefaces the argument I am going to make, which is that we do need to use the online harms Bill as well, but this Bill is just a part of that.
As I said, the behaviour that we have seen in the online battles that have taken place reminds me of McCarthyism. If hon. Members think that is an exaggeration, I recommend that they read the account in The Sunday Times three weeks ago by Christie Elan-Cane of her mistreatment, or indeed by Suzanne Moore of hers. The incredible and repressive verbal violence, and threats of actual physical violence, alongside heavily orchestrated attacks on their reputations and work, were frightening in the extreme to people whose reputations were already well-established. It is therefore no wonder that ordinary people are terrified to speak out for fear of losing their jobs, their friends and their reputations. This is the “chilling” issue that we have been talking about.
The Bill is to correct a small—I grant you, it is small—but extraordinarily important symbolic aspect of this modern McCarthyism, namely the attempt to no-platform a number of speakers, including Amber Rudd, Julie Bindel, Peter Hitchens, Peter Tatchell and others. I hope it is just a first step in a programme to bring free speech back to Britain. I name them rather than enumerate them for a reason—because they are all established people. If established people with high reputations can be terrorised, suppressed or put down, how is it going to be for somebody without the defences that they have?
As the Secretary of State said, the Bill replaces section 43 of the Education (No. 2) Act—the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston also referred to this—which imposes an obligation to take reasonably practical steps to uphold free speech on campus. The Bill replaces that with a slightly broader duty and extends it to apply to student unions as well. I think that is correct. It creates an enforcement mechanism, which was also missing before, so that students, academics and visiting speakers whose speech rights have been violated can hold higher education providers and student unions to account. Someone whose speech rights are breached by a university can lodge a complaint with the director for freedom of speech, who will have the power to investigate it and, if the complaint is upheld, fine the institution in question and compensate the victim. The students, academics or speakers will also be able to sue for denial of free speech. It is important that these mechanisms work—that is why this is important as an adjunct to the existing legislation—because the suppression of free speech in universities has a chilling effect on free speech in all of society. It is the pinnacle of free speech in our society, so if it is removed there, that facilitates and legitimises removing it everywhere else.
To come back to the point that the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) raised with me, it is important that we follow this up in other areas. In the online harms Bill, we should protect free speech from casual suppression by commercial platforms. We should look hard at the effect of organised online intimidation and seek to make it less easy, perhaps by removing anonymity from perpetrators. The hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston talked about anti-vaxxers. I am very pro-vaccine, for fairly obvious reasons. However, in the name of suppressing anti-vaxxers’ propaganda, quite a lot of legitimate scientists who had objections to the exact mechanisms of lockdown, raised concerns about blood clots and so on found themselves suppressed online. We have to recognise that this is not an easy dividing line to draw.
Managed free speech is a very hard idea to promote, pursue and make work. Modern communications are a major force for either good or evil. We should make sure that we facilitate the right one, and this Bill is just the first step in that important process.
I feel compelled to speak in today’s debate because higher education is absolutely vital to the success of Nottingham South. In the past, people in my city worked as makers—of textiles, cigarettes and bicycles. Now, the site of the vast Raleigh factory is the University of Nottingham’s Jubilee campus. Nottingham College’s Adams building is a former lace factory, and the old Boots site in the city centre, where ibuprofen was invented, is now BioCity, a business incubator jointly owned by the city’s two universities and using their outstanding research to support the growth of ambitious life science businesses, creating jobs and opportunities for my constituents and ensuring that Nottingham’s economy has a bright future.
I care deeply about the success of higher education and the success of Nottingham’s two world-class universities. They will need to adapt to meet the challenges of a post-pandemic, post-Brexit world and to do much more to ensure that they are accessible to every young person who wants and has the ability to benefit from an academic education, and to ensure that they are welcoming places for young people from all backgrounds that support students to learn and to thrive.
In the interim conclusion of their review of post-18 education and funding—the Augar review—published in January, the Government said that there would be
“bold investments and reforms to build a high quality, unified system.”
They committed to
“introducing a Lifelong Loan Entitlement from 2025”,
described as a “radical change”. If change is coming to post-18 education, as it clearly is, our universities must be ready to meet it, but instead of clarity on those important issues from Government, we have today’s Bill.
I also care deeply about the students who come to study in our city. I want them to have a great experience living in Nottingham. I want them to stay on in the city after they graduate. I want them to think and speak positively and warmly about Nottingham when they return to their homes across the UK and the world. I also want the young people from my constituency who go to study in other places to have good experiences. Students tell me that they are worried about the cost of living when they are studying, particularly the high cost of rent and transport. They tell me that they are concerned about their safety on the streets and on campus, particularly women students. They tell me that they are worried about their mental health and accessing the support they need while away at university.
My constituents raise other concerns. Being home to more than 50,000 students sometimes puts pressure on our city’s local services or gives rise to tensions in neighbourhoods. Rising student numbers have impacted on the local housing market over a long period. In Nottingham, we are working to address all these issues by bringing together residents, local partners, including the two universities and their student unions, and the city council. It is not easy and, in the last year, there have been particularly difficult periods, but we remain focused on finding solutions.
The pandemic has hit Nottingham hard and it continues to impact on students, long-term residents and the universities. There are real concerns about the future of our hospitality sector and our high streets and about the ability of our health services to cope with a third wave of infections. Our universities, local residents, prospective students, returning students and their parents will all want reassurance about measures to keep them safe ahead of the autumn term. They need to know how Government will support the requirement to quarantine for thousands of overseas students coming to study in our city. They want to know what the covid testing regime will look like. The youngest students want to know how they will be able to access their second vaccinations when they start at university. They want to know when they might be required to self-isolate and how they will be supported if they are. This year, many students have had to pay rent on accommodation that they have been unable to use while the part-time jobs they rely on to support themselves through education have been unavailable. They want to know what the Government are doing to protect them from such unfairness and financial hardship. These are big issues—serious concerns —that demand answers and solutions, none of which are addressed by this Bill.
The issue that this Bill seeks to address is not on anyone’s list of priorities. It is a sledgehammer to crack a very small nut, while other important issues in the sector and outside it are not being addressed. Why do we not have a Bill to address online racist abuse of the sort that we have seen in the last 24 hours? Why are we not debating the Government’s plans for better student support in order to widen participation? Why is the Government’s priority protecting hate speech, rather than the students who face racism or sexual harassment on campus, or students who are struggling with poor mental health?
Freedom of speech, and the free exchange of ideas in pursuit of truth and knowledge, is absolutely central to our universities’ whole purpose, but where is the evidence that there is a problem? The vice-chancellor of Nottingham Trent University confirmed to me yesterday that not a single event at the university has been cancelled due to the content to be debated. The Bill is unnecessary and unclear. It risks opening up our universities to vexatious and frivolous claims, and it may actually make universities more risk-averse and more cautious about whom they invite to speak.
Just a few weeks ago, some Conservative MPs seemed determined to create division among our country’s football fans by criticising the England team for visibly expressing their opposition to racism by taking the knee—freedom of speech. Today, the Government are trying to manufacture a row about free speech on campus. The Government should be working with universities and students to address the real priorities for higher education. It is shameful that they are not doing so, and that is why I oppose the Bill.
I speak today from experience of working with universities and as an academic studying physics many years ago. What I found during that time was the importance of enabling diversity of thought, the ability to challenge ideas and the ability to propose new ideas, even though they go against the grain of what others may think.
Over 10 years ago, I worked on a project with a Russell Group university that would not allow its academics to blog because it was too scared that they might say the wrong thing. I successfully encouraged the university to set up a new website that included the big debate, which enabled academics to have a yes/no debate on the topic of the day and to provide different points of view. That is what academia and universities should be about: they should be about debating things to get to the truth.
As we have seen over the past year with covid, there have been disagreements about the science. We have seen disagreements about the ethics and morality of different issues that have impacted on us all, and we must make sure that we enable and continue that within our universities. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) mentioned earlier, the challenge is that we have to look at this issue through the lens of modern society. Ten years ago, blogs were a new thing; now, social media is everywhere, and what happens in one campus can go across the country and the world in a matter of minutes.
We see all the time the awful impact of what I call hate-mobbing—the idea that, all of a sudden on social media, one person is targeted for their point of view. In many cases, it might be because they have an absolutely abhorrent point of view and should not be voicing it in the way that they are doing, but the point is that we need to make sure that such views are debated and scrutinised. I worry that we are moving towards what I would call a swipe-left society, like with certain apps, whereby people keep swiping until they get to a point of view or debate with which they agree, and that is the only thing that they see. We must make sure that, in universities, we challenge each other and see the arguments of other points of view, to make sure that the debate is rounded and that, as I say, we get to the truth.
Andy Warhol famously said that, in the future, we would all have 15 minutes of fame, but increasingly I see that we are getting 15 minutes of shame, with people being attacked for their points of view. We have to make sure that we protect them on campus, because the academics and students of today will be in this House in 10 or 20 years’ time. They will be the leaders of our culture and society. They will be the people teaching our next generation. If they feel that they are being stifled in their view, and if they are scared of expressing a point of view that is different, we stifle them and society, and the seeds of doubt are planted now for generations to come.
There is another really important point here that we must take into account. We have talked about hate and hate-filled speech, and, of course, we do not want to give those platforms, but we also need to make sure that such views are scrutinised. The shadows are where hate festers. The awfulness of certain people’s point of view is not dismissed from their mind because they do not say it, they just hide it and get others to hide it with them, and then it becomes a movement or a moment. We must make sure that we shine a light on hate, that we shine a light on different points of view, because if we do so we can argue that, quite often, what is being said is absolutely foolish and nonsense. Anti-vaxxers are a good example of that. After a year of our inboxes being filled with, at times, utter nonsense and fearmongering, science and the success of our vaccine programme has proved that all wrong.
There is a famous phrase that I like, which is that a mind stretched by a new idea never returns to the same size. With the use of free speech, the truest form of free speech, in academia and universities, we stretch everybody’s minds and we challenge each other to have new beliefs and new perspectives. That is why I support this Bill today. We need to make sure that we protect freedom of speech on campuses more than anywhere because that is the one place where we should be challenging each other to find the truth and to be able to support that for our society and our nation to come.
Freedom of speech is one of the building blocks of a democratic society. Here in the UK, we take ours for granted, and hearing a variety of opinions on every important issue helps us to form our own and helps us to choose political, societal and cultural leaders who represent our own beliefs, reflect our values, and pledge to uphold them when in public office. Similarly, we learn what we find unacceptable, what to reject at the ballot box, and how to form and strengthen our own arguments against the views with which we disagree.
I remember how sinister it seemed when Mrs Thatcher’s Government chose to ban the voices of Sinn Féin from 1988 until 1994, so that broadcasters had to use actors’ voices instead. While there were very strong arguments for doing so—I certainly have no agreement or any affinity whatsoever with the actions associated with that group, which, at the time, affected my family directly—banning the public from hearing what they had to say seemed controlling, disturbing, patronising and heavy-handed as it potentially prevented those of us with an interest in politics from forming our own full views on one of the key political topics of that era. Similarly, in a recent Bill, the Government have banned peaceful political protest and demonstrations, which is a vital way to make our views heard.
The recent trend to no-platform those whose opinions we may not like feels somewhat sinister, too. After all, universities are think-tanks and seats of learning. We must be able to hear from a variety of academics, writers and thinkers on both current and historical issues. Increasingly, academic freedom has sadly become a feminist issue, too. It is not an earth-shattering surprise that there is a worrying trend to no-platform or cancel mostly women from some universities. Recent high-profile cases include writers and broadcasters such as Germaine Greer, Julie Bindel, and Jenni Murray; and academics such as Kathleen Stock, Alice Sullivan, Rosa Freedman, Selina Todd, Shereen Benjamin and many others. Far from being just a handful of women accused of wrongthink and condemned as heretics, this is just the tip of the iceberg as many students, too, have been asking the wrong kinds of questions. Crucially, in such cases, the women and some men themselves are then considered to be banned as people and become the subject of targeted harassment, both in their places of work and across social media. It is vital that women are allowed to speak, vital that we are allowed to question, and vital that we are able to keep pushing open doors that have previously been closed to us.
Of course, academic freedom and freedom of speech must also be balanced. Students and staff have to feel safe from hate and prejudice. Recently, the all-party group against antisemitism, of which I am a vice-chair, has written several letters to the vice-chancellor of Bristol University to condemn the views expressed by one of their staff. Holocaust denial is not a legitimate opinion or a valid point of view. Perhaps those who think so have missed the testimony of survivors or the very real evidence that still exists on the sites of those atrocious acts of evil. So, too, must we be allowed to dissect our past role in the repulsive histories of slavery and colonialism. Those facts must be taught in an honest and unfiltered way in order for us to view them from where we are now and in the context of our society today.
There has to be a balanced approach, and we have to be able to entrust universities and their staff and unions with this issue, but I am not convinced that legislation is the way to go. Universities are under increasing commercial pressure, and in a more competitive market, threatening legal action over their decisions is not going to help when they have been under considerable financial strain. How do we ensure that the balance between freedom of speech and hateful prejudice is maintained? Is a set of rules and a threat of financial penalties the best way to protect freedom of speech? Why are the proposals framed around freedom of speech, not academic freedom? As the academic Shereen Benjamin writes:
“Academic freedom specifically refers to the freedom of all members of universities…to pursue whatever lines of enquiry they decide, in research, teaching and public engagement, without fear or favour.”
While I broadly support the aims of this Bill and think that it raises some really important points for debate, I do not believe legislation right now is entirely necessary; it seems a little like a sledgehammer to crack a nut.
I strongly support this much-needed Bill. Over recent years, I have been very concerned to hear of numerous restrictions on freedom of speech in academic settings. A doctorate student told me:
“There really is no point me trying for an academic career with my political and religious views.”
A career councillor gives the advice to Christian students—students holding what many in this country would consider to be traditional faith-based views held over hundreds of years—that
“If you’re seeking a career in academia, expunge all mention of your faith or Church membership from your CV or social media to avoid difficulties which these could cause in your job chances.”
A student told me that he was stressed and worried for a long period about whether he would be disciplined in some way and that it might affect his degree, because his university authorities were investigating a private conversation that he had had with friends in a university bar or common room, which had simply been overheard by someone else and reported. The conversation was not in breach of any regulation, and there was clearly no harassment, no abuse and no threat of violence.
Universities, of all places, should be environments of genuine diversity and of open debate, free exchange and the exploration of ideas—however unpopular or unfashionable—without fear, yet there clearly is real fear today among certain academics about expressing certain views, often deeply held ones. Two years ago, a group of parliamentarians, including me, conducted a cross-party inquiry examining areas of life in the UK today that make it challenging for a Christian to live in accordance with their beliefs, and one such area we looked at was academia. One witness working in academia told us that, in preparation for giving evidence to us, he conducted a short survey. He contacted 69 Christian academics whom he knew in institutions across the country and asked them: “Do you feel your academic career would be adversely affected if you were to be public or more public about your faith?” Virtually half of those asked—34—replied yes, and not one of them on being asked was willing to be identified to our committee for fear of the potential negative impact on their career.
If I may, I will cite one more of the many concerning examples evidencing why this Bill is necessary, and it is one that involved me. I was invited by Oxford Students for Life to talk about my parliamentary campaign to outlaw sex-selective abortion. As I started to speak to a gathering of about 100 students, an attempt was made to no-platform me. A uniformed official arrived in the room and requested that the whole meeting be stopped, apparently as the event, including my views, would cause offence to students sitting in a common room on the far side of the quad opposite. They could see but could not hear me. There were many rich ironies to the situation. I was effectively being discriminated against for speaking against discrimination, for which across the world many more girls are aborted than boys, and I was being prevented from simply relating to my work that is already available in the public domain. Most of it is in Hansard. Eventually, the organisers of the meeting, the officials and the objectors reached a compromise: I could continue speaking if all the curtains in the room were closed.
That was a completely unacceptable incident. It subsequently resulted in an apology from the authorities, but it was one of the reasons why I was prompted to join fellow members of the Joint Committee on Human Rights in holding our 2018 inquiry on freedom of speech in universities. The inquiry concluded that, in universities:
“A number of factors are limiting free speech”
It revealed a plethora of such incidents—plenty of evidence that Opposition Members may like to look at—while many more are clearly never reported. One university tutor told us that he had had no idea of the extent of the issue until he started looking into it in response to our inquiry. We heard of challenges such as student groups finding difficulty in getting space at freshers’ fairs, in booking rooms for speakers, in getting approvals for speakers or simply in registering as a university society at all. I had hoped that adequate change would follow our report’s recommendations, perhaps through well enforced guidelines or codes of practice, but not so, hence the need for legislative change and this welcome Bill.
I have three final points. First, on subsections (6) and (9) of proposed new section A1 of the Higher Education and Research Act, I am concerned that the freedom for academic job applicants to express their views should not be limited to freedom in areas
“within their field of expertise.”
In many cases, academics’ expressed views may range more widely, but they should not be affected in their job applications just because of that. I ask the Minister to check with the draftsmen.
Secondly, my role as the Prime Minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief is primarily international facing and, as I and colleagues in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office constantly say, promoting freedom of religion or belief is a key human rights priority for the Government. We aspire to be a global leader in FORB, but I cannot speak credibly in the international community and arena about the discrimination faced by people in other countries on account of their beliefs—whether they cannot get a job, an education or otherwise; of course, much persecution is far worse—if we do not scrupulously apply the principles of article 18 of the universal declaration of human rights in this country. I hope that Hansard will put that here in full. That point is frequently made to me in connection with these issues.
Finally, let us be in no doubt that the challenges to freedom of speech and the very real chilling effect that accompanies them are not limited to university settings but extend far more widely. There is more to be done to protect freedom of speech in this country effectively, but the Bill is a good start.
I absolutely agree with lots of what has been said about how it is vital that we have robust debate. I am challenged daily by people in one forum or another—and, to be honest, that is the best part of my job. It is the bit that I like the most, and it is the bit that I would seek in our universities.
I wonder if the Secretary of State remembers when, in his time in the Whips Office, one of the Whips wrote to all the universities to ask them what they were teaching about Brexit. That Whip promised us a book, but I have checked with the Library and it is not there. So he was not necessarily writing to the universities for his book research. One wonders why he was writing to them. I look forward to the book. The Secretary of State will remember that and, no doubt, I was robust with his colleague at the time.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) highlighted from the Front Bench the fact that last year six in 10,000 events were cancelled, mostly due to incorrect paperwork. I think six is probably too many—unless there was really bad paperwork—so I thought that I should read to the Secretary of State six cases that have come across my desk that I think need a Bill and Government time, rather than Twitter leaking into our Chamber. My husband always says, “It’s funny how you politicians take on issues because the internet has leaked all over you as if that’s all that matters.” This Bill feels a little bit like the internet leaking all over this magnificent building.
I will read about a very serious case of a university student being quite seriously silenced: “I am under an NDA which relates to my experiences of being raped on campus and how the university dealt with my complaint, and threatens me in a written contract of expulsion if I tell anybody about my experiences. In fact, I am breaking my NDA by emailing you and I hope you understand how strongly I feel about this issue given I am putting myself at risk to speak out about it.”
I turn to another case for the Secretary of State to listen to. This involves a university that has already been mentioned today. One woman said,
“we were very explicit—each of us—in describing exactly what had happened…this was not consensual and I want something to be done about that.”
The three women outlined their allegations of varying severity, ranging up to rape. The normal response to this sort of testimony is to lay out the options available—either to go to the police or to complain to their college or university—but the women were not told that; they were told: “It will be too onerous on you to go through the complaints system.” Complaining through the college was presented as an unappealing option. One of the women later wrote that they
“were advised that the process of pursuing any form of disciplinary action would not be worth the emotional toll it would take on us.”
One of the women in this particular case—which involved three women, so we are now up to four of our six—had to leave the university, not the perpetrator of the crimes against her.
Another case that was widely reported on in the newspapers happened at Oxford University Women’s Boat Club. When a woman told a senior scholar of her sexual assault, the professor laughed and said:
“I totally get it, I thought we had sorted it out the last time but we clearly haven’t…It’s a very toxic combination of alcohol and very young athletes at university, it doesn’t work at all.”
In a separate part of the discussion, the professor said:
“This university is not very good on these student welfare-type issues.”
There are the six cases. Where is the action on the widespread problem of sexual harassment and sexual abuse on the campuses in our country? I have just given six cases; where is the Bill and the priority for this thing that silences people whose names we will never hear? They could have brilliant scientific ideas but will leave university because of what has happened to them. Where is the regulator in the Office for Students who will provide the power to impose fines and breaches when universities do things wrong? Where is it? Where can I send this woman with a non-disclosure agreement? Perhaps the Secretary of State would like to intervene on me, because I would love to give that woman some advice.
Where is the role equivalent to the director of freedom of speech and academic freedom? Where is the £1 million in this Bill for an officer to oversee universities’ efforts in this regard? Where is the £1 million to spend on an officer who goes to every university and makes sure that the women on those campuses are safe? Where is that officer? Where is the Bill for that?
This reminds me so much of what happened in schools recently with Everyone’s Invited, which included university campuses as well. The Secretary of State comes forward and says, “We’re going to do something about this. This is horrifying. We are going to make sure that something is done about this.” These issues were highlighted five years ago. It was five years ago, 10 years ago, that the issues that I am standing here talking about today were highlighted. Where is our Bill? Where is the Bill on the sexual harassment and abuse that is silencing thousands of people on campuses in every single town and city up and down this country? Where is our Bill? Why is this the priority? This reminds me very much of the fact that I am constantly told that the Government make a priority of addressing violence against women and girls, but the amount that they are proposing to spend is £100 million less than on the boat that the Queen does not even want. It’s the internet— it’s leaking.
Where is the urgency needed for those women and men on university campuses who have been silenced by a lack of process? Where is the Bill for them? Where is the urgency? Where was the urgency five years ago when we told the Secretary of State about schools, and it took a young girl who had been raped and put back in the classroom with her rapist—the then Secretary of State being taken to court—before any regulation was even written? What do we have to do? Do I have to start a meme on the internet? Do I have to get some sort of following from the bots to make this issue heard? Where is the Bill on sexual harassment and sexual abuse, and the processes that we can take if something bad happens? Where is it? Without it, we will be stifling freedom of speech more than any list of anybody who has not been able to speak at a university.
I like to list the women who have been failed in this country, but eight minutes? Eight hours would not cut it. Where is this Bill on that element of freedom of speech—or is it just not politically expedient enough? I honestly want everyone to have the freedom to speak freely and give out their ideas. Darwin has been used as an example all day today; had Darwin been a woman who had been abused at university, none of you would be able to say her name.
To think and speak freely is the foundation of an open society; there will be little disagreement about that across this House. One might think that the institutions that, in the words of Cardinal Newman, give a man
“a clear…view of his own opinions and judgments, a truth in developing them, an eloquence in expressing them and a force in urging them”,
would be the champions of challenging contrasting ideas —the scions of scrutiny. It is therefore a bitter irony that some people with power in higher education today are the enemies of freedom and that many of those who are not are intimidated into acquiescence. How sad it is that intellectual freedom has to be protected by law from those with power in those institutions.
The hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) cited some examples, and there are many. Let me just give a flavour. Selina Todd, the professor of modern history at Oxford, following pressure from trans activists—she was accused of transphobia, needless to say—was no platformed at Exeter College. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) mentioned, former Home Secretary Amber Rudd also had her invitation to speak at Oxford rescinded.
It is not only visiting speakers but academics and students in our universities who are subject to this kind of intolerance. The University of Plymouth investigated a senior lecturer, Mike McCulloch, for tweeting “All lives matter” in June 2020; a student at Leeds University was placed under investigation for questioning Black Lives Matter; and a first-year student at the University of Kent, as the hon. Member for Canterbury (Rosie Duffield) no doubt knows, was placed under investigation for questioning whether George Floyd deserved martyrdom given his criminal record—a violent criminal record, indeed.
Those are all contestable opinions. Of course they are all matters of debate and of course some of them are contentious views, but the whole point about a free society is that we should be able to hold and express contentious views. It is worrying—more than that, chilling—that, as has been said, we are creating a cohort of young people who are hyper-sensitive: no longer daring; no longer prepared to think the unthinkable; deprived of intellectual rigour and imagination. The hallmarks of that woke culture—as we have heard, perpetuated principally on social media—are spite, hate and vitriol. Frank Luntz, the American pollster, has warned that the culture battles we have seen so far are nothing compared with what is on its way. The cultural detritus from the United States is making its way to our shores relentlessly: a culture that is intolerant of measured, principled disagreement. It has gripped many in the United Kingdom, as I have already described. I could go on with a list and I am happy to make that list available to the House of Commons Library if that is helpful to colleagues who doubt the depth of the problem.
The deliberate machinations of the few are dividing the many. We should react with horror when some of those trusted with fostering the flower of Britain’s academic youth are instead intent on producing a carbon copy of politically correct individuals: less ambitious, less daring, less imaginative than the generation that came before. Policing the thoughts of those students who disagree has become commonplace, for the defining traits of the unblinking all-seeing eye of wokery are short sight and narrow minds. George Orwell recognised that this is not simply a problem for students. Academics are subject to the same kind of faults. He said that the charlatans of his time were peddling ideas that were so stupid only intellectuals could believe them. The people who seem to want to impose their exclusive vision on us are so often ignorant of history, apparently ignorant of biology and certainly ignorant of human nature.
I wholeheartedly agree with the right hon. Gentleman. Does he agree that we must remind people that we must hear, if not accept, other arguments, and that if we continue to raise generations who believe their opinion trumps others and that to disagree with them means to hate them, we will find ourselves in a very different UK?
The hon. Gentleman is right that having one’s views challenged, testing ideas and being scrutinised is the characteristic of the open society advocated at the beginning of my speech. It is right that we should both have our views challenged and sometimes be disturbed by counter-arguments. It is extraordinary that feminists, notably Germaine Greer and Julie Burchill, have been no-platformed for believing in biologically based legal rights that women fought to have protected for so long.
The enemies of an open society have successfully cancelled a litany of students and academics who dared to espouse understandings of race, gender and sex which were once regarded as a priori assumptions. Those without wealth or influence to resist have too often been left at the mercy of the mob. These are the quiet everyday stories of the liberal tyranny which go unreported. These are the people who need recourse and outreached hands to assure them that the Government believe in the right to disagree and, yes, disturb—and perhaps, yes, to offend. For to be inspired means first being moved and changed in a way sufficiently startling to open up new horizons, extend boundaries and give life to opportunities. Deprived of that we are lessened, because in safe spaces where nothing disturbs there is no room for inspiration, no space for innovation. Without the freedom to say what they think, people are poorer. Without laws to defend the lawful entitlement they confer, nations are weaker. Without the chance to read and hear, contest and condone all kinds of ideas, our children are robbed of their future chance to flourish.
The Bill must pass into law in a state that leaves no room for doubters and schemers to carry on with their sanctimoniously bigoted practices. Through ignorance or inaction, we cannot condone the wicked ways of the self-appointed thought police. Make no mistake: this culture war is the issue of our age. It is the struggle of our generation. Nothing matters more. This is our battle of Britain.
I start by thanking the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) for her incredibly powerful and moving speech. I offer her my full support and that of my party for her calls for a Bill to tackle sexual abuse and violence on university campuses.
Right now, however, I wish to speak to the reasoned amendment in my name and those of my Liberal Democrat colleagues, even though it was not selected for a vote. I believe in the right to free speech. I welcome the opportunity to challenge people whose views are different from mine and I regard freedom of speech and informed public debate as vital elements of a democratic society. I also believe that universities should absolutely welcome rigorous well informed debate because free speech is, after all, at the heart of academic freedom—the freedom to inquire and explore ideas, facts and data that are difficult and sometimes inconvenient. But the laws required to protect free speech in universities already exist in the Education (No. 2) Act 1986, so no new laws are needed to achieve that goal.
On whether academics are scared to share their own views, the Government’s own White Paper acknowledges that the Joint Committee on Human Rights has examined that issue and concluded that it is just not a widespread problem, so no new laws are needed for that either. If the Government believe that there are still concerns, surely a more effective solution would be for them to beef up the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education, without having to create a whole new role or whole new piece of legislation.
On no-platforming, research has shown that in 2019-20, of almost 10,000 events involving an external speaker, just six were cancelled—that is 0.06%. Again, the evidence just does not support the Government’s claims that this is even really a major problem. It certainly does not justify the heavy-handed approach of giving the Office for Students extended regulatory powers and making it answerable only to the Secretary of State. That is an authoritarian sledgehammer to crack a nut.
The Bill gives students, staff and visiting speakers the right to sue universities and student unions for alleged breaches of free speech, with all the associated costs. That would create an open season for vexatious claims and expensive litigation—and, what is worse, universities would therefore be incentivised to stop holding events on tricky and controversial issues in the first place, for fear of litigation. The Bill would have a chilling effect because, far from protecting free speech, it would stifle it. At the very least, this legislation must include a threshold for harm, as under the Defamation Act 2013, so that that route cannot be abused by individuals or groups who do not have genuine grievances. There is no place for hate speech in universities, but as it is drafted the Bill would enable holocaust deniers, antivaxxers and more to be not only protected on campus but empowered to sue a university in court.
In conclusion, the Liberal Democrats oppose the Bill as worded. It is not based on evidence and is not proportionate. Worst of all, it actively undermines the very principle of free speech that it claims to support. Free speech is about the right of every individual to speak truth to power, but the Bill does the opposite. It gives those in power or with power the ability to determine who is free to say what. Far from protecting our freedoms, it is actually yet another example of this Government’s concerted efforts to take our freedoms away. Given that universities are already required to protect freedom of speech and that research suggests that no-platforming is incredibly rare, the Government should drop the Bill entirely. That is what the Liberal Democrat reasoned amendment sought to do.
I strongly support the Bill, which was a manifesto commitment in an election that gave the Government a landslide majority less than two years ago. Given a growing and worrying cultural trend across our campuses over recent years, the Government are right to bring this legislation forward. It is a matter of deep regret that the Bill is even necessary in 21st-century Britain.
It has been said previously in this House that sunlight is the best disinfectant, and we know that open debate allows good ideas to drive out bad ideas—that, in essence, is the basis of the scientific method. Our places of education should be the last to succumb to the idea of one truth, but freedoms of speech, thought, expression and individuality are now being censored in increasing numbers on campuses across the country, primarily by those of a hard-left mindset but in a manner that has more in common with the European dictatorships of the first part of the last century than a democratic nation such as Britain in the current one. If we do not act now, we risk a central tenet of our democracy being lost.
University used to be a place where students would go to test theories and engage in critical thinking. As Ruth Kelly, the former Labour Education Secretary, said:
“Universities should not only welcome debate and dissent from established ways of thinking—they should actively encourage it, because that’s how we achieve progress and change. If universities were only to allow the regurgitation of the received wisdom, what would be the point of them?”
Well, what indeed?
It is a matter of regret that, too often, political agitators see free speech as something to be destroyed because they are afraid of having their arguments brought out into the open and challenged. The mob mentality is underpinned by a fanatical zeal that they are the enlightened ones and only they hold objective truth. That has given rise to the phenomenon of cancel culture, as hon. Members have said, whereby anything that challenges the prevailing thought is denounced as heretical, racist or fascist, and in many cases a combination of all three. Examples of the intolerance that has crept into academic life are ever increasing. Peter Hitchens, who was hounded by a mob of students, summarised it well:
“They had absolutely no desire to influence me or debate with me. I was an enemy, not an opponent, and so I should not have dared to be there. My actual existence infuriated them”.
The irony, of course, is that restricting free debate in such a way is deeply undemocratic. Indeed, it is a totalitarian action. This Bill is therefore necessary to prevent a dystopian, Orwellian indoctrination.
Clauses 1 and 2 will amend the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 by creating new duties on governing bodies and student unions to secure freedom of speech. I warmly welcome clause 8, which will enforce that where necessary by creating in the Office for Students a director to champion free speech in academia. Clause 3 is perhaps the most crucial, because proposed new section A6 to the 2017 Act will provide for civil claims to be made where those duties in clauses 1 and 2 are breached. That is critical because it gives the Bill teeth.
The dangers I have outlined are not, of course, isolated to universities. The campus is merely a staging ground for wider civilisation and society. Those who wish to do away with freedom of speech are attempting to dismantle the foundations of our society and to supplant them with their own totalitarian doctrine. By removing freedom of speech, dissenting voices can be silenced and submission ensured. For proof of that we need only look at recent attempts to subject British history to a radical revision and the accompanying attempts to taint our greatest heroes. This is a deliberate and concerted attempt to erode the pillars of our nation so that we are left with nothing to believe in. Once that point is reached, those responsible—the anarcho-Marxist, hard-left agitators—will be able to impose their own, ever-changing standards whereby yesterday’s truth is tomorrow’s crime.
By ensuring in legislation the sanctity of freedom of speech, I hope that the Government set a precedent to consider further actions. There are areas in which the Bill can be improved as it proceeds through its remaining stages, particularly to avoid its being neutered by contradictory interpretations of the Equality Act 2010, but there will be an opportunity to discuss that in more detail at a later stage. I support the Bill’s Second Reading and urge all colleagues on both sides of the House to do likewise.
First, may I congratulate the Minister for Universities on the very reasonable tone with which she has advocated this Bill, and the Secretary of State on his speech? As he said, this Bill is not a battle in a culture war or an ideological effort, but simply an attempt to defend what is already legal in this country. I do not want to aggravate the culture war—which, as my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes) says, we are certainly in—but the fact is that there is a battle of ideas going on in our universities, and if we are to prevent the exacerbation of the culture war, we need this Bill, and ideally we need it to be strengthened.
Opposition Members are right in pointing out that there are very few overt instances of censorship, but nevertheless academic freedom is under sustained intellectual attack in our universities. The battle of ideas that we are in is not one in the traditional sense of a clash of opinions and the normal free exchange of ideas that universities are all about. It is much more fundamental than that. It is a battle between, on the one hand, the very idea of the free exchange of opinions and, on the other, the opinion of the radical left, going back to Marx—the idea that the notion of a free exchange of opinions is itself oppressive.
I do not think many Opposition Members are radical Marxists but, in opposing the Bill, they are empowering radicals. I want to do justice to Members on the other side of the House, so I hope you will briefly indulge some student philosophising, Mr Deputy Speaker. The radical left seems to have two strong beliefs. First, it believes that identity is psychological—that a person’s true essence and self is constructed by themselves or other people. That explains the extreme sensitivity around people’s feelings, because if the self is a psychological construct and people’s identity is basically how they feel, being hurt or offended is absolutely catastrophic. An insult is a form of violence—it is almost worse than violence.
The second belief of the radical left is that people can and do suffer what is called false consciousness: they can believe ideas that are not true and that are, in fact, harmful to their own interests. These ideas are also known as conservative opinions, such as a belief in the western political and economic model, in Brexit or in the Conservative party. That explains why the radical left does not have a problem with censorship and why it thinks that censorship is actually necessary for freedom to suppress false consciousness and allow people to discover their real selves, rather than the conservative self that the ruling class has imposed on them.
And that is precisely why the word “heretical” is apposite, because views that do not conform in a quasi-religious way to the orthodoxy that my hon. Friend has described are regarded as heresy. Once they are defined as such, almost anything can be legitimised in putting them down.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right, and he will be delighted that I am about to quote someone with whom he does not strongly agree: Herbert Marcuse. No debate about universities and students would be complete without Marcuse. He is the great Marxist philosopher who basically wrote the script for the radical left. In his “Repressive Tolerance” essay, which is admirably well named, he argued for
“the withdrawal of toleration of speech and assembly from groups and movements which promote aggressive policies, armament, chauvinism…or which oppose the extension of public services, social security, medical care, etc. Moreover, the restoration of freedom of thought”—
as he calls it—
“may necessitate new and rigid restrictions on teachings and practices in the educational institutions”.
That is what we are up against. I do not accuse a single Opposition Member of believing that but, in opposing the Bill, they are empowering those opinions. We are in a very parlous state in our universities, so I welcome the Bill, its strengthening of the duty for universities to protect free speech, the extension of this duty to student unions as well, the right of academics to sue if they have been no-platformed, and the role of the new free speech champion at the Office for Students. They are all excellent provisions.
To rebut what has been said by Opposition Members, the Bill does not allow hate speech. Hate speech is illegal. The Bill does not protect Holocaust denial, which is not protected speech. Under the ECHR, Holocaust denial is not protected speech. If a Holocaust denier is no-platformed, they would have no right under the Bill to sue or challenge the university.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the Bill is there to deal with the culture of perpetual offence—someone being offended to the point that they are not willing to listen to, or engage in, constructive debate—and that the Bill allows for the promotion of freedom of difference of opinion, so that people can come together and form new ideas but do not always have to agree with what the speaker is saying?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend.
I will finish by suggesting a few improvements to the Bill that we might consider in Committee. First, we should go further than insisting that all “reasonably practicable” steps are taken to promote free speech. We should insist that all necessary steps are taken, because there is a real danger in the current wording—for instance, a university might pretend that the cost of security makes an event impracticable, which means that its opponents could effectively boycott it or ensure that it is withdrawn.
Secondly, I think that we should broaden the protections for academics beyond their field of expertise—which begs the question of how we define a field of expertise. What, if a professor of European history were to criticise the Chinese Government, for instance, or indeed criticise his or her own university for being too cosy with the Chinese Government? We need to protect those academics too.
For an academic, in that academic’s own field, there is a very important consideration about control of the curriculum—about not so much freedom of speech as the freedom to teach, and the question of who decides what academics should be teaching. We need to explore the concept of conscience rights for academics to resist a drift towards teaching that they would not accept that they should be obliged to carry out. We need some protection for dissent in the system.
As was mentioned by the shadow Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green), the Bill does not insist that colleges at Oxbridge and Durham take the necessary steps to protect freedom of speech; that applies only to universities and student unions. I think we should extend the obligation to colleges. We should allow academics to appeal not just through the civil law but to an employment tribunal if their academic freedom is restricted. Lastly, I think we need to clarify the role of the Equality Act 2010, which should not be used to close down an event on the grounds that someone says it would constitute harassment or discrimination.
The fact is that we are extending protections to universities and all aspects of law should be covered. That should include those who are not covered by tenure—not just academics but visiting speakers, and the students themselves.
As I was saying, I think we need to clarify the role of the Equality Act. Essex University no-platformed two visiting academics who held gender-critical views on the grounds that under the Act the event would constitute harassment or discrimination, and that was quite wrong. My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) gave another example earlier.
Opposition Members think that the Bill is unnecessary because there is no real issue and no problem to address. I could not disagree more. I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes). I do not think we have debated anything as important as this, except perhaps the Brexit legislation, in the 18 months during which I have been in the House. To prevent a culture war, we need to allow dissident views to be given full expression.
I give all credit to the Minister, and also to Policy Exchange, the Free Speech Union, and all those outside the House who have campaigned for this law. It is very necessary, and I support it.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) that there should be no censorship of lawful views, and that there are many pressing issues for students that this Tory Government are not addressing. However, I am convinced that there is mounting evidence that female academics’ ability to discuss their rights in law is already being curtailed in our higher education sector.
According to guidance issued by the Equality and Human Rights Commission in 2019,
“Freedom of expression is a key part of the higher education experience. Sharing ideas”
“is crucial for learning, and allows students to think critically, challenge and engage with different perspectives.”
The guidance states that higher education providers
“should encourage discussion and exchange of views on difficult and controversial”
topics. In the last few years, however, it has come to light that many women in universities across the UK are being censored, harassed and threatened for the simple act of trying to engage in debate and discussion about the impact of gender self-identification on women’s sex-based rights.
As has been mentioned, Selina Todd, professor of modern history at Oxford, whose academic specialism is the rise of working-class women, has been given security guards to accompany her to lectures after receiving threats from activists. In late 2019, Essex University rescinded an invitation to Open University professor Jo Phoenix, who had been due to speak at a seminar about trans rights and imprisonment. Protesters labelled her a transphobe, and the seminar was cancelled. This is what concerns me: the labelling of people in that way, especially women. To seek and to ask is to learn, and not to be written off. At around the same time, a Jewish professor of human rights law at Reading University, Rosa Freedman, had been invited to speak at an event on the holocaust at Essex University, only for the invitation to be withdrawn because of her views on gender identity. Professors Freedman and Phoenix both received an apology after Essex University commissioned a review of its proceedings.
But it is not only academics whose freedom of expression is being restricted. A PhD student at Bristol University from the Dominican Republic, Raquel Rosario Sánchez, has been bullied and threatened for her involvement in events convened to discuss proposed reform of the Gender Recognition Act 2004. The second female rector of Edinburgh university, Ann Henderson, wrote recently of her experience of being targeted and harassed by students after she retweeted the details of an event that feminist campaign groups had organised for MPs in autumn 2018. At times she feared for her safety on campus, but received minimal support from senior management. In June 2019, feminist campaigner and journalist Julie Bindel spoke at an event at Edinburgh University on women’s sex-based rights and was attacked as she left. The individual was later charged by Police Scotland. The event was attended by a number of Members of the Scottish Parliament. Our Labour colleague Jenny Marra later said that
“never in more than 25 years of going to political meetings have I felt the intimidation that I felt then.”
In 2021, women across the UK are being censored, harassed and threatened for simply trying to debate and discuss their rights. This is a wholly unacceptable state of affairs and I call on all Members to join me in condemning these pernicious developments.
The issue that we need to discuss as parliamentarians is when freedom of speech becomes hate speech and vice versa. That is what we should be discussing in this House. We should address what is and is not legally allowed. I know that the speech I am making will probably be followed with a torrent of abuse on social media, but as Members of Parliament and legislators, our responsibility lies in speaking truth to power. Our Labour Front Benchers are right: Conservative Members tend to be hypocrites; in fact, they are hypocrites, particularly given other Bills we have seen passed through Parliament. But I understand the need for a balanced argument, and we need to be able to speak truth to power.
First, I declare my interest as vice-chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on Durham University.
A few years ago, when I was at the Department for Education as a special adviser, I started in a roughly similar position to that of Opposition Members today. I did not think this should be a priority for Government either, but I have changed my views on that since I became a Member of Parliament. [Interruption.] Well, we will see how the right hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) votes tonight and whether it will be along his party lines in defiance of an overwhelming argument from the Government Benches.
My right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes) made some very clear and sensible points about cancel culture, my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) did the same on freedom of religion, and my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Danny Kruger) had some interesting suggestions on where the Government should go further. I was particularly gladdened to hear from the hon. Members for Canterbury (Rosie Duffield) and for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi), who spoke about issues surrounding women in academia and academic freedom. The argument from the Opposition Front Bench on this hate speech has clearly been knocked down by the Government. It is a Potemkin argument. We now argue about whether the Potemkin villages ever even existed. I think we will find that the Opposition Front Benchers’ arguments do not really stand scrutiny when the Bill makes further progress through this House.
What has changed my view is recent meetings I have had at the University of Durham. As I said earlier, this is not a sledgehammer to crack a nut, as Opposition Members have suggested. When a leading academic in the politics department told me that he had been castigated by colleagues for teaching about John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty”, I found that absolutely astonishing. When I had cases where 18 and 19-year-old kids in my constituency were being cancelled within their own student societies for airing their pretty moderate views, it really surprised and worried me.
I gave a speech at South College, Durham a few weeks ago on this subject of freedom of speech. What has really tipped me over is the concern—the right hon. Member for North Durham and I agree on many things, but we totally disagree on this—about the influence of certain Governments and their financial power within the UK’s university education system. Let us consider the example of a university with 10,000 students, 60% of whom are from the UK and 40% of whom are from overseas. In the UK today, we will often find that half of those overseas students come from the People’s Republic of China and the amount of money they pay in tuition fees is equal to the income from the 60% from the UK. There is a real issue with freedom of speech if our universities are so dependent on those foreign sources of income, and that issue is present on our campuses today. I know that because I have spoken to students and academics who have been affected by it.
The key thing is that universities just wash their faces with the cash they get from UK students; the extra cash they get from overseas students allows them to do all the extra stuff they want to do. It pays for all the fancy new buildings we will have seen going up. It pays for the extra stuff universities want to be able to do, which allows them to push themselves up international league tables. That is what is really worrying me at the moment—we have a university system that is so reliant on that cash that it cannot pursue academic freedom itself any more, without the Government standing up to tell it that it has to.
That is one of the most important points about this legislation; it is there not just to protect freedom of speech, but to promote it. This addresses a point I made when I intervened on the Opposition Front Bencher, the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green). People will not put themselves forward to say things about the Uyghurs, or about Hong Kong, democracy and freedom, because they are petrified of the impact it will have on their career, faculties and students. That is why this Bill is so apposite and important. We have a duty in our academic institutions in this country, which are some of the most respected in the world, not only to protect free speech, but to promote it. That element is key, because it gives academics the freedom to challenge, and sometimes they will be challenging their own academic institutions. That is at the core of everything we have to do as we look forward.
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point about universities being dependent on income from overseas students. What concerns me more, and it is not touched by this Bill, is that some universities are getting investment from companies such as Tencent, which is wholly owned by the Chinese Government and is deeply involved in the surveillance state. Tencent has put a huge amount of money into the Chinese centre at Cambridge University, and Professor Nolan is telling students not to criticise the People’s Republic of China. Is that not a much bigger concern? It is not covered by this Bill.
The hon. Gentleman raises an interesting point. I am just pointing out the massive financial ties to foreign Governments, and there is an element of this Bill helping to start to break down that barrier. Anything that contributes to that is a good thing.
Let me wind up by saying that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) made some really important points about sexual assault in universities, and I hope the Minister has taken those on board. Some close friends of mine were affected by that, and the Office for Students really needs to take this forward. I hope she will use her good offices to that end.
Freedom of speech does not include the freedom of hate speech. Given the content of the Bill, I would like to begin with a very brief comment on the hate speech being directed at our England stars. This England team represents the very best of a modern, multicultural nation. On and off the pitch, the players have shown their quality. Last night, they came within a whisker of winning the first men’s trophy in 55 years. They did us so proud. Off the pitch, from Marcus Rashford helping to feed thousands of working-class kids, to Raheem Sterling combating racism in sport, to Jordan Henderson standing up for trans rights, they showcase an inclusive, progressive England.
After last night’s agonising defeat, we have also seen the worst of the country, with disgusting racism targeted at our players. This is not freedom of speech; it is hate speech. But it does not come in a vacuum. It is promoted by those at the very top—right from the Prime Minister, who sanctions racism by describing Muslim women as “letterboxes” and black people as “piccaninnies” and by refusing to condemn so-called fans booing players taking the knee. I will say this, Mr Deputy Speaker: Marcus Rashford, Bukayo Saka, Jadon Sancho, three lions who represent the best of modern England, have so much more worth than the vile racists trying to drag them down.
As a young Muslim growing up during the war on terror, I was sharply aware of my community being scapegoated and subjected to surveillance. Before arriving at university, I knew that many British Muslims were treated as second-class citizens. As a student, I quickly learned that this treatment extended to the university campus and that basic democratic rights and freedoms were not afforded to everyone equally.
For students and staff who are Muslim, for staff on precarious contracts and even for student activists, freedom of speech and academic freedom are routinely restricted and denied. Those freedoms are not threatened by over-sensitive students or by academics researching the British empire; they are threatened by this Government’s policies, such as the Prevent duty, which the human rights group Liberty has said is the single biggest threat to freedom of speech on campus.
Under Prevent, students have been policed and treated as suspicious and extreme simply for taking part in mainstream debates on topics such as British foreign policy, Palestine and Kurdistan. Research has shown that one third of Muslim students feel negatively affected by Prevent, and I know that many students, including some of my constituents, are afraid to take part in political debates or even to organise events on campus. If the Secretary of State for Education is really concerned by
“the chilling effect…of unacceptable silencing and censoring”,
then he should start by addressing the main sources of that chilling effect in the Home Office and his own Department.
This Government could not care less about the way our marketised higher education system restricts academic freedom. Tens of thousands of academic staff are on precarious contracts, with some living on poverty wages. At the whim of managers, they often feel unable to speak openly or to freely shape their research and their teaching for fear of risking their careers.
Rather than pushing universities to offer permanent, well-paid contracts, the Conservatives are content to sit on the sidelines while launching their own attacks on academic freedom. Whether it is Government Members demanding that the Department for Education sack academics at the University of Warwick in my constituency, or Ministers chasing critics of Britain’s imperial past off the boards of museums and cultural institutions, or Lord Wharton, chair of the Office for Students and previously head of the Prime Minister’s Conservative leadership campaign, telling Oxford academics to
“leave their personal politics at home”,
this Government and their allies are happy to silence those who dissent from their agenda, while giving free rein to fascists and holocaust deniers to spout their hate. That is what this Bill represents.
The Bill is part of this Conservative Government’s growing authoritarian agenda, whether that is the police crackdown Bill and its criminalisation of protests, their voter ID plans and their attempt at voter suppression, their Nationality and Borders Bill and its scapegoating of migrants, or this Bill and its attack on academic freedom, which they claim to protect. Instead of the Government defending the freedom of the super-rich to dominate and exploit, it is time for a Government who advance the freedom of all.
As someone who has spent a large part of their adult life either studying or working in academia, including as an officer of the University and College Union in Wales, I am deeply disturbed by the content of the Bill. My experience in the sector has demonstrated without a doubt that universities host some of the most vibrant and intellectually challenging discussions in the country. It is simply untrue that they shut down or stifle debate. The measures in the Bill are excessive and unnecessary, taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut.
The Government’s assertion to justify the Bill—that there is a crisis of free speech and academic freedom resulting in “cancel culture”—is completely baseless, and as the Joint Committee on Human Rights recently found in its inquiry on free speech at UK universities, it is not evidenced-based. The Office for Students’ own research shows that only 0.1% of requests for external speaker events by students at English universities in 2017-18 were rejected. That action tends only to take place with the most extreme speakers—holocaust deniers, anti-vaxxers and others who hold often harmful views. I remind the Minister that universities have a duty of care to their students, including LGBTQ+, BAME and female students, and are often right to prioritise their wellbeing and their right to be free of intimidation over gifting inflammatory speakers a platform to air their views.
There already exists a strong legal framework, which imposes duties on higher education providers to ensure freedom of speech and expression in higher education. There is genuine and understandable concern that the Bill may undermine existing protections against discrimination. I would welcome clarification from the Minister on a matter raised by Universities UK regarding how the Bill will interact with existing legislation and other duties relating to free speech and academic freedom. In fact, the Bill narrows the definition of academic freedom to speak out on social or political issues, enabling someone to do so only when it is
“within the law and within their field of expertise”.
I fully support the UCU’s call for the phrase
“and within their field of expertise”
to be removed from the Bill.
I also share the concerns of the UCU and Universities UK about the statutory tort element of the Bill, which enables individuals to sue a university or student union when they believe it has failed to protect free speech. That provision is ill thought-out and should be removed.
The Bill is extremely divisive, harmful and dangerous in and of itself, but crucially it also exposes the Government’s flawed priorities. In other words, it is a very convenient distraction from the real issues facing the higher education sector: the marketisation of the sector; endemic precarious and casualised employment; attacks on the arts and humanities; insecurity of research funding, and a failure to protect staff’s right to speak out against employers. Those are the kinds of issues that this Government should be addressing if they are serious about protecting academic freedom and freedom of speech.
How could a newly appointed academic researcher on a short-term contract feel confident about speaking out in a critical but constructive manner on any issue, including an employment situation, where there is no employment protection available to them? Two thirds of researchers and almost half of teaching-only academics are on fixed-term contracts. University staff ranked casualisation as the biggest threat to their academic freedom in a survey carried out by the UCU. That instability strips many of their job security, has a devastating effect on staff morale and wellbeing, and distracts from and negatively impacts on their core functions of teaching and research.
That is forcing thousands of staff in higher education across the UK—including in London, Liverpool and Essex—who are facing the very real prospect of redundancy to take action to save their jobs and challenge the Government’s inaction and failure to recognise the very real problems facing the sector. That is why I welcomed and fully supported the reasoned amendment tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), which wholly opposed this ill-considered piece of legislation.
In the short term, the Government need to step in to underwrite the sector as we emerge from the covid-19 pandemic. However, in the long run, the UK Government must properly fund universities, end the marketisation of higher education and provide staff with secure employment, all of which would support their freedom of speech and intellectual independence.
Now then, if we control what students in universities can listen to, we are controlling what they can think and the type of person they will become. That may work in places such as North Korea and, possibly, within the Labour party, but it has no place in our society. The Bill will strengthen free speech and academic freedom at universities. It is not the job of the Labour party or anybody else to control who we listen to. The champagne socialists, the Islington elite and the trade unions may agree with the Labour party, but most of the country do not. We fought and won a war to protect our freedoms, and freedom of speech, to my mind, is the most important freedom that we have.
Let us not forget that universities are there to supply our great country with scientists, mathematicians, doctors, lawyers, school teachers, nurses and so on, not to provide us with state-sponsored political activists who have only one opinion or one goal in life. Our young people should be able to flourish at university and be open to all kinds of debate. Let them make their own mistakes, form their own opinions and ask their own questions. We should not dictate who they can and cannot listen to.
By voting against this Bill, Labour is saying that our university students are not capable of making up their own minds. It is a bit like the Brexit debate when it told my residents in Ashfield and Eastwood that they were thick, they were stupid, they were racist and they did not know what they were voting for. Well, that ended well! It ended up with my standing here tonight.
We know that free speech is being shut down in universities in this country. Professor Jo Phoenix was due to give a talk at Essex University about placing transgender women in women’s prisons. Students threatened to barricade the hall. They complained that Ms Phoenix was a transphobe who was likely to engage in hate speech. A flyer with an image of a gun and text reading “Shut the **** up” was circulated. The university told Ms Phoenix and the event was postponed.
What about the human rights lawyer Rosa Freedman, a radical feminist law professor, whose event was cancelled amid allegations of transphobia? She received a passive aggressive email from a University of Reading student who called her views on gender politics “problematic” and warned her to “choose her words carefully”. Selina Todd, an Oxford University professor, had her invitation to a conference celebrating women withdrawn owing to pressure from trans activists who had threatened to disrupt the event.
It is a real shame that we have to legislate to allow free speech, but the biggest shame is that Labour Members will vote against the Bill and subsequently vote against free speech. Perhaps they should all come off Twitter, throw their Guardian newspapers away, leave the Tea Room, and get out there and speak to the millions of voters they lost at the last election. Let us have some free speech on the doorstep and perhaps that lot on the Opposition Benches will finally realise that they have nothing in common with the very people they expect to vote for them. Thank you very much, Mr Deputy Speaker; that is me done.
I was going to say that it was a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Ashfield (Lee Anderson), but I am not sure that it was.
The point about this is very clear: we legislate in this place to improve people’s lives and to right wrongs, and, as was pointed out earlier, we base our decisions on facts. The problem with this Bill stems from the reasons we need it. The Secretary of State was asked on several occasions to provide his evidence and data for the Bill. We have heard all the anecdotes; we have just heard a selection tonight. Clearly, some Government Members watch too much FOX TV, or some other channel, for their information. We did ask the Secretary of State for the figures, but the figures have already been mentioned. In December 2020, 61 university student unions carried out the survey. Six events out of almost 10,000 were cancelled. The Government’s own data from the Office for Students show only a tiny percentage of cancellations. In 2017-18, of nearly 60,000 events only 53 were rejected, which is about 0.1%, and the cancellation of some of those events had nothing to do with people’s views.
I take great exception to what the hon. Member for Ashfield said. I am a true defender of freedom of speech. I believe in it. It is one of the things that we should be most proud of in terms of being British. We have an ability to disagree. Sometimes it can take a heated format, but we can disagree. He should not label me as somebody who is against free speech. It is people like him who will close it down. If this legislation were needed, I would support it, but I do not think that it is needed, because, as has already been said, the legislation is already in place. We know the reason why, because we have had it explained. We just had a great example of it from the hon. Member for Ashfield. This is actually about trying to use the so-called woke agenda in a political manner. It is amplifying the message, so we get a situation where anyone who dares to question what happens or who votes against this Bill tonight is said to be against freedom of speech.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for the important points that he is making in the Chamber tonight, but the most important thing I want to thank him for is mentioning the word “Ashfield”. That is the first time ever in this Chamber that a Labour politician has mentioned the word “Ashfield”, so I thank him for that.
No, I will not.
We have the Education (No. 2) Act 1986, the Education Act 1994 and the Charity Commission regulations on this, all of which protect and embody the idea of freedom of speech. The Bill also gives powers to universities to regulate themselves. The hon. Member for Ashfield talked about North Korea. I am sorry, but I am vehemently opposed to Governments directing universities on what they should and should not say, do or teach. That is the beauty of academia—they are allowed to have independence —and the Bill is dangerous in that respect.
The other thing that is completely absent from the Bill is information on how it relates to some of the other obligations on universities. The hon. Member for North West Durham (Mr Holden) mentioned that he is vice-chair of the all-party group for friends of Durham University. If he is, he will have had the same briefing note that I had. The university has concerns about how it relates this Bill to its responsibilities under the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015, equalities legislation and other issues. What we are going to do is put in place a regulator that will oversee that—well, I am sorry, but I do not agree with that. If there were an issue with universities and freedom of speech, I would be the first to argue for legislation, but we do not need this legislation. As has been said, what we need is to use existing legislation to enable us to find the data on what is actually happening rather than having to listen to hearsay and have one case being expanded at the expense of another. And we also need not to listen to the Policy Exchange. It does not surprise me that this legislation is from the Policy Exchange. We have already had the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Act 2021. That was a terrible Bill that not only did not do what it set out to do, but took rights away from veterans we should have been protecting.
I would also like to touch on the issue of bringing law and compensation into this. I am not a lawyer. No offence to anyone who is, but I am all in favour of anything that can stop lawyers making money. This legislation is a lawyers’ picnic, frankly. It will end with huge amounts of time taken and vexatious cases. It will also lead to money that should be spent on education in universities being diverted into legal fees. I am sorry, but I am opposed to that. A point was made earlier—Durham University raised this—that an issue with the college system is that the colleges are completely separate from universities, so some may be wealthy, but others are not.
And then we have the ludicrous situation in which the hon. Member for Ashfield and others are quite prepared to spend a million pounds a year of taxpayers’ money employing 10 staff and a new director who will no doubt be part of the Conservative party job creation scheme, as we saw when Lord Wharton got the job of director of the Office for Students. That money should be going into education. There is another side to this as well: the Bill will cost £48 million and most of that will fall on universities. The money should be going to supporting universities and supporting students, and it will not be. This legislation will be a lawyers’ picnic and, actually, I think that it will get unpicked as it goes through the House because it is so full of contradictions. If there were an issue with an attack on free speech in this country, I would be one of those arguing strongly that we should act to protect it; I do not think there is such an issue. This is another example of the Government using an issue to try to put fear into people’s minds about the so-called woke agenda. They are trying to put into people’s minds a fear that anyone who questions that agenda—and I do not think that people who know me would describe me as woke—is seen as somehow not standing up for the interests of their constituency. At the end of the day, the state should not be getting directly involved in the running of our universities, deciding what they teach and how they do it. I hope that the Bill gets radically changed. If that does not happen here, it will in the other place.
I want to touch on some legal points. Sadly, I am a lawyer—or, perhaps, happily I am a lawyer—and I would not touch this civil litigation with a 50-foot beanpole.
I think there is a fundamental misunderstanding of some of the points that have been raised. One of the objections put forward by Opposition Members is the issue of principle. Well, there is no objection to this legislation on principle because the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) and the right hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) have both agreed that the principle behind this—the reason why it is being put into law—is good. The defence of freedom of speech is an excellent concept. How anybody can object to that is beyond me. When that argument is overcome, the Opposition return to saying, “Well, it is already on the statute book, so we don’t really need it”, but that is not a reason for not supporting this legislation.
Two examples have been given of abhorrent behaviour—abhorrent statements that could be made on a university campus that would mean that a university may well open itself up to litigation. The first is holocaust denial. Clearly, none of us wants to hear holocaust deniers or see them on university campuses. The Secretary of State—at the Dispatch Box today, on a previous occasion before the House and in any number of interviews that I could read out verbatim—has said quite clearly and categorically that this legislation cannot be used to justify the spread of holocaust denial or any other form of antisemitism on our university campuses. When a court interprets legislation, it interprets the intention of Parliament. The intention of Parliament is clear. The Secretary of State has said that no university can justify welcoming or allowing on to its campus anybody who is going to talk about holocaust denial.
No, I will not.
The second type of behaviour that has been mentioned—the only other example that Opposition Members could put forward—is anti-vaxxers. Now, I disagree with anti-vaxxers, but do we seriously believe that anti-vaxxers should be discriminated against through this legislation to the extent of being banned from state premises and educational establishments?
What this Bill does do, which nobody has mentioned, is put universities under a duty to make whatever efforts are “reasonably practicable” to ensure that free speech happens.
Well, then, support the legislation if that is the case.
In respect of anti-vaxxers, if the legal duty on the university is to put in place “reasonably practicable” steps, do we think it is a better option for university vice-chancellors to put forward other speakers and insist that other speakers put the other side of the argument, or do we just simply say, or allow university vice-chancellors or whoever makes the decisions to say, “Because we don’t like your view, we’re just going to banish you and not allow you to speak”?
What this debate is really about is the regulation of legal behaviour. The law exists—the Public Order Act, the Equality Act, the Prevent legislation and other legislation—because this House has voted at different times to say that certain behaviour is against the law and that the authorities should act in respect of that. I listened to the powerful speech of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) regarding the appalling incidents of sexual harm on campuses. That is an utter indictment of universities; it is not a reason for us to allow them and have faith in them to regulate. If they cannot regulate in respect of the most serious sexual complaints, why should we have any faith in them to regulate individuals’ ability to practise freedom of speech, which is a basic right? We cannot confuse freedom of speech with other issues. If there are allegations of serious sexual assault, we should ask police why they are not investigating these things.
In Greater Manchester, which is run by the Mayor of Greater Manchester, the charge rate for serious sexual offences is around 1%. Are we seriously arguing that that appalling record of the Mayor of Greater Manchester in respect of serious sexual offences should be taken away and we should concentrate on whether university professors are regulating serious criminal behaviour? It is a ludicrous point of view.
This whole debate comes down to a central fact. I thought that some of the comments from Opposition Members were quite dystopian, saying that we should have a debate about what we as individuals think it is right or wrong to say on a university campus. How utterly ludicrous is that? If we feel that something is not to be said on a university campus—that it is harmful or makes a person feel in fear of their safety—we have section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986, which makes it an offence to cause somebody “harassment, alarm or distress”. That is all that is required to prove an offence under that Act.
It is for the law to sanction people’s behaviour, not individuals and certainly not institutions that are the beneficiaries of taxpayers’ money. This is a good Bill, it is a manifesto commitment and it is a commitment to free speech that we should all celebrate and support.
Let me declare some interests: I chair the all-party parliamentary university group and I represent an education city with a fantastic further education college, Cambridge Regional College; two great universities that are very different but both outstanding, and very well led by Roderick Watkins and Stephen Toope; and the University of the Third Age. We are brilliant at universities in this country.
There is so much talk of our being world-beating; we actually are world-beating when it comes to universities. Would it not be nice to have a Minister for universities rather than an Education team for doing us down? I am not saying that everything is perfect, because there are huge challenges, not least for students, who have had such a tough time and still face huge debt for an experience very different from that of those who went before. Would it not be nice to hear something positive from the Government Front-Bench team about the amazing work that staff in universities have done as they have transformed their practice to devise online courses to go alongside the traditional teaching methods? The Government could have been talking about that today, or the thorny issues around finance. Where exactly is the Augar review, beyond leaks and rumours?
As we have heard, we live in a world where international students play a huge role in the financing of our universities, but those students cannot be taken for granted. The Government could tell us today about the quarantine arrangements that will be needed when 100,000 students from red-list countries are expected in September—that is urgent; or about the impact of a 43% fall in the number of students applying from the EU; or about the challenges facing research when official development assistance cuts are biting and there is still no clarity on how the Horizon gap will be funded.
All those things matter, but for this Government the only thing that matters is themselves. How can they stoke up some more divisions to throw more red meat to people who do not like universities? It is pretty hard to take this pathetic Bill seriously. Is there an issue around free speech? Of course there is—there always has been and always will be. Labour’s commitment to free speech is uncontestable: as we heard from the shadow Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green), it was Labour that brought the European convention on human rights into UK law. Is free speech more difficult now, in a socially media-driven, instant communication world? Yes, but it is not just universities that face that; it is a wider societal question.
Members on the Government Benches should remember how they got their get-out-of-jail card on the vaccine: it came from universities—researchers working together, using the huge amount of detailed knowledge accumulated across institutions. Our universities are world-changing and world-beating. Are those universities calling for this legislation? Hardly. They know how difficult it is to balance the rights and freedoms of different groups and individuals because they do it every day. They have been doing it for years, since long before the “here today, gone tomorrow” lot opposite snatched power, and they will be doing it for years to come. Will there be incidents and flashpoints? Yes, of course there will, as there always have been, because freedom allows for that.
The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful and measured speech, and I agree with him that the problem is much wider than universities. He talked about social media, as many have, and there is an increasingly vitriolic level of debate that has coarsened and damaged discourse, perhaps irreparably and certainly profoundly. However, dealing with universities is surely part of that, and that is what this Bill attempts to do. He is right to say that it does not solve everything, but it certainly does no harm and, in my judgment, it does a great deal of good. By the way, I ought to have referred Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests when I spoke earlier; I do so now.
I was happy to take the right hon. Gentleman’s intervention, but the point about freedom of speech is that it is always difficult to deal with because, as others have pointed out, freedom allows for a fair amount of offence to be given until it becomes too much and we have to respond. However, that is a judgment call. We cannot legislate for that. It is a great irony that a Government who claim to be Conservative are promoting measures that many of their predecessors would have been very quick to criticise in other countries. A commissar for free speech? Come on! But actually, this is not the Conservative party, is it, because its boss expelled those who dared to dissent, and that is where all this leads.
Those who have looked at the Bill can see the problems. I am sure the Government will not have much interest in hearing from those who actually run our universities, but it is worth repeating what they say. Universities UK has warned that those promoting conspiracy theories could easily take the opportunity to sue universities or student unions. It has also pointed out that with existing routes of redress available, the same complaint could lead to very different outcomes depending on whether an individual went to the Office for Students, which will now have a so-called director of free speech, or whether they went down the Office of the Independent Adjudicator route. As have others have said, the likely consequence of all this is that universities and student unions will err on the side of caution and steer away from anything risky. That will lead not to more free speech but to less free speech, and for those with really outlandish views, there will be a legal stick with which to beat institutions. So, good times for the crazies everywhere—
If the hon. Gentleman thinks that universities will err on the side of caution, does he not agree that that will essentially be restricting freedom of speech, which will guarantee a law suit? The one thing about this Bill is that it will guarantee more freedoms, because if someone does not want the risk of being sued, they will allow people to speak within a university setting.
I have to say that I do wonder how much time some Conservative Members actually spent in universities and how much they know about how they operate. Universities work very carefully and they are very conscious of the threats and challenges to them. Believe me, they will look at this and think it is too risky, and they will not do it. That is what will actually happen, so there will be less discourse. I just hope that there are a few genuine Conservatives on the Government Benches who can see the absurdity of all this, and who must surely at times ask themselves why they have a leader who cannot work out whether it is okay for people to boo our football team or why they have a colleague who ended up supporting our national team by boycotting it, because that is where all this ludicrousness leads.
I suspect that, as my right hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) said, this Bill will be savaged in the other place. I invite people to read some debates from the other place; it is astonishing to see how Conservatives from a former age are so appalled by this Government. The Bill will be savaged, but if it does make it on to the statute book, I suspect that it will be totally ineffectual and that the provisions will be unenforceable. This time last week, I was talking about the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 in Westminster Hall, and I suspect that this will be seen as a similarly ludicrous piece of legislation in times to come. The best thing the Government could do would be to drop it altogether. Our universities and our country deserve so much better. They have, of course, glimpsed a better way, a decent way, and I would hazard a guess that in about nine months’ time we will have a glut of newborn children called Gareth, but not many Gavins.
Last night I watched the England match with my family and, like many in this Chamber, I had never seen my country appear in a major final. We all felt that football was finally coming home, but it was not to be. But we have been here before and, as an Englishman, I have almost come to expect falling at the final hurdle when glory is within touching distance. It is important to remember that it is a team game and that blaming individuals will not change a thing, so instead, let us be thankful for our second most successful tournament ever, with the World cup only 18 months away.
There is a lot to be celebrated. How disappointing, then, to see the subsequent barrage of abuse that those unfortunate players have received on social media. Even more disappointing are the attempts by the Opposition to conflate the debate around taking the knee—and the suggestion that to be a real England supporter you must also support that—with something which is quite different and completely unacceptable to all decent people. This is the same cancel culture we see on our campuses. If people wish to, they can criticise the run-ups, the accuracy or the choice of penalty takers, but what we have seen goes beyond mere critical opinion. It is vile abuse and it should be recognised as such. Social media companies and internet service providers must do more to stamp out the cowardly trolls, and they have a responsibility to stop people doing that under the veil of anonymity. I am glad that we will be dealing with the issue later in our online harms Bill.
Many comments will be threats and abuse of a criminal nature. That is not freedom of speech or freedom of opinion, and any reasonable person can clearly see the difference. But that is what today’s debate must not be confused with. Instead, this Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill will ensure that healthy and reasoned debate is protected on our university campuses. Criminal offences will remain criminal offences, including hate speech.
When hon. Members of this House wish to criticise my stance on an issue, I do not try to prevent them from speaking, I do not demand that I am given a safe space, and I do not attempt to have them cancelled because I do not like their views. Our electorates can cancel us all through the ballot box, if they so wish. That is democracy. So why on earth do we allow this type of behaviour to flourish in our universities? It is quite incredible for organisations in which academic debate and challenging the views of others are part of the experience. We now see the no-platforming of speakers and student unions getting rid of organisations that they simply do not like. We see academics being chased off campus and spiteful open letters calling for them to be removed from their positions.
Yesterday, many condemned the behaviour of a number of football fans and the violent disorder, hooliganism and vandalism perpetrated by some, yet this is not isolated to football. It was not football supporters who tried to pull statutes down or who created a situation where the University of Bristol sought to impose security costs on a student society purely for inviting the Israeli ambassador, because of the behaviour of extreme left groups on campus.
The social justice warriors are certainly not warriors, and they also have a bizarre and warped understanding of social justice. Freedom of speech allows such people, and some Members in this Chamber, the right to hold and express their views. It is a shame that they do not believe in the rights of others to hold alternative beliefs. Some have even referred to Members on the Government side of the Chamber as “evil” in the past. To borrow a saying from a colleague, I do not believe that my opponents are evil; I simply believe that they are mistaken.
Education is one of my passions. However, I can only imagine the storm if I were ever to consider a career in academia now. When I went to university, believing in free-market economics, being a Conservative or simply having a traditional view of what constitutes a man or woman would not be controversial positions. Now, I would be accused of hate speech and screamed at by somebody with bright pink hair who would demand that I be fired, locked up or perhaps both.
Our universities are world-renowned as centres of excellence. They played a key role in our fight against covid-19, as hon. Members have already mentioned, and we must be forever grateful, but they must not turn into organisations that churn out graduates who are unable to think for themselves, tolerate the views of others, or deal with the daily challenges and realities of life. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) said earlier about Voltaire, although Voltaire never actually said the line for which he is famous, a little like with “Casablanca”:
“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
Many of us can identify with that. It is time that some of our universities followed suit.
This Bill will not apply in Scotland, and I could not give it my wholehearted support if it did, because I share some of the reservations already expressed in the debate, particularly those expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan). However, I want to be clear that, as she acknowledged, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that there are problems with freedom of speech in our universities.
In 2018, the Joint Committee on Human Rights, of which I am proud to be deputy Chair, published a report into freedom of expression in universities, in which we found that there were issues and recommended some reforms. We heard evidence about a number of problems, including attempts by students to no-platform leading feminists and LGBT activists with a lengthy pedigree in campaigning for LGBT rights, simply because they had engaged in critical debate about issues around feminism and trans politics. We also took evidence from student unions, which argued that it is necessary to limit speakers who, as they put it, “cause harm through speech”. We on the JCHR were concerned that such an approach is detrimental to free speech and could prevent certain debates and viewpoints from being heard, so we were very careful to emphasise that the right to free speech includes the right to say things that, although lawful, others might find offensive.
Sadly, since 2018 the treatment of leading feminists and lesbian activists engaged in critical debate about issues around feminism and trans politics has worsened at the hands both of student unions and of university authorities. Others have spoken about the attack on Julie Bindel, a well-known feminist activist who was attacked outside an event at Edinburgh University after she had spoken about male violence towards women. Attendance at that event effectively ended the careers of two of the Scottish Parliament’s most outstanding MSPs, my friends Joan McAlpine and Andy Wightman. At the same time, Ann Henderson, the well-respected Labour activist who was rector of the university, feared for her own safety on campus after students repeatedly falsely accused her of transphobia. The university failed to take appropriate action to deal with the hostility directed against her. That was not an isolated incident. Another well-respected feminist academic at Edinburgh University, my friend Shereen Benjamin, has faced considerable problems. Both Shereen and Ann are Labour activists. Their comrades should defend them.
I have spoken before in this Chamber about the abuse, threats of violence and deplatforming directed against Professor Selina Todd, Kathleen Stock and Rosa Freedman at universities across England. Others have mentioned a recently published report on similar events at Essex University, which identified that part of the problem is that universities are not correctly applying the law under the Education (No. 2) Act 1986. The Chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), raised that with the Secretary of State when she wrote to him about the Bill. In fairness to him, he did take the trouble to deal with her detailed concerns about the Bill, and copies of both her letter and his can be read on the JCHR website.
The important thing about the University of Essex report on the cancellation of one speaking event and the decision to rescind an invitation to another is that both of those events concerned gender-critical feminists. The report found that the university’s decisions were unlawful and recommended that apologies be made. It also highlighted that the university appeared to misunderstand and misrepresent equality laws, to the extent that the impression was given to members of the university that gender-critical academics seeking to exercise their right to free speech could be excluded from the institution.
Thanks to the Employment Appeal Tribunal’s important decision on discrimination law in the case of Forstater v. CGD Europe, we now know that gender-critical beliefs are protected under the Equality Act 2010. I think, therefore, that it is the Equality Act, more than anything else, that universities need to look at to solve this problem, because it is frequently being misconstrued or ignored in universities, and I am afraid to say that that is a symptom of a wider malaise. To quote the best-selling author and founder of the Positive Birth Movement, Milli Hill,
“those who are being dragged to the pyre are…in most cases, lifelong left-leaning, open minded, educated and tolerant women, often with a history of supporting minority groups”.
The efforts to silence us extend to violence and threats of violence, which many in a position of power are too afraid to condemn. There is not much point in pious words about standing up against the abuse of women but then doing nothing when that abuse is going on right under your nose. University authorities often look the other way or, worse still, participate in the witch hunts against lifelong feminists who simply want to make sure that women’s voices and women’s concerns are heard in important debates.
This Bill might not be the best way to deal with those problems as they represent themselves in the university sector. It is flawed but at least it acknowledges that there is a problem, and those who say that there is not a problem are simply ostriches with their heads in the sand.
I do not wish to comment on the speeches of Labour Members other than to highlight one particular speech that I did find moving, which was from the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips). I did agree with her comments in a substantive way and I suspect a number of Conservative Members also do, so I hope the Minister is aware of that.
Ask Labour Members if they champion free speech, and no doubt they would all queue up to say, “Yes, of course”, but is there not a spectacular contradiction in this stance and their intention to vote against this Bill? The hon. Labour Member for Streatham (Bell Ribeiro-Addy) tweeted today:
“The biggest threat to free speech on university campuses is not student societies’ no-platform policies. It’s the Tory Hate Speech Bill, back in Parliament today, which threatens student societies’ freedom to choose who speaks at their events & their ability to protect students.”
Forgive me, but is not no-platforming exactly a form of censure? Is not describing the ability—the free ability—to choose a speaker simply an Orwellian turn of phrase, no doubt because some speakers must be more equal than others?
If we want universities to be centres of discussion, debate, expression, challenge and places to develop our young brilliant minds, must we not hear both sides of a debate? A young constituent of mine recently invited me to speak at his university’s Conservative Society event. Before I was allowed to speak, the students’ union insisted on assessing me, regardless of the fact that I am, like everyone else in this House, a democratically elected Member of Parliament. How can that be right?
Freedom of speech has allowed our society to evolve, to advance and to protect the vulnerable. It is freedom of speech that gave women the vote and it is freedom of speech that decriminalised homosexuality, but an unacceptable culture of censorship—a wokery, a heckler’s veto—has been allowed to develop on our campuses and to brainwash our young minds. The parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights released a report on freedom of speech in universities in 2018, and it found that one in four students do not share their true opinions because they clash with those promoted by their university, and a staggering 40% of students stated that views held by speakers had led more frequently to cancellation of events.
This very place is seen as a bastion of democracy and free speech underpins any liberal democracy, so I will be supporting the Bill.
The hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner), whom I respect very greatly, said this has always been a challenge and a problem, and indeed he is right—there have always been challenges to freedom in universities and elsewhere—but the point is that the circumstances have changed both quantitatively and qualitatively. It is to do with the wider problem of the brutalisation of debate, but it finds form in universities in a particularly arch form, and if we do not recognise that and do not respond to it through legislation, we will be failing in our duty to universities and the students who study at them.
I thank my right hon. Friend for the intervention, which was most welcome. I wholeheartedly agree with it, and how can censorship be something that we cannot take action against?
It would be nice to know how many Labour Members agree with the Voltairean principle that has now been quoted a couple of times in speeches prior to mine—
“I wholly disapprove of what you say—and I will defend to the death your right to say it”—
or perhaps hypocrisy is the order of the day again.
The University and College Union has rightly argued that there is
“no evidence of a free speech crisis on campus”
and, in 2018, the Joint Committee on Human Rights concluded that there was
“no wholesale censorship of debate”,
so why on earth are we here? The Government want us to believe that they are engaged in some liberal defence of freedom of speech, but it is a complete farce. The Bill is in fact a threat that tramples on students unions’ autonomy, overturns students unions’ long-standing no-platform policies, narrows the legal definition of academic freedoms and fails to address the real threats to campus free speech: the ever-failing Prevent duty, casualised employment, insecure research funding and, of course, the Government. The Bill is yet another part of the Government’s authoritarian agenda. For immediate proof of that, it is almost unique in the breadth of its provision. For example, rules on judicial review state that if someone wants to challenge a decision of Government, they must have standing, which means they must be affected by the decision that they are challenging. The Bill requires no standing, so any person, any business or any campaign can sue. What a free-for-all that will create. Where are the safeguards that the Secretary of State spoke of?
I hope that, in my short time in this House, I have proved that I am a civil libertarian. I was also a full-time National Union of Students officer, a liberation officer and the union’s anti-racism and anti-fascism convenor. I defended its long-standing no-platform policy against attack then, and I am proud to defend it today. However, I cannot say how much it irks me to find myself again making those arguments I made 10 years ago and—worse—not on a student campus or at a student conference but in the House of Commons. That is further evidence of how regressive a decade of Conservative Government has been.
The Government need to realise that while we decide who should be allowed on university campuses, for many students studying at colleges and universities those campuses are their homes. What has possessed the Government to put demands in law that students must allow anybody—even fascists—into their home and safe space of living and learning? We routinely saw that whenever speakers who espoused fascist views were even promoted as coming on to campus, racist and homophobic attacks against students increased. The Secretary of State said that holocaust deniers would of course not be allowed free rein on campus, but this ill-advised Bill does not realise that, over the years, the no-platform policy has served as the main line of defence for keeping holocaust deniers and other fascists off our campuses. Who gets to decide the remit? The Government —and they routinely pass legislation that goes against our equalities legislation without even publishing an equality impact assessment. Hon. Members will forgive me for not trusting the Government to defend liberation groups even within the law. Why should students trust the same Ministers who repeatedly endorsed the booing of England players at the start of the Euro 2020 tournament? The racist abuse now directed at them was sanctioned from the very top. Students unions cannot depend on the Government to protect them, and the Bill stops them from protecting their members.
I have heard many arguments about what should be debated and how debate should expose things, but the neo-liberal, supposedly free-speech fanatics do not seem to realise that while they are in a room putting together well-informed arguments for fantastic debates, young black, Muslim, Jewish and LGBTQ people out on the streets are being victimised, verbally abused, physically assaulted and, in some cases, murdered. What exactly is there to debate? What possible arguments are there to pose? They are basically saying that those people face discrimination because they cannot argue their case well enough.
The hon. Member for Dudley North (Marco Longhi) said that we should hear both sides of any debate. Should we debate a paedophile who thinks it is okay to have sex with children? There are people who believe that children should be able to consent. Shall we debate misogynists on whether women should have equal rights to men? We have seen that on the rise with incel groups. Shall we debate people who want an all-white Britain and say that black, Asian and minority ethnic people should not have the right to live and worship as they choose, free from discrimination?
Free speech is not an absolute right. No rights are absolute in a society, because all rights come with responsibilities to others. We legislate for those responsibilities in this House. The right to live free from hate is not up for debate and it never should be. That is not stifling freedom of speech; it is exercising our human rights and defending those of others. The Bill wants to stop that. We do not expose fascist beliefs by debating them. We do not give fascists a platform to give more oxygen to their hate. If we do, we are saying that their views hold the same value as ours, and that is not true in a civilised society. The Government say that the Bill is about freedom of speech, but we know it has got nothing to do with that.
I rise to speak in support of the Bill and to set out why it is so important that as a society we continue to hear and engage with minority and controversial opinions.
We all know what it is like to feel challenged or discomforted, even offended, by what others say or write. This experience of offence is a negative feeling of embarrassment, anger and sometimes hurt, but on occasions this uncomfortable experience can also lead to something absolutely essential for human progress: change. I am not talking about personally offensive or targeted abusive attacks on individuals, which are clearly abhorrent. That kind of persecution and intolerance has no place in civilised society. I am talking about the kind of offence or discomfort that is felt when we hear something that is deeply challenging to our deeply held points of view. It causes us a kind of emotional pain that sometimes forces a response, but history is full of great offenders: people who put forward minority beliefs that were not initially popular, but which nevertheless they sought to bring to the attention of the majority.
Some of these great offenders were, of course, completely wrong and their controversial views have died with them, but there are many others who stand out now as heroes: Churchill, with his opposition to appeasement; Fawcett’s views on women’s rights; Darwin’s findings on evolution; Galileo’s heretical views on the solar system; Martin Luther’s challenge to the teachings of the Church. All those great men and women held views that were contentious, even offensive, in their day, but through the force of argument and in time they changed the tide of opinion and brought change—change that I doubt any of us in this House today regrets. That change came because people changed their minds. Listeners, including people of influence, heard those views. Many fought to shut them down, often violently, but enough people responded differently and allowed their attitudes to be altered.
Over recent decades we have enjoyed unprecedented freedom of speech in this country. As a result, new ideas have been thoroughly critiqued, with some being widely adopted while others are rejected. But that freedom is now in danger, particularly in our universities. We have heard Members on both sides of the House speak about alarming incidents of no platforming, particularly of women with gender-critical views.
The understandable but misguided desire to protect students from harmful views is shutting down opportunities for those with different opinions to be heard. That is misguided, because the way to prevent harm to young people who are faced with views they find offensive is not to stop those views being heard—as long as they are within the law—but to prepare our young people and teach them to respond in a mature and open-minded way so that they can criticise, debate and, if appropriate, change their minds. That is why I so strongly support the Bill, which will protect free speech in our universities and secure academic freedoms.
We do our young adults and our whole society a great disservice when we do not allow students to be exposed to the ideas and beliefs that will challenge them and allow them to grow in character and resilience. When we encounter beliefs we find difficult, we have a choice. We can shut our ears, we can react with anger or we can respond thoughtfully and honestly, considering whether our own opinions need to evolve or be strengthened. This is the path to maturity and tolerance, and to individual and societal progress. I am delighted to support the Bill.
Although I was stuck getting here, I have listened to a number of speeches. It is entirely normal for me to disagree with speakers and to find what they say objectionable, but I have to say that I heard a couple of speeches—not by the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Miriam Cates) but by other Members who spoke before her—that I felt were verging on hate speech themselves and were objectionable to a number of minority groups in this country. I felt that the quality of some of this debate was demeaning to this House.
Indeed, and that surely is the point. What really worries people on the Conservative Benches is that what starts off with the justified condemnation of hate speech ends up by saying that people speaking in a free Parliament are verging on hate speech themselves. Can the hon. Gentleman not see the slippery slope of the argument he is putting forward?
I will make an argument about the slippery slope. I think there are Government Members, and maybe even some Opposition Members, who feel that supporting the Bill will settle some old scores, make a dog whistle to people who want to hear it and give a nod and a wink to a certain sort of constituent.
As somebody of Jewish descent whose family members came from the war generation in eastern Europe, I feel strongly that the slippery slope we are going down is one that Government Members may not be able to control. I am not saying that they are like this themselves, but other forces in society will take advantage of and utilise this type of legislation in a way that the Government will cease to have control over. It will create a runaway train effect. I do not want that to happen in this country; people like me and others in this Chamber would find it a difficult country to live in.
We just need to look at what happened yesterday to three of our brave England footballers after they missed a penalty—something that happens to every footballer during their career—and the horrendous racism that they experienced. I will come back to the subject, but I was deeply uncomfortable at some of the previous contributions to the debate and I felt that I had to raise that.
During my time at the University of Leeds—I was both a student and staff member there—the two most notorious new faces of the British far right made our campus the site of their race war. Their story tells me all I need to know about why this Bill should never reach the statute book. During my year on the executive of the Leeds University union, supporters of Claire Fox, now Baroness Fox, of Living Marxism, established a free speech society to remove the students’ “no platform for racists and fascists” policy in the name of libertarianism—maybe the reason why many Government Members support the Bill.
Two unknown first-years joined the society and when the adherents of Baroness Fox graduated, those two took over the society and stepped up their activities on campus. Many known racists and fascists were seen in their company on campus. It was difficult to administer the policy and legal framework that now exists and to vet those whom the free speech society were platforming in rooms they were trying to book out.
The two people involved were Chris Beverley and Mark Collett—now two of the most notorious fascists that this country has seen. Mark Collett was tried alongside Nick Griffin in 2006; I will come back to that. They were both in a number of notorious documentaries produced in the 2000s; I suggest that Members who do not know of them should watch “Young, Nazi and Proud” to understand more about these two characters.
The issue came to a head in Collett’s and Beverley’s attempt to overturn the “no platform for racists and fascists” policy at the general meeting of the students union. It happened to be held in the refectory that had hosted “The Who” in their seminal “Live at Leeds” concert. There were easily over 300 people there. Many, many Jewish students, as well as the campus rabbi and I, spoke against the attempt to remove the policy. Collett and Beverley were the only ones to speak in favour—and in a highly inflammatory way. Their attempt was overwhelmingly defeated.
It had been clear for some time to all on campus who Collett and Beverley really were, but the mask slipped for everybody everywhere that day. If the policy had passed, Collett and Beverley would have invited figures such as Nick Griffin and David Irving, this country’s leading holocaust denier, on to campus under the auspices of free speech. The free speech society soon ran into trouble and at the following AGM the students union fully understood the issue of these two fascists but gave them a room, fearful of legal action. The meeting did not go ahead and the society, which was acting as a front for fascism by that point, was disbanded. That was due not to any policy of the students union, but to protests by students themselves.
Just five years later, at about the same time as Mark Collett was on trial with Nick Griffin at Leeds Crown court for race hate crimes, at Leeds University in February 2006, a contributor to the university newspaper Leeds Student gave an interview to Dr Frank Ellis, in which the academic expressed support for the bell curve theory that said that there were racial differences in average intelligence. The Leeds Student also published an article by Ellis, “Time to face the truth about Multiculturalism”, in which he described the Parekh report as
“a very nasty anti-white tract”.
He then went on to be interviewed in the media, and the students union put out a statement calling for his dismissal. Leeds University condemned Ellis’s views as “abhorrent”. I had left the university by then, but I went to meetings there and objected, as a member of the alumni committee, to his continued employment. Ellis was subsequently suspended by the vice-chancellor pending disciplinary proceedings, which never concluded because he retired early.
My point is that if this law had been in place, the student union and the university would never have taken any action against these radical, far-right fascists, whose only intent is erasure of diversity on the planet: the erasure of people like me, Charlotte—I am sorry, my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North (Charlotte Nichols)—and others in this Chamber. That is why people need to be really careful about how they use free speech. Free speech is something that we all defend—we all talk about pluralism—but it can also be a cover for something much deeper and much more unpleasant, with the consequences that we all know and speak strongly against in this Chamber every year. Yesterday we marked Srebrenica Memorial Day. This Government need to be very careful on the dark road that they are taking us down.
First, I apologise about my voice. Like most people, two hours of shouting at a TV screen last night has left me quite hoarse. You will be pleased to know, Madam Deputy Speaker, that that is the only reference I will make to football today.
It is a delight to follow the hon. Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel). Although I share a lot of his concerns with regard to the Bill, I come to a very different conclusion, which is why I rise to support it. This, to me, goes a long way towards protecting our freedom of speech on university campuses. It is absolutely right that healthy debate—I emphasise the word “healthy”—is encouraged and facilitated, and opinions challenged, but in a safe environment. In recent years, we have seen a growing concern of harassment, abuse and intimidation on our university campuses, from blatant antisemitism espoused by lecturers, to imposing security costs on Jewish student societies, to no-platforming external speakers.
Not all students and staff feel able to express themselves on campus without fear of repercussions, particularly the Jewish students. During the latest round of violence between Israel and Hamas, Jewish students faced antisemitic abuse and even death threats almost on a daily basis. A Jewish student at Glasgow University was told to go and gas herself and a Jewish student at UCL was sent a picture of herself photoshopped under a guillotine. The National Union of Students blamed Israel for the rise in antisemitic incidents, before backtracking. It is absolutely abhorrent that our universities have failed to protect our Jewish students and that students do not even feel protected by the NUS.
I am interested in the specific examples that the hon. Gentleman is giving, because surely this Bill would actually promote and protect the right of people to make exactly the kinds of abhorrent remarks that he is talking about, making Jewish students less safe on campus. How does he reconcile this aspect of his speech with his support for the Bill?
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention, but I disagree with her. As we heard from the Education Secretary himself in his opening remarks, that would not be the case.
It should be a source of shame for all of us and for every university that Jewish societies often keep their event locations secret due to concerns about the safety of students. We simply cannot turn a blind eye to the fact that our Jewish students do not feel safe on campuses here in the United Kingdom. Last year, Bristol’s student union asked for a fee of £500 to safeguard the former ambassador Mark Regev. This is not an isolated incident. It should not be down to students to provide security themselves. As I have said before, universities have not just a moral obligation but a duty to ensure that all students are protected. This must extend to securing events and putting a stop to no-platforming once and for all. It is not just pro-Israel speakers who have been no-platformed. Indeed, a former Home Secretary was previously no-platformed from speaking at events as well.
It is absolutely crucial that the Government commit to ensuring that the Bill does not become a shield for those who wish to endorse poisonous views, including, as has been mentioned many times, holocaust deniers and far-right or far-left extremists. Universities must be a safe space for all students and institutions must take their duty of care seriously. After a great deal of encouragement from the Secretary of State and others, over 100 institutions have now adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism. This is a crucial step in ensuring that universities take accusations of antisemitism seriously. While the IHRA definition is now being adopted, I am encouraged that the Bill gives some teeth to implementing it, because far too often we see a lack of implementation. Again, I refer hon. Members to what is going on at Bristol University.
Just last month, the University of Warwick assembly passed a motion to challenge the IHRA definition of antisemitism. The university—I hope that the shadow Minister will address this—has failed to condemn the motion, despite calls from Jewish students to do so. The Union of Jewish Students rightly asked:
“How can they claim they want to fulfil their moral duty to protect all members, which includes Jewish students, when this motion clearly disregards the wants and needs of Jewish students?”
I therefore ask the Minister what further steps the Government are taking to ensure that the definition is not only rolled out across all institutions but fully implemented. What more can be done to ensure that academics face disciplinary action for making remarks or supporting motions considered to be antisemitic under the definition? I refer again to Professor Miller in that regard. Lastly, will the Minister join me in condemning the incident in which the University of Bristol sought to impose security costs on a student society for daring to invite the former ambassador for Israel, and can she confirm that the Bill will help to stop repeat incidents of that nature?
Although the Bill delivers on our manifesto commitment to strengthen academic freedom and free speech in higher education, universities must now follow up and ensure that campuses are truly open to rigorous, healthy contestation of ideas or be held accountable. We cannot rest until all students feel safe on campus.
One characteristic of good education settings is that there are opportunities to be challenged. Education must be a place for open minds rather than narrow minds.
Speaking personally, I found that university was an opportunity to have my view of the world challenged. As a newly minted student, I joined the Durham Union Society, a venerable debating society that is known for bringing a very wide range of speakers in front of the student body. It gave me, and thousands of other students, a chance to hear from people on a range of issues, from nuclear power to environmentalism and various forms of human rights. It gave me a chance to hear from people whose views were simply beyond the range of anything I ever heard or learned about at my school in the south Wales valleys.
I heard from Dave Nellist, the inspiration for Private Eye’s Dave Spart of the loony left, who set out a very robust defence of his view of socialism, something I had never heard or learned about in my life. I heard Peter Tatchell set out a robust defence of direct action in pursuit of his campaign about gay rights. More importantly, I heard him articulate, in a way that many, like me, will have heard for the first time at university, the long history of injustice and prejudice that needed to be addressed. We then heard and saw his commitment to that action in opposition to the appointment of a Bishop of Durham whom he regarded as having been a hypocrite on that issue.
I had the opportunity to encounter speakers representing organisations as diverse as the Monday Club on the extreme right and the British Communist party on the extreme left, and every point in between. I strongly believe that I am in good company, in that that diverse range of challenges to what I had learned and what I perceived about the world helped me to become, as I believe I am, a more socially liberal and a more enlightened person. It certainly developed my interest in and my commitment to politics.
It is clear from the engagement that I have had with constituents who are students, who are part of the academic life of many of our university campuses across the country, that there is a serious, well-founded and genuine concern that the actions of some in our university system have had a chilling effect on their ability to speak freely, to ensure that future generations of students are able to enjoy the benefit of having their prejudices and views challenged, on whichever side of the spectrum.
While I strongly welcome the fact that we will continue to have, completely unaffected by this Bill, very robust laws that tackle hate speech in all its forms and that deal with the many prejudices that we have as a society decided are unacceptable, as well as enshrined protections for people in the Equality Act 2010, through the Bill we will also have measures in place to ensure that the freedom of speech of our academics and our students and the ability of future generations to be challenged and to develop their thinking—in a way that is fundamentally important and that we see going on every day in our House of Commons and our parliamentary democracy—are preserved for future generations.
Through the Bill, we will not see a narrowing of the thinking or a narrowing of the debate in our universities, but we will ensure that they remain what they have been for generations: a place where open minds can thrive and prejudices can be challenged and where we can develop our thinking as a society in a way that then contributes to our national life. For all those reasons, it seems to me that this proposal from the Government is a sensible step. We need to demonstrate to academics and students who have these concerns that we take them seriously. If we are to be the bastion of democracy that we wish to be, we have to ensure that free speech can happen in our universities and in every other part of our education system as well. That is why I strongly support this legislation from the Government.
I hope that the Bill will bring about the great benefit of demonstrating that the United Kingdom is not just genuinely committed to tackling those who would peddle hate and prejudice in our universities and other education settings, but determined to be a place where open minds, debate and free speech can thrive for the long-term benefit of our democracy.
With the many pressing issues that universities are facing right now, such as harassment on campus, a struggling economy, the plummeting number of students enrolling and the challenges posed by remote leaning, just to name a few, I am disappointed that the Government have chosen to spend their time focusing on a complete non-issue with this Bill. Indeed, this entire debate is surplus to requirements.
In the minds of Ministers and Government Members, freedom of speech is under relentless attack, so they have decided to pass an entirely new law to protect it. We all know that in reality, that could not be further from the truth. A recent study of 10,000 speaker events on British university campuses found that only six had been cancelled—that is six out of 10,000 speaker events. I am sure that the Minister can give the number to show that that was relatively low. Four of those that were cancelled were due to incorrect paperwork. That is an admin error, so that is something that would happen regardless. One was cancelled simply to move to a larger venue. That was not discriminatory. The other was a pyramid scheme, which I am sure the Minister would not condone.
The Office for Students found that in 2017 and 2018, just 0.9% of speaking invitations across universities had been withdrawn. I therefore find it difficult to understand the fears and concerns of Ministers. We already have the Education (No. 2) Act 1986, which sets out the protection of freedom of speech on campuses. Protections for students’ right to freedom of speech already exist, and this Bill does not make any substantive change to the already broad rights that are protected.
As it is crystal clear what the Bill will fail to do, I will focus on what it will actually do. First, it introduces a new mechanism that will allow hate-filled individuals to sue a university if they feel their opinion has not been adequately heard, which will allow extremists, racists and holocaust deniers to have a voice and a much-craved platform on our campuses. Overwhelmingly, student unions and research bodies are telling us that if this Bill is passed as drafted, universities will spend much of their time and resources fighting against such individuals. They will be spending resources on areas that I am sure students and parents would prefer them not to. With the threat of a lawsuit hanging over a university’s head, there will be a new incentive to narrow, not widen debates. Universities will avoid inviting certain speakers to campus altogether—speakers who may have stimulated thought-provoking discussion—through fear of financial repercussions.
Empowering those who peddle hate speech will not help protect free speech, and the Government must seek to better understand that. Free speech is the right to say whatever one likes and the ability to think without constraints. It does not matter if one’s opinion is unpopular, because free speech is essential to democracy. Hate speech is when somebody takes that right and abuses it so that they can bully, demonise and subjugate others, which is what the Government will end up promoting.
Within this Chamber, the ability to stand up and speak out freely is both essential and cherished. This Chamber illustrates the importance and benefit of free speech each and every day. We are doing that right now in this debate. However, if a Member of the House were to begin to say something vulgar, racist or hateful, the Speaker would quickly interrupt, end the speech and demand that the comment be withdrawn. Why is that? Although we theoretically have the right to say something in a free society, we use our judgment to reject hate speech that threatens, incites, harasses and demeans, because it has no place in a tolerant world. Universities should enjoy the same latitude that we do. This Chamber safeguards itself against elevating hate speech each and every day, and I have never heard the Government try to dismantle this practice, so I ask them simply to uphold in our universities the same standards that we all work to here in Parliament.
Finally, I politely ask the Government to turn their attention to far more important issues facing higher education in this country. We are all waiting for the online harms Bill, which I am sure universities, students and lecturers will welcome, so I would be grateful if the Government could let us know when that will be coming back.
University students have never had such a raw deal as they do today. Sky-high tuition fees lumber them with decades of debt. Living costs soar, along with private sector rents. Thousands suffered lockdowns and virtual learning last year, without a reduction in what they were charged, and sexual harassment and assaults on university campuses are at shocking levels. But what is the issue that the Government choose to legislate on? Giving peddlers of hate speech the right to sue universities or student unions if their events are cancelled. The Minister for Universities, the hon. Member for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan), admitted that this would include Holocaust deniers and, in her words, views that would be “hugely offensive” and “hugely hurtful”.
The star of David around my neck was a gift from my friend and comrade Ria on the occasion of my bat mitzvah. It was bought from a market on the site of the former Jewish ghetto in Poland, and I wear it proudly—not only as a symbol of my faith, but as a reminder of the millions killed because they were like me. Even if Ministers try to row back from their declaration of guaranteeing platforms for holocaust deniers, will they now come up with an official list of what hate speech is protected and what is not? Will their hierarchy of hatred allow denial of the Srebrenica genocide, the 26th anniversary of which was yesterday, or will they accept that giving fascists the legal protection to demand restitution from the courts is a terrible idea?
Fascists incite hatred and oppose our right to live in a non-violent democratic society. We are not obliged to accept their bile or their attempts to fundraise and recruit when given a platform. When Nick Griffin was given a seat on a “Question Time” panel, the British National party reported 3,000 new membership applications and raised thousands of pounds. That platform did not allow his views to be challenged; it validated them and grew the cancer of extremism that he represents.
What academic merit is there in the denial or distortion of the Holocaust, or in the kind of ideology that saw a Member of this House killed? How many more people have to be murdered before we realise that these are not ideas that can be debated away? My grandfather Edward Nichols, of blessed memory, did not go to fight Hitler in the marketplace of ideas. That generation had the right idea, and we must do so too.
Communities, including university communities, are not obliged to welcome violent, degrading or dangerous lies from genocide deniers or virus deniers. This Government’s lack of commitment to free speech is made clear by their planned crackdown on protests in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. This is a tawdry piece of vice-signalling to groups who wish students were not so in favour of social equality. This is a bad Bill that offers nothing to students or to society. This is a matter not of cancel culture but of consequences culture. This Bill and the rhetoric around it are nothing more than imports from Trump’s playbook in the United States, in furtherance of this Government’s nonsense culture wars.
Rightly, we do not have an absolute right to freedom of speech in this country, be it in respect of our libel laws, the criminalisation of hate speech, the Government’s push to have universities adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism or universities’ statutory duties under the Prevent strategy. Even in this Chamber, as was rightly mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North West (Taiwo Owatemi), we do not have freedom of speech, whether that is in the fact that when we say “you” in the Chamber, Madam Deputy Speaker, we refer to your good self, or that when my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel) accidently named me earlier, he got a little ticking off for it.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North West said, this is about creating a better culture of debate, so what is the purpose of this Bill? What free speech does it extend beyond the limitations in existing legislation? It does not do that, as those restrictions on absolute free speech remain in place. This was never a policy designed to address the problems in the university sector, and it is revealed as even more cynical and shoddy today as we condemn the racist abuse of our national footballers by the kind of vermin who have received tacit endorsement from the very highest levels of government. As Tyrone Mings rightly said, this Government do not
“get to stoke the fire at the beginning of the tournament by labelling our anti-racism message as ‘Gesture Politics’ & then pretend to be disgusted when the very thing we’re campaigning against, happens.”
This Bill is yet another dog whistle from a Government who are unleashing forces that they will not and cannot hope to control. Let us scrap it and move on to things that really matter to our constituents.
I am pleased to be speaking in this debate as chair of the all-party group for friends of Durham University.
Let me be clear: I support freedom of speech. I want students and academics to feel comfortable discussing and promoting unpopular views in order to challenge conventional wisdom. After all, that is a vital part of university. However, I do not believe that freedom of speech should mean freedom from consequences. Under this legislation, universities and student unions could be forced to roll out the red carpet for holocaust deniers, transphobes anti-vaxxers and others with deplorable views, and if they do not, they risk being fined or sued. This is not a free speech Bill; it is more of a hate speech Bill.
Aside from being problematic morally, it is not clear how this legislation will work in practice. Durham University has told me that it still does not know how it will fit in with its existing duties. For example, the university subscribes to the IHRA definition of antisemitism, but now could be compelled to host holocaust deniers or face sanctions. Alternatively, speech around gender identity that might be allowed under this legislation could be in violation of the university’s policies on equality and trans rights. The university could therefore be forced to break its own codes of conduct, which are designed to protect staff and student welfare, or face fines. This is clearly wrong. Does this legislation supersede universities’ duties under education legislation, Prevent and employment law. It is all a bit of a mess.
What is especially frustrating is that this Bill is aimed at tackling a problem that does not really exist. Although Tories love to decry the so-called cancel culture at our universities, a study of 10,000 university speaker events found that just six were cancelled. As we have just heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North West (Taiwo Owatemi), four of them were cancelled for incorrect paperwork, one was cancelled to upgrade to a bigger venue, and one was a pyramid scheme. The words “moral panic” come to mind. In fact, Durham University has informed me that, far from encouraging a wider range of views, the threat of sanction could actually result in a more risk-averse speaker programme. The thing that really irritates me about this legislation is that there are so many other issues in higher education that need fixing. Freedom of speech is threatened less by wokeness and more by insecure work and limited funding. Students are concerned about the cost of rent, tuition fees, levels of sexual harassment and so much more, so where is the legislation to address those issues?
The Bill shows that the Government are more concerned with stirring up a culture war than addressing the real problems in society. It will only make life harder for students and staff in Durham who were already over-burdened by introducing more bureaucracy into education. It is just the latest example of the Government’s twisted priorities.
I will finish by saying to the Government: stop playing politics, scrap this Bill and introduce some measures that will actually improve higher education.
I have to confess that I have some sympathy with the Universities Minister, recognising that she will soon be winding up this debate. She is a decent Minister who knows the real issues facing our universities and their students, and I am sure that she knows that this Bill is nonsense. She has certainly struggled to explain its impact. She knows and she has admitted that it will protect some hate speech, but she is having to defend it to play her part in stoking up the culture wars that are at the heart of this Conservative party’s electoral strategy.
Let us be clear: free speech is at the heart of our values. We on the Labour Benches have a long record of protecting it, but it has too often been used by the Conservative party as a political football. I remember 35 years ago, with unemployment at a post-war high of 14% amid the deep gloom of that Tory decade, when Margaret Thatcher produced the Education (No. 2) Act 1986, requiring universities to uphold freedom of speech. I played my part then in drafting the code of practice for the University of Sheffield to ensure our compliance with the legislation. The Act was followed by a series of speaker meetings orchestrated by Conservative students to provoke a reaction and fuel division.
Then, almost 10 years later, with John Major’s Government struggling, out came the free speech dead cat again with the 1994 Education Act, which this time decided that too much free speech of the wrong sort was a bad thing and tried to limit the activities of student unions.
Now, with the mismanagement of covid leaving the UK with one of the worst recessions and worst death rates in Europe, the Government’s flawed Brexit deal hitting businesses in every sector, people at work facing insecurity and rising inequality across society, free speech is again rolled out as a diversion, a “look over there” tactic. With no irony, they are introducing this Bill the week after Ministers were cracking down on free speech with the anti-protest provisions of the policing Bill.
As the Universities Minister acknowledged on Radio 4, this is a Bill that empowers holocaust deniers and other purveyors of hate speech by giving them the powers to make vexatious complaints against universities. As if that did not do enough to fuel the culture war, it also creates a new director for freedom of speech at the Office for Students with a full-time responsibility to keep the issue alive. No doubt it will be another job for another Conservative crony with undue influence over academic debate. Does the Minister really believe that this is the most important addition to the IFS team? Is it more important, for example, than a director of learning remediation to deal with the lost learning experiences for both new and current students as a result of covid? Does she not recognise that the financial and legal liability in the Bill could be a chill factor on open debate, requiring universities to spend more on lawyers and less on students, but, of course, the Bill is not about the real priorities. I represent both of Sheffield’s universities and more students than any other Member of this House. Over the last year, I have received hundreds of emails from students, from parents with children at university, from staff working hard to provide the best possible learning during the pandemic against a backdrop of confusion and late decisions from the Government; I have received none on free speech.
We could have spent our time better today looking at the issues that are being raised. We could have discussed the recommendations of the report by the all-party parliamentary group for students, which involved two of the Minister’s Conservative predecessors and argued for a learning remediation fund to assist universities to provide access to experiences, specialist facilities and equipment for skills development and more—those things that students have missed during the pandemic. We could have discussed our case for proper hardship funding in respect of rents paid for unused accommodation by students who have lost out from part-time jobs that dried up in hospitality and retail sector. We could have considered why students in England have been treated far worse than those in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland, with an average of only £43.70 allocated per student in England for hardship support while those in Wales received an average of £400 per head, Northern Ireland £500 per head and Scotland £80 per head plus other support packages.
We could have talked about the issues for staff who have faced enormous pressure and made huge efforts to move entire courses online, delivering the best possible teaching but knowing that some of the learning experiences would inevitably be lost. We might have asked why the latest guidance for teaching in the autumn has been issued too late, after timetabling has been done, making things more difficult than needed. We could have been considering the quarantine arrangements for the new session, as those of us on the all-party parliamentary group for international students have been arguing. We could have discussed the vital role that our universities will play as we rebuild our economy after covid. Instead, we are faced with this sorry Bill. The Government really need to deal with the priorities that we face. I hope that they will drop this unnecessary Bill.
Despite finding no time to legislate for social care reform or employment rights, the Government can find time to protect antisemites and people whose only aim is to cause deep hurt and offence. These are clearly the wrong priorities for us as a Parliament and for the country. The Government should drop this Bill, which has dangerous and deeply troubling consequences, as my hon. Friends the Members for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel) and for Warrington North (Charlotte Nichols) so eloquently pointed out.
It is a real pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield), who is on the all-party parliamentary group for universities and chairs the all-party parliamentary groups for students and for international students. I thank him for all the work that he has done in the House to highlight the plight of students. That brings me to what is really troubling my constituents.
No. 1: Jewish families have contacted me as a constituency MP, very worried about the welfare of their children and young people in universities where they have faced abuse. I do not believe that the current Bill seeks to address that issue. In fact, it could make it worse. I have also had briefings from the organisation Tell MAMA, which has explained how Islamophobic attacks have happened against students on university campuses. I am not sure how this Bill would address those sorts of concerns. Not only that, but first-year university students have been contacting me for the last 12 months—first, before they gained access to university, during the exams fiasco—asking how on earth the Secretary of State could have kept his job despite such a huge level of incompetence.
There have been images on our television screens over the last 12 months of international students queuing around the block for food banks because they have not been able to get part-time work due to covid. The broken loans system is an international disgrace. The Government really need to address the financial pressure that students are under. My local university, London Metropolitan University, offers courses for nurses. If nurses need assistance while they are studying nursing—which, of course, is a very much needed occupation with covid and was beforehand due to the shortage of nurses—the fees are still £9,000 a year. Of course, there are also other living costs over the three years. Nurses can come away with a loans bill of £50,000 and then start at the local hospital—Whittington or North Middlesex—on a starting income of about £25,000. How nurses could ever pay off those ridiculous loans should trouble the Government, not this Bill.
Where are the results and outcomes and the action that the Government will take as a result of the Augar report? Or is it just growing dust and mould on shelves? What about the need to face down the uncertainty and try to clarify the situation for students who are studying in September 2021? We have 10 days left before recess in which we could debate urgent issues such as whether students will be studying under a hybrid system; whether they will be studying in person or remotely; whether they will have to undergo quarantine if they come in from abroad; what will happen to European student numbers, which have dropped because of Brexit; how Horizon will be funded; and how the short-term contracts that currently face so many women academics can be put on a proper employment footing.
While we are on the subject of women, how will the issues for women students raised so eloquently by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) be addressed? These are real questions. We need proper services for women who have experienced sexual violence, and we need firm action against perpetrators.
Universities are not the enemy. This Bill will cause more paperwork and bureaucracy for a sector that is already struggling. Instead, we need a proper debate on the issues that matter. I hope that the Government will listen to the contributions made this evening, including the serious ones from my hon. Friends the Members for Leeds North West and for Warrington North about how determined a small far-right group can be to use legislation that is not carefully worded to cause mayhem, as well as the contributions from my hon. Friends the Members for Sheffield Central and for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) about how we can work together. We need to see urgent action and to be in the real world, not stoking culture wars.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) and her heartfelt sentiments on behalf of students in her constituency. During the pandemic, students from Luton North have got in touch with me about so many of the worries that the Government have put in front of them. There was exam chaos last year, and students worry that they will see the same repeated again this year. They were sent back to covid-filled universities last September and have had to pay for accommodation that they have not been in because of the pandemic. Some universities have moved to permanent remote learning, for the same costs as an in-person degree. There have been missed graduations and freshers weeks, a growing sense of crisis in young people’s mental health, and all the rest of it.
This has been a hard time to be a student. But can the House guess how many students from Luton North have got in touch with me about no-platforming or the need to balance out the debate on anti-racism and anti-fascism? Zero. With everything that is going on at the moment—everything that is facing young people—how can this Bill be a Government priority?
One thing that people in Luton North do talk to me about is the impact of the Prevent duty on campuses and in our schools. Of those who reported being affected by Prevent, 43% felt unable to express their views or be themselves on campus. Only a quarter of Muslim students say they feel entirely free to express their views on Islam in university contexts. This means that Muslim students are less involved in student democracy, more likely to feel there is no space for them and less comfortable engaging in political debate on campus. That is simply not right.
Prevent is the real block on freedom of speech on campuses, but it is mentioned only briefly in the Bill’s 21 pages. Given how students, and Muslim students especially, feel that their freedom of speech is being restricted on campus by Prevent, I hope that the Government will change the Bill to help all students to feel more welcome on campus. Seriously: how can a Government talk about free speech when they actively seek to criminalise young people who talk and share opinions on issues that we should all be talking about, from Palestine to plastics in our oceans?
The Government simply cannot have it both ways or take people for fools. This Bill is not really about freedom of speech though, is it? It is about stoking a culture war. It is about enabling those who profit from hate, silencing young Muslim students and students who care about climate change. The Bill is nonsensical and hypocritical, like the Home Secretary’s attempt today to condemn the same sorts of racism that the Conservative Government have courted and continue to stoke with divisive Bills such as this and the upcoming Nationality and Borders Bill.
What it boils down to, ultimately, is that Conservative Members are worried—really worried—about the fact that even when they won a landslide victory in the election, only 22% of 18 to 29-year-olds voted for them. That is not because young people are a bunch of liberal, snowflake, red, left-wing, knee-taking, no-platforming work warriors who need to hear balanced debates and will then, all of a sudden, discover how to vote Tory. No: it is because since we last had a Labour Government, 11 years ago, they have seen their fees more than trebled and their education maintenance allowance axed, and most of them are stuck renting at extortionate cost with little prospect of owning their homes in parts of the country.
While we talk about values, young people see a Home Secretary obsessed with deportations and not their own safety. They see a diversity-bashing Prime Minister and a dog-whistle Tory party which spends its time insulting even our English national football team for having the audacity to speak out against racism and try to get food into the bellies of kids who are going hungry because of the Government’s shameful policies. No amount of so-called balanced debate will ever cancel out those facts, no matter how hard the Government try to punish young people in this country.
If the Conservative party really wants to fix its electoral prospects with the optimistic, dynamic, hopeful and yes, sometimes radical new generation of our country, perhaps it should stop stoking a culture war and just get on with helping those young people to live freely and securely and realise their ambitions, just as a Labour Government would do. Young people want and deserve hope, not hate.
It is the principled eloquence of my hon. Friend the Member for Luton North (Sarah Owen) that gives me hope for the future of our country. I feel that the country is safe in the hands of her generation and people like her.
I have listened to the whole of the debate, and I say this. We are in the midst of what in other eras we would have called a plague. Nearly 130,000 members of our community have died. Many of them faced appalling deaths, alone, isolated from their loved ones. Moreover, poverty runs rife among our people. More than 40% of the children in my constituency are living in poverty. It took a footballer to force the Government to act to secure a basic meal for many of our children, and what did he get last night from some of the racist scum populating our country? More racist abuse.
With so much scarring the lives of many of our constituents, with so many wrongs to be righted, what is the House debating? A proposal for a law to legislate against behaviour when there is barely any evidence that it exists. The Office for Students found
“no evidence of free speech being systematically suppressed”.
It went on to say:
“Our experience to date is that providers are working hard to be compliant with their duty under section 43 of the 1986 Education Act.”
Selina Todd has been referred to tonight. She is my friend; I helped her to launch her recent book. I was contacted before the event by a students club urging me not to attend and not to participate. I went ahead, because, as I explained, disagreement with Selina was best dealt with in discussion, and it was left at that: an agreement to disagree.
If any incidences arise of the suppression of free speech, laws and institutions already exist to protect freedom of speech in higher education. There is the Human Rights Act, which, I remind the House, the Conservative party voted against. The Education (No. 2) Act 1986, passed by a Conservative Government, contains section 43, which has been referred to and which requires universities to
“take such steps as are reasonably practicable”
to secure freedom of speech. There are already regulatory bodies to ensure that those provisions are protected and enforced. The Office of the Independent Adjudicator deals with student complaints that cannot be resolved through internal processes of individual universities. Likewise, if academic freedom is being infringed, employment law and employment tribunals can address that.
This is interesting and I have not witnessed it very often, but Universities UK, the National Union of Students, the University and College Union and even the Russell Group are united in opposing this legislation. I say to the Government: do not insult the intelligence of Members of this House or, more importantly, the intelligence of the British people. This is a grubby political stunt, worthy of the derision it has received tonight. It is a propaganda exercise in this Government’s persistent provocation of the culture war, as many Members have suggested. But how far does the logic of this policy go? Who is next—further education establishments, schools, Government-funded charities and community groups? If not them, why are the universities being singled out? The logic of this policy is ludicrous.
If Ministers want to know the real issues in universities, they should go to Liverpool and Leicester and speak to the lecturers who have been forced on to picket lines because they are being sacked. They should visit any college and talk to lecturers about how their profession is being casualised, their wages frozen and cut, and their pension put under further threat. They should speak to the University and College Union and see what its members are up against at the moment. None of the issues that are so relevant to higher education, students and lecturers is being addressed by the Government, who are more interested in divisive culture wars than in solving the real issues faced by our universities and the people of this country.
The legislation should be dropped. I am fearful. As others have warned, be careful what this Government wish for, because they could open up serious division in our society and on our university campuses, and open up a can of worms that the fascist right will exploit.
I seem to follow the right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) in various debates, but I have to say that the content of his speech was very much the opposite of what I want to say.
I will explain my specific point of view. I do not take for granted the right to speak and to speak freely. I treasure and cherish the right to do that in this House. Whenever I speak, I know that there are many in this Chamber who may not agree with me, and I accept that because I understand that we are all different and have different points of view. That is their right, but the fact is that that does not take away my right to speak, as long as I speak with courtesy, manners and respect. I have always tried to do that with everyone in this House, even when my opinion might differ from theirs, and to express my views in a way that is every bit as heartfelt, strong and sincere as them. I have always maintained that freedom of speech does not mean freedom to berate, belittle or bad mouth individuals, but we must be allowed to hold different opinions in a respectful manner.
I am referring to the intrinsic rights that we hold dear. Every day I look at the world and I grieve when I hear someone say, “If you don’t agree with me, you shouldn’t speak.” I do not subscribe to that view, which seems to be most strongly held in universities throughout the country. That is why I believe that the Government’s stance is correct and proper, and why I will support the Bill’s Second Reading and cast proxy votes on behalf of my party colleagues as well.
We must remind people that they must hear if not accept other arguments. If we continue to raise generations who believe that their opinion trumps others, that they are right and others are wrong, and that to disagree with them means to hate them, we will find ourselves in a very different United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
We all long for a place of tolerance, which needs to be given to all people, to those who believe in no gods and those who believe in one God—as I do, because I have a faith and I believe very much in it. I know that others in this Chamber have the same faith, while others have a different faith. Each person has a right to speak of their faith and belief.
I am chair of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief. We speak out for those with Christian beliefs, for those with other beliefs and for those with no beliefs at all. Why do we do that? Because we have respect for other people. I do that on behalf of Christians, Hindus, Muslims, Ahmadis, Jews, Baha’is and Shi’as because I believe they have the right to their beliefs as I have a right to have my belief. I will speak as strongly for them as I do for people of my own belief, because that is what I believe and what I seek to achieve in this House. I understand that that is what the Government are trying to achieve.
To provide some examples, I read of a shocking case against street preachers—I say this because I am a Christian and I have strong faith—who were drawn into speaking on abortion and other sensitive issues in an attempt to silence them having their rights upheld by the rule of law. I will quote what the judge said in his deliberation in one case, because it is important to have it on the record:
“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.”
We should be able to say words without bringing people to anger. He went on:
“Freedom only to speak inoffensively is not worth having.”
In Northern Ireland we had the case, which was known worldwide, of the Ashers cake sale. I will not rehearse the case in the House, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I just want to put this on the record. It was a case where those with a strong faith like myself were taken to court for not baking a cake for a certain group of people. They took their case to court. The Christian Institute helped them and they won their case, but those people were dragged through the court because they had a belief. This is about respecting other people. I just see in society today that so much happens in a different way. This is a principle that we must live by and I believe it should be clear in universities.
Today is 12 July, Madam Deputy Speaker, and in Northern Ireland we had a celebration of Orange culture. I am wearing my lodge tie—Kircubbin LOL 1900—because I came straight from the parade on to the plane for this debate. We had a fantastic celebration of our Orange culture in Newtonards, as there was across the whole of the Province. The people who watch those parades—I know them, because it is my constituency—are from all sides of the community. They are there to celebrate and enjoy it, and to have respect for other people. What a great thing it is to have respect for other people. I believe that is an example of people from all communities coming together. It may not necessarily be something they want to be a part of themselves individually, but they are happy to come along, support and enjoy not just the good will as there was in Newtonards today but that time together—[Interruption.] I apologise, Madam Deputy Speaker. I did not realise there was a time limit— that is my fault. I will come to an end. My apologies.
I will finish with this quote from the Christian Institute:
“Freedom of expression is central to the health of a democratic society. It allows us to seek truth and object to injustice. Without free speech, a society effectively closes the door to the exchange of ideas that can lead to positive change. So we need to be vigilant to protect this vital freedom for future generations.”
The Bill is a damaging non-solution to a non-existent problem that only exists in the minds of this reactionary Government and their outriders. Trade unions, led by the University and College Union, rightly argue that there is no evidence to support the notion of a free speech crisis on campus by what the Government deem to be intolerant or even oversensitive students and staff. A 2019 Policy Exchange report, which claimed to find evidence of a free speech campus crisis and which was cited repeatedly in the Government’s own White Paper, which informs much of the Bill, has since been discredited. For instance, one of the report’s main examples of no-platforming at Cardiff University did not happen at all—the event went ahead as planned.
Democratically elected student unions who represent their student bodies much like trade unions in the workplace have long adhered to a no-platform policy formed in response to the fascist groups who sought to exploit and subvert democratic platforms to promote hate, racism, fascism and holocaust denial. The Government do not understand that if someone is allowed free rein to espouse racist, hateful or discriminatory views without challenge, it can directly contribute to a culture where people of my class, my race and my gender no longer feel safe. Yet no-platforming is an incredibly rare outcome: of the 62,000 requests by students for external speaker events at English universities in 2017-18, only 53—less than 0.1%—were rejected by a student union or university. Despite that, the Government have created a self-serving narrative of an imagined free-speech crisis to force through this authoritarian legislation.
The Bill fails to secure for staff the ability to speak out against their employers and will empower the Office for Students, with appointments by the Government, to interfere politically in university and academic life, thus seriously imperilling academic freedom and democratic norms. It also narrows the legal definition of academic freedom in a way that is almost unprecedented in British law. Unlike rules on judicial review, there will be no standing requirement, so any person, business or campaign can sue universities. The threat to freedom of speech and academic liberties therefore comes not from the imagined free-speech crisis but from the Government and their hugely disproportionate legislation.
As the University and College Union rightly highlights, the much graver threats to academic freedom take the form of casualised employment, sustained attacks on the arts and humanities, insecurity of research funding, the Prevent programme, Government interference with the academic research agenda—especially on decolonisation —and targeted redundancies. More than two thirds of researchers and almost half of teaching-only staff in the higher education sector are on fixed-term contracts. Widespread insecure employment strips academics of the ability to speak and research freely and curtails chances for career development. Indeed, the proposed compulsory redundancies across England’s universities including at Leicester, Liverpool, Aston and Chester, are alarming. In Leicester and across the UK, university management must listen to the workers’ demands and withdraw compulsory redundancies. The Government must end the marketisation of higher education, which restricts academic freedoms, and instead encourage universities to work constructively with trade union representatives to protect higher education livelihoods.
Many aspects of higher education need urgent redress. For too long, universities have been treated as private businesses and left at the mercy of market forces while top salaries have soared and students have paid more for less. Tuition fees have trebled and maintenance grants have been scrapped, leaving the poorest graduates with an average debt of £57,000. Education must be a universal right, not a costly privilege. The Government must properly fund our universities, scrap tuition fees and cancel student debt. Instead, they are pushing through this legislation that solves none of the real issues facing the higher education sector and will instead compound the problems that they claim they wish to solve. They must end their divisive culture wars, stop stoking the fires of hate, abandon the power grab over the higher education sector, commit to properly supporting the freedom, wellbeing and funding of all staff and students and scrap altogether this free hate speech Bill.
I thank everyone who has participated in today’s debate. The Bill uses a sledgehammer to crack a nut—so said my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Rosie Duffield) and the hon. Member for St Albans (Daisy Cooper). As my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) succinctly put it, the Bill will result in legal protection for hate speech.
With this Bill, the Government are seeking headlines. The Bill is mostly about headlines, but of course Labour supports free speech. Labour is the party that has done more than any other when it comes to free speech—just look at our record. In fact, Labour introduced two significant pieces of legislation in this regard: the European convention on human rights, and the Equality Act 2010. Without exception, every one of my colleagues has risen to extol their support for free speech.
The Government are fooling no one with their claims for the Bill, as was laid bare by the contributions from my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) and my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield), who chairs the APPG for students and who talked about the numerous attempts by successive Conservative Governments to use the free-speech dead cat. Many will have listened intently to my hon. Friends the Members for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel) and for Warrington North (Charlotte Nichols), who made it absolutely clear that this legislation would facilitate the likes of David Irving, Nick Griffin and others to spew out their antisemitic, racist hate speech on our campuses. My hon. Friends asked what hate speech will be allowed. Both called the legislation dog-whistle politics, over which the Government will lose control. What we have before us would be more aptly titled the hate speech protection Bill—a piece of legislation that would protect antisemites, holocaust deniers and people whose only aim is to cause deep hurt and offence.
The Government claim to be advancing the people’s priorities, but this issue is certainly not one of them. One would have thought that the Government would prioritise an inquiry into the covid pandemic; the greater number of challenges that the higher education sector faces; the impact of the pandemic on education, as we have heard; the mental health crisis; or the fact that violence against women is endemic. On the last point, my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) asked the Secretary of State about his failure to address violence against women. She pointedly asked where that Bill is, but the Secretary of State remains silent.
My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) asked why the Government have not prioritised support for students throughout the pandemic, which has exposed enormous inequality. My hon. Friend the Member for Luton North (Sarah Owen) spoke of the ongoing crisis in mental health on our campuses and asked why it is not a priority. Instead, the Government have manufactured a Bill to once again distract from their own failings. They claim that they have evidence and data, but as my right hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) said, the Government are in an evidence-free zone.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North West (Taiwo Owatemi) said, the Bill is motivated by the cancellation on university campuses of just six scheduled events out of 10,000 last year. Four of those were cancelled due to incorrect paperwork, one was moved off campus, and the other was a pyramid scheme. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) asked, why is the Secretary of State so attentive to a virtually non-existent problem? Why was the Secretary of State not fighting his corner for the £15 billion of catch-up funding that was proposed by Sir Kevan Collins, rather than meekly accepting the £1.4 billion pittance? He would rather focus on six, or truly two, cases where people were not heard on campus.
The Bill is a charter for hate speech. Many people, including my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South (Zarah Sultana), reminded us that the Minister for Universities, the hon. Member for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan), was unable to deny that the Bill would create a legislative safeguard for holocaust denial. Why are we devoting our attention to a Bill that provides legislative backing to help holocaust deniers, racial supremacists and other preachers of hate gain special access to university campuses? The simple truth is that the existing legislation—section 43(1) of the Education Act 1986, the Human Rights Act 1998, the Equality Act 2010, the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015, which includes Prevent duties, and the Higher Education and Research Act 2017—already covers the issues that the Bill seeks to address. The 2017 Act established the Office for Students and states that the governing body must take
“such steps as are reasonably practicable to ensure that freedom of speech within the law is secured within the provider.”
My hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Beth Winter) questioned why, despite those existing powers, this Bill seeks to create a range of new obligations on higher education providers and to give the OfS new powers to fine an institution.
My hon. Friends have questioned throughout the new tort enabling individuals to seek compensation through the courts, which will result in universities and student unions having to spend more significant time and money fighting legal battles against vexatious and frivolous claims. What is the unintended consequence? Institutions and student unions will naturally become risk averse and avoid inviting speakers for fear of financial repercussions if they are subsequently cancelled. Remember that many HE institutions and colleges are actually quite small—maybe 2,000 or 3,000 students—and will certainly not be able to cope administratively or financially with the additional burdens placed on them. The result will be fewer speakers, fewer debates and an overall reduction in free speech.
Then there is the threat to academic freedom with the inclusion of a new qualifying concept of
“within their field of expertise”.
Perhaps the Minister would elaborate on how academic freedom will be limited in practice and on who would decide. Increasingly, and I have to agree with the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis), this begins to sound like the McCarthyism that started in the US in 1950s, but it is McCarthyism against our university sector. As we have heard repeatedly from Labour Members, this is a Bill that claims to safeguard, yet perversely will have the reverse effect in numerous unintended consequences. The idea that this Bill could actually facilitate holocaust deniers to speak on campus should itself send a chill through the public consciousness. Likewise, it would enable other anti-science brigades to hold court on campus. Perhaps I could paraphrase the late Donald Rumsfeld, and suggest that there may be intended unintended consequences. That is to say that the Government may not have fully thought through the forms and scale of damage to the higher education sector, but it seems they would not be dissatisfied with the turmoil of litigation and the financial impact they have unleashed, because this is the precursor to their attack on the sector.
Finally, let me turn to the Office for Students and its central role. If we needed to understand what was going on here, we could do no better than start with the appointment of the new chair to the supposedly independent OfS. I know the Prime Minister is a recent convert to the love of dogs, but appointing his poodle? Of course, one of Lord Wharton’s first acts was to make an £8,000 donation to the Conservative party, which is two months’ pay from his two-day-a-week job. Now we have what many are describing as an “Office for Stooges” overseeing higher education, and that is how free and independent speech will be in future. It is a body whose purpose now is to do the Government’s bidding, particularly when central to this legislation is the appointment of a tsar for free speech and academic freedom. That is chilling—one person with all those powers.
I will be voting for our reasoned amendment. Given that there is no serious evidence to suggest there is a problem with freedom of speech on our campuses, instead of addressing the urgent problems faced by students and higher education institutions, the Bill is yet another case of the wrong priorities from a Government who seek to divide rather than unite. I invite the Minister to explain why the public should trust this Government when it comes to free speech. After all, this is a Government who shut down Parliament illegally—this place, illegally—as well as a Government who interfere with the independent selection of members of parliamentary bodies and the selection of museum trustees. They are even a Government who tell the National Trust not to explain the history of certain of its properties that were funded on the proceeds of slavery. That is sinister.
The Government should drop this Bill and get on with addressing the urgent needs of the country, where people are more concerned about how they are going to pay their bills this week and this month, and where inflation is ripping through people’s hard-earned income, with an economy that has become so distorted and so riven by inequality in the past 11 years that we the people were more vulnerable to the pandemic even before the Government managed to mismanage the crisis. The public simply want good government and a Government who understand that politics is all about priorities, and that is why I urge all Members to vote for our reasoned amendment.
We have heard a range of views today, but the House is united in an understanding that free speech is the cornerstone of democracy and a liberal society. That was passionately articulated by my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes) and many others, who shared an endless list of examples of the curtailment of free speech on our campuses.
Disappointingly, though, there was disagreement from those on the Opposition Benches over the role that the Government should take to protect and promote free speech. On the Government side of the House, we believe that standing up for free speech is a key responsibility of any democratic Government, we believe that students and lecturers should not be silenced, and we are prepared to stand up for free speech and not just make tokenistic soundings regarding its value. That is why we are bringing forward this legislation to deliver on our manifesto pledge.
Some hon. Members questioned whether there is a problem on our campuses. Tell that to the countless academics and students who have shared their experiences with me. Tell that to the students and academics whose stories have been shared by hon. Members today.
The hon. Lady has just said that she has countless examples. Will she, after the debate—if she does not have it with her now, that is fine; I accept that—publish the data on which the Bill is based? That would at least show that there is some evidence behind the Bill, rather than just the hearsay she is telling us about.
I am confused about how the right hon. Member cannot recognise the evidence. We have heard from so many hon. Members today who have shared examples: my hon. Friends the Members for Ashfield (Lee Anderson) and for North West Durham (Mr Holden); the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry); the hon. Member for Canterbury (Rosie Duffield); my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings; the hon. Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi), and my hon. Friends the Members for Congleton and for Dudley North (Marco Longhi).
Numerous studies have shone a spotlight on the problem, but they only document the tip of the iceberg, given the nature of the chilling effect outlined by my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis). Think for a moment about those who feel too afraid to speak out for fear of repercussion, and feel that they have to self-censor. Our universities should always be bastions of freedom and intellectual discussion. That point was well made by my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Dean Russell).
As my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Miriam Cates) stressed, how can we expect society to progress or opinions to modernise unless we can challenge the status quo? The intolerance and influence of some has led students and academics to self-censor their views. Those individuals are some of the best and brightest, yet their ideas go unexpressed. Imagine the potential loss here—we will never know. We can, at least, look back at the past. Where would we be now if the views of 100 or even 200 years had never been challenged? As a woman, I doubt I would be an MP, let alone Universities Minister.
No one can deny the massive impact that covid has had on students, universities and staff. However, to address the question asked by the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western) as to why we are doing this now, I would argue that covid has highlighted the value of personal freedoms that many of us used to take for granted. That is on top of the fact that the British public placed their faith in us to deliver on a manifesto—and deliver we certainly will.
We have heard from some Opposition Members that we need cultural, not legislative, change. I remind them that current legislation lacks an enforcement mechanism. Yes, some universities, including Essex, have got their house in order, and we recently saw a strong commitment from the Russell Group, but as so many speakers today have highlighted, there is a problem. We also know the crucial role legislation can play, and has played, in cultural change; take gender equality, race discrimination and human rights as examples.
A number of Members spoke about how higher education providers will have to balance competing duties. It is important to remind the House that they already have to do that. However, the Bill places a duty on providers to take reasonably practicable steps to secure lawful free speech. It does not supersede the Prevent duty or the Equality Act. The requirement to take reasonably practicable steps is right. It cannot be sensible to require providers to act unreasonably or to ignore their other legal duties. The Bill will give providers further clarity, because the new director will give advice and issue comprehensive guidance.
I want to be very clear: this Bill only protects lawful free speech. Harassment, racism, discrimination, hate crimes, and incitement of violence or terrorism will have no place on our campuses or in our society. In fact, I vehemently believe that we should defend and safeguard freedoms on all fronts, from freedom of speech to freedom from persecution.
What we have heard from those on the Opposition Benches, in trying to suggest that holocaust deniers will be supported in going on to our university campuses, is clearly fearmongering. Will the Minister set the record straight and highlight that that is not the case and that we are supporting our students?
I absolutely confirm that, and I agree with my hon. Friend.
Some Members have asked how the Bill will interact with the Government’s work to combat antisemitism. Antisemitism is abhorrent and will not be tolerated in our universities, which is why we have encouraged more than 100 higher education providers to sign up to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition. Regarding the specific question of holocaust deniers, any attempt to deny the scale or the occurrence of the holocaust is morally reprehensible and has no factual basis. In many cases, those who deny the holocaust have links to neo-Nazi extremism, antisemitic violence and intimidation. There are numerous reasons why someone who denies the holocaust should not be invited to speak on campus, and nothing in the Bill gives them a right to a platform.
I agree totally with the hon. Lady and I do not think for one minute that she is promoting those individuals, but what is to prevent a holocaust denier who has been denied the opportunity to speak at a university from using the legal framework in the Bill to sue that university? The legal action might not get anywhere, but the university would have to spend a lot of time and effort defending itself.
I thank the right hon. Member for his intervention.
The European Court of Human Rights has held that holocaust denial is not protected speech under article 10 of the European convention on human rights and as such is intolerable in a democratic society. I will put on record again, just as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State did before, that there is no place in universities for an extremist views that masquerades as fact but is complete fiction while grotesquely seeking to misinterpret global history in a deeply offensive way. To be absolutely clear, the Bill does not override the existing duties under the Equality Act regarding harassment and unlawful discrimination. The public sector equality duty, the Prevent duty, hate crime and, of course, criminal law may apply. That point was excellently articulated by a number of Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (James Daly).
The Opposition raised the issue of anti-vaxxers. We have one of the world’s most successful vaccination programmes, with over half of 18 to 24-year-olds already having had their first jab. The Bill categorically does not give the right to a platform to anti-vaxxers who may make baseless claims. This makes me wonder whether the Opposition have, in fact, read the Bill. We will not be supporting their amendment today, as it serves only to highlight their desire to inhibit free speech. The hon. Members for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) and for St Albans (Daisy Cooper) argued that the Bill would result in universities refraining from inviting speakers. The reality is that it places a duty on providers to promote free speech, and they will be investigated by the director if they fail to meet that duty. The importance of the new duty to promote was clearly articulated by the right hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones).
I want to note the powerful speech by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips). I agree 100% that abhorrent sexual harassment has absolutely no place on our campuses, and every university should have a robust complaints process. Two weeks ago, I wrote to all universities stating the Government’s clear view that non-disclosure agreements should not be used in these circumstances, and the OfS has produced a statement of expectation and is looking at creating a new registration condition. I recently met the founders of Everyone’s Invited, and I would also be happy to meet the hon. Member to discuss this important topic.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bury South (Christian Wakeford) raised the issue of security costs resulting from no-platforming, and cited the example of the Israeli ambassador. Higher education providers should not be no-platforming by the back door. The Bill is clear that reasonably practical steps should be taken to secure freedom of speech for visiting speakers, and I expect the Office for Students guidance to make it clear that this applies to security costs.
The Bill will protect numerous views that are alien to me and to many in this Chamber, but it is not only naive but dangerous to suggest that defending the right of a view in any way endorses a specific view. Surely, as politicians, we should all agree with the sentiment of Evelyn Hall, who stated when summing up Voltaire’s views:
“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
It is disappointing that not all Opposition Members understand this simple principle, which is much at the heart of the Bill: not a right-wing, anti-woke agenda but an agenda that allows all views and ideas to flourish. We have an immeasurable pool of talent in our students and academics, overflowing with ideas and values that will drive forward this country to build back better, and now is the time to unlock their potential.
Universities should not be echo chambers but petri dishes of new, thought-provoking ideas, concepts and visons. That is why this Government are making good on their manifesto commitment to tackle the pattern of self-censorship and its chilling effect by protecting and bolstering free speech and academic freedom. I commend the Bill to the House.
Question put, That the amendment be made.
The list of Members currently certified as eligible for a proxy vote, and of the Members nominated as their proxy, is published at the end of today’s debates.
Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 62(2)), That the Bill be now read a Second time.
Question agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time.
HIGHER EDUCATION (FREEDOM OF SPEECH) BILL (PROGRAMME)
Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 83A(7)),
That the following provisions shall apply to the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill:
(1) The Bill shall be committed to a Public Bill Committee.
Proceedings in Public Bill Committee
(2) Proceedings in the Public Bill Committee shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion on Thursday 23 September 2021.
(3) The Public Bill Committee shall have leave to sit twice on the first day on which it meets.
Proceedings on Consideration and Third Reading
(4) Proceedings on Consideration shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour before the moment of interruption on the day on which proceedings on Consideration are commenced.
(5) Proceedings on Third Reading shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at the moment of interruption on that day.
(6) Standing Order No. 83B (Programming committees) shall not apply to proceedings on Consideration and Third Reading.
(7) Any other proceedings on the Bill may be programmed.—(David T. C. Davies.)
Question agreed to.
HIGHER EDUCATION (FREEDOM OF SPEECH) BILL (WAYS AND MEANS)
Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 52(1)(a)),
That, for the purposes of any Act resulting from the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, it is expedient to authorise the charging of fees.—(David T. C. Davies.)
Question agreed to.