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Professor Kathleen Stock: Resignation

Volume 816: debated on Tuesday 16 November 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have, if any, to ask the Office for Students to undertake an investigation into the circumstances of the resignation of Professor Kathleen Stock from her post at the University of Sussex.

My Lords, the Office for Students informed the Department for Education on 11 November that it has decided to open an investigation into whether the University of Sussex has met its obligations on academic freedom and freedom of speech. No academic should have to fear for their personal safety, particularly as a consequence of expressing lawful views. This incident demonstrates why this Government are pressing ahead with legislation to promote and defend freedom of speech on campuses.

My Lords, I welcome that Answer. Professor Stock, a distinguished academic at Sussex University, essentially said that your biological sex cannot be changed by feelings of identity. For quite unexceptional remarks, she has been vilified by colleagues, abused by students, unsupported by her union and let down by the university, which was far too late to defend her. Academics in many other universities—women in particular—are facing similar abuse for gender-critical views. The noble Baroness referred to the forthcoming legislation, but does she agree that, however much legislation you have, you need confidence in our universities to show some strength in defending their academics? What are the Government going to do about that?

The noble Lord is absolutely right to condemn the abuse many academics—women in particular—have suffered recently. The Government are clear that any restriction of lawful speech and academic freedom goes against the fundamental principles of English higher education. The new Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill will strengthen existing freedom of speech duties and address the gaps that exist within the current law, including the lack of a clear enforcement mechanism. That will bring with it clear consequences for providers and student unions that breach these new duties.

My Lords, the Minister rightly says this is a sensitive area, but no academic should be worried about expressing an opinion, and no academic should be fearful for their own well-being. The Government say they will introduce new legislation, but how will that affect this issue if the university fails to act in a proper way?

Universities have long-standing duties in relation to freedom of speech in law. They have to balance those with their duties under the Equality Act and other bits of legislation. They will be expected to take all reasonable, practicable steps to address any constraints on freedom of speech and uphold it in future.

What happened to Professor Kathleen Stock was deeply dismaying and worrying for our society. Universities should be both a safeguard and a focus of rational debate about contentious issues. I was glad to hear from the Minister that the Office for Students is setting up an inquiry. As this is not just a local difficulty but something fundamental to the future of a civilised society, will she bring its recommendations to Parliament so that we can see that there will be adequate action in strengthening the role of academics in free debate?

The noble and right reverend Lord makes a good point. I am sure that he will have seen the letter written by over 200 academics that was published in the Sunday Times last month, making the point that, actually, junior academics face the most chilling impacts of what is going on. Of course, he will know that the Office for Students is independent, and how it presents its report is therefore up to it, but I would be happy to answer questions on it, should they arise.

My Lords, much of the public discourse around Kathleen Stock’s case has focused on free speech and her right to express her views. Not enough has been said about what those views are. As the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, said, Professor Stock believes that biological sex is binary and immutable—a view that is held by most people in this country—and that it is not transphobic to hold these views and at the same time to believe that we must protect women’s rights. Can my noble friend confirm that holding these beliefs is a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010 and that it is unlawful for employers, service providers and co-workers to discriminate against or harass their employees or customers simply for holding or expressing such beliefs?

I point my noble friend towards the recent Employment Appeal Tribunal ruling that held that “gender-critical” beliefs that do not seek to “destroy the rights” of trans people can be protected beliefs under the Equality Act. Individuals should not face unlawful discrimination in the workplace for expressing those beliefs within the law.

My Lords, universities should be places where unpopular views can be aired, discussed and challenged. As we have heard, academic freedom is of paramount importance. However, does the Minister agree that staff and students should be able to pursue their studies in an atmosphere that is safe and inclusive? There should be no place for the intemperate and divisive language that seems to have been a feature on both sides in this particular sad case.

The noble Baroness is absolutely right: there should be a safe and inclusive environment. The right to freedom of speech is not absolute and certainly does not include the right to incite violence or terrorism or to harass others.

My Lords, that is indeed right, but I associate myself very closely with the remarks of my noble friend Lady Jenkin of Kennington. Could the Secretary of State write to all vice-chancellors, pointing out that we are on the slippery road to Salem and McCarthy if we continue with this practice on campuses?

I am happy to share my noble friend’s suggestion with the Secretary of State, but I know that he would also support the independence and autonomy of universities. The Government are seeking to make crystal clear their duties in relation to freedom of speech and how those can be enforced.

My Lords, one of the most disturbing aspects of what Professor Stock has had to endure is that some academic staff seem to have encouraged students to behave in a way that is quite contrary to the purpose of being at university. If higher education stops being a place for open debate and discussion, we as a nation really do have problems. But, sadly, Professor Stock is not the only person in this position, and, while I welcome the report that she has announced on the University of Sussex, noble Lords and the Minister will be aware of named people who are going through this as well. What can she do now to make sure that, in several weeks’ time, we are not having a debate about further resignations from university posts?

The noble Baroness is absolutely right. The Government have been crystal clear about their view on these issues. We have heard today about the investigation on the part of the Office for Students, which will, I am sure, cause other university leaders to reflect. Perhaps your Lordships might consider the number of amendments to the Bill, when it comes to your Lordships’ House.

My Lords, the Bill that the Minister has just mentioned proposes to appoint a new free speech director in the Office for Students. For someone to be able to intervene in sensitive areas, it is really important that they have the trust of all sides across the sector. The Minister will be aware that, when the chair was appointed, this triggered the intervention of the Commissioner for Public Appointments, which ended up appointing someone who still takes the government whip in this House, which has caused some concern. Can she reassure the House that, when they come to appoint a new chief executive and this director, the appointment process will be fair and transparent?

I reassure the noble Baroness that the appointment, like all processes, will follow the public appointments procedures, which I hope will have the confidence of every Member of the House.

My Lords, I welcome the investigation announced today, but I want to make a couple of simple points. All trans people—and that includes trans women—deserve to be treated with respect, dignity and humanity in their workplace or any other environment. Therefore, does the Minister agree with the recent Employment Appeal Tribunal that protection of a gender-critical belief as a philosophical belief does not mean that it is acceptable to misgender trans people, that trans people have lost their Equality Act protections against discrimination and harassment or that employers and service providers will no longer be able to provide a safe environment for trans people, including trans women?

I say to the noble Lord that reassurances to trans people were clear in the recent Employment Appeal Tribunal ruling, which I referred to in my response to my noble friend Lady Jenkin. It held that gender-critical beliefs that do not seek to destroy the rights of trans people can be protected under the Equality Act.