Universities: Anti-Semitism — Question
2:44 pm

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Baroness Deech (Crossbench)

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will clarify the laws applying to universities and student unions when an anti-Semitic incident has taken place on campus.

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Baroness Verma (Conservative)

My Lords, the law is clear: there is absolutely no place in our universities for racism, including anti-Semitism. As independent bodies, universities and student unions are responsible for undertaking their own legal obligations. They have the tools to tackle anti-Semitism. They have access to a very strong legislative framework and practical guidance to provide protection and deal with any anti-Semitic incident. We expect universities to act swiftly to investigate and address any anti-Semitic incidents reported to them. We have seen a fall in the number of incidents in higher education, from 44 in 2010 to 27 in 2011, according the Community Security Trust, but I accept that that is still too many and we must not be complacent in our resolve.

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Baroness Deech (Crossbench)

I thank the Minister for her Answer. However, I wonder if she is aware of just how often these anti-Semitic incidents occur, reported or not. Sometimes it is other students' Nazi-themed activities, coupled with assaults, and sometimes it is hate speakers who are invited on to campuses which indeed they target. Recent events include speakers who blame 9/11 on Israel or who equate all Jews with Nazis, and worse. Universities tend to take refuge behind the doctrine of freedom of speech and do very little. They do not seem to realise the limits of freedom of speech as constrained by recent legislation largely from the previous Labour Government. The Public Order Act-

Noble Lords:

Question!

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Baroness Deech (Crossbench)

Will the Minister ensure that universities bring up to date their codes of practice on visiting speakers to take account of legislation and make sure that they apply to student unions as well?

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Baroness Verma (Conservative)

My Lords, the Education (No. 2) Act 1986 requires university governing bodies to ensure as far as possible and practicable that freedom of speech within the law is secured for members, students, employees and visiting speakers. Institutions have to issue and keep updated a code of practice on the organisation of meetings and other activities taking place on their premises. These codes often include the right to refuse permission for an event. However, universities have to balance freedom of speech with their legal obligations, for instance in the Equality Act 2010. Only institutions themselves can make decisions about speakers. No other body could make judgments about each and every case. They are subject to the courts in this, as with other laws. The 1986 Act does not apply directly to student unions but indirectly through the universities' codes of practice.

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Lord Strathclyde (Conservative)

My Lords, we really cannot all stand up at the same time. I think that it is the turn of the Labour Party, and I rather wish that one of the two noble Lords would give way to the other.

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Lord Janner of Braunstone (Labour)

My Lords, the Minister will be aware that last year on United Kingdom campuses there were 27 reports of anti-Semitic incidents and attacks on students and academics. Does she agree that the time must now have come for the Government to create and require a national approach for all universities to deal with anti-Semitic and all other racist attacks?

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Baroness Verma (Conservative)

My Lords, I can only repeat that the Government cannot tell universities and higher education institutions who they can or cannot invite. However, universities have to follow very strict codes of practice. We are always working with universities, and wherever there are incidents and we hear of them we try to ensure that universities have the tools in place to counter those sorts of vicious speakers and their contributions.

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Lord Boswell of Aynho (Conservative)

My Lords, given that the Minister has already confirmed that because universities and colleges are in receipt of very substantial amounts of public funds, they are bound by the public sector equality duty-which is an important factor that they should bear in mind and take seriously-will she also, on the positive side, celebrate the work of the Equality Challenge Unit and of others who are working positively towards ensuring that universities are, as they always should be, places of enlightenment, and not an opportunity for the expression of prejudice?

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Baroness Verma (Conservative)

I absolutely agree with my noble friend. We see universities as places not only of learning but of great understanding. All the organisations that my noble friend mentioned are at the heart of those tasks of moving forward. However, we take the concerns very seriously and we understand why the noble Baroness has posed this Question and the noble Lord, Lord Janner, has raised it. We are working to ensure that all universities stand up for any students who feel under threat, regardless of their race, religion or background.

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Lord Campbell-Savours (Labour)

My Lords, is it not important that we draw a very clear distinction between the actions of anti-Semites and the actions of those who feel passionately about the actions of the state of Israel in the West Bank of the Jordan and in the Gaza Strip?

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Baroness Verma (Conservative)

My Lords, I do not want to enter into another debate, and that is a separate debate although it is one that we must not shy away from. At the same time, we do not want to lose the greatness of our universities, which allow students to hear contributions that are often very vile but then also allow them to make a judgment as to their response.

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Lord Palmer of Childs Hill (Liberal Democrat)

My Lords, my noble friend the Minister drew attention to the statistics up to 2010. Based on the October 2011 report from the National Jewish Student Survey, 21 per cent of Jewish students felt very worried about anti-Semitism at university; 38 per cent of Jewish students felt worried about anti-Israel sentiment at university; and, more worryingly, 42 per cent of Jewish students had witnessed or been subjected to anti-Semitism in the seven months up to the survey. Will my noble friend the Minister confirm that Her Majesty's Government consider these figures to be a real cause for concern, and indicate what steps they will take to address this issue? Can the Minister outline the approach that the Government are taking to work with universities, the academic community and the Jewish community to solve what is a real problem, despite what other Members of this noble House have said?

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Baroness Verma (Conservative)

My Lords, I am sure that my colleagues in the Box have taken note of my noble friend's concerns and the figures that he has raised today. The Government take all these issues very seriously and I reassure the House that wherever we find that we can intervene, we surely do.