Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:31 pm on 12th July 2021.

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Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Conservative, Congleton 6:31 pm, 12th July 2021

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.