Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill (Carry-over)

– in the House of Commons at 8:26 pm on 25th April 2022.

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Motion made, and Question proposed,

That—

if, at the conclusion of this Session of Parliament, proceedings on the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill have not been completed, they shall be resumed in the next Session; paragraphs (9) to (14) of Standing Order 80A shall have effect in relation to the Bill as if it had been ordered to be carried over to the next Session of Parliament in pursuance of a carry-over motion under paragraph (1) of that Standing Order, except that paragraph (13) shall have effect as if the period on the expiry of which proceedings on the Bill shall lapse is two years from the date of its first reading in this House.—(Michelle Donelan.)

Photo of Matt Western Matt Western Shadow Minister (Education) 8:27 pm, 25th April 2022

What a palaver! This is less a carry-over motion and more of a carry on, if I may say so—“Carry On Regardless” being probably the most apt title. Let us call it a year: it is 358 days since the Bill was introduced to the House. Announced in the last Queen’s Speech, the Second Reading was debated nine months ago and the Public Bill Committee concluded its work over seven months ago. Since then, nothing—so is there a problem? The lack of urgency suggests it is really not that important after all. Certainly, the Secretary of State has not mentioned it once in the Chamber since his appointment five months ago, and the legislation would certainly have no effect on cancel culture, according to lawyers, media commentators and the sector itself.

The Government now want another year to resolve their own problem—a problem of their making—which is more time that could be better used to address the immediate and pressing issues faced by the great British public, such as the cost of living crisis, the prospect of 40% of UK households being in energy poverty by the autumn and an economy performing worse than any other G7 country when compared with pre-pandemic levels. We will not vote against this motion, but the public will not forgive this out-of-touch Government, who fail to address their priorities.

Photo of Michelle Donelan Michelle Donelan Minister of State (Department for Education) (Higher and Further Education) 8:28 pm, 25th April 2022

Let me be crystal clear: the Government remain committed to delivering on our manifesto pledge by strengthening freedom of speech in higher education. We have not changed, and never will change, our position, because we recognise that free speech is the absolute cornerstone of democracy and a liberal society. Our universities should be centres of inquiry and intellectual debate, and places of new and independent thinking from which will grow the knowledge, learning and science that we need to tackle future global challenges. The reintroduction of the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill reaffirms our manifesto commitment, yet the Opposition’s position can be described only as perplexing. First they said that if such legislation were needed they would support it, but then they changed their position to say that the issue does not exist and they will not support the Bill. Now their position has become even more confusing.

Once again, the Opposition find themselves entirely out of step with the British people on a matter of fundamental importance. Their unwillingness to acknowledge that this is an issue has shown their contempt for the views of ordinary people, and their unwillingness to support a democratic legislative solution without an alternative plan —something that was very clear throughout Committee —shows that, as always, their cynical party politicking comes ahead of common sense. Even now they try to deflect by a ruse to suggest that our commitment to this issue has waned. This Bill will ensure that lawful free speech is supported to its full extent.

Question put and agreed to.