Universities: Anti-Semitism

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:17 pm on 12th June 2007.

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Photo of Lord Adonis Lord Adonis Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Schools), Department for Education and Skills, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Schools) 8:17 pm, 12th June 2007

My Lords, the House is grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, for raising this important issue, and to the large number of other speakers in this short debate. On the issue of the threatened boycott of Israeli universities, let me say this. The Government unequivocally deplore any proposed boycott. Not only is a boycott wrong in principle, undermining the integrity of relations between bona fide centres of learning, but in practice its only likely effects would be to weaken the progressive forces within both Israel and the Palestinian Occupied Territories.

My honourable friend the Minister for Higher Education visited Israel over the weekend and made clear our explicit opposition to a boycott. He had meetings with, among others, Mrs Livni, Vice Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, and Yuli Tamir, the Minister of Education. He also visited the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he met academics and students, and the Palestinian Al Quds University in East Jerusalem, where he had discussions with senior Palestinian academics. In statements that were prominently publicised in the Israeli media, my honourable friend made clear that the Government were strongly opposed to an academic boycott. Not only would a boycott be inconsistent with the spirit of openness and tolerance that should inform public life, it would also be counter-productive. Education plays a vital role in developing and aiding understanding between different people, and it is therefore all the more important to keep open channels of communication between academics and education institutions in the Middle East during these difficult times.

My honourable friend went on to make it clear that, in our view, the majority of academics in this country were opposed to any form of boycott, and that the National Union of Students had condemned calls for a boycott in very strenuous terms. My honourable friend was accompanied by Drummond Bone, president of Universities UK and vice-chancellor of Liverpool University, who made clear the opposition of universities to a boycott and the collective determination of universities in this country to work constructively with Israeli and Palestinian academics. My honourable friend also announced our intention to host a seminar in London involving UK, Israeli and Palestinian academics, and we will be developing the programme for this event over the coming weeks.

Let me now turn to the wider issues raised by the report of the All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into anti-Semitism. The Government's view on this is equally unequivocal: we are appalled that a tiny minority of people in our society feel they can physically harm or threaten others, due either to race hatred or perhaps to a misguided view that individuals here share responsibility for the actions of groups or states abroad. The recommendations in the report are addressed primarily to vice-chancellors and others in the higher education sector in recognition of the fact that our higher education institutions are independent. However, the Government have a responsibility to encourage and to support higher education institutions in making clear that racism and discrimination have no place whatever in higher education, and we will discharge that responsibility at every available opportunity, including this debate today.

Britain has in place one of the strongest legislative frameworks to protect people from harassment and abuse and, specifically, racial or religious persecution. This legislation protects Jewish people alongside other racial and ethnic groups. The Race Relations Act 1976 imposes on public authorities, including higher education institutions, a positive duty to eliminate unlawful racial discrimination, to promote race equality and to promote good relations between different racial groups. Public institutions also have specific duties under the Act which are designed to help them meet these requirements, for example, the gathering of ethnic minority monitoring data and assessing the impact of the institution's policies on different racial groups. This enables higher education institutions to challenge and prevent racism and discrimination, to promote good relations and to create a climate which values diversity and respects difference.

Part III of the Public Order Act 1986 also makes incitement to racial hatred a crime. It is an offence to use threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour with the intention or likelihood that racial hatred would be engendered and, as the House will know, Jews have been included as a group under this legislation, along with Sikhs, by the courts. The Government extended the 1986 legislation in 2001 to include incitement of hatred against groups abroad, so hatred of nationalities cannot be used to hide racial hatred. It is therefore unlawful to incite hatred against Israelis however strong one's condemnation of their Government's actions and policies. The Act was further strengthened by the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006.

The Crime and Disorder Act 1998, which introduced specific racially aggravated offences, also acts as a deterrent against hate crimes. The Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003 and the Equality Act 2006 also outlaw discrimination on grounds of religion and belief.

From the summary of the relevant legislation, I hope that I have made sufficiently clear to the House that we have strong legislation in place which empowers higher education institutions to tackle anti-Semitism on campus. I would like to be equally clear on this basis: the Government are not seeking to further regulate universities in this area. We look to universities to act responsibly, and indeed they are doing so.

But, of course, addressing anti-Semitism and other forms of racism is not only about the law. The policies that universities have in place and how those policies are implemented on campus are all important. There are very many examples of good practice I could highlight in addition to those mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, and others. For example, the Institute of Cancer Research is implementing a system of recording racist and other equality-related incidents called the equality-related incident log. The log will allow the institute to monitor incidents, identify trends and deal with the activity noted.

There are also excellent examples of creating shared spaces through multi-faith centres and dialogue groups to help build constructive relations between different groups on campus. The University of Derby's well established multi-faith centre has promoted cohesion through a number of specific events; the University of Glasgow recently established a new inter-faith facility on site; and a Jewish and a Muslim student at Manchester University have set up a dialogue group to enable open discussions between Jewish and Muslim students on a range of topics, including political issues. These are just a few examples of universities acting in partnership with students and other bodies to promote harmonious relationships.

Nevertheless, it is widely acknowledged, not least by universities themselves, that there is bad and inconsistent practice alongside this good practice. As my noble friend Lady Warwick said in her capacity as president of Universities UK, Universities UK is due to meet the all-party parliamentary group to discuss existing activity and the recommendations in the reports. In 2005, guidance was issued by the higher education representative bodies and their equality challenge units on promoting good campus relations dealing with hate crime and intolerance. This guidance provides practical strategies to deal with instances of hate crime and intolerance. It also discusses the balance needed between academic freedom and freedom of expression and the need to ensure that these are not used to harm or to restrict the freedom of others. This guidance is already being widely used and it will be updated in June.

Universities UK, with the Association of Managers of Student Services in Higher Education, will be hosting a conference that will explore tackling discrimination on campus, including anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, as well as institutional approaches to good campus relations. My department has also acted in this area. We published guidance last November for higher education institutions and colleges to help them deal with extremism in the name of Islam and to help build community cohesion. The guidance is intended to ensure that freedom of speech is not used by those wanting to bully others, incite others to violence or encourage other illegal behaviour on our campuses.

I will reply to the many other points in writing because my time is up. I conclude by noting that there is significant action in train to address anti-Semitism in universities, and the Government will continue to treat the issues raised in the all-party inquiry into anti-Semitism with the utmost seriousness.