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Higher Education and Research Bill - Committee (6th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:45 pm on 25th January 2017.

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Photo of Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Shadow Spokesperson (Education) 8:45 pm, 25th January 2017

My Lords, again, my noble friend Lord Dubs is not able to be present because he is attending another event, which I mentioned earlier. I am also aware that neither the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, nor the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald of River Glaven, can be here today, but I know that the noble Baroness, Lady Garden of Frognal, will make some remarks that will at least encompass those of the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald.

The amendment would disapply the statutory Prevent duty set in the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 in so far as it applies to higher education institutions. The reason for that is that we place a strong accent on—and we will discuss in a later group of amendments —the question of how and in what circumstances we can make higher education institutions, and in particular universities, centres in which the practice of freedom of speech and the prevention of unlawful speech are routine and built into their very fabric and operations.

When Parliament discussed the then Counter-Terrorism and Security Act Bill in 2015, there was considerable doubt about whether it should extend to universities because it imposed a duty on universities to have due regard to the need to prevent people being drawn into terrorism. It created a structure involving monitoring and enforcement of the Prevent duty and further mandated the co-operation of academic staff in the Channel referral process.

Accompanying government guidance has exacerbated concerns. While universities are not the only institutions affected by the statutory Prevent duty, the regulation of lawful speech and assembly in these institutions carries particular concern. Our higher education institutions, as I have said, should provide a space for the free and frank exchange of ideas. These ideas should be challenged through robust argument and not suppressed. The Joint Committee on Human Rights concluded, as part of its legislative scrutiny of the 2015 Act, that, because of the importance of freedom of speech and academic freedom in the context of university education, the entire framework that rests on the new Prevent duty is simply not appropriate for application to universities.

Having said that, university staff are bound by the law, including the requirement to disclose information to the police when they know or believe it could assist in the prevention of acts of terrorism. The removal of the statutory Prevent duty in universities would not remove the responsibility of staff and institutions to co-operate with police to tackle suspected criminality. The amendment would remove a heavy-handed structure designed to restrict lawful speech. Suppressing unpleasant or offensive views is not only illiberal, it is often counterproductive and risks pushing ideas into the shadows where they are less likely to be effectively challenged. I beg to move.