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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 Baroness Garden of Frognal Baroness Garden of Frognal Deputy Chairman of Committees 8:45 pm, 25th January 2017

My Lords, I added my name to the list, as the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, said, in the absence of my noble friend Lord Macdonald of River Glaven, who has overriding university commitments. He is a great expert in this area and has briefed me.

The application of Prevent to the university sector is different from its application to any other category of public body. In a university, the Prevent duty has the wholly unwanted effect of undermining an essential pillar of the very institution it is supposed to be protecting to the wider detriment of civil society. First, universities have a pre-existing statutory duty under Section 43 of the Education (No. 2) Act 1986,

“to ensure that freedom of speech within the law is secured for members, students and employees of the establishment and for visiting speakers”.

Secondly, because of the foundational importance of free expression to intellectual inquiry and therefore to the central purpose of a university, which cannot function in its absence, it cannot be appropriate, in the university context, to seek to ban speech that is otherwise perfectly lawful, as the Prevent duty requires it to do.

The Prevent duty requires universities to target lawful speech by demanding that universities target non-violent extremism, defined in the Prevent guidance as,

“vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs”.

If applied literally as a proscription tool in universities this definition would close down whole swathes of legitimate discourse conducted in terms that represent no breach whatever of the criminal law. It is very difficult to imagine any radicalising language that a university should appropriately ban that does not amount to criminal speech in its own right, such as an incitement to violence, or to racial or religious hatred and so on. These categories of unlawful speech should therefore be banned by university authorities to comply with pre-existing law. To do so is entirely consistent with free expression rights and academic freedom. But banning incitement speech is sufficient. Apart from anything else, it is this speech that is more genuinely “radicalising”. We do not need Prevent in universities to protect ourselves. We need just to apply the current criminal law on incitement.

In the university context, “radicalising” speech that is not otherwise criminal should be dealt with through exposure and counterargument. Universities should be places where young and not so young people can be exposed to views and ideas with which they disagree or find disturbing, unpleasant and even frightening, but be able to address them calmly, intellectually and safely. Freedom of speech should be an essential part of the university experience.