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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 Deech Baroness Deech Crossbench 8:45 pm, 25th January 2017

My Lords, I regret that I have to challenge the view that has been put forward by Members here whose views in general I respect greatly, but I pin my remarks to a phrase used by the noble Lord, Lord Patten, just moments ago. He said that students come from overseas to this country for a great education in a liberal, plural society. Unfortunately, great damage is being done to precisely that concept. In no way would I dissent from a view expressed that freedom of speech within the law must be allowed. Non-lawful speech—and there are lots of statutes, whether you like it or not, that make speech illegal—should not be allowed, but the universities are not doing their duty.

I shall give a few examples. Jihadi John was a university graduate; Michael AdebolajoLee Rigby’s murderer—was at the University of Greenwich; the underpants bomber, Abdulmutallab, was at UCL. There are numerous other examples of killers who were radicalised at university right here. That is because, although the Prevent duty guidance requires such speech that we disapprove of to be balanced, this is not happening. Speakers are turning up and giving speeches to audiences that are not allowed to challenge them. At best, they can only write down their questions. There are tens of such visiting speakers every year—there are organisations that keep tabs. Just over a year ago, at London South Bank University, a speaker claimed that Muslim women are not allowed to marry Kafir and that apostates should be killed. A speaker at Kingston University declared homosexuality as unnatural and harmful, and another—a student—claimed that the Government were seeking to engineer a government-sanctioned Islam and that the security services were harassing Muslims, using Jihadi John and Michael Adebolajo as examples. The problem is not only coming from that area; it is the English Defence League turning up to present its unpalatable views too.

It is incomprehensible to me that the National Union of Students opposes the Prevent policy and has an organised campaign to call it racist—a “spying” policy and an inhibitor of freedom of speech. These are the same students and lecturers—the ones who oppose Prevent—who have been supine in the face of student censorship and the visits of extremist speakers and who will not allow, for example, Germaine Greer or Peter Tatchell to speak, but sit back and do nothing when speakers turn up who say that homosexuals should be killed.

The Home Affairs Select Committee and the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism have identified universities as vulnerable sectors for this sort of thing. Universities are targeted by extremist activists from Islamist and far-right groups. Very often they are preaching against women’s rights and gay people’s rights, and suggest that there is a western war on Islam. They express extreme intolerance—even death—for non-believers, and place religious law above democracy.

Some misguided student unions and the pro-terrorist lobby group CAGE are uniting to silence criticism of their illegal activities. There is no evidence of lecturers spying on students or gathering intelligence on people not committing terrorist offences. Students are conspiring to undermine the policy; they ignore its application to far-right extremists, just as to far left, if there is a difference, and spread the misunderstanding that it targets political radicalism.

The Prevent guidance is necessary, but needs to be limited to non-lawful speech, which is a very wide concept and of course includes the counterterrorism Act, but I would not suggest for a moment that now is the time to lift it, especially when in its most recent report HEFCE claimed that more and more universities —though not all of them—were getting to grips with and applying the Prevent guidance in a reasonable way. I therefore oppose the amendment.