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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 Lister of Burtersett Baroness Lister of Burtersett Labour 8:45 pm, 25th January 2017

My Lords, I support the amendment. The noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, asked me to pass on her apologies, because she had another engagement and could not stay for the debate. During Committee on the then Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill, I moved a number of amendments on behalf of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, two of which would have excluded higher education institutions from the statutory Prevent duty. I thought it worth reminding noble Lords of the debates that we had then. I was a member of the JCHR at the time. The amendment stemmed from the JCHR’s conclusion—my noble friend Lord Stevenson has already quoted it, but it bears repetition—that,

“because of the importance of freedom of speech and academic freedom in the context of university education, the entire legal framework which rests on the new ‘prevent’ duty is not appropriate for application to universities”.

The JCHR warned that terms such as “non-violent extremism” or views “conducive to terrorism” are not capable of being defined with sufficient precision to enable universities to know with sufficient certainty whether they risk being found in breach of the new duty, and feared that this would have a seriously inhibiting effect on bona fide academic debate in universities. We have heard some of the problems with trying to define that in the guidance.

At Report, I summed up the mood in Committee, saying:

“In Committee, the consensus in favour of amending this part of the Bill was striking. Noble Lords did not consider that the Government had made a persuasive case for putting a statutory duty on higher education institutions—moving ‘from co-operation to co-option’, as the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, put it”— and we miss her wise counsel. I continued:

“Where was the evidence base? Until the evidence for the necessity of such a statutory duty is marshalled, to use the Minister’s phrase, it is not possible to assess it. Concerns were raised on grounds of both practice and principle. Warnings were given on unintended consequences and counterproductive effects, including the erosion of trust between staff and students, which could undermine any attempts to engage with students who might be tempted down the road towards terrorism. I do not think that anyone was reassured by ministerial assertions that academic freedom and freedom of speech would not be endangered. Indeed, I think that it is fair to say that the majority of those who spoke were in favour of the total exclusion of the HE sector”.—[Official Report, 4/2/15; cols. 679-80.]

I did not pursue that amendment on exclusion of the sector and focused instead on ensuring that there was a proper duty to protect freedom of speech and academic freedom, but it is clear that, despite what has just been said, the application of the Prevent duty to universities continued to cause real concern.

I continue to oppose the application of the duty to universities, because I believe that the concerns raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, are better addressed through appropriate laws, not through the Prevent duty. I support the amendment, but I also support wider calls for an independent review of the Prevent duty being made by the Joint Committee on Human Rights and more recently by the Home Affairs Select Committee and David Anderson QC in his role as reviewer of terrorist legislation. There are concerns, and that would be an appropriate way to consider them, both in the context of universities and more widely.