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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:00 pm on 25th January 2017.

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Photo of Baroness Hamwee Baroness Hamwee Liberal Democrat 9:00 pm, 25th January 2017

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, left the JCHR at the moment I arrived on it. I wanted to refer to its more recent report of July last year, following an inquiry into counterextremism in preparation for the Bill which we expected but which has not emerged, perhaps because of the difficulty in defining “nonviolent extremism”. I follow her in my thinking as well. We took evidence from a number of people, and in our report quoted Professor Louise Richardson from Oxford, who said:

“My position on this is that any effort to infringe freedom of expression should be exposed, whether it comes from what I take to be the well-intentioned but misguided Prevent counterterrorism policy or from student unions that do not want to hear views that they find objectionable. A university has to be a place where the right to express objectionable views is protected”.

We went on to report that our evidence suggested that it is important for universities to ensure that debate is possible. Our conclusion and recommendation in this part of the work was that:

“Any proposed legislation will have to tread carefully in an area where there is already considerable uncertainty. For example, in the university context, it is arguable whether the expression of certain views constitutes putting forward new ideas in the form of controversial and unpopular opinions, or whether it amounts to vocal and active opposition to the UK’s fundamental values. The potentially conflicting duties on universities to promote free speech, whilst precluding the expression of extremist views, is likely to continue to cause confusion. We believe that free speech is precious, particularly in universities, and should not be undermined”.

I accept that the context is slightly different from the objective of this amendment, but the points are important. The Government, in their response, said that,

“universities have to balance their duty to promote freedom of speech with their other legal responsibilities including equalities law, health and safety responsibilities … We recognise that balancing these responsibilities is not always an easy job and that there are difficult decisions to be taken”.

That entirely misses the point about freedom of speech. The Prevent strategy is discredited in so many eyes. What is most important is that it has lost confidence. As the noble Baroness has said, I wish that the Government would accept the need for an independent review—not its own internal, unpublished review—called for by such a variety of very authoritative people who should and do understand the importance of such a review.