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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:30 pm on 25th January 2017.

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Photo of Baroness Deech Baroness Deech Crossbench 9:30 pm, 25th January 2017

My Lords, I have spoken many times before about freedom of speech. I want to link together the Prevent guidance amendment, this amendment and Amendment 469. In my view they stand and fall together because they are trying to demarcate the line between lawful and unlawful freedom of speech. That is all that matters, including in the Prevent guidance.

People often see freedom of speech as too broad and as encompassing everything, but it is always within the law. I anticipate that in response the Government will say that freedom of speech is already guaranteed. However, Section 43 of the Education (No. 2) Act 1986 is too narrow. It is treated as limited to meetings and to the refusal of the use of premises to persons with unpopular beliefs. Universities have not handled this well. They have wrongly refrained from securing freedom of speech where student unions are involved, on the grounds that the unions are autonomous. That is not the case under charity law, nor does it fit with the universities’ own public sector equality duty. Moreover, Section 43(8) of that same Act expressly includes student unions. Universities have treated their duty as fulfilled if they have a code of practice concerning freedom of speech.

However, the practice of censorship is spreading, both by universities and by student unions. As I have explained before to this House, many explicit restrictions on speech are now extant, including bans on specific ideologies, behaviours, political affiliations, books, speakers and words. Students even get expelled for having controversial views. The National Union of Students has a safe-space policy and brands certain beliefs as dangerous and to be repressed, without regard to what is legal or illegal. The academic boycott of Israel-related activities is illegal as it discriminates against people on the grounds of their nationality and religion, and is contrary to the “universality of science” principle. Indeed, in this era of Brexit we should point out that attempts to put barriers in the way of exchange between scientists and other academics, inside or outside the EU, who wish to collaborate in research and conferences conflict with the principle of the universality of science, and it would be the same if other European states put barriers in the way of UK researchers. A recent bad example of behaviour is the LSE, which silenced a lecture by its own lecturer Dr Perkins because of his unpopular views on unemployment.

Freedom of speech in the UK is limited. I will not give noble Lords the whole list of measures; I shall name just a few. It is limited by the prohibition of race hatred in the Public Order Act 1986, the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, the Equality Act 2010, and the Charities Act 2006 as it applies to student unions, defamation, the encouragement of terrorism and incitement to violence. There is a great deal of law for universities to take on board in permitting lawful freedom of speech in any case.

We need a new clause to go beyond meetings and make all this clear. Students have been closing down free speech and universities have neither intervened, nor protected it, nor taken action when it is lawful— or unlawful. We all recall when the Nobel laureate, Sir Tim Hunt, was hounded out of University College London. Section 43 was irrelevant, because his tasteless joke was made abroad. Universities are not taking up training offers about freedom of speech—what is lawful and what is unlawful. This amendment would ensure that lecturers and university authorities took cognisance of the law, got training in it and ceased to treat student unions as autonomous. They should know that they have a duty to promote good relations between different groups on campus under the Equality Act. I wish this amendment were not necessary, but it is.