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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 Viscount Younger of Leckie Viscount Younger of Leckie Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), Lords Spokesperson (Department for Education) (Higher Education) 9:30 pm, 25th January 2017

My Lords, I thank all Peers for raising the important issues of freedom of speech and of unlawful speech in our higher education system during this short debate. I agree that free speech within the law is a value that is central to all our higher education institutions. Being exposed to a wide range of ideas and opinions and learning the skills to debate and challenge them effectively is key to the experience of being a student in the UK. My noble friend Lord Lucas put it well in his short intervention.

The existing duty requires certain higher education institutions to take reasonably practical steps to secure freedom of speech within the law for their members, students, employees and visiting speakers. The duty currently applies to a large number of providers, but not to all. Those subject to it already take this duty very seriously and we agree that it is absolutely right for them to do so. We are considering how to make sure that providers continue to be subject to this duty under the new definitions in this Bill. However, the requirement in the amendment changes the nature of the duty so that providers must ensure that staff, students and invited speakers are able to practise free speech in providers’ premises, forums and events.

It is not clear how this would interact with the existing freedom of speech duty and there is a real risk that it would introduce a lack of clarity in relation to that duty. So, while I am sympathetic to the intention, I fear that the word “ensure” unreasonably and unnecessarily imposes an additional and disproportionate burden on providers. To ensure that something happens, regardless of how reasonably practical it is, may well require them to address matters that are realistically outside their control and potentially override other important considerations, such as the security of attendees at a particular event.

Noble Lords will also want to note that students on the whole do not think there is a problem with free speech. A 2016 survey of over 1,000 full-time undergraduates at UK higher education institutions by the Higher Education Policy Institute found that 83% of students felt free to express their opinions and political views openly at university.

I turn to unlawful speech. There is no place whatever for hate speech, discrimination, intimidation or harassment against anyone, including on the basis of their race, religion, gender, sexuality or disability, and I am sure we all agree that there is no room for anyone who is trying to incite violence or support terrorism. This is why there is already a wide range of existing legislation in this area, including legislation which makes certain forms of behaviour and hate speech a criminal offence—laws which higher education staff, students and visiting speakers must comply with. They must also comply with laws against encouraging terrorism and inviting support for a proscribed terrorist organisation.

Most providers already have clear policies about discrimination, harassment and hate incidents. Providers subject to the Prevent duty are required to have due regard to the need to prevent people being drawn into terrorism, and as part of this to consider the impact of extremist speakers on campus. There are effective mechanisms for reporting hate speech and other incidents, such as through university procedures, directly to the police or to organisations including Community Security Trust and Tell MAMA.

We would not want to put in place a law that results in higher education providers being overly cautious and risk-averse to the extent that free speech is stifled. I am sure the noble Baroness would agree with me on the importance of exposing students to controversial and sometimes unpalatable opinions provided they are within the law. Therefore, I am happy to provide assurance to the Committee that we are considering how to make sure that higher education providers continue to be subject to the existing freedom of speech duty under the new definitions created by this Bill. For unlawful speech, I believe that working with the sector to implement existing legislation is the best way of protecting staff and students rather than the introduction of another law. With those explanations, I hope that the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw Amendment 468.