Higher Education and Research Bill - Report (3rd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:00 pm on 13th March 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) 7:00 pm, 13th March 2017

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, and noble Lords for this valuable opportunity to discuss freedom of speech further. As the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, and the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, said, we all recognise that it is a crucial principle at the heart of higher education. I am particularly grateful for the meetings and discussions I have had with the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, my noble friend Lord Polak and Sir Eric Pickles, who have encouraged us to consider even more closely the responsibilities that universities must have, including in relation to their students’ unions.

In response, the Minister for Universities and Science will be writing to the higher education sector shortly, highlighting the importance of the freedom of speech duty and reminding universities of their responsibilities in this respect. The letter will focus particularly on students’ unions—and all students—and will reiterate how freedom of speech codes of practice should be enforced. It will also emphasise the importance and expectation of rapid resolution of any freedom of speech issues. I hope that that reassures the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, that speed is of the essence, as she made clear in the meetings we had.

The existing freedom of speech duty requires all those concerned in the government of certain higher education establishments to take such steps as are reasonably practicable to ensure that freedom of speech within the law is secured for members, students, employees and visiting speakers. This includes an express duty to ensure, so far as reasonably practicable, that the use of any of the provider’s premises are not denied to anyone on the grounds of their beliefs, views, policy or objectives. In order to help staff, students and visitors understand their obligations, providers within scope must also have in place an active code of practice. This must explain how they should approach events on any of their premises, and the conduct expected of them.

I stress that students’ unions also have a role to play in this. The same duty requires that student members of a students’ union be subject to the code of practice issued by their higher education establishment. Students’ unions established at higher education institutions are typically charities, and the Charity Commission has a statutory function to identify and investigate mismanagement and misconduct in the management and administration of charities. In addition, the freedom of speech duty clearly applies to premises that are occupied by students’ unions, whether or not they are premises of the higher education establishment. I hope that provides clarity on another point the noble Baroness raised.

I completely agree with noble Lords that legal duties and codes of practice take us only so far. We fully expect providers not only to have robust codes of practice in place but to take reasonably practicable steps to ensure that they are adhered to. This includes taking disciplinary action where appropriate. In the occasional case where the duty is not complied with, legal proceedings have been brought against providers. In a recent case, the judge found that freedom of expression was alive and well in the university involved.

As part of its monitoring of the Prevent duty, HEFCE found that higher education providers showed a strong understanding of their responsibilities concerning freedom of speech and 93% had already put in place strong policies for assessing and managing the risks associated with any speaker event. We want to ensure that all relevant providers now do this. Therefore, for those that have not yet met this standard, action plans are in place for outstanding issues to be resolved by spring of this year. More generally, HEFCE regularly engages with higher education institutions, both informally and formally, in relation to balancing free speech with Prevent. While I understand the reasons for the noble Baroness’s amendment, unfortunately it is not clear how this additional duty would interact with the existing duty. We believe there is a genuine danger that in practice it would introduce ambiguity in relation to both duties.

However, I fear that to ensure that something happens without reasonable caveats unreasonably and unnecessarily imposes a burden on providers. It may well require them to address matters that are realistically out of their control. For example, it could result in an institution that faced concerns about violence at an event therefore being mandated to spend unreasonably large amounts of money on a significant security presence. Forcing such an event to unreasonably go ahead, or creating a situation where the duty to ensure freedom of speech may override concerns about the security of attendees, cannot be the desired effect. We need to allow institutions to make their own decisions, balancing the requirements of the duty against other responsibilities and enabling them to assess each individual case according to the situation.

We must also not overlook the fact that students, on the whole, do not think there is a problem with free speech. A 2016 survey by the Higher Education Policy Institute of over 1,000 full-time undergraduates at UK higher education institutions found that 83% of students felt free to express their opinions and political views openly at university. Noble Lords will also be reassured that Clause 15 enables the OfS to impose a public interest governance condition on registered providers. Such a condition would require applicable providers to ensure that their governing documents are consistent with a set of public interest principles relating to governance. The OfS will determine the list of principles following consultation. While we cannot prejudge that consultation, a principle underscoring the importance of free speech could be included in the list if the OfS considered it appropriate in light of the consultation.

In Committee I assured noble Lords that we would consider 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 the Bill. We have now considered this and we propose to extend the vital freedom of speech duty to all registered higher education providers under the Bill. This extends the duty beyond its current application of providers that broadly are eligible to receive HEFCE funding. It means that all providers on the OfS register will need to take reasonably practicable steps to ensure that freedom of speech is secured, to issue a freedom of speech code of conduct, and to ensure that it is complied with. We consider that this duty is comprehensive and strikes the right balance between ensuring that the higher education sector remains a vital place for debate and discussion and ensuring that providers are not burdened by a disproportionate and ambiguous requirement. The duty is just as relevant today as it was at its inception more than 30 years ago.

Freedom of speech is vital but must always be within the law. We all stand against illegal hate speech, discrimination, intimidation or harassment against anyone, including on the basis of their race, religion, gender, sexuality or disability. I am sure we all agree that there is no place for anyone who is trying to incite violence or support terrorism. In addition to legislation, there are effective mechanisms for reporting hate speech and other incidents; for example, through university internal complaints procedures, to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator, directly to the police, or to organisations including the Community Security Trust, Tell MAMA and the Equality and Human Rights Commission. Most providers already have clear policies on discrimination, harassment and hate incidents. Providers subject to the Prevent duty are also 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.

Despite the good intentions of this amendment, its introduction adds little to existing legislation and risks confusion in relation to freedom to speech. It is not clear what measures would be required to prevent speech in advance of it happening. Unfortunately, this could lead to providers being too risk averse, with the unacceptable consequence that lawful free speech could be stifled. We believe that government Amendment 204, extending the existing freedom of speech duty to all registered higher education providers, strikes the right balance by requiring providers to do all they can to protect free speech. For unlawful speech, the answer is to continue to work with the sector to implement existing laws instead of creating new legislation. I hope that, with that explanation, the noble Baroness will see fit to withdraw her amendment.