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 Baroness Deech Baroness Deech Crossbench 7:00 pm, 13th March 2017

My Lords, I greatly appreciate the Government’s involvement in this topic. I support Amendment 204 and am very pleased to see that the Government wish to extend the width of the freedom of speech duty. I appreciate the fact that the Minister has listened, as has his counterpart in the other place. They have taken this topic seriously—indeed, no Government could possibly reject the notion of freedom of speech while passing a higher education Bill.

What I would hope to see in correspondence between the Government and the universities in the next few days or weeks before we come to Third Reading is a clear explanation that students, individually and in their unions, are covered wherever they may speak or block speech, both on university premises and off them. I would hope to see provisions for prompt enforcement. We are all well aware of how brief the university year is: if you are a student, you can commit an offence in April and by June you are history and the university no longer has any control over you and you may well get away with it. I also hope that the letter would support the matter that the Minister mentioned: what could be more simple than to include a freedom of speech condition in the governance conditions to be set down by the OfS? It would be excellent if those conditions were set out and sent to universities.

I have some slight caveats. First, a recent letter from the Minister in the other place disseminating the definition of antisemitism, which I believe was also signed by the noble Viscount, Lord Younger, has been ignored and rejected by one of the places that most needed to hear it—namely, the School of Oriental and African Studies. Secondly, we have had provisions about freedom of speech on our statute book for 30 years, yet some universities have still not implemented them or do not know how to. I know for sure that one of them had never heard of them until 2011. Thirdly, it would be a pity if violence is still allowed to close down free speech. I would not wish to see, as I am sure noble Lords would not wish to see, a situation whereby the threat of violence prevents lawful speech and the university says that it simply cannot afford to police it. An atmosphere has to be created in universities and, I am afraid, security put in place so that violence does not close down free speech—whether that is in the university or anywhere else in society. If those conditions are met, as I hope they will be before Third Reading, then I will be content to withdraw the amendment now while reserving my right to revert to this topic.

Amendment 152 withdrawn.

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