Amendment 70

Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill - Committee (3rd Day) – in the House of Lords at 7:00 pm on 14th November 2022.

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Moved by Lord Collins of Highbury

70: After Clause 11, insert the following new Clause—“Expiry(1) This Act expires at the end of the period of three years beginning with the day on which it is passed, subject to subsection (4).(2) A Minister of the Crown may by regulations made by statutory instrument repeal any of the provisions of this Act after one year from the day on which it is passed if the Minister is not satisfied that the provision is working as intended.(3) Before the end of the period of three years beginning with the day on which this Act is passed a Minister of the Crown must lay before Parliament a written report on the effectiveness of the provisions of the Act.(4) A Minister of the Crown may by regulations made by statutory instrument—(a) provide that this Act does not expire in accordance with subsection (1), in full or in part, subject to approval by resolution of both Houses of Parliament, or(b) make transitional, transitory or saving provision in connection with the expiry of any provision of this Act.(5) A statutory instrument containing regulations under this section may not be made unless a draft of the instrument has been laid before and approved by a resolution of each House of Parliament.”

Photo of Lord Collins of Highbury Lord Collins of Highbury Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and International Development), Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, it is appropriate that the last amendment of the day should be considered as a sunset clause. Amendment 70 would introduce a sunset clause, ensuring that it expired after three years and providing for clauses to be removed if they are not working. I stress that the purpose of this amendment is not to deny the importance of freedom of speech, academic freedom or even whether the Bill is necessary; it is to give the Government the opportunity to gather more evidence on whether the Bill is necessary and whether its provisions are fit for purpose.

Unfortunately, in the debates we have heard—not only today, but throughout Committee—a number of noble Lords expressing opinions about whether the Bill is really necessary. The Bill is there and the Government will pursue it, but I want to give all those noble Lords who have some concerns about it—and particularly about the evidence on which it is based—the opportunity to support this amendment so that, with the support of the academic institutions themselves, we can review the practical elements of the legislation and see how well it is working. This will give the Government the opportunity to have second thoughts, even after the Bill passes all its stages.

I hope that the Minister will give it some consideration; I suspect that she will not. The noble Earl, Lord Howe, said at the beginning that he has been in listening mode. The important thing is that we are at one on the importance of academic freedom and freedom of speech. We are concerned about some of the unintended consequences of the Bill and how they may actually have the reverse impact. This is why something like a sunset clause may be necessary, so that we do not bake into statute something that will end up denying freedom of speech rather than supporting it. I hope that noble Lords will give due consideration to this. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Green

I will speak briefly to Amendment 70 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Collins of Highbury, who has just introduced it very clearly, and to which I attached my name. In doing so, I am prompted to declare an interest. The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, made a declaration of interest that made me wonder whether I should do the same, so I will take this last possible opportunity to declare that I receive support from King’s College London in the form of an intern—I now have a second excellent intern. I am not sure why that should be declared, but it is now on the record.

The noble Lord, Lord Collins, set out the case for the amendment very clearly. Like many speakers today, I remain convinced that it would be better not to have this Bill at all. But given that we have it, to add a sunset clause—a checkpoint written in the Bill to see what is happening—is unarguably a good idea. To stress the point that this is not a party-political matter but purely a practical, sensible and helpful suggestion to the Government, I will quote the noble Lord, Lord Grabiner, from earlier in this debate:

“Often, the legal process, especially a new-fangled one, confuses and undermines well-intentioned purposes. It is also often the case that the introduction of lawyers and the courts merely fuels increased tension.”

There have been huge concerns expressed around this point about the Bill. This amendment is just a simple and practical measure to say, “Let’s have a checkpoint. Let’s not have another version of the Dangerous Dogs Act; let’s make sure we’re not making things worse by adding this simple provision, Amendment 70.”

Photo of Baroness Smith of Newnham Baroness Smith of Newnham Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Defence), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Defence)

My Lords, a sunset clause seems to be eminently sensible in a Bill that seems to have so little support. I also note that in proposed new subsection (4) in the amendment, there is actually an opportunity for the Government to offset the sunset aspect of the clause, should they feel that the legislation is going well,

“subject to approval by resolution of both Houses of Parliament”.

This would mean that the legislature can keep its rightful place, even while we allow the Government to go ahead with this legislation, about which we are not entirely convinced.

Photo of Lord Adonis Lord Adonis Labour

My Lords, if I followed the earlier debate correctly, we have now had six months without a free speech director. I believe that that is correct, based on my noble friend’s earlier amendment probing when the appointment was going to be made. If it were so vitally important that this legislation was on the statute book because there was an imminent danger to freedom of speech, presumably the free speech director would have been appointed by now.

In my experience, it is a golden rule of public appointments that those who are most important are filled immediately—for example, we would not be without a Prime Minister for six months because the country would not be run. However, it does not appear that freedom of speech in universities has been imminently threatened and undermined by the fact that there has not been this rather Orwellian-sounding and very un-Tory-sounding person—a free speech director; somebody from the centre who will decree that free speech shall prevail—in post.

If the sunset clause does come in, as my noble friend is suggesting, it may be that, by the end of it, we will still not have a free speech director, and so we will not have seen whether these vital provisions will underpin freedom of speech in our campuses up and down the land. Since this appears to be largely a Bill in search of a problem, removing it from the statute book at the earliest possible opportunity—maybe even before the Orwellian free speech director has been appointed—would seem to be a thoroughly worthwhile development. Since, by then, there could be a Labour Government in office—I imagine that the Tories would be very wary of a free speech director appointed by a Government opposed to them, who could have all kinds of secret agendas—this could be in their interests too.

The Minister may have a wonderful opportunity here to avoid implementing legislation which the Government themselves do not appear to be very keen to implement at the moment—given that they still have not appointed a key officeholder under it—and to prevent it being misused by their political opponents.

Photo of Lord Deben Lord Deben Conservative

The noble Lord, Lord Adonis, is always a pleasure to listen to.

As a matter of fact, I am not in favour of this amendment, but I want to ask the Minister a question. One of the reasons I raised the question earlier about public appointments is that the period of time it takes to make any appointment is becoming a scandal. I am still waiting for two appointments to the Climate Change Committee. The meetings of the chairmen of all the organisations always say that they are fed up with trying to run committees in which there are no members because the system takes so long.

Could I have the assurance of the Minister that, under this Bill, an appointment will be made, and made quickly? Will she say to the Government as a whole that, until the system works quickly, we will go on complaining about it? It is not reasonable to have so long a gap. It is not that, for some reason or another, this is not an important appointment—I think that there is a lot to be said for it—but that this problem is true right across the board. The time waiting for appointments gets longer and longer, and the process gets stuck more often than it should.

Photo of Baroness Barran Baroness Barran The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

My Lords, the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Collins, also in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, would make the Bill subject to a sunset clause, with the Act to expire three years after the date of enactment, unless a report is made to Parliament and regulations are made to renew the Act. It would also allow Ministers to remove provisions of the Bill one year after enactment if they were not working as intended.

My noble friend Lord Deben shared his concerns about the speed of the appointment process. Sadly, I do not possess a magic wand in relation to Defra appointments, but I shall share his concerns with my noble friends in that department. I also take his serious point that, as someone once said, sometimes when it is slow it is because it is being carefully considered, and sometimes it is just slow. We shall leave it to your Lordships to judge.

We do not think it would be right or appropriate to include a sunset clause in the Bill. Equally, it would not be right to allow Ministers to remove provisions by way of regulations after only one year, when Parliament has only recently approved the Act and there will not have been enough time for the Act to bed in. I should note in this context that it will take time to implement the new statutory regime, with a need to make a number of sets of regulations; to appoint the new director for freedom of speech and academic freedom, as the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, reminded us; to draft guidance; to draft and consult on changes to the regulatory framework; and to set up the new complaints scheme. One year would certainly be insufficient to see the effect of the Bill on the ground. A sunset clause for a whole Act would be very unusual, and we see no reason why this Bill should be treated differently from other pieces of primary legislation.

Photo of Lord Collins of Highbury Lord Collins of Highbury Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and International Development), Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

I thank the Minister for her response. I am glad that my amendment has at least given the noble Lord, Lord Deben, the opportunity to be supportive of the Government on this occasion.

Just to pick up on some of the points that have been made, from what the Minister said, it sounds as though, if the appointments process for the director for freedom of speech is anything to go by, it will be at least three years before we see this legislation actually being implemented—and who knows what will have happened in three years’ time?

The important thing that I wanted to stress in moving this amendment is how important evidence-based legislation is. Certainly, a lot of concern has been expressed throughout Committee about the lack of evidence on some of these points. However, I hear what the Minister says, and I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Deben, has been able to make that contribution at long last. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 70 withdrawn.

Schedule: Minor and consequential amendments

Amendment 71 not moved.

Schedule agreed.

Clauses 12 to 14 agreed.

House resumed.

Bill reported without amendment.

Sitting suspended.