Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill - Report – in the House of Lords at 5:00 pm on 7th December 2022.
Moved by Lord Hunt of Kings Heath
11: Clause 1, page 3, line 13, after “activity,” insert “including measures to be taken to ensure that a person is not prevented from speaking by attempts to drown out or silence a speaker,”Member’s explanatory statementThis amendment, which relates to the code of practice to be maintained by governing bodies, is designed to ensure that in their duty to take steps to secure freedom of speech the code of practice must cover measures to be taken to ensure that a person is not prevented from speaking by attempts to drown out or silence a speaker.
My Lords, I will move Amendment 11 and speak to Amendments 15 and 25, alongside my noble friend Baroness Morris. I also want to speak in support of Amendment 16, being moved by my noble friend Lord Collins. We will shortly come to a very important debate on Clause 4. It seems to me, whatever the outcome of that debate, that at the end of the day and at the heart of the Bill, we are trying to encourage behaviour in our universities which will ensure the freedom of speech that noble Lords have spoken about. I think that it is the codes of practice that will have a pivotal role in ensuring that, backed up by whatever sanctions we eventually decide are necessary, whether we have Clause 4 or not.
I will focus on the codes of practice that each university—and each student union—has to agree to. The OfS is enabled to ensure that those codes of practice are acceptable within the terms of its overseeing of university registration and that they are appropriate to each student union as well. The OfS has a responsibility in the Bill—I think it is a very good responsibility—to publish good-practice advice. I see this as a wholly constructive approach, encouraging the best behaviour you can expect within those institutions.
The concern that my noble friend and I raised in Committee was the extent to which academics and speakers can expect protection in the face of action that is designed to intimidate them and prevent them speaking. We know from the experience of a number of academics—in particular women academics—that such intimidatory action can take the form of open letters demanding that an academic be sacked, vexatious complaints, petitions to publishers demanding that work be withdrawn, campaigns of defamation, smears, demands to prevent an academic being platformed, attempts to prevent events going ahead by threatening trouble if they do, and disrupting events that do go ahead. As I said, the targets of these tactics typically are women academics.
I say to the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, whom I respect enormously, “Where have you been?”, when there has been such trouble for some academics on many of our campuses. We cannot sweep that under the carpet; it is a reality. Professor Kathleen Stock suffered horrific abuse and her university completely failed to defend her until almost the last moment. That was a graphic demonstration of why this legislation in the end is required.
I was very grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Howe, for meeting us to discuss this. What he essentially said, if I may paraphrase it, is that the Bill will protect the right of speakers to put forward controversial or unpopular ideas, and that it will also protect the right of those who do not agree with them to speak up. I absolutely agree with that. But it should not mean that higher education institutes should simply stand passively by while, for instance, hecklers attempt to disrupt planned events that are lawful.
I have seen it argued that such attempts to silence speakers are themselves a form of free speech. But I think that that confuses the right to protest with the right to silence others. Speech that is intended merely to silence the speech of others, far from contributing to knowledge and learning, surely narrows the scope of the educational sphere.
The amendments we have put forward try to make it explicit that the codes of practice of universities and student unions must cover the measures that must be taken to ensure that a person is not prevented from speaking by attempts to drown them out or silence them. They have become known as the “hecklers’ amendments”.
I would like some assurance from the noble Earl that the OfS in its responsibility for the continued registration of universities and in its oversight and monitoring of student unions will give its attention to this matter and that it understands that the issue will be very important to the success of the Bill. I beg to move.
My Lords, I rise briefly to support this amendment, to which I have added my name. I will try not to repeat everything that my noble friend Lord Hunt said but will emphasise some of his points.
I too was grateful for the meeting with the Minister. It was very helpful, and I think there was a great understanding of our view and of the problems the Government are having with putting this into legislation. I completely accept that the law has to protect both those who wish to express a view and those who wish to express a contrary view. In some ways, as my noble friend said, this is a “hecklers’ amendment”, but we are old enough both to have done some heckling and to have been the subject of heckling in past years. However, most of the time I was heckling or being heckled, it was not with the intent of stopping somebody else being heard; that is the crucial point.
Universities should be places where there is freedom to put forward a view and freedom to oppose it. I would never want a law of silence, where somebody’s view has to be listened to in silence. If there is an intention to make sure that the opposite point of view, which is legally held, is not heard, that is not the purpose of universities in this country. It never has been and it never should be. There are too many examples of that border being crossed.
Professor Stock has received a lot of publicity and rightly so—she felt obliged to lose her job. However, I have worked with academics who express an interest in sex and gender, and maintain the view that sex is a biological thing and that that should govern the law, and their lives have been made a misery. It is a long time since I have been to a university and talked to academics expressing that view when they have not told stories about it being miserable to be an academic because there is not the environment in which they can openly express their views. They are not people who want to impose an alternative point of view; the idea of putting forward a view is to engage in debate, not to make others say, “Yes, you’re right. Let’s move on.” Engaging in debate is at threat.
I can see that it is difficult to put that into law. It would be impossible; we would be here all day. I hope that putting this into the code of practice gives a clear message to the leaders of our universities that they have to take action, because, quite frankly, some vice-chancellors have not been doing their job on this. They have hidden quietly for too long and not stood up to protect their academic colleagues when they should have done. If that message can go forward in the code of practice, we might begin to reverse this tide.
My Lords, I do not oppose this amendment at all. I can see why it might be possible for material relating to this issue to be included in codes of practice. However, it is worth observing that a lot of the behaviour described by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, is patently criminal. It is a great shame that universities, colleges and other authorities do not always appreciate that.
As I said in Committee, a group of masked men letting off flares and shouting threats and abuse about a professor of philosophy inside her workplace is conduct that, in my view, is properly characterised as criminal. It is a great shame that the University of Sussex or other relevant authorities did not see it that way.
My Lords, I am thoroughly with the spirit of this amendment. I have a child currently at university and I know that it is about not just the speaker, but the effect this has on the students. It becomes impossible to discuss anything when you expect to be shouted down. That is far harder for a student at a university to take than it is for a visiting speaker. Universities have to get this right.
In my youth, the extreme right openly contended with Maoists in the junior common room. It was debate. They argued in debate. To shut that down now is to tell students that they are not allowed to express their own opinions. That makes a university pointless. Universities have really not stood up for the purpose of universities, in a way that I hoped they would.
My Lords, I agree with the comments and observations made by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, the noble Baroness, Lady Morris of Yardley, and others on this amendment. But I do not support it, simply because I think this is an extremely good example of something that needs to be dealt with carefully in the code of practice. A clear distinction should be made between what one might call a genuine heckle, as opposed to an attempt to drown out or silence a speaker.
I well remember that when I was an undergraduate at the LSE—donkeys’ years ago now, I fear—the history society very unwisely invited the National Front to come to give a presentation. We filled the room out very fully before these people arrived. When the chairman of the National Front, with two or three hoods in close association with him, walked into the room, one heckler shouted out, without any intention to drown out what was about to happen, “Have you been circumcised?” It really brought the house down, and it destroyed the speaker. A good heckle is well worth preserving, but I think it should be dealt with in the code of practice and definitely not in primary legislation.
My Lords, I rise briefly to echo the points made. I think the spirit of these amendments is important for the safety and success of our university system, but this should be dealt with in the codes of practice. It should not be beyond the abilities of the university authorities to distinguish between criminal activities, such as letting off flares or whatever, and the genuine heckling and expressing of strong opinions which is part of the free speech debate. It may be that the university authorities in some cases have not always succeeded in that, but even with primary legislation, if there were such failures, it is not clear that the legislation would prevent that. I think that robust codes of practice, making clear the difference between stifling free speech and merely expressing opinions, are very important.
My Lords, I want to make a brief point, because I know that everybody wants to make progress, but free speech is also important. I could well understand a code of practice of this kind, and I too am very grateful to the Minister for discussions on this. A code of practice can make a difference to the way in which societies that are part of a student union or student unions understand what their responsibilities are. I am not sure that they always understand what the criminal law does or does not say, and it is certainly the case that some of the institutions within universities that used to play significant role, including the union of which I had the privilege of being the general secretary, do not understand it any more and do not apply it any more in an appropriate way, and that itself is a significant problem. I am horrified by that.
However, I would like to know from the Minister that the codes of practice will also tell individuals what they are or are not expected to do. By and large, we construct our law—there are lawyers here who will tell me if I am wrong—so that individuals know what their responsibilities are and do not simply say that they are hiding behind some kind of collective. It is their responsibility. Academic freedom is based around individuals understanding their duties and responsibilities just as much as any of the groups. If we want this to work, it is vital that we do not lose that distinction.
My Lords, these amendments all refer to student unions. We have been concerned about the rather heavy-handed approach to student unions in the Bill. Amendment 16, to which my noble friend Lord Wallace has added his name, seeks to ensure that student unions are fully aware of the regulations with which they must comply. We are particularly concerned in connection with further education student unions, which are likely to be very small and have very few funds available. Presumably they are included in the Bill. The regulations are complex and students will obviously be transitory in post, so simplicity of guidance is essential if they are not to find themselves caught up in unwittingly breaching the rules, as the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, has just set out. This amendment would be a very straightforward way of helping students, and it would be very easy to adopt.
Like others, we support the intention of Amendments 11, 15 and 25 but we remain unsure about how they could be implemented. As the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald, said, some of these actions may well be criminal behaviour, in which case they do not need to be part of the Bill because they should be something else. I liked the tale told by the noble Lord, Lord Grabiner. There are other ways of dealing with hecklers, and ridicule is often one of the very best. We do not see that these amendments should be in the Bill, but some code of practice or regulation would probably be worth it. However, Amendment 16 is well worth government consideration.
My Lords, we have had a thorough exploration of the issues that would face student unions as a result of the passage of the Bill. Amendment 16 in the names of my noble friends Lord Collins and Lord Blunkett and me, with the support of the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, is not intended to be patronising. It seeks to ask the Government whether they will ensure that the guidance to student unions gives young people all the help and support it can to carry out the duties and responsibilities that the Bill will impose on them. Some of them will be 17, 18 or 19 years old, and this will be something they are absolutely unfamiliar with. That is really all that one needs to say about Amendment 16.
I agree that Amendments 11, 15 and 25 are probably not appropriate for the Bill. As somebody who has been a moderately successful heckler myself, I think they certainly should not be in the Bill.
My Lords, I will address this group of amendments relating to codes of practice and the guidance under the Bill. I thank all noble Lords for their thoughtful and considered remarks.
Amendments 11 and 15 tabled in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, would require higher education providers, colleges and student unions to include in their codes of practice specific measures
“to ensure that a person is not prevented from speaking by attempts to drown out or silence a speaker”.
Amendment 25 would require the Office for Students to include in any guidance it issues under new Section 69A, in Clause 5 of the Bill, guidance on such measures.
The purpose of the Bill is to protect freedom of speech within the law. As part of that freedom, individuals have the freedom to speak on topics of their choice, as well as to engage in peaceful protest against such speech, as the noble Lord clearly stated. These aspects of freedom of speech both need to be protected. The Bill does not give priority to one individual over another. This means that providers, colleges and student unions must take “reasonably practicable” steps to ensure that speakers who are speaking within the law, as well as those who wish to protest in disagreement with those views, are able to speak—and are not, in the noble Lord’s words, forced to stand by passively.
I should be clear that the Bill means protest in the form of speech, writing or images, including in electronic form. It does not include, for example, tying oneself to a railing or blocking a street—activities that are not speech and therefore not covered by this legislation, but are clearly covered by other legislation.
I reassure your Lordships that we expect event organisers to plan for what to do in the event of disruptive protests. The duty to take “reasonably practicable” steps does not mean that such disruption has to be tolerated. In fact, the duty to take such steps, as regards the speaker at the event, means that action should be taken to deal with such disruption. That might mean that security should be provided or that a protest outside a venue should be set back sufficiently from the windows.
The codes of practice are already required under the Bill to set out “the conduct required” of staff and students in connection with any meeting or activity on the premises. I hope that addresses the question from the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, about whether this applies to individuals. These amendments are not necessary as the issue is already covered by the Bill.
Equally, we expect the OfS to consider these practical issues and to provide advice about how providers, colleges and student unions can fulfil their duties, as well as share best practice that they identify—again, a point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath.
I trust that your Lordships are reassured by what I have said about how the Bill will operate and will agree that these amendments are not needed.
Amendment 16 tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Collins of Highbury, seeks to ensure that clear guidance is issued by the Secretary of State within three months of the passing of the Bill to help student unions to comply with their new duties. The publication of guidance for student unions is already covered by the Bill. Section 75 of the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 is amended by paragraph 9 of the Schedule to the Bill. Section 75, as amended, will provide that the regulatory framework which the Office for Students is required to publish must in future include
“guidance for students’ unions to which sections A5 and A6 apply on their duties under those sections”.
This must include
“guidance for the purpose of helping to determine whether or not students’ unions are complying with their duties under sections A5 and A6”.
The guidance may in particular specify what the OfS considers that student unions need to do to comply with those duties under new Sections A5 and A6, and the factors which the OfS will take into account in determining whether a student union is complying with its duties. It is worth noting that Section 75 requires consultation on the regulatory framework before its publication, and it must therefore be laid before Parliament, giving proper transparency.
In the new regulatory regime that the Bill will establish, including under Section 75, it would be wrong for separate guidance to be published by the Secretary of State rather than the regulator—the OfS. It would also, in practical terms, be too tight a timescale to require publication within three months of Royal Assent. There will be a great deal of work to be done on implementation, including setting up a complaints scheme team, drafting the new complaint scheme rules, drafting guidance, consulting on the changes to the regulatory framework and making those regulations; as your Lordships know, that will take time.
I hope my explanation has satisfied the concerns of the noble Lord and that the House will agree that the Bill deals with these issues appropriately as it stands.
My Lords, that has been a very helpful debate and I thank all noble Lords who have taken part. My noble friend Lady Morris suggested that some of us might have taken part in heckling in the past. I have to confess that I took part in one of the first university sit-ins at Leeds University in 1968, when—led by one Jack Straw, who was then president of the Leeds University union—we heckled Mr Patrick Wall, an MP at the time.
The noble Lord, Lord Grabiner, made a very important point about drawing the distinction between quite legitimate heckling and the kind of intimidatory action that we saw taking place in relation to a number of women academics. The noble Lord, Lord Macdonald, is absolutely right: I agree that there are elements of criminal behaviour. The problem is that universities were very weak. I really regret that the Bill has been necessary, but I am afraid that the lack of backbone shown by so many university leaders is why we are here today.
I agree with noble Lords that this is not a matter for primary legislation. Indeed, I am not quite sure how you would ever draft anything like it. We tried in Committee but I think one has to accept that it is not possible. The codes of practice and the oversight of OfS, though, are clearly crucial to the success of this legislation, so this has been a very good debate.
In relation to Amendment 16, I very much hope that the OfS will take note that any guidance it issues needs to be fully understandable by students within the student union. Having said that, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.
Amendment 11 withdrawn.
Clause 2: Duties of constituent institutions