Amendment 17

Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill - Report – in the House of Lords at 5:30 pm on 7 December 2022.

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Earl Howe:

Moved by Earl Howe

17: Clause 4, page 6, line 22, after “A1” insert “that causes the person to sustain loss”Member’s explanatory statementThis ensures that only persons who have sustained loss can bring civil proceedings under the new section A7 inserted into the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 by the Bill.

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, the Government have tabled Amendments 17, 18 and 19 in response to an amendment tabled in Grand Committee by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Etherton. These amendments make clear on the face of the Bill what we have maintained is already the case: only a person who has suffered a loss as a result of a breach of the specified duties can bring a claim before the courts. This is not limited to pecuniary loss and could include damage to reputation, for example. I am happy that we can make that clear.

Amendment 20, tabled by the Government, provides that claimants must first have exhausted the complaint procedure of the OfS or the OIA before they can bring proceedings under new Section A7. Both Policy Exchange and the Russell Group have called for an amendment along these lines as a considered and proportionate response. This amendment will mean that a complaint on the same subject must have been made to either complaint scheme, and that a decision must have been made under the scheme on the extent to which the complaint was justified.

If a complaint fails because, for example, it is brought out of time under the rules of the complaint scheme, then the complainant will not be able to bring a civil claim. It is useful to note that the OIA has a deadline of 12 months, so the OfS may have something similar. We think that this outcome is right. Equally, if the OfS or OIA dismisses a complaint without considering its merits because it considers it frivolous or vexatious, as they are entitled to do, the complainant would also not be able to bring a civil claim under new Section A7.

However, I should be clear that, if the complainant is unhappy with a decision of the OfS or OIA which means that they would be unable to bring a claim under new Section A7, then judicial review will be available for them to challenge it. The purpose of Amendment 20 is to make clear what we have always said: the tort will operate as a backstop, since we did not anticipate that many complainants would pursue legal proceedings rather than the free-to-use complaint schemes.

I am therefore happy to make this clear in the Bill on the basis that it will alleviate concerns raised by several noble Lords that the statutory tort will burden universities with dealing with unmeritorious and costly claims, as well as potentially undermine the OfS as a regulator and operator of the new complaints scheme. This point has been made by the noble Lord, Lord Grabiner. On this latter point, I should say that the OfS will undoubtedly welcome case law from the courts, since it will help going forward on its decision-making and formulation of guidance.

I will say more when I sum up. I hope that noble Lords will see these amendments as helpful and as a useful response to the debates we had in Grand Committee. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Grabiner Lord Grabiner Crossbench

My Lords, I thank the noble Earl the Minister and the Minister the noble Baroness, Lady Barran, for the explanations that they have provided in the House, in correspondence and at meetings that we have had. That said, I am afraid that I am still firmly against Clause 4 and believe that the Bill would be improved if it were deleted.

I will not repeat the points I made in Committee, but I summarise my concerns by reference to the Minister’s closing remarks on day 3 in Committee on 14 November, in Hansard cols. 725-30, and the government amendment now before us. My starting position, unlike that of some noble Lords, is that I am in favour of the introduction of the new duties to be imposed on universities, colleges and student unions. The Minister has given many examples of absolutely unacceptable behaviours designed to undermine speech freedom. In short, I agree with the Government that, in light of the developing experience, it is now necessary—unhappily—to enshrine freedom of lawful speech in primary legislation.

We have two very experienced regulators in our higher education system: the Office for Students and the Office of the Independent Adjudicator—the OfS and the OIA. In my view, these new duties should be enforced only by the expert regulators. This would be a natural and logical extension of their regulatory powers and they would bring to bear their specialist expertise in this clearly defined area of educational activity. It is also the case that these regulators are subject to judicial review in the courts. Thus, if the decision-making regulator takes into account irrelevant matters, or fails to take account of relevant ones, or is plainly wrong in law, the complaining party can apply for judicial review. If it is necessary to have what the Minister calls a “backstop”, the judicial review mechanism fits the bill precisely. Given the regulatory and higher education context, I do not believe it is necessary, still less is it desirable, to make express provision giving a civil law cause of action in tort which would enable the claimant to pursue a claim in court against the university, the college or the student union, as the case may be.

In the debates that we have had thus far, it seems to me that three issues have emerged which, taken together, strongly suggest that Clause 4 should be deleted from this Bill. First, I and other noble Lords believe that Clause 4 would be an open invitation to ill-motivated trouble-makers—if the social media is taken at face value, there are plenty of them out there. The trouble-makers would inevitably wish to use the very public platform provided by this new access to the courtroom to advance their own ideological stance.

Secondly, we know that universities and student unions are very poorly funded. We should not be subjecting them to the risk of unnecessary and expensive litigation. That is especially the case when we have an established regulatory structure in the sector.

Thirdly—this point has been made in particular by the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald of River Glaven, but also by other noble Lords—the fact that Clause 4 exists will have a chilling effect on the academic sector. Instead of our universities being places where debate and challenge should constantly thrive, decision-making, for example as to who should be invited to speak and on what subjects, will be inhibited. On the first day in Committee, the noble Earl the Minister pointed out, correctly in my view, that

“there is no right to a platform”.—[GC 36.]">Official Report, 31/10/22; col. GC 36.]

That is an important point. It is obvious that college authorities and student unions will bear it well in mind. They will inevitably err on the side of caution and rather anticipate and avoid any risk of Clause 4 litigation simply by not inviting speakers who are or may be perceived to be controversial.

This would produce the very opposite of what is intended by the Bill: lawful freedom of speech will have been denied and we will never know the details. I wonder how many universities, colleges or student unions would invite JK Rowling to speak if Clause 4 were in force. My guess is that they would not invite her. That is a shocking fact and is precisely the result we would wish to avoid.

Ministers have separately sought to justify Clause 4, and I will address the points that have been made on the new government amendment before us. It is said that, in practice, there is nothing in my first issue—the ill-motivated claims point. It is accepted that such claims will be made, but it is said that they will be thrown out peremptorily and that the costs incurred by the university or student union would be recovered from the vexatious claimant. This is pure assertion and speculation. It would not be difficult to formulate a plausible argument that the court would be reluctant to halt at the embryonic stage. Also, if you win, it is never easy to recover your costs: the claimant is likely to be elusive and probably penniless, and the process of seeking recovery is time-consuming and expensive. Why would the Government think it appropriate to subject our universities and student unions to any of this legalism?

Next—this is said to be a key point—the Minister repeatedly describes the new tort as a necessary “backstop measure”. The new amendment takes account of some of the criticisms made in Committee on the Bill as originally drafted. If left as it is, there would concurrently be in place the regulatory procedures as well as the new civil law cause of action, without any rules as to priority or the relationship between the two. The new amendment requires that mediation at the college level and all regulatory procedures should be exhausted before a claimant can use Clause 4. I agree that that clarifies matters, but unfortunately it still leaves us with Clause 4.

The argument now relied on by the Government, off the back of the new amendment, is that the individual claimant should be able to claim damages in court for loss, which could not be done in judicial review proceedings—it is correct that an individual cannot recover damages in a judicial review case. This is interesting, but noble Lords should realise that this represents a significant change of tack by the Government, because the Bill as drafted made no reference at all to losses or compensation. The new amendment gives no definition of loss—it might encompass hurt feelings and financial loss, such as wasted travel expenses and matters of that kind—but it is obvious that we are talking about very small amounts of money.

How do you measure, in financial terms, the damage done to someone whose freedom of lawful speech has been undermined? A judge is not entitled to pick a figure out of the air; there must be a rational explanation for the amount of damages awarded. In my view, there is no substance in the argument that the complainant needs a damages remedy; he, she or it will not be able to prove any serious financial loss. In any event, I suspect that, in the mind of the complainant, damages would not be a top priority; it is more likely that the remedy of a declaration, perhaps coupled with an injunction, would be the aim.

Professor Kathleen Stock has been referred to in relation to other amendments, but I should mention her in this context, in case it is suggested that she is a good example of why Clause 4 is necessary. I have every sympathy for Professor Stock, and I am certain that everyone here also does. From what is publicly known of the case, it looks as though she was treated very badly indeed by her employer, the University of Sussex, and, it seems, by some academic colleagues who should have known better. That said, she could have sued her employers for breach of her employment contract, but, for whatever reason, she chose not to. In the circumstances, Clause 4 would not have improved Professor Stock’s position.

My concern is that Clause 4 will be used by mischief-makers, whereas our real focus in this House should be the effectiveness of the regulatory function in ensuring that these new and important duties are understood, respected and properly enforced. In my view, the supposed financial protection of the individual claimant is a distraction and a sideshow. I believe the Bill would be greatly improved if Clause 4 were deleted.

Photo of Lord Moylan Lord Moylan Chair, Built Environment Committee, Chair, Built Environment Committee 5:45, 7 December 2022

My Lords, I rise to speak to Amendment 21, standing in my name. It dawned on me, as I said in Committee, that the purpose of some noble Lords was not to improve this legislation that has been passed by the Commons but to eviscerate it. The speech just given by the noble Lord, Lord Grabiner, seems to illustrate exactly that.

One of the few things on which I agreed with my noble friend Lord Willetts in Committee was when he said that there were two powerful elements in this Bill that made a real change, one of which was Clause 4. That is why it is a crying shame that the Government have conceded so much in relation to Clause 4; they have effectively turned it into a shrivelled sausage when it could have been something that actually made a real difference. But even with that concession from the Front Bench, it does not seem to be enough for my noble friend Lord Willetts or the noble Lord, Lord Grabiner, who are insisting that even that pathetic thing be removed and crushed altogether.

A principal argument in favour of Amendment 20, tabled by my noble friend on the Front Bench, is that the Government intend thereby to give the universities an opportunity to resolve the problem through mediation and a complaints system. The difficulty is that, in terms, university authorities have expressed repeatedly the fact that they do not consider that there is a problem: they consider it to be an invented problem, or a problem which, if it exists at all, is rare and egregious and can be handled by the universities. Plainly, there are those of us who feel that the universities have failed to handle it, and need to be brought to book.

If the universities genuinely want to give mediation a chance, Amendment 21, standing in my name, gives them the opportunity to demonstrate that. A similar amendment was tabled in Committee by my noble friend Lord Sandhurst, and it is retabled here—I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Fox of Buckley, and my noble friend Lord Strathcarron for adding their names to it. Amendment 21 would retain the substance of Clause 4 as originally proposed by the Government and approved by the other place, but would give to universities the opportunity in each case to ask the court to stay proceedings so as to allow mediation to take place. It would be at the discretion of the court whether to agree to that. I am sure that, if the court thought that there was a prospect of success in the mediations, it would agree.

This is modelled on legal practice in certain other areas where I understand, for example, that the provision and possibility exist—although noble Lords know that I make no claim to be a legal expert on pensions entitlements and so on. So the principle is a workable one: the university can say, “Please will you stay the proceedings while we exercise mediation”. It preserves the substance of the tort in Clause 4 and gives academics, in particular, an opportunity to make their representations in the way that the Government originally envisaged.

I will address the Government’s proposal, because the proposal being advanced by my noble friend Lord Willetts—who I understand may speak shortly—and endorsed by the noble Lord, Lord Grabiner, is to delete the clause altogether. The Government’s proposal would allow those administering the complaints system to indulge in indefinite delay. There is no time limit by which a decision has to be reached in this amendment. My noble friend Lord Howe said something vague about how he thought that 12 months might be something that already existed and might therefore be applied or extended to this activity, but there is actually no time limit by which a complaint has to be resolved which would allow the complainant to trigger the tort. It would remove the possibility of seeking urgent injunctive relief, which is something that could be obtained through the courts. It would push complainants back to a choice between a financially ruinous application for judicial review—because it is financially ruinous for the individual —or continuing with a possibly endless complaints process in which, as has been said by others in this context, the punishment is the process. You are an academic with a career to pursue and you are probably not even in a properly tenured post, but to vindicate your rights you have to undertake a process, extending potentially over many months, which comes to consume your life and, ultimately, to damage your career. It is an unenviable choice, and the tort gave people some other option to allow, potentially, for more rapid relief.

Most of all, the Government’s amendment sends a signal to academics who feel oppressed, feel that they cannot express themselves and feel that they are required to conform to an ideology which they know in their heart they do not endorse that a Government who had said that they were on their side and were taking steps to protect them are no longer interested. That is a very bad signal indeed to be sending. I am sorry to say this, but I think that the Government are being feeble.

Photo of Lord Moylan Lord Moylan Chair, Built Environment Committee, Chair, Built Environment Committee

Now that was a heckle of some value.

To conclude, it might be nice if the Front Bench, which has shown itself capable of endorsing enthusiastically the very laudable Amendment 6, tabled by the Labour Front Bench, could reciprocate by accepting one from its supportive Back-Benchers. If so, I strongly recommend Amendment 21 in my name.

Photo of Lord Willetts Lord Willetts Conservative

My Lords, I rise to speak to Amendment 22 in my name and those of other Members of this House. I begin by thanking Ministers for their engagement with the tricky issues around Clause 4 and, as we have heard, the wide range of views in this House about it.

I make it clear that I completely back the principle of the Bill, which is the need for the right to freedom of speech to be backed with clearer and more enforceable rights than we currently enjoy. However, another point that the Minister has made on several occasions is that we should not overlook the protections that employment law already provides. It looks as though some of the most egregious cases, such as the terrible treatment of Professor Kathleen Stock, are in clear breach of employment law. It is quite a good principle that we should start by properly using the legal protections and rights that already exist.

As we have heard, there is also the framework of criminal law. Nevertheless, there really are problems in our universities, and most of us in this House are not denying it. I have been shouted down at universities, but I have also had a different type of experience, which reminds us of the good features of universities, which we should not forget. I remember a group of protesters with a megaphone denouncing my proposals on student fees. I went up to them to try to persuade them and they could not hear what I was saying, so they lent me their megaphone. I made my point and handed it back to them, and they got on with their megaphone, and we ended up—in the unpromising circumstances of a student demo outside a university—having a proper engagement and disagreement. We should remember that that still happens in our universities up and down the country.

Nevertheless, the framework of employment law and criminal law is not enough and the Government are, in this legislation, bringing forward a very significant further power for the regulator that already exists, the Office for Students, but giving it a clear responsibility in this area. One thing that surprises me about the sceptics—I have had debates with very concerned academics who back the Bill, and we have just heard from my noble friend Lord Moylan—is that they talk about a vague complaints procedure going on interminably, as if this is some kind of feeble option and we really need litigation as the guts of the Bill. In reality, the Office for Students, created in legislation steered through by my noble friend Lord Johnson of Marylebone, is a very powerful body and its powers are being increased in this legislation. It has considerable understanding of and expertise in universities and will gain extra powers in this legislation.

One of the arguments we heard in Committee about the need for litigation was that we need to have financial redress. It is clear that, within the Bill, there are powers for the OfS to require financial redress and to fine universities. These are very substantial provisions. What is very unusual about the Bill, unlike many other circumstances and many other policy debates I have been involved in over the years, is that the Government are not just empowering a regulator, they are, in parallel, adding a new proposal for a right of tort and civil litigation alongside. That is a very odd way of trying to tackle the problem. The Government should have confidence in the powers of their own regulator, reinforced by the proper enforcement of rights under employment law.

The Minister, whose engagement in this I respect and appreciate, said that we should not worry because, with the amendments he is bringing forward, civil litigation would be a backstop. I do not understand what a backstop is in these circumstances. We all know that a student union—and I worry about student unions at least as much as about university administrations—if one of these controversies flares up, will receive a lawyer’s letter in the first 24 hours. The lawyers will not say, “Let’s wait and see how the OfS proceeds, because we are the backstop”; the legal letters will arrive. When I think, therefore, about the real test of whether there should be this provision for tort, the real test that, surely, all of us in this House can share is: will the net effect of this provision be to increase and enhance freedom of speech in our universities, or will the effect of this power of tort be a further chilling, a further reduction in freedom of speech in our universities?

I think of people who try to organise events painstakingly to promote freedom of speech in their university. They try to find a neutral chair who will chair two highly controversial and disputing views. When one person turns up, they try to arrange for there to be an alternative. They try to find the right place for these meetings and sometimes they are already traduced in the media as if they are somehow part of the problem, when they are actually trying, very decently, to be part of the solution. Will the prospect of a legal challenge to what they are doing give them the confidence to carry on organising those events and promoting freedom of speech in our universities? I fear it will have the opposite effect. I think of a 19 year-old who sets up a student society in his or her university, thinking, “Will I find myself facing a legal letter if I get bogged down in trying to arrange an event?”

We already face a very worrying trend of a decline in the number of external speakers going to universities because people think it is just more trouble, too risky and too dangerous. The risk with these provisions is that they make that trend worse: more people will do exactly what we all fear. They shut up, they keep their heads down, they do not invite controversial speakers, they do not invite any speakers at all; they lie low and stay out of trouble. That would be terrible for freedom of speech in our universities and I fear that is the risk if people expect to face legal challenge for events they organise.

Photo of Lord Blunkett Lord Blunkett Labour 6:00, 7 December 2022

My Lords, encores are rarely worth the value of the extra time, but the noble Lords, Lord Grabiner and Lord Willetts, have shown that it can be done. I will be very brief, because they have said so much.

I draw attention to an interesting contribution from Professor Jo Phoenix, who was interviewed recently on Radio 4. She supported this clause on tort, on the grounds that the University of Essex had treated her appallingly—it clearly had; this was acknowledged—but she had not been able to obtain loss. She was not employed by the University of Essex, so the loss was some theoretical appreciation of whether she would be invited somewhere else because of what had happened at Essex.

I commend the noble Earl, Lord Howe, for attempting to meet the debate in Committee, but I think we have opened another can of worms. You go through the Office for Students and the adjudicator and you have the facility of judicial review and, as the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, said, employment law—which I used to teach—which could involve constructive dismissal if you are employed. If you are not employed there but have been treated extremely badly—the right of free speech has been denied you and that has been acknowledged —you might believe that the acknowledgement itself may persuade others not to invite you and you would use the law under this tort to go to court to get redress.

What is the redress? Who will make a judgment on the financial value of what you might have done had you been invited to speak elsewhere, when you do not know whether you have not been or would have been invited? It is a bit like Donald Rumsfeld’s known unknowns. If you go to court with known unknowns, you will be in a disaster area. The only people who will benefit—I say this with some humility to my good friend, the noble Lord, Lord Grabiner—are the lawyers.

The simple way around this is to do two things: approve the rest of this Bill and encourage civil society to be civil and people to stand up for each other, rather than always running to the courts, to deal with this small minority of intolerant, anti-democratic bigots—they are bigots, in terms of not being able to debate properly the rights of women. That is really what we are talking about in lots of these cases. We should not have a merry-go-round of trying to compensate somebody for something which you could never know and, if you did, probably would not have resulted in a loss of income in the first place. Let us get rid of Clause 4 and get back to common sense.

Photo of Baroness Shafik Baroness Shafik Crossbench

My Lords, I speak in support of Amendment 22, to which I have attached my name. I declare my interest as director of the London School of Economics and Political Science. It is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, whose remarks I very much agree with. I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Barran, and the noble Earl, Lord Howe, for the constructive way in which they have engaged with all of us throughout the passage of this Bill.

It was made clear in Committee that Clause 4, as drafted, was not fit for purpose and that statutory tort would provide an avenue for vexatious, costly and damaging cases to be brought against universities by troublemakers far more concerned with self-promotion than free speech. The clause would have the perverse effect of limiting free debate and exchange of ideas on our campuses by creating exactly the kind of chilling effect that it aims to prevent. Student unions in particular would be frightened of inviting anyone at all, given this risk of lawsuits.

LSE hosts literally hundreds of events every year, which are all open to the public, and as its director, I have chaired hundreds of them. We work very hard to foster an environment where free speech and critical thinking are encouraged. I feel strongly that the solutions to the chilling effect, which I acknowledge exists, lie in education, dialogue and codes of practice, not the courts. Peers in the US, a far more litigious country than ours, are now petrified of inviting any speakers at all for fear of the consequences they may face. I fear that this legislation could take us to a similar position.

I was grateful that Ministers acknowledged that changes were needed and that significant revisions have been tabled on Report. Despite those positive moves, which are very welcome, I am still convinced that Clause 4 remains both unnecessary and potentially very harmful. I believe analysis and redress should be overseen by the regulator, as the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, has said. The existence of the tort system would call into question the working and judgment of that regulator, as well as universities’ own procedures. It would open up our institutions to potentially long, drawn-out and unnecessary complaints brought by individuals with axes to grind, time on their hands and, potentially, the financial backing of those with an agenda. I do not believe that having to go through existing complaints procedures would deter those kinds of individuals.

The potential costs of time, effort and money in highly constrained circumstances are unduly high. Of course, we would have to ask about loss, as the noble Lord, Lord Grabiner, very eloquently noted. Who has sustained this loss? It is still very indeterminate and the legislation as drafted does not require that loss to be material. Is it monetary, reputational or temporal? Is there a minimum threshold for the loss? Could it be the price of hurt feelings or the unquantifiable effects of media attention? All those things are highly intangible. There is still far too much uncertainty and confusion, and too much potential for this tort to be misused or have the perverse effect of stifling freedom of speech, which would be contrary to the other, more meritorious, objectives of this legislation. I concur with the proposal to remove the tort, as I believe it will be counterproductive.

Photo of Lord Moore of Etchingham Lord Moore of Etchingham Non-affiliated

My Lords, I cannot call the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, my noble friend because I am non-affiliated, but outside this House, I call him my friend. He has been my friend for 45 years. I can testify that his well-known nickname is correct and that he does have double the cerebral capacity of the rest of us, so we should all listen very carefully to anything he has to say.

However, although he made many good points, I do disagree with his conclusion. We must not lose sight of the wider context, and I think there is a slight risk that we might do so in some areas of this House. There is a danger of us suffering from what economists call producer capture. By that, I mean that there are a great many people here who are very close to the top of universities. It is not very surprising that they all tend to think that universities are running themselves quite well and that it is all basically all right. However, I think there needs to be a little more power for the voice of the ordinary student and the ordinary, not-very-important academic who is having a rough time. I was very grateful for and impressed by some of the points made about that by the noble Lords, Lord Macdonald of River Glaven and Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, in particular, who really tried to bring home the reality of these difficulties.

Going back to why the Bill exists at all, it is to do with the fact that the traditional freedom of speech ethos in universities came under threat. In the past, threats to academic life came from without but now they are coming from within. That is the essence of the problem and why the Bill got going. Even though there have been some changes and alterations of behaviour—for example, the establishment in Cambridge University was defeated in its attempt to suppress free speech and real free speech won—there are still examples.

In Cambridge quite recently, the master of Gonville and Caius College—I think she did not fully understand that the word “master” in the Cambridge or Oxford circumstances is a misnomer and you cannot issue orders at all; it is a very unmasterly position—said that the presence of Helen Joyce speaking in that college would be hateful and that, on those grounds, her talk should not take place. I believe that Helen Joyce would not have been allowed to speak had it not been for the fact that Professor Arif Ahmed, the great leader of free speech, was a don in that college and stood up for Helen Joyce, so the meeting finally took place.

There is a problem, and it has not been sufficiently acknowledged by everybody here. Therefore, it seems that there has to be in the Bill—as there was and to some extent still is—some form of deterrent. There has to be something that goes beyond the universities themselves to make them feel a little nervous about where they have got to. Since universities are currently failing in many cases to uphold the duty of free speech, we cannot just depend on people such as the expert regulators, to which the noble Lord, Lord Grabiner, referred.

The idea of a new tort is to change that. The law of tort offers remedy to private citizens when private duties are breached. This is as opposed to the upholding of more general aspirations, as might be achieved, for example, by judicial review. This difference has not been sufficiently acknowledged in some of the things that have been said. If an academic could bring timely action under a statutory tort, that would concentrate the mind of the university at which he or she worked. That university would face a real deterrent to impeding his or her free speech, because a county court could find against it, with legal, financial and reputational consequences. As the noble Baroness, Lady Shafik, said, I do not quite understand how the prospect of some suit about free speech would frighten people who were inviting people in the cause of free speech. If, however, free speech complaints must always be brought first to an internal complaints procedure, the university will be tempted to mark its own homework favourably or to spin out the process. Early complainants will then retire exhausted and later, prospective ones will not even bother to start.

I add that the Office for Students, on which much reliance is being placed, is not necessarily the best arbiter. As its name suggests, it is for students. The people at universities for whom the free speech stakes are highest are not undergraduates but career academics. The statutory tort, pursuant to which injunctive power could be exercised, would give them the strong protection they increasingly need. I therefore oppose the amendment in the name of my real friend, the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, and support the amendments in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Moylan.

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

My Lords, I do not want to detain the House too long because I realise that there will be a move to a vote relatively soon. I support Amendment 22 and will politely say a few words against the noble Lord, Lord Moore, if I may respectfully put it that way.

I am an academic at the University of Cambridge, I signed the amendments put forward by Professor Ahmed and I believe in free speech. However, I am concerned that the idea of a tort will do exactly the reverse of what the noble Lord, Lord Moore, just said. If we want to support the junior academics and students, the way to do that is not to have a legal procedure. As a noble Lord on the other Benches mentioned, the people who will benefit most are the lawyers; the people least likely to be able bring these legal cases are students and junior academics, particularly junior academics at an early stage in their careers. Therefore, the whole idea of a tort will do exactly the opposite of what the noble Lord just implied.

I absolutely agree that we need to listen not just to heads of Oxbridge colleges, chancellors and vice-chancellors of universities, and people like me. However, I hope I speak on behalf of students, members of the casualised part of university staff and other academics in saying that this legal provision will not benefit individuals because those who will have the resources to fight are the university bureaucracies, not individuals.

Photo of Baroness Fox of Buckley Baroness Fox of Buckley Non-affiliated 6:15, 7 December 2022

My Lords, like the noble Lord, Lord Strathcarron, I have put my name to Amendment 21 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Moylan.

Earlier, the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, suggested that the front page of the Telegraph, complaining about the Government backing down, was simply complaining about mere amendments to the Bill. My concern, though, is that the government amendments are in danger of gutting the Bill. I thought that the Bill’s hope was to allow a shift in the balance of power in higher education institutions away from censoriousness and towards open-minded, tolerant free speech. However, it seems to me that so much turns on enforcement because one’s rights are only as effective as the remedies available when they are violated.

Clause 4, as was, underpinned the duties designed to protect academic freedom through allowing a person to bring civil proceedings against a university or college in respect of a breach of those duties. That would mean hitting universities where it hurts: their pockets. An institution found guilty of violating academic freedom would have to fork out cash to an individual whose rights were infringed. As one academic—Julius Grower, an associate professor of law at the University of Oxford —points out,

“the threat of this alone should be enough to encourage university and college leaders to promote academic freedom.”

Let us see what we are left with following the Government’s new amendments; it is all a matter of national-level administrative procedures, where a person may now bring private proceedings only if they have previously

“brought a complaint relating to the same subject-matter … under a relevant complaints scheme”— that is, via the Office for Students.

It is with relying on such complaints schemes that I have a problem. Anyone familiar with these schemes will know that they can be sclerotic and bureaucratic and can take months, sometimes years. What is more, they are vulnerable to political interference. A political appointee will, after all, oversee the complaints procedure of the Office for Students, so a beleaguered academic whose freedom has been violated will have to wait and wait before being able to bring a meaningful claim against the university. The amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, would avoid the threat of overly litigious responses, which has been mentioned, and give us a way out. No one is claiming that these remedies will suffice to keep campus cancel culture at bay, but it is important that they will give university authorities pause while encouraging intimidated staff and students to have the confidence to voice their dissenting views.

Most of the push-back against Clause 4 has been from university vice-chancellors and those who run colleges. I absolutely agree with the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Moore, on this issue. They are a powerful, privileged lobby group of people with an interest in this. I appreciate that, if you run a college, it is your worst nightmare to have a civil tort aimed at you. I understand that. However, it is precisely those who run universities who need to feel that the pressure of this legislation is more than words because, despite all the focus on ideological trouble-makers and mischief-makers that we have heard from noble Lords today, they are presented as the villains just waiting to pounce into the civil courts and throw litigation around. This is an incredible example of straw-manning.

The very driver of the Bill is that there are real-life, concrete trouble-makers, here and now, in universities, who are targeting closing down free speech and declaring that certain views are verboten. They are not imagined trouble-makers; this is really happening now. Yet the imagined villains that have been described are those who are somehow waiting to use this clause only to make money. The truth is that, despite what the noble Lord, Lord Grabiner, suggests, vice-chancellors are not, as yet, queuing up to invite JK Rowling to speak at their universities. The suggestion that she can speak is good. Invite her, all of you—why not? A challenge.

The villains of this piece are often posed as generation snowflake, or social justice warriors who are young. Goodness knows, I spend huge amounts of my time when I am not here going around talking to students at universities and to sixth-formers. Generation snowflake does exist—and wow, do they heckle; I know all about that. But I actually do not think that they are the problem. Often the problem is university senior management, which either spinelessly gives in to the loud demands of a minority of students or leads the charge with ideological silencing policies that are adding to a censorious climate. I talked about this in my earlier speech.

The University of Sussex has been named and shamed so often in this House in relation to Professor Kathleen Stock that I have got to the point where I am feeling sorry for it. The university’s vice-chancellor is not some outlier; he is one of many. We just happen to know about Kathleen Stock because she went public. This is not some imaginary culture war. These are university managers who are hanging out to dry their own professors, academics and often students.

The noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, mentioned Professor Jo Phoenix. I have heard a variety of interviews with Professor Phoenix and have met her on many an occasion; she is battling away in an employment tribunal. It is true that it is difficult to sort out how she can get redress for her reputation having been traduced. She is taking action against the Open University and the way she was treated by the University of Essex. She said that she was shocked but not surprised that the Government had folded on Clause 4, and felt that she had been abandoned yet once more. There are many people like Jo Phoenix who are fighting on and on. Look, for example, at the files kept by the Free Speech Union, of which I am an advisory member. People think that my membership must mean something, and it does: it means I am committed to free speech. In those files there are hundreds of examples of students and academics who have been suspended by university authorities and gone through disciplinary procedures for mis-speaking and saying the wrong thing.

For me, I wanted this law to frighten university authorities —a little bit. I thought that the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, had done a huge amount to ensure that the overchilling impact—which the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, talked about—of litigiousness everywhere could be kept at bay, while also ensuring that that tort exists. It will not solve all the problems; there is a much bigger cultural problem in relation to free speech in society. Those opposing Clause 4 are too often not loud enough to fight that culture either. They tell us that they do not need the Bill and that they do not need this clause, and that everyone here is a free speech warrior—I wish. We need this clause, and we need you all to become free speech warriors as well.

Photo of Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood Chair, Sub-Committee on Lords' Conduct, Chair, Sub-Committee on Lords' Conduct

My Lords, after a lifetime in the law, I was thrilled beyond all else to hear what my noble friend Lord Moore said about the merits of the courts as he lauded the courts, independent justice and so forth. However, I profoundly disagreed with what he said in this debate, because one other thing I have learned over a lifetime in the law—actually it seems a good deal longer than a lifetime—is that any legal proceeding has real downsides to it.

Cost is the first and obvious one: all the problems outlined today about that are true in spades. Secondly, there is the delay in getting to the hearing of the action on the statutory tort, and the subsequent delay between the hearing and the result, with the uncertainty that these delays inevitably carry as to the exact position in law—assuming that there is any law in the case and that it is not just asking for a fresh, factual decision. There has been talk of delay under the statutory regulatory processes. This statutory tort has no special time limit: you can bring it for six years. And why would it end with a first-instance decision? It might wind up in the Supreme Court. Is that what you want?

The third downside during the whole process is the hassle and worry. It is a nightmare for the litigant who is dragged into the process. Therefore, unless there are the most compelling reasons, I say that it should be avoided at all possible costs.

Photo of Baroness Altmann Baroness Altmann Conservative

My Lords, I support many of the comments that have been made. As a non-lawyer, I think it is impressive that two senior lawyers have urged the House not to accept this remedy that would be ideal for helping lawyers. I will listen very carefully to my noble friend on the Front Bench because I think that, at the moment, we have to be very careful about unintended consequences. This is a well-intentioned, well-meaning and good Bill, and I share the determination to attempt to stop the stifling of free speech that has been going on. But the fear is that, even if a case were taken and won, it might not provide a meaningful remedy in financial terms—of course winning is fine, but if you do not get the right remedy, it has not taken you very far—for the person who is under threat, and the risk that poses to universities themselves to me suggests that there is perhaps an overreliance here on the idea, in theory, that having the ability to sue will make a huge difference. The result in practice of having that remedy could be that it has the reverse impact of what is intended.

Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

My Lords, one of the Second Reading speeches that most impressed me was from the noble Viscount, Lord Eccles, whom I see in his place. He reminded us that Conservatives are in favour of limited government and limited intervention, and of autonomous institutions in civil society, and that universities are autonomous institutions and so the state needs to be very careful before it puts extra burdens on them.

At present, and in recent years, the state has added a number of extra burdens on universities, even while reducing its financial support. The National Security and Investment Act requires universities to report on a number of things. The National Security Bill, which had its Second Reading yesterday, has very substantial additional implications for universities, and we will discuss later this evening the overlap between its reporting requirements on overseas funding and the reporting requirements of this Bill on such funding.

As autonomous institutions, universities are led by responsible vice-chancellors and others, some of whom make mistakes. My first year as a university teacher was 1968. The vice-chancellor of my university, the University of Manchester, made some disastrous mistakes in dealing with the student revolts. The then director of the London School of Economics was just as bad. Most vice-chancellors learned from that.

We have seen that again in this recent cycle. I am old enough to know vice-chancellors who were my students or with whom I worked when they were young academics. One of the vice-chancellors involved said to me, “William, we did not see this coming, and you don’t manage a problem very well the first time it hits you.” They have had to learn from their mistakes, as do all CEOs in new and unexpected circumstances. That does not necessarily mean that heavier state regulation is the answer. This Conservative Government are committed to reducing regulation as far as they can, in principle, but apparently not with universities.

The introduction of a tort to duplicate what the OIA or the OfS already does would be a major additional burden for universities and the courts, although a great financial advantage to lawyers. The point made enthusiastically by the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, is that this would hit universities in their pockets and make them suffer. This is unnecessary. A combination of the regulation we already have and instructive, capable and braver leadership by our vice-chancellors and universities is what we need. I therefore strongly support the amendment to remove Clause 4.

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 6:30, 7 December 2022

My Lords, I have a confession to make: when I spoke at Second Reading, I expressed the opinion that this Bill was not necessary. However, during the process of Committee and the dialogue and discussions that I have had with many noble Lords—by the way, I have no interest as a university leader to declare—I was persuaded that there is an issue to address.

My experience as a trade union official over many years is that, when you want to change behaviour and culture, you do not do it through the courts. You do it through the very mechanism that the Bill proposes: improved and strengthened regulation, and a strengthened code of practice. That is what the Bill attempts to do and I have been convinced that it is necessary from hearing the arguments and all the cases and evidence given. This is not a binary choice: I now accept that the Bill is necessary. However, in my opinion, keeping Clause 4 would undermine the very thing the Bill is seeking to achieve. If you support the Bill, get rid of Clause 4, because it would undermine the very thing we are seeking.

Our approach, throughout Committee and Report, has been not to make this a partisan or party-political issue. We have heard the debate and listened, and I have accepted the need for the Bill. That is why I signed the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Willetts. I expect and hope to divide the House, because this clause needs to go.

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, I begin by expressing my thanks to noble and noble and learned Lords from all Benches of the House for their thoughtful and helpful contributions to this debate, all of which I listened to with great attention. I think it would be helpful to the House if I begin my response by considering the tort in the round, before turning to the amendments tabled to this clause, bearing in mind the nature of the debate in Grand Committee and the subsequent, helpful discussions that my noble friend Lady Barran and I had with a number of noble and noble and learned Lords outside the Chamber.

The tort has undoubtedly been one of the most controversial measures in the Bill. A number of noble Lords have spoken today to express their opposition to its inclusion in the Bill. However, other noble Lords strongly support the inclusion of the clause. My noble friends Lord Moylan, Lord Frost, Lord Strathcarron, Lord Jackson of Peterborough and Lord Farmer, and the noble Lord, Lord Moore of Etchingham, have written to me setting out compelling arguments for retaining the tort, some of which we have heard today. Many of the arguments have been echoed by the Free Speech Union in a letter to the Secretary of State for Education signed by 49 leading academics, among them, incidentally, Professor Kathleen Stock. Perhaps I might say in that context that I reject the view expressed by my noble friend Lord Moylan that the government amendments, to which I spoke earlier, somehow water down or weaken the tort provision. They address the concerns expressed about the perceived risk of the OfS’s role as a regulator being undermined and of unmeritorious claims burdening universities with unnecessary costs. I am sorry that no noble Lord acknowledged that the government amendments would deal with those perceived risks, in my view, pretty comprehensively.

We are dealing here with a mixture of arguments. Part of the argument advanced for removing the tort is that it is unnecessary and that there are somehow other measures available to achieve the same thing. I think the best place for me to start would be to address that issue. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, suggested in Grand Committee that there would be a common-law tort available, even if the statutory tort was not in the Bill, and that view has been supported by other noble Lords. The Government have looked carefully at that proposition, but we are not convinced that that position is sufficiently legally certain, and for that reason it is not something on which we would wish to rely. I believe that opinion is divided even among noble and learned Lords on the issue.

The purpose of including the tort in the Bill at introduction was to make it 100% clear that a tort will be available, rather than leaving it to the courts to infer whether or not Parliament intended there to be a tort, which in certain cases, they may do. To leave the situation uncertain when we have the opportunity to be absolutely clear would be remiss of us.

The noble Lord, Lord Grabiner, made the point that the tort is not necessary because judicial review is available, whether of a decision by the higher education provider or a decision under the complaints scheme of the Office for Students or the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education. However, judicial review is not available against decisions of a student union, and damages are generally not awarded in judicial review claims. I am afraid I do not accept his argument that damages would never be quantifiable in such cases. Of course, let us bear in mind—

Photo of Lord Grabiner Lord Grabiner Crossbench

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. With respect, I did not say that they would not be quantifiable. My point was that there would be difficulty in quantifying the figure but in any event, in my view, for what is worth, the figure that you would arrive at would be peanuts, or not much more. That is why I could not really understand the significance of the argument that the reason for the tort was to protect the financial position of a complaining party.

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

I am grateful to the noble Lord. It is not the only reason for the tort, as I shall go on to explain. I was going to say that we need to bear in mind that under a judicial review the court would consider standard judicial review grounds, such as a failure to take relevant considerations into account, rather than the substantive issue of whether reasonably practicable steps were taken.

Equally, it has been argued that the tort is not necessary because a claimant could bring a claim for a breach of Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. However, again, this would not be available in relation to student unions because they are not public authorities, and the test for whether damages may be awarded is not an easy one to satisfy. Again, the court would consider whether there had been a breach of Article 10, rather than of the duties under the Bill.

In Grand Committee the noble and learned Lord, Lord Etherton, suggested that we should specify in the Bill what remedies are available in a tort claim. I come back to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Grabiner, a moment ago, which was a helpful intervention because it highlighted the potential role that court proceedings could have in particular cases. The Government’s intention is that damages should be available to compensate the claimant for the loss they have suffered. We can argue about whether the damages are nugatory or more substantial.

There may be situations in which an injunction is appropriate, for example if a student is expelled from their course and so the court orders the provider to offer them a place on the course for the following year. Other remedies may be suitable in some cases, in addition to these—perhaps a declaration. Our view is that where a claimant does not believe that they have been fairly dealt with by the OfS or the OIA, we should leave it to the courts to determine what is appropriate in an individual case.

Various noble Lords have raised concerns that the tort will create a chilling effect, dissuading higher education providers, colleges and student unions from inviting controversial speakers to campus because of fear of litigation. My noble friend Lord Willetts raised this concern; I understand him to believe that the availability of the tort may cause students or academic staff to self-censor over fears of being labelled a controversial speaker or lecturer.

To say that the Government are not convinced by these arguments is an understatement. The stronger counterargument appears to us to be that the Bill as a totality, including the tort and codes of practice, will create a stronger regime that will encourage providers to make sure they are getting their decisions right and will encourage a change of culture across our campuses. That regime and change of culture will deter providers from the notion of simply not inviting controversial speakers and will give greater protection to academic staff to speak out.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood, expressed a concern that has been raised with me in other contexts outside the Chamber—that the OfS complaints scheme will simply take too long to reach a decision. I am glad he raised that point, and I hope I can reassure noble Lords on that score. The OfS will consult on the scheme rules and will publish clear expectations on timetables. It will be held to account on its efficiency and the effectiveness of the scheme by its board and by the Government.

As a possible exemplar, the OIA says of its complaints scheme that it commits to normally sending a complaint outcome within 90 days of receiving all the necessary information. It also says that where a party needs a case to be reviewed particularly quickly, it can request that it be prioritised. Some cases may take six months to review overall, by the time all the information has been gathered, but others may take much less time, depending on the complexity. It is worth noting in this context that the limitation period for bringing a civil claim is six years, so there is little risk of missing that deadline if this approach is taken. I hope that explanation gives some comfort to those who are concerned that a complaint may go into some sort of black hole and not come out again for years and years.

I want to cover another issue that was raised in the context of government Amendment 20, so that it is understood. We do not consider that this amendment would prevent a person seeking an interim or emergency injunction in the courts. Such an injunction would be sought in a case where the claimant wants to prevent a future breach of the specified freedom of speech duties, rather than where a breach has actually occurred—in other words, where there is the threat of a breach. In that case, an individual would not be able to complain to the OfS or the OIA under either scheme, as there has been no breach yet. Accordingly, the requirement to have first exhausted a complaint scheme would not apply and the claimant could in principle go straight to the courts.

Amendment 21, tabled by my noble friend Lord Moylan, operates in a similar area to that of the government amendment. An amendment in the same form was tabled by my noble friend Lord Sandhurst and debated during Grand Committee. The amendment would allow the defendant to a claim to apply for a stay of proceedings, which may be ordered if the court considers that there is no sufficient reason why the OfS complaint scheme should not be utilised, and the defendant will co-operate with that. This is, effectively, an alternative approach to the one set out in government Amendment 20, which obviously would not work if noble Lords supported our amendment and which I ask the House to do.

I have already set out the reasons why the Government consider our amendment appropriate. Suffice it to say that we do not really think the approach in Amendment 21 is the right one; one has only to think of how it would play out in practice. Its effect would be that the defendant would no doubt want to apply for a stay, to avoid legal proceedings, and seek to persuade the court to order a stay. In the vast majority of cases the court is likely to order one, for the simple reason that it will consider the specific scheme created by the Bill—and operated by the sector expert—to be the most appropriate way of resolving the complaint, without the need for further costly legal proceedings and the involvement of the courts. Let us remember that the OfS can make a recommendation to do anything, including to pay a specified sum in compensation, or to refrain from doing anything. The powers of the OfS are wide and we fully expect that providers will comply with its recommendations.

The amendment would mean that there would be substantial legal costs for the claimant in initiating a legal claim, both court fees and solicitors’ fees, which would simply result in the OfS considering the complaint before it potentially returns to court for the stay to be lifted. I say in all earnestness to my noble friend that this approach does not seem preferable to the one proposed by the Government. It would be more costly and more complicated, as well as involving court time and resources, perhaps unnecessarily if the OfS decision in a given case were to satisfy the complainant. I hope that my noble friend will see the force of my arguments.

Amendment 22, tabled by my noble friend Lord Willetts, seeks to remove the tort from the Bill altogether. The noble Lord, Lord Grabiner, and other noble Lords made their identical views clear and effectively questioned what added value would accrue from the existence of the tort, given the powers that will rest with the regulators. I have already set out some of the reasons why there will be added value. We have debated this issue at length, during Grand Committee and today, and I think noble Lords understand the Government’s clear view that the tort plays an important role in the Bill. We think it will operate very much as a backstop route for complainants to seek redress in the event that the OfS, or OIA, complaint scheme does not satisfy them. I reiterate that we do not want to water down the Bill. Keeping the tort in it, as amended by our amendments, will provide extra protection and genuine added value, and we do not want to get rid of that.

I am the first to recognise that the tort has been a matter of concern. I thank noble Lords once again for their thoughtful insights, which have been enormously helpful in understanding how the Government can seek to reassure the House at this stage of the Bill. I hope the government amendments provide that reassurance. I ask noble Lords who may be thinking of trying to strike out this clause to ask themselves, in the light of this debate, whether they believe it would be right to deny those who believe they have suffered genuine and unrecompensed loss a path to legal redress. I am clear and the Government are clear that Clause 4, amended as we propose, is the just and right way to go.

Amendment 17 agreed.