Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill - Commons Reason – in the House of Lords at 4:15 pm on 21st March 2023.
Moved by Lord Willetts
At end insert “and do propose the following amendments to the words so restored to the Bill—
10B: Page 6, line 22, after “A1” insert “that causes the person to sustain loss”
10C: Page 6, line 25, after “A1” insert “that causes the person to sustain loss”
10D: Page 6, line 27, after “A5” insert “that causes the person to sustain loss”
10E: Page 6, line 27, at end insert—“(2) A person may bring proceedings under subsection (1) only if—(a) the person has brought a complaint relating to the same subject matter as the proceedings under a relevant complaints scheme, and(b) a decision has been made under that scheme as to the extent to which the complaint was justified.(3) Each of the following is a “relevant complaints scheme”—(a) the scheme provided by virtue of Schedule 6A (the free speech complaints scheme), and(b) the scheme for the review of qualifying complaints (within the meaning of section 12 of the Higher Education Act 2004) that is provided by the designated operator (within the meaning of section 13(5)(b) of that Act).””
My Lords, I declare my interest as a visiting professor at King’s College London and an honorary fellow of Nuffield College, Oxford.
I warmly welcome the Minister’s assurances about how this legislation will work. I particularly welcome his commitment, and that of other Members of this House, to support the amendments in my name. These amendments bear a striking resemblance to amendments the Minister himself tabled, which we debated on
I assure him that across the House, after many hours of debating this important legislation, there is shared agreement that there is a problem. Nobody is denying that there are egregious and appalling examples in which universities and students unions are not the safe spaces for free speech that we wish them to be. Sometimes people believe that they should somehow be a safe space from free speech, which is not what universities stand for.
There is also very strong support across the House for the Office for Students as a tough and effective regulator. I pay tribute particularly to my noble friend Lord Johnson of Marylebone, who early on intervened to make clear that it was the body that should have the crucial role in this case.
The issue has been about tort. As we were told, this is not the first time that Clause 4 has been the most controversial feature of a piece of legislation. Many of us had a real concern that the threat of civil litigation could have a chilling effect, threatening the activities of student unions in particular. That is why your Lordships’ House voted to remove Clause 4 from the Bill. The other place has reinstated it and we have to understand and respect that vote, but these amendments are a sensible compromise to clarify the circumstances in which the tort provision would apply. The litigant has to have sustained a loss and have exhausted other complaints procedures, notably the enhanced powers that this legislation gives to the Office for Students. I am very pleased that the Government have reiterated their support for those principles and recognised that this is how this tort provision should operate—very much as a last resort.
What these amendments would do is ensure that Clause 4 is very sensibly targeted. They would make it workable. In particular, they would remove the risk, which many of us on all sides of this House are concerned about, that a university, or even more so a student union, could find itself on day one receiving an investigation letter from the OfS and on day two receiving a lawyer’s letter threatening it with litigation. We thought that that was not a sensible or reasonable way to proceed, and indeed would obstruct the effective discharge of a regulatory function by the OfS.
I welcome the assurances that the Minister has given. The debate we have had on this legislation has been an excellent example of the role of your Lordships’ House as a revising Chamber. It has also reminded us of the shared values we have: a commitment to freedom of speech and diversity of opinion.
My Lords, I confess to be rather miffed by the Government’s acceptance of the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, because it deprives me of the ability to make the fire and brimstone remarks that I had planned to make. However, I certainly welcome the Government’s reaction to the excellent amendments of the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, and can as a result be quite brief.
On Clause 4, we have really come full circle and are back where we started. As has been pointed out, in our debates Clause 4 was subjected to many serious criticisms by noble Lords across the House, and I will not repeat them. In the face of those criticisms, at Report in this House the Government accepted a clarifying amendment from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Etherton, which incorporated a reference to damages in Clause 4. In a further attempt to meet these criticisms, the Government brought forward their own amendment, as the Minister has pointed out, which gave priority to the regulatory regime and deferred the ability of a private claimant to deploy Clause 4, pending those regulatory procedures being exhausted.
I respectfully urge your Lordships to support the amendments put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Willetts. As to those amendments, the loss point would clarify and emphasise the need for proof of damage as a condition for making a Clause 4 claim. It would deter some frivolous claims, and to that extent would be a valuable amendment.
The priority point in the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, is perhaps rather more important. The OfS will have extensive regulatory powers for dealing with an offending student union. Clause 7 would amend the Higher Education and Research Act 2017, whereby the OfS would be obliged to monitor student unions’ performance of their new duties. Importantly, the OfS would also be empowered to impose a financial penalty on a student union and seek an injunction in court. Common sense suggests that the Bill would be significantly improved if priority were given to the regulator and claimants were not able to invoke the private law cause of action until the regulatory function had been performed and completed. This was the Government’s view just a few weeks ago, and I am absolutely delighted that it still is their view—at least in this House.
If I may, I want to briefly draw attention to the email from Ministers which arrived while we were in the Chamber but before this debate began. I will reference the end of the sixth paragraph, which is a point to which the noble Lord adverted when he opened this debate just a few minutes ago. The letter says: “Those affected by the Bill are at the forefront of our minds and it is only right that we reflect that the Government may wish to explore further opportunities to achieve consensus when it returns to the Commons”. The only point I want to make about that is this. The implication of what is said there, and of what the Minister said at the Dispatch Box, is that there may be amendments in the other place that will take away the amendment that I hope we are now going to support, possibly without even a Division. My concern is this: I believe that that would not be a sensible thing for the other place to do.
I would urge one point: if there are felt concerns in the other place that are not satisfied by these amendments, a more appropriate route to be undertaken would be directed towards the regulators, rather than to diminish the quality of the amendment that I hope we are about to make. The regulators are very powerful—they have strong powers in the statute and in this Bill. In my view, the correct party to be concerned with in dealing with the kinds of concerns that trouble everybody in the story, and the proper starting position, is the regulator. That is what the regulator is there for. It would not be right, in my view, to undermine the quality of the amendments that have been put forward in respect of this provision without first facing the possibility that the regulator ought actually, if I may be blunt about it, to pull its finger out.
My Lords, I was all ready to welcome the restoration of the original Lords amendment to this Bill by the noble Earl, Lord Howe. Previously, I was despondent that we had passed legislation with no teeth, which was potentially a lame duck law, so I was delighted with the reinstated, stronger statutory tort in the Bill that would mean staff and students would have a robust backstop that allowed the ability to sue in the civil courts for breach of their speech rights. In explaining the change, the Minister said he has spoken to many noble Lords. But I am rather taken with the words of the Under-Secretary of State for Children, Claire Coutinho, who noted that she had spoken to many leading academics and that they shared her belief that the tort was necessary to secure cultural change on campus, and that that is why she had introduced the amendment I was prepared to welcome. I can ask only what on earth has changed, other than that the Minister has spoken to noble Lords rather than to leading academics or students.
It is disappointing that we are now being asked to accept a fudge, in the form of the amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Willetts. I fear it will mean that the new, enhanced free speech duties will be viewed as more box-ticking by university managers and student union bureaucrats.
Perhaps I can share my own recent lived experience—to use the fashionable jargon—of being cancelled. I hope at least my remarks will be heard by those in the other, elected place when they consider this debate. Last year, I was delighted to be invited by the University of London’s Royal Holloway debating society to give a talk this February. It was a lovely invitation, from a student called Ollie, who wrote: “We would absolutely love for you to speak to the society about your interesting career, and to talk about the Academy of Ideas and the House of Lords to our keen crop of debaters.” Never one to miss a chance to meet and talk to a keen crop of debaters, I set a date firmly in my diary and I reorganised a number of clashes.
Unbeknown to me—though this has become routine these days for student societies—behind the scenes the debating society had to go through onerous and bureaucratic checks imposed by the student union on whether I would be given permission to speak. Student unions these days have created a veritable cottage industry in safeguarding checks, risk assessments, et cetera. It was a complete pain for the students and time-consuming, and with an undoubted chilling effect on inviting outside speakers. That is what this Bill set out to address, was it not?
Eventually, I was given a clean bill of health by the student union. Apparently, there was no evidence that I was a hatemonger or a threat. However, just a week before I was due to speak, the debating society cancelled. What happened? Once the event was advertised, the same student union bureaucrats claimed that six societies had raised concerns about me coming on to campus, the evidence for which was that I retweeted a clip from a comic on Netflix. Maia Jarvis, the president of the student union, wrote a menacing message to the debating society, stating:
“I hope that you can see that Claire Fox retweets and praises a video of Ricky Gervais being overtly transphobic. I wonder if you have thought about the impact of bringing a person who is an advocate for hate towards trans people and publicly ridicules them. And whether you are comfortable with the fact that that is the message your society is sending out to RHUL trans students.”
Beyond the slanderous accusations against me—of course I am not an advocate for hate towards trans people or anyone else—I was slightly miffed that my crime was retweeting Ricky Gervais. Is that it? Have they never listened to any of my speeches here in the Lords? But seriously, this email, and a lot more messages of its type from the student union, which is supposedly impartial when judging outside speakers’ political views, was used as a form of coercive control and pressure to badger the debating society committee to cancel my talk, based on the specious slur that I have a history of sustained hate speech.
The message to the debating society was clear: my presence on campus would cause trouble and damage the reputation of the debating society’s officers. Indeed, when Adam, the president of the debating society, emailed to cancel the event, he admitted:
“I’ve decided to cancel for the sake of the future of the society and its reputation on campus … It is the only option I have at this point to protect the committee and the society for the future.”
He had been through the mill at this point. But he explained, and this is key:
“After back and forth with the SU, it seems that they will find any way to make your visit onto campus an issue of student safety and wellbeing. I see it as nothing less than bullying.”
That is the point: the student union bullied a society into disinviting a speaker it wanted to listen to. This is not about me. Yes, okay, my freedom of speech was curtailed, but much more significantly, although the student union did not formally cancel the talk, its hostile reactions created a situation in which students who were keen to hear different opinions were denied the right to do so on a university campus.
Omar, a PPE student who was then speaker of the house at Royal Holloway’s debating society, explained that he and his fellow students had worked extremely hard in organising the event and followed every procedure possible, but after all that they were “basically strong-armed” to cancel the talk. He then declared:
“I am determined to fight this, as the principles of free speech are something I care about deeply.”
How gratifying that students do. He asked if I might have any suggestions for people to contact or actions to take. At present, if a student union acts unfairly the only recourse open to a student or society is to ask the university authorities to step in. But to be honest, in the case of RHUL, this would not have helped.
Indeed, one of the most dispiriting aspects of this sorry affair was the response of Royal Holloway’s principal, Professor Julie Sanders, who, in a reply to the Free Speech Union, which took up the case on behalf of me and Omar, effectively said, “Nothing to see here”—a real abdication of responsibility with an “all procedures were followed” response. She took at face value the student union’s claim that no pressure was applied to force the debating society to change its mind about the event, even claiming that the student union was
“ready to work with them to make the event happen safely”.
Can I just state here that I am not and never have been a threat to the safety of any student?
Interestingly, the principal stressed that she was aware of the very legislation that we are discussing today and assured the FSU that the university, working with the student union, had considered these requirements in detail. If she has studied this legislation in detail and her response is “Nothing to see here”, you might wonder whether this legislation will make any difference. If she thinks the law would cover her letter as a sufficient response, we need to harden up this legislation so that university managers go beyond “considering” and make academic freedom a real core value of the institution.
Why did the principal not seek out the debating society and talk to Omar, Olly or Adam? I invited a small delegation in here for tea and cake. We talked through the issue, and their frustration and anger were totally real. One young woman, who described herself as a trans ally, and always believed that cancel culture was an exaggerated, culture wars trope, told me that she knew I had bigoted views but that they were not that bad and at least I was tolerant. She came to see me and said that she was horrified at events. She said that she would have taken me on in the debate. It was a debate about belief; that was the very point of inviting me in the first place—that we would have a debate and a discussion.
This Bill will remedy some of the problems but it does not only compel student unions, for the first time, to secure freedom of speech. It also requires that those student unions adopt a code of practice setting out how speaking events are to be arranged; we have heard the details of that. If, as in this case, a student union exerts improper pressure to get an event cancelled, the students and speakers can complain to the appropriate regulator—as we have heard, the free speech champion—who will be equipped with appropriate expertise and enforcement powers.
For me, that threat of civil litigation reintroduced into the Bill by the Government in the other place is what was required as a deterrent. That would have helped to ensure that free speech was taken seriously by bureaucrats who run universities or student unions. It is disappointing to me that government Ministers here have folded, and under far less pressure than Royal Holloway’s debating society. I am opposed to the amendment. I hope that the other place will think again about us thinking again when it gets to consider the decisions taken today.
My Lords, what the noble Baroness, Lady Fox of Buckley, has just said emphasises the main point I wish to make: that this applies to students just as much as to academics. The whole idea of freedom of thought is really important. We are bringing up our children to think that they must curtail their thought. I have a daughter at university at the moment and that is certainly her experience. The atmosphere of not being allowed to discuss and talk about things is prevalent. The Bill is really important in making a difference to that. I will be very interested to see what Members in the other place think of the amendments we send down to them.
We should not think that this is happening just in universities. On
My Lords, I am not sure that I am going to be offensive; I now feel that my presentation is lacking as a result. Let me at once declare an interest. I was the general secretary of the Association of University Teachers in times when the issue of—and necessity for—freedom of speech in universities was regarded as one of their paramount responsibilities.
I readily agree with the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, who said that that is fundamental to almost all of us who have been concerned with higher education. I appreciate what the Minister has said; this has been a very solid development. I also support the amendment the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, introduced, for much the same reasons as the noble Lord, Lord Grabiner.
I feel a sense of disappointment and sadness on behalf of the noble Baroness, Lady Fox. It is obviously never pleasant to be invited somewhere and then told you are not going to speak, but I urge her to get over it. The truth is that when you go into academic climates and start talking to academics, you are going to find—rather like with lawyers—that a large number will agree with you and a large number will disagree. They will tell you that with all the spitefulness, generosity and so on while they do it.
I have come across a lot of academics who want to make sure that the world of universities does not automatically become subsumed in a world in which people pursue litigation against one another, rather than try to resolve things through more sensible routes. It was bound to end in a reasonable compromise, and I think the Minister put that very fairly and very well.
In welcoming these developments, the academics who have bothered to get in touch with me have told me that the kind of change we are contemplating today is the kind they would find easiest to live with. They are more and more—probably in part because of the debates we have had—sympathetic and attentive to the problems that have been created by cancel culture. I used to cancel my own culture when I was a lecturer, largely by giving very erudite lectures on obscure mathematical problems. Very few people enjoyed them. There is only so much multiple regression you can hear about before you conclude that you should take yourself home because no one is going to be that interested, but it was what I was teaching.
That is why I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, that of course some people will be uncharitable and malevolent, but it is something we can get past with a sensible compromise of the kind we have seen—particularly in the light of the reservations the noble Lord, Lord Grabiner, has about it.
To clarify, as I stated earlier—this really is important—I do not have a right to a platform and I do not care if people disagree with me. I do not mind if students invite me and then disinvite me. All I care about is if students are bullied into disinviting me. It is for the students that I made the speech, not for myself. Who cares about my feelings? They are of no relevance.
My point is that many academics and students have looked to this Bill and the amendment. The noble Lord, Lord Triesman, has talked to people who want the compromise. I have talked to people who think it is a fudge. Let Parliament decide—fair enough—but I do not think anyone can claim they have spoken to all the academics, and this is the only answer. I think that this is a cop out.
My Lords, I just say to the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, that strictly speaking there should not be any interventions at this stage of the Bill.
Because we are not having that kind of iterative debate, I will refrain from making the point that I am not saying that I spoke only to academics who took the same view I might take. I am just saying that if you speak to academics, you will hear as many views as the number of academics you speak to; that is in the nature of the business.
I welcome the process we have gone through because it has alerted people to a very significant problem. A few days ago in your Lordships’ House, I heard somebody say that trigger warnings were now being attached to reading lists of some of the great classics from the English oeuvre. I was just about to embark on a re-reading of Northanger Abbey. If anybody has any advice for me about dangerous pages that I should avoid, I should be extremely grateful to hear it, because I would hate suddenly to find my entire spiritual underpinnings removed while reading Jane Austen.
This debate will leave a legacy. It will make everybody more attentive to the risks to free speech and academic freedom, and I am not at all sad that we have gone through the process if that is the outcome.
My Lords, I am conscious that, as a Conservative Back-Bencher loyally supporting the Government in season and out, I am probably a Member of this House worthy of least consideration when it comes to discussing the contents of this Bill. Despite my having taken part at every stage in its progress so far, I think I am forgiven for being somewhat confused.
We started out with a proposal for a statutory tort, which I am going to call “hard tort”. I turned out to support it, not only out of loyalty but because I strongly believe in it. On Report, recognising that there were some concerns about it, I had the privilege to table an amendment that had previously been tabled in Committee by my noble friend Lord Sandhurst, which would have retained the tort but allowed a judge to stay proceedings and instruct mediation to take place. I thought that a good compromise that could have been accepted, and I am going to call that “middle tort”.
However, my noble friend the Minister pre-empted me to some extent by coming forward with a proposal which allowed the tort to be accessed only after every possible complaints procedure had been exhausted; we might call that “soft tort”. Your Lordships’ House voted for “sort tort”, and then went with the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, and voted to remove the clause all together in addition, which we can call “no tort”.
Today I have turned out loyally, because I am encouraged to do so, in order to vote for “hard tort”. Here I am, and with only half an hour to go I see that the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, has now moved to the “soft tort” position and I am expected to give my support to it. So this is not simply a question of “how do you manage your team?”—that is a minor consideration and purely a whipping matter—but of what it is we are actually saying to the world with these goings on.
The noble Lord, Lord Triesman, said that the important thing here is that the Bill sends a signal to universities. It does in my view send a signal to universities: that this Parliament and this Government are not as concerned about how universities conduct themselves to maintain freedom of speech, as a principle and as an activity, as the Government originally said they should be. That is clearly the signal it sends, and as I have said before in Committee, strong emphasis is being placed on the role of the regulator because regulators are subject, wherever they appear, to capture by those being regulated. That is very much why those who support this, and the university leaders, are very comfortable with it.
Like the noble Baroness, Lady Fox of Buckley, I note that in the various choices between “hard tort”, “mid tort”, “soft tort” and “no tort”, at the end of this debate we will still have no idea. My noble friend has said that when it returns to the Commons, as it must, there will be scope for further compromise. Who knows what is going to come back—“hard”, “mid”, “soft”, nothing? Anything could come back to us from the Commons because clearly, the Government do not know what they want to do about this.
I strongly suggest to noble Lords that not only have we misconducted ourselves, as far as the management of this is concerned, but we are sending a very poor signal. It is most regrettable that we will agree to the amendment in the name of my noble friend Lord Willetts today. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Fox of Buckley, I very much hope that, when the Bill comes back from the Commons, someone will have found their backbone and the tort will have been restored.
My Lords, I apologise that I did not speak in the earlier debates on this matter because, as I recall, I had not made my maiden speech. I simply add my voice to those who regret my noble friend Lord Willetts’s Motion A1, which I do not support because, as other noble Lords pointed out, it waters down the small protection that existed with the original Clause 4 for academics in many institutions.
An institution has great power: it has powers of office, of man and woman power, of employment and of funds. The original Clause 4 gave a simple and cheaper way for an individual academic who was suffering because his or her freedom of speech was under threat. I assure noble Lords that it is under threat in many universities, and especially the one I know best: my own university, Cambridge. Hardly a day goes by without threat after threat reaching the newspapers of academic freedom being impinged on. I draw noble Lords’ attention to Arif Ahmed’s publications and submissions to an earlier Committee on the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill. The problem has not stopped.
For those reasons, I am worried about Motion A1 going through. It will make life much more expensive for individual academics, who often plough a lonely furrow against top-heavy and powerful institutions. I would like to restore the original Clause 4, which gives a straightforward and cheaper alternative to someone taking action against an institution. I do not believe that there will be vexatious causes that involve universities or institutions in long and litigious claims that cost money and time, because existing law covers these matters in many respects. Cheaper claims can be dealt with under protocols before action or by agreement.
So Clause 4 is necessary not only for free speech but for free thought. It is not just about student union bodies, although they should observe this; it is about how academics pursue their subjects and whether their reading lists and courses are in line with official thinking—universities have a powerful officialdom. For those reasons, I remind my noble friend Lord Willetts of his having to be smuggled into the University of Cambridge not many years ago. I do not believe that my noble friend’s amendment would prevent that happening again. I thank noble Lords for their attention.
My Lords, we have demonstrated that there remains a range of opinion about the nature and size of the problem, and the appropriate response to it. Therefore, a compromise amendment is perhaps the best point for us to end up at. Some of us feel that this is an unnecessary intervention into the autonomous institutions that are our universities, and conservatives are supposed to believe in the autonomy of institutions and in not promoting undue state interference. I remind those on the Conservative Benches that, if you are in favour of a smaller state and deregulation, particularly of banks and companies, you should be careful about how much you are in favour of detailed or excessive regulation of autonomous bodies like universities.
After all, our universities are very highly rated in global terms; they are an asset to this country. Boris Johnson, when he was Prime Minister, used to talk about them as one of the major planks of our soft power in the world. We need to be very careful that we do not damage them.
Listening to the noble Baroness, Lady Lawlor, I was thinking of my time as an undergraduate at the University of Cambridge, and the behaviour then was, in some ways, not entirely different from the way it is now. I recall the occasion when my wife and a number of other Oxford students prevented an ambassador from speaking at an Oxford student occasion, and of my first year as a university teacher at the University of Manchester, when a number of students blocked the Secretary of State for Education from speaking at a university event. These things are not entirely new.
As the Minister suggested, we have of course seen a number of cultural changes. While the cultural changes mean that universities have become more sensitive to student opinion because student funding has changed, another change is that social media has widened the debate about what is acceptable. It has imposed, from different directions, the new cancel culture among the young, which we did not have in my generation and in most of the time that Members of this House were at university. We all have to face that problem—it is not solely a university problem—and we have to answer it at the levels of political leadership and of society. I very much hope that, when the Bill returns to the Commons, the decision on this will not be reversed.
When we talk about culture, I am concerned about those who talk about a culture war. I have read two op-eds in the Sunday Telegraph in the last month which have suggested that the pursuit of a culture war is the way for the Conservatives to win the next election, and that they should imitate the example of Governor DeSantis of Florida, who is pursuing, so the articles argued, a successful culture war against wokeism, cultural Marxism and the universities of his state. I know that there are some on the right wing of the Conservative Party who would like us to go down that route, but it would be a very dangerous route. We do not want this country to become as divided a society as the United States has become, in which a governor educated at Yale and Harvard now says that he was exposed to communist ideas as an undergraduate at Yale—I suspect that that is a slight exaggeration—and who thinks that the way to ensure his path to a presidential nomination is by dividing the country between the educated and those who do not have higher education. We do not need that in this country, and it would be extremely dangerous for ring-wing Conservatives to try to take that direction.
On a different level, I find the argument that we should pass Bills so that we send a signal a rather worrisome idea; I think that we should pass Bills so that they actually do something, that they enforce something and that they change the way in which we behave. Sending signals is something which political speeches should do—not Acts of Parliament.
I ask the Minister about the time of the implementation of the future Act, now that the Bill has been delayed somewhat; it will clearly be delayed again by going back to the Commons. I hope that he can confirm that there will be no attempt to implement the Act in full by the beginning of this coming university year, because it will take universities some time to consider it. He may not be able to give me an answer at the moment, but that is an important fact that we now need to have addressed.
I hope that the Minister also takes note of some of the criticisms which the Committee on Standards in Public Life and others have made about the appropriateness of appointing committees. We heard the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, discuss regulatory capture, but we have also heard those who oversee public appointments committees talking about the inappropriateness of people who know very little about the subject for which a person is being appointed deciding on the nature of the appointment. There is a balance—which I hope the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, will accept—between regulatory capture and political appointments being made for political reasons, which is important when one is considering such a major asset to this country as our universities.
I welcome the Government’s acceptance of this amendment. I very much hope that the Common Sense Group and others on the right wing of the Conservative Party will not attempt to take it back when it comes to the Commons and that the Government will re-establish a relationship with our universities, both staff and students. The relationship between free speech for students and free speech for staff has, on occasions, been muddled in all our debates on this Bill. I hope, therefore, that this Bill as now amended will become law.
My Lords, I listened with great interest to what the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, had to say and I sympathised with the anguish he felt as a loyal Conservative supporter trying to deal with the problem the Government have presented him with. As a non-affiliated Peer I do not have that problem, but I share his anxiety about what the Government have done as it seems very vacillating and unhelpful.
I draw noble Lords’ attention to the famous words of Adam Smith that no people of the same trade are ever gathered together, even for diversion or merriment, without at some point conspiring against the public. It is lovely to have so many noble Peers in this House who hold or have held high positions in universities and university administrations—chancellors, vice-chancellors, professors and all the rest of them—but overall they constitute an interest. Their interest, naturally enough, is to believe that they are right, universities are well run and the critics are wrong. I ask them perhaps to consider that none of this would have come about if universities were being well run. These freedom of speech issues are very important and need some bolstering. When so many noble Peers who are associated with universities challenge and reject that, they must be conscious not to behave like trade union leaders in the 1980s who were defending powers that, it became clear, were unacceptable.
As a former trade union leader I am a bit hesitant to contribute, but let me just say to the noble Lord, Lord Moore, that what has been excellent about our consideration of this Bill from Second Reading through to Committee is how, through excellent scrutiny, we have tried to reach a consensus, not a compromise. That is the important thing. On Report I confessed that I had changed my mind about the need for this Bill. I accept that better, more effective regulation will help to change culture in a more sustainable way. All this emphasis on tort does not really help the real problem that we have heard described.
I will be brief. I appreciate the comments of the noble Lord on non-disclosure agreements—a key element in terms of openness and transparency. The duties and responsibilities of the regulator, and how they are applied, will be important; I accept that universities need time to properly do that. But they have been developing good practice and best practice. They have responsibilities to freedom of speech, and I absolutely support that. I stress that the Opposition’s approach to this Bill has been totally non-partisan. I have supported the amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Willetts. I have certainly encouraged him because I have listened across the board as we have moved through each stage, and I think we will end up with a better Bill. In fact, with the consensus that has been reached, we now have a better Bill.
Despite some of the Minister’s concerns about what might happen down the other end, across this House and across all political parties we have reached a consensus; let us put the matter to bed. With our non-partisan approach, I assure him that the Government will have the Opposition’s support on their support for the amendments from the noble Lord, Lord Willetts. We can safely say that this Bill shall pass, and it will pass to defend the freedom of speech values that we all share. That is an important step that we can make.
I hope that the Minister will feel reassured about our approach to this Bill and how we have listened, changed our minds and supported very important consensus changes, which I think will ensure that all academics and university institutions will support this legislation.
My Lords, there is little more for me to say, other than to thank noble Lords for their contributions to this debate and for the way in which, amid many doubts and hesitations, Members of the House have been willing to look for compromise and common ground on what I know has proved a difficult set of issues.
I thank in particular the noble Lord, Lord Grabiner, especially for his positive comments and remarks on the role of the regulator, as well as my noble friend Lord Lucas, the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, and, for his words about the need for us all to look for consensus, the noble Lord, Lord Collins.
I simply say to the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, that I too instinctively fight shy of the suggestion that Governments should unduly interfere with the workings of our universities. However, some of his remarks suggested to me that he does not accept that there is a serious problem to be addressed. If that is his view, I believe that he is in a minority in this House.
I think we have a large social problem, which has been partly raised by social media, in the intolerance of the young as a whole and cancel culture. It stretches across our society and we have to deal with it, but it is not purely a problem for universities, nor is it thoroughly based in universities—and it certainly does not result from indoctrination by left-wing staff.
I am grateful to the noble Lord, but I think we all agree that universities, par excellence, are places that should be safe spaces for freedom of speech, as my noble friend Lord Willetts said, whatever may happen outside the confines of the campus.
As to the timing of the coming into force of the Bill, I can tell the noble Lord that it will not be before the start of the next academic year. The Government need to consult on the regulations and indeed draft them, which will take a little time.
I simply cannot agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, that my noble friend Lord Willetts’s amendments represent a fudge—in other words, a watering down of the tort or a “soft tort”, as my noble friend Lord Moylan put it. With respect to my noble friend, I utterly disagree with him that the amendments send a signal, or any semblance of a signal, to the other place or the world that the Government are not serious about protecting freedom of speech in our universities. The idea of watering down, I suggest, is more theoretical than real.
As I said earlier, the vast majority of complaints will be successfully handled and dealt with without any need to go to court. However, where a complainant believes that that has not happened, they will still have the option of going to court. In other words, the amendments from my noble friend Lord Willetts underscore what we think will happen anyway.
I hope that Members of another place will come round to that view and that both Houses of Parliament will reach the endpoint that Ministers and the Government have felt it their duty to try to achieve, which is consensus.
My Lords, I want briefly to reflect on the important points that have been made. First, I think there is widespread recognition that there is a problem. Of course I understand the problem; I have been on the receiving end of exactly the kind of threats to freedom of speech that this law is trying to tackle. I have seen student unions protect my right to speak and I have seen student unions collapse under pressure to not allow me to speak. I have seen universities that have done their best to enable me to speak, even with shouting and jeering and protests outside, and I have seen universities cravenly collapse under pressure to not allow me to speak. I am absolutely aware of the issue, as I think Members across the House are. However, at no point when I faced these protests did it occur to me that the way to solve the problem was for me to have the right to sue somebody. That is the issue: what is the best way to deal with the problem?
I have to say that the path of the past decades has been to increase the power of regulation. The noble Baroness, Lady Fox, made a passionate intervention that began with a description of the bureaucracy involved in trying to prove that she was not a hatemonger. I am speculating, but I think I know where that bureaucracy comes from: it is the Prevent initiative. I remember my conversations with officials in the Home Office who said to me, “There are extremists being invited to speak at universities and we need to have a process to make sure extremists who will stir up hatred are not allowed to speak”. I remember meetings with Home Office Ministers where, if I may say so, it is possible that I made some of the points that the noble Baroness made. But the pressure was, “We cannot allow an unregulated approach; we need to know who these speakers are so we can check if they’re potentially going to infringe the law”. That, I suspect, is the origin of the bureaucracy. That is where it started, over a decade ago.
The noble Baroness recently had the shocking experience of not being able to speak at Royal Holloway college. But I do think that here she does this legislation a disservice. Faced with the problems she encountered, is it really the case and is she really confident that suing the student union, which is where the legal process would have started—and, clearly, she had some sympathy for the student union and the pressure it was under—is the way to resolve the problem?
The Bill envisages—and I have to say that Ministers have made it clear throughout that this is the way they see the Bill working—that, if the noble Baroness encounters a problem such as that, her first port of call is the Office for Students. I heard in several interventions noble Lords say, “It’s a patsy”, “It’s producer capture”, “It’s the university friends”. I would invite noble Lords on all sides of the House to read, for example, the recent letter of complaint from universities about the OfS, saying precisely that it was too aggressive, that it was not working with them and that it was a heavy-handed regulator. The idea that the OfS is some kind of patsy that has been put up to put off any intervention is a complete misreading of the powers that it already has under legislation steered through Parliament by my noble friend Lord Johnson of Marylebone and that are now enhanced by this legislation.
If the powers prove still to be inadequate—if someone still has a grievance even after the Office for Students and the OIA have investigated a complaint—at that point they can go to law; that is what these amendments, originally proposed by the Government last year and now proposed and brought before the House by me and others today, ensure. That is not some feeble abandonment of a commitment to freedom of speech; it is the right way to proceed.
This legislation is a powerful further intervention; it makes the legal framework absolutely clear. It means that any Member of this House, or any citizen who faces a challenge to their right to speak at a university, will know there is someone at the OfS who has an explicit legal responsibility for protecting their rights to freedom of speech. That is a very powerful provision, rightly reinforced, but only if the regulator fails by a power of tort as well. Therefore, I hope the House will support the amendments in my name and in the names of others in this House.
Motion A1 agreed.