Motion A1 (as an amendment to Motion A)

Part of Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill - Commons Reason – in the House of Lords at 4:15 pm on 21 March 2023.

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Photo of Lord Willetts Lord Willetts Conservative 4:15, 21 March 2023

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 7 December. It is evidence of his common sense and wisdom that he is supporting them now, as he did then.

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.