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 Baroness Fox of Buckley Baroness Fox of Buckley Non-affiliated 4:15, 21 March 2023

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.