Motion A1 (as an amendment to Motion A)

Part of Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill - Commons Reason – in the House of Lords at 4:30 pm on 21 March 2023.

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Photo of Lord Triesman Lord Triesman Labour 4:30, 21 March 2023

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.