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.