Motion A1 (as an amendment to Motion A)

Part of Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill - Commons Reason – in the House of Lords at 4:45 pm on 21 March 2023.

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Photo of Baroness Lawlor Baroness Lawlor Conservative 4:45, 21 March 2023

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.