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 Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office) 4:45, 21 March 2023

My Lords, we have demonstrated that there remains a range of opinion about the nature and size of the problem, and the appropriate response to it. Therefore, a compromise amendment is perhaps the best point for us to end up at. Some of us feel that this is an unnecessary intervention into the autonomous institutions that are our universities, and conservatives are supposed to believe in the autonomy of institutions and in not promoting undue state interference. I remind those on the Conservative Benches that, if you are in favour of a smaller state and deregulation, particularly of banks and companies, you should be careful about how much you are in favour of detailed or excessive regulation of autonomous bodies like universities.

After all, our universities are very highly rated in global terms; they are an asset to this country. Boris Johnson, when he was Prime Minister, used to talk about them as one of the major planks of our soft power in the world. We need to be very careful that we do not damage them.

Listening to the noble Baroness, Lady Lawlor, I was thinking of my time as an undergraduate at the University of Cambridge, and the behaviour then was, in some ways, not entirely different from the way it is now. I recall the occasion when my wife and a number of other Oxford students prevented an ambassador from speaking at an Oxford student occasion, and of my first year as a university teacher at the University of Manchester, when a number of students blocked the Secretary of State for Education from speaking at a university event. These things are not entirely new.

As the Minister suggested, we have of course seen a number of cultural changes. While the cultural changes mean that universities have become more sensitive to student opinion because student funding has changed, another change is that social media has widened the debate about what is acceptable. It has imposed, from different directions, the new cancel culture among the young, which we did not have in my generation and in most of the time that Members of this House were at university. We all have to face that problem—it is not solely a university problem—and we have to answer it at the levels of political leadership and of society. I very much hope that, when the Bill returns to the Commons, the decision on this will not be reversed.

When we talk about culture, I am concerned about those who talk about a culture war. I have read two op-eds in the Sunday Telegraph in the last month which have suggested that the pursuit of a culture war is the way for the Conservatives to win the next election, and that they should imitate the example of Governor DeSantis of Florida, who is pursuing, so the articles argued, a successful culture war against wokeism, cultural Marxism and the universities of his state. I know that there are some on the right wing of the Conservative Party who would like us to go down that route, but it would be a very dangerous route. We do not want this country to become as divided a society as the United States has become, in which a governor educated at Yale and Harvard now says that he was exposed to communist ideas as an undergraduate at Yale—I suspect that that is a slight exaggeration—and who thinks that the way to ensure his path to a presidential nomination is by dividing the country between the educated and those who do not have higher education. We do not need that in this country, and it would be extremely dangerous for ring-wing Conservatives to try to take that direction.

On a different level, I find the argument that we should pass Bills so that we send a signal a rather worrisome idea; I think that we should pass Bills so that they actually do something, that they enforce something and that they change the way in which we behave. Sending signals is something which political speeches should do—not Acts of Parliament.

I ask the Minister about the time of the implementation of the future Act, now that the Bill has been delayed somewhat; it will clearly be delayed again by going back to the Commons. I hope that he can confirm that there will be no attempt to implement the Act in full by the beginning of this coming university year, because it will take universities some time to consider it. He may not be able to give me an answer at the moment, but that is an important fact that we now need to have addressed.

I hope that the Minister also takes note of some of the criticisms which the Committee on Standards in Public Life and others have made about the appropriateness of appointing committees. We heard the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, discuss regulatory capture, but we have also heard those who oversee public appointments committees talking about the inappropriateness of people who know very little about the subject for which a person is being appointed deciding on the nature of the appointment. There is a balance—which I hope the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, will accept—between regulatory capture and political appointments being made for political reasons, which is important when one is considering such a major asset to this country as our universities.

I welcome the Government’s acceptance of this amendment. I very much hope that the Common Sense Group and others on the right wing of the Conservative Party will not attempt to take it back when it comes to the Commons and that the Government will re-establish a relationship with our universities, both staff and students. The relationship between free speech for students and free speech for staff has, on occasions, been muddled in all our debates on this Bill. I hope, therefore, that this Bill as now amended will become law.