Motion A1 (as an amendment to Motion A)

Part of Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill - Commons Reason – in the House of Lords at 5:00 pm on 21 March 2023.

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Photo of Lord Willetts Lord Willetts Conservative 5:00, 21 March 2023

My Lords, I want briefly to reflect on the important points that have been made. First, I think there is widespread recognition that there is a problem. Of course I understand the problem; I have been on the receiving end of exactly the kind of threats to freedom of speech that this law is trying to tackle. I have seen student unions protect my right to speak and I have seen student unions collapse under pressure to not allow me to speak. I have seen universities that have done their best to enable me to speak, even with shouting and jeering and protests outside, and I have seen universities cravenly collapse under pressure to not allow me to speak. I am absolutely aware of the issue, as I think Members across the House are. However, at no point when I faced these protests did it occur to me that the way to solve the problem was for me to have the right to sue somebody. That is the issue: what is the best way to deal with the problem?

I have to say that the path of the past decades has been to increase the power of regulation. The noble Baroness, Lady Fox, made a passionate intervention that began with a description of the bureaucracy involved in trying to prove that she was not a hatemonger. I am speculating, but I think I know where that bureaucracy comes from: it is the Prevent initiative. I remember my conversations with officials in the Home Office who said to me, “There are extremists being invited to speak at universities and we need to have a process to make sure extremists who will stir up hatred are not allowed to speak”. I remember meetings with Home Office Ministers where, if I may say so, it is possible that I made some of the points that the noble Baroness made. But the pressure was, “We cannot allow an unregulated approach; we need to know who these speakers are so we can check if they’re potentially going to infringe the law”. That, I suspect, is the origin of the bureaucracy. That is where it started, over a decade ago.

The noble Baroness recently had the shocking experience of not being able to speak at Royal Holloway college. But I do think that here she does this legislation a disservice. Faced with the problems she encountered, is it really the case and is she really confident that suing the student union, which is where the legal process would have started—and, clearly, she had some sympathy for the student union and the pressure it was under—is the way to resolve the problem?

The Bill envisages—and I have to say that Ministers have made it clear throughout that this is the way they see the Bill working—that, if the noble Baroness encounters a problem such as that, her first port of call is the Office for Students. I heard in several interventions noble Lords say, “It’s a patsy”, “It’s producer capture”, “It’s the university friends”. I would invite noble Lords on all sides of the House to read, for example, the recent letter of complaint from universities about the OfS, saying precisely that it was too aggressive, that it was not working with them and that it was a heavy-handed regulator. The idea that the OfS is some kind of patsy that has been put up to put off any intervention is a complete misreading of the powers that it already has under legislation steered through Parliament by my noble friend Lord Johnson of Marylebone and that are now enhanced by this legislation.

If the powers prove still to be inadequate—if someone still has a grievance even after the Office for Students and the OIA have investigated a complaint—at that point they can go to law; that is what these amendments, originally proposed by the Government last year and now proposed and brought before the House by me and others today, ensure. That is not some feeble abandonment of a commitment to freedom of speech; it is the right way to proceed.

This legislation is a powerful further intervention; it makes the legal framework absolutely clear. It means that any Member of this House, or any citizen who faces a challenge to their right to speak at a university, will know there is someone at the OfS who has an explicit legal responsibility for protecting their rights to freedom of speech. That is a very powerful provision, rightly reinforced, but only if the regulator fails by a power of tort as well. Therefore, I hope the House will support the amendments in my name and in the names of others in this House.

Motion A1 agreed.