Motion A

Part of Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill - Commons Amendment – in the House of Lords at 6:00 pm on 10 May 2023.

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Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe Deputy Leader of the House of Lords 6:00, 10 May 2023

My Lords, we return to consider the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill for what I hope will be the final time. I thank noble Lords once again for the insightful debates that we have had on this important Bill, which is designed to ensure that the higher education sector in England is protected from the chilling effects of cancel culture which have been taking hold on campuses and in other areas of our society.

As noble Lords will recall, the statutory tort has generated some animated debate in this House. I am glad that we have now all agreed that this crucial measure should remain part of the Bill, though the final wording remains for consideration. On 2 May, the other place accepted this House’s Amendments 10B, 10C and 10D, which noble Lords voted to include in the Bill on 21 March. Mirroring Amendment 10E and building on these amendments, the Government tabled further amendments which seek to satisfy both Houses as well as academics and advocates of free of speech. These are what are now before us to consider.

The proposed new subsection (2) deals with an issue that we have discussed in this House before, in response to an amendment tabled by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Etherton. I said on Report that loss

“is not limited to pecuniary loss and could include damage to reputation, for example”.—[Official Report, 7/12/22; col. 207]

This amendment simply makes this point clear in the Bill. Proposed new subsections (3) and (4) mirror this House’s Amendment 10E, and (5) adds a helpful nuance to our already agreed position, that civil proceedings should be a last resort once the complaints schemes of the Office for Students or the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education have been exhausted.

Some Members of the other place expressed concern that the Bill, as returned to them from this House, would prevent individuals from seeking an injunction where swift action is required to rectify a breach of the specified freedom of speech duties. For example, if a student is expelled from their course by a higher education provider because of a freedom of speech issue, this amendment would mean that the court could make an order requiring the provider to let the student back on the course immediately, thereby avoiding the need for the individual to put their life on hold and delay pursuing their studies, which would otherwise ensue.

In a case such as this, a recommendation made by the OfS or the OIA may simply come too late to avoid such damage. We believe that such cases are likely to be rare. Seeking an injunction is financially costly. Injunctions are a discretionary remedy and the courts do not grant them easily. We are clear that the overwhelming majority of complaints that allege a breach of the freedom of speech duties will proceed, as has always been envisaged, via the schemes that are operated by the OfS and the OIA. I hope that noble Lords will therefore accept the amendments from the other place, so that this Bill can proceed to Royal Assent. I beg to move.