Motion A

Part of Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill - Commons Amendment – in the House of Lords at 6:15 pm on 10 May 2023.

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Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office) 6:15, 10 May 2023

My Lords, this has been a long process for a Bill that started two years ago. There have been five changes of Secretary of State for Education since then, more changes of junior Minister, and a certain sense that many of us have had that some of the Ministers guiding the Bill through both Houses were not as enthusiastic about it in all its forms as some of their Back-Benchers were. I regret that we have this further amendment, which I do not think strengthens the Bill. The compromise we agreed last time was better and I was not happy to read the debate in the Commons, where it was evident that the Common Sense Group was doing its best to push back to put harder elements into the Bill.

I have spoken already about the colonisation of the right wing of the Conservative Party by the American Republicans and various other right-wing foundations there. I note yet again how Miriam Cates cited various American sources in her short speech. I note that James Sunderland made the positively Trumpian remark that one of the reasons why all these left-wing blogs were attacking people like him was that they did not like the truth, which was what, clearly, the Government ought to be standing for; Truth Social is, of course, Trump’s rival to Twitter.

We need to think carefully about what we understand by freedom of speech. Members of this House will have noticed perhaps the story in the Times and “Newsnight” last week that the Cabinet Office had been looking back through social media posts of people invited to talk to senior civil servants there and cancelling the invitation if it was found that they had said things overcritical of the Government.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, has just said, perhaps uncharacteristically, freedom of speech is about diversity of opinion—and it needs to be diversity of opinion. I remind Ministers and others of the excellent Second Reading speech from the Conservative Benches which also said that universities are “autonomous institutions”. Conservatives are in favour of the principle of limited government and limited intervention in the affairs of autonomous institutions, and we need to be careful how much the state intervenes.

We have now come clearly to the end. This is an unsatisfactory compromise but, as so often, that is where we end up. The appointment of the free speech champion is now key and I hope that our Ministers here will do their best to ensure that this is seen to be as fair and open and uninfluenced by those on the right as possible. The hints we get of that appointment suggest to me that things are perhaps moving in the right direction but, if this is going to work, it is important that it is seen to be fair and acceptable to all sides.

I remind the Minister also that our universities are a huge national asset and a very important source of invisible exports, and that the damage done to our universities by the appearance of wider state interference in their autonomy, rather than leaving them to manage their own affairs—making mistakes, as even the Government occasionally do, but managing things on the whole not too badly—would damage Britain’s reputation around the world and damage Britain’s economy.

I also just remark to Ministers and those on the Conservative Benches that one of the analyses of the local election results last week suggested that the sharpest decline in voting Conservative had come from people who were university graduates. That ought to worry Conservatives. To be seen as the anti-intellectual party should be a source of unhappiness to all except those who believe in the liberal elite conspiracy theory that Britain is somehow governed by an invisible elite of university graduates, BBC presenters, academics and the like.

Having said that, I accept that we are where we are. We have come to the end on the Bill and it is time to leave it as it stands. But I hope Ministers will take back that how this is implemented and, in particular, how the next appointment is made will make a great difference to the degree of confidence that universities’ staff and students have in how the Bill is applied and, in the longer term, to the value of their international reputation and national standing.