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 Willetts Lord Willetts Conservative 6:15, 10 May 2023

My Lords, we are now reaching the conclusion of what has been a long, time-consuming, complex process, and I think the process of revising and scrutinising this legislation has meant that we have ended up with a Bill that is better designed and stronger and more effective than when we started.

The further amendment which the noble Earl, Lord Howe, has introduced today, having been passed in the other place, recognises a genuine grievance. I can understand absolutely that, in some situations, you need an injunction to move fast. We heard from the noble Baroness opposite about this in a previous debate. The argument that there will be circumstances where an injunction will reinforce the freedom of speech is a powerful one.

I think the noble Lord, Lord Grabiner, was perhaps pessimistic. It will depend on decisions of courts as to whether there is a reasonable case for an injunction. I can certainly see circumstances where that is necessary, but anything more that the Minister can say about what those circumstances are would be very helpful.

I think all of us in all different parts of the House want to see universities functioning as places where people learn how to disagree. That is what we hope to see in our universities, and there is concern that they are finding it harder to discharge that role than they did.

Finally, can I just ask the Minister on three other specific points? First, there is a danger that this legislation has the opposite effect to the one intended and the panoply of regulation and legal challenge means that people try to go for the safe option of just not inviting outside speakers in the first place. It would be really helpful therefore if we tracked over time the number of outside speakers invited to and speaking at universities. Surely one simple and obvious measure of whether this legislation is working is whether the number of outside speakers rises or falls. If it starts to fall, we will have to look again. If it rises, we will be confident that the Bill has had the desired effect.

Secondly, I believe in the autonomy of universities. One of the strengths of our university system is absolutely that universities are self-governing bodies. That is what “universitas” means—self-contained and self-governing. The Minister will be aware that the ONS is now investigating the status of universities and whether they should be defined as entering the public sector. There are lots of ways in which the Government can expand the state, and one way is by intervening so heavily and so frequently that in reality these institutions become public institutions. It would be a disaster for the British model of higher education if our universities become part of the public sector. I hope the Minister will also give the House an assurance that the Government will do everything they can to ensure that this external assessment by the ONS—assessing how much autonomy universities have and whether they should be regarded now as part of the public sector—means that universities continue to enjoy the autonomy which ensures that they do not enter the public sector.

Thirdly, and finally, it would be helpful to know a bit more about the next steps, particularly the important nitty-gritty detail of the way in which the OfS will interpret the duty to promote freedom of speech. There is guidance to be written, which needs to be debated, considered and discussed. It would be helpful to hear from the Minister how that will work and what the timescale for it will be.

We wish this legislation well and all of us hope that, as a result, we see freedom of speech in our universities even more strongly protected than it is at the moment.