Examination of Witnesses

Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:37 am on 7th September 2021.

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Trevor Phillips and Professor Nigel Biggar gave evidence.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch 10:31 am, 7th September 2021

We welcome our second panel: Trevor Phillips OBE, who is joining remotely via Zoom, and Professor Nigel Biggar CBE, who is the Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology at Oxford University.

Photo of Matt Western Matt Western Shadow Minister (Education)

Q Welcome to you both. Thank you for joining us and for your written submissions. A question to both of you: English PEN, one of the world’s oldest human rights organisations, raised concerns about whether a director for freedom of speech and academic freedom will be a regulator, an adjudicator or an adviser on free speech issues? How do you envisage the role of the director? Do you have concerns over the independence of the role and whether the director could infringe academic freedom in and of itself?

Trevor Phillips:

Good morning. Thank you very much for the invitation to join this conversation. I am, of course, a great respecter of English PEN and in my role—I guess I am principally appearing here as chair of Index on Censorship, which is the global freedom of expression advocate, 50 years old—we work rather closely with English PEN. Today we publish censored work in our quarterly magazine, build our “Banned by Beijing” campaign and fight for freedom of journalists, for example, in places such as Belarus.

The reason I make that point is that Index broadly supports the intention of the Bill, but coming to the specific question you asked me, from our point of view we look at this from the international perspective. Many of those who face censorship regard Britain as an exemplar and use us as a standard to aspire to. However, so do authoritarians of all political stripes. Any extension of the state’s power over speech at home can be used by those who want to as a means of, as an example, limiting freedom of expression. Your point about the regulator is an important one. To be honest, unless the regulator is actually a regulator of behaviour, there seems little point. Universities do not lack for advice of various kinds.

The important point about this post is that he or she should be a protector of the freedom of expression of students and academics—and indeed, by the way, those who are not academics. For example, there was a case in Cambridge where a porter essentially lost his job because of a view he expressed. In my view, if we are going to go down this road, that individual role has to be the role of a regulator and a protector of freedom of expression.

A very good example at the moment that is not much talked about is the position of international students. I welcome the presence of international students: I was one myself many moons ago. But we have concerns that certain countries—I am specifically thinking of China—covertly monitor and try to control the behaviour of their students. That has been exacerbated by the introduction of security laws in Hong Kong. It seems to me that a regulator should have the will, the power and the capability to ensure that those students and their right to express their opinions are protected.

Photo of Matt Western Matt Western Shadow Minister (Education)

Q Thank you. Can I ask Professor Biggar the same question?

Professor Biggar:

One of your questions was whether the director would be simply an adviser or a regulator-adjudicator. Certainly the second, because he or she would be responsible for judging complaints. That is an adjudicator role. What is more, I imagine that one of the main jobs of the director would be to develop and publish guidance, which would carry authority, so it is more than just advisory.

I think your next question had to do with the impartiality of the director. Those who think there is no problem would prefer a director who agrees with them and changes nothing. Those who think there is a problem want a director who is going to effect a corrective bias. So, someone like me, who thinks there is a problem—and I guess the Government do, given the legislation—wants a director who has a certain partiality of that kind.

Beyond that, the director will occupy a public position. I take it that it will be made clear to the director that this is not to be used for private, partisan purposes. It is a public position. Whatever advice the director is to give will be within the law and it will have to take account of different bodies of law, the Equality Act on one hand and legislation dealing with free speech on the other. There are various constraints but I am not worried about that.

Photo of Matt Western Matt Western Shadow Minister (Education)

Q Can I come back to Sir Trevor? In November 2020, Sir Trevor, you wrote of a “dark edge of censoriousness” emerging. I think that was in an article that appeared in The Times. You will be aware of this creeping sense of Government interference in, say, the appointment of members to boards of trustees of museums and appointments to universities and elsewhere. Do you think that more oversight of the sector through the director will not be merely the inverse of the edge of censoriousness but will actually favour the Government?

Trevor Phillips:

No more so than in any other Administration. By the way, there may be a sound problem, but I think you called me “Sir Trevor”. Her Majesty has not made that mistake; that would be a major error. The creeping edge of censoriousness is, to be honest, rather little to do with Government. There is often confusion about the word “independent”, particularly in higher education. People tend to use the word “independent” when they actually mean opposition to Government.

I do not think there is any danger of the higher education sector as a whole developing a culture of deference to the existing Government. My reference to the creeping edge of censoriousness was far more in relation to peer pressure and the emergence of self-censorship. We have noticed something at Index. Over the past couple of years we have run a campaign to try to increase the resilience of students in being able to express their opinions. We have run some training courses and so on. We do not think that the real big problem here is that everybody is looking over their shoulder and saying to themselves, “What does the Secretary of State for Education or Secretary of State for Culture think about what I am about to say in a seminar?” They are more concerned, if they are students, about whether an unfashionable or “unorthodox” view may get them marked down in exams. If they are junior academics, I think they are more concerned about whether their professors, who have no qualms about expressing their political views, may decide that the next time there is an opportunity for preferment, their views make them less likely to be favoured than someone else. My view about the issue of censoriousness is that it is far more a question of self-censorship. What we are concerned about, I guess, in relation to the legislation is that you can do quite a lot with law, but you need to support it with a clear cultural programme that supports, advocates and promotes diversity of opinion within the institutions.

Photo of Michelle Donelan Michelle Donelan Minister of State (Education)

Q My first question is to Trevor. You have spoken in the past about the erosion of free speech. How exactly do you think that the Bill will tackle that?

Trevor Phillips:

It is a short Bill, which perhaps begins to close some gaps. Simply, the process of debating it will help to highlight some of the issues about which we are concerned, but the central proposition, which is that there should be some regulatory apparatus and guidance, is valuable. We think that it is important that there is not a wild west here. To be completely honest, my own view is that if the university authorities had been doing their jobs properly, behaved like grown-ups and taken responsibility for what is happening on campuses, this would not be necessary.

However, what in the last three to five years we have seen example after example of where university authorities have essentially abdicated their responsibility to protect their own academics and students. That is why the Bill appears to have value. Because the university authorities are not doing their jobs, the Government have felt it necessary to step in. That does not mean that I think that everything that is being proposed is absolutely on the money, but I can see why it is felt necessary to do something of this kind.

Photo of Michelle Donelan Michelle Donelan Minister of State (Education)

Q You have spoken before about people losing their livelihood for saying what they think is perfectly lawful. Are there any examples that you would be willing to share with the Committee?

Trevor Phillips:

Some of these are public. There is the case of the Cambridge porter who said something that was regarded as disobliging on the issue of gender and trans. Eventually, he had to step down from his role. There is the case, again, of Noah Carl at Cambridge. I suspect that Professor Biggar will probably have more examples to offer you, but if you would like I can certainly follow up with a note on that.

If I may respond honestly, my view is that the bigger risk is not that there are a few celebrated, or notorious, I should say, cases of people who have lost their livelihood; the bigger issue for me is that what is happening now is that people can see that they could lose their livelihood and therefore do not engage in what universities are for, which is free and open debate and, even more importantly, unbiased, courageous inquiry. One of things that we know—this I cannot give you examples of, because I do not have permission—is that there are some lines of inquiry, not just in the humanities but in science, that are not pursued because people who would pursue them think that it would be too controversial.

Perhaps I can give you a very simple example. Twelve years ago, when I was in public office as chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, I tried very hard to get a university or some other research body to do some work on the academic success of children of Chinese heritage. For two years we offered money. No institution would take up that research project because they said—I had this from three or four of them—that it would stigmatise other ethnic groups. I thought that was an important thing to understand, not least because other minority groups and, we now know, the majority community in this country, could learn from the success of that group. Up until now—right to today—we have no knowledge of why that group is so consistently successful academically. That surely is one of the losses we are seeing because of what I may have called creeping censoriousness.

Photo of Michelle Donelan Michelle Donelan Minister of State (Education)

Q I have one last question to both panellists. The Bill is designed to protect lawful free speech, but some Opposition commentators have argued that it would protect unlawful free speech. Could you both clarify whether you share that view or whether you believe that the Bill would protect only lawful free speech?

Professor Biggar:

My view is that the Bill would protect lawful free speech. The law as it stands prohibits speech that would incite violence or racial hatred or hatred against people for their religion and so on, and the Bill would not change that. We have already heard concerns about holocaust denial. Under the law as it stands, in the light of European Court of Human Rights case law, holocaust denial is not unlawful; it is just that if you give expression to such a view and you are denied a platform or suffer some detriment, you cannot claim the protection of the law. It is a delicate position. I do not think this Bill is going to protect unlawful speech.

Photo of Michelle Donelan Michelle Donelan Minister of State (Education)

Q Do you share that view, Trevor?

Trevor Phillips:

Yes. I do not really see what in the text of the Bill would produce that result. I think you would have to construct a very outlandish scenario for that to happen.

Photo of Lloyd Russell-Moyle Lloyd Russell-Moyle Labour/Co-operative, Brighton, Kemptown

Trevor, you mentioned the porter. That would not be covered under the Bill. Do you think the Bill therefore needs to be expanded?Q

Trevor Phillips:

Forgive me—you say I mentioned the what?

Photo of Lloyd Russell-Moyle Lloyd Russell-Moyle Labour/Co-operative, Brighton, Kemptown

The porter is not an academic member of staff. A porter is a non-academic member of staff, without academic privileges. My understanding is that they would not be covered under the Bill. Are you suggesting that the Bill would need to be expanded to all contractors? Most porters in most universities now are not even necessarily employed directly by the university; the services are subcontracted out. Are you saying that it should be expanded to all contractors—to everybody that the university has a relationship with?

Trevor Phillips:

No. The individual was an employee, actually, in the same way as an academic.

Trevor Phillips:

I am not a lawyer, but I do not think in terms of employment law there is any differentiation.

Photo of Lloyd Russell-Moyle Lloyd Russell-Moyle Labour/Co-operative, Brighton, Kemptown

I agree with you that it is very worrying when people are dismissed for expressing views that do not relate to their job—a porter expressing a political view one way or another should not make a difference. If it does extend to the porter, which I am not sure it does, why should they get different protections from a porter at a hospital or a supermarket? Should we not be talking about extending protections, if they are needed, to all peoples in all workplaces?Q

Trevor Phillips:

I think I understand the premise of your question, but I do not really agree with it. The expression of an opinion, one way or another, should be protected, whatever your job. The reason that this particular individual ran into difficulty was not because he was not being asked to lecture students. He was a Labour councillor, and I think it was in that context that he uttered the views that were thought to be disobliging. The point here is that the censorship that is taking place is not just to do with what academics may be saying to their students in tutorials or lectures; the censorship here is being exercised against any individual who happens to be associated with the institution who may or may not take a view or write something in any guise.

We can take the case, for example, of Noah Carl. I do not agree with anything Noah Carl has written, by the way. However, the criticism of him was that he wrote an article in a journal that also published views that were disobliging; it was not actually about his views. The point here is that I do not think there is anything in this Bill, or indeed the harm that it is designed to remedy, that separates the questions of what might be said as part of a job and what might be said as a human being.

Photo of Lloyd Russell-Moyle Lloyd Russell-Moyle Labour/Co-operative, Brighton, Kemptown

Q The Bill gives protection for people to express things within their field of expertise. That means academic staff, not people who profess views outside of their expertise; they could still suffer consequences according to the Bill. That is where we are.

To both of you, I am interested in who does the judging of where the limits of free speech are. You could say something controversial, something that somebody thinks is Islamophobic or antisemitic. In your view it might not be and you have the right to express that view, but surely there is a right to a backlash and for people to express their distaste for distasteful views. There is a right to offend, but there is also the right to be offended. How do you stop a chilling effect when stopping people’s right to express their distaste?

Professor Biggar:

Of course people have a right to express distaste of any views they wish. My own view is that universities ought to be in the business of teaching future citizens to express their passionately held views civilly, rationally and robustly, without abuse. If universities do not train citizens to be civil in that fashion, we can expect violence on the streets way down the line, to be melodramatic. Within the law, it seems to me that universities should impose norms of civility on either side. But it is not just a matter of people expressing their distaste at gender-critical feminists or critics of Black Lives Matter or people who think the British empire was not entirely wicked. It is not just that; it is the use of political means to apply political pressure—not rational but political—and it is the use of aggressive abuse.

Photo of Lloyd Russell-Moyle Lloyd Russell-Moyle Labour/Co-operative, Brighton, Kemptown

Q How do you limit people applying political pressure? What you are saying is that the regulator needs to come in and say that the university has not limited other people’s ability to apply political pressure. I get that universities should have guidelines about balance and civility, but if it breaks down and the regulator steps in, what is the regulator actually checking? That the university has not restricted other people’s political expression?

Trevor Phillips:

There is no right to a backlash. In common law there is a right to protest in this country. I would have gladly seen something in this legislation that referred to that, but the truth is that we do have that right. The issue here is of culture and resilience. For far too long—10 years—I was chair of two regulators: the Commission for Racial Equality and the Equality and Human Rights Commission. Most of our work was not prohibitive; most of it was either permissive or educational. The EHRC publishes books and books of guidance, some statutory, most non-statutory. The aim of that kind of guidance is not to impose threats and hammers, but to give some idea of what the right norms are. That is why this is so important. There is a variety of informal ways in which freedom of expression can be suppressed without breaking any law that you could possibly draft.

Alongside the legislation, there has to be a programme of action to protect diversity of opinion within the higher education sector. That is part of the role of the regulator. The regulator is not a censor; it is there to moderate behaviour, and there are different ways in which that regulator might moderate behaviour. Some of it will be by prohibition and law, but most of it, for every regulator, is through guidance, encouragement, comparison, publication of best practice, and so on.

We ought not to get into a conversation where we simply think of this regulator as a revived Lord Chancellor, with his or her blue pencil, swooping on every campus, looking out for bad guys. The big part of this regulator’s work will be publishing work that demonstrates best practice and the code by which university authorities, and those who are under their aegis, can best guarantee and promote diversity of opinion and freedom of expression.

Photo of Felicity Buchan Felicity Buchan Conservative, Kensington

One of my concerns is self-censorship and the degree to which it already exists, not only among the academic body but also among the student body. By definition, it is quite difficult to measure self-censorship and the extent to which it exists. Could you outline how large a problem you believe it to beQ ?

Professor Biggar:

You are right that, by its nature, it is hard to detect and measure, but there is plenty of anecdotal evidence, and I can tell you from my own experience. The clearest evidence of fear and self-censorship among academics was mentioned by Arif Ahmed earlier: his experience in Cambridge of spending a month trying to get 24 academics to put their heads above the parapet to sign a bit of a paper backing a motion against university policy. It took him a month to get 24 people to do that, but when the vote was held by secret ballot, it went overwhelmingly against the university, by several hundred academics. When those academics were liberated to express their views in secret, they did it, but they would not do it in public. That is one instance, but I think it is a signal instance. I urge you not to underestimate the degree of fear, even among senior academics.

Trevor Phillips:

Yes, I agree with Professor Biggar. It is pretty difficult—like proving a negative. People who are too frightened to express their opinions will not tell you that they are too frightened to express their opinions. However, we do know that there are many examples.

Personally, I am a bit less concerned about the issue of meetings not being held and so on, and far more concerned about the extent to which academic and intellectual inquiry is being curbed by a culture that says “This thing will be controversial and too much hassle. I’m going to put my effort into something that nobody’s going to argue very much about.” That, I think, is a real, huge danger for the higher education sector in this country. We have lost what the Americans would call the “speak up culture”—the pleasure in disputation and the belief that testing arguments will always improve the state of knowledge. If there is a job for the regulator, it is to restore the confidence of all the members of university communities that it is okay to take a view; that, essentially, it is okay to say things that you know might offend other people, if you believe them to be correct. I do not think we want to encourage gratuitous insult or unnecessary offence, but above all, our institutions are there to encourage intellectual inquiry.

One practical step that might be embodied in the guidance, if not in the legislation itself, is that the default position in universities when it comes to meetings in particular is that they should always be open to all members of that community, so that every point of view is open to challenge. That is at the heart of this: there should be a culture of challenge. Secondly, what we have tried to do at Index is to help students to learn the habits of resilience that allow them to participate in those robust debates.

Photo of Felicity Buchan Felicity Buchan Conservative, Kensington

Q How big an issue do you think self-censorship is among the student body, as opposed to the academic body?

Professor Biggar:

Common sense would say that if grown-up academics are scared, then much more vulnerable students will be even more scared. I mentioned anecdotes. You may know that I got myself into trouble four years ago about my project on colonialism in Oxford, as a consequence of which the Oxford Centre for Global History mounted an official boycott of my project. I then had an approach from a junior research fellow—not a student, but a very junior, insecure academic, without a full-time career ahead of him—who said he agreed with my views and he would like to attend my conference, in May 2018, but would do so with two conditions. Those were that his name appeared nowhere and his photograph appeared nowhere, because he shared an office with two people who had signed one of the three online denunciations of my project. He worried about the future of this career and that he would be punished if they knew that he was associating with me.

That is one instance, but there are others. If that is the case with a junior academic, who is less vulnerable than a graduate student or an undergraduate but still very vulnerable, you can be sure that there are students who are biting their tongues lest they get marked down by their professor. Observe how some professors behave in public in terms of abusing those who disagree with them. If I were a student of some of those professors, I would be very careful. If they can behave that way to other academics, you can be sure that they can behave that way to those beneath them.

Trevor Phillips:

Very briefly, most members of the Committee will not know this, but many moons ago— 40 years-plus—I was president of the National Union of Students. On the executive that I led, there was a broad range of opinion, including Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and people who were, believe it or not, way to the left of me. Never a day went by without some ideological dispute or argument breaking out in public. One of the things that strikes me very forcibly is that when I go to campuses and when I read about student politics, there does not seem to be that range of opinion and argument going on on campuses and in student politics. It is not my business any more, but I find that disappointing. I can only read it as the sense, not so much that people are intimidated, but that they just do not think it is worth having the argument. That is very disappointing, because that is where some of our cleverest and smartest people, some of whom are sitting in this room, and some of whom share the Benches on both sides of the Commons, have come from—from that culture of disputation and argument, with a lot of robustness, but a level of respect. That does not seem quite to be the case today.

Photo of Emma Hardy Emma Hardy Labour, Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle

Q I would like to return the focus to what is written in the Bill, rather than to re-argue the Second Reading arguments on the merits of whether we should have a Bill or not. Professor Nigel, you wrote in the evidence you gave us, that as the Bill is written,

“it fails to protect expressly the freedom of students and academics to voice critical opinions about their own universities”.

You highlight the concern around the narrowing of academics to their field of expertise. Could you expand on why, as the Bill is written, what we could have is a narrowing of that freedom of academic speech?

Professor Biggar:

Yes. That qualification—within their field of expertise—is a hostage to fortune and could have the reverse effect of what is intended. For example, if my academic freedom were confined to my expertise, strictly understood, I am a theologian, so if I wanted to protest about policies of decolonising curricula being rolled out in a rather authoritarian fashion by my university, it could be said that as a theologian, I have no standing—what do I know about colonialism? It is not my field; I am not a historian—or if I wanted to criticise some aspect of the general policy of my university, it is not within my expertise. It seems to me that that phrase needs to be removed, so that academics are free to make their views known on any matter that bears on their institution.

Photo of Emma Hardy Emma Hardy Labour, Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle

Q Further to that—I highlight this for Government Members, because they seem to be a little confused about who is covered by the Bill, so I refer to the Taylor Vinters submission from James Murray; it might be worth your reading it. That evidence says that

“one would not want the situation where the free speech of a large group of vociferous protestors is weighed as having more importance than the freedom of an academic”.

It talks about how the Bill is written, giving primacy to freedom of speech over academic freedom. I wondered if you had any concerns about that, or any points about that: how, as the Bill is currently written, we could see a limitation of that academic freedom because of the primacy of the freedom of speech.

Professor Biggar:

I cannot help you much with that in detail, except that I think academic freedom needs to have equal standing, because free speech and academic freedom are not the same things. Did you understand that?

Photo of Emma Hardy Emma Hardy Labour, Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle

Q Yes. Just to quote from the submission,

“it is arguable that freedom of speech would take primacy over academic freedom when the duty is balanced in practice (i.e. you can read the duty as follows: take particular regard to the importance of freedom of speech when taking reasonably practicable steps to achieve the objective of securing academic freedom).”

Would you be recommending, therefore, that the Bill as it is written is addressed to deal with this imbalance?

Professor Biggar:

Yes, I would.

Photo of Emma Hardy Emma Hardy Labour, Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle

Q Thank you. Trevor Phillips, you have referred a number of times to something being “within the law”. In the evidence given by the University of Cambridge—can I say that when we have an Oxford professor sat here with us?—they mention that the Secretary of State for Education said on Second Reading that

“the right to lawful free speech will remain balanced by the important safeguards against harassment, abuse and threats of violence as set out in the Equality Act 2010, the Prevent duty and other legislation, none of which we are changing.”—[Official Report, 12 July 2021; Vol. 699, c. 49.]

The University of Cambridge is recommending that that statement, or words similar to it, are included—that clarification is included—on the face of the Bill, and that a steer is provided on how the different duties are to be balanced in practice. Would you support something like that going into the Bill?

Trevor Phillips:

No. This is premised on the idea that there is a quantum of freedom of speech that can be shared out between different parties. I fundamentally disagree with that: I think that freedom of expression, rather like love, is infinite, and that you do not balance one lot of freedom of expression against another lot of freedom of expression.

Photo of Emma Hardy Emma Hardy Labour, Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle

Q Just to clarify, I was quoting the Secretary of State, who said that

“the right to lawful free speech will remain balanced by the important safeguards”.

Are you disagreeing with the Secretary of State that we should have this?

Trevor Phillips:

I have not read the speech by the Secretary of State, but if he put it in the way you have just put it, yes, I am.

Professor Biggar:

Could I respond to that briefly? Certainly, there will be a balance, but the crucial question is, “What kind of balance?” It seems to me that that needs to be a matter for negotiation between the Office for Students, via its director, and universities, because this law will change the legal environment. There needs to be a shift in the dialogue.

Photo of Emma Hardy Emma Hardy Labour, Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle

Q On that point, would you want to put some kind of balance, or evidence about the balance, within the Bill itself as written, as also recommended by the Free Speech Union?

Professor Biggar:

I am not sure what that would achieve. I would not object to it, but it does not tell you what the balance is going to be, which is the really important question. A statutory requirement of balance would not do any harm.

Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Conservative, Congleton

Q Thank you very much, Sir Christopher. It might be very helpful if we could continue this discussion, because I wanted to draw out from you, Professor Biggar, two points where you say that the Bill could be improved. Could you perhaps give us a little more information about your thoughts on this comment:

“In its current form, the Bill would still allow discussion in an academic context to attract allegations of having the effect of harassment under section 26 of the Equality Act 2010.”

Could you elaborate on your thoughts, please?

Professor Biggar:

First, the Bill is not proposing to amend the Equality Act. That is quite clear; however, there is tension between the requirements of the Equality Act and the duties to secure and promote free speech and academic freedom that the Bill would establish. The tension arises around the definition of harassment. It is quite right that those with protected characteristics should be protected from harassment. The problem is that harassment is often interpreted by universities—not so much by courts—in such a fashion that dissent from, disagreement with and criticism of becomes harassment. That is obviously a dampener on free speech. The Bill will not resolve that, but I am sure that the OfS, through the director for freedom of speech, will have to discuss with the university how the Act is interpreted in the light of this legislation. The effect of this legislation would be to underscore the free speech and academic freedom elements, and might result in a more conservative interpretation of the Equality Act.

Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Conservative, Congleton

Q I wonder whether you could consider whether the words “within the law” at the very start of the Bill, which is such an important clause, could perhaps be replaced by the words “without unlawful interference”. Would that help to address the problem of the, very often, broad interpretation of harassment, which effectively appears to bring speech that is within the law outside it?

Professor Biggar:

That is a very fine distinction, the significance of which escapes me for the moment.

Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Conservative, Congleton

Q The problem that you are raising is that there is quite a broad range of statements that could be not protected by the Bill because they are considered harassing. That is an issue that perhaps needs to be looked at.

Professor Biggar:

If that is a tighter definition, then yes.

Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Conservative, Congleton

Q Thank you. The second point that I want to draw out is that you say that the Bill does not give academic staff access to affordable justice via an employment tribunal in the case of failure to be appointed. Do you think that the legal remedies proposed in the Bill are sufficient? Perhaps you could again talk about where the right to go to an employment tribunal might help in certain situations.

Professor Biggar:

As I understand it, at the moment the Bill allows civil proceedings, but appeal to the courts is expensive and risky. It seems to me that academics who have lost their job ought to have readier access to lodge a complaint than through the courts. I am not a lawyer, but that seems to me to be the case.

Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Conservative, Congleton

Q Very briefly, in your experience, you believe that there is a real issue to be addressed in terms of freedom of speech and loss of employment or tenure.

Professor Biggar:

Yes. The case of Noah Carl, as I mentioned earlier, is an egregious case. I cannot talk about the details of the case, but from what I have read a request has been made about it, and he did not have ready recourse to remedy.

Photo of John Martin McDonnell John Martin McDonnell Labour, Hayes and Harlington

Q David Simmonds registered an interest as an honorary fellow of Birkbeck—so am I. I did not realise that it was a registered interest, or that anyone would be interested, but anyway. Trevor, this is for you really. You have raised the issue of Chinese students, which I think is important. I want to explore it. One of the issues around legislation is ensuring that you do not build into it contradictions that will come back at a later stage and cause problems. I am a campaigner for exposing what is happening to the Uyghur people, which some are describing as a genocide.

My concern is this: I think you are right about the influence on Chinese students at the moment. The National Union of Students has a list of organisations that reflects Government views about terrorist organisations, and so on, that you would not wish to use any form of premises to promote their ideas. For example, in the Uyghur case, if the students through the National Union of Students or their local student body consult or even ballot and come to a view that they do not wish organisations associated with the Chinese Communist party to use their premises to promote or defend what is happening to the Uyghur people, which many now believe to be genocidal, surely there must be a mechanism in the Bill to enable that expression of view to have effect. Those sorts of meetings could intimidate Chinese students on university campuses and elsewhere.

Could the Bill could be improved by having some form of mechanism to enable that element of flexibility? The Office for Students—the director for freedom of speech—could ensure that there is a proper and effectively exercised mechanism to ensure that such consultation takes place. Therefore, we could have a range of limited exemptions where we do not wish in any way to use resources—whether student union or university resources—to enable the promotion of something that might be speculative to some, but is certainly not to some of us, which is the genocidal attack on the Uyghur people. I put the question to Trevor, as he raised it—it is a real-world issue for many of us.

Trevor Phillips:

It is a really important point. I have an immense amount of sympathy with what you have just said. Were I a student today, I would without any question whatever be campaigning to have a student union decision that any facilities under the control of or paid for by—although I know they do not have union subs any more—my student union were not used in any way, however indirectly, to support the actions of the Chinese Communist party in Xinjiang. In so far as that is concerned, I am completely with you. I do not think that you need legislation for that. Every student union has a general meeting or a council that can decide that that is what it wants—

Photo of John Martin McDonnell John Martin McDonnell Labour, Hayes and Harlington

Q Trevor, my point is about the contradiction in this legislation. We could have legislation that forces the student union to give a platform to the Chinese Communist party to advocate the genocide of the Uyghurs.

Trevor Phillips:

I do not think that there is anything in the legislation that will force a student union to do that. What I would agree with is that it is entirely possible that a group of three students might decide that they want to do something like this on campus. I get that. I am afraid that I have to say that if that is what happens, that is what happens. The student union can say, “Well, you can’t do it on our premises”—I think that is fine.

Photo of John Martin McDonnell John Martin McDonnell Labour, Hayes and Harlington

Q It cannot under this legislation. Under this legislation, that would be challengeable.

Trevor Phillips:

I do not think that the legislation will compel any part of a university to agree to let anybody speak on its premises. I do not think that that is the case here.

Trevor Phillips:

I am not going to dodge your question, John. I am quite straightforward about this. The student union can say, “No, we’re not having it”, but, ultimately, if a group of individuals—academics and so on—say, “We want to have this person from the Chinese embassy speaking to explain what they are doing in Xinjiang”, I cannot in all conscience agree that it is a university’s duty somehow to prevent that happening. What I will say, coming back to my earlier point, is that, unless there was some compelling reason otherwise, such a meeting should always be open to all members of the university community so that that point of view is under challenge. In the end, that will be a more valuable pathway than simply saying, “We’re going to ban you.”

Photo of John Martin McDonnell John Martin McDonnell Labour, Hayes and Harlington

Q The point you made earlier, which I agree with, is that some element of the right to protest should be put into the Bill then.

Trevor Phillips:

If one could find the right formulation, I think that is worthwhile.

Photo of Charlotte Nichols Charlotte Nichols Shadow Minister (Equalities Office)

Q My question is to Mr Phillips, and is particularly around some of what we discussed about the porter you mentioned. Fundamentally, this is a very thin Bill. As Professor Biggar mentioned, there are clear implications for its interaction with other existing legislation, not least the Equality Act. Where it talks about being within the limits of lawful free speech, that does not extend the existing rights particularly. We have heard about all sorts of potential unintended negative consequences, but do you believe that the Bill, as it is written as a thin piece of legislation, is actually just about moral panic about the Equality Act and young people being too woke for the Government, as opposed to a genuine issue that needs tackling in this way?

Trevor Phillips:

Point one is that I do not think one ought to value legislation by the weight of pages. I was partly responsible for the Equality Act and, before that, the Greater London Authority Act, which are two gigantic pieces of legislation. I would not say that either carried the same weight as some rather slimmer pieces of legislation.

Secondly, I think your point is, why are we bothering? The answer is that, to go back to what I said earlier, if we could depend on the university authorities to do their jobs to protect the rights of their staff and students, I would say that, on balance, you guys have better things to do. However, it has been demonstrated again and again in the last four or five years that, by and large, university authorities are abdicating that responsibility. To give you an example, Cambridge has been mentioned several times. A couple of years ago, I appeared on television. I will not bore you with what it was, but afterwards, a member of the Cambridge faculty tweeted that I was a racist. I wrote to the pro-vice-chancellor, who is responsible for discipline, and said, “Is it okay for people from Cambridge to say this kind of thing about people they do not know and have never met, and to put it all over social media?” In summary, the response I got was that the university could not really do anything to control or deal with such behaviour. I said to them that I have a relative who is a senior person in one of the Cambridge colleges; Cambridge University said that if someone were to call her a rude name in Trumpington Street in Cambridge, they could do something about that because she is a member of the university, but if they were to call my wife, who is a Cambridge graduate but not a member of the community, the same filthy word, they could not do anything about that.

My point is very simple: if the university authorities were doing their job, you would not be having this session. But they are not, and the truth is that people are losing their jobs. I come back to my point—I am sorry to reiterate it— that the spirit of intellectual inquiry, which is what makes our higher education sector attractive and successful, is essentially being trashed. That has to be stopped.

Photo of Charlotte Nichols Charlotte Nichols Shadow Minister (Equalities Office)

Q To go back to your point about a Cambridge academic accusing you of being a racist on Twitter and universities not doing their job, a lot of the evidence we have heard seems to suggest that universities should have some sort of control over what random people on the internet say. Professor Stock mentioned the idea that she was not being sufficiently promoted, in her view, by the university. This legislation does not actually do that.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

I am going to interrupt because we are running out of time—we have half a minute. I am going to ask Professor Biggar to say something.

Professor Biggar:

Just in response to your claim that the Bill really does not make much difference: at the moment, there is no unequivocal duty on universities to secure and promote the academic freedom of their staff. The Higher Education Research Act 2017 does impose a duty to secure academic freedom, but imposes it on the Office of Students vis-à-vis universities, whereas it is about institutional autonomy. At the moment, there is no unequivocal duty on universities to secure and promote the academic freedom of staff, and that would be one single improvement over the current situation that the Bill would achieve.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

The time is 25 past and we have to close this session. Once again, it has been a really good session and we are indebted to our witnesses. I am grateful to Mr Phillips for reminding me of my student politics days, when back in 1969 I had the lead letter in The Daily Telegraph, headed “Free speech in universities”, when I criticised our university vice-chancellor for trying to prevent me from inviting a particularly prominent Conservative politician to the university. It has brought all that back to me vividly. Thank you very much.

The Chair adjourned the Committee without Question put (Standing Order No. 88).

Adjourned till this day at Two o’clock.