Examination of witness

Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:01 pm on 7th September 2021.

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Smita Jamdar gave evidence.

Smita Jamdar:

Hello. My name is Smita Jamdar and I am a partner and head of education at Shakespeare Martineau. I am here in my capacity as an adviser to a number of universities, over many years.

Photo of Matt Western Matt Western Shadow Minister (Education)

Under the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, I declare that my wife works at a university. I am not sure if it is necessary to declare that, but I want to put it on the record for this session.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

Chair, this morning it was said that hon. Members have to declare their interests every time they speak. My understanding, and that of Sir John Hayes, was that as long as the interest is declared at the beginning of the session that should be enough. Have the rules changed or are the right hon. Member and I just being old fuddy-duddies?

Photo of Judith Cummins Judith Cummins Labour, Bradford South

I thank you for that plea for clarification. I am happy for any Member to make a declaration at the beginning of each session, as making a declaration every time they speak seems excessive.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

The old fuddy-duddies win, then.

Photo of Judith Cummins Judith Cummins Labour, Bradford South

It takes one to know one.

Photo of Matt Western Matt Western Shadow Minister (Education)

Q Thank you for joining us today, Ms Jamdar. One of the areas I want to explore with you is around the tort. There seem to be widespread concerns about what this will mean and the implications it will have for universities and student unions. In an article published in Times Higher Education in May 2021, you wrote that the

“introduction of the statutory tort will almost certainly involve universities in more legal action”.

Could you briefly expand on the consequences, both intended and unintended?

Smita Jamdar:

As I understand it, the tort is designed to enable people who feel that their right to freedom of speech, as defined in the legislation, has been infringed to go to court and argue their cases. The reason why I fear that could have a number of consequences, not all of them intended, is that in order to issue a case before court you simply have to pay an issue fee, in most cases, write the particulars of claim and set it out, so you set out your case. It then locks both parties into a set of proceedings. Ultimately, you can cut those proceedings short, so you can apply to the court to have a case struck out, but that nevertheless involves a certain amount of time, expense and resource in dealing with the litigation.

In relation to the statutory tort, there is not any threshold level of harm that anyone has to show. Ultimately, for a remedy, any tort requires some form of damages, but that would not necessarily stop people from bringing claims simply to make the point. Especially where the threshold of harm is very small, it could be brought in the small claims court, where no costs are recoverable by either party. On one analysis, you would say that is at least a level playing field, but again it could mean that a few thousand pounds in every case could be spent getting rid of claims that are either very trivial or unmeritorious generally. That is the concern.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

Q You cover the issues of frivolous and vexatious, and even they will cost some money, but if you get individuals who are well financed this could lead to a lot of expense for the universities.

This morning, my right hon. Friend John McDonnell raised the issue of Chinese students. We all—or I do and at least one other person in Committee does—know about the United Front activities of the Communist party on campuses throughout the UK. Sometimes they are intimidating students, and they are pushing an agenda—for example, on the Uyghurs in China—that is pro the Chinese regime. Under the Bill, I fear that that could be opened up, as my right hon. Friend raised this morning.

A group of students could on the face of it just be students, but they might have financing behind them that we and other people do not know about so that they could pursue a freedom of speech claim to push an agenda that might, for example, be in the interests of the Chinese Government. That would not only involve a lot of cost, but would clearly be financed by some very deep pockets, so it could lead not only to that agenda being pushed but to a lot of expense for the universities. Do you agree with that?

Smita Jamdar:

The legislation obviously covers freedom of speech within the law, so as long as what these people were purporting to want to speak about was within the law—or at least arguably within the law, because obviously one of the things that you might wish to have the court adjudicate on is whether the speech was within the law—I cannot see anything that would stop that kind of funded litigation. Ultimately, you can try to seek clarification about where money has come from to fund litigation, but there are always ways of passing money through so that it comes from the pockets of the claimants in the first instance. So, yes, we would not necessarily know who was funding the litigation, or to what end. Ultimately, the question for the court to decide would be: was it an infringement of freedom of speech within the law?

Photo of Matt Western Matt Western Shadow Minister (Education)

Q To pursue this a little further, you and others have been talking about getting into a compensation culture—we might have the equivalent of ambulance chasers going around chasing, whether through social media or on campus. You are obviously very familiar with the legislation and I think you are the first lawyer we have had so far as a witness. Is it clear to you how this would work with the tort and how, when a complainant wishes to pursue some damages, that will work through the complex relationships between the three bodies involved? We will have the Office for Students, the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education and the Charity Commission. That looks like a minefield and super-complex—a lawyer’s goldmine. What do you think?

Smita Jamdar:

There is definitely a lot of complexity here about the different roles that these bodies will play and the different routes that somebody could go through to get compensation. The Charity Commission, for example, would not normally be involved in making decisions about compensation for individual complainants; it would be looking more at whether the body in question had complied with the charity law obligations. But the other three, under the model that we have seen in the Bill, could all be involved.

Without a great deal of clarity about the relative responsibilities or indeed the pecking order—there is a rule that you cannot go to the OIA, and I think under the Bill you could not use the OfS free speech complaints process without first exhausting the internal processes of the university to challenge the decision that you are unhappy about. However, there is no such restriction when you go to court. You are free to go to court when you feel that your rights have been infringed, rather than having to go through another internal process. That said, the courts tend to encourage people to utilise internal processes first, because it is a good way of managing court resources. Does that answer the question?

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

Q On that direct point—thank you for letting me come in—the Secretary of State said on Second Reading that this “legal route”, the “new statutory tort”, is “an important backstop”—

“we do not want all cases going to court where they could otherwise be resolved by other means.”—[Official Report, 12 July 2021; Vol. 699, c. 50.]

However, as you have just outlined, there is no requirement in the Bill to go through the internal processes before going to the freedom of speech tsar—or whatever title they are given. Is that of concern to you?

Smita Jamdar:

I think there is a restriction on going to the freedom of speech tsar; I think they are proposing that you have to go through the internal complaints procedure before you go through the OfS’s complaint process. However, I do not think there is any such restriction on going to court.

Smita Jamdar:

I may have misunderstood; I do apologise. Yes, that is a concern. Built into certain types of court proceedings—judicial review, for example—is the expectation that you will first exhaust all alternative remedies, and that would include any internal remedies available under the complaints process. However, that is not the case in statutory torts; you could bring a claim outside the processes and the only thing that would then stand in your way is this—sometimes very vigorously encouraged—preference not to proceed with the court process but to go through the internal complaints process. However, you would still have issued and there would still need to be some reaction to that claim.

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

Q Would you therefore recommend an amendment to the Bill to make it explicit that local complaints processes should first be exhausted?

Smita Jamdar:

Absolutely.

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

Q I would be interested to know whether you think there are currently clear routes for individuals to seek redress where they do have their freedom of speech infringed on and restricted.

Smita Jamdar:

The main route that you would see a student, for example, going through would be by way of judicial review. Judicial review has the advantage of allowing the court to make a declaration or requirement that the university should reconsider the case and, if necessary, readmit the student—they are entitled to go as far as that, but very often they will keep it to requiring that the case be reconsidered. They can also concurrently award damages, if you can prove that there is a loss associated with whatever has happened to you.

Our view, as a firm, is that if you had a situation where a student was excluded on the basis of exercising their right to freedom of speech, and it was a rightful exercise of the freedom and a wrongful interference with the freedom, then the clause permitting you to do that might also be regarded as a unfair term under the consumer contracts legislation, because you are losing a right that you have as a matter of general law. So routes are available. It is fair to say that the vast majority of these cases are probably dealt with at the internal appeals stage; I am not aware of a huge amount of case law that relates to students pursuing their claim. I think for academics it would be via employment tribunals.

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

Q Do you acknowledge that judicial review is an expensive process, so it will exclude a number of people? You reference the internal process, but we have heard from various students and academics outside this Committee who have felt that the internal process has let them down. That is why we are bringing forward legislation: to assist and to acknowledge that the current process is not capturing all of those people.

Smita Jamdar:

There are two answers to that, Minister: the first is that when we talk about the range of complaints that people are bringing under the overarching ambit of freedom of speech, they do reflect quite different circumstances. They might be people who feel that they have not been allowed to speak at an event; they might be people who feel that they have expressed views on social media and have then been disciplined for that; they might be people who feel that they have not had a promotion, or have been subject to a detriment, in their employment context. Judicial review would not necessarily be the right route for all those.

Is judicial review expensive? In comparison with the kind of litigation you could get into if you are dealing with a statutory tort—where there are days of witnesses giving evidence, assuming it goes all the way to trial—judicial review is not expensive. Civil proceedings of this nature can be far more expensive because they are so oral evidence and fact driven. That said, currently, if a student was unhappy with an internal process of a university they could also go to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator—they have got that route. The OIA would look at that because they can look at any act or omission on the part of a university. I do not know who you have spoken to about this, but I have not seen via the OIA’s own case studies many examples of people raising issues around free speech through them. That does make me wonder why that is not happening because that is a free and perfectly acceptable route through which to bring the kind of issues that people might wish to complain about.

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

Q But it would not be the route available for academics and visiting speakers.

One last question. I was interested to know your views on the new duty to promote the importance of free speech and whether you feel that would shift culture on campus.

Smita Jamdar:

That is probably the best part of the Bill as far as I am concerned. Ultimately, the way we will address the concerns around freedom of speech is very unlikely to be through litigation or regulatory intervention because it is a cultural point. Many universities that we have worked with are already keen to promote freedom of speech. If they have a statutory duty to do so, I am sure it will help to some extent. For me, the central question will be the definitional problem of what is the mischief that we are trying to address because it is very wide-ranging.

A duty to promote free speech would not necessarily in my view get over things like people feeling nervous about expressing views that they think are unpopular, because you are not necessarily worried there about somebody taking formal action against you; you are worried about how your peers might react to you. In reality, we cannot legislate out the fact that people will naturally react to views. It is part of how we all communicate with each other.

I think the duty is a good thing. It is the best part of the Bill as far as I am concerned because it is the one most likely to achieve what everybody wants to achieve. But we do have that definitional problem—some of this stuff is just human nature, and I am not sure that you can legislate or promote that out of existence.

Photo of Matt Western Matt Western Shadow Minister (Education)

Q To come back to my opening question about unintended consequences, what we have heard a lot from various people and prior to these sessions is about the uncertainty and the real fear out there that employment contracts may get shortened and the insecurity of tenure in employment at universities will become greater. In your professional view, Ms Jamdar, is there any risk that the tort could be used to circumvent employment law?

Smita Jamdar:

I am not sure I follow in what way the statutory tort would circumvent employment law remedies. What I can see is that if you present any institution that has a duty to safeguard its resources, to manage them effectively, to deliver them in most cases for a charitable objective—education and research—with a risk that they could be sued at any time, they are going to look for ways of minimising that risk before it happens. It is too late once you are already in court. There are all sorts of challenges to getting yourself out of court very quickly.

The concern would be that governing bodies, who are rightly there to try to make sure that the assets are used for the proper purpose and not diverted to unnecessary litigation, take steps to introduce preventative measures. I hesitate to use this phrase because I know it has been used a lot already in this discussion, but it creates another sort of chilling effect, which is risk aversion on the part of institutions, who say, “Actually, I need to manage this risk and therefore I am going to take whatever steps I need upfront to reduce the likelihood of someone challenging me.”

I am talking on behalf of universities because they are my client base, but if you looked at student unions and particularly the fact that they may not have as many resources to start with, they too may start to feel that they need to find ways of reducing the opportunity for problems to arise, rather than doing what I think we would all prefer them to do—create an environment where lots of conversations are happening and lots of debate and discussion is taking place.

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

I want to seek your advice about another piece of the Bill: subsection 12 of clause 7 about the review that will take place. It states:Q

“This paragraph applies if the Secretary of State requests the OfS to—

(a) conduct a review of the scheme or its operation (or any aspect of either of those matters), and

(b) report the results of the review to the Secretary of State.”

We are not sure about what the contents of that review will be and we have not seen any guidance on that yet, but I would expect it to start looking at cases—potentially individual cases. We could get into a situation where individuals are named as a part of that review, because we are talking about the operation of the scheme.

Clause 7(13) states:

“For the purposes of the law of defamation, absolute privilege attaches to the publication of—

(a) any decision…and

(b) any report”.

I raise this point about this particular legislation because, although I can understand why privilege is awarded to Ministers, Secretaries of State and others in certain instances, we could be in a situation where individuals could be named, and in a way that could affect their whole careers and lives, without having any ability to take action with regard to anything defamatory that is said about them. It seems to narrow down the ability to secure redress and, for me, that cannot be right in any piece of legislation, particularly when we are talking about individual rights. What is your view on that?

Smita Jamdar:

That raises a problem that permeates the Bill. We are often talking about essentially legal judgments, because we have to judge whether speech is within the law or outside the law. You can see a situation where somebody wants to say something that somebody else regards as defamatory, and therefore says, “You can’t say this about me.” It goes off to the Office for Students, who, on some basis—I have to say it is not clear to me—is supposed to form a view on whether or not the statement was or was not defamatory, and then it will publish a report on that.

The OfS is protected under this legislation, because it has that absolute privilege, and the Ministers are protected, but in some ways what you will have done is taken the original defamatory statement and published it more widely, as far as the individual is concerned.

To my mind, if you want to resolve these matters through a legal lens, you should go to court and court will decide. I am not sure how the OfS would have the expertise to do it and therefore there is a risk that what it then publishes does not necessarily protect the rights of the individuals who are either named or identifiable through the reporting.

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

Q I use this example. For a number of years I was in local government, as both an elected member and a civil servant. There have been cases within local government, such as inquiries with regard to the involvement of directors of social service in individual cases. Even though there have been inquiries and published reports, those reports have never had absolute privilege. There has always been the right of that individual to go to court to resolve any matters, including any elements where they thought they had been identified or any comments about their actions were seen as defamatory. I have not seen this before in legislation. Is it common?

Smita Jamdar:

I do not know if I can answer whether it is common or not; I am not a defamation expert. From memory, there is something similar in relation to the OIA under the Higher Education Act 2004. If it is okay, I will check that after this and let you know in writing. If it exists, that would be the only place that I have seen it before.

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

Q How will people have redress under this? If they were defamed, is there any right of redress? Is there any method of redress where there is absolute privilege like this?

Smita Jamdar:

Again, that is something I would have to try and work through in my mind. If it is okay with you, I will give a written response to that.

Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Conservative, Congleton

Good afternoon. Can I take you to the very first clause and the wording “reasonably practicable”? Do you think the duty to take Q “reasonably practicable” steps to secure freedom of speech is adequate? That phrase is used both for the governing bodies of an institution and for student unions, particularly bearing in mind that it is the same phrase that was used over three decades ago in the Education (No. 2) Act 1986. How do you think this Bill will change what, as we heard in this morning’s evidence session, is really an inadequate situation for many academics and students?

Smita Jamdar:

The phrase “reasonable practicability” is quite a common one used in legislation—another example of it would be in health and safety legislation—and what it recognises is that it is very difficult for somebody to ensure that something happens without any caveat, because clearly there will be things that you have no control over that are preventing freedom of speech happening. In this case, if we go back to the self-censorship point, you may not know that people are self-censoring, so how do you address that?

Reasonable practicability is actually quite a high legal threshold. It is beyond what is reasonable, for example: it is saying, “If this is something that is practically possible, then subject to a general sense of, say, cost-benefit analysis, you would be expected to do it.” It starts from that quite high threshold; it sounds like a low threshold, but actually it is not necessarily a low threshold and in this case it is enhanced by the fact that what is reasonably practicable will have to be determined by reference to the particular importance of freedom of speech. It is highlighting freedom of speech as something that is of itself important—so, having particular regard to the importance of free speech, steps that are reasonably practicable to take. I think it is strengthening the current position.

In relation to the evidence you heard this morning—I did not hear all of it, but I heard some—I would go back to the point that I made earlier, which is that I am not convinced that even this duty would necessarily address some of the things that people are talking about, because I am not convinced those things are best addressed by legislation, or capable of being adequately addressed by legislation. That would be my view.

Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Conservative, Congleton

Q Thank you. Can I just probe you a little further? What is the distinction between “reasonably practicable” and “reasonably necessary”?

Smita Jamdar:

Again, the question of why you would use that formulation is not something I know the answer to. My instinctive reaction to that is that something can be practicable but not necessary, as in not solely necessary—so, there are things that you could do that go beyond strictly what is necessary. They could enhance, for example, rather than just achieve the bare minimum. My instinctive reaction is that “reasonably necessary” is a lower threshold than practicability.

Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Conservative, Congleton

That is very interesting.

Smita Jamdar:

I know. I may not be right about that, so I would have to look at the legislation.

Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Conservative, Congleton

I think the Committee would be very interested—I certainly would be—in any further thoughts you have on that, because I do have a concern that we are not raising the bar sufficiently high, bearing in mind that we have had 30 years of the same bar and we have some major problems that appear to have been escalating over that period. Your thoughts on that would be much appreciated.

Smita Jamdar:

I will definitely do that, because it is not something I have thought about before, so that was very much a “reacting on my feet”-type response.

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

Q I wanted to bring it to student unions. This Bill puts a liability on student unions, and I have just set the budget for the University of Bradford’s student union in the lunch break. They are, of course, very often financially perilous bodies, relying on money from their parent institution.

Is there a danger that this provides a chilling effect for trustees, such as myself and others across the country, to allow students to exercise their full autonomy? For example, what I mean is that we have the Conservative society, the Labour society and so on, which are all autonomous in their organisation within the student union, affiliating to the student union. Is there a danger that if one of them suddenly decided that they did not want a speaker to come along, we would then have liability for those students’ autonomous actions?

Smita Jamdar:

The answer to that has to be potentially, yes. It would very much depend on what the relationship between the group in question and the student union was: whether it was a formal society of the student union, or a more informal gathering. This morning I heard a suggestion that student unions could make a decision at an institutional level about certain events, but then the individuals would still be free to go to the university and say, “We want to hold this event even though the student union has not allowed us to.”

On the face of it, because the duty is to secure freedom of speech within the law for students, rather than societies as a whole, you could find that you were caught between what was essentially an internal dispute on the part of a society about whether a particular speaker was or was not welcome to speak at that society. I know that purists would say, “If one person wants this person to speak, we should allow it.” But there are resource issues for student societies and rules about their own internal operation about how decisions are made. I do not think the legislation recognises that nuance. All that would happen would be that, yes, the complaint would potentially land at the feet of the trustees, who would then have to adjudicate on it.

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

Q You could have a Conservative society that had invited a Conservative Member who then defected to the Labour party. The society would want to disinvite them but would be compelled to listen to the defector, in that fantasy scenario.

The University of Sussex, which I am involved with, and the University of Brighton have a joint medical school, so many of our student societies are joint ones at both institutions and their respective student unions—they are one body, but they affiliate to both. Where is the liability in those complex situations, which would also come about with federated universities in London and elsewhere? Would everyone be liable? Would they have to follow each institution’s rules, which might be slightly different?

Smita Jamdar:

I am going to give a slightly lawyerly answer. If it got to court, the starting point would be to understand the matrix of relationships and to try to identify who was ultimately the decision maker in the case. But in practice if you are in a claimant situation, unless there are really obvious reasons not to bring a complaint against a particular student union or organisation, you will include everybody to begin with. You want to have your net cast as wide as possible; then it gets filtered down either because you have received your own legal advice that some of those are not tenable or ultimately you go to court and the court concludes that some are just not relevant parties.

Smita Jamdar:

We should all take it for granted that any of this is going to be quite expensive. There is not a way round that. These cases are likely to require legal advice; it is going to be hard for individuals to just pursue the claims themselves. The bodies resisting will undoubtedly want legal advice and, as I said earlier, once you start a process of litigation it is sometimes hard to extricate yourself from it very easily.

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

Q Sometimes some of the public debate has been about debating societies—the Oxford Union, Cambridge Union, Durham and so on—but also other informal societies. Am I right in thinking that because they have no funding relationship with the university they would not be covered by this legislation. Does that not defeat part of the point?

Smita Jamdar:

Absolutely. It only applies to universities and student unions as defined, so it would not apply to the Oxford Union or the Cambridge equivalent.

As for informal societies, again, you would have to look at exactly what the grouping was and whether it was even an entity you could define in any way, shape or form—it might just be the individuals within it. What might happen in those situations is that the dispute among the group about what they wanted to do would become escalated up to the university and again resource would have to be spent on trying to resolve what was essentially a dispute between a small group of students over a single event.

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

Q Universities often lease out their venues and spaces for external conferences and meetings. Those meetings might well include their students and academics, but they are effectively external activities. Those conferences might invite and disinvite whoever they wanted, depending on whether they were political or academic conference. Would the university then start having to have regard to every single external organisation that was using their buildings?

Smita Jamdar:

Only if the speaker fell within the definition of “visiting speakers”—the problem here is that there is an absence of a definition. If you read “visiting speakers” in the context of the preceding subsections, you would clearly read it to mean people invited by staff of the provider, a member of the provider or students of the provider, rather than an external organisation that is using the premises.

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

Q But the external organisation might include staff, so the staff might have done the inviting but not in their staff role. Does this become very complex?

Smita Jamdar:

It does become very complex. The more you move away from the big obvious case of somebody being denied the right to do the research they want to do or somebody not being able to speak or teach about something they want to, all those complexities really do become quite challenging from a legal perspective, but we can see that they may well materialise.

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

Q On a slightly different topic—I would really appreciate your input here—you touched on employment law earlier. In the current employment law protections for academics, are there weaknesses that could be strengthened but are not being strengthened in the Bill?

Smita Jamdar:

Again, people have highlighted the fact that in some ways, what the Bill is doing is narrowing what limited existing protection there is for academic freedoms—that is being narrowed. Currently, academic freedom is protected largely through the constitutional documents of universities. Chartered universities—those with royal charters—have to have a provision in their charters, and the post-92s have a provision in their instruments and articles of government. Those do not currently restrict academic freedom to matters within the expertise of the academic, and I know from speaking to employment law colleagues—one of the other things I am not an expert in is employment law—that there are often cases where there is a very vigorous disagreement about whether something was an exercise of academic freedom or not when it relates to criticism of the institution.

I think that the Bill makes it clearer, but probably, from the point of view of those who feel that academic freedom is inadequately protected, it is clearer by narrowing it rather than by addressing any of those wider concerns.

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

Q I am interested in hearing your opinions on a couple of things. Earlier, when you were answering questions from John, you were talking about tort and how the process works. I wonder whether you are supportive of the idea of the right to appeal decisions made by the freedom of speech director, as submitted from Universities UK.

Smita Jamdar:

Absolutely. As I alluded to earlier, my concern about having a stop at the OfS is that that individual may be required to interpret law, so they may well be required to decide if something is defamatory, harassment, contrary to the Equality Act or potentially a public order offence. I find the idea that those legal judgments cannot then be appealed to the people who are actually able to make legal judgments really quite worrying.

Certainly, if that were to be the case, the process for appointing that individual, and the statutory requirements that must be observed for that individual in their role, need to be much tighter, because you could end up with somebody who is effectively an appointment of whatever Government is in place at the time, and who does not necessarily have any skills or expertise to make those judgments but is the last word on them. Again, in terms of freedom, that does not feel terribly free.

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

Q Absolutely. You could have someone who has lost an election and is put in a position of power by the Government of the day making the final decision on what is or is not freedom of speech, with no redress to court to change it. That is a little less free than the Government had perhaps intended.

On the OfS director, earlier we heard evidence that they would be giving guidance to universities and that their role would be in providing that guidance. Can you foresee a situation where a university follows the guidance by the OfS director of the day, the OfS director is changed, and the university is then told that the guidance it followed under the previous administration is no longer correct and it is liable for breaking the law under the Freedom of Speech Act? Do you see that there could be a difficulty with the OfS director being both the judge and the person giving the guidance?

Smita Jamdar:

That is always a situation with potential for conflict, because how can you then judge impartially the complaint that comes in, even if it is another part of the organisation that is submitting it? Under the Bill, it would be within the oversight of the director, so there is definitely a problem there. Until quite recently I would have been confident that, as a matter of rule of law, you could not retrospectively apply conditions in that way. However, I am less confident about that than I have been in the past.

I think there are regulatory trends that say that people do sometimes try and retrospectively shift the goalposts. Normally, you would then potentially be able to go for judicial review, and say that this is a decision that is in breach of public law principles, either because it is irrational or in some way procedurally flawed. However, under the Bill you would not have that right because you cannot challenge the decisions of the free speech champions. Bearing in mind that we have to look at the worst-case scenarios, it is possible that, through change of policy, a piece of guidance that was given and followed is now no longer considered to be adequate.

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

Q I wonder what you would suggest as a solution to the OfS director—as is stated at the moment—giving both the guidance and being the judge. Do you think there should be a recommended separation?

Smita Jamdar:

I would have thought that one of the most useful things the OfS could do is give the guidance, and look at this through its regulatory lens. Having seen how regulation has started to change behaviour at universities in other cases, that might be where we see most of the cultural change we all feel is at the root of this.

The two obvious things that would change the position would be to build in additional safeguards, so that the freedom of speech complaints process is dealt with separately to the guidance. However, that then calls into question the role of the director—it is quite a fundamental shift. Another thing you could think about is saying that if the challenge is about the lawfulness of the speech, rather than some other breach of process, then that has to first go to court before the OfS can adjudicate on it. Then, at least, legal issues are dealt with by someone else—they are not dealt with by the OfS. The final thing would be to introduce a level of judicial oversight into what is happening, so that any particularly difficult and egregious cases could go to court and say that the OfS has not done its job in the way that Parliament intended.

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

Q I promise that this is the final question—although I did say that last time. Would you therefore recommend that the OfS director should be someone with a legal background, if not an in-depth knowledge of higher education?

Smita Jamdar:

I would definitely say that the OfS director should have a legal background because there is so much law in here to get your head around. My preference would be to say that that person is not allowed to make legal decisions—even if they have a legal background. It just strikes me as conceptually a very difficult idea; somebody who is not a court and not a tribunal making legal decisions. That should not happen. I would go one step further and say take that out of the role.

In terms of understanding the higher education sector, I know that there is always a concern that if you bring in people who are too familiar with the sector then they will not be impartial about these issues. However, everybody in the sector recognises the importance of free speech. The problem is that there are a small number of areas that are highly contested, where different people have different views about what free speech should be. I do not think knowledge of the sector would prevent someone from being able to judge those things impartially. In fact, it might help, because it would speed up understanding the context where this is all taking place.

Photo of Judith Cummins Judith Cummins Labour, Bradford South

If there are no further questions from Members, I thank Ms Jamdar for her evidence, and we will move on to the next panel.