Examination of Witness

Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:29 pm on 7th September 2021.

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Dr Bryn Harris gave evidence.

Photo of Judith Cummins Judith Cummins Labour, Bradford South 4:15 pm, 7th September 2021

We will now hear oral evidence from Bryn Harris, who is the chief legal counsel at the Free Speech Union. May I ask you to move forward, Mr Harris? I remind Members that we have very limited time for these sessions, and we have until 5 o’clock for this one. Welcome, Mr Harris; please introduce yourself for the record.

Dr Harris:

Thank you very much. I am Bryn Harris, and I am chief legal counsel at the Free Speech Union.

Photo of Matt Western Matt Western Shadow Minister (Education)

Q Thank you for joining us today. I am not very familiar with the Free Speech Union—can you just explain to us where the FSU receives its funding?

Dr Harris:

From our members and from donors. We are a member-based organisation, and people pay a subscription to be members of the FSU. That accounts for a large part of our funding.

Photo of Matt Western Matt Western Shadow Minister (Education)

Q Would you mind giving some examples of the range of membership you might have—being transparent about it?

Dr Harris:

The prices, do you mean?

Photo of Matt Western Matt Western Shadow Minister (Education)

Q Not the prices—the bodies, the members. Who are they? At the moment, perhaps I am the only person here who does not know much about the FSU, but we are about to take experienced witness evidence from you, so I am trying to understand more about who is behind you and what the purpose of the FSU is.

Dr Harris:

In terms of the range of members, certainly we have a good number of students, and we have had a good number of higher education cases. The last time we did the figures, it was about 30%. There is then a large number of employment cases—when I say cases, I mean when someone comes to us with a dispute relating to freedom of speech—I think another 30%, although I can check the figures later if you would like. They obviously vary very much in their background and the disputes they bring to us.

One thing I would say is that the people who come to us in trouble are very often not at all privileged. They are people who are in trouble with an employer or a university that, we believe, is abusing its power and essentially punishing that employee or student for saying something that it finds distasteful.

Photo of Matt Western Matt Western Shadow Minister (Education)

Q So you are funded from fees from those who can afford it, and from donations? Would that be right?

Dr Harris:

That is correct, yes. We also have a discount fee for students and those on benefits.

Photo of Matt Western Matt Western Shadow Minister (Education)

Q I will bear that in mind.

Dr Harris:

You already have free speech—you are an MP. You are protected.

Photo of Matt Western Matt Western Shadow Minister (Education)

Q Let me move on. You have described the statutory tort, which we discussed at great length earlier, as a real game changer. Is it not merely a game changer for vexatious complaints that might just happen to come your way, from the likes of vexatious litigants, climate change or genocide deniers, who can shelter behind this very wide tort?

Dr Harris:

There are quite a few things there to pick up on. First, contrary to what you might believe, our ambition for this Bill is not to be racing to court every so often bringing cases. We want to see that universities are urged to comply with it and that they respond to avoid the new liabilities that it creates by protecting freedom of speech. I know the issue of vexatious litigants was an issue that concerned a lot of Members on Second Reading, but I see little chance that this will be particularly attractive for the vexatious litigant. There are a number of reasons for that. First, the new OfS complaints scheme has the power to filter out vexatious litigants. We do not know yet, but it is likely that anyone who wants subsequently to bring a claim in the courts will be required to go through the OfS first, as a form of alternative dispute resolution. That is one way in which I think we are likely to see the weeding out of vexatious litigants.

The other point to note is that any right potentially attracts vexatious litigants, including fundamental human rights such as freedom of speech. We have to be careful about backsliding on protecting fundamental rights on the basis that there is a potential risk of vexatious claims.

The other point I would make, which is very important, is that I think a lot of criticism of the Bill seems to portray the courts as supine—as passive. It completely misrepresents the fact that the courts have considerable case management powers—that they can strike out vexatious claims and that a claim with no real prospect of success can be disposed of at summary judgment. That is not to mention the practical difficulties of bringing a meritless claim. You are going to be open to adverse costs, because you are wasting the court’s time. All of those protections are in place and restrain the vexatious litigant, so there is no real reason to identify this particular new statutory duty and correlative right as enticing the vexatious.

Photo of Matt Western Matt Western Shadow Minister (Education)

Q I understand that you have commented elsewhere that you believe that the normative power of changes to the law can shift social values. Do you not recognise that the Bill could have the inverse effect and shift social values towards being less willing to hear a diversity of views, for fear of being sued?

Dr Harris:

I am not sure I said that, but it is still a good question. It is hard to see in that situation where the danger of being sued arises. My understanding is that this is likely to make it much easier to secure diversity of opinion in the higher education section, because it will be difficult to punish students who say things that are distasteful to some and it will be difficult to rescind invitations to speaking events, and there will also be this enhanced freedom—the academic freedom—for members of staff. That creates a framework, but no more than a framework. I am trying to answer your question; if I have not, I am sure you will tell me.

Nothing in the Bill will make people value freedom of speech. The law cannot make anyone ethically say that freedom of speech is a good idea. It will not, of itself, create a culture of free speech, which is what we really need, and it will not, of itself, make academics start disagreeing with one another, but it will create the conditions by which that can happen. It will allow those who seek to restrain such diversity—those who believe there should be a degree of uniformity—to now be restrained. It creates the conditions by which those changes can happen, but I very much believe that it is for the autonomous institutions themselves to change those cultures. All the law can do is set the ball rolling and create the framework.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

Q Why do we need legislation to do that for those institutions? Most university charters have such points in them. The 1987 Act has it in there as well. Why do you need legislation to do that? Surely it is about upgrading the guidance and so on.

Dr Harris:

You are right that—at least following the 1988 Act—many universities have in their statutes clauses protecting academic freedom, and that tends to be in the same wording. In terms of why we need law, again, I think we come back to the question of whether we regard and respect freedom of speech as a fundamental right. I think most people here—and, I hope, most lawmakers in a liberal democracy—would agree that it is a fundamental right and that it is fundamental to the flourishing of the individual and the running of civil society. Universities certainly pay lip service—if I can say that—and when challenged, they will always say, “Freedom of speech is our lifeblood.”

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

Q It depends how you define it. What the Bill is doing is letting the state determine what freedom of speech is going to be. I accept that everyone agrees what its broad definition should be, but as I said to the last witness, there is a danger here that you will actually have the state, whatever its political persuasion, intervening in academic institutions. Surely that is bad?

Dr Harris:

On the definition question, I heard your questions to Professor Simpson. All rights are difficult to define, but that does not mean therefore that we are at a loss. I think the court in Strasbourg, and certainly the US courts, would disagree that freedom of speech is something that is impossible to define. I do not think the idea that we will sort of give up or backslide because it is difficult to define a fundamental right is a serious position. Yes, it is much more difficult to define than pregnancy, which is famously binary—you are either pregnant or you are not—but nevertheless, courts and legislatures are able to define more closely what a right should be.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

Q And define it in their own image as well.

Dr Harris:

I am not entirely sure. What do you mean by that? Those who are favoured by the powerful are allowed to speak?

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

Q I am sure if we were sat in the Russian Duma, they would argue that they have freedom of speech there. I think we would take a very different view.

Dr Harris:

To go back to the point about the intervention by the state, I think it is important that we are clear what we mean by “the state”. There is obviously a role for the OfS—an administrative form of adjudication—and perhaps we can come back to that, as I think it is a very relevant issue. It is entirely in keeping with any right that it is enforced by law and that there is a remedy when there is infringement of that right. That is simply what a right is. There are a number of people who are saying, “I believe in free speech as a right,” and then they baulk when we say that it must be enforced by the courts and there must be a remedy. That suggests to me that they do not take free speech seriously as a right, which as I say, is not a credible position in a liberal democracy.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

Q But its definition could be determined by who the Government appoint as director or by the advice that they are given at the time, so that is a highly political situation. It might be comfortable for the present Government who are in control at the moment, but if you had a Government at the other extreme who want to take a very different view, by being able to appoint an individual or make an intervention like that, they could define freedom of speech in a completely different way that you and I would completely disagree with.

Dr Harris:

To a degree, I agree, but the director must enforce free speech within the law, and the director will have no power to say what the law is. If the director misdirects him or herself as to what the law says on free speech, it can be challenged in the courts—it would be an error of law.

On the question, I think that, ultimately, what will happen is that there will be definition and enforcement by the courts of those duties and rights created by the Bill. It is correct to say that there is a role for an administrative body, the OfS. That is a trade-off that it is often necessary to make. It is worth while to have a cheap, informal and quick form of adjudication. The idea that every dispute—especially for students—should be taken to court, is simply impractical. Even though there can be drawbacks with administrative adjudication, it is essentially a stopgap so not everything has to go to the courts. Ultimately, the free speech that we are talking about here is defined and enforced by the courts. It is free speech within the law. We should all be happy with the idea that free speech is a right enforced by the courts.

Photo of Matt Western Matt Western Shadow Minister (Education)

Q You say that this is a real game changer, this piece of legislation. According to the OfS, we have had fewer than five events cancelled in universities in the two years between 2018 and 2020. In your submission, something like less than one incident a month for the last five years has come to you. There is quite a mixture of cases and incidents that have been brought to your attention, including several WhatsApp messages from students on campus and so on. Are you not guilty of a bit of hyperbole to say that this is a real game changer? The universities need to work with the OfS to tighten up processes, adopt best practice and change individual legislation, as we discussed earlier today, as opposed to adopting the Bill.

Dr Harris:

Every MP must decide for themselves how happy they are to turn a blind eye to infringement of a fundamental right and how happy you are to pay that political price.

Dr Harris:

I see you shake your head, but I think that is an important question. At what point do we say we see here abuse of bureaucratic procedure, essentially to enforce a monoculture? We see abuse of disciplinary processes, and those who are affected are predominantly, as we see, our young and very often people who are in their first year at university—very young people—who do not know what to do. They feel bullied. We are talking about, in some cases, particularly with many gender critical female academics, lives and mental health ruined. We need to have a sense of what is our quantum here. How much of this are we prepared to tolerate before we decide that something needs to be done in order to change it?

The reason I think the Bill is necessary is that the mere existence of the legislation as it is on the statute book—there can be no doubt that it is there on the statute book, and you will find the Education (No. 2) Act 1986—is not enough. It needs to have practicable, reliable means of enforcement. That is why, in too many of these instances of people’s lives being ruined and of people being bullied, it has happened too much because it is too difficult for there to be a realistic threat of enforcement. That is because judicial review, which is the means of bringing a claim under section 43, is very expensive. You really have to lawyer up and it is not practical.

Photo of Matt Western Matt Western Shadow Minister (Education)

I think you are misrepresenting me there.

Photo of Judith Cummins Judith Cummins Labour, Bradford South

In the interest of trying to get every Member in, can you keep your answers a bit more succinct? I recognise that they are very complicated and it is a complex issue.

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

Q We have heard a great deal that is counter to your view about this notion that you can achieve this without legislation and that you can achieve that cultural change. What would you say in response to somebody who says that you can actually achieve it without the legislation?

Dr Harris:

Again, the question is how much of a risk are we willing to take? I think there is some truth in that, and going back to the previous question, it seems to me likely that there has been a tail-off in speaker cancellations, and many people on Second Reading brought up that fact. It is very possible as well—I can only speculate—that it is probably the negative press attention that cancellations attract that has led to that downturn. So you may say that is an example of a good result without legislation.

I think the problem is that, given the importance of what is at stake here—not just protecting people who stand to be bullied and have their lives made miserable, but also looking at a value that is pretty much integral to universities as public bodies and to their function and their value—it seems to be rather remiss to say that we will entrust those things to, essentially, unreliable mechanisms—“As long as The Telegraph keeps on publishing these stories, we know the universities will keep on the straight and narrow.” I do not think that is an adequate safeguard. I think it is absolutely the job of Parliament to say that public bodies must protect fundamental rights and deliver the value that is central to their public function. That is not simply a good thing; I think it would be odd if Parliament did not.

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

Q Do you think that breaches of the current duties are going under the radar? What impact do you think they are having on individuals? That is what Bill is intending to impact—it is intending to change the lives of academics and students.

Dr Harris:

To give an example, one of our members is Dr Abhijit Sarkar, a scholar of Indian political history at the University of Oxford. He specialises in research into far-right Indian politics, or so-called Hindutva. He posted on Instagram about the president-elect of the students’ union. He alleged that she herself was a Hindutva, a far-right Hindu nationalist. He backed it up with the fruits of his research and pointed out the various signs and tell-tales of codes that British people like me would not pick up on. It is sort of like what Searchlight do in pointing out the signs of the far right.

There was an extreme campaign against Dr Sarkar, and I have some details of the threats made against him, which have gone to the university. They include: “You die with your spine broken”, “You and your subhuman kin need to be culled and wiped from the subcontinent” and, “I request to start a campaign to bring that bastard to India” In response, the university disciplined Dr Sarkar and called him in for investigation. I cannot, and Dr Sarkar cannot say, what the outcome of that was. What is telling for me is that this was a situation where an academic was really fulfilling a public watchdog role. He was telling people that these were the tell-tale signs of far-right nationalism. When his life was threatened, the university still could not bring itself to take his side. They could not stand behind him and say, “We are with you and we support your academic freedom.”

That, I suspect, is a major part of the trauma that is caused by this. It is this feeling of isolation—that there is no one who has got my back. We see that with the gender critical feminists. There is a member whose mental health has been destroyed—I cannot mention her name. There was a campaign of harassment against her and it was brought to the attention of the university. Nothing happened and she was managed out in a sham redundancy. This is the effect. What has come before us—the cases we have dealt with—are not exhaustive; I suspect they are representative of a wider phenomenon, and I think it is too much already.

Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Conservative, Congleton

Q Good afternoon, Dr Harris. Do you think the duty to take reasonably practicable steps to secure free speech is adequate—the duty in clause 1 and elsewhere in the Bill?

Dr Harris:

It is difficult to say, and that is the problem. The Government and their lawyers have perhaps missed some opportunities to bring greater clarity and perhaps have not been as ambitious as they could have. “Reasonably practicable” steps largely replicates the wording of the 1986 duty. The problem is that in that interim there have been very few cases where the courts have considered the meaning of that. One ambiguity is if a court were asked to consider what “reasonably practicable” steps means. There is a possibility that they would say it is pretty much for the university’s discretion to decide what is reasonably practicable, and the court will simply insist that it not be irrational—that it not be Wednesbury irrational. That is a very low standard of irrationality. It is: “Don’t be completely unreasonable.” In the light of that, it is disappointing that there has not been more to state what that means.

Another ambiguity is that obviously since 1986 the Human Rights Act has become law, which means that this duty now sits alongside the section 6 duty of the Human Rights Act that a university must not act incompatibly with the article 10 right to freedom of speech, so I think that there is a bit of a missed opportunity to say how the two duties sit alongside each other. Do they essentially mean the same thing or does the Bill superimpose a positive duty—the Human Rights Act says that you must refrain from incompatible acts, and then the Bill says further that you must positively take steps to secure freedom of speech?

That is one potential interpretation, so I think my answer is that there is too much pot luck in this. There is too much hoping that when the courts get around to asking what this means they will tell us. I think Parliament should decide what it wants to do and say it, rather than leave a gap to be filled by the courts. Saying “all necessary steps such as are reasonable to secure freedom of speech” would be a very clear way of at least achieving clarity. Some may disagree, but it has the benefit of being a clearly defined duty.

Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Conservative, Congleton

Q The word “reasonable” qualifies it, so that for example if security costs were a quarter of a million pounds those steps probably would not come within the clause, but if security costs are modest to ensure that an event goes ahead then the university should take those steps.

Photo of Judith Cummins Judith Cummins Labour, Bradford South

Dr Harris, may I remind you to keep your answers brief?

Dr Harris:

Sorry. Yes, correct—that is possibly how it might be interpreted. This has been litigated in the case of Ben-Dor, where it is perhaps contestable whether the court was right to say that the amount that it would have cost was an unreasonable amount. Ideally, what we would see here is an elaboration of what “reasonably practicable steps” means. You could say it shall include a duty to cover such security costs as are necessary to enable an event to take place safely.

Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Conservative, Congleton

Q In your evidence, you say that you

“believe Parliament should decide, in this Bill, how this conflict is to be resolved”— the conflict being that between whether provocative speech is free within the law or conduct having the effect of harassment. Can you clarify that, because this is a really complex but very important issue in our deliberations on the Bill?

Dr Harris:

I will be as succinct as I can. Opponents and supporters of the Bill can hopefully find agreement that it potentially puts VCs and universities in a very difficult position. It will create borderline cases where it is difficult for the university to know whether in allowing an event to go ahead they may open themselves up to liability for harassment. It may be harassment of employees, for instance. Alternatively, if they decide that it is not quite harassment, could they then be sued because they failed to secure freedom of speech?

This is the result of the duty being essentially parasitic. It says that you must secure free speech as the law defines it. The Bill does not amplify or further define the right to free speech. I think that there is a conflict there. I do not think that it is fair to just lumber it on universities. I think there is a danger of universities responding by being completely risk averse—becoming simply anodyne—and I think it is for MPs to show some thought leadership. We have these two incommensurate values: the prevention of offence related to protected characteristics and protection of free speech, and I think it is for MPs to decide how we reconcile those two values. I do not think we should outsource the decision to universities.

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

Q Interestingly enough, those were the points that I was going to cover. That is interesting indeed, with your comments about the competing obligations under the Bill and the Equality Act. I know you have suggested that MPs resolve this, but, looking at some of the other evidence that we have had, would one step towards that be to make it explicit on the face of the Bill that universities, in doing this, must also take equality legislation into account, along with some of the non-statutory guidance—Prevent, and all of those other things? My concern is that none of that is in this at all.

Dr Harris:

I think that there are a number of options. In the Bill at the moment, the OfS has the power to issue advice. However, as you say, there is nothing equivalent to the Counter-terrorism and Security Act 2015, whereby the university will be under a statutory duty to give due regard to that advice.

There are a number of options. One would be that there be new guidance, perhaps from the OfS and the Equality and Human Rights Commission, setting out clearly the scope of the Equality Act, when it is not a justifiable grounds for infringing free speech, and the true extent of a university’s liability—for instance, like the fact that universities are not liable under the Equality Act for what their students do. That is quite important. That is a good, soft way of doing it, but the potential drawback of that is that the Equality Act is already fairly clear in its definition of harassment in section 26, in that it has this safeguard of

“whether it is reasonable for the conduct to have that effect.”.

What we are seeing in relation to reporting websites where students can report harassment—it was seen at the University of Essex, regarding Rosa Freedman and Jo Phoenix

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

Q I am interested in the Bill, rather than having a Second Reading debate on whether we should or should not have this. As the Bill stands, it does not contain anything about universities having to take account of existing legislation. It just says “within the law”, which feels a little vague to me.

With your comments acknowledging these competing obligations, my question to you is more, as a lawyer, how can that be remedied in the Bill? Could there be a concern over primacy with new case law existing outside universities, and what an OfS decision is, in terms of interpretation of the Equality Act and interpretation of this?

Dr Harris:

The Equality Act is already is there by virtue of “within the law”, so it does not need to be explicitly stated. A university will have no duty to secure the right to harass someone, and it will not be in breach of the Bill if it censures an academic for discrimination or harassment. That is already there, in the Act. I am saying that one way to resolve the potential conflict that we were talking about, between the Equality Act and this Bill, would be to have guidance to help universities navigate this very fine line.

That is one way of doing it. The other is for Parliament to re-clarify the definition of harassment with relation to universities. I accept that getting into the Equality Act is very controversial and tricky terrain, but the explanatory notes of the 2010 Act, as enacted, quite clearly say that in making findings of harassment, courts should take into account academic freedom. I think there is a lot that can be done that would not substantially change the Equality Act, but that would clarify how it applies in the academic context.

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

Q It is interesting, because in some of the evidence that we have had from the universities, they have asked for that clarity. They said that,

“absent further clarity in the Bill, this would be an untested assumption, and an HEI/SU relying upon this assumption may carry a greater risk of being exposed to a free speech challenge”.

They were requesting that clarity in the law, so your comment is interesting.

Dr Harris:

Universities often go beyond what the Equality Act

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

Because they have the Prevent legislation and much other non-statutory legislation that they are expected to follow.

Dr Harris:

That is correct. I have not yet seen evidence of over-application of the Prevent duty—at least I have not seen it, and certainly one sees more of that in schools—but, first, universities need to agree on what the Equality Act actually requires of them. They need to—

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

Sorry, it is not just the Equality Act. Universities are expected to follow a number of statutory measures and non-statutory guidance. My concern with that—one shared by a number of people—is that it could have a chilling effect, with universities being risk averse.

Dr Harris:

There will be a balance of competing obligations. That will always happen. One thing that I would certainly say is that, realistically, the risk in most cases will be quite low. Universities are not really dangerous places. It is not like serving in the infantry. There will be some instances where it is borderline, where it is very difficult to sort out a conflict between two competing obligations. One way to minimise the problem that you are talking about is for universities to start taking a more pragmatic approach to those liabilities. For example, if you look at a number of external speaker policies—they are essentially codes of practice under section 43—you would think that putting on an academic talk was a terribly dangerous event.

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

Q I am going to tie you down to talking about the Bill, because we are running out of time. Your recommendation, therefore, would be for guidance to clarify that possible tension between what the Bill is trying to do and existing legislation.

Dr Harris:

That is one proposal. I think that universities would probably ignore it, just as they have ignored the Equality Act

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

I was referring to guidance from the Bill, but okay.

Dr Harris:

It is one option. You can create a duty to have due regard for guidance. That is one option. For universities, it would not be enough to get them—

Dr Harris:

One thing you could do is to amend the Equality Act in the Bill to state that, in the academic context, universities must have due regard—

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

Q As we said, it is not just the Equality Act but all the other pieces of legislation. Would you wish to amend them all through the Bill?

Dr Harris:

No. Because I do not think that they pose the same difficulty and there is not as much systemic overreach.

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

Q Finally, the online safety Bill will be going through Parliament. What thought have you given to that Bill, how it will potentially limit freedom of expression and how it interacts with this Bill going through Parliament at the same time?

Dr Harris:

I have not really thought about how it interacts with this Bill. Certainly I have considered it otherwise. There needs to be a joined-up approach between the various instances of reform. The danger is that we end up with an anomaly. For example, Twitter’s house rules under the online safety Bill will have to be consistent with Ofcom codes of practice. There is a danger that something might be perfectly allowable under Twitter’s house rules, but unlawful in some other way.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Conservative, South Holland and The Deepings

Q Notwithstanding Kevan’s point about university charters, is the real issue not about policy making? While it is true that a university in its charter is committed to openness and free expression, in policy making the story is far from that. Is it not really the case that universities persistently misinterpret the legal definition of harassment and underestimate freedom of expression and openness in their policy documents? You talked earlier about balance. Isn’t the question about this Bill not the effect it will have on law, in the sense of legal cases, but more the effect it will have on universities looking again at their policies and policy-making process?

Dr Harris:

Yes, I very much agree. I think that what the Bill needs to do—this fits with the previous question—is elevate freedom of speech to the policy decision-making process, or the matrix, so that it is one of those considerations that is always baked into decision making.

To give you an example, the University of Cambridge launched a really quite restrictive reporting website where it asked staff and students to report micro-aggressions, which could include raising your eyebrows and that sort of thing. Now, the FOI request that we did on that showed that there were something like 400 pages of planning, correspondence and decision making about this report and support website. How was there so much consideration of this policy, and at no point did anyone step in to say, “Is this compliant with our legal free speech duties?” It is this absence from decision making. I think all this Bill needs to do to be successful is to cause a momentary pause. It needs to cause a degree of reflection.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Conservative, South Holland and The Deepings

Q And in that sense, it will change the balance of power between academics and university bosses, because there is a sense—and this is about governance as well, isn’t it—that in that kind of process that you have described, academics are often not involved, so they are asked to do things that they have not had a role in helping to shape. Is this not also good in the sense that it only protects academics, but really curbs the power of some of the university chiefs, who sometimes impose these policies top-down? As an addendum to that, every time Kevan speaks about this dystopian future of a militant Government, he waves his hands vaguely in John’s direction. I wanted to defend John.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

John and I disagree on quite a lot.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

No, it’s conscious bias—[Laughter.]

Dr Harris:

Yes, absolutely. For instance, in the determination of curriculum content, that is something where there absolutely must not be imposition of bureaucratic standards. The example that I cited in the written submission was that of the University of Oxford’s music faculty, which decided to decolonise its curriculum. I should say that that is a legitimate exercise of academic freedom, but it then said, “Members of the faculty must not disparage the curriculum.” Obviously, curriculums are changed by disparaging them—that is how they came to be decolonised in the first place—so we cannot stop the process.

There needs to be, and I think the Bill could include, a right of consultation. It is academic good practice anyway, and it slightly demeans universities that they need to be told that, because it should be part of academic ethics. There is also the right to criticise one’s institution. That is part of the international law standard of academic freedom. It is embedded in a number of university statutes. Whatever happens, the standard adopted by the Bill should be at least what is already best practice in the sector. I do not think it should go beyond that.

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

Q The Bill is about trying to change cultures in universities. Surely that requires universities to train people about biases that they might have against right-wing or controversial views. Would you not agree that universities would need to implement training sessions and education programmes for their students and staff on those issues of freedom of speech?

Dr Harris:

Yes—

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

Q Yes—thank you. I am not going to have waffle from you. Therefore, why has your group taken three universities to trial over them trying to implement non-conscious bias training for their staff? Why is your institution trying to shut down the universities implementing the kind of thing that the Bill would do?

Dr Harris:

We did not take them to trial, I should say.

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

Q Well, you took them to either employment tribunals or to complaints procedures.

Dr Harris:

We wrote letters to them, but to get to the central—

Photo of Judith Cummins Judith Cummins Labour, Bradford South

Q Order. I am afraid that brings us to the end of the time allotted for the Committee to ask questions, and indeed for today’s sitting. I thank Dr Harris, on behalf of the Committee, for his evidence.

Ordered, That further consideration be now adjourned. —(Michael Tomlinson.)

Adjourned till Monday 13 September at half-past Three o’clock.

Written evidence reported to the House

HEFSB01 Benjamin Marler, Founder and Vice President of the Debate Society, Union of Students, University of Derby

HEFSB02 Jim Dickinson, Wonkhe

HEFSB03 Professor Nigel Biggar, CBE, Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology, University of Oxford

HEFSB04 Taylor Vinters LLP

HEFSB05 University of Cambridge

HEFSB06 Arif Ahmed MBE, Reader in Philosophy (and Fellow of Gonville and Caius College), University of Cambridge

HEFSB07 Universities UK

HEFSB08 Prof Ross Anderson FRS FREng, Professor of Security Engineering, Cambridge University and Edinburgh University

HEFSB09 Free Speech Union (Confidential)