New Clause 3 - Select committee review

Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:30 pm on 22nd September 2021.

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“(1) The Secretary of State must, at least once every calendar year, invite a select committee of the House of Commons to carry out a review into the effectiveness of the provisions of this Act.

(2) The Secretary of State must invite the select committee to carry out its first review within one year of this Act being passed.”—

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Matt Western Matt Western Shadow Minister (Education)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Photo of Judith Cummins Judith Cummins Labour, Bradford South

With this it will be convenient to discuss new clause 6—Sunset clause

“(1) This Act expires at the end of the period of 3 years beginning with the day on which it is passed.

(2) A Minister of the Crown may by regulations made by statutory instrument remove any of the provisions of this Act after one year from the day on which it is passed if he is not satisfied that the provision is working as intended.

(3) Before three years from the day on which this Act is passed a Minister of the Crown must present to Parliament a written report on the effectiveness of the provisions of the Act.

(4) A Minister of the Crown may by regulations made by statutory instrument renew this Act, subject to parliamentary approval in full or in part, or make transitional, transitory or saving provision in connection with the expiry of any provision of this Act.

(5) Regulations under this section shall be subject to the affirmative procedure.”

This new clause would mean the legislation would have to be renewed by Parliament after a period of three years.

Photo of Matt Western Matt Western Shadow Minister (Education)

The purpose behind new clause 3 is straightforward: it is to ensure that the effectiveness of the legislation is formally reviewed, certainly within a year of it’s being passed. Professor Jonathan Grant said in his evidence:

“What I wait to see—I cannot answer this; I am speculating––is whether the legislation will have an impact on that 25% of people who feel that they cannot say what they want to and whether it will change the behaviours of lecturers in the classroom to get more balanced reading lists. I hope that is the case, but we do not know at this stage. If this legislation leads to that, then it has been successful.”––[Official Report, Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Public Bill Committee, 13 September 2021; c. 122, Q264.]

There are pretty substantial markers of success. Barring Dr Harris’s absurd belief that

“all this Bill needs to do to be successful is to cause a momentary pause. It needs to cause a degree of reflection.”––[Official Report, Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Public Bill Committee, 7 September 2021; c. 82, Q175.], which I would suggest is a marker of success so low that, on this basis, the legislation ought to be passed continually to allow moments of self-reflection, we need to monitor the progression of the , how it is going to work and how it may work once it is, we assume, passed.

If the Government are, as the Committee is saying they are, so keen on the promotion of free speech, surely they would be inclined to allow annual monitoring and to tweak the Bill as necessary—for example, if there is vexatious litigation or confusion among students about which body they should complain to. New clause 3 simply seeks a review by the Education Committee looking into the effectiveness of the Bill’s provisions.

New clause 6, which stands in my name and that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington, is a straightforward sunset clause of the type that much legislation includes. It states that this legislation should expire after three years beginning on the day it is passed, in view of our belief that it will not work. We are doing our best to be constructive about how it could work better and to mitigate its worst impacts, but we believe it is important to include this sunset clause. It would also give the Minister the power to remove provisions that were acting against the interest of free speech. I am reminded of how my right hon. Friend the Member for North Durham described the chilling effect as a blancmange. If that is so, why not embed the equivalent amount of flexibility in the Bill?

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

I put my name to the new clause as a point of principle, because I believe that we accumulate legislation—it builds up—but we never really review it properly to see whether it is effective enough and whether it needs proper amendment. This is basically a pragmatic administrative clause that, as my hon. Friend said, appears in many pieces of legislation.

I do not believe the Bill is necessary in this form—I think other actions should be taken—but if we are to pass legislation such as this, an awful lot of the issues will be addressed by regulation and guidance. The new clause gives the opportunity for a review within three years to see whether the legislation as a whole is working effectively, which parts of if are working effectively, and which parts are not and need to be dropped or amended. It is a straightforward administrative mechanism that I believe should be contained in most legislation, to prevent the pile-up of unnecessary burdens.

Photo of Michelle Donelan Michelle Donelan Minister of State (Department for Education) (Higher and Further Education)

As we have heard, new clause 3 would require the Secretary of State to invite a Select Committee of the House of Commons to review the effectiveness of the provisions of the Bill at least once a year, whereas new clause 6 would make the Bill subject to a sunset clause, so it would expire three years after the date of enactment unless a report is made to Parliament and regulations are made to renew the Act. It would also Ministers to remove provisions of the Bill one year after enactment if they are not working as intended.

On new clause 3, I can assure Members that the Department for Education will work with the sector to ensure that the measures are properly implemented, and we will review the legislation in the usual way with a post-implementation review. There are also provisions in the Bill as drafted that will help to measure its effectiveness once it comes into force.

Clause 4 provides that the Secretary of State may require the Office for Students to report on freedom of speech and academic freedom matters in its annual report or a special report. The report must be laid before Parliament, so that Parliament and the sector can scrutinise it. Equally, paragraph 12 of new schedule 6A to the 2017 Act and clause 7 of the Bill provide that the Secretary of State may request the OfS to conduct a review of the complaints scheme or its operation, and to report on the results. We therefore do not think it necessary to add yet more provision in the Bill to include a requirement for a Select Committee to conduct an annual review of the effectiveness of the Bill. It is worth noting that the current freedom of speech duties in section 43 of the Education (No. 2) Act 1986 do not have such a requirement, and nor does the Higher Education and Research Act 2017, which is being amended by the Bill, so there is no precedent in this context.

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

May we return to the issue of the Select Committee and whether it will have a pre-appointment hearing for the freedom of speech director? Will the Select Committee be able to call the director to give evidence and to have scrutiny, as it did with the leader of Ofsted, Amanda Spielman?

Photo of Michelle Donelan Michelle Donelan Minister of State (Department for Education) (Higher and Further Education)

A pre-appointment scrutiny hearing is the prerogative of the Government. The Government could decide that, but it does not need to be on the face of the Bill. As for whom the Select Committee calls, I fully anticipate that once the new director is in office, the Select Committee will want to speak directly to them.

Turning to new clause 6, we do not think it would be right or appropriate to set a sunset clause in the Bill. Equally, it would not be right to allow Ministers to remove provisions in the Bill by way of regulations only one year after Parliament had approved the Act, when there has not been enough time for the Act to bed in. A sunset clause for a whole Act would be extremely unusual and considered appropriate only in very particular circumstances. We see no reason why the Bill should be treated differently from the majority of other primary legislation.

The Government believe that the Bill is important and necessary. It must be allowed to take effect in the sector to deal with the issues, so that we no longer have cases of freedom of speech and academic freedom being wrongly restricted. If we do have instances of that, those affected must be able to seek redress. We must have a change of culture on our campuses and create a climate of accountability for decision making, to ensure that our universities are places where debate can thrive. I trust that the Committee will agree with me that these amendments are not necessary and the Bill should be allowed to do its work once it is enacted.

Photo of Matt Western Matt Western Shadow Minister (Education) 3:45 pm, 22nd September 2021

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington said, we believe that the amendments are quite straightforward. We should be trying to avoid the piling up of legislation The point has been made many times by my right hon. Friend the Member for North Durham that, for decades, Conservative Governments have claimed that they are reducing red tape and ridding this country of legislation, but here we are again. We seem to be living under what is perhaps the most authoritarian Conservative Government ever. They are introducing more and more legislation and burdens on those who can ill afford it.

We thought that a sunset clause was a very straightforward suggestion. We believe that the Select Committee should have more of a role to play, and why not? Surely the purpose of having a Select Committee is to conduct scrutiny of the work of the Department and agents within the sector; and surely the director of free speech should be part of the scrutiny by that Committee. We will therefore wish to press new clause 6 to a vote.

Question put and negatived.