New Clause 12 - Harassment

Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:00 pm on 22nd September 2021.

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“In section 26 of the Equality Act 2010, after subsection (4)(c) insert—

‘(d) When the case concerns the conduct of academic staff of a registered higher education provider, the importance of freedom of speech and academic freedom, as provided for under Part A1 of the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 (as inserted by section 1 of the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act 2021).’”—

This new clause amends the Equality Act 2010 so that, in deciding whether the conduct of academic staff of a registered higher education provider constitutes harassment, the importance of freedom of speech and academic freedom must be taken into account.

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.

The former Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson, 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.]

We need to ensure that we embed that balance in harassment provisions in the Bill.

During the evidence sessions, Professor Biggar said:

“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”.––[Official Report, Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Public Bill Committee, Tuesday 7 September 2021; c. 30, Q59.]

New clause 12 seeks to harmonise the relationship between promoting academic freedom and freedom of speech with the legal concept of harassment in a way that could act as a counterweight to potentially expansive interpretations of harassment by universities and management. Professor Whittle said:

“The Equality Act provides little protection for anybody who feels that their rights are being disturbed by somebody else’s freedom of speech.”––[Official Report, Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Public Bill Committee, 7 September 2021; c. 43, Q80.]

Dr Bryn Harris said that

“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.”––[Official Report, Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Public Bill Committee, 7 September 2021; c. 80, Q169.]

Once again, we are seeking to clarify and tighten the legislation on harassment, which is why we tabled new clause 12.

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

New clause 12 seeks to amend the provisions relating to harassment in the Equality Act 2010, which defines it as

“unwanted conduct which is related to a relevant characteristic and has the purpose or effect of creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for the complainant or of violating the complainant’s dignity.”

The new clause would provide that where a case concerns the conduct of an academic staff member of a registered higher education provider, in deciding whether the conduct has that effect, the importance of freedom of speech and academic freedom must be taken into account. The new clause would amend section 26 of the Equality Act—the general definition of harassment that applies to all areas covered by the Equality Act—rather than chapter 2 of part 6, which deals with further and higher education.

It is already the case that when considering a claim of harassment, courts and tribunals must balance competing rights on the facts of a particular case, which could include the right of freedom of expression, as set out in article 10 of the European convention on human rights, and academic freedom. The explanatory notes to the Equality Act state that specifically in relation to determining the effect of unwanted conduct. Guidance has made it clear that the harassment provision should not be used to undermine academic freedom.

It is also important to note that, under the Equality Act, harassment has both a subjective and an objective element. It is not just based on the views of the person making the complaint. The Act provides that, in deciding the effect of the unwanted conduct, the complainant’s perception must be taken into account, but so too must the circumstances of the case and whether it is reasonable for the conduct to have that effect.

New clause 12 would potentially override that by adding a new factor that must be taken into account when deciding whether the conduct of a member of academic staff at a higher education provider constitutes harassment: the importance of freedom of speech and academic freedom. As a result, it could alter the balance that constitutes unlawful harassment and undermine existing protections from harassment in the Equality Act.

I believe that the terms of the Equality Act already address the concerns raised by the new clause, and it would not be appropriate to amend it in that way. It is, of course, vital that freedom of speech generates rigorous debate and advances understanding. To uphold freedom of speech in higher education, students and staff members must be able to express ideas within the law that may be controversial, unpalatable or even deeply offensive. As such, students’ learning experience may well include exposure to course material, discussions or speakers’ views that they find offensive or unacceptable, but that is unlikely to be considered harassment under the Equality Act.

I hope Members are reassured by that and agree that the new clause is not necessary. As ever, we have sought in the Bill to strike an appropriate balance between protecting individuals from harassment on the one hand and securing lawful freedom of speech on the other. Amending the Equality Act in this way would risk unsettling that balance.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time.

Division number 30 Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill — New Clause 12 - Harassment

Aye: 6 MPs

No: 8 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

The Committee divided: Ayes 6, Noes 8.

Question accordingly negatived.