Report stage and third reading in the House of Commons are generally fairly dry, technical, sessions focused on the text of the bill and amendments to it.
With the exception of John Hayes, we were bereft of the kind of bloviating that characterised second reading. Instead, we were closer to the spirit of the committee stage – with a number of amendments of varying quality up for discussion.
Minister for Higher and Further Education Michelle Donelan kicked things off with a restatement of the slightly shonky case for the bill – with the usual evidence offered from Policy Exchange, King’s College, and the Academic Freedom Index. Both she and her Shadow counterpart Matt Western moved jarringly between party political stuff (Western used the Wharton stories to decent effect) and more sober attempts to improve the workings.
As discussion moved on to the amendments, there was a lot of unusually powerful invective from Iain Duncan Smith about the security risks presented by Confucius Institutes – while the prospect of the Office for Students (OfS) being the body to address them felt quite odd. Nevertheless, the bill will now include measures to address concerns around the impact of overseas funding on freedom of speech and academic freedom – with the regulator gaining powers to seek further information on grants over a certain size once these are set in secondary legislation (£75,000 was suggested in the press over the weekend). A slightly more clumsy backbench amendment, ostensibly on the same issue, was duly withdrawn.
Easily the speech of the night was delivered by Jess Phillips, who set out a powerful case for her amendment that would have banned the use of NDAs in sexual misconduct cases on the basis of their impact on victims’ freedom to speak. Donelan has, of course, already been collecting signatures on a pledge on the issue, and has as much as instructed OfS to require them to be ruled out in a future version of the regulatory framework, with the usual threats of deregistration and fines. But as Phillips observed:
…the idea that a rape victim who has signed a non-disclosure agreement will take down Cambridge University is the stuff of cinematic hopeful glory. I will believe that when I see it, which everybody in this building knows will be never.
There was no more jarring moment than a switch from Phillips into John Hayes, quoting Disreali and going on about “flames of liberty” and “beacon of learning”. His central point seemed to be that students only really had the right to physical safety on campus, with a repeated defence of free speech within the law on the basis that:
the ability to alarm is closely associated with the ability to inspire, that the ability to disturb is intrinsically linked with the ability to enthral, and that even the capacity to shock is necessary in the development and exposure of new ideas and fresh thinking
Former shadow minister Emma Hardy had a go at drawing out of him the “where do you draw the line” question, particularly in relation to holocast denial – but he effectively ignored it, with Donelan later leaving that question to the new Director for Academic Freedom and Freedom of Speech. Hayes also raised Kathleen Stock and Sussex, without ever explaining how the bill would have caused the affair to turn out differently and without ever explaining why similar powers currently held by OfS don’t seem to have generated any action off the back of an investigation it announced last November.
This Bill was always going to pass these stages with the current government majority – so it was striking that in the main opposition amendments were constructive and thoughtful. Alas, as usual, the response from the government was not.
Measures to ensure an independent panel and the select committee should have a say in the Director for Freedom of Speech and Academic freedom where not important. A sunset clause, regarding a the use report on whether the proposed Act was effective as a decision point on whether to keep or amend it, was dismissed as evidence that the opposition was “opposed to freedom of speech”.
And inevitably, the government’s amendment on security costs passed, despite the underpinning evidence for its necessity amounting, as far as we can make out, to a single incident.
At third reading, Matt Western characterised the positions of the two main parties in another way:
The Government like to present themselves as defenders of freedom of speech, but their actions tell us differently, including their plans to arrest noisy protesters and limit others, to restrict the right to vote through voter ID and their outright attacks on the BBC and plans to privatise Channel 4. The Government are interested in freedom of speech only if that speech is framed in their own image. The Minister says that Labour’s position is absurd. Free speech on our campus but no right to free speech on our streets is utterly absurd. I need not remind the House that Labour has always championed free speech. Indeed, it was a Labour Government who introduced the law guaranteeing freedom of expression.
Following a debate in which Donelan and others tried to put the issue outside of party politics this made it clear that the central issue here is a perception that it is conservative views (of various stripes) that are unwelcome on campus. Though voices in opposition to the government are faced with restrictions through the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act, voices that sail closer to the new right-wing orthodoxy require a specific bill to protect them on university campuses – hardly a ringing endorsement of the intellectual health of conservative thought.
The Bill will now move to the House of Lords. There is a perception that what Western described as “as big a big dog’s breakfast as it is possible to get” would see sustained opposition from both sides in the upper house, and certainly we can expect a focus on the way the Bill would actually work in practice.
Neatly drawing together two noted obsessions of peers (universities, and freedom of speech), we can expect lengthy debates – it is to be sincerely hoped that these generate light rather than heat.