The Free Speech Bill gets marked – three weaks and a satisfactory

When you work at Wonkhe, every day’s a school day.

I never knew this, but something called the Regulatory Policy Committee (RPC) is an independent body that’s sponsored by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS).

The committee is made up of independent experts from a range of backgrounds – including the private and voluntary sectors, business, the legal profession, and academia. Collectively, the RPC has experience and knowledge of employee, consumer and economic issues.

Its job is to assess the quality of evidence and analysis used to inform regulatory proposals affecting the economy, businesses, civil society, charities and other non-government organisations. Its work helps ensure that ministerial policy decisions are based on accurate evidence, and helps to produce better regulation.

In other words, it marks ministers’ homework. And so you’ll be thrilled to learn that it has done so on the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill’s impact assessment.

Now don’t get too excited. It hasn’t recommend the whole thing be scrapped or anything. But I think this means the committee has concerns:

The RPC considers the EANDCB and SaMBA to be sufficient and therefore, the IA, is rated as fit for purpose. The evidence supporting the proposed interventions is weak and the IA’s consideration of options could be improved.

Do people really talk like this in the Civil Service or is someone trolling us?

Anyway, the committee has some concerns. One of things it always does is a “Small and micro business assessment” (that’s what “SaMBA” means) and it says that the SaMBA should be improved by considering whether small and micro businesses (SMBs) face higher costs and how any disproportionate burdens could be mitigated.

Top tip here for the civil servants working on this – your impact assessment has totally missed how impossible it will be for an SU like this to be burdened by the regulation as proposed. It’s basically a small group of seventeen year olds doing charity fundraising.

Next the committee has a look at the “rationale and options”, and here it concludes that the material provided is… “weak”:

The evidence underpinning rationale for intervention is weak. The IA should provide evidence of any current negative impacts on society that need to be addressed. It also does not explain how the chosen option will achieve the policy objectives.

It’s also not hugely impressed by this mysterious “chilling effect” we keep hearing about:

The IA describes the “chilling effect” whereby some students and staff feel unable to express themselves without fear of repercussion but provides limited evidence of the impacts of this on either those withholding views or those negatively affected. If clear evidence of the impacts is not available, the Department could present concrete and well-founded examples of the “chilling effect” and the consequences in those circumstances.

The RPC also points out that the impact assessment say the voluntary options considered “would not achieve the policy objectives” but does not provide evidence to demonstrate why that is likely to be the case. I wonder why!

The “cost-benefit analysis” is rated as “satisfactory”. The committee says the impact assessment “could go further to demonstrate the benefits of the proposal” in the narrative, which is one way of putting it.

On “wider impacts”, Williamson’s work gets another big “Weak”- the committee says that it fails to consider any potential negative impacts on individuals and groups offended or insulted by freedom of speech, and could also include details of the equalities impact assessment that is being carried out:

The IA could consider any potential negative impacts on individuals and the academic and social environment of HEPs and SUs. For example, the IA does not consider unintended consequences on those that may be affected by the “hateful” or “unpopular” views. The IA could also consider whether one group’s expression may curtail another group’s ability to express a contrary view or directly infringe rights protected under existing regulation.

And – music to my ears given I’ve been banging on about this:

The IA should discuss how the proposal interacts with other government policies and proposals such as those relating to online harms.

The document itself is marked “May 15”. How odd that it’s only appeared now, three days after the debate on the second reading of the Bill in the Commons.

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