The Bills announced in each session’s Queen’s Speech are the fulcrum of the Parliamentary year. But they are easily lost sight of, separately and wholly, as the political cycle moves – and a mass of other news and events crowd them out.
So during the coming months, ConservativeHome will run a brief guide, on most Sunday mornings, to each Bill from this year’s Speech: what it is, whether it’s new, its main strengths and weaknesses – and whether it’s expected sooner or later.
5. Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill
What it is
The Bill will “strengthen the legal duties on higher education providers in England to protect freedom of speech on campuses up and down the country, for students, academics and visiting speakers”.
It falls into three parts, of which the most significant are the first two. The first part places new free speech duties on colleges and student unions. The second applies these to the Office of Students, within which will be established a Director for Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom.
The Department for Education is in charge of this piece of amending legislation, which makes changes to four previous Acts of Parliament. It gained its Second Reading last week.
Gavin Williamson kicked off the debate and Michelle Donelan wound up. As Universities Minister, the latter can be expected to lead for the Government during the Bill’s committee stage.
Carried over or a new Bill?
Currently under consideration.
Essentially, that freedom of speech in higher education for both academics and students is under threat, the evidence for which consists of various surveys (see here, for example), and individual incidents – such as Amber Rudd being disinvited when due to speak at Oxford University, and the treatment of academics at Edinburgh University and Cambridge University.
These flare-ups can be seen as incidents in a culture war, much of which is contested in a less dramatic way. The Right tends to hold that free speech on campus and elsewhere is threatened by radical norms on language and conduct – enforced by “cancellation”, social media and groupthink. The debate has spilled over into the Left over trans; see this site’s regular Radical column for more.
The most vocal opposition to the Bill comes from the Left, but there is some from the Right too. The sum of the case from the Left is, first, that there’s no convincing evidence that free speech at colleges is under threat and that, second, the Bill will protect Holocaust deniers, racists and anti-vaxers. There is also concern that it may weaken free protest.
The Right has a mixed series of reservations. One is that the Bill goes too far, because it empowers the state to set more conditions for independent institutions. Another is that it doesn’t go far enough, because both academics and students need further, broader protections which existing legislation, such as the Equality Act, stand in the way of.
The coalition of voters that returned Boris Johnson’s Conservatives with an 80 seat majority will like the flavour of this Bill and, given the toxicity of the debate within the Left on trans, there will be some support within parts of it for the claim that freedom of speech in colleges is under threat, even if those parts are opposed to the Bill, either in principle or in detail.
Labour watched its back at Second Reading – tabling a reasoned amendment which referred to “the need to ensure legal protections for freedom of speech and academic freedom”. This may reflect a nervousness that the Left’s broad position is self-contradictory: after all, one can’t both support curbs on free speech while also claiming that there’s no threat to it.
Controversy rating: 7/10
That the politics of the Bill favour the Government (the measure is certainly eye-catching) doesn’t guarantee that it will deliver. The broad threat to free speech, for students and academics of different political and religious persuasions, cannot be seen off by Parliamentary legislation. Which is important for supporters of the Bill to bear in mind.