HC Deb 11 April 1986 vol 95 cc553-60

Motion made, and Question proposed, that this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Sainsbury.]

2.33 pm
Mr. John Carlisle (Luton, North)

My hon. Friend the Minister will not be surprised if I begin my remarks on this very important subject of freedom of speech within universities and colleges of further education in the same way as my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Silvester) began his speech to the House on 11 February when he introduced his Freedom of Speech (Universities and Institutions of Higher Education) Bill. He said:

The Bill should not be necessary and it is sad that it is."—[Official Report, 11 February 1986; Vol. 91, c. 795.] This debate would be unnecessary but for recent events on university campuses, and outside, and the attacks suffered by right hon. and hon. Members of this House and other persons.

Those events, and the discussions which followed, have put some pressure on the vice-chancellors of our universities and the principals of colleges of further education to try to put their houses in order. I have sought this debate to ask the House to reconsider the report of the vice-chancellors and to learn the reaction of my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science and, indeed, the views of the Secretary of State.

No one would deny the principle of freedom of speech—it is a freedom contained in law. Few would wish to deny that right, especially at seats of academic learning. The whole process of teaching at university or school concerns the acquisition of knowledge.

The tragedy of recent events is that, of all places, it is at universities and colleges—places of knowledge and learning—that freedom of speech has been denied to certain people. I was disturbed by the remarks of the president of the National Union of Students, Mr. Phil Woolas, concerning my experiences at Bradford. He justified the actions of those who attacked me on the basis of the provocative nature of my speech. I remind the House that, on that occasion, I was not even allowed to say anything because the mob prevented me from doing so. The comments of the president of the NUS are worrying to hon. Members and to members of universities and colleges of further education.

In the past few years, various student unions have passed a no-platform policy. It is a policy whereby visiting speakers are denied the opportunity to address members of the university or members of associations or clubs in the university because of the views that they hold. The unions have adopted this policy on the basis, in some way, of ensouraging the anti-apartheid and anti-racist movements. It is a disturbing procedure and one that should be deplored.

It is gratifying to learn that certain universities and colleges have rescinded the no-platform policy. Oxford and Cambridge—I had trouble at both universities—have now reversed their no-platform policies. That is encouraging. However, the policy exists at certain universities, notably at York. A High Court case is pending against its student union because of this policy. It also exists at Sheffield and at the university of East Anglia.

That is the dark side of the problem but it is encouraging that other universities such as Swansea, Manchester and Lancaster have voted against such a policy. This sorry, sad affair and the attacks that have taken place on hon. Members and other people bring home the fact that students, who are seeking financial support from the House and the Government, are prejudicing their case by the way they treat visiting speakers. There are two sides to the problem. There are the acts preventing visiting speakers from addressing university audiences and actions against members of universities, especially members of the Federation of Conservative Students.

I do not wish to detain the House with a sorry catalogue of the experiences of hon. Members and others. However, for the sake of the record it is right that they should be related to the House. At Manchester university my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Brittan) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) were attacked and in one case sprayed with red paint. More notably, my hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State, Home office was attacked while attempting to address a meeting and was prevented from speaking. At Nottingham university, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Energy my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, West (Mr. Hunt) was prevented from speaking. My right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford (Mr. Tebbit), the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, was prevented from speaking at the same university. At Warwick university, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science was prevented from speaking. At Bristol and Bradford universities, my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mr. Proctor) was prevented from speaking. At Kingston polytechnic, my right hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Parkinson) was prevented from speaking. At Guildford college of law, my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General had his meeting cancelled. At Sussex university, the right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen) was pelted with fruit and eggs. More recently, I was subjected to physical attack at Bradford university and was prevented from speaking at Oxford university. My hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Mr. Fallon) was punched in the face in the students union bar after addressing a meeting at Sunderland polytechnic. Perhaps most sinister of all, Professor John Vincent, a lecturer at Bristol university, had his lectures picketed and burst into by an angry mob to the extent that he suffered a great deal of personal harassment.

Those are small examples of what is happening. There are others which do not receive the same publicity. My hon. Friend the Minister will, therefore, have some idea of the physical intimidation that is occurring at universities and colleges of further education. Visiting speakers are being prevented from putting their views.

The reaction in the House has been predictable. No fewer than 54 of my hon. Friends have signed early-day motion 582, which was tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Withington and which deplores the actions of the hooligans. Perhaps as relevant is the fact that three Opposition Members have seen fit to attack that early-day motion and to table an amendment supporting the students who, it says, have sought to protect their compuses from fascists, racists and apartheid fellow travellers. Some Opposition Members clearly support the violence on some of our campuses.

Members of the Federation of Conservative Students and members of Conservative associations are also suffering. At the polytechnic of North London, the FCS has been banned from operating freely by the students union. At the Thames polytechnic, no recruitment stall was permitted at freshers evening unless the Tory club, the existence of which the student union refuses to acknowledge, paid a £500 fee by return of post.

At the North Staffordshire polytechnic, the local Conservative party agent was expelled from the student union-controlled recruitment fair under threat of physical violence. At Leicester polytechnic, a FCS vice-chairman was attacked and threatened by a large crowd. At Manchester polytechnic, a recruitment fair stall was overturned and the FCS chairman was punched in the face. At the University of East Anglia the student union withdrew the Conservative Association's funds because of my impending visit.

The main thrust of those who oppose the principle of freedom of speech is severe physical intimidation of the FCS and others interested in the Conservative movement. Meetings with speakers that they hoped to hold are being forced off campus. At various universities and colleges, recruitment for Conservative Associations is being prevented and legitimate funds to those associations are being blocked by student unions and other bodies. Those who attend meetings for visiting speakers of whatever political hue run the risk of some physical intimidation or attack. I have been lucky enough in recent times to receive full police protection at some meetings, but all those who want to attend the meetings do not get the same protection that I and other hon. Members enjoy.

The offenders throughout this long and sorry saga are almost all members of what Paul Johnson in the Spectator described as the "Fascist Left in action." He wrote: Their clear aim is to prevent, by force and terror, the expression of opinions. The methods that they use are ugly and violent and are employed in the name of various organisations, including the various dissident groups. In every instance those involved are from the far Left. They are members of the Socialist Workers' party and the Labour party students' organisation, and in many instances they are members of the Militant organisation. There is a somewhat sinister parallel between the activities of this group and the activities of the members of the Nazi party in Germany during the 1920s. We know that the Nazi party tried to influence students and infiltrate student organisations, and that tactic had the disastrous consequences of which we are all aware. The recent opinion poll which expressed the amount of support for the Conservative party being as low as it is reflects, perhaps, the success of the tactics of the Fascist Left.

The Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals issued guidelines to its members and other interested parties on 13 December 1985. It did so on the basis of freedom of speech and lawful assembly. It was that which among other things led to this Adjournment debate. There is no doubt that the guidelines contain some fine words and thoughts. There is a reference to the "unequivocal … support" of the Vice-Chancellors for the freedom of expression. It talks about the special responsibilities that universities have to provide a platform for speakers of any political colour and the right to maintain good order on their premises". It refers rightly to protecting the rightful freedom of visiting speakers to go to universities and of the members of those universities to hear what they have to say.

I am concerned that the document sets out a rather jellied approach to those who are described as controversial speakers. The guidelines state: there may be cases of very high risk when universities may have to use their right of refusing permission for the holding of violently controversial meetings in university premises". That would seem to provide a get-out to vice-chancellors and principals. If they are disturbed by the problems that could occur when certain speakers attend meetings, they have the get-out of being able to cancel the meetings. That has happened far too often to be an instance of vice-chancellors' policy which can be ignored. The guidelines were right and one supports them in principle. One certainly supports the principle of Professor Maurice Shock, who wrote the document in the first place, but the loophole which I have described gives the opportunity to certain principals at universities and colleges to cancel meetings because of fear of some trouble occurring. By cancelling meetings they are cancelling the freedom of speech which this Adjournment debate is all about.

The guidelines admit that in some universities security is inadequate. I accept that the last thing that we want to see is a large number of policemen on student campuses. However, we must acknowledge that where a police presence is necessary police officers should be called in.

There are various lines open to vice-chancellors and principals. First, if offences take place, the student union must be liable to fines. It is good to see that Warwick university was fined some time ago. Secondly, when students are convicted of criminal offences, as happened at a recent meeting in Leicester which I attended, they should be expelled from the university without further questions asked. Thirdly, trouble-makers should be isolated and vice-chancellors should be aware that they exist. Fourthly, I would recommend to vice-chancellors and principals that they should meet visiting speakers and, if need be, share the platform with them so that they can experience the violence that we, the visiting speakers, have to experience.

There are various options open to the Parliamentary Under-Secretary, the Secretary of State and Her Majesty's Government. The first is that we adopt the legislation proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Withington which has the full support of Conservative Members. Secondly, the Secretary of State should seriously consider withdrawing funds, as he has the power to do, from those universities and colleges of further education which offend against the principle of free speech. Thirdly, I ask my right hon. Friend to look closely at the funding of the National Union of Students and student union bodies which, as my hon. Friends will know, exist on a closed shop basis. He should particularly look at the role of those who take a sabbatical year and who are, in many cases, those who are causing the most trouble. Fourthly, I say to the Parliamentary Under-Secretary and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that we require a far stronger reaction when those offences occur. I think that it is imperative, which is why I intend to give my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary the opportunity this afternoon, to state firmly and clearly that hon. Members and others should have absolute and free access to universities and such places and be able to put their views forward, whatever they are, in the pursuit of academic learning. For that reason I shall look forward with interest to what my hon. Friend has to say.

2.52 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science (Mr. George Walden)

The issue raised by my hon. Friend this afternoon is of vital importance in a democratic society. Historically, this country has been a byword for freedom of speech in general and in its universities in particular—ask any refugee who came to Britain from Nazi Germany in the thirties. But then ask too how the whole situation in Germany began. I suspect that an important part of the answer will be the preference of some people with a liberal conscience for a quiet life.

I do not want to make extravagant comparisons. I am simply warning against complacency. The principles of free speech are indivisible in whatever place or time. Recent events of the kind to which my hon. Friend has referred remind us that there are present in any society—even our own—seeds of intolerance and intellectual thuggery, which can take root and flourish in ugly profusion if not weeded out in time.

My hon. Friend the Minister of State referred in a recent speech—and his reference has been extensively commented upon—to the risk of our schools helping to create a yob society. There is evidence of yobbishness seeping into higher education as well. Those may seem strong words, but the recent pattern of incidents is disturbing.

The Government are greatly concerned about protecting free speech, and about the number of occasions in recent months when it has been threatened. Invited speakers have faced disruption, violent behaviour, and personal assault on campuses. My hon. Friend is not alone in the House in having painful personal experience of this new climate of intolerance. The Government would like universities and other authorities to take firm action to ensure not only that the principle of freedom of speech is fully accepted, but that that principle is applied in practice. They therefore welcome the publication last December by the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals of guidance on free speech and lawful assembly; and we are gratified to note that the Committee of Directors of Polytechnics is preparing similar guidance for its institutions.

When the CVCP guidance was issued, a good deal of publicity was given to one perhaps unfortunate paragraph which stated that there may be cases of very high risk when universities may have to use their right of refusing permission for the holding of violently controversial meetings in university premises". This was seen at the time as providing an easy escape route for institutions which might be willing to take the line of least resistance in order to avoid disruption. The point was taken up by the Government and discussed at a meeting with representatives of the Committee.

Shortly afterwards the chairman wrote to the Secretary of State to reiterate his committee's commitment to freedom of speech and to make it clear that the guidelines were never intended as, and should not be interpreted as providing a pretext for an institution to cancel a meeting other than in extreme circumstances.

I can do no better than quote from the chairman's letter, which unfortunately received less publicity than the original paragraph that gave rise to it. It said:

legal advice and common sense dictated the need to cover circumstances in which a university, having consulted the police, might find itself unable to deal with the prospect of a major disturbance, possibly not provoked by its own students and involving few of them. The document as a whole and the careful phrasing of the passage in question should remove any doubt about where the universities stand on a matter of high principle in a free society. If any university were to surrender weakly to pressure it would not be able to find cover or protection by referring to the Committee's advice, but would rather find itself condemned. The Government fully endorse the view expressed in the final sentence that I quoted. But that leads me to a deeper concern with a danger that may not yet be sufficiently recognised. The incidents so rightly deplored are merely what we see on the surface of things. In deploring them, we should be aware of a greater danger: the erosion of freedom of speech by default. It is regrettable that the guidelines contain no clear and specific suggestion that university authorities should ensure that speakers are not refused a platform by their student unions. Some recent incidents have been precipitated by those who have acted in defiance of a "no platform" policy. But who can measure the effects of such policies when they are not challenged? Such effects are essentially invisible: we do not know of those who have not been invited, we do not know of those who have been deterred by the threat of possible violence from seeking or agreeing to speak. There are no newspaper reports about debates that do not take place.

The refusal by minority groups of students of a platform on the grounds that particular individuals may be "racist" cannot be justified. When so used, the word "racist" often means little more than that an individual has previously expressed views that the student activists find objectionable. It may be, for example, that they dislike the policies of the South African Government; they are not alone in that. But that is not a justification, or even a sensible reason, for refusing freedom of speech. On the contrary, anyone who wishes to put an alternative view should be welcomed as a demonstration of the fact that in a free society anyone can say what he likes within the law, and so that his views can be exposed to the light of reason, humanity and democratic argument. To deny a platform is more than an attack on freedom of speech: it is a betrayal of the values on which a democracy depends.

The Government see it as vitally important that institutions should take a firm stand on such attempts to deny a platform to a speaker. The way on that has already been pointed by the University of York, which has shown itself willing to take legal action to prevent its student union insituting a "no platform" policy on the ground that such a policy would be inconsistent with the constitution of the student union under the charter and statutes of the university. The Government trust that other institutions will be similarly willing to take vigorous action to eliminate or prevent the introduction of no platform policies. In any instance where, at a particular time, a refusal cannot be prevented, it is to be hoped that the institution itself will consider offering a platform. When incidents occur and a decision to deal firmly with the offenders has been taken, the Government hope that institutions will not be deflected by insidious pressures, from whatever quarter.

I have concentrated so far on the responsibilities of the authorities of institutions in the protection of freedom of speech. But students, too, must accept that responsibility. I am well aware that many of the worst recent incidents have involved outside interlopers and that in some cases student unions were on the side of virtue. But equally there is no lack of evidence of misbehaviour by students. We all know where most of the trouble comes from, but this Government deplore irresponsible behaviour in whatever political quarter it arises.

Above all those who have sought and obtained positions of leadership in the student unions need to consider their position very carefully in this respect. Automatic membership of student unions in our higher education system is founded on a concept of responsible participation on the part of mature members of an academic community in the conduct of that community's affairs. That concept is brought into disrepute where confrontation is precipitated by "no platform" policies; where no lead is given in opposing undemocratic action or violence on campuses; where those who perpetrate it are protected by unions; where union leaders themselves refuse rational discussion with Ministers; and where a union's resources can be seen to be concentrated in favour of a limited range of interests.

We have stated in the past that although we have no present plans for reform of student unions, we sympathise with those who feel that reform may one day be necessary. With each instance where a student union is involved in the kind of threat to democratic values that we have seen too often recently, this sympathy grows. Those who claim to value the opportunities for personal development offered by the exercise of leadership in student unions would be well advised to consider this. If there continue to be others among them who show themselves unable or unwilling to exercise responsibility within the generally accepted constraints of a democratic society, there will be those in this House who will feel driven to conclude that unions should no longer have access to public funds. Some hon. Members have argued that the opportunity should be taken to insert in the current Education Bill a clause requiring higher education institutions to safeguard freedom of speech. The Government have rejected that approach on the grounds that the proposed clause would not effectively add to the protection of freedom of speech.

I naturally commend the characteristically rigourous and sincere effort that my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Silvester) made to move a Bill in this direction, and commend the spirit of the Bill, but he knows our view on the practice of introducing it at present.

It is futile to hope for a quiet life by, in effect, acquiescing in a ban on inconvenient outside speakers. The recent treatment of Professor Vincent by members of his own university shows that the canker of violence spreads quickly, and can erupt within our institutions and threaten academic freedom. If our society is to maintain its essential values all of us have a duty to be vigorous, unremitting and energetic in our defence of freedom.

Thomas Mann had more experience than most in these matters. In his passionate denunciation of demagogy and violence in his country in a speech called "The coming victory of democracy", he made this profound remark: Because of its association and solidarity with knowledge, truth, justice, and as the opposite of violence and vulgarity, intellect becomes the advocate and representative of democracy on earth". I hope that none of us lives to see the day when this passage can be quoted in reproach of any institute of learning in this country.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at two minutes past Three o'clock.