HC Deb 21 October 1986 vol 102 cc1106-22
Mr. Freud

I beg to move amendment No. 46, in page 46, line 38, at end insert— '(9) This section shall not come into force until the Secretary of State has consulted about the proposals the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals, the Committee of Directors of Polytechnics and the National Union of Students and such other bodies as he considers appropriate.'. The original clause, to be inserted into the Bill whilst in the Lords, was published only a few days ago. On that procedural point, many of their Lordships took exception and the clause was withdrawn. Neither that clause nor the one under consideration today have been subject to , anything approaching adequate consultation. The CVCP saw the clause only in the Minister's office. Whilst we are clearly not saying that it should have seen it before the House saw it, we are saying that it should have been consulted about the whole idea of legislating. The amendment seeks to apply the principle accepted by the Government on teacher appraisal — to consult the relevant education partners before implementation—to the question of freedom of speech.

The problem with clause 41 is that freedom of speech cannot be an absolute right. It must be subject to certain limitations, of which two have particular relevance to the clause—freedom of speech within the law, and freedom of speech within the integrity of the institution. I am not satisfied that the clause proposed by the Government properly accepts those limitations.

On the first—freedom of speech within the law—it is still not clear what the relationship will be between this clause and existing laws on, for example, race relations and public order. I ask the Minister to confirm, when he replies, that an institution that acts to uphold the right of a speaker to speak, who then breaks some other law, cannot be taken to court for aiding and abetting that breach.

On the second — freedom of speech within the integrity of the institution—I would like the Minister to say whether the clause permits the institution to decline or to cancel an invitation if either the speaker or the possible consequences of the speech will damage that integrity.

In Committee, the Minister of State explained that the institution could withdraw an invitation if it thought that a breach of the peace was possible. It is important to have that confirmed today and for the Government to explain whether protecting integrity would also count as a reason under this clause for withdrawing such an invitation. As Lord Beloff wrote in The Times recently: What matters is the good of the institution as a whole, not some abstract notion of free speech which may or may not be relevant to a particular case. In addition to the two limitations which we are not satisfied are met by the clause, the proposed legislation must be shown to be necessary and workable. I do not believe that the Government have done that. The 12 cases listed in a written answer by the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science — the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Walden)—on 25 June 1986 are given as reasons for having the clause. Some are clearly dealt with under existing laws, for instance, those relating to assaults— Sunderland polytechnic and Bradford university. Others are dealt with under the institutions' own disciplinary proceedings—Manchester university. Many of the others would not fall foul of the clause anyway, because they do not relate to people preventing speakers from attending. There is confusion over what seems to amount to deliberate provocation by some speakers. Those are the cases on which the edifice of the clause has been constructed — 12 cases in which more than one interpretation is possible out of the thousands of meetings which take place every term in all institutes of higher education.

The clause will outlaw no-platform policies, where they go beyond the aspect of speaking within the law. I do not support no-platform policies. The Union of Liberal Students has led the fight in many cases to abolish those policies. This argument should be fought at institutional level and won.

I remind the Minister that recently the Oxford Students' Union voted to abandon the no-platform policy. That decision was rightly taken by the students, not by some clause in this legislation. York university has put some pressure on students to abolish the no-platform policy. We contend that this is not a case for legislation, especially as those with a legitimate concern have not been consulted. The case for legislation has not been proven and the legislation looks decidedly faulty.

I shall not take to the vote my traditional amendment to delete the whole clause, but this is an important debate, infinitely more so than the previous debate which was much more heavily attended. I await the Minister's reply with interest.

Mr. David Crouch (Canterbury)

I know that the hour is late, but I agree with the hon. Member for Cambridgeshire, North-East (Mr. Freud) that this subject is of great importance. It concerns freedom of speech in perhaps the most important place where it should obtain, not excluding the House — our universities and institutions of higher education. I shall not detain the House long, but it is not my fault or that of Back Benchers that we are here at such an unseemly hour to debate freedom of speech. I welcome the clause. I differ from the hon. Member for Cambridgeshire, North-East, who spoke for the Liberal party.

The Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals wrote last December and earlier to Members of Parliament.

Mrs. Kellett-Bowman

And again today.

Mr. Crouch

Yes, but I am talking about its December letter when it referred to its special cause for concern. Having seen the proposed legislation in clause 41, the Committee seems to have backed off. It appears to be worried about the legal difficulties that might arise from the drafting of the clause. It speaks of ambiguities and definitions. It wonders what is meant in the clause by a "visiting speaker" and "premises". I can understand that the Committee looks at this matter rather donnishly, academically and legalistically, as advised by its legal advisers. Of course the Committee is right to be concerned about the drafting of the clause but it should not be frightened off by the proposed legislation.

I refer the House to what the committee wrote on 13 December 1985: The present state of the law, defining rights of speech and of assembly and the limits thereon, and of the law governing meetings and demonstrations, and their regulation and control, abounds with uncertainties. If the position is affected by new legislation, as now seems likely, the Vice-Chancellors' Committee will advise universities further. It went on to describe the nature and purpose of the advice and said: With the decline elsewhere of the open political meeting, universities and other institutions of higher education find themselves bearing special responsibility for the preservation of freedom of speech and lawful assembly. In the discharge of this responsibility they arc in line as a target for small groups of extremists, not always students, who wish to create conflict through provocation. Further, in December 1985 the committee reminded us: nothing excuses disruptive or intimidatory behaviour but students must be able to protest and to heckle at meetings as long as lawful freedom of speech and of assembly are not infringed. I am sure that the House would agree with that, and as the Secretary of State faces this problem, he must ask the House to approve sensible legislation to deal with the tricky area of freedom of speech.

The notes from the Committee of Vice-Chancellors arid Principals also drew our attention to what it described as "General Principles" which should govern the thought arid the proposed legislation. For example: A speaker who incites an audience to violence or to breach of the peace or to racial hatred, for example, transgresses the bounds of lawful speech. Assemblies of persons, whether or not directed to lawful purposes, cease to be lawful if they cause serious public disorder or breaches of the peace. All of that was sensible advice for universities, vice-chancellors, university senates and councils. I speak as one who is a member of a council of the University of Kent at Canterbury. I have been taking part in a sub-committee set up by that university to consider the question of the freedom of speech in our universities. The small subcommittee consists of the treasurer of the university, a lawyer, myself and a former Deputy Speaker of the House, the noble Lord Irving, who was the former Member for Dartford. We considered the problem, as we were required to do, before there was legislation in the proposed Bill. It could have been left to all our higher educational institutions to devise and produce their own rules and regulations within the university or other centre of education where such rules would have to apply. That is what the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals was aiming at at that time. I do not think that it is wrong that, in the event, we should have legislation to further strengthen and preserve the right to freedom of speech because that is what it is really about.

I have studied this question closely in the university of Kent following the advice of the Commitee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals. I have studied it not only with members of the academic staff, lay members of the council and others concerned with the university but with members of the students union. It has been an extensive consultation. An anomaly has already shown itself in Kent which I should like to draw to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. I have come across it in the past few days. At Kent, the members of the Federation of Conservative Students have, for certain reasons, decided to disaffiliate from the students union. They have had a dispute with the union and disagree with it, making contributions towards political ends. They are denied funds as a result, the result being that when they seek to hold meetings and invite a speaker who might be considered contentious in some way —I put it no higher than that—and they consult, as they must, the person responsible for maintaining order in that part of the university it is a collegiate university, so they consult the master of the college — they find that in certain circumstances the master requires the presence of extra stewards to safeguard the lawful procedures of such a meeting.

No attempt is made to keep out a person who is considered to be contentious. Extra stewards have to be engaged. Those additional stewards must be paid for, and the Conservative students about whom I am speaking find that they must engage eight or 10 additional stewards at, say, £10 a head. That means that political society having to find £80 or £100 to set up a meeting. No other funds are available to them, so they must come from their own resources. If they were not disaffiliated from the union, it would come from the students union.

I shall take up this matter with the vice-chancellor and the university this week. In the meantime I want the House to be advised of the anomaly. It could be a barrier to a contentious person speaking to a political group in a university, the members of which might say that because they cannot afford the additional expenditure, they will not invite him. In the case I have mentioned, if they were affiliated to the union the problem would not arise.

The rules that have already been drawn up at Kent, on the recommendation of the CVCP, are precise and I believe that they could have served to preserve this freedom of speech, and good order for the performance of that freedom of speech, without clause 41. But I am not against the clause. It puts into law what the CVCP put in a letter. Perhaps it is as well to have the provision, as it will act as belt and braces, so important a subject is it.

The law can, of course, always be misunderstood and the words to which the CVCP has drawn attention—about the premises and the speaker, who could be a lecturer, perhaps lecturing on scientific subjects—could be misunderstood. But I am sure that those words could be interpreted by the university authorities in each university and place where meetings are held and that even without the clause the matter could be handled in the way I have described. Universities will, in any case, have to examine their ordinances and the rules they establish by which, for example, students unions operate. Those rules may have to be changed, as is happening in Kent.

The Minister will find that most universities have taken that advice of a year ago and have acted on it. Nevertheless, I see no reason why we should not also have clause 41 as the belt to the braces already provided by many universities.

Mr. Stern

The hon. Member for Cambridgeshire, North-East (Mr. Freud) suggested that the clause was not necessary. I shall draw on events in the city of Bristol to show why it is both necessary and wholly desirable.

The history of contentious meetings in Bristol in the last year or so has been the history of the growing need for the clause. It started with a violent meeting at which my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mr. Proctor) attempted to speak but was unsuccessful.

The need for the clause continued with the threatened and actual violence to Professor John Vincent at the university. It continued with what was intended as a peaceful meeting addressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Silvester), my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Mr. Carlisle) and myself at which the majority of the audience was admitted in an attempt to howl us down. Only last week many of us saw on television the effect of a small handful of anarchists in the students union. I am happy to accept that most of these anarchists came from outside the university. They succeeded in preventing a speech by the right hon. Member for South Down (Mr. Powell) and they caused considerable violence and damage in their attempt to do that.

I referred to the activities of the students union. In justification for the clause being debated, I would cite the remarkable change in the attitude of the students union which has occured over a matter of months. Only within the past two months did the union produce a pamphlet called the "The Coming Troubles …" That pamphlet has a large picture of the right hon. Member for South Down on its cover. It contains phrases which state that meetings were organised which were determined to create violence. The final paragraph of the pamphlet refers to the Federation of Conservative Students using its provocative meetings as a basis for concerted disruption, as if there was a casual relationship between the expression of controversial views and the violence, which, according to the pamphlet, must inevitably follow.

That pamphlet appeared two months ago. As a result of some of the meetings which I have listed—I am not sure that he will appreciate praise from me but nevertheless he is going to get it—and as a result of the courage of the president of the students union, Mr. David Gottlieb, in pushing against a policy of no platform in the university and for pushing the need for Bristol to lead the way and show that it can conduct a meeting with free speech, the students union stepped up its security precautions and attempted to organise a meeting where there was a peaceful demonstration against the right hon. Member for South Down but at which he could be heard. Unfortunately, because of outside influences, they were unsuccessful. At an extraordinary general meeting of the union last night, the president went considerably further and not only persuaded the union to heighten security at future meetings but also spoke strongly in favour of calling in outside help for such security when needed. That is an admirable attitude on the union's part and it is an attitude which I am sure we would all wish to praise.

Fortunately, that attitude becomes even more admirable when it is constrasted with that of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and—Principals, Throughout the dispute and the gestation of the clause that we are discussing, the CVCP's attitude has been—to use its own words—to "advise and guide". Not once has the committee taken a positive stand and stated that it was not just interested in giving advice but was committed to freedom of speech and that it would do something in the universities to encourage that freedom.

The clause is necessary to get the CVCP to commit itself to something which most of us regard as important in our civilisation, instead of simply sitting on the sidelines saying that it deplores what is happening but unfortunately it cannot do anything about it.

Sir John Biggs-Davison (Epping Forest)

I shall not detain the House for more than a few moments, but I wish to support the new clause as a Member of the House who has addressed Conservative and other audiences in almost every university in the United Kingdom. Most of the audiences that I have addressed have been prepared to give me free speech. Others have not, although I have not suffered from the grievous violence that has been suffered by my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Mr. Carlisle).

My hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Crouch) mentioned the university of Kent. Some years ago I was invited to speak there by the Conservative association and was prevented from speaking because hostile groups had occupied the lecture hall which had been properly reserved by the Conservative association. I was denied free speech within the university. Nothing was done by the university authorities. I am an Essex Member of Parliament and a member of the court of the university of Essex. I have stood up to vociferous audiences there, and I make no complaint about that. I welcome heckling when I speak. I have also been pelted in the university of Essex, and I could not obtain from the university even the cost of drycleaning my suit.

The reason for this new clause is not that university authorities do not believe in free speech; of course, they do. We need such a new clause because they have shown themselves impotent to make available free speech to visiting speakers, properly invited by students, and because of that inertness and impotence we need the new clause. I wish that it were not required. Therefore, I disagree with the hon. Member for Cambridgeshire, North-East (Mr. Freud) and warmly support the new clause.

Mr. Winnick

I have doubts and reservations regarding the clause proposed in another place. I am certainly in favour of free speech. I exercise it myself and I see no reason to deprive other people of the same right. That right should apply at universities as it should anywhere else.

Some years ago, I was asked to chair a meeting of the student body at the London School of Economics to which a controversial academic and writer had been invited by the student body. Few voted against inviting him, but when he came along one or two people—in the main from outside the LSE— were determined to disrupt the meeting and succeeded in so doing. The following Sunday, those who disrupted the meeting and received a good deal of publicity at the time, in the early 1970s, were described in one newspaper as being CIA Maoists. Whether that was true or not, I was not to know, but the important point was that the students had invited the person, despite his being controversial, and the fact that the meeting could not take place meant that that person received more sympathy than he would otherwise have done. That illustrates to me how stupid it was to try to stop him from speaking. At the end of the day, the person who came out best was the academic, whose glasses were broken and who undoubtedly received a good deal of sympathy, including some from me, although I remain strongly opposed to his views.

Are the Government saying that students should not be in a position to say, in some circumstances, that they are so much opposed to a viewpoint that they do not want a speaker invited to attend the college concerned? Say, for example, a National Front speaker is invited. Can we argue that it is unreasonable to have strong objections? The new clause goes on to talk about the freedom of speech within the law. The National Front and other such organisations could argue that they are within the law, and undoubtedly they are legal organisations. That is not in dispute. I can well understand, however, that many students and possibly the majority at any given college would want to protest and to make it clear that they did not believe that a platform should be provided for that person. I do not consider that unreasonable. I consider it unreasonable, however, to go wider than that, as has happened in some cases, although I agree that it is difficult to draw the line between those who should be invited and those who should not. Therefore, in the main, I do not support a no-platform policy because I appreciate the difficulties involved.

2.30 am

The hon. Member for Bristol, North-West (Mr. Stern) referred to the difficulty and disruption that occurred at Bristol. He was fair enough to concede that in the main the disrupters came from outside. They prided themselves on being anarchists, they wanted the maximum publicity, and they received it. For the life of me I cannot see how that kind of disruption, which I deplore, could have been avoided by clause 41. People who are determined to gain that type of publicity, for what it is worth, will carry out their disruption regardless to gain that publicity and no amount of provisions of the type now before us will prevent them.

Another reason why I do not greatly favour the no-platform policy is that one or two people — not necessarily the right hon. Member for South Down (Mr. Powell), but one or two Conservative Members — have received a good deal of unwarranted prominence and publicity as a result.

Mr. John Carlisle

Name them

Mr. Winnick

I could name the hon. Gentleman himself. I believe that in some cases student bodies have played into his hands, because on occasions when his remarks would otherwise have attracted little or no publicity he has received far more publicity than he deserved. That is another reason why I believe some of the policies that have been pursued to be wrongheaded.

I believe that this is a matter for the good sense of student bodies and college authorities and not one that the House should decide. It is interesting to note that there was no such clause in the original Bill. The Government accepted an amendment in response to concern in another place. I believe that that was wrong and that far more good sense prevailed previously. For those reasons, I hope that the House will reject clause 41.

Mr. Toby Jessel (Twickenham)

I believe that there is a need for clause 41 or something like it. In some universities there has been disgraceful and appalling interference with freedom of speech, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-West (Mr. Stern) and others have pointed out.

A particular difficulty arises, however, because there are some church colleges of education and university colleges specifically set up to promote religion. Some are Church of England and some are Roman Catholic. A famous one is St. Mary's college, Strawberry Hill, in my constituency. The trust deeds of the college and the contracts of the academic staff both imply a duty to promote a particular religious faith. What will happen under this legislation if some maverick student invites someone to speak, say, in favour of atheism or some other doctrine which is in conflict with the basic tenets of the religion that the college was founded to promote and uphold? Are the college authorities expected to facilitate that?

Clause 41(1) provides: Every individual and body of persons concerned in the government of any establishment to which this section applies shall take such steps as are reasonably practicable to ensure that freedom of speech within the law is secured for members, students and employees of the establishment and for visiting speakers Subsection (2) further provides that the use of any premises of the establishment is not denied to any individual or body of persons for that purpose. Does that impose a duty on the college to allow a person invited by a maverick student to preach atheism in the college chapel? What would the legal position be as there is surely a legal duty on the college authorities to comply with the trustees, yet the Bill says that the college authorities must take such steps as are necessary to provide freedom of speech anywhere on the campus?

Yesterday I telephoned my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary to suggest that there should be a Government amendment to cover that point. I have not seen it yet and I fear that there will be law suits relating to those conflicts of duties which will lead to an early need for amending legislation unless something is done.

Mr. John Carlisle

I think that the House will share the sentiments of the hon. Member for Cambridgeshire, North-East (Mr. Freud) on the necessity for this clause and I think that the House will join with me in regretting that it was necessary. But the facts which have been presented tonight by my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-West (Mr. Stern) and others, and which, indeed, were apparent in the bitter experience of the right hon. Member for South Down (Mr. Powell) last Friday, and many others in the House and outside before, make it a necessity that the clause is approved by the House tonight.

Be it that I shall be the first to admit that the clause is not perfect. Be it that I shall also admit that the sentiments expressed by the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) were correct in that those extremists who are intent on wrecking meetings, some of whom come from outside the universities, will not be put off by the clause. But the House has a duty to the universities and the taxpaying public to ensure that, of all places, places of academic learning are places where freedom of speech is practised.

When the hon. Member for Walsall, North speaks of the publicity that surrounds the types of meeting that took place last week, and, indeed, the types of meeting that I have attended or at which I have attempted to speak, and says that I and others have gained publicity because of that misfortune, let me say to him that if he were to come with me and suffer the sort of indignity and humiliation that I and others have been through, suffer the bullying tactics of the extreme Left, see those who come to hear me and others speak spat upon, beaten, and physically attacked, perhaps he would not so glibly say that some of these meetings now take place for the publicity of the speaker concerned.

The experiences that I suffered at Bradford and that many of my hon. Friends have suffered in the past few months were extremely uncomfortable and I would not wish them upon my best friends on the Conservative Benches and particularly on the hon. Member for Walsall, North.

Mr. Robert Rhodes James (Cambridge)

These things happen to visiting Members of Parliament. They also happen to people who are teachers in the universities. Is my hon. Friend aware of the fact that my constituent, Pamela Symes, a lecturer at the North-East London polytechnic, was beaten up and severely injured, yet the authorities did nothing? What is happening at Ruskin and what has happened to John Vincent is not to visitors but to people whose reputations and careers are being physically destroyed.

Mr. Carlisle

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I should also add that several others from other places of academic learning such as schools—for example, Ray Honeyford and others — have suffered similar indignities and physical intimidation in the way that my hon. Friend so aptly describes.

The clause is a message from the House to three different sets of people at universities. First, it is a message to the vice-chancellors that they must put their own house in order. It just will not do for them to send copies of various edicts to this place, to mouth words that they believe in freedom of speech and not actually back that up by actions in terms of disciplining the students and by attending some of the meetings and understanding the conditions under which some visiting speakers and lecturers have to attend. It is a strong message to them to firm up their own organisations and to become far more personally involved.

The second group of people to whom it is a message is the students and the students union. The House and the British taxpayer will not tolerate no-platform policies. It should not be a part of any university and the message goes from this House that the clause outlaws that policy.

Thirdly, the message is for those extremists—aptly described by others and experienced by myself—who are intent on putting their views across and preventing others from putting forward views with which they disagree. The message is that we will not tolerate violence on our campuses. Although this clause is inadequate and may not prevent the sort of violence which has occurred, if we pass it we will give a message to the country and to the universities that we will not tolerate this behaviour. We will give every protection we can to the people who, when speaking, keep within the law. That is what the country and the universities wish to hear. I welcome the clause and I hope that it will proceed with the full approval of the House.

Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Bristol, East)

At the great university of Bristol we have seen the denial of freedom in action and have seen the corrosive effects of bigotry as it eats away at the foundation of scholarship.

Without the right to disagree there is no debate, without debate there is no scholarship and the result is bigotry, dogma, slogans and learning by rote. My approach has been to ask how this clause will buttress the great good of free speech? How does it repair the erosion caused by those who would deny others the rights that they enjoy? How will the clause stiffen the backbone of the sometimes weak governing bodies of universities, polytechnics or colleges?

Clause 41 is a well-meaning but defective first step. It does not differentiate between those who belong to the academic establishments and those who do not. Although it imposes a duty to protect freedom of speech, it ignores the lack of resources and the means to ensure that protection.

I trust that no one would disagree that any member of an educational establishment, duly appointed, has the absolute right under the law to discharge his duties in that establishment. However, in Bristol there has been a virulent campaign of hate and violence waged against Professor John Vincent. He is a decent, honourable, able and kind man. Such a campaign demonstrates how necessary it is to provide academic freedom with a shield of statutory protection. I regret to inform the House that the result of the disciplinary hearings has been to let the perpetrators off and to send John Vincent away on a years's sabbatical.

I would not share a platform with the National Front or Sinn Fein, but, providing that they act and speak within the law, they have a right to be heard, however vile their views. Whether they should have the automatic legal right to speak wherever they like on private property is another matter.

This clause should have permitted governing bodies greater powers to determine who should have the right to speak on premises that they control. If a governing body should deny a guest a platform or the premises are inadequate, those members of the academic establishment who invited the guest in the first place should have recourse to the courts. Once a guest has been invited and authorised by the governing body, that body has a duty, using the police if necessary, to en' tire that the guest gets a fair hearing. As self-restraining freedom has, at times, been absent from the very places of learning where it should be cherished, legislation is obviously necessary. This clause is a first step and it therefore deserves support. In view of its inadequacies, however, I fear that it will not be the last step.

2.45 am
Mr. Tony Baldry (Banbury)

In 1969, I went to Sussex university. I did not intend to get involved in politics. I rather hoped to spend most of my time playing rugger, but I found to my horror that many of my views were being attacked by the extreme Left, so I became involved.

Shortly after arriving at the university, in early 1970, the university Conservative association invited my right hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Amery) to come to speak to us. He was and remains the Member of Parliament for and a member of the court of the university. For reasons best known to itself, the establishment of the students union said that he would not be allowed to speak in any of its premises.

Coming from a Quaker background, and believing That free speech and tolerance are perhaps the most important hallmarks of a civilised society, I could not believe that that action would be allowed and, with some others, I went to see the then vice-chancellor, Asa Briggs. I remember the meeting clearly as, on the wall of his study was a huge Chartist banner which proclaimed, We must awaken the people to a recognition of their rights. Asa Briggs asked us what we wanted, and I said that we would like him to recognise that we, too, had some rights and that we would like him to provide a room in the university to hold the meeting.

After some discussion, which meant little from his point of view, Asa Briggs made it quite clear that he was not prepared to allow us to have any room on the campus. Now, when I hear or have letters from vice-chancellors saying, "Leave it to us. We are responsible people," I recall that meeting, when nothing was done. Neither he nor any of the other academic staff attempted to create a climate of opinion in which the no platform policy could be reversed. The High Commissioner for India spoke to an academic group some time later and was abused violently. It is a cancerous thing.

I and others arranged to hold the meeting in the Corn Exchange in Brighton. We managed for a short time to reverse the no platform policy at Sussex. My recollection is that the most active people came from religious backgrounds. They were Catholics and Jewish students, for example, who realised that once the cancer of no free speech took hold in the university, the freedom of all groups would soon be impaired.

It is no use vice-chancellors saying that we can leave it to them, and nor is it any good the Master of Balliol college saying, as he did today in The Times, that there is some distinction to be drawn between academic freedom and freedom of speech generally. If a mature democratic society is not prepared quitely to listen and respond to other people's points of view, there will sooner or later be no academic freedom either. It is the attitude of Asa Briggs in 1970 and that of Anthony Kenny and others which, more than anything else, makes me realise that there is something spineless in a part of the English establishment and which is the main cause of my being active in politics.

Mr. Fred Silvester (Manchester, Withington)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on introducing the clause. We should remember that the vice-chancellors have had a long time to put matters right.

My right hon. Friend the previous Secretary of State raised the subject first and that led to the original guidelines. My private Member's Bill earlier this year, which was supported by Conservative students and those of other parties, forced the Government to reconsider and strengthen the guidelines. Subsequently there has been much talk, but nothing has come near the central issue, which is that the vice-chancellors have demonstrated a weakness in universities. They want "free speech, but" and that syndrome enables them to support, either directly or indirectly, a policy that is contrary to the ethos of universities.

I was horrified to read in The Times today an article that purported to separate freedom for members of universities to lecture from the freedom of visitors to speak at universities. It is surely crystal clear to university staff and, I hope, to hon. Members that freedom of speech is a seamless robe.

The hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) says that it is wrong that the National Front should be allowed to speak, but he is wrong. The House determines the limits of free speech and the limits of tolerance. If a person makes a speech which is contrary to the Race Relations Act or any other law there is a remedy through the courts. If a person speaks in that manner at a university or anywhere else outside the House he will be arraigned before a court, and rightly so. If we find that the boundaries are inadequate it is for the House to change them. It is not up to a bunch of students, who are irresponsible to the law, to decide which person is suitable to have the right to speak at a university.

The root of the trouble is the no-platform policy. The universities know that, but they will not tackle the problem. Vice-chancellors need the Bill, because they do not take on the central issue which is that most problems arise not from staff of universities but in the student unions. The vice-chancellors have not taken sufficient control of the unions.

Students argue that they should have the right to decide these matters for themselves. If they were an ordinary club, that might be true—a Conservative club might wish to invite only Conservative speakers—but students join unions as part of the university structure. It is compulsory. Most Labour Members would wish to retain that system, but that requires that all students should be able to have a full expression of a range of views. If that is stopped it will not be possible to sustain the argument that all students must be members of the students union. It could lead to a dangerous conclusion.

I wish the clause well. I do not think that it is quite as good as my Bill, because it is slightly woollier. However, I hope that the clause will succeed.

Sir John Farr (Harborough)

This is probably one of the most important clauses in an important Bill. As has been made clear in the speeches of my hon. Friends, the House is determined to ensure that the clause is retained in the Bill.

We have heard illustrations from my hon. Friends of distressing events that have happened to them. I wish only to say that I hope that the Government will not allow vice-chancellors to shelter behind the excuse of lack of cash to do the job. The obligations in clause 41 will involve extra expenses.

Some vice-chancellors do not agree with hon. Members who say that all universities must be places of uninterrupted free speech. They will do their best to disrupt the Government's intention. I hope that we ensure that the necessary cash will he made available in our places of learning.

Mr. Radice

The Opposition are strongly in favour of freedom of speech. It is essential to maintain that freedom in the campuses. We deplore events such as that at Bristol. It is important that people are able to express their views in universities and polytechnics, however unpopular those views are, provided that they are within the law.

Mr. Sayeed

Does the hon. Member for Durham, North (Mr. Radice) disagree with the no-platform policy?

Mr. Radice

I have made that clear on many occasions. We are totally against the no-platform policy. The question is whether we should ensure freedom of speech by legislation. That is the gamble the House is taking tonight. We share some of the vice-chancellors' concerns —some harsh remarks have been made about them by hon. Members. One might think that vice-chancellors were all members of the Labour party, but that is not so. Most of them are Conservatives.

The vice-chancellors are right to be worried. The legislation creates a number of problems. Demarcation is an issue, as is judging in advance that which is lawful. There is a problem about the conflict of duties. We covered such problems at length in Committee.

Vice-chancellors are worried that they might have to be judges and police. They are worried about vexatious legislation. They believe that the legislation might inhibit freedom of speech rather than protect it. That is a serious view. We shall have to see what happens.

I share the concern about those who try to stop people from speaking freely, but we have to be certain that legislation will improve the present position. I am not convinced by what has been said.

My view is that the best way forward — it is in the Bill—is through a code of practice. I assume that the Bill will rely on that code of practice because that is what the Minister said in Committee. If so, we should rely entirely upon the code of practice. That is probably the best way. We should not embark on a legislative path which might lead to many problems.

3 am

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

Clause 41 honours the Government's undertaking in another place to introduce a clause to protect freedom of speech at institutions of higher and further education. The Government have no intention of resiling from their commitment to such a clause, and cannot therefore accept the proposal from the hon. Member for Cambridgeshire, North-East (Mr. Freud) that the clause should be left out of the Bill. I repeat what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr. Patten) in Committee—that the Government regret the necessity to introduce legislation on this subject.

I assure hon. Members that the Government preserve a sound sense of proportion on the whole issue—there is no sudden, massive threat to freedom of speech at our institutions of higher learning. However, the virus of intolerance spreads swiftly and insidiously. It is enough to recall the dismal roll-call of dishonour in the nine months between October 1985 and June 1986, not to speak of the incidents that we have witnessed in the few weeks that universities have been at work again. The case for action has been reinforced by those events. The Government do not intend to stand by and watch freedom of speech being eroded—all the more so since I am convinced that the case for action grows as it becomes clearer that a strain of degenerate illiberalism is emerging in our society as a whole. The mentality that insists of filling the minds of our children with sexual or political perversions at the earliest possible age is the same as that which will later tell the polytechnic student what opinions will or will not be tolerated on campus.

The authorities of our higher education institutions have shown their concern to defend freedom of speech. Their representative bodies have issued guidance on the subject to their institutions. But the number of recent incidents and the spirit of the times suggest that guidance is, unfortunately, not enough. Much as the Government regret the need to provide a legislative basis for the purpose, they remain convinced that one is needed so that members, students and employees of higher and further education institutions and visiting speakers should be free to express and to discuss any point of view within the limits of what the law permits.

A variety of concerns has been expressed about particular circumstances that might confront those responsible for the implementation of their duty under the clause. I shall not attempt to discuss in detail any of the hypothetical examples that have been cited either in the House or in the press—other than to observe that some of the suggestions vary between the fanciful and the farcical—for example, the suggestion that the legislation would allow people to talk loudly in libraries, or the completely mistaken concept that the legislation would allow the Moonies to force their way into a college chapel. It is inconceivable that the legislation could be interpreted in that way. If half of the ingenuity that has been devoted to manufacturing plausible hypotheses that are patently outside the Bill were devoted to ensuring that it works, that would be a service to democracy and to freedom of speech.

I wish to emphasise that the clause calls upon those responsible to take such steps as are "reasonably practicable"—that phrase is repeated three times in this short clause— to secure freedom of speech, within the law, for certain people on the premises of certain establishments. It does not seek to secure freedom of speech for everyone everywhere. We do not believe, as has been suggested, that the courts would have difficulty with the concept of a visiting speaker. Such a speaker is not any person who turns up unsolicited to speak on the premises of an institution; he is someone who has a claim to be there and his claim can be tested against the provisions of the institution's code of practice. My hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Crouch) alluded to that point.

Again, the clause is not intended to give anyone a right to demand access to a particular part of an institution. If there is a lecture room which has traditionally been used by visiting speakers, the clause probably implies a right to the use of that room when it is available. But that does not mean that if all suitable rooms have been booked on a given date, a visiting speaker or a student society could demand the use, for example, of the senior common room or, as my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Mr. Jesse!) suggested, the college chapel.

There has been the further suggestion that the reference to freedom of speech within the law might be read as demanding that institutional authorities should vet a speaker's text in advance, but the clause does not lay on the authorities of institutions any duty to ensure that the views expressed by speakers are within the law. That is for the speaker to worry about, and if anyone believed that a speaker or a group had abused the law, or was proposing to do so, he or it could apply to the police and ultimately to the courts like everyone else.

I should like to stress that this legislation is by no means a panacea. There is obviously an area where the law needs to be strengthened, but that law, by its very nature. cannot be impregnable. we have been reminded of that by the events in Bristol last week.

There has been a good deal of talk both within the Chamber and in the press about over-hasty recourse to law, vexatious litigation and the rest, but it seems that in real life, as has been said by a number of my hon. Friends, the first effect of this new legislation will be to concentrate the minds of a number of vice-chancellors and the directors of other institutions on their existing arrangements, which in some instances may be cobwebbed with time or otherwise outdated. I know that there are instances where vice-chancellors are examining their disciplinary procedures, and it seems that that is no bad thing. If the unhappy experience of the past few months is to be used to good advantage in the framing of codes of conduct, there will be little likelihood of recourse to vexatious litigation.

Mr. Rhodes James

Students are adults and they are subject to the normal criminal law. Why does not the Crown prosecution service become involved when there are clear cases, as in the case of one of my constituents to which I have already referred, of violent assault and physical abuse?

Mr. Walden

My understanding is that much would depend on the action of the victim herself. I am well aware of the detail or the outline of the case to which my hon. Friend refers, but I do not know whether the victim entered into litigation.

The Government do not believe that institution authorities will have anything to fear provided that they can demonstrate that they have taken—again I quote from the clause— such steps as are reasonably practicable to protect freedom of speech within the law. If they have done all that they reasonably can, they will have fulfilled their duty under the clause. It has been suggested that the clause will make institution authorities more cautious arid thereby actually reduce freedom of speech, but the Government do not accept this argument. The instinct to be cautious will need to be measured against the possibility of an action being brought if such steps as arc reasonably practicable to protect freedom of speech are not taken. Thus the clause will require authorities to exercise judgment, sometimes as to whether a meeting should proceed at all. It will not prevent them from concluding in the last resort, although they would do well to consult the police before reaching such a conclusion, that a meeting should be cancelled or at least postponed because the threat of a breach of the peace was too substantial. But the clause will be beneficial in requiring them to weigh the situation most carefully before reaching a decision, rather than simply taking the line of least resistance.

I should like to mention briefly one or two of the issues that have been raised during the debate. The hon. Member for Cambridgeshire, North-East asked me a specific question to which I feel bound to give a specific reply. The answer is that the question posed by the hon. Gentleman is rather far-fetched. The position is no different from the present one. Disorder occurred, sadly, at a number of meetings and that is why we need the provision that we are discussing. How can a university or college authority be said to aid and abet a public order offence merely by allowing a meeting to take place? The other questions raised by the hon. Gentleman have been dealt with already in my speech. I am pleased to note that Oxford university has abandoned its no-platform policy. I doubt very much whether that would have happened if the Government had not been so active in this area.

I take note of the many, varied and rather colourful examples which have been given to me by my hon. Friends. It would take too long to review them in detail. I found them most poignant, most telling, and I think excellent reasons for supporting the legislation, which I am sure we shall all do now.

Mr. Freud

There is no hon. Member who is opposed to free speech or who does not cherish the right to disagree. I do not believe that we have had a good reason from the Minister or anyone else why clause 41, which states in part shall take such steps as are reasonably practicable to ensure freedom of speech within the law", will do anything that has not been done previously. When the Minister said that this is a law to concentrate the minds of the vice-chancellors, it showed the complete paucity of his argument. I am not convinced that we need such a law, hastily introduced in another place, tacked on to the Bill at late notice. Until there is genuine consultation between the police, the National Union of Students, the student bodies, the vice-chancellors and the directors of the polytechnics, this legislation will not be—

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Crawley)

What about the cleaners?

Mr. Freud

I agree; let us include the porters and the cleaners. Let us ensure that all the people involved have a say in making the legislation better than it would appear to be.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The House divided: Ayes 17, Noes 173.

Division No. 288] [3.11 am
Bennett, A. (Dent'n & Red'sh) Patchett, Terry
Boyes, Roland Radice, Giles
Clwyd, Mrs Ann Skinner, Dennis
Cocks, Rt Hon M. (Bristol S) Smith, Cyril (Rochdale)
Cunliffe, Lawrence Snape, Peter
Freud, Clement Winnick, David
Hogg, N. (C'nauld & Kilsyth)
Leadbitter, Ted Tellers for the Ayes:
Lewis, Terence (Worsley) Mr. Mark Fisher and
McKay, Allen (Penistone) Mr. Derek Fatchett.
Nellist, David
Alexander, Richard Bottomley, Peter
Alison, Rt Hon Michael Bottomley, Mrs Virginia
Amess, David Bowden, Gerald (Dulwich)
Arnold, Tom Braine, Rt Hon Sir Bernard
Ashby, David Brandon-Bravo, Martin
Baker, Rt Hon K. (Mole Vall'y) Bright, Graham
Baker, Nicholas (Dorset N) Brinton, Tim
Baldry, Tony Brown, M. (Brigg & Cl'thpes)
Batiste, Spencer Browne, John
Beaumont-Dark, Anthony Bruinvels, Peter
Bendall, Vivian Budgen, Nick
Benyon, William Burt, Alistair
Best, Keith Carlisle, John (Luton N)
Bevan, David Gilroy Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln)
Biffen, Rt Hon John Carttiss, Michael
Biggs-Davison, Sir John Cash, William
Blaker, Rt Hon Sir Peter Chope, Christopher
Bonsor, Sir Nicholas Clark, Dr Michael (Rochford)
Colvin, Michael Merchant, Piers
Cope, John Meyer, Sir Anthony
Crouch, David Miller, Hal (B'grove)
Currie, Mrs Edwina Miscampbell, Norman
Dicks, Terry Mitchell, David (Hants NW)
Dorrell, Stephen Moynihan, Hon C.
Douglas-Hamilton, Lord J. Neale, Gerrard
Dover, Den Newton, Tony
Dunn, Robert Nicholls, Patrick
Durant, Tony Norris, Steven
Emery, Sir Peter Oppenheim, Phillip
Fallon, Michael Osborn, Sir John
Farr, Sir John Ottaway, Richard
Favell, Anthony Page, Sir John (Harrow W)
Fenner, Mrs Peggy Page, Richard (Herts SW)
Forman, Nigel Percival, Rt Hon Sir Ian
Forsyth, Michael (Stirling) Pollock, Alexander
Forth, Eric Portillo, Michael
Fox, Sir Marcus Powley, John
Franks, Cecil Proctor, K. Harvey
Gale, Roger Raison, Rt Hon Timothy
Galley, Roy Rathbone, Tim
Gardiner, George (Reigate) Renton, Tim
Garel-Jones, Tristan Rhodes James, Robert
Gow, Ian Ridsdale, Sir Julian
Gregory, Conal Robinson, Mark (N'port W)
Griffiths, Peter (Portsm'th N) Roe, Mrs Marion
Ground, Patrick Rowe, Andrew
Hamilton, Hon A. (Epsom) Rumbold, Mrs Angela
Hampson, Dr Keith Ryder, Richard
Hargreaves, Kenneth Sackville, Hon Thomas
Haselhurst, Alan Sayeed, Jonathan
Hayward, Robert Shaw, Sir Michael (Scarb')
Heathcoat-Amory, David Shepherd, Colin (Hereford)
Hickmet, Richard Silvester, Fred
Hind, Kenneth Skeet, Sir Trevor
Hogg, Hon Douglas (Gr'th'm) Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield)
Holt, Richard Soames, Hon Nicholas
Howarth, Alan (Stratf'd-on-A) Spencer, Derek
Howell, Rt Hon D. (G'ldford) Spicer, Jim (Dorset W)
Jackson, Robert Stanbrook, Ivor
Jenkin, Rt Hon Patrick Stern, Michael
Jones, Robert (Herts W) Stewart, Allan (Eastwood)
Kellett-Bowman, Mrs Elaine Stewart, Andrew (Sherwood)
Key, Robert Stewart, Ian (Hertf'dshire N)
King, Roger (B'ham N'field) Stradling Thomas, Sir John
Knight, Greg (Derby N) Sumberg, David
Knowles, Michael Taylor, John (Solihull)
Knox, David Thomas, Rt Hon Peter
Lang, Ian Thompson, Donald (Calder V)
Lawler, Geoffrey Thompson, Patrick (N'ich N)
Lawrence, Ivan Thurnham, Peter
Leigh, Edward (Gainsbor'gh) Townsend, Cyril D. (B'heath)
Lennox-Boyd, Hon Mark Trippier, David
Lightbown, David Trotter, Neville
Lilley, Peter Twinn, Dr Ian
Lloyd, Peter (Fareham) Walden, George
Lord, Michael Waller, Gary
Lyell, Nicholas Wardle, C. (Bexhill)
McCurley, Mrs Anna Watts, John
MacKay, John (Argyll & Bute) Wells, Bowen (Hertford)
Maclean, David John Wells, Sir John (Maidstone)
Madel, David Winterton, Mrs Ann
Major, John Wolfson, Mark
Malone, Gerald Yeo, Tim
Marland, Paul Young, Sir George (Acton)
Mates, Michael
Mather, Carol Tellers for the Noes:
Maude, Hon Francis Mr. Robert Boscawen and
Mayhew, Sir Patrick Mr. Michael Neubert.

Question accordingly negatived.

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