New Forest East



[Emma Hardy: I think it might also be worth the Government having a look at the recent legislation that they have already passed on the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 and the issues around protest and free speech. We could end up with a situation where free speech is the preserve of students who attend university, but those outside university will have their free speech limited unless they are very, very quiet and do not protest too loudly. We could end up with more conflict, with one part of the Government saying one thing in terms of restricting protest, and another part of the Government saying something else about supporting free speech. It is fair to say that having this Bill along with existing and proposed legislation will create a muddle.

Sir John Hayes: We are dealing with a complex subject. Free speech by its very nature means people saying all kinds of things in all kinds of ways about all kinds of subjects. The hon. Lady is right that there will be tensions to be settled, which is precisely why the Government have put in place mechanisms to do that. They are going to appoint, as was said earlier, an office with responsibility for ensuring that this Bill’s intentions and provisions are applied consistently. The Government acknowledge the difficulties that she has highlighted, which is precisely why they are putting in place a person and team to do exactly that.]

Dr Julian Lewis rose

Sir John Hayes: I can see that my right hon. Friend is about to make an erudite intervention.

Dr Lewis: You can always hope, Mr Deputy Speaker.

Does my right hon. Friend not feel as I do that the interventions that he has just taken show that perhaps the diminutions on free speech have already spread into other areas of legislation rather further than he and I would like them to have done?

Sir John Hayes: I agree entirely, which is precisely why this [Higher Education (Freedom of Speech)] Bill is so welcome, but it needs to be part of a bigger programme of work by the Government to do what I described earlier, which is to unpick some of the legacy of the dark days of Blairism and the impact that that has had on all kinds of aspects of our wellbeing. My hon. Friend is right. This Bill is significant, but modest, so let it be the beginning of a crusade to establish freedom as the default position across all our legislative considerations in exactly the way – with erudition and diligence, matched by experience – that my right hon. Friend illustrates. [...]

Emma Hardy: ... A line will always have to be drawn when it comes to free speech, but we have the difficulty, which I keep going back to, of who makes the decision on where that line is drawn – what experience do they have, what criteria is set, what is their knowledge, and what is their understanding of the subject. Having the right person at the top is important. I am sure that the right hon. Member will accept that, yes, someone might want to offend, to shock or to stimulate discussion, but there is always a point at which we say, “No, that is not intellectual stimulation. That is just offensive and rude and not part of an intellectual debate at university.”

Sir John Hayes: Yes, but the problem is that that line moves with the times, with fad and fashion, with what I described earlier as the Zeitgeist. Perhaps the most chilling example of that is the case of Kathleen Stock. The hon. Lady will remember that Kathleen Stock gave evidence to the Bill Committee of which she was part. Within a few weeks, Kathleen Stock was driven out of her job as a distinguished professor at the University of Sussex by the mob, a group of students who pursued her and intimidated her and her family.

Kathleen Stock received scant support from many of her academic colleagues, although latterly the university authorities claimed they were supportive, and she was so affected and so damaged by all that that she ended up leaving the job she loved. I thought how chilling and ironic that she should have been one of the people who came to us, as Members of this House, to a Bill Committee debating this Bill, and yet just weeks later found herself a victim of the very problem she highlighted and emphasised in her evidence.

I will move fairly rapidly on to the amendments that stand in my name, Mr Deputy Speaker, because otherwise you will claim that I am making a Second Reading speech – and with some just cause.

Dr Lewis rose

Sir John Hayes: But before I do so, I will happily give way to my right hon. Friend.

Dr Lewis: My right hon. Friend is so kind. He has just given a terrible example at the extreme end of the spectrum of intimidation and restriction on free speech, but does he share my concern about the paranoid issuing of so-called trigger warnings or alerts, which are meant to protect students from hearing anything that they might find in the least discomfiting or disturbing? How does that prepare them for going out into the real world, where they are, whether they like it or not, going to hear things that are not to their liking? They will be under-prepared for that terrible ordeal.

Sir John Hayes: Almost every part of the canon of our great literature now seems to come with a health warning. From “Moby-Dick” to “Jane Eyre”, we are told that books are desperately dangerous for young people to read. That this is happening in schools and, amazingly, in universities is almost beyond belief. Snow has turned to ice: they are no longer snowflakes, they are in deep freeze, those people who dare not even read Austen, the Brontës or George Eliot – of those three, I strongly recommend George Eliot, by the way, but let us move on before I get into any more literary considerations.