Interrogating the anti-terrorism bill

December 4, 2014

The government’s proposed statutory duty on universities in the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill will require universities to “have due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism”.

Many would say that universities do that anyway: they already undertake significant work in the prevention of violent extremism. This ranges from protocols on internet usage to oversight of prayer rooms; from external speaker policies to the forging of links with local community and religious leaders. It forms part of the wider duty of care to staff and students.

The statutory duty in the bill is general; no doubt a consequence of ensuring it can be applied to a range of public bodies. However, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills will be drawing up guidance that will set out in further detail what steps universities are expected to take to meet the duty.

My colleagues and I have met Vince Cable, the business secretary, and Greg Clark, the universities minister, to discuss the proposals, emphasising the need to protect freedom of speech, while ensuring an appropriate level of diligence. The contents of the guidance must not only reflect the diversity of the sector, but must also adopt a proportionate, pragmatic and reasonable approach.

The bill also places an obligation on local authorities to ensure that there is a local panel in place with the function of assessing the extent to which identified individuals are vulnerable to being drawn into terrorism and determining a support plan for those individuals. What is unclear is the role universities will play in these proposed panels. The reason we need to scrutinise the development of the bill and the associated guidance lies with the fact that this is a new legislative power. There are fundamental principles at stake that go to the heart of what universities are about. What does due regard mean in practice? When do extreme political views become views that might draw people into terrorism? Who decides where the boundaries lie and what evidence is required? How does the duty fit with the statutory obligation on universities to promote free speech?

These are profoundly difficult questions, and the concern is that they will be answered in different ways by different people. But however the questions are answered, it is obvious that they must apply in different ways to different institutions. We must ensure that the guidance acknowledges the independence of our richly diverse and heterogeneous sector.

Christopher Snowden
President, Universities UK and vice-chancellor, University of Surrey

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