Counter-terrorism bill nears Westminster finish line

The battle to protect academic freedom in the government’s counter-terrorism bill appears to be nearing a conclusion after final amendments were agreed

February 10, 2015

Having previously inserted references to higher education institutions’ obligations on freedom of speech, the government inserted mention of duties regarding “academic freedom” as well when the legislation passed its third reading in the House of Lords on 9 February.

Both would have to be considered by universities when carrying out the planned duty to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism, and by the home secretary when considering whether to issue guidance or to make a direction to an institution that was felt to be failing in this duty.

Amendments passed by the House of Lords were due to be considered in the House of Commons on 10 February, in the final legislative hurdle before the bill can receive Royal Assent.

Lord Bates, a Home Office minister, told peers that the bill left the House of Lords “in better shape than when it arrived”.

He said that, while the government did not believe that a reference to academic freedom was strictly necessary, it was happy for it to be included to provide further reassurance to those who had been concerned that the bill would conflict with universities’ role as centres for debate.

“While the purport of this piece of legislation is very much to keep us safe, we are ever mindful that we need to protect the very freedoms which the people who would seek to attack us want to take away,” Lord Bates said. “We cannot do their work for them and therefore we have refined and sharpened the bill to make sure that it is suitable for that purpose.”

The amendments were praised by peers including Baroness Kennedy, the principal of Mansfield College, Oxford, Baroness Lister, emeritus professor of social policy at Loughborough University, and Baroness Sharp, former director of the Economic and Social Research Council.

Lord Lamont, the former chancellor of the exchequer, said that he was concerned by draft guidance that would have required speakers to give advance notice of what they planned to say and universities to rate speakers from one to 10 “on how much risk there was of them causing a disturbance on campus”.

“How do we rate David Irving or Marine Le Pen? These are very difficult judgements to make,” Lord Lamont said.

Lord Bates said that progress had been made in “recognising that the guidance put out for consultation was going to be unworkable in that form”.

Revised guidance will have to be approved by both Houses of Parliament, under previously approved amendments.

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