English free speech bill stalls but ministers ‘remain committed’

Clash of views on whether controversial legislation’s support is dwindling and whether it will be carried over to next session of Parliament

March 28, 2022
Man shouts through his oversized megaphone with stop road sign in front of him to illustrate English free speech bill stalls but ministers ‘remain committed
Source: Getty

Controversial legislation on free speech on English campuses has stalled in Parliament due to dwindling political support, some in the sector suggest, although the bill’s supporters and the Department for Education insist ministers “remain committed” to new laws.

The Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill had its first reading in the House of Commons in May 2021. Committee stage for the bill concluded in September 2021, but there is still no date for the report stage to start, and the bill is still to be introduced to the House of Lords.

Following the recent announcement that the next session of Parliament will begin on 10 May, the bill, a Tory manifesto commitment, appears to have run out of time in the current parliamentary session. At the end of the 2019-21 session, five bills were carried over – so there is technical scope for the bill to continue. For that to happen, a carry-over motion would need to be tabled and approved by the Commons before the end of the current session.

Universities are nervous about the potential impact of some of the bill’s provisions, which include the appointment of a free speech and academic freedom champion to the Office for Students board and enabling individuals to sue institutions for compensation over breaches of strengthened free speech duties.

One factor potentially impacting the bill is Gavin Williamson’s sacking as education secretary and replacement by Nadhim Zahawi in September. That left Mr Williamson’s former special adviser Iain Mansfield, the chief architect of the free speech bill, with a less influential DfE role as adviser to higher education minister Michelle Donelan.

Meanwhile, Munira Mirza, the former Spiked writer and critic of “activist academics”, resigned as head of policy in No 10 in February.

Diana Beech, chief executive of London Higher and a former policy adviser to Conservative universities ministers, said it was “no surprise that the free speech bill has fallen down the list of the government’s priorities” and Ms Mirza’s exit “has left the bill without an obvious champion in the corridors of power”.

Other issues on the DfE agenda such as lifelong loans “ought to be seen as more of a vote winner than any measures reigniting accusations of culture wars” for “a government heading into a general election in just two years’ time”, she added.

However, Nigel Biggar, Regius professor of moral and pastoral theology at the University of Oxford, chair of the Free Speech Union and a prominent advocate for the bill, said: “The current stalling of the bill in the House of Commons is regrettable, but sources confirm that the government is committed to revive it in the autumn. It is vital for the promotion of liberal space on campus that it should.”

Amid “the failure of university authorities to defend staff against vexatious complaints, as well as the authoritarian rolling out of ‘decolonisation’ policies”, the bill would “strengthen the arm of dissidents”, he added.

A DfE spokesman said: “The government remains committed to strengthening freedom of speech in higher education in line with its manifesto and passage of the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill will continue as soon as parliamentary time allows.”

Nick Hillman, Higher Education Policy Institute director, said the bill “does seem to have lost some of its momentum” since Mr Williamson’s exit. But he noted that Ms Donelan “still talks about it”, as in her speech to the Conservative party spring conference this month. 

“So I wouldn’t write its obituary yet,” Mr Hillman said.


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Reader's comments (1)

One is naturally less inclined to lend credence to people who subject themselves to speech codes and who are perhaps obliged or find it convenient not to offend others. Suspicion that this is the case in academia thus reduces the value of academic communication.