Government hints at change to Terror Bill to protect scholars

December 9, 2005

Academics and librarians should be given further protection from prosecution under the Government's anti-terrorism legislation as ministers move to ease fears that academic freedom would be restricted, writes Paul Hill.

The Terrorism Bill entered its committee stage in the House of Lords on Monday amid continuing concern for academics training students in the use of "noxious substances", librarians "disseminating" extremist literature and lecturers discussing terror groups or propaganda with students.

But the Government opened the debate with indications that it would amend the Bill such that prosecution of an academic would be unlikely and librarians would have legal defences if charged.

Ministers have yet to reveal precise details of amendments, but one change will mean that academics training students in the use of noxious substances would be prosecuted only if they knew, rather than just suspected, training would be used for terrorism.

During the Lords debate, concerns about academic freedom were aired by former education secretary and Liberal Democrat peer Baroness Shirley Williams and the Tory and Liberal Democrat Shadow Lord Chancellors, Lords Kingsland and Goodhart.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal, the Leader of the House, said academics who played devil's advocate or who discussed terrorism as part of a course "could not be convicted, provided that they could show they did not endorse the statement".

She added that librarians and academics could argue that publications glorifying terrorism did not represent their personal views.

Jonathan Whitehead, head of parliamentary and public affairs at the Association of University Teachers, said he was delighted that the Government was taking academic concerns seriously.

"But we remain to be convinced that they have the right proposals to protect our members and we will carry on lobbying as hard as we can to achieve that," he said.

A Universities UK spokesperson said it was a positive step forward but there was some way to go to fully address its concerns.

* Ministers faced further calls this week to rethink plans to remove overseas students' right of appeal on visa decisions when the Government's Asylum and Immigration Bill reached the House of Lords. Peers from all parties, including former academics and university chancellors, warned that the plans risked deterring foreign applicants.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland, a junior minister in the Department for Constitutional Affairs, hinted at a Government rethink. "In committee, I will look carefully at (amendment) proposals.

"I invite suggestions that might identify an alternative approach that creates what is central to this part of the Bill - an effective one-stop appeals process but one that might confer in-country appeal rights on a wider range of cases."

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