King’s College London has rejected claims that an event featuring controversial advocacy group Cage was “extremist", while England’s funding council has contacted universities that held events involving the organisation but is not holding a formal investigation.
It follows newspaper reports that have focused on events held at King’s and at Soas, University of London where speakers included Moazzam Begg, who was detained in Guantanamo Bay for three years before being released without charge by the US in 2005, and is now a director of Cage, which describes itself as “an independent advocacy organisation working to empower communities impacted by the War on Terror”.
The Daily Telegraph reported yesterday that “six British universities are facing an inquiry after the controversial human rights group Cage used meetings on campus to encourage the ‘sabotage’ of the government’s official anti-extremism programme”, Prevent.
That came ahead of an investigation published today by the Daily Mail, which says that “up to seven universities which held Cage-linked events could now face an investigation by the Higher Education Funding Council for England”.
The Mail claims that Mr Begg “suggested that the West’s reaction to the Paris atrocities was disproportionate because no children were reported dead”, during an event at King’s on 15 October where he spoke “unchallenged”.
Theresa May, the home secretary, is quoted in the Mail as saying: “This investigation highlights exactly the sort of damaging extremist rhetoric which none of us should allow to go unchallenged.
“Our universities have a proud tradition of championing free speech – but this should never be at the expense of giving extremist views the oxygen they need to flourish.”
A Hefce spokesman said that the organisation is “not holding any kind of formal investigation or inquiry”.
“But we are continuing to engage with all universities about Prevent duties,” he added.
Steve Hall, head of Hefce’s Prevent team, said in a subsequent statement: “Press coverage in recent days has highlighted concerns about a number of events held at English universities.
“Hefce will be responding to these reports in line with our established monitoring processes. We have already had detailed discussions with several of the universities involved and will be doing so with all of the others in the coming weeks.
“As with all incidents reported to us by institutions themselves or by third parties we will discuss what processes were followed and how risks were assessed and mitigated. We then agree any changes that need to be made to institutional policies further to safeguard students and staff and to implement any lessons learned.
“Every institution will shortly submit a range of evidence to demonstrate compliance with the Prevent duty, including policies for managing the risks around external speakers and events.”
King’s said in a statement: “In advance of the two events held on our campus in autumn 2015, the university and Students’ Union undertook a series of checks and put additional conditions in place, including recording the speeches, to ensure that the events took place within the law.
“Members of the university senior team, KCLSU’s CEO and safe space marshals attended both events. We provided details of the assessments made with regard to these events to the Prevent officers at Hefce and they raised no issues with us.
“Not all student society events are debates where you would have a speaker ‘for’ and ‘against’ an argument, however events are open to all students to attend and oppose or challenge views of speakers.”
The statement added: “We have reviewed the footage of these events and while the comments made by some of the speakers were controversial, we strongly reject that they were extremist.
“There were no expressions of opposition to democracy, rule of law, individual liberty or mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs.
“Furthermore, at one event Mr Moazzam Begg says explicitly to the audience: ‘We all want to stop anybody being violent to anybody else whether here or abroad.’ At the second event, the overall emphasis of the talk was on how un-Islamic violence is.”
Soas said in a statement: “We have long established due diligence procedures for all activities on our campus and we were fully aware of the events referred to.
“We protect and respect academic freedom and freedom of speech and expression but also recognise that these rights are not absolute – they are freedoms within the law. These events were legal and no concerns were raised with us by local police or Prevent officers.”