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New Clause 12

Freedom of speech in universities, polytechnics and colleges

.--(1) Every individual and body of persons concerned in the government of any establishment to which this section applies shall take such steps as are reasonably practicable to ensure that freedom of speech within the law is secured for members, students and employees of the establishment and for visiting speakers.

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(2) The duty imposed by subsection (1) above includes (in particular) the duty to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, that the use of any premises of the establishment is not denied to any individual or body of persons on any ground connected with-- (

(a) the beliefs or views of that individual or of any member of that body ; or

(b) the policy or objectives of that body.

(3) The governing body of every such establishment shall, with a view to facilitating the discharge of the duty imposed by subsection (1) above in relation to that establishment, issue and keep up to date a code of practice setting out--

(a) the procedures to be followed by members, students and employees of the establishment in connection with the organisation-- (

(i) of meetings which are to be held on premises of the establishment and which fall within any class of meeting specified in the code ; and

(ii) of other activities which are to take place on those premises and which fall within any class of activity so specified ; and (

(b) the conduct required of such persons in connection with any such meeting or activity ;

and dealing with such other matters as the governing body consider appropriate.

(4) The governing body of every such establishment shall not impose a charge for security on the organisers of any meeting. Any charge for the use of premises shall be in accordance with the established practice of the establishment and shall not in any event be at such a level as to effectively preclude the proposed meeting taking place.

(5) Every individual and body of persons concerned in the government of any such establishment shall take such steps as are reasonably practicable (including where appropriate the initiation of disciplinary measures) to secure that the requirements of the code of practice for that establishment, issued under subsection (3) above, are complied with.

(6) The establishments to which this section applies are (

(a) any university ;

(b) any grant-maintained college ;

(c) any college of further education ; and

(d) any institution for the provision of further education managed by a company formed by virtue of section 60(1) of this Act. (7) In this section- -

"governing body", in relation to any university, means the executive governing body which has responsibility for the management and administration of its revenue and property and the conduct of its affairs ;

"university" includes a university college and any college, or institution in the nature of a college, in a university.

(8) Where any of the establishments to which this section applies is maintained by an education authority or authorities or is substantially dependent for its maintenance on assistance from an education authority or authorities, the education authority or authorities maintaining or (as the case may be) assisting the establishment shall, for the purposes of this section, be taken to be concerned in its government.

(9) Where a students' union occupies premises which are not premises of the establishment in connection with which the union is constituted, any reference in this section to the premises of the establishment shall be taken to include a reference to the premises occupied by the students' union.'-- [Mr. Nicholas Bennett.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Nicholas Bennett (Pembroke) : I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

The purpose of the clause is to insert into the Bill section 43 of the Education (No. 2) Act 1986 but with one new and important subsection which says :

"The governing body of every such establishment shall not impose a charge for security on the organisers of any meeting. Any charge for the use of premises shall be in accordance with the established practice of the establishment and shall not in any event be at such a level as to effectively preclude the proposed meeting taking place."

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10.15 pm

During questions to Scottish Office Ministers on 7 June, my hon. Friends the Members for Hexham (Mr. Amos) and for Eastwood (Mr. Stewart) asked whether our hon. Friend the Under-Secretary would consider extending section 43 to Scotland. He replied :

"It was decided in 1986 not to extend to Scotland the provisions in the 1986 Act which became section 43 as there was little evidence in Scotland of the problems that prompted the legislation south of the border. Since then there has been very little evidence of disruption of free speech in universities or colleges in Scotland."--[ Official Report, 7 June 1989 ; Vol. 154, c. 209.]

An important matter of principle is involved. It is that freedom of speech that is enshrined in English and Welsh legislation should also be enshrined in Scottish legislation. I do not understand the Minister's attitude. Knowing his robust views, I cannot believe that he seriously expects the House to accept the principle of freedom of speech in England and Wales but not in Scotland.

Mr. Tim Devlin (Stockton, South) : Does my hon. Friend agree that should a problem arise in a Scottish university to which those rules would apply, we would not be equipped to deal with it? Are we not denying Scottish students a fairly essential right?

Mr. Bennett : My hon. Friend makes a valid point. The Scottish Office is basically saying that, if a fire occurs, it will then take out an insurance policy. I have always believed that the insurance policy should come first. It is not right to suggest that there have not been problems in Scottish universities. Only last year in Aberdeen the South African consul was shouted down--

Mr. Bill Walker : Is my hon. Friend aware that Scottish Members-- and, indeed, most hon. Members--would abhor any intervention in the principle of freedom of speech in Scotland? We would be appalled if some Right-wing Fascists tried to prevent the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) speaking in a university. We want to prevent that happening, which is why we want the same legislation for Scotland as for England and Wales. During the passage of the Bill, Opposition Members continually asked for harmonisation between Scotland and England, and we cannot understand why my hon. Friend the Minister refused that.

Mr. Bennett : My hon. Friend makes an important point. Of course, race relations legislation is equally applicable to Scotland and England. We want to prevent the shouting down of people in an attempt to stop them expressing their views. The Government appear to be prepared to sit back complacently because Scotland has not suffered quite the same outrages as England.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) : During debates on the community charge, many Scottish Members said that it was a great pity that Scotland had to be the first to experiment and that England would have it only after it had been proved successful. Do we not now have a marvellous opportunity to show even-handedness in that now, the 1986 Act has proved successful in England and Wales, it should be extended to Scotland?

Mr. Bennett : My hon. Friend is right, but with one proviso, because a part of section 43 has not been successful.

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Mr. John Marshall : Speaking as a former lecturer at Aberdeen university, I wish to ask my Welsh colleague whether he agrees that two things threaten Scotland's reputation--first, the sedentary interventions of the hon. Member for Dunfermline, West (Mr. Douglas) and, secondly, the attempts by individuals to deny freedom of speech in universities? Do not such attempts bring universities into disrepute? My hon. Friend's new clause seeks to safeguard the reputation of Scottish education, which used to be the highest in the United Kingdom.

Mr. Bennett : My hon. Friend is right, but my new clause also seeks equality for Scotland with England and Wales. It would also help my hon. Friend the Minister because not so long ago he spoke at Stirling university and attempts were made to shout him down. Being of a robust nature, my hon. Friend managed to continue his speech despite the attempts of the Fascist left to prevent freedom of speech. That shows that there are problems in Scottish universities and it seems that the problems are likely to increase in future. It is important that there should be equality of opportunity and treatment between England, Wales and Scotland. However, Scottish Members have an opportunity to show the way forward to the Departments responsible for education in England and Wales to improve section 43 of the Education (No. 2) Act 1986, because that section is not working at the moment.

Mr. John Bowis (Battersea) : The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mr. Forsyth), should be listening to my hon. Friend the Member for Pembroke (Mr. Bennett). Until now, Scotland has always held its head high as one of the leaders in education in the United Kingdom. However, we anticipate a faint- hearted response on this point from the Minister. Should not the Government be considering the problems encountered by England and Wales under the present law and try to go further for Scotland instead of restricting the provision in Scotland to below that applying in England?

Mr. Bennett : I find it very difficult to understand the attitude of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State on this. It cannot be in line with what he really believes. He must have been captured by the civil servants in the Scottish Office. If only he could be a free man and speak his mind, there would be a robust approach.

Mr. Michael Brown : Is it not a great pleasure to see the Under- Secretary of State for Education and Science, my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr. Jackson), present in the Chamber? He seems to have the backbone with regard to these matters. Can we not have some backbone in this issue?

Mr. Bennett : I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland is suitably chastened by the views expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Cleethorpes (Mr. Brown) and that he will take note of the strong views on this issue.

I want to give examples of what has happened in England and Wales since the Education (No. 2) Act 1986 received its Royal Assent. These examples will illustrate the problem which exists in the English and Welsh legislation which we hope to correct and amend in the Bill on student loans later this year. The Under-Secretary of

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State for Scotland has a golden opportunity to lead the way and accept this new clause, which surmounts the problem which exists in England and Wales.

Sir Russell Johnston : Would the hon. Gentleman take an umbrella to the Sahara on the grounds that it might rain?

Mr. Bennett : Of course, there is always the chance that it might rain. I would certainly take some water there.

Mr. Bill Walker : For the information of my hon. Friend the Member for Pembroke (Mr. Bennett), I have been in the Sahara when it rained very heavily.

Mr. Bennett : Looking at the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber (Sir R. Johnston), it appears that he should take an umbrella because he is obviously suffering from sunstroke and an umbrella could protect him from the sun. The Liberals were soaked in the rain last Thursday and they need an umbrella to protect them, if only to try to show that they are green in some way.

The Conservative Collegiate Forum, the new name given by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford (Mr. Tebbit) to the Federation of Conservative Students, which confuses some of us who think it must have something to do with Army cadets in public schools, has examined 97 codes of practice in England and Wales. It considered 49 from universities, 29 from polytechnics and 19 from other places of higher education. Fifty-three of the codes throw on the student body the cost of stewarding the meeting and eight of them demand payments in advance or a deposit.

Mr. Tim Janman (Thurrock) : I agree with my hon. Friend that it is a priority that we should take action to uphold freedom of speech in Scotland. Does he agree that we should be incorporating section 43 of the Education (No. 2) Act 1986 in this Bill, but that that should be taken as a starting point to make the legislation more embracing in Scotland to prevent the problems that we have seen in England and Wales? The English and Welsh legislation should also be toughened.

Mr. Bennett : My hon. Friend has made a very good point which is the purpose of the new clause. I only regret that the new clause tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Eastwood (Mr. Stewart), about student unions, was not selected for debate. That new clause referred to students being cajoled into being members of student unions whether they wanted to or not which is something about which Conservative Members feel very strongly.

Eight of the codes of practice demand payments in advance or deposits. Those codes mean that, before a meeting can be held, sums of up to £500 must be paid in case the Left wing come along and disrupt the meeting. The onus is not on the Left, who will break up the meeting and cause the damage, but on the organisers. Large sums are demanded by some universities. Aston university, advised by the police that its security barriers would not be sufficient, asked for specially toughened steel barriers and demanded £372.83 from the Conservative students and a further £110 for extra security staff. The Conservative students did not have that sort of money, and there was a grave danger that the meeting would have to be cancelled. Luckily, part of the charge was waived.

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Mr. Michael Brown : How can speech be free if it costs £110?

Mr. Bennett : My hon. Friend makes a good point. That is why we object to the way in which the English and Welsh legislation has been working.

Nine codes of practice insist that any loss or damage should be made good not by those who caused it but by the organisers of the meeting. Four require the holders of the meeting to bear all or part of the cost of any extra insurance required. Another device used by at least 10 establishments is to limit the number of meetings at which a designated speaker is allowed to appear. Essex university demands six weeks' notice for a meeting. Details must include the name of the speaker, and if the speaker cancels for any reason within those six weeks, the authority can ban the meeting.

Twenty-seven codes of practice state that the meeting may be cancelled if it incites those attending to criminal acts. That is an all-embracing umbrella clause if ever I heard one. I note that the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber, who raised umbrellas, has now left the Chamber. It seems that any univeristy can say to any association, "I am sorry, but your meeting cannot take place because it might incite the audience to acts of criminal activity." How can anyone guarantee that a meeting will not lead to someone trying to disrupt it or to commit a criminal act? It is an open invitation to a university authority to ban anything it wishes.

Mr. Bob Dunn (Dartford) : If deposits must be paid, which can be lost in the event of trouble, is that not an open invitation to the Left to cause trouble so that those who organised the meeting will be penalised?

Mr. Bennett : That is a valid point. It is all the more valid coming from a former Under-Secretary of State of Education and Science, who speaks with great experience of the matter.

I am especially worried by the behaviour of the director of the polytechnic of north London. I gained my first degree at that polytechnic and was the founder and first chairman of its Conservative association in the troubled times of the early 1970s. To blow my own trumpet, I can say that, standing as the moderate candidate, I led the poll in a ballot for student union president against the Trotskyites. I know how insidious the Left's activities can be in polytechnics and universities and how Left-wing students can intimidate speakers and Conservative students. The director's behaviour is extremely reprehen-sible. He has demanded the right to vet the subject of the addresses by visiting speakers and to demand that they be changed. If my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford wished to speak at the north London polytechnic, as he did fairly recently when he was subject to much abuse, the director reserves the right to ask my right hon. Friend to change the subject of his address.

Mr. Christopher Hawkins (High Peak) : I fully share my hon. Friend's view that the students should not be asked to pay, but the universities fear that, if the students are not asked to pay, the money will have to come from the university's budget for providing education. The taxpayer generally should pay. We do not tax people who have their houses burgled. The police should protect the freedom of speech at no cost to the universities.

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Mr. Bennett : My hon. Friend makes a good point. There is a case that the cost of protecting free speech should be borne by the taxpayer generally. But if the student unions, which are usually the cause of the disruption and are usually controlled by the far Left, are seen to be organising the disruption, they should pay for it out of the student union budget, which is provided by the taxpayer.

Mr. John Marshall : One problem is that the principals of universities are far too pusillanimous. They should discipline those who behave in an unacademic way and send them down.

10.30 pm

Mr. Bennett : My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Bernard Levin made the same point in an excellent article in The Times on 1 June. University chancellors and polytechnic directors have been very weak in dealing with student union activists and troublemakers who disrupt meetings. They prefer to ignore and turn their backs on the problem. They are quite happy that disruption should occur, provided that the speakers affected are Conservative or Right-wing.

When Mr. Ray Honeyford was invited to speak at the north London polytechnic, its director felt it necessary to publish a leaflet at the polytechnic's, and therefore, at the taxpayers', expense inviting his students to attend alternative meetings that he organised. He defended his action in a letter to The Times recently, to which Mr. Philip Malcolm, national student director of the Conservative Collegiate Forum, responded asking whether the director had ever organised an alternative meeting to one addressed by a Left-wing, Fascist or Communist speaker. Of course he had not. The director of the north London polytechnic only organises alternative meetings to those of Conservative speakers, with whom he happens to disagree. I do not see it as part of the job of the polytechnic authorities to tell students, "We don't want you to listen to this dreadful man because you might be influenced by what he says."

Mr. John Carlisle (Luton, North) : My hon. Friend may be interested to learn that, a week after my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford (Mr. Tebbit) spoke, after a fashion, at north London polytechnic, I was invited by its Conservative student association to speak there. Accordingly, I wrote to the polytechnic's principal, Dr. Wagner, asking him to accompany me on the platform and to remain there for the duration of my speech. He refused to do so, presumably because he did not want to witness the abuse from his own students that I would doubtless receive and because he could not discipline them in his own college. He could not guarantee my safety or the freedom of speech that he was ostensibly allowing.

Mr. Bennett : My hon. Friend draws attention to the kind of disgraceful behaviour that is exhibited. Although not all right hon. and hon. Members agree with the robust views of my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Mr. Carlisle) on every occasion, I defend his right to speak at any university or college in this country at which he is invited to speak and to express whatever views he likes, in however robust a manner he chooses. By doing so he upholds the principle of freedom of speech that all my right hon. and hon. Friends deem to be so important and which overrides all other considerations.

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Mr. Norman Tebbit (Chingford) : One must be careful to distinguish-- as my hon. Friend does, but he could easily be misinterpreted--between the great mass of university students who want quietly and decently to get on with their studies, and who are content to leave others to hold their own meetings and discussions in a proper and civilised manner, and the minority, whom we see everywhere, and who are mostly Red Fascists and people of that kind. As we know, Fascists are Left-wing, and there is little to distinguish between the National Front's economic policy and that of the Labour Left. We must be careful not to imply that students in Scotland or in any other part of the kingdom are in general of the same kind.

My hon. Friend is also right to emphasise that university authorities are often to blame for disruption. The authorities at the north London polytechnic knowingly employed a man who has a conviction for a serious terrorist offence and placed him in a position of trust among impressionable young people, which is a disgraceful way to behave. If my hon. Friend's new clause would do anything to militate against such conduct by those who are supposed to lead young people, he is well advised to pursue it.

Mr. Bennett : I thank my right hon. Friend for his helpful intervention, based on his great experience of public speaking at universities and colleges throughout the country.

I turn to the attitude of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals.

Mr. McFall : Is it not a fact that the Minister did not accept the hon. Gentleman's proposition at Scottish Question Time? The present arrangements are working perfectly well. Hon. Members may not take my word for it, but they should take the Minister's word. On 20 October last year, when he visited Glasgow college of technology, there was something of a fracas ; after the meeting, however, he said that the students were to be commended and that he would introduce no legislation. I suggest that some Conservative Members know nothing about it. They come into the Chamber for a debate on Scottish education and filibuster just for the sake of it.

Mr. Bennett : I think that the hon. Gentleman has got my hon. Friend's statement slightly wrong. For one thing, he did not preclude future legislation. What he said after that demonstration was that the vast majority of students would not wish to have anything to do with the minority who had caused it. I think that his remarks were indicative of the general Christian attitude that we have come to expect from him : he took a forgiving line.

Mr. Rupert Allason (Torquay) : I recently conducted a speaking tour of Scottish universities, and spoke at St. Andrews and Edinburgh. It was a very successful tour, and was not marked by the extremism that hon. Members have described.

Let me say a word in support of my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford (Mr. Tebbit). Most students in Scotland are, in my experience, very keen to get on with their studies and pass their exams ; they are not interested in extremism. Those students have nothing to fear from the new clause. Nor, I believe, have the Civil Service, the Scottish Office and our own Front Benches--especially the Opposition. There can be no reason for opposing the new clause, and I warmly support it.

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Mr. Graham Riddick (Colne Valley) : Are not a number of student unions in Scottish universities affiliated to the National Union of Students? Is it not also true that that union still operates a no-platform policy, and that there is therefore an ever-present threat that a minority faction from some university might try to impose such a policy? Is that not why it is so important that the new clause is put on the statute book?

Mr. Bennett : My hon. Friend has made a valuable point. What concerns me is that, although there has not been the same level of disruption in Scottish universities--there have been problems at Aberdeen and Stirling--a number of issues have arisen in the past year that could lead to trouble. [Hon. Members :-- "Where?"] I have just mentioned Stirling and Aberdeen. Hon. Members should open their ears.

We have an opportunity to introduce in Scottish legislation an insurance policy already contained in English and Welsh legislation, so that action can be taken, in the event of disruption, to prevent the problems that we have seen in England and Wales from spreading to Scotland. That seems admirable to me. The principle of free speech ought to be defended.

Mr. Bill Walker : I do not wish anyone to misunderstand. There is no doubt that in the past there have been problems at Scottish universities as serious as those that England has experienced. Those of us who have been speaking in Scotland for many decades know that there was a time when we were ashamed by activities that took place--even, in one instance, in the presence of the monarch. That should not be forgotten. I remind my hon. Friend that an umbrella may well be useful : even if it does not rain often, it does so occasionally, and when it does it can be pretty ghastly.

Mr. Bennett : I thank my hon. Friend for that helpful intervention. I see that my hon. Friend the Member for Boothferry (Mr. Davis) now wishes to intervene.

Mr. David Davis (Boothferry) : The hon. Member for Dumbarton raised the question whether there is a problem over freedom of speech in universities. When he and the Minister were at university, the "Red Fascists", as they were called by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford (Mr. Tebbit), were very unsubtle : they shouted down psychologists, historians and--as we have heard--even the monarch. That was a very overt form of suppression of freedom of speech. The techniques described by my hon. Friend however, are much subtler and more difficult to detect. The Scottish Office seems to have enfeebled my hon. Friend the Minister--[ Hon. Members :-- "No."] Knowing him now and remembering him 10 years ago, I am quite sure that it has. The fact that the Scottish Office says that there is no evidence implies that it has investigated the rules that apply in universities to each Conservative association and to each Socialist society and Liberal society and has checked whether they prevent controversial speakers from being able to speak. I hope that my hon. Friend will ask the Minister to justify the statement made by his Department that there has been no suppression of freedom of speech in Scotland and that the Minister will tell us that a positive investigation has taken place. I also hope that he will not reject the new clause.

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Mr. Bennett : My hon. Friend makes a valuable point. If there has been a survey of Scottish institutions by the Scottish Office, I hope that it was a damned sight better than the one carried out by the Department of Education and Science into the National Union of Students, which wrote the answers for all the constituent unions to send back to the Department.

Mr. Robert B. Jones (Hertfordshire, West) : Will my hon. Friend follow up the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Boothferry (Mr. Davis) about the subtle way in which some of the pressures are applied? This does not apply just to political societies--for example, to the policy against Jewish societies by some pro-PLO students. It applies also to the misuse of public funds to finance political societies extravagantly and others in a very discriminatory way that prevents them from offering platforms to visiting speakers. As a former union official at a Scottish university, I have had experience of that.

Mr. Bennett : My hon. Friend also makes a valid point. When it referred to the amount of money that it spends on political activities, the National Union of Students interestingly described it as about 0.5 per cent., by which it meant the amount of money spent by Conservative associations and the Communist and Socialist societies. However, it did not mention that most student union officers spend most of their time on politicking, that most student union newspapers are full of Left-wing politics, that most student union meetings spend all their time on Left- wing politics and that between 60 and 70 per cent. of student union funds, paid for by the taxpayer, are spent on Left-wing politics up and down the country.

Mr. Dunn : My hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, West (Mr. Jones) made an interesting point about the change in style of the Fascist Left over the years. In the past it was a straightforward attack on those who wished to sing a different tune from that to which they were prepared to listen. Today, many of the

vice-chancellors and principals give a lead because of their objection and their hostility to our philosophy. In institutions where vice-chancellors and principals have been prepared to back up freedom of speech, there has been less trouble than has occurred where vice-chancellors and principals have been prepared to give a lead to the trouble.

Mr. Bennett : My hon. Friend has made another valid point. He brings me back to the point that I was making a few minutes ago about the letter that all hon. Members have received from the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals of the Universities of the United Kingdom, dated 2 June. Page 1 of the letter says :

"there is no evidence of any institutions placing a limit on the number of meetings that may be organised."

That is simply untrue.

"There may be limitations imposed by virtue only of the unavailability"--

that is an interesting word to use ; it is not in my English dictionary--

"of suitable venues at any particular time."

Then it says :

"With only one or two exceptions, there is no support for the proposal that student unions should be made responsible for meeting security or other costs."

What do we find in the survey by the Conservative Collegiate Forum? We find that 53 codes put an onus on the student bodies. The statements in that letter are untrue.

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The letter is misleading and covers up the fact that the vast majority of universities, colleges and polytechnics in this country are doing what my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Sir J. Farr) said that they would do when he spoke during the Second Reading debate of the Education (No. 2) Bill in 1986. They are finding ways of getting round the code. The purpose of my new clause is to prevent that from happening.

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