It is the principled eloquence of my hon. Friend the Member for Luton North (Sarah Owen) that gives me hope for the future of our country. I feel that the country is safe in the hands of her generation and people like her.
I have listened to the whole of the debate, and I say this. We are in the midst of what in other eras we would have called a plague. Nearly 130,000 members of our community have died. Many of them faced appalling deaths, alone, isolated from their loved ones. Moreover, poverty runs rife among our people. More than 40% of the children in my constituency are living in poverty. It took a footballer to force the Government to act to secure a basic meal for many of our children, and what did he get last night from some of the racist scum populating our country? More racist abuse.
With so much scarring the lives of many of our constituents, with so many wrongs to be righted, what is the House debating? A proposal for a law to legislate against behaviour when there is barely any evidence that it exists. The Office for Students found
“no evidence of free speech being systematically suppressed”.
It went on to say:
“Our experience to date is that providers are working hard to be compliant with their duty under section 43 of the 1986 Education Act.”
Selina Todd has been referred to tonight. She is my friend; I helped her to launch her recent book. I was contacted before the event by a students club urging me not to attend and not to participate. I went ahead, because, as I explained, disagreement with Selina was best dealt with in discussion, and it was left at that: an agreement to disagree.
If any incidences arise of the suppression of free speech, laws and institutions already exist to protect freedom of speech in higher education. There is the Human Rights Act, which, I remind the House, the Conservative party voted against. The Education (No. 2) Act 1986, passed by a Conservative Government, contains section 43, which has been referred to and which requires universities to
“take such steps as are reasonably practicable”
to secure freedom of speech. There are already regulatory bodies to ensure that those provisions are protected and enforced. The Office of the Independent Adjudicator deals with student complaints that cannot be resolved through internal processes of individual universities. Likewise, if academic freedom is being infringed, employment law and employment tribunals can address that.
This is interesting and I have not witnessed it very often, but Universities UK, the National Union of Students, the University and College Union and even the Russell Group are united in opposing this legislation. I say to the Government: do not insult the intelligence of Members of this House or, more importantly, the intelligence of the British people. This is a grubby political stunt, worthy of the derision it has received tonight. It is a propaganda exercise in this Government’s persistent provocation of the culture war, as many Members have suggested. But how far does the logic of this policy go? Who is next—further education establishments, schools, Government-funded charities and community groups? If not them, why are the universities being singled out? The logic of this policy is ludicrous.
If Ministers want to know the real issues in universities, they should go to Liverpool and Leicester and speak to the lecturers who have been forced on to picket lines because they are being sacked. They should visit any college and talk to lecturers about how their profession is being casualised, their wages frozen and cut, and their pension put under further threat. They should speak to the University and College Union and see what its members are up against at the moment. None of the issues that are so relevant to higher education, students and lecturers is being addressed by the Government, who are more interested in divisive culture wars than in solving the real issues faced by our universities and the people of this country.
The legislation should be dropped. I am fearful. As others have warned, be careful what this Government wish for, because they could open up serious division in our society and on our university campuses, and open up a can of worms that the fascist right will exploit.