Amendment 21

Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill - Committee (3rd Day) (Continued) – in the House of Lords am 8:45 pm ar 7 Mai 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Lord Willetts:

Moved by Lord Willetts

21: The Schedule, page 12, line 21, at end insert—“3A Section 1 does not apply to— (a) a registered higher education provider in England, as defined by section 3(10) of the Higher Education and Research Act 2017;(b) an institution within the higher education sector in Wales, as defined by section 91 of the Further and Higher Education Act 1992;(c) an institution within the higher education sector in Scotland, as defined by section 56 of the Further and Higher Education (Scotland) Act 1992;(d) a higher education institution in Northern Ireland, as defined by article 30 of the Education and Libraries (Northern Ireland) Order 1993.”Member’s explanatory statementThis amendment would remove universities and other higher education providers from the requirement to act in accordance with Clause 1.

Photo of Lord Willetts Lord Willetts Ceidwadwyr

My Lords, we have been going for quite a long time. I will try to keep this brisk because there is apparently still a lot of business to get through today. I should declare my interests in the register, particularly my role as a member of the council of the University of Southampton, because I think university councils could be among the bodies covered by this proposed legislation. Although I will draw on my experiences there, these are of course my personal opinions.

In many ways, the purpose of this amendment, which is essentially to remove universities from the scope of this legislation, arises because universities are just the most acute example of the wider problems in this legislation that have already been discussed. I will briefly explain why I think some of these problems are particularly acute in higher education. First, is there actually a problem of boycotts, disinvestment and sanctions in the higher education sector? I have still not come across any actual, real examples of any university ever trying to do what this legislation would forbid.

There are certainly lots of examples of student unions campaigning on this, and earlier we heard some of those cited, but student unions are not—thank heavens—covered by this legislation. All these issues being debated in student unions are part of the process of learning, growing up and political engagement. But it seems rather odd to pass legislation affecting the universities, which do not do anything, and ignoring the student unions where all these debates happen. It is therefore not relevant to the actual decisions that any real university takes. What is the problem that is supposed to be solved?

I am aware of the media coverage today about what is happening in our universities. The Government’s argument is that this helps with community cohesion. We have heard a lot about community cohesion. I have to say that the weight placed on community cohesion in the context of boycotts and disinvestment is the exact opposite of the weight attached to those kinds of arguments when we were debating the freedom of speech legislation. The irony is that one of the arguments then was that there are people who have to run these institutions. They have a set of rival claims to balance. Is it legitimate for them to say, “Of course you want to hold your controversial event, but perhaps not during the same week as exams are happening”? Or, “Of course you want to have your speaker who may be anti-gay, but perhaps not in Gay Pride week”?

In other words, lots of arguments about community cohesion were completely dismissed on the grounds that there is an absolutist right to freedom of speech, and it is just possible that some of the activities that apparently are now concerning No. 10 are protected by the very legislation that the Government passed only a few months back on an absolutist argument: “You must be able to say these kinds of things”. On the very first day on which the legislation was announced, the then Universities Minister said on the radio, “Yes, of course, Holocaust denial would be permitted and protected by this legislation”. It is a bit odd but, anyway, we have now gone from community cohesion being totally irrelevant to community cohesion being the absolute argument that trumps all others. It is a legitimate consideration but does not bear the weight now being placed on it, and it is probably a great pity that it was not given any weight at all when we were considering freedom of speech.

When it comes to freedom of speech, universities are lively, disputatious places, as are councils of universities. When legislation is supposed to apply to universities and tries to conclude that it would be wrong and prohibited if a decision

“was influenced by political or moral disapproval of foreign state conduct”,

it is hard to imagine a lively debate in a university council that does not involve somebody sounding off about some foreign state or other and how much they disapprove of it and what it is doing for some reason or other. The idea that you can try to forbid consideration of these types of factors in a decision-taking environment such as a university seems to be total fantasy.

It is not only that we all know the life of universities and how disputatious they are but the Government themselves, in other contexts, encourage universities to think about these kinds of factors. Until last year I was on the board of UKRI, which was developing a trusted research agenda that asked universities to consider some of those factors. The noble Lord, Lord Collins, has already been praised enough this evening, but he astutely quoted from the advice that the business department gives to businesses. I am sorry to repeat what he said, but it was absolutely to the point. The advice states:

“UK citizens and businesses should be aware of the potential reputational implications of getting involved in economic and financial activities in settlements, as well as possible abuses of the rights of individuals”.

Businesses are invited to consider that. Will the Minister explain whether it would be illegal for someone in or chairing a meeting of a university council, after a decision has been taken, to cite the advice that the Government themselves have provided in a different context? What if someone said, “We have been influenced on our economic and financial decisions because of possible abuses of the rights of individuals”? Is that legitimate, or is it now to be illegal in universities but advice from government in a different context? It really is quite a muddle.

The Minister may reply to that concern, “But universities are public bodies”. It is not totally clear what makes a university a public body, and we have also heard the expression “public authorities”—I do not know whether that comes charged with some other particular legal meaning. We have also had “hybrid public bodies”. I am increasingly concerned that the bit-by-bit process of adding more regulation and more legal compliance duties on universities pulls them into the public sector, when one of the reasons we have such a well-respected and high-quality university system is precisely the universities’ autonomy. They used to score very highly just for their capacity to run their own affairs. With every step-by-step process in which they appear in more and more of these lists of bodies to be covered by legislation, the greater is the risk that they lose their autonomy and eventually end up as part of the public sector.

Of course, this is just one more step. The ONS is reviewing whether universities should be categorised as in the public sector. This is not necessarily the straw that will break the camel’s back and will determine that they are in the public sector, but every time in this Chamber we find some other cause that we care about and say “Let’s add universities to the list and cover them as well”, the greater the risk that that is where they will end up.

I remember the days when the Government increased taxes on North Sea oil companies. We never knew at what point they would go on investment strike and turn away; it was hard to predict, but at some point they did. At some point, we will have brought universities into the public sector if we are not careful and, when we look back to how it happened, this will be one of the many steps in the process that takes us to that position.

I am more concerned about that when I hear the other doctrine of the single foreign policy. It is quite a new doctrine, this idea that somehow all these public bodies, in some broad sense going beyond the public sector, all have to have one foreign policy. It is true that universities can play a role in foreign policy. I remember when I used to go on missions to India, accompanied on a couple of occasions by the vice-chancellor of Cambridge. I knew my place. I would speak to the Indian Science Minister or the Indian Universities Minister but, because the Prime Minister of India was an alumnus of Cambridge, the vice-chancellor went to see him and occasionally told me what had happened in these conversations. It was quite helpful to have the vice-chancellor’s much higher-level connections than I could possibly muster.

Of course, universities are places where people debate foreign policy issues. They certainly debate all these moral considerations around boycotts. Can we not be a little more relaxed, accepting that, on the very broad definition of public bodies, which is now in this legislation, there will be, in a modern, diverse civil society, a range of views? The Foreign Secretary’s authority to communicate British foreign policy is not weakened by some university having a view on the morality of something happening in the Middle East. The old doctrine was exactly the opposite: “One of the great things about Britain is that we have lively public debate, there’s no central control and we don’t go round giving everybody else instructions about what they should say about these things. That’s just the kind of country we are”. And I think that was great—we were not anxious about the wide range of different views that might be expressed.

I referred to the Foreign Secretary, my noble friend Lord Cameron, and perhaps that is a note on which to end. One of his most effective political slogans was that he wanted to see a small state and a big society. The more we expand this definition of public bodies and public authorities that all have to be guided by the single foreign policy doctrine, the more we grow the state and shrink society. That is not the right direction in which to go and universities should not be part of it.

Photo of Lord Mann Lord Mann Non-affiliated 9:00, 7 Mai 2024

My Lords, I come to this from an entirely different perspective from that of the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, sharing literally no arguments with him. Therefore, I shall refrain from taking up any time to offer any critique of his pro-university analysis.

I should reference my interest in the register: I am an unpaid, independent government advisor on anti-Semitism. I speak very independently. I suspect that I have been to more universities than any other Member of your Lordships’ House or any member of the Government or any Member of the House of Commons in the last two years. I have spoken with more university vice-chancellors on anti-Semitism than anybody else. I have spoken to virtually all of them over the last three years—some multiple times. I have been in and I have solved specific problems with them, and I think they have been reasonably pleased to have had my assistance in solving them. That is what they have told me. So I know what is going on. I meet with the Union of Jewish Students regularly, as I do with Universities UK. It is fair to say, in the five years that I have been carrying out this role, that I have spent more time on the university sector than on any other single issue.

My approach has been lauded in the Jewish community, and I think it is successful. My—if you like—philosophical, but also strategic and even tactical, approach has been to say to the universities that, in dealing with anti-Semitism—anti-Jewish racism—the critical thing they have to do is listen on a regular basis to their Jewish students, who are organised through Jewish societies. There are about 80 of them across the country. I speak regularly, and have recently done so, to large numbers of students at Jewish societies in universities, and I spend a lot of time listening to them on their perspectives, their fears, their ambitions and how they see themselves as being Jewish both in the country, in the city or town or sometimes rurality that they are based in, and in their university. I feed that back, for better or for worse.

My strategy is, therefore, that when I speak to university vice-chancellors, for example, I tell them that what they have to do is to get their head round what anti-Semitism is, and how Jewish students and staff should have equality of status and what that means, and what the obstacles to that have been and are. The organising strategy is very simple: they should go and speak regularly to their Jewish students because they are organised. If there is a coherent system of organising Jewish staff members—not just academics because there are as many, certainly in some of the bigger cities, non-academic Jewish staff as there are academic staff—and an effective forum for Jewish staff, and there are some, then by all means speak to them as well. But there is no system for that, so that is not a system solution; that is something that should be done, something that is encouraged and something that more could be done to develop.

If the university leadership speaks to the Jewish student leadership, they will have a perspective on what is going on. If they do it every year, there will be a turnover of Jewish student leaders—that is inevitable in a student environment—and they will have a bit of a time series of what the issues are and how well they are doing in dealing with them.

What has been remarkable since 7 October is not how much anti-Semitism there has been in our universities but how little there has been compared with what has gone on in the United States, for example, or in Canada or Australia, as relevant comparable countries. That is because the universities are listening and talking to their Jewish students and responding, initiating and thinking through. Having a working definition of anti-Semitism as a benchmark has been invaluable in doing that and in understanding the issues. That is working.

However, there are problems; I deal with them. The biggest problem—I repeat what I said at Second Reading—is the ostracisation; the isolation when your so-called friends do not speak to you and the micro- aggressions that go with that. That is the worst problem that Jewish students face, and it has dramatically increased. Students are uncomfortable where they live because their flatmates are not including them in things any more because they are “Zionist” or “pro-Israel”, whatever that means—it can mean many different things.

That is the big problem, so I am looking at the Bill and asking: what does it do, if it applies to universities, to assist those students and staff? The answer is: it does nothing—zero, zilch. I do not mean a little bit; I mean nothing. It does nothing about the academic boycotts, which is a problem. It does nothing about the isolation if, for example, someone wants to work with, say, an Israeli university but is blocked by the rest of the department from doing so. If someone wants to research in a particular way, on a thesis or in a postgraduate setting, they are discouraged from doing so. These are the real problems that come to me. It is insidious and dangerous racism.

I come back to the question, because in making law we have to look at it: what does the Bill do about that in the context of universities? The answer is nothing; there have been no successful BDS campaigns in our universities—none. I have been around long enough to have seen and experienced the origins of the campaign, not just in the last three or five years in my current role, or the 20 years I have been around Parliament, but the 40 years in which I have been in some kind of public life. For all those 40 years, there have been zero successful BDS campaigns and therefore it is not a big problem. They are unsuccessful campaigns.

I fully understand. I know the people who organise them and I know how they do so. I am on the receiving end of the abuse. I have had people jailed for targeting me and my family. I could take noble Lords back to when I was stopped from speaking in universities because I dared to visit Israel in 1984. When I was in the West Bank, I met a man called Sinwar—noble Lords may have heard of him. He was the student leader at Birzeit University at the time. It is probably a good job I was not photographed with him. But after I went on that visit to Israel, I was banned from speaking in universities.

I have been through all that, and I am telling noble Lords that there is nothing in this Bill that assists Jewish students. Frankly, it does not matter whether you listen to me, because if you go back to the principle that universities should listen to Jewish students, the Jewish students say that they do not want the Bill to cover universities. What are we doing if we allow that to happen? Jewish students are clear; they do not want it. It does not help them. Is it some kind of political game—I am not sure who it is aimed at—to put it in? There is no case in tackling anti-Semitism for universities to be included in this Bill. By definition, when the Union of Jewish Students says: “No, thank you”, they are the arbiters, the front line—the people impacted and affected. It does nothing on academic staff and academic boycotts.

Before I am, no doubt, sacked by government—as I am not paid, that is kind of an arbitrary thing— I intend to offer to every single political party, for we do not know who will be in power afterwards, a proper set of proposals on the changes that are needed to improve what is going on for students with anti-Semitism. This Bill is not it. This amendment is right and appropriate; it would be outrageous, when the Union of Jewish Students says: “No, thank you”, for us to ignore it. I recommend the amendment to the Committee.

Photo of Lord Johnson of Marylebone Lord Johnson of Marylebone Minister of State (Department for Education) (Universities and Science) (Joint with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), The Minister of State, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow such a powerful speech from the noble Lord, Lord Mann, and that from my noble friend Lord Willetts just now. I should declare an interest; I am on the council of the Dyson Institute of Engineering and Technology, and I am a visiting professor at King’s College London. I want to be sure that is on the record.

I also want to be clear at the outset that I appreciate the good intentions of the drafters of this Bill. Of course, as it is a manifesto commitment, when it comes to later stages, I will certainly support it; I hope my noble friend Lord Leigh will take note of that. However, I think there are real problems with it, which have been brilliantly clarified by the two excellent speeches that preceded mine. I will be brief, because they have made many of the points that I wanted to make and much better than I will be able to. I will ask the Minister just to clarify a couple of things on which I need some reassurance.

The first relates to the points that my noble friend Lord Willetts made about the ONS’s review of the status of universities, and the likelihood that this measure will inadvertently tip them towards being reclassified as part of the public sector. It would be good to understand what assessment the Government have made of that likelihood and of the impact it would have on universities’ ability to borrow and make investment decisions of their own without the kind of Treasury oversight they would have if they were drawn further into the public sector.

Secondly, like my noble friend Lord Willetts, I would like a better understanding of how the provisions in this Bill can be squared with all the provisions that were enacted in the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act that we passed just last year. The Office for Students is meant to stand for the widest possible definition of freedom of speech; anything within the law should be permissible on our campuses. The Bill will considerably narrow what is lawful speech. My concern is that that is a very heavy-handed approach, and one that does not sit easily with the Government’s intentions in passing the freedom of speech Act last year.

I would be interested to know how the Minister feels the Office for Students’ new director of freedom of speech will, in practice, be able to promote a climate of freedom of speech when the OfS will at the same time have to fine universities simply for saying that they would have made certain investment decisions had this law not been in place. It feels like overkill, and I imagine that in the OfS people’s heads are spinning as they ponder how this new legislation will work in practice when directionally, it is so at odds with everything they have been legislated to do in the freedom of speech Act.

Thirdly, picking up on the brilliant points just made by the noble Lord, Lord Mann, I will probe the Minister for actual examples of universities succumbing to pressure of this kind. As the noble Lord said just now, there is precious little evidence of BDS campaigns being effective. Following Second Reading, I put down a couple of Written Questions to try to get on the record from the Government some examples of instances where universities had succumbed to pressure from BDS campaigns. In her kind reply to my Written Questions, my noble friend the Minister said the Government were

“aware that the BDS Movement has taken credit for divestments … carried out by universities following pressure from student campaigns”.

The Minister’s reply cited one example of the BDS movement taking credit for divestments

“by the University of Manchester in 2020 and procurement decisions by King’s College London and Southampton University”.

Does the Minister agree that there is an important distinction between the BDS movement taking credit for something and a university actually succumbing to pressure in relation to investment and procurement decisions? Surely, they are two very different things. People claim all sorts of things but that does not necessarily make them true. I would like to know, if possible, what the Government have independently done to establish the veracity of the BDS movement’s claims in this respect.

Finally, like the noble Lord, Lord Mann, and my noble friend Lord Willetts—I have added my name to his amendment—I urge the Government to reflect carefully on whether universities, which are still in the private sector and are, by and large, autonomous organisations, really need to be in the Bill at all.

Photo of Lord Verdirame Lord Verdirame Non-affiliated 9:15, 7 Mai 2024

My Lords, I will return to a question that I raised on the first day in Committee: the way in which the Bill will impact on academic collaborations. Out of abundant caution, I also refer to the register of interests: I am a professor of international law at King’s, although, as far as I know, if my understanding of the Bill is correct, I do not think I am involved in investment or procurement decisions.

I raise this issue because paragraph 20 of the Explanatory Notes states:

“The ban in clause 1 is not intended to prohibit a higher education institution from deciding to terminate a collaboration with a foreign university on the grounds of academic freedom”.

Can the Minister say whether it follows from that that the ban is intended to prohibit a higher education institution from deciding to terminate, or not to initiate, a collaboration with a foreign university on the grounds of political or moral disapproval of foreign state conduct?

Academic collaborations can come about in a wide range of ways. Sometimes it is just the initiative of a single academic, who will get in contact with academics they know and have worked with in another institution. If they are to be caught by the Bill, it is important to have clarity, because that is the sort of activity a lot of academics would be involved in. It appears to be an example of serious overreach of the scope of the Bill, which the amendments proposed would take good care of. However, I would like to understand a bit better from the Government how they think the Bill as it stands would impact academic collaborations.

Photo of Baroness Blackstone Baroness Blackstone Independent Labour

My Lords, I would like to add my support to that already given to the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Willetts.

I should declare a past interest, if not a present one. I worked for many years as an academic and led two higher education institutions, where I was very much involved in international collaborations. Indeed, as a Minister, I led the then Labour Government’s campaign, known as the Prime Minister’s initiative, to include a number of international collaborations and international students. To pick up on the last speaker’s questions, if this Bill were to damage that in any way, it would be extremely deleterious and affect the long-term reputation and quality of British higher education.

The main problem I have with this has been reflected in what others have said. This Bill creates a problem that does not exist. We should never legislate to create problems that do not exist; it is a crazy way of going about things. I was very much affected, as the noble Lord, Lord Johnson, was, by the excellent and powerful speech of the noble Lord, Lord Mann. This will not help Jewish students one iota. There are many things we should be doing to ensure the safety and freedom of Jewish students in our universities, but this is of no help whatsoever. The other point I will pick up on is that made by the noble Lord, Lord Willetts: this will not do anything to help community cohesion, either, which is of course extremely important.

On freedom of speech, which is at the centre of this, one of the things that defines universities—it is part of the nature of the academy—is that argument takes place. It is part of their lifeblood. Indeed, universities have a duty to promote freedom of speech and argument, and in that I would include argument about foreign policy. There is no single foreign policy, as I was trying to say earlier, if in not a very coherent way. Foreign policy is diverse, and changes. It is a reflection of world movements of all kinds, and of economic matters as well as political ones. The idea of a top-down foreign policy is, to me, utterly ludicrous.

Perhaps one of the worst things about this Bill is its gagging nature. To suggest that you cannot discuss and debate the issues that lie behind the Bill is horrendous. It is not what mature democracies do; it is what tyrannies do. I am sure the Minister is not in favour of tyranny— I know her well enough to be fully aware of that—but what she is doing this evening is presiding over something that is somewhat tyrannical.

Universities are not in the public sector. They are subject to regular ONS reviews regarding their status; there is one going on at the moment. The Bill is, in a sense, jumping over this review by suggesting that they are public bodies. The next thing that will happen is that a review of this sort will be effected by the Bill, and we will have universities in the public sector. That will be hugely damaging to their autonomy, which has been central to British universities since the war and, indeed, before. This would lead to all sort of practical disadvantages, such as the loss of autonomy, including in respect of borrowing and investment, which would become a matter for the Treasury. At one time, the Treasury ran the UGC, and that was not a terribly sensible approach. The Department for Education would be the body that decides what universities could do in this area. That would make it very difficult for them to access commercial borrowing. Is that what we want? Surely not.

As the noble Lord, Lord Johnson, said, it is extremely heavy-handed, overkill and, in any case, unnecessary. Can the Minister tell the Committee where the pressure has come from to introduce universities into the Bill? Is this from the imagination of Michael Gove, who invented the Bill? I cannot see it coming from anywhere else. Have the Government had any sensible consultation with UUK and other representatives of the higher education sector about whether universities should be in the Bill?

Photo of Baroness Falkner of Margravine Baroness Falkner of Margravine Crossbench

My Lords, I have not spoken previously on the Bill and apologise to the Committee that I could not be here at Second Reading, but I have listened to the debates through the last several weeks. I will make just three points.

First, to pick up directly the point about foreign policy from the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, United Kingdom universities are privileged among European countries to host some of the finest international relations departments in the world. The only international relations departments that perhaps rank as superior to those of some of our universities—including my alma mater, the London School of Economics—are those at the American universities. To say to your international relations scholars that they will suddenly have thought control through legislation, and will be unable to teach with the rigour of academic freedom that has made these departments as good as they are, would be astonishing. It would be beyond an own goal. Leaving aside the pertinent points made by noble Lords across the Chamber on the duties of the Office for Students—including the powerful points by the noble Lord, Lord Johnson—the idea that foreign policy should be subject to some kind of legislative parameters is extraordinary and will stop us producing the calibre of diplomats that we have been lucky to have over many decades.

Secondly, the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, talked about to what extent universities are public bodies. This is extraordinary. For at least the last 10 years, I have asked several questions in this Chamber about one or two aspects of the autonomy of universities, generally about student fees or the catastrophe that affected the universities superannuation pension scheme some years ago when the wrong calculations were made, which really disadvantaged junior academics. Every time, I was told from the Dispatch Box: “Universities are autonomous; we can’t possibly look into what’s happening to interest rates on student fees or the pension fund”. Suddenly, we now discover that they are more and more in the public sector, as the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, said.

I should have declared an interest—everybody knows it—as chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, but I am speaking in a personal capacity. The public sector equality duty of course applies to universities, but the Equality and Human Rights Commission is also a human rights commission and has to look to Article 10 rights. It has worked closely with the Office for Students on some of these areas since it was established. I wonder what consideration the Government have given in what they have been saying, as the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, powerfully said, about on the one hand wanting absolute freedom of expression while on the other, within months, seeking to curtail it. It will be very interesting to hear what the Minister has to say.

Before concluding, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Mann, on making such a powerful speech. He is absolutely right. The reports I get, when speaking to Jewish organisations about anti-Semitic incidents, are that individual students are now finding themselves friendless, when university life is meant to be the exact opposite of that. I share his despair in that regard.

Photo of Lord Davies of Brixton Lord Davies of Brixton Llafur

My Lords, I just want to ask the Minister a question relating to academic freedom. Paragraph 20 of the Explanatory Notes gives a quite qualified exposition of how academic freedom will not be affected by this scheme. It refers only to ending existing contracts and to a break because of the provisions under a particular statutory provision. It is a very narrow qualifying expression; we all hope that this Bill, were it to be passed, would not affect academic freedom.

Apart from that assurance, we have to rely on the suggestion implied, but not specifically set out anywhere, that investment and procurement decisions will not impinge on academic freedom. Can the Minister assure us that when decisions are made about an academic project, it will not impinge on the area that could be characterised as an investment or procurement decision, particularly when we come to the enforcement, where judicial review is out of any direct control and there are vexatious attempts to try to challenge a decision made on good academic grounds on the grounds of investment or procurement decisions?

Photo of Baroness Noakes Baroness Noakes Ceidwadwyr 9:30, 7 Mai 2024

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Willetts and others have queried whether there is any evidence of a problem. It may be true that there is not much evidence of actual BDS activities by universities to date, but it is certainly true that there is a problem of anti-Semitism on campuses. It may also be true, as the noble Lord, Lord Mann, said, that it is less acute than in the United States—most things are less acute here than in the United States—but I do not think that means we should ignore it. It is clear that the accelerating protests on campuses are having a deleterious effect on Jewish students on campuses. Indeed, the Union of Jewish Students said only last week:

“Jewish students are angry, they are tired, and they are hurt by the continuous torrent of antisemitic hatred on campus since October 7th”.

I am not sure that gives the Union of Jewish Students a veto on whether the Bill should go through, but it indicates that there is still a very real problem.

The current round of student protests—the encampments and related demands—do seem, as I have seen reported, to include BDS demands on the universities. As far as I am aware, none of the universities has yet succumbed and changed its policies on BDS, but at least one has given in to some other demands, such as renaming buildings and changing some other organisational arrangements, and we cannot be sure what universities will do in the longer run. The Bill would close the option of them ever implementing BDS policies and would therefore be one small step to closing that route off and helping to create an environment for Jewish students, who would be even more oppressed if the universities publicly announced BDS policies against them. I do not think it is a very big item, but I do not agree with the noble Lord, Lord Mann, that the Bill does nothing. I think it does something towards closing off an avenue that universities might be tempted to go down in order to see off the undoubted nuisance of all these student protests.

I would just like to briefly say something about the ONS as well. The ONS reviews all sets of bodies that are on the borderline between the public and private sectors at regular intervals, and it does it in a careful way in accordance with international definitions. These are all careful considerations. It is clear that universities are in a grey area: they are public authorities for the Human Rights Act, are included in the Freedom of Information Act and were included in the Procurement Act that we considered last year. They are already subject to a lot of the public sector laws, and nothing is going to change that. I agree with my noble friend Lord Willetts that this Bill will not be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, but it is always legitimate to ask on which side of the line these bodies that exist half in and half out fall.

Just being classified by the ONS does not of itself lead to other consequences. There may well be further considerations down the line, but we certainly cannot stop the ONS doing the job that it is set up to do, which is to consider classifications in accordance with international guidelines,

Photo of Lord Leigh of Hurley Lord Leigh of Hurley Chair, Finance Bill Sub-Committee, Chair, Finance Bill Sub-Committee

My Lords, it seems to me to be fundamental to this Bill that universities and other relevant bodies are included. We are not talking about individual academics having their right to free speech being affected at all. We are talking about institutional behaviour. Yes, as the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, has pointed out, what happens in universities really matters. I also went on a trade trip to China with the vice-chancellors. I remember, because they were the ones sitting in business class. They are a very important part of the fabric of our society—

Photo of Lord Willetts Lord Willetts Ceidwadwyr

You were in first class—

Photo of Lord Leigh of Hurley Lord Leigh of Hurley Chair, Finance Bill Sub-Committee, Chair, Finance Bill Sub-Committee

Possibly first class. No one can forget that academia is not immune to bigotry. Let us recall that Heidelberg University in Germany was no less prestigious than any UK university in its day. In the 1920s, it was the centre of liberal thinking. A decade later, a mob of Heidelberg students burned Jewish and other so-called “corrupt” books in the Universitätsplatz. Jewish students and Jewish academics were banned, its faculty developed pseudo-academic fields such as race theory, eugenics and forced euthanasia. Heidelberg was led by administrators who lacked moral leadership—and we all know how this ended.

It cannot be right that students at universities around the world feel unprotected and threatened. Most ironically, only a few years ago, children of Jewish friends of mine were telling their parents they did not feel comfortable going to a UK university, so they applied to go to one in the United States. The appalling lack of leadership in some US universities has quite rightly led to the removal of their leadership in some famous cases. We are all watching Columbia University, apparently led by the noble Baroness, Lady Shafik, most carefully to see whether it can exhibit proper leadership against the vile intimidation and abuse.

In the UK, we have seen many universities fail to take proper action. I will cite some alarming incidents indicative of this unsafe environment. For example, in Leeds there was the attack on a Jewish chaplain, a rabbi, the sit-in at the Parkinson building, the daubing of the Jewish student centre and the encampment outside of the student union. Apart from the absurdity of the protesters protesting against an occupation by occupying university buildings, the demonstrations themselves are misplaced—and, as at other universities, such as King’s College, Cambridge, are causing huge distress to Jewish students, as has been noted.

Despite very sterling work by the noble Lord, Lord Mann, it is endemic. In Birmingham, students called for “Zionists off our campus”. We know what they mean, “No Jews here”—as they did in Heidelberg. A while ago, in December 2021, City University students, among others, demanded a BDS ban. It was stopped only because the Charity Commission ruled that this was in breach of its charitable status. Interestingly, the leader of the call for BDS there, Shaima Dallali, was subsequently elected president of the National Union of Students before she was suspended for anti-Semitism. The connection between the call for BDS and anti-Semitism is staring us in the face

Photo of Lord Davies of Brixton Lord Davies of Brixton Llafur

Today, it has been reported that she has been compensated for unfair dismissal—so I do not think the point quite works as the noble Lord intends.

Photo of Lord Leigh of Hurley Lord Leigh of Hurley Chair, Finance Bill Sub-Committee, Chair, Finance Bill Sub-Committee

I thank the noble Lord for telling us that. I had not heard that and I will check it out. None the less, she was dismissed for anti-Semitic behaviour, so it is suggested. We know what lies behind much of BDS. With respect to the noble Lord, Lord Mann, and my noble friend Lord Johnson, the BDS movement, as he said, has taken credit and claimed it scored a victory in respect of divestments by Manchester and procurement by King’s College Cambridge and Southampton. It is true that the UJS’s previous president raised objections to the Bill, but that was before 7 October and before the heat turned up so dramatically. It certainly voted unanimously against BDS.

Most recently, we have seen student demands that Goldsmiths College rename a hall after a Palestinian, give scholarships to Palestinian students and participate in BDS. It looks like the college has agreed to all these demands without carefully considering the impact this might have—again showing absolute failure of leadership. Where does this lead? I am told today by people at Goldsmiths that there is now a movement to prohibit students entering the library unless they sign up to supporting BDS.

In my opinion, this Bill will help those in leadership positions in the above examples and at other universities. It will help them stand up to these outrageous demands by making it clear that intimidation is no longer allowed, and they have no choice but to refuse to enact BDS because the law now demands this. Universities cannot hide from their responsibilities. They should of course be focusing on their core public duty of providing quality higher education and undertaking excellent research while protecting those on campus who are currently threatened by the proponents of BDS with intimidatory anti-Semitic behaviour.

Photo of Lord Shipley Lord Shipley Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol

My Lords, the Minister will have listened very carefully and I hope concluded that she has heard several notable contributions on this group, to which the only conclusion, in my view, is that this amendment should be accepted by the Government. I listened very carefully to the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, and the noble Lord, Lord Leigh of Hurley. In the case of the noble Baroness, I think her argument was that the problem of anti-Semitism on campus is too high, and one would agree. The problem I have with her conclusion is that this Bill would actually make it worse. It would make community cohesion more difficult. It would be worse.

The noble Lord, Lord Leigh of Hurley, talked about institutional behaviour and said that the institutional behaviour in universities would be improved by this Bill. He gave a number of examples, and one has to take those seriously and look at them. I will just say that it is a very dangerous policy to generalise from the particular and to say that across all our universities and higher education institutions, that pattern of behaviour is being followed, because I do not actually believe it is true.

I take very seriously what the noble Lord, Lord Mann, said. I think he made an extremely important contribution. He basically said that the Bill does nothing in the context of universities. There has been no successful BDS campaign, he said. The Union of Jewish Students does not want the Bill, I recall him saying.

I have to say that I prefer the evidence of the noble Lord, Lord Mann, in this situation because this is so important to get right, and this Bill is going to make things worse. As the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, said, it is not relevant in practice to decision-making. There is not actually a problem in universities, and the problem has never been properly defined by those who believe there is one.

There are still three fundamental reasons why this amendment should be accepted by the Government. Universities should maintain their autonomy from state interference and from government. A university is not a public body, and this Bill conflicts with the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act. For all the reasons that we have heard in all the contributions that we have had, the fact remains that this Bill has not been thought through properly. A very important question was asked, I think by the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, about where the idea came from in the first place for universities to be added into the Bill. I have not understood why they should be because they are not public bodies.

This has been a helpful debate. I am clear. This Committee has been doing the job it is here to do, which is to examine the evidence, but the evidence is overwhelmingly that the Government should accept this amendment.

Photo of Baroness Chapman of Darlington Baroness Chapman of Darlington Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office, Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury) 9:45, 7 Mai 2024

My Lords, this has been a helpful discussion. I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, for tabling his amendment, and I was very glad to be able to add my name on behalf of these Benches. There seem to be two parts to this case. One is that this simply will not work. The other is that universities are not public bodies and that this in some way is another penny on the scale towards making them public bodies, which is something I think that any us who are in any way involved in universities would seek to resist at every opportunity. I should declare my interest as chancellor of the University of Teesside.

When you have two Tory former Universities Ministers and the Government’s anti-Semitism adviser saying in the strongest terms that they fundamentally disagree with this legislation’s approach to this issue and support the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, it is a wise Minister who reflects on that and perhaps takes it away and considers it a little bit further.

I can see why, when the Government conceived this Bill, they included universities because, as the noble Lord, Lord Leigh, quite rightly reminded us, there is a problem on some campuses for Jewish students and Jewish members of staff, and the atmosphere has deteriorated since October 7, in particular. There should be nobody in this Committee or anywhere else who dismisses that and thinks that there is no problem that we ought to set our minds to try to resolve because it is not right that in the name of free speech or anything else we allow that to continue. That must be tackled. My point to the noble Lord, Lord Leigh, is that the calls that he mentioned, such as about the naming of lecture theatres and the awarding of scholarships to Palestinian students, are made by those doing the protests, the sit-ins and all the other activities that he talked about. He mentioned Goldsmiths specifically. I have a copy of the agreement that was reached between the senior management team at Goldsmiths and the students’ organisation that I think is called Goldsmiths for Palestine. It is seven items long. Many things have been discussed, but only one section looks in any way at investment, divestment or boycotts. The rest are things that would never be within the scope of the Bill.

I am afraid that when the noble Lord, Lord Mann, says that the Bill will not do anything about these protests, he is probably right. I have not spent a lot of my life sitting on protests or going on marches, but I have done a bit, and the fact that what you are asking for, or demanding, is unlikely to happen—or is perhaps even legally impossible—at the point at which you are making the demand does nothing to stop you making it. That is the way protest works—we can like it or not; it is just a fact of life.

Many of the demands being made are nothing to do with BDS any more. BDS has been around for a very long time, as we all know, but taking away universities’ ability to succumb to these campaigns—not that any of them have—will do nothing to improve safety on campuses; it could make things worse. The noble Lord, Lord Leigh, is shaking his head. I hope that he will recognise that I am being genuine about this; I want to see this resolved as much as he does. However, I do not think that telling protesters that we are preventing universities taking the decision they wish them to take will mean that they stop making their demands, or that the temperature goes down. Protesters feel that they are right and are acting in the interests of humanity. We can agree or disagree on how they do that and the language and methods they use. We can have a discussion about that, and perhaps we should, but the Bill will not improve the situation. As the noble Lord, Lord Mann, and others have said, there is a risk that it could make it worse. I do not want us to take another step down a path that could end up making this worse when there is still an opportunity to work together and find an alternative means of making improvements that we all wish to see.

I do not think that the theory that the Government have put forward—that if you remove a university’s ability to adopt BDS, the protests somehow diminish, and that life becomes more tolerable and safer—is realistic. That is my main reason for wanting universities to be removed from the Bill.

I also support the arguments made by the noble Lords, Lord Willetts and Lord Johnson, about the independence of universities; they are very important. Our universities are feeling somewhat beleaguered and got at by this Government. There does not seem to be a lot of understanding or support, and they would argue that many of the challenges they are now facing have been made worse by the actions of this Government and the attitude that they seem to take towards universities—wanting to plant them front and centre of a culture war. Our universities are wonderful institutions. They bring huge investment into our country. I am sure that we are all immensely proud of them. They employ a great number of people. They bring jobs and prosperity to parts of the country that desperately need them. They are inspiring and educating the next generation of engineers, pharmacists and doctors, and we thank them for all that they do.

I say to the Minister that to go further down this path, without pause, would be a mistake. A far better approach to tackling this problem, which we all accept needs to be addressed, is to work alongside universities —my party would be part of this if that would be helpful—to work out the most effective way of dealing with this. The Bill will not work, and there is a risk that it could make the situation worse for Jewish students.

Photo of Lord Leigh of Hurley Lord Leigh of Hurley Chair, Finance Bill Sub-Committee, Chair, Finance Bill Sub-Committee

I heard what the noble Baroness said very clearly, but does she agree that Goldsmiths has now agreed to take on a policy of BDS, and that if the Bill had passed, it would not have been able to succumb to intimidatory pressure so to do?

Photo of Baroness Chapman of Darlington Baroness Chapman of Darlington Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office, Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

I have the agreement that Goldsmiths made in front of me, and the noble Lord, Lord Leigh, is right. One of the six issues concerns BDS, but I suggest that he read the wording very carefully. It says that the senior management team will raise concerns with the college’s ethical investment fund manager; it is not saying that it will enact any divestment at this stage. I read the agreement very carefully, not least because I thought that it may have made a decision that undermined my case this evening. I would be very happy to meet with the noble Lord and discuss this further, because it leaves the door open, perhaps, to Goldsmiths taking the decisions that he fears it might. It does not look as if it has done so far, but even if it does not and were prevented from even discussing that, there would still be the other six elements that were driving the campaigns, the sit-ins and the activities on campus which were so problematic.

Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords for their contributions and am very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman, who has sat patiently throughout today for her contribution.

I do not think that sufficient weight has been given to the pressure on universities to engage in boycotts and divestment campaigns at this time. I am disturbed, as I am sure we all are, by the violence we have seen in the US over the past week, and the threat that that poses for the safety of students and their ability even to complete their exams. We cannot risk this in the UK and the associated intimidation of Jewish students. Sadly, we have begun to see a fresh wave of student demonstrations at our UK universities, including protest camps set up in Oxford and Cambridge, a deterioration that the noble Baroness acknowledged. These protesters have, I understand, been demanding that their universities cut financial ties with Israeli companies.

My noble friends Lord Willetts and Lord Johnson asked about examples of BDS activity in universities, and I have answered questions on this, as has been said. But another example was highlighted this evening by my noble friend Lord Leigh of Hurley, that of Goldsmith University, which has agreed to demands made by one of its student-led groups, Goldsmiths for Palestine, to review its ethical investment policy. I am glad that further discussions might take place, and I would be interested to see the document.

As my noble friend Lady Noakes said, there is a problem of anti-Semitism in universities, and we need to take this small step to head off BDS, which is a manifesto commitment, to answer the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone. We are clear that universities should be in scope of the Bill, despite the oratory and expertise of my noble friend Lord Willetts. We have worked together on good government for many decades, and his contribution is welcome.

No noble Lord wants to inhibit the freedom of students and individual academics to express their views on the conflict in the Middle East, or, indeed, on any other difficult conflict, in a civil manner. Universities have always been the natural home for open debate, and that will continue. There is no thought control—we are talking about public authorities’ investment and procurement decisions when focused on a particular country or territory. The noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, would not herself be affected and university pensions are not in fact within scope.

However, it is the case that universities are part of public life. They have a responsibility to deliver education for their students, and in this context the Bill strikes a reasonable balance. It bans universities from carrying out their own boycott and sanction campaigns when they are exercising their public functions of investment and procurement. It does not deal with the private acts of individual academics, nor does it interfere with the private commercial activity of university bodies. However, it is a sad fact that in 2023, the Community Security Trust recorded 182 anti-Semitic incidents in the context of the higher education sector, an increase of 203%.

I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Mann, particularly for his fervent advocacy regarding anti-Semitism. The Education Secretary is hosting a round table at No. 10 on 9 May with a number of vice-chancellors to discuss how we can prevent and crack down on anti-Semitism on campus.

Where student unions and pressure groups demand that universities engage in BDS campaigns, this Bill will help universities remain focused on their core public duties, rather than becoming agents for a pressure group. Indeed, the Bill will discourage these campaigners’ demands in the first place by removing the chance of success.

I hope this provides some context on why the Bill should apply to universities. It is supported by representatives of the Jewish community in the UK, including the Jewish Leadership Council.

A number of reasonable points have been raised across the Committee; I will briefly respond to a few. The Bill does not affect the ability of individual academics to express their views in their private capacity. It will not restrict a member of staff with no role in the university’s decision-making process from stating—on their personal social media, or even in a lecture—their personal view that the university should be boycotting or divesting from this country or that country.

We have made it clear in the Explanatory Notes that higher education institutions will not face a conflict with their existing statutory duties on academic freedom. The Bill is not intended to prevent a higher education provider in England from deciding to terminate a collaboration with a foreign university on the grounds of academic freedom. The Bill is about ensuring that universities and higher education institutions do not have a particular matter of foreign policy in their investment or procurement decisions. I cannot emphasise enough that the Government are fiercely committed to protecting freedom of expression on campuses and we do not intend to broaden the ban beyond this.

My noble friend Lord Willetts asked whether the Bill will prohibit universities from making a statement saying that they will act in accordance with the FCDO’s business risk guidance on the Occupied Palestinian Territories. The Bill will not prohibit such a statement. The Bill does not prohibit public authorities from considering the risks of doing business with companies in any country or territory. The Bill also does not interfere with the private commercial activities of universities. These could include providing conference facilities, maintaining office spaces, and making decisions related to commercially funded research.

Let me also address the concern about statistical classification, which was raised by my noble friend Lord Johnson. I can assure the House that my officials have consulted on this point with HM Treasury, which liaises with the ONS on classification matters. We are content that the Bill restricts the investment and procurement decisions of universities only in a limited way. HMT’s assessment is that the fact that the Bill may be applicable to a body would not automatically affect its classification by the ONS.

My noble friend also asked how the Bill would operate alongside the freedom of speech Act, something that was also mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Shipley. As I have said, the BDS Bill is not about restricting freedom of speech. It ensures that public authorities function as a shared space for all and focus on their core purpose rather than taking partisan stances that undermine community cohesion. I reassure the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, that my officials did discuss the Bill with Universities UK prior to its introduction.

In response to the question from the noble Lord, Lord Verdirame, on academic collaborations, the Bill will apply only to investment and procurement decisions made by public authorities. Academic collaborations will be caught by the ban only if they involve investment and procurement decisions made in that way.

I am sorry to have taken time to answer the questions raised. I put it to my noble friend Lord Willetts, and the Committee, that universities should be open spaces for academics and students to debate alternative points of view. I think we are all agreed on that. It is inappropriate and divisive for universities to take a side on foreign policy matters in their corporate capacity; this Bill takes a measured approach to preventing them from doing just that. I hope he will agree to withdraw his amendment.

Photo of Lord Willetts Lord Willetts Ceidwadwyr 10:00, 7 Mai 2024

I am grateful to the Minister for engaging with the points that have been made. I will certainly want to look at some of her observations carefully; the business investment guidelines, for example, are potentially a very important concession and piece of advice.

However, I think the mood on all sides of the Committee is one of deep scepticism about whether these provisions really will help and have any significant effect when it comes to higher education. We have heard powerful interventions from my noble friend Lord Johnson, and a particularly powerful point from the noble Lord, Lord Mann, with his long history of engagement and challenges in fighting anti-Semitism.

Perhaps I may briefly pick up on two points. The question from the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, picked up by the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, on where this comes from goes to the heart of this legislation. This is American legislation. This is an American culture war brought to the UK. Universities are involved in this because in the US they have massive endowments. The politics of BDS is about D, above all: investment. What has happened is that the provisions go from the highly charged American debate about the investment of over $800 billion, the size of American endowments—that is why the American neocons go for BDS provisions in universities—and have been incorporated into this Bill, which now comes over here and those provisions are replicated.

This cuts both ways. It is not a straightforward point. The reality is that British university endowments in total are probably 1% of American endowments. So all the charged politics and the significant financial decisions, as one tries to argue politically about investing $800 billion, is not quite so charged if it is perhaps $8 billion in total. However, it is also the case that one can predict, and you can see it happening, that some universities have endowments and this matter will be increasingly raised in those tent cities on some of our campuses. “Will you promise that you won’t invest in companies doing business with Israel?” I can see that happening as a cause.

This is where the inclusion of the Occupied Territories gets very complicated. I may say so, it was a strategic blunder in the formulation of this legislation because, by including the Occupied Territories, where there is explicit government guidance already, “Be very careful about investing in them”, that totally muddles up the issue. So I suspect that the way all this will go is that the government concession will be on removing the Occupied Territories from the provisions. It would be great if the Government would also consider more widely what they are doing on universities. This is an area where, again, the British debate is so different from the American debate.

On the ONS issue, the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, made a fair point. This is absolutely not automatic, but we are aware of what happened with further education colleges. That is why this is such a highly charged issue for higher education; it is because FE colleges have already been through this twice. The issue is control. At what point do things look controlling? Normally the ONS gives the Government time to correct and reverse the measures that might pull a body into the public sector. If this were to happen with universities, one very much hopes that the Government would try to pull them out and then they would probably bring before the House a long list of control measures that were being rescinded in order to get those bodies healthily out of the public sector. I have a modest bet that this would be one of the many pieces of legislation on the chopping block in order to reverse the danger.

In the light of the Minister’s comments, I certainly beg leave to withdraw the amendment now, but we may find ourselves returning to it at a later stage.

Amendment 21 withdrawn.

Amendments 22 to 26 not moved.

House resumed.

House adjourned at 10.09 pm.