MPs and universities opposed to anti-terror bill conditions

The Labour Opposition has called on the government to do much more to allay universities’ concerns about the anti-terror bill currently being rushed through Parliament. The bill would require universities to take action to prevent students and staff from being drawn into terrorist activity.

Universities fear that they are being forced into a policing role and that the measures designed to ensure that extremists are banned from speaking on campuses will impinge on academic freedom.

They received strong support last Monday when the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights recommended that universities be removed from the list of authorities required by the bill to have due regard to preventing people from being drawn into terrorism.

The bill would give the Home Secretary ultimate authority to take legal action to enforce a ban on speakers on campus if universities failed to carry out their duty under the law.

The Joint Committee on Human Rights argued that the proposed measures could “seriously inhibit academic freedom and freedom of association”.

Speaking during the second reading of the bill in the House of Lords last Tuesday, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State Lord Bates, for the government, said the detail of what this duty would mean in practice for schools, universities, police forces and prisons that will be subject to it would be set out in statutory guidance.

The draft of the guidance has been sent out for consultation, which is expected to be completed this month.

For the Opposition, Baronness Smith of Basildon, said the government would have to provide far greater clarity if it was to allay the concerns of universities.

She said Labour wanted to ensure that the guidance was “feasible and effective” and was debated in both the House of Commons and the House of Lords.

“There is already considerable good practice in universities on how they manage to provide for free speech, while seeking to prevent abuse of that right. The input from universities to ensure that balance will be central to making this work.”

The current draft of the guidance says: “Universities must take seriously their responsibility to exclude those promoting extremist views that support, or are conducive to, terrorism.”

Measures they are expected to take include giving at least two weeks’ notice of the booking of public speakers and events to allow for checks to be made; advance notice of the content of the event, and sight of any presentations or footage to be broadcast; establishing a system for assessing the risks of any event and any required mitigating action such as guaranteeing an opposing viewpoint or having someone in the audience monitor the event; and establishing a mechanism for managing incidents or instances where off-campus events of concern are promoted on campus.

Universities should also consider filtering of online content to prevent people being drawn into terrorism, the draft guidance says, and would be expected to have “clear policies and procedures for students and staff working on sensitive or extremism-related research”.

They would also need to have clear policies specifying what is expected from student unions and societies, including the need to challenge extremist ideas which are used to legitimise terrorism.

The government is considering expanding the powers of the Higher Education Funding Council for England to allow it to become the body that monitors compliance with this duty in the higher education sector.

Last Monday, the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights argued forcefully against the duty on universities proposed in the bill.

Lack of legal certainty over the definitions of terms such as “extremism” referred to in the draft guidance on the use of this power means that universities will not know with sufficient certainty whether they risk being found to be in breach of the new duty and therefore subject to direction by the Secretary of State and ultimately a mandatory court order backed by criminal sanctions for contempt of court, the committee said.

The MPs said this legal uncertainty would have a “seriously inhibiting effect on bona fide academic debate in universities, and on freedom of association”.

The committee therefore recommended that that the bill be changed to remove universities from the list of specified authorities to which the new duty applies.

Alternatively, the bill should be amended to add the exercise of an academic function to the list of functions that are exempted from the application of the duty, the committee said.

In a Parliamentary briefing published last month, Universities UK, the umbrella body for UK universities, said it was concerned about the lack of oversight and scrutiny of the powers given to the Home Secretary by the bill and is seeking clarification about how the duty will be monitored and enforced in practice.

It said the guidance on universities’ performance of their statutory duty could be revised in future with no parliamentary scrutiny or consultation with the sector.

“Universities UK is also seeking reassurances that any substantive revision of the guidance would be subject to consultation with the sector and its representative bodies.”

Universities UK raised particular concern about the power given to the Home Secretary to direct a university in its performance of the duty to prevent students or staff being drawn into terrorism if she was satisfied that it had failed to discharge this duty – and that any such direction was potentially enforceable by court order.

“Any use of this power would constitute a significant incursion into the running of an independent and autonomously governed institution,” Universities UK said.

“Universities UK would like to see a formal mechanism for any use of this power to be reported to Parliament to allow for full consideration of the circumstances surrounding the use of the power.”

Nicola Dandridge, Chief Executive of Universities UK, told University World News that universities took the issue of violent extremism very seriously.

“Universities already do a significant amount of work in this area and Universities UK’s priority will be to ensure that there is an appropriate and proportionate balance between securing freedom of expression and academic freedom and preventing terrorism,” Dandridge said.