Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill: Bishop of Coventry speaks in support of amendments

On 31st October 2022, the House of Lords debated the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill in the committee stage. The Bishop of Coventry spoke in the debate in support of various amendments, with reference to use of religious and spiritual spaces:

The Lord Bishop of Coventry: My Lords, I support Amendments 5 to 7 in particular. I shall follow on from the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Mann, because I had similar concerns about unintended consequences. I wonder whether your Lordships would mind me sharing some rambling thoughts that have come through my mind. I was not going to, but the reference by the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, to nothing before 1680—I think it was 1680—strengthened me.

In many countries in Europe, today is Reformation Day. I happened to be in Dresden yesterday, where you cannot help but see the statue of Martin Luther, which I was admiring. That is not irrelevant to these discussions. The history of academic freedom in Europe—freedom of expression and of religion—will have different views about the Reformation, but I cannot help celebrating the fact that, 500 years later, the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation said that they agreed over the doctrine of justification by faith, which was the great thing that divided the Churches at that time. As this fascinating debate has continued, I could not help thinking that, if there had not been a suppression of academic freedom at the time, there may not have been that great bust-up, which caused a lot of tearing to society and Church. I simply share that to reinforce that which we are all committed to—academic freedom and freedom of speech—and to recognise that institutions did not always get it right. Certainly, the Church has not.

I have quite a lot of sympathy for what the Bill is trying to achieve and welcome these amendments. The flexibility that they suggest would be very helpful. They work with the grain of the Bill in trying to encourage and enable robust and vigorous discussion and debate, and there are some sensible proposals.

My concern, perhaps slightly similar to that of the noble Lord, Lord Mann, was that an unintended consequence could be that spaces designated for pastoral, religious and spiritual needs might find themselves appropriated by bodies that would be offensive to those. I do not imagine that that was necessarily a concern of the noble Lords, Lord Willetts or Lord Stevens. I am really grateful to the Minister and his team for the discussions that I have had with him, particularly those assurances that I have been given that taking such steps as are “reasonably practicable” requires a careful consideration of how other legislation applies here, such as the public sector equality duty or the Prevent legislation. I would be very grateful for any further assurances that the Minister felt able to give.

I welcome that the amendments would provide the flexibility to help providers know that they were not cancelling a particular body because of its beliefs, even though they might be offensive to a particular body, but rather providing another space. I would also be very interested to hear any further assurances the Minister might be able to give on how guidance to the Office for Students on navigating some of these matters might be best given, and what other wisdom or what other bodies might help to advise on that.


Extracts from the speeches that followed:

Earl Howe (Con): In this context, it might be helpful to touch specifically on the point raised at Second Reading by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Coventry regarding concerns about the use of faith spaces. I was very happy to meet him some days ago to discuss this. The example given by the noble Lord, Lord Mann, of having an anti-Israel talk right next to Jewish premises, touches on a similar point. Sections A1(3) and (4) on the use of premises essentially replicate the wording of the Education (No. 2) Act 1986, referring to beliefs among other things in that context. As I said earlier, the provisions link back to the main reasonably practicable duty in subsection (1), so it is not an absolute requirement. I think that was an initial cause for concern on this point, so I am happy to clarify that. In fact, the “reasonably practicable” steps wording enables providers to continue to designate spaces for use by faith groups without any obligation for the provider to open those spaces up to other groups, whether or not they have conflicting ideologies.

Under the reasonably practicable steps duty, it would be legitimate for a provider not to offer a particular faith space to any group that wants to hold an event, but to offer another suitable space, thereby upholding the freedom of speech duties and preserving the integrity of the space set aside for the faith group. The legislation enables providers to respect the religious views of those with designated rooms, taking into account the duties under the Equality Act, while still complying with the freedom of speech duties.

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