Government has made concessions to universities over new powers to let students and academics sue institutions for contravening free speech rightsCertain complaints of this nature will have to be pursued via university procedures and the higher education regulator under new amendments Concern mounting that changes will leave right to freedom of speech on campuses more vulnerable

New powers to protect freedom of speech at universities have been ‘watered down’, it was reported last night.

A law designed to prevent students and academics from cancelling contentious speakers was announced by former education secretary Sir Gavin Williamson last year.

The government has made concessions to universities over new powers it had formed to let students and academics sue institutions for contravening their free speech rights.

But now amendments to the Bill are said to have been tabled that mean those affected by no-platforming and other freedom of speech issues will have to go through with complaints via university procedures and the higher education regulator – only using legal routes as a last resort.

Government ‘waters down plans to protect free speech at universities meaning people who are no-platformed can only use courts as a last resort’

Tory MP Sir John Hayes (pictured), who scrutinised the Bill in the House of Commons, said: ‘I had already warned the Secretary of State and ministers about the risk of diluting the Bill and it would be profoundly disappointing if the government capitulated to the forces of darkness, particularly at a time when the assault on free speech has been highlighted by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in The Reith Lectures’

This would involve claimants having to prove that they had suffered a loss, causing concern that the right to freedom of speech on campuses will be more vulnerable than under the original plans.

Tory peers have argued that the law would be costly for universities.

However, other Conservatives are angry at what they believe is a regression in the support for free speech.

Jo Phoenix, an academic who quit the Open University in December last year following a campaign by trans activists, said the amendments were ‘horrendous’.

She said: ‘To now think that I would have to go through a lengthy complaints process, well let’s just say that this process is an excellent way that university managers can kick the problem in our universities into the long grass.’

Baroness Barran, parliamentary under secretary of state at the Department for Education, wrote to peers on Wednesday saying the amendments to statutory tort, which hands academics new powers to sue universities in the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, had been tabled after the government had closely listened to arguments in the Lords.

On Thursday, the government said it was still supporting free speech and dismissed suggestions that the Bill was being diluted as ‘nonsense’.

Government ‘waters down plans to protect free speech at universities meaning people who are no-platformed can only use courts as a last resort’

A law designed to prevent students and academics from cancelling contentious speakers was announced by former education secretary Sir Gavin Williamson (pictured) last year

The Bill has maintained powers to create a new director for freedom of speech and academic freedom role in the Office for Students.

The person who holds this position will run a free complaints scheme.

Tory MP Sir John Hayes, who scrutinised the Bill in the House of Commons, told The Daily Telegraph: ‘I had already warned the Secretary of State and ministers about the risk of diluting the Bill and it would be profoundly disappointing if the government capitulated to the forces of darkness, particularly at a time when the assault on free speech has been highlighted by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in The Reith Lectures.’

A government spokesman said: ‘All the core provisions of the Bill remain as they have always been, to strengthen protections for freedom of speech in higher education. It was always our intention that the tort would be used as a last resort.’

Lord Moylan, the Conservative peer, said the amendments would negatively affect ‘one of the only effective measures that the Bill contains for the protection of academics and for the protection of freedom of expression’.

The Bill has faced criticism in the House of Lords from peers such as Lord Willetts, the former Conservative universities minister.

Willetts said the creation of a new statutory tort which allows academics to sue universities ‘risks duplicating functions of the Office for Students and imposing unnecessary additional costs on universities’.

The Russell Group, which represents 24 leading UK universities, had called on the government to either get rid of the tort or change the legislation to make sure that complaints procedures with the Office for Students are ‘exhausted’ before civil claims are launched.

This would ensure the new laws add a ‘genuinely additional layer of protection for individuals with free speech concerns who have suffered a loss’, it argued.

At the moment students and academics can seek a judicial review if their rights are violated, but this route costs more money than most can afford.

The amendments have been tabled prior to the Bill returning to the House of Lords next week for its report stage.

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