Theresa May has been forced into a U-turn on key counter-extremism proposals designed to ban “hate preachers” from university campuses, the Observer understands.
The most contentious measures in an original draft of the rules published last year, including the demand that universities obtain advance notice of the content of presentations, have been cut out in the wake of a barrage of criticism from figures such as the former MI5 chief Baroness Manningham-Buller.
The U-turn comes as the architect of the government’s original Prevent counter-radicalisation strategy, which prioritised building contacts within minority communities, including among borderline extremist groups, said that ministers were failing to stop the spread of extremism.
Hazel Blears, the former Labour Home Office minister who signed off the Prevent programme, conceived after the London bombings 10 years ago, , which killed 52 people and injured more than 750, said: “What happened was that the Prevent programme was scaled back and the public appetite for doing this kind of work wanes as you get further away from an event.”
The Home Office wants to push through new rules on external speakers at universities before the end of July, when parliament goes into recess. Ministers hope to have the rules in place by September for the new academic year, it is believed.
The home secretary said earlier this year that she would be seeking a tougher stance from universities on the threat of student radicalisation in the wake of the revelation that Mohammed Emwazi – so-called Jihadi John – attended Westminster University. Last week, rules came into force under which the rest of the public sector, including schools, local authorities, the police, prisons and probation services, were given a legal duty to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism.
However, in a bid to gain the support of MPs, peers and vice-chancellors, the original plans for universities, published before the general election, including a demand that they should have 14 days’ notice of speakers on campus and be given advance notice of the content of events “including an outline of the topics to be discussed and sight of any presentations, footage to be broadcast”, have been written out of recent drafts of the guidance. The central tenet of the guidance will instead be on universities being able to show they have gone through due process in agreeing to controversial speakers talking on a campus and mitigated the risks to students, for example through chairing events responsibly and monitoring the marketing of them.
The Observer understands, however, that there is an ongoing debate within government over how ministers can respect both universities’ statutory duty to protect freedom of speech and the Home Office’s desire to clamp down on the radicalisation of young adults.
One point of debate is how universities are expected to prevent the dissemination of extreme views that could “lead to terrorism”, which has been mooted as a duty that will face the higher education sector. There is disagreement between the Home Office and vice-chancellors over the extent to which universities will be asked to “manage risks”.
One source said: “The latest efforts have not got the balance right. There is a danger that we end up with guidance that is overly cautious. What needs to be avoided is guidance where the presumption is that if there is any risk at all that someone should not be allowed to speak. But there will always be risk because we are dealing with people.”
Prof Michael Gunn, vice-chancellor of Staffordshire University, and chair of the million+ higher education thinktank, said he had been reassured by Home Office officials that they would seek a proportionate set of rules recognising the unique role of universities. He said: “We start from the principle that we have a duty to ensure freedom of speech – and that is a statutory duty – as well as the duty to prevent someone being drawn into terrorism.
“Similarly, a lot of universities would say that debating those who hold views that are extreme that is the best way to challenge them.”
A spokesman for Universities UK, the body which represents the higher education sector, said: “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.”
A Home Office spokesman said the timing of when parliament will debate and approve the further guidance was subject to parliamentary timescales. She said: “The issue of how universities and colleges balance the Prevent duty with the importance of academic freedom is an extremely important one.
“Further guidance for higher and further education institutions on managing external speakers will be published following parliamentary approval of the specific advice on this matter.
“The duty will commence for universities and colleges once the guidance has been published.”
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