Concern over proposed counter-terrorism bill

Hannah McNeil
Deputy Editor

Glasgow University has expressed serious concern over new measures the UK government is introducing to prevent people from developing “extremist” beliefs at university. The University, among other groups, fear that this bill will curtail the right to freedom of speech.

The government has introduced a counter-terrorism and security bill which has now, after being passed by the House of Commons, gone to the House of Lords. The bill states that certain public institutions, including universities, will have a statutory duty to “prevent people being drawn into terrorism.” Under this bill, academic staff may be expected to monitor their students for radical points of view and the government will be able to ban certain “extremist” speakers from university campuses.

A spokesperson for Glasgow University was worried about how the bill would affect students. He said: “The University of Glasgow strongly supports the rights of staff and students to freely hold and express views, so long as this is done within the law. We would be concerned at any move which might restrict this freedom and as such we are working closely with the Scottish government on how the guidelines will be developed to implement any legislation in this area.”

The bill gives the home secretary powers to issue guidance to specified authorities, including universities, about how they must exercise this statutory duty. Draft guidance for consultation has been published by the Scottish government.

The draft guidance states that universities will be expected to provide training so that staff can recognise students with radical beliefs: “Institutions should give relevant staff sufficient training to be able to recognise vulnerability to being drawn into terrorism, and be aware of what action to take.” Universities have also been told that they need to provide “robust procedures both internally and externally for sharing information about vulnerable individuals (where appropriate to do so).”

Five hundred professors from universities across the country, including the University of Glasgow, have signed a letter to the Guardian expressing concern about this legislation. They said: “the best response to acts of terror against UK civilians is to maintain and defend an open, democratic society in which discriminatory behaviour of any kind is effectively challenged. Ensuring colleges and universities can continue to debate difficult and unpopular issues is a vital part of this. Draconian crackdowns on the rights of academics and students will not achieve the ends the government says it seeks.”

The bill also limits speakers attending the University. Preliminary guidance for the United Kingdom states: “In order to comply with the statutory duty all universities should have policies and procedures in place for the management of events on campus and use of all university premises.” The guidelines state that these procedures should include: the provision of at least fourteen days notice of speakers attending University events; advance notice of the content of speeches given at events held on University premises; the development of a mechanism to manage “off-campus events of concern” promoted on campus.

The Glasgow Guardian has accessed a copy of the policy briefing created by Universities UK, of which Glasgow University is a member. This document highlights the major areas of concern in the bill and in the draft guidance that was published for consultation. In response to the guidance on speakers and events it said: “The expectations as worded are disproportionate and unworkable – it is not reasonable to expect all speeches and presentations to be reviewed in advance. Such steps should only apply to events and speakers identified as being high risk.

“The responsibility to manage incidents or instances relating to ‘off-campus events promoted on campus’ is also problematic. How will an ‘off-campus event’ be defined? How can universities reasonably be expected to know about these? How do you define on-campus promotion – via Facebook, leaflets, posters or students’ social media accounts? This is also potentially extremely intrusive and difficult to police.”

Breffni O’Connor, President of Glasgow University Students’ Representative Council (SRC) also expressed concern about these expectations. She stated: “The consultation itself looks like it was rushed, with a short time frame to comment, and wasn’t available to the public for comment, which doesn’t make the process very transparent. The consultation came across my desk by pure chance two days before it closed, and I was lucky enough to comment on the demographic of people I represent, students, but not all affected parties had the same opportunity.”

O’Connor added: “I firmly believe that students should feel comfortable in their place of study to express their opinions and religions, and that protection of human rights should be at the forefront of our minds in these conversations.

“Putting lecturers and in some cases, the SRC, in charge of reporting students who have the potential of being radicalised is first off a huge burden of responsibility, but more importantly forcing a barrier between these two groups, it will create an environment of distrust and discourage effective communication between staff and students.

“Why should students of targeted religions sit in class with this fear? It doesn’t go well for creating an effective learning environment.”

The National Union of Students (NUS), of which Glasgow University is not a member, have expressed trepidations over whether students from particular backgrounds will be adversely affected by this bill: “Rather than winning the support of minority communities, this bill could serve to isolate many students who already feel that the only avenue through which the government will engage them is ‘anti-radicalisation’ initiatives, resulting in further alienation and disaffection. The intemperate language often used by politicians when discussing issues around faith, belief and ‘extremism’ is hugely unhelpful and has in the past reinforced stereotypes that have had a strongly negative impact on some of our most vulnerable communities and members.”

The Glasgow Guardian asked the first minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, for a response to the concerns that minority groups will be targeted and alienated by this legislation. She admitted “we’ve all got concerns about some of this”, however also stressed that the Scottish government should have control of the guidance for Scotland “so we can make sure it is fit for purpose and takes account of the particular circumstances in Scottish institutions.”