All out for USS

Controversial government terror laws could be unworkable, warns legal expert

2 February 2015 | last updated: 10 December 2015

Controversial government plans to place a legal duty on universities to prevent students from being drawn into terrorism are in conflict with existing freedom of speech laws, a leading barrister said today.

Robert Moretto, who has advised government departments including the Home Office, Cabinet Office and Department of Justice, has raised concerns in legal guidance that the new Prevent Duty Guidance in the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill is unworkable as it clashes with the duty for academic freedom currently enshrined in the Education (No. 2) Act 1986.

UCU says the proposed legislation is both unnecessary and ill-conceived and is calling on the government to take appropriate steps to ensure that academic freedom remains uncompromised by any efforts to tackle extremism in the UK.

UCU is concerned that the current proposals will:

  • stifle debate and restrict academic freedom within UK universities and colleges
  • fundamentally undermine the trust-based relationship between staff and students
  • add a significant administrative burden to staff and their institutions, while at the same time creating a legal duty which is vague and unachievable, and prone to litigation
  • seriously damage the reputation of UK further and higher education around the world and make the UK a less attractive option for international staff and students 
  • provide the home secretary with wide-ranging new powers with no judicial oversight or scrutiny.

UCU general secretary, Sally Hunt, said: 'There is widespread disquiet across the academic community about the government's ill-conceived counter-terrorism bill and the threat it poses to free speech on campus. Now that a highly respected barrister has raised serious concerns about the legality of the government's plans it is surely time for the government to pause and think again.

'The best response to acts of terror is to retain our universities and colleges as open democratic spaces, rather than to close down debate and create mistrust between teacher and student, as the bill would do.'

Peers are due debate the bill in the House of Lords on Wednesday.