Universities minister says Charity Commission is 'in his sights' on free speech

Sam Gyimah writes in The Sunday Times that the Office for Students will ensure free speech on campus and the commission should not discourage student unions from hosting controversial speakers

Sam Gyimah
Sam Gyimah

Sam Gyimah, the new universities minister, says he has "the Charity Commission in his sights" amid concerns that the regulator is stifling free debate on campuses.

Writing in The Sunday Times yesterday, Gyimah said a new regulator, the Office for Students, would ensure universities would adhere to their duty to protect free speech when it came into force on 1 April.

The office, he said, had the power to "name and shame, fine and suspend a university not upholding its duty".

Gyimah, who was appointed to his current role last month, added: "I also have sights set on the Charity Commission, which oversees student unions.

"It needs to ensure that its rules are clear and don’t discourage student unions from hosting controversial speakers, and it should protect free speech on all sides, from Nigel Farage to Jon Lansman of Momentum.

"Part of the action I will be taking will be to bring together all the relevant bodies to prioritise simplifying the rules and regulations around speakers and events to stop overzealous bureaucrats or wreckers on campus from exploiting gaps for their own ends.

"It’s the far-reaching implications for civil society that drive me to ensure we take every step to ensure our universities remain bastions of free speech."

Gyimah's article came after comments made last week by the Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg, who told the Joint Committee on Human Rights inquiry into free speech at universities that the commission's rules on potentially controversial speakers at universities were "deeply objectionable" and "suspicious".

A commission spokeswoman said many student unions were charities and therefore bound by charity law.

The spokeswoman said charities were able to raise controversial issues and challenge boundaries, adding: "This is legitimate, provided that their trustees are able to demonstrate that doing so furthers their charitable purposes and that they have managed associated risks in accordance with their duties.

"Trustees must act within the relevant legal parameters – that is, to ensure their charity’s activities are not illegal or in breach of equality or human rights law. Beyond this, trustees have broad discretion as to how they fulfil their duties."

The spokeswoman said the commission would submit "further evidence" to the inquiry on freedom of speech at universities.

A spokeswoman for the National Union of Students said that, far from stifling debate, the commission actually encouraged it by giving student unions clear guidance.

She said there had always been debates about free speech on campus and Gyimah should be focusing on university funding instead.

"This is an easy target because they know the press enjoy a free-speech, no-platform story," she added.

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