The Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, has vetoed plans to ban extremist preachers from university campuses citing concerns that doing so would erode free speech. He put his foot down, blocking the Tory plans, after what has been described as the biggest row between the coalition partners to date.
The radicalisation of Mohammed Emwazi, better known as ‘Jihadi John’, during his attendence at Westminster University has catapulted the subject of free speech on university campuses to the top of the national security agenda. Emwazi is said to have attended a number of events at which radical Islamic speakers whipped up jihadi fervour, sparking his conversion to the cause, the Sunday Telegraph has reported.
But despite warnings from terrorism experts that radicals are targetting students on university campuses across the country, the Liberal Democrats have sought to block draft guidelines calling on universities to vet potential speakers, from becoming official advice.
All publicly funded organisations, including universities, schools, nurseries and NHS trusts will need to work to actively prevent young people from becoming radicalised, under a new legal duty called the Prevent Duty, due to be ratified by MP’s later this month.
The draft guidelines due to be issued to universities detailing how they could do this included instructions to introduce stringent background checks on all visiting speakers, and required students unions to give university authorities at least 14 days notice to enable them to do this.
But Business Secretary Vince Cable, whose department has oversight of universities, blocked the plans after being told by academics that the move would diminish freedom of speech on university campuses.
His veto provoked a spat with Home Secretary Theresa May, who fully backs the plans. She has told the Telegraph that everybody must play their part in preventing radicalisation, and that it cannot be left just to government to tackle.
Writing in the Sunday Times two weeks ago, May said “If colleges and universities did not realise before what we are up against they should now. We are not talking about regulating legitimate debate – we’re saying we need to do more to stop radicalisation on campus.”
Her colleague, Conservative Chairman Grant Shapps, told Sky News: “The Conservatives think there needs to be proper, decent, tough rules that don’t ban free speech, but do ban preaching death.”
But a Liberal Democrat source pointed out that some universities are already trying to ban Ukip and the BNP from speaking on university campuses, and argued that airing controversial views was the best way to defeat them. “There is a power in rational, thoughtful debate changing impressionable minds. Sometimes it is better to defeat these ideas in argument rather than simply banning someone. That can simply drive the debate underground or off campus to somewhere else. If anyone is inciting violence that is already unlawful, and if a university believes someone should be banned they should be open to do that,” the source said.
When the two failed to reach an agreement, the decision was “escalated” to Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron and his Deputy, Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg. Mr Clegg has confirmed to Mr Cameron that the Liberal Democrats won’t support publication of the draft guidelines.
As a result they have now been scrapped, leaving universities having to interpret the new rules by themselves.
Speaking to the Sunday Telegraph, Theresa May has said: “Tackling the radicalisation of young people is not and cannot ever be the sole responsibility of the government and law enforcement agencies. The new Prevent Duty means universities will have a legal obligation to play their part, and I hope they do as fully as possible.”