Robin Walker – 2022 Speech on Antisemitism at Bristol University

The speech made by Robin Walker, the Minister for School Standards, in response to a speech made by Christian Wakeford, in the House of Commons on 6 January 2022.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bury South (Christian Wakeford) on securing this debate on antisemitism at the University of Bristol. I echo his comment that it is profoundly troubling that we should have to have this debate at all. It feels especially poignant given that Holocaust Memorial Day is just a few weeks away. I should point out that I am responding to the debate on behalf of the Minister for Higher and Further Education, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan), who is isolating pending the outcome of a PCR test. I wish her well with that.

I would like to begin by stating that there is no place for antisemitism in our society. The Government are clear that racism and religious hatred of any kind should not be tolerated. Universities and other higher education providers should be at the forefront of tackling antisemitism, and must make sure that higher education is a genuinely fulfilling and welcoming experience for everyone. Colleagues may be aware that in November, within just a few weeks of his appointment, the Secretary of State for Education visited Auschwitz, which demonstrated his resolve to learn the terrible lessons of the holocaust and to eradicate antisemitism from our education system. During his visit, he warned that if universities failed to consider the views of Jewish students, the risk was “obvious”, adding that antisemitism is not simply a historic debate; it is a present danger and a scourge that exists, sadly, on our campuses. We must do more to stamp out antisemitism and ensure that Jewish students and staff feel welcome on all our campuses.

Eliminating antisemitism from our society, including our world-leading university sector, is one of our key priorities. We have been clear that we expect providers to take a zero-tolerance approach to antisemitism in all its forms. The Government have taken decisive and long-standing action to tackle antisemitism in higher education. The working definition of antisemitism developed by the IHRA is one important tool for identifying and tackling antisemitism. Adopting it sends a strong signal that higher education providers take the issue seriously.

Christian Wakeford

Getting from where we were a couple of years ago to where we are now with regard to the number of institutions that have adopted IHRA is something we should be proud of. However, adopting IHRA is clearly just a badge. What can the Minister and the Department do to make sure that adoption is only part of the journey and that the definition is truly enforced as well?

Mr Walker

My hon. Friend pre-empts some of the comments I am about to make. I absolutely recognise that it is only a step on the journey and not the destination itself.

In October 2020, the previous Secretary of State wrote to all higher education providers, urging them to adopt the IHRA definition. He wrote again in May 2021, emphasising the importance of adopting the definition in the light of increased antisemitic incidences following the conflict in the middle east.

To support that, in the previous Secretary of State’s strategic guidance letter to the Office for Students last year, he specifically emphasised the importance of work on the IHRA definition and asked the Office for Students to undertake a package of work aiming to increase adoption levels across the sector. Last month, in response, the OfS published a list of providers that have adopted the definition along with case studies of where it is being used most effectively. I am pleased to see the progress made—my hon. Friend commented on this—with a marked increase in the number of providers adopting the definition from about 30 to more than 200, including the vast majority of universities.

Although that progress has been made, we are acutely aware that adoption of the definition is just a first step towards eradicating antisemitism in higher education. The Community Security Trust recently published statistics indicating that there is still much work to do. Some worrying examples were cited that demonstrate how much more needs to be done.

Dr Offord

I am grateful that the Minister raised the CST and the figures that it published, which I have in front of me. He will be aware that of the about 8,500 Jewish students at UK universities, about one in five suffers antisemitic abuse.

Mr Walker

Which is clearly far too many. I was going to say that while I welcome the fact that the CST found that the vast majority of Jewish students have a strongly positive experience at university, it is deeply troubling to hear that there were about 111 antisemitic incidents in the sector in the 2020-21 academic year. To see a number of high-profile universities, including Bristol, named by the CST as providers with high numbers of incidents shows that there is still much more work to do—even at providers that have embraced the IHRA definition.

Those worrying statistics follow the CST report on campus antisemitism between 2018 and 2020 that named six cities with five or more recorded incidents throughout the period, of which Bristol was one. It is even more concerning that many of the institutions named by the CST had already adopted the IHRA definition. I take this opportunity to echo the comments made in the debate and wholeheartedly express my support and that of my right hon. Friend the Minister for Higher and Further Education for the work done by the CST. I recognise how it provides invaluable assistance to the UK Jewish community, including in schools, for which I am responsible, and I know that the Minister for Higher and Further Education and the Secretary of State are looking forward to welcoming the CST to the summit that they are leading later this month focused on tackling antisemitism in universities.

We know from the statistics mentioned that while our work to increase adoption of the IHRA definition is important, it is not enough on its own. That is why the Government have provided, via the Office for Students, £4.7 million to support 119 projects with a particular focus on harassment and hate crime, including 11 projects targeted at tackling religion-based hate crime. Those projects concluded in spring 2020, and an independent evaluation showed that they led to increased collaboration between the sector and external partners such as charities or community organisations aiming to tackle religious hatred.

In relation to steps that the OfS is taking on tackling antisemitism, as well as publishing on 10 November the list of providers that have adopted the IHRA definition, it has published supportive guidance for providers. In 2019, Universities UK published a briefing note on tackling antisemitism, with which my right hon. Friend the Minister for Higher and Further Education has urged all providers to engage seriously. The OfS is also undertaking an impact evaluation on its statement of expectations on harassment and hate crime, which was published in April 2021. That work will take place from January to August. As part of the OfS’s next steps, it will consider options for connecting the statement of expectations to its conditions for registration.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bury South raised the important question of how the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill will apply in this context. The Bill will strengthen existing freedom of speech duties and introduce clear consequences for where these duties are breached. Recent incidents such as those at the London School of Economics show the importance of the work in this area. I am absolutely clear that the Bill does not give a green light to antisemitism and holocaust denial. In particular, any attempt to deny the scale or occurrence of the holocaust is morally reprehensible and has no basis in fact. I am categorical that nothing in the Bill in any way encourages higher education providers or student unions to invite antisemites, including holocaust deniers, to speak on campus. The strengthened protections for freedom of speech are likely to support students from minority backgrounds, who, on a number of occasions, have had their speech shut down by others.

The Bill provides for the appointment of a director for freedom of speech and academic freedom to the OfS board, with responsibility for overseeing its free speech functions, including championing freedom of speech and recommending redress via a new complaints scheme where speech is unlawfully restricted. This will place an appropriate focus on these fundamental rights.

The Bill will protect the freedom of speech of Jewish students, staff and visiting speakers, which has at times been under threat, as we saw recently with incidents in our universities. It will stop universities using security costs as a spurious attempt to cancel mainstream speakers, such as has been the case when a society attempted to invite the Israeli ambassador, and it will mean that universities and student unions have to take genuine action against those who use violence or threats of violence to shut down speech, including that of Jewish students.

In addition to the Bill, there needs to be cultural change, and we welcome initiatives by universities, academics and students to drive this, but as we have seen historically on issues such as gender equality, race discrimination and human rights, cultural change occurs more readily when backed by appropriate legislation.

Christian Wakeford

Will the Minister give way?

Mr Walker

I will give way, but I am happy to commit to the meeting my hon. Friend has asked for, which my right hon. Friend the Minister for Higher and Further Education has offered to hold.

Christian Wakeford

I appreciate the offer of a meeting. Obviously, I will raise this in the meeting, but I will also raise it during this debate. Cultural change can only happen with open dialogue, training and transparency, so will the Minister commit to writing to the university to request details of the provider and what is actually being covered, as well as the assurance that this is meaningful training about how to tackle antisemitism?

Mr Walker

I think I can probably make that commitment on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Minister for Higher and Further Education, but I will certainly make sure that the Department follows up on it.

I did want to address specifically the case of Professor Miller at the University of Bristol. Universities are of course independent and autonomous organisations. Accordingly, the Government have not intervened directly in this case. I also understand that there are ongoing legal proceedings in relation to the case, so for that reason I cannot address all the specifics that my hon. Friend raised. However, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Higher and Further Education has said publicly on a number of occasions that the views of Professor Miller, in particular his accusations against Jewish students, are ill-founded and wholly reprehensible, and the Government wholeheartedly reject them.

My right hon. Friend met representatives of the University of Bristol in May 2021 not to intervene in its investigation, but to seek their reassurance that the university recognises its obligations to protect Jewish students from harassment and hate crime, and to support them if they feel in any way threatened. She also wrote to the university twice to ensure that it was supporting Jewish students and staff who may have felt threatened at the time. We of course welcome the university completing a full investigation into the conduct of Professor Miller, but we expect that future instances there or elsewhere should be dealt with in a much swifter and more decisive manner.

Tackling antisemitism is a priority for me, for my right hon. Friend the Minister for Higher and Further Education and for the Government. We are keen to hear from Jewish groups about what more can be done to make Jewish students and staff feel safe on campus. The Secretary of State and Ministers will continue to work closely with Lord Mann, the independent adviser to the Government on antisemitism, and also meet regularly with Jewish stakeholder groups.

As I mentioned earlier, later this month, my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Education and the Minister for Higher and Further Education will be leading a summit specifically focused on tackling antisemitism in higher education. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has said that he intends to bring together key stakeholders from the sector to examine what more can be done to make Jewish students and staff feel safe on campus. This event will encourage discussion about what more can be done to eradicate the scourge that is antisemitism, and to agree concrete actions that providers can take to keep their Jewish students safe from it.

My hon. Friend asked specifically about antisemitism training at the University of Bristol. As I say, I am happy to make the commitment that the Department will write to the university again. I urge the university and other providers truly to engage with the communities that suffer from these abhorrent behaviours and to work with them to increase awareness of the impact of antisemitism and how it can be tackled most effectively.

My ministerial colleagues have worked closely with the Union of Jewish Students, which provides training on how to recognise and tackle antisemitism. I urge the University of Bristol to consider how it can learn more from those who are directly affected, and I know the UJS would be keen to support such work. My hon. Friend asked whether the UJS can be part of a meeting with him, the CST and my right hon. Friend the Minister for Higher and Further Education; as I mentioned earlier, she is happy to commit to that.

Our HE sector has enormous capacity to change lives for the better. I know that universities are serious in their commitment to tackling antisemitism, but there remains work to be done, as this debate has demonstrated. For our part, we will continue to work across Government to ensure that racism and religious hatred of any kind are not tolerated anywhere, including in our world-leading universities.