Reforms are needed to stop thousands of students being silenced by universities from speaking about abuse they have faced, ministers have been warned.
Labour MP Jess Phillips (Birmingham Yardley) insisted changes are required to proposed legislation to ensure non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) or confidentiality agreements do not inhibit the freedom of speech of those affected, unless it is to protect intellectual property.
Ms Phillips read out details from an NDA given by “one of the finest universities in the world” to a woman who had been raped, in which she was threatened with expulsion if she repeatedly breached the terms of the arrangement.
Ms Phillips and Labour want changes to the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, which has cleared the Commons but will be considered further by the Lords.
She said: “If a woman is raped on campus or a man is raped on campus, whether staff or student, under this piece of legislation currently without our amendments – and I welcome the minister saying she’ll take it away and listen and maybe do something down the other end of the building (in the House of Lords) later on in that process – but at the moment if that were to happen that person’s freedom of speech would be completely and utterly denied on campus and outside campus, and we would do nothing about it.
“And that freedom of speech surely has to mean freedom of speech for all.”
An amendment she tabled at report stage, which was not pushed to a vote, sought to allow young men, women and university staff to speak about their experiences on campus.
She said: “Currently, we’re all sitting by while that section of the community who may have been raped on campus, who may have been bullied, harassed, racially abused, can be silenced by that very institution and cannot speak about it at all.”
Ms Phillips highlighted how “brave women” had spoken out despite knowing the risks, noting: “According to one student, her university imposed a blanket gagging order on her after she alleged she was violently raped by another undergraduate.
“It gives you a clue as to where some of these people are from because I said the word ‘college’ – most of the universities don’t say that.
“The non-disclosure agreement that was imposed, apparently the college had tried desperately to convince her not to complain and she had lost count of members of staff who tried to silence her, scare her, threaten her and undermine her.”
Ms Phillips highlighted that a BBC investigation found more than 300 NDAs were used by universities in student complaints between 2016 and 2020, and almost a third of universities in England had used such deals.
She said legislation is necessary to tackle the issue, before reading through an NDA given by a university to a woman who had been raped.
MPs heard the woman was informed her fob access to a building would be disabled and she could not enter unless for tutorials and classes notified in advance.
Ms Phillips said: “That’s a rape victim being told she has to report to a guard so that she can go to her classes.”
The document added: “Evidence of repeated breaches of this arrangement and/or a serious breach of conditions entering an embargoed building or publishing material in the press will result in your expulsion.”
Ms Phillips said: “That’s from one of the finest universities in the world. So, that is people silenced – not just their silence, but their movement, their freedom, every element of their freedom of expression being stopped, and yet there is nothing in this Bill talking about freedom of speech, freedom of expression, freedom to study freely.
“There is nothing that the Government is proposing to do and put this in legislation.”