Laws to ban extremist speakers have been blocked by the Liberal Democrats for fears of “eroding” free speech after one of the worst Cabinet rows of the Coalition
Nick Clegg has blocked tough new laws intended to stop extremist speakers brainwashing university students for terrorism, raising fears that Britain will be left more vulnerable to attack.
The Deputy Prime Minister personally vetoed the plan during private talks with David Cameron, after one of the worst Cabinet rows in the Coalition’s five-year rule.
Mr Clegg said he could not support moves to require university bosses to vet visiting speakers and prevent impressionable students from falling under the spell of extremists – because Liberal Democrats feared the move would erode “free speech”.
Draft legal guidelines detailing how the ban would work, which were published by the Home Office in December, have now been scrapped. Senior government sources warned that students would remain at risk of radicalisation by preachers visiting campus Islamic societies.
Theresa May, the Home Secretary, told the Telegraph that academics must now “play their part” in preventing radicalisation, even though there is no government guidance on how they should tackle extremist speakers.
The disclosure follows warnings from Mrs May and others that new rules are badly needed to clamp down on campus extremism.
The issue rose to the top of the national security agenda after it emerged that Mohammed Emwazi, the Islamist murderer known as “Jihadi John”, may have been radicalised while a student in London.
Emwazi was unmasked as the man who beheaded American and British hostages while fighting with the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
Terrorism experts have warned that student union Islamic societies are vulnerable to exploitation by radical speakers who want to brainwash undergraduates to their violent interpretations of Islam.
A new legal duty – to be ratified by MPs later this month – will require publicly-funded organisations including schools, NHS trusts, nurseries and universities to actively work to prevent vulnerable people from becoming radicalised or converted to terrorist causes.
A draft of statutory Home Office guidance on how institutions should fulfil their new legal duty – known as the Prevent Duty – was published in December. It stipulated that universities must introduce stringent checks on all visiting speakers who are invited to address students on campus, and require student unions to give university authorities at least 14 days’ notice to allow for background checks and cancellation of the event, if necessary.
However, the plans were blocked by Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrat Business Secretary, who is responsible for universities policy, after academics said the measures would interfere with their duty to promote free speech and debate.
The row became public earlier this month and, after failed negotions between Mr Cable and Mrs May, had to be “escalated” for Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg to resolve.
The Deputy Prime Minister told Mr Cameron the Lib Dems would not support the new rules and, as a result, the entire section of Home Office guidance on how universities should handle visiting speakers has been axed.
Urging universities to root out extremism, the Home Secretary Mrs May told The Sunday Telegraph: “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.”