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Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Government struggles for consistency on freedoms

Jo Johnson's new measures to stop no-platforming in English Universities certainly hits all the right notes when it comes to protecting basic democratic freedoms. The so-called concept of a 'safe space' is just another name for the suppression of views and ideas that make some people uncomfortable or which the censor disagrees with.

Student unions and campaigners have banned or attempted to ban, a number of high-profile people from speaking at universities because of their controversial opinions. One of these was feminist writer Germaine Greer who was nearly prevented from giving a lecture after Rachael Melhuish, the women’s officer at Cardiff University, called for her to be no-platformed for what she believed to be transphobic views. Greer eventually spoke under tight security.

Johnson says: “Universities should be places that open minds not close them, where ideas can be freely challenged. In universities in America and worryingly in the UK, we have seen examples of groups seeking to stifle those who do not agree with them.

“We must not allow this to happen. Young people should have the resilience and confidence to challenge controversial opinions and take part in open, frank and rigorous discussions. That is why the new regulator, the Office for Students, will go even further to ensure that universities promote freedom of speech within the law.”

Freedom of speech includes tolerating views that may offend. The minister is right to say that the test of whether somebody can express their views on a campus should be defined by the law, not by another person's opinion of the speaker's views. Surely this is something that should be adopted for Welsh Universities as well, with similar sanctions.

And yet, whilst one minister promotes a sensible liberal agenda, another pilots a policy which could well remove democratic rights. As the Guardian reports, trials to make people show identification before they can vote could unfairly affect older people who are less likely to possess photo ID or have access to other documents.

Pilots at this May's local elections in England will see voters in Woking, Gosport, Bromley, Watford and Slough being asked to produce identification. In some areas people will be asked for photo ID such as a passport or driving licence, in others, they will just have to show the polling card sent out to people’s homes.

The paper says that an analysis of the test areas has shown that at least 10,000 people aged 65 or over, and possibly many more, in the five towns are unlikely to have approved photo ID.

This is because older people are less likely to have a passport or driving licence. Data from the 2011 census shows that while 83% of adults overall have a passport, this falls to 70% of the over-65s and 46% for those aged 85 and over.

For driving licences, the National Travel Survey shows that while 73% of those aged 17-plus hold one, this falls to 62% for those 70 or older, and to 50% for women of this age group.

These trials are a solution looking for a problem, with the real worry that they could be the start of the sort of voter-suppression tactics often seen in the USA. There is no evidence of voter fraud on any scale in the UK that would justify these measures.

For a government that is championing basic freedoms on university campuses this is a serious misstep.
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