Shadow education secretary Kate Green said the government must drop its controversial new laws on free speech in universities as they risk giving legal protection to those who deny the Holocaust on campuses.
The proposed legislation, announced in the Queen’s Speech, will require universities to protect freedom of speech for students, academics and visiting speakers, and to stamp out what the government has called “unlawful ‘silencing’”.
But Labour warned that the legislation could give Holocaust deniers “free rein” because Holocaust denial is not specifically illegal under UK law.
Unless the government drops the bill, Labour said it would force Commons votes that mean Tory MPs “would have to defend giving free speech” to those who deny that the Nazis carried out a genocide against European Jews.
Green said: “It is shocking that the government is planning to give Holocaust deniers free rein across our universities.
“The Queen’s Speech sets out no plans to boost young people’s wellbeing or recover lost learning and no plans to create the jobs and training opportunities young people need, yet the Conservatives can find time to protect people whose only aim is to cause deep hurt and offence.
“These are clearly the wrong priorities for Britain and the government should drop these plans that would have dangerous and deeply troubling consequences.”
Labour also said there was no evidence to support the government’s claim that action is needed, with one survey of 61 students’ unions finding that only six out of 10,000 events last year had been cancelled – four of them were due to incorrect paperwork, one was moved to a larger venue, and one was to promote a pyramid scheme.
On Friday, universities minister Michelle Donelan was slapped down by Downing Street after initially admitting that Holocaust denial could be protected under the proposals.
“A lot of these things that we would be standing up for would be hugely offensive, would be hugely hurtful,” she told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
Donelan was later forced to clarify her comments, tweeting: “The freedom of speech bill we’ve introduced will not only protect but also promote a culture of free speech by bolstering existing laws and honours our manifesto commitment.
“Some people have asked me how this interacts with the government’s work to combat anti-Semitism.
“Let me be clear anti-Semitism is abhorrent and will not be tolerated at our universities.
“This bill will protect and promote lawful free speech.
“Universities will still need to adhere to the Equality Act, the Prevent duty and ensure that speakers do not incite violence, harassment or hate crimes.”
But Labour has concerns that Holocaust denial could still be protected by the free speech laws as denying the genocide is not an offence in UK law.
A party source said: “They’re tying themselves in knots to try and drive through a completely unnecessary and unworkable bill that no one wants other than people whose stock in trade is causing deep hurt and offence.
“The question they haven’t answered is, why are they so keen to protect these people?”
The department for education has been contacted for comment.