Layla to May: Sack “witch-hunt” whip

It’s not surprising that an MP for a university town is horrified at the actions of a Government whip in writing to universities demanding to know who is teaching what about Brexit on their campuses.

It was reported today that Chris Heaton-Harris, a leading eurosceptic MP and a senior government whip, wrote to vice-chancellors at the start of this month asking for the names of any professors involved in teaching on Brexit and the content of their lectures.

Layla who is also Liberal Democrat Education Spokesperson said:

This chilling letter could have come straight out of a dystopian novel.

Conservative Brexiteers know they have lost the intellectual debate and now appear to be engaging in a witch-hunt.

Academic freedom is vital to our thriving university sector and one of the cornerstones of a modern democracy.

Theresa May must send a clear signal that this kind of behaviour by members of the government is unacceptable and sack Chris Heaton-Harris as a whip.

The government must write to universities making it absolutely clear they are under no obligation to provide this information.

Layla’s full letter is below:

Dear Prime Minister,

I am writing with regard to today’s deeply concerning reports that Chris Heaton-Harris MP, a member of your Government, has written to University Vice Chancellors asking them to disclose information about what they are teaching students in relation to Brexit.

This seems to imply that Mr Heaton-Harris is seeking to challenge the teaching of individual academics and influence the content of university syllabus’, which is of course completely unacceptable.

As a Government Whip Chris Heaton-Harris is on the Government payroll and should be subject to collective responsibility. He should not be writing in a personal capacity as an MP to universities, as this is liable to be misinterpreted as being representative of government policy. Will you now send a clear signal that this kind of behaviour by members of your Government is unacceptable and sack him as a Government Whip?

In addition, I hope you will also undertake to write directly to all University Vice Chancellors, who have been deeply troubled to receive this letter, clarifying that they are under absolutely no obligation to reply, or to disclose this information.

I hope you will agree with me that preserving academic freedom and freedom of speech is one of the cornerstones of the open, tolerant and democratic society we all hold so dear. You will be well aware that, historically, when governments have sought to curtail the freedoms of academic institutions, this has often been a precursor to wider clamp downs on civil liberties and freedoms.

I hope you will both publicly distance yourself from Mr Heaton-Harris’ letter and to reach out to universities across the country to reassure them in the wake of this dangerous and divisive action.

Yours sincerely,

Layla Moran

Member of Parliament for Oxford West and Abingdon

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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  • McCarthyism …. “The practice of making accusations of subversion or treason without proper regard for evidence.”

  • Ryan McAlister 25th Oct '17 - 10:21am

    Struggling to power up my outrage-o-meter on this one to be honest.

    He asked for info. The institutions are perfectly entitled to tell him to go away, and mostly have. Fin.

  • Nonconformistradical 25th Oct '17 - 10:39am

    It is now being suggested he wanted the information for the purpose of writing a book.

    Strange that he didn’t make this clear in his letter. Not credible in my view.

    If someone sent me a letter asking for any information without giving a reason why they wanted it they’d be told to get lost very quickly.

  • Richard Fagence 25th Oct '17 - 10:54am

    Some of us who worked on the Leicester South by-election in 2004 remember Chris Heaton-Harris and his dubious tactics and comments. I thought he was a ‘nasty piece of work’ then and he doesn’t seem to have changed. Oh, and he finished third in the poll!

  • David Evershed 25th Oct '17 - 10:55am

    I don’t think Mr Heaton-Harris has made any accusations but is seeking information – possibly in advance of making accusations should supporting evidence be forthcoming.

    His best course is probably to use Freedom of Information Enquiries. FOI legislation was one of Blair’s best policies, although he regretted the consequences apparently.

  • Peter Watson 25th Oct '17 - 11:38am

    @David Evershed “I don’t think Mr Heaton-Harris has made any accusations but is seeking information”
    I am a bit bemused by the commotion over this. Surely the time for this outrage is when Heaton-Harris or somebody else acts upon whatever information his questions reveal.
    Frankly, it seems hypocritical to cite “freedom of speech” as a reason to attack him for asking his questions and to encourage universities not to provide information in an open manner.
    It saddens me to see what appears to be a Liberal Democrat party increasingly trading principles for knee-jerk political opportunism.

  • David Westaby 25th Oct '17 - 1:18pm

    I do not think unreasonable to have concerns when a very eurosceptic MP requests information from academic institutions without a single reference to the reason for such a request.
    No one with an ounce of academic background would send such a major request without a detailed grounding for why such data would be important and how it would be analysed.
    The irony is that for any of us who are regularly exposed to undergraduates and young postgraduates it is they who are expressing their strong feelings upon leaving the EU and do not appear to need much prompting from their teachers and supervisors.

  • I am a bit bemused by the commotion over this.
    Well it has caused Heaton-Harris to come clean: “the MP was “pursuing inquiries of his own” which may lead to a book on “the evolution of attitudes” to Europe rather than acting for the government.”

    The letter was personal and thus should not have been sent on HoC stationary (and was probably prepared and posted by staff as part of their normal clerical duties and thus paid for by the taxpayer), additionally, it should not have been signed as being from the MP.

    Thus we now have a prima facie case of abuse of Parliamentary privilege, he now needs to be referred to the relevant standards committee.

  • @David Evershed “I don’t think Mr Heaton-Harris has made any accusations but is seeking information”….
    A cursory look at the comments in Mail/Express shows that “Lefty lecturers brainwashing young minds should be a case for action”

  • @ David Evershed. What a trusting fellow you are, Mr Evershed.

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