Robert Halfon – Comments made under Parliamentary Privilege
In a move which is certain to provoke much debate and comment, Liverpool John Moores University is reported to have threatened proceedings for defamation against the MP Robert Halfon (Conservative; Harlow).
Mr. Halfon has asked a series of questions about the issue of links between Libya and British universities over the past few weeks.
28 February 2011:
Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con): My grandfather was one of thousands of Jews who had to leave Libya because of Gaddafi’s appropriation of Jewish businesses and homes, and he came to this country because of its democracy. He would have been shocked to have seen not only the close relations between the last Government and Gaddafi, but the acceptance by our distinguished universities, particularly the London School of Economics, of more than £1 million from Gaddafi. Will my right hon. Friend take steps to ensure that such a scandal never happens again?
The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend speaks with great power. What I have said about relations with Libya is that, while of course it was right to try to bring that country in from the cold, the question is whether parameters should have been put on the relationship. I think that it is for everyone to ask what agreements they reached. I heard the head of the London School of Economics on the radio this morning trying to justify one such agreement. Let us hope that at least the money that the LSE has can be put to a good use.
Hansard, 28 February 2011
3 March 2011:
Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con): Has my right hon. Friend read my early-day motion 1515?
That this House expresses grave concerns about the extent of funding from Middle Eastern dictatorships for UK universities, including the donations to the London School of Economics (LSE) by the Libyan regime; notes that an estimated 75 million was given to the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies by 12 Middle Eastern rulers, including King Fahd of Saudi Arabia; further notes that 8 million was given to the University of Cambridge by Prince Alwaleed bin Talal of Saudi Arabia, to finance a new research centre for Islamic studies in 2008, and that he gave a further 8 million to Edinburgh University for the same purpose; further notes that 9 million was given to the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at the LSE by the United Arab Emirates Foundation, and that 5.7 million was given to the LSE by the Kuwait Foundation for the Advancement of Sciences, to establish the Kuwait Programme on Development, Governance and Globalisation in the Gulf States in 2007; and therefore calls on the Government to establish much stricter guidelines around donations to UK universities, and to put a stop immediately to donations from oppressive Middle Eastern dictatorships with a terrible record on human rights.
My right hon. Friend may also have seen early-day motion 1486, which I tabled.
The motions condemn the extensive financial links between Colonel Gaddafi and at least two British universities, the London School of Economics and Liverpool John Moores, and the links between the progressive left and Gaddafi. Does he not agree that this scandal is akin to that of the aristocrats who appeased and sympathised with fascism in the 1930s, and will he arrange for an urgent statement on, and an independent inquiry into, the funding of British universities by middle eastern despots?
Sir George Young: I understand my hon. Friend’s concern, although I am not sure I would go quite as far as he did in drawing that parallel. Universities, however, are autonomous institutions. As a charity, a university must set its own standards for the acceptance of donations, subject to guidance from the Charity Commission. The LSE has expressed regret at the reputational damage caused by its association with the Gaddafi name, and has announced that the sum received will be used to finance a scholarship fund supporting students from north Africa.
Hansard, 3 March 2011
The following day, the FT reported Halfon’s comments (behind the paywall).
7 March 2011:
Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con): Following the scandal of the financial links between Libya and the London School of Economics and other British universities, will the Foreign Secretary examine what the previous Labour Government did to help facilitate those links? Does he not agree that the fish rots from the head down, and will he hold an independent inquiry to examine the previous Government’s insidious links with Libya?
Mr Hague: I am sure that there will be lessons to be learned from that. We are a little preoccupied with what is going on at the moment, but there will be a time to learn all the lessons from past relationships with some of the systems and regimes now being overthrown by their own people.
Hansard, 7 March 2011
The same day, Liverpool John Moores University issued a statement. It began:
In response to recent media reports, the LJMU position on our activities with Libya is that everything that we have done has been delivered transparently, at the invitation or with the encouragement and the support of the FCO (through the British Ambassador) and the British Council.
LJMU statement on activities in Libya
10 March 2011:
Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con): Will the Leader of the House find time for an urgent debate on links between middle eastern dictators and our universities, following my early-day motions 1562 and 1563?
[That this House believes that there should be a real financial incentive for British universities not to accept donations from foreign dictatorships, especially regimes in the Middle East with a poor record on human rights; and therefore calls on the Government to introduce a mechanism whereby for every £1 that a university receives in donations from a totalitarian or despotic regime, such a Libya, £1 shall be withdrawn from that university in public subsidy.]
As well as the London School of Economics case, it has emerged that Durham university has done deals with the Iranian regime and that the Muslim research centre at my former university, Exeter, was funded by the Muslim Brotherhood. Does my right hon. Friend agree that if a university takes blood money it should lose an equivalent amount of public subsidy?
Sir George Young: As I said to my hon. Friend last week, universities are autonomous organisations and accountable for what they do. I will draw his comments to the attention of my ministerial colleagues at BIS. As he knows, we will have a debate on the middle east at this time next week, when he may want to amplify his remarks.
Hansard, 10 March 2011
The same day, the Jewish Chronicle published an article in which it flagged the threats of legal action which had been made against Mr. Halfon over his comments.
16 March 2011:
Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con): Given the Lockerbie bomb and Gaddafi’s continuing murder of his own people, does the Prime Minister think it was wrong for British universities to sign deals with Libya, and wrong for the previous Government to help facilitate some of those contracts? Will he take steps to learn the lessons and ensure that that never happens again?
The Prime Minister: I think that there are lessons to be learned. As I have said, I think that it was right to respond to what Libya did in terms of weapons of mass destruction, but I do not think that the way in which that response was handled was right. Too much credulity was shown, particularly over issues such as that of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, the man who was convicted of the biggest mass murder in British history. Universities will also want to ask themselves, as they are doing, some pretty searching questions about what they did.
Hansard, 16 March 2011
All of the preceding comments fall squarely within the protection of Parliamentary privilege.
Mr. Halfon also made comments in The Times (behind the paywall), and it appears this article may have triggered the legal threat from the University.
[As an aside, I look forward to an application from LJMU to force News International to disclose the precise number of page views that the article received. Given the speculation over The Times' online readership, NI might want to fight that one.]
The Independent published an article today, which reported the results of Mr. Halfon’s freedom of information requests to a number of UK universities.
The Durham donations were uncovered by the Conservative MP for Harlow, Robert Halfon, who has started a one-man campaign to expose the links.
He says no university should accept money from Iran because of its repressive attitude towards homosexuals and its long-standing fatwa issued against the author Salman Rushdie.
Durham University accepted £11,000 donation from Iran
The sums involved are significant – today’s Independent article, for example, reports:
JMU was to earn £1.2m for delivering a degree programme at a Libyan university. It has defended the scheme as aiming to “improve the situation of the Libyan people”.
but there appears to be some question as to whether Liverpool John Moores University actually received the money involved. The University’s own statement suggests that it has only received £14,000, for “One 10 day course in Neonatal Intensive Care was delivered to 2 groups of 25 Doctors in November 2010.”
One might reasonably ask if the University will, once its legal fees are factored in, derive much benefit from the activities which Robert Halfon has challenged.
Threatening libel proceedings in these circumstances is a high risk strategy. Merely by doing so, the University has guaranteed attention for them, and Mr. Halfon is, of course, at liberty to use parliamentary privilege to make further statements about the matter. I’ve written before about what happens when lawyers try to intervene in that.
More to follow, no doubt.