University wins case after Conservative MP demands details of Brexit lecturers

PUBLISHED: 14:42 09 October 2018 | UPDATED: 16:40 09 October 2018

Brexiteer minister and author Chris Heaton-Harris

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A university has won a year-long fight sparked after a Conservative MP and leading Brexiteer wrote to universities across the UK asking for the names of lecturers teaching courses on Brexit and the content of their lessons.

The University of Worcester won its fight which came after Chris Heaton-Harris, a then government whip and member of the pro-Brexit European Research Group of Conservative MPs, wrote to vice-chancellors a year ago asking for the names of any professors involved in teaching European affairs “with particular reference to Brexit”.

His letter then asked for "a copy of the syllabus" and any online lectures on Brexit.

He was accused at the time of "McCarthyite" tactics by academics who said it was an assault on free speech.

The university refused to comply and published the letter, with vice-chancellor David Green describing it as "the first step to the thought police, the political censor and Newspeak, naturally justified as 'the will of the British people', another phrase to be found on Mr Heaton-Harris's website".

Since publishing its response, Worcester has received seven similar requests from the public under the Freedom of Information Act, including one demanding all emails on Prof Green's account containing the word Brexit. The university rejected it.

Now the information commissioner has ruled in its favour after the person demanding those emails took its complaint to her. The commissioner has not ruled on Heaton-Harris' requests for information.

Ruling in Worcester's favour, Elizabeth Denham, the information commissioner, said: “If the university is required to put this information into the public domain, the commissioner agrees that those views would be likely to be much more cautious and risk-averse in the future and those concerned would be inhibited from providing a free and frank exchange of views for the purposes of deliberation."

Prof Green said: “This was a further attempt to use the Freedom of Information Act in a way which would, in my view, have been deeply against the public interest and inhibited the free flow of ideas, which is so valuable in informing decision making and creating a democratic and inclusive university.”

Heaton-Harris, now a minister in the Brexit department, was defended at the time by universities minister Jo Johnson, who said he was doing research for a book, although no book has yet been published.

It would be his first book since 2012's Together Against Wind: A Step by Step Guide on Opposing a Wind Farm in Your Area, currently available for £3.69 on Amazon. He is also the author of Fighting the Kelmarsh Wind Farm (99p on Kindle).

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