Parliament has voted for an amendment to ban non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) in higher education. On February 7, the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill entered its final stage and MPs backed an amendment to ban NDAs. The amendment originated in the House of Lords, where it was passed in December.
The new law will prohibit universities from entering into NDAs about complaints of sexual misconduct, abuse, bullying, harassment or discrimination. An NDA is a legally binding contract that is also referred to as a confidentiality agreement. The parties in the agreement agree that certain information will not be made available to others. However, an NDA might create the misleading impression that a person does not have the right to take a matter to court or tribunal, or that they cannot tell people such as the police, a doctor, or a therapist.
In 2022, a voluntary pledge was created for universities to sign up to after Michelle Donelan, the Minister for Further and Higher Education, announced that universities must stop using NDAs for complaints about sexual harassment, bullying and other forms of misconduct.
72 universities have already signed up to the pledge to “commit to not using Non-Disclosure Agreements to silence people who come forward to raise complaints of sexual harassment, abuse or misconduct, or other forms of harassment and bullying.” However, due to Oxford’s collegiate system, each individual college needs to sign the pledge, as opposed to the university. Only LMH, Keble, and Linacre have signed the pledge, despite several other college JCRs and MCRs passing anti-NDA motions.
LMH was the first college to sign the pledge in April 2022, after a report in the Times described LMH as threatening an undergraduate with expulsion if she spoke out about the alleged assault she experienced and her subsequent experience of dealing with college while reporting it. At the time, Donelan said “now is the time for other Oxbridge colleges to stop dragging their feet and pledge to never buy victims’ silence”.
The Oxford SU Student Council has mandated the VP for Liberation and Equality (previously VP for Women) and VP for Welfare to continue their preventative work on colleges using NDAs in their Hilary 3rd week meeting. The Council mandated the VPs, both outgoing and incoming, “to continue the work of ensuring every college puts in place measures to prevent the use of NDAs” and “to organise meetings with college heads specifically on this issue.”
Layla Moran, MP for Oxford West and Abingdon, welcomed the news, telling the The Oxford Mail, “I am delighted that the government has listened to survivors and supported an amendment to ban universities from using non-disclosure agreements in cases of sexual abuse, bullying, or harassment. I have been shocked and saddened by the testimonies of survivors that I have heard, many of whom felt silenced by an institution that was supposed to protect them. Survivors of sexual violence should never be prevented from speaking out about their experiences. This change in legislation is a huge victory for the young women who have bravely spoken out about what happened to them. Their courage and tireless campaigning mean students will never again be told that their pain and their voice doesn’t matter.”
It Happens Here (IHH), the SU-associated anti-sexual violence campaign, has led the campaign against the use of NDAs. They have worked with Can’t Buy My Silence, an international campaign “to stop the misuse of NDAs so that they are ONLY used for the purpose for which they were created – the protection of IP and trade secrets” . IHH said in a comment to the Oxford Student, “We are overjoyed by the House of Commons passing the amendment to the Freedom of Speech bill banning universities from using NDAs against survivors of harassment and abuse.
Progress like this is hard-fought and hard-won. This has been the culmination of over a year of hard work by Can’t Buy My Silence, It Happens Here and incredible MPs and student organisations across the nation.
Most of all, Ffi Samuels has inspired us all with their leadership in this fight against NDAs, working closely and confidentially with survivors, opening difficult discussions with colleges and persisting against every obstacle. We are grateful for their incredible work and the benefits this will have for generations of students to come.
It Happens Here continues to urge every college to sign Can’t Buy My Silence’s anti-NDA pledge, to show their dedication to supporting students and protecting the rights of survivors. We also encourage every remaining Common Room to pass our Anti-NDA motion, unifying the voices of students across the university in a powerful act of solidarity.”
Image description: Houses of Parliament at sunset
Image credit: By Mайкл Гиммельфарб (Mike Gimelfarb) – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5049123