Orders of the Day — Student Unions (Funding)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:08 am on 10th March 1988.

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Photo of Gerald Howarth Gerald Howarth , Cannock and Burntwood 12:08 am, 10th March 1988

It certainly was not. That is why I am so angry about the NUS. It is not a principled bunch of people, and it never has been on such matters. It has never been prepared to guarantee freedom of expression, and that is why my right hon. and hon. Friends were forced, two years ago, to introduce the Education (No. 2) Act 1986, section 43 of which deals with freedom of speech in universities, polytechnics and colleges. That is not only an indictment of the NUS; it is a heavy indictment of the supine men and women who have been responsible for running our universities. At Southampton, when we wished to organise a meeting to which Enoch Powell had been invited and the student union refused to allow us to have a room in the union, the vice-chancellor said, "You are asking me to take your hot chestnuts out of the fire for you." The man was not prepared to stand up for freedom of expression.

My hon. Friend the Member for Eastwood mentioned the no-platform policy, which is still very much in existence. Let us not forget that in the past few months my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Mr. Carlisle) has been subjected to assault and battery. In Manchester, three years ago, the former Home Secretary, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Brittan), was subjected to the most grotesque attack. I say to the hon. Member for Leeds, Central, and I should be interested to hear his response, that those who espouse his brand of politics tend to attack those who espouse our brand of politics, and those who espouse our brand of politics tend not to attack those who espouse his brand of politics. That fundamental difference needs to be remembered.

My second anxiety is about the ultra vires payments. For as long as I can remember, student unions, given this funding, which does not even pass through students' pockets, have attempted to divert it into unworthy causes—causes outside the remit of any student union, either for the funding of demonstrations or for the funding of strikes and strikers.

During the National Union of Mineworkers strike, outrageous attempts were made in universities to fund the strikers or to send people to support the picket lines. What had that to do with learning? Absolutely nothing! Even the president of the National Union of Mineworkers was incapable, and remains incapable, of learning anything, so there was no value in that action.

My third point relates to the concept of accountability by opting in. The fact that the National Union of Students says that it speaks for 1·2 million people, or however many it is, gives to it a spurious authority, when its membership is entirely press-ganged. My hon. Friends have mentioned what is happening nationally and on the international scene. The NUS is used as a political vehicle when it has no right to be hijacked.

Like the Scottish Labour party, the system is an anachronism. It is out of date and serves no useful purpose. Therefore, I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to give us some indication tonight that the commitments given by successive Front-Bench Conservatives, notably when they were in opposition, will become robust. I hope that he will translate into Government action that which tripped so easily from the tongue when in opposition. We hope that the Minister will be able to send us home to our constituencies tonight full of encouragement and joy.