Orders of the Day — Student Unions (Funding)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:58 am on 10th March 1988.

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Photo of Robert Jackson Robert Jackson , Wantage 12:58 am, 10th March 1988

The debate has been interesting and useful, and may well be pregnant with consequence. We are grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Eastwood (Mr. Stewart) for raising the matter.

Following the precedent set by my hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, West (Mr. Jones), I declare my interest as a former president of the Oxford Union, a student union which happily conforms to the model prescribed by my hon. Friend the Member for Eastwood.

Two different but related sets of issues have been raised in the debate: that of local unions—unions at the level of the institutions—and that of the NUS; and I wish, first, to register the significance of the debate. Hon. Members have shown an impressive commitment by their eloquence and arguments. There was of course the impressive commitment reflected in early-day motion 449 put down by my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Janman), which has now attracted about 214 signatures. By the standards of parliamentary icebergs—if that is what early-day motions are—that is a major iceberg. All that constitutes at least a significant expression of opinion. I believe that it should cause heart searching on the part of those who find their stewardship under such formidable criticism.

I must also register what might be called the propriety of the debate. Local unions and the National Union of Students derive the bulk of their finance from the taxpayer. They are not, they cannot regard themselves, and they cannot be regarded as simply private bodies. The words of the Attorney-General's guidance on expenditure by student unions in 1983 underline that point.

I do not believe that it would be wise policy for us, as Members of Parliament who represent the taxpayer, to press the principle of accountability too hard. We may pay the piper, but experience often shows that the piper will play best if he chooses his own tunes. My hon. Friends are right to insist that hon. Members have a proper interest in how several tens of millions of pounds of taxpayers' money is being disbursed by student unions and the NUS.

Having said that, I now advert to some of the difficulties that I consider to be in the way of some courses of action that have been proposed this evening. With regard to local unions, I remind the House that we are considering organisations that are part of the structure—often the constitutional structure — of institutions—universities and polytechnics — which are autonomous, and whose autonomy all Governments, especially a Conservative Government, are bound to respect.

As recently as 1983 the Attorney-General, in his guidance to student unions, to which I have already referred, remarked: It is clear … that if a college is to function properly, there is a need for the normal range of clubs and societies so as to enable each student to further the development of his abilities, mental and physical. Equally, it is likely that the college will gain from the fact that the students hold meetings to debate matters of common concern and publish some form of campus newspaper. Reasonable expenditure on such purposes is, in the view of the Attorney General, plainly permissible for a Student Union. That was not only the view of the Attorney-General in 1983; it is embodied in the statutes and charters of many autonomous universities and colleges, each of which has found its own way of giving expression to the view.

The Government feel that Parliament should act to override such a view only when very powerful considerations of public policy are at stake. That is the first difficulty in some of the proposals put forward in the debate.

Another set of difficulties are less of a practical than of a philosophical order. The great principle that has been hovering over the debate is that of freedom of association. This was referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, West when he spoke about a moral issue. I think that he is right about that and that the hon. Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Fatchett) fell below the level of the debate when he failed to recognise that important dimension of it.

The principle of freedom of association is complex. On one side, it imposes a requirement on an individual to be associated with a body whose activities are abhorrent to him. That was the case made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, West. The other side of the argument is that the principle of freedom of association defends the right of corporate associations to associate freely together, as, for example, a student union will affiliate to the National Union of Students. My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock will acknowledge that he came upon that difficulty when he was framing subsections (3) and (4) of his draft clause, which could appear to permit a local union to purchase services, but would make it unlawful for a national student body or the National Union of Students to be paid to provide such services. That is a somewhat paradoxical limitation of the principle of free contract.

I have alluded to some of the difficulties with which this question is fraught, but I do not intend to stress only the difficulties. It is clear from the debate and from the early-day motion that there is a strong current of concern in the House that focuses particularly on two questions.

The first relates to safeguards for individual students who reject compulsory affiliation, especially to the National Union of Students. The Government must take note of the concern that has been expressed on that point. The second relates to the extent to which student unions, and especially the NUS, distinguish, or fail to distinguish, between services that directly support the position of students as students and their overtly political campaigning. These campaigns are often on matters that are far removed from the interests and concerns, to use the words of my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General, of "students as such" or of their "colleges as such." Hence the concern that has been expressed tonight by my hon. Friends.

There is a case to answer, and the National Union of Students must be allowed to answer it. How thereafter the matter should be taken forward remains to be seen. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science is conscious of the strength of feeling in the House, as shown by the number of signatures that the early-day motion has attracted. He will therefore wish to make a statement at an appropriate moment. In the meantime, I know that he will want to pay careful attention to all that has been said during the debate.