HC Deb 08 July 1971 vol 820 cc1505-9
22. Mr. Wall

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science if she will seek powers to institute a registrar for student unions.

Mrs. Thatcher

I am considering this possibility.

Mr. Wall

Would my right hon. Friend agree that many hon. Members would like to see students have greater control of the administration of their universities, but that such action is impossible unless there is a registrar who can control such behaviour as the imposition of the closed shop, grants to revolutionary organisations, and so on, which is taking place today?

Mrs. Thatcher

The problem is quite complex. It is not only a question of setting up a registrar of student unions, but a question of deciding his precise responsibilities. I would point out that the university authorities have a general responsibility for supervising the constitution of the unions.

Mr. R. C. Mitchell

Is the right hon. Lady aware that the provision of a registrar of student unions was a recommendation by the Select Committee on Education which reported in 1969? Is it not time that something was done, not only about that recommendation but about the other recommendations which were put forward by that Select Committee?

Mrs. Thatcher

I have been asked about this particular matter, and I have given the reply that the matter is being considered.

Mr. Selwyn Gummer

I appreciate that this is a difficult matter, but would the Secretary of State take urgent action to look at the problem in many universities where students on political grounds are being stopped from fully participating in the activities of student unions? If we cannot have a registrar, can we not have something else?

Mrs. Thatcher

There are a number of Questions later which raise that matter.

Mr. Alan Williams

If the right hon. Lady is considering action, what consultation is she having in the process of that consideration?

Mrs. Thatcher

We have not yet reached the stage of consultation. I feel it better that we should get further along the road before deciding whether to recommend the introduction of a registrar. No decision has yet been taken.

25. Mr. Biggs-Davison

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science whether she has included in her consideration of the future of student unions the decision of the University of York Student Union to withhold funds from the University of York Monday Club while granting them not only to societies connected with the political parties but to the Anarchists, International Socialists, Spartacists, Socialist Society, Women's Liberation, etc.; and what action she will take.

27. Mr. Hastings

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science whether she will now make a statement on the use of public funds by students unions at universities.

Mrs. Thatcher

Some changes in the arrangements governing the payment of union fees are under consideration.

Mr. Biggs-Davison

Are not these odious tactics reminiscent of those of Nazi students under the Weimar Republic and a disgrace to institutions which pride themselves on academic freedom? By setting up a registrar or by making membership of students' unions voluntary, or in some other way, will she do her best as early as possible to see that natural justice is secured?

Mrs. Thatcher

Most of us would not like any restrictions on freedom of speech of the kind that we appear to have seen, or restrictions on academic freedom. We have made extensive inquiries with the vice-chancellors and with the polytechnics about the payment and the amount of union fees and about the expenditure and arrangements for scrutinising the accounts. We have had a good deal of information in and we are now seeing how best to decide what to do.

Mr. Hastings

Is my right hon. Friend aware that her answer will be very welcome to a number of hon. Members, probably on both sides of the House? If evidence is produced of gross discrimination in a particular university, will she be prepared to make representations to the vice-chancellor about it?

Mrs. Thatcher

One would be very reluctant to interfere with the freedom of the authorities of the universities. One has to be careful that one does not lose more than one gains. It is, of course, open to individual Members to make representations.

Mr. Dalyell

Who are the Spartacists?

33. Mr. Evelyn King

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science what estimate she has made in the course of her inquiry of the number of students who seek to resign from the National Union of Students and find it legally impossible to do so; and whether, in the light of these breaches of civil rights, she will hasten to amend the laws and regulations which have created this situation.

Mrs. Thatcher

I have made no estimate, but I am aware of the anxiety of some students who are members of the N.U.S. through the corporate affiliation of their college or university union. I understand that the N.U.S. Executive is now looking into this. Meanwhile students who are individual members of the N.U.S. can resign at any time.

Mr. King

Can there have been a comparable situation, in which union subscriptions are paid on behalf of members, whether or not they desire them to be paid, and from which they cannot retract, particularly when the funds of that union are poured out in various curious ways of which those members do not approve? Is this not in anyone's political book a monstrous invasion of civil liberty and a degree of paternalism which is insupportable?

Mrs. Thatcher

We are, as I explained in answer to an earlier Question, looking at the method of payment of fees to student unions by local education authorities. A number of factors are involved and our conclusions will be announced when they are ready.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

Is not the problem not that of individual membership of the National Union of Students but that of the automatic membership of those who are corporate members of local unions? It is they who not able to resign. Is my right hon. Friend aware that seven students at Bradford University have made three unsuccessful attempts to resign and that an Oxford graduate, Mr. Antony Russell, has also made an attempt but has failed?

Mrs. Thatcher

I know of four cases, not the seven to which my hon. Friend referred. The N.U.S. are looking into this matter.

Mr. Douglas

Would the right hon. Lady agree that there is no individual hardship incurred by students in these cases and that it is administratively convenient to collect fees in this manner?

Mrs. Thatcher

It is possibly more than a question of administrative convenience. This is one reason why we are inquiring into it.