HC Deb 06 May 1971 vol 816 cc1624-8
16. Mr. Biggs-Davison

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science what inquiries have been made into the misuse of public funds by student unions; and with what result.

Mr. van Straubenzee

An inquiry has been carried out into the financing of student unions, and the results are now being studied.

Mr. Biggs-Davison

Is my hon. Friend aware that the Conservative Association and the Monday Club in Southampton University are still being prevented from having their just share of student union funds, are still being denied the use of union premises for their meetings, that the Left-wing president of the Students' Union, to his great credit, has resigned because of this injustice—[Interruption.]—which hon. Members opposite do not recognise to be—

Hon. Members


Mr. Biggs-Davison

How long will ratepayers, how long will universities and how long will the Government tolerate—

Mr. Speaker

Not much longer.

Mr. Biggs-Davison

—the misuse of ratepayers' money in a cheating conspiracy?

Mr. van Straubenzee

It is fair to say that the particular action at Southampton, which along with my hon. Friend, I totally deplore, has equally been condemned by the leaders of the political associations of all the political parties at the university at any rate, even if not in the House. I hope that my hon. Friend has noticed that it has also been condemned by resolution by the National Union of Students, whose incoming President has done everything that he can to have it reversed. The really regrettable feature is that out of a university of about 3,500 students, under 300 remained to the end of the meeting at which the decision was taken not to change their present position.

Mr. Merlyn Rees

Would not the Minister agree that if words such as "misuse" are being used, this is a matter for the police, but that if it is a question of students disagreeing with the policy of the council of the Students' Union, the remedy is in their own hands?

Mr. van Straubenzee

I am not prepared to go that far. The word "misuse" does not necessarily imply criminal misuse and, therefore, a matter for the police. It must very clearly be said that I should have thought that opinion on both sides of the House would not tolerate what I think is widely regarded as a misuse of funds if it results in discrimination against points of view which ought fairly to be expressed in a university.

Sir H. Legge-Bourke

Does my hon. Friend agree that at a time when many students in universities are pressing for a greater participation in the administration of universities it is not much encouragement to that idea for this sort of behaviour to happen?

Mr. van Straubenzee

Indeed, it is not. On the other hand, I feel sure that the whole House would want to keep this matter in perspective and remember that it is the student body itself that has condemned it and is trying to put the matter right.

Mr. Edward Short

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that for the first time in 20 years I find myself in agreement with the hon. Member for Chigwell (Mr. Biggs-Davison)? I deeply regret what has happened at this university, because, clearly, the existence of a strong Monday Club or a Conservative Club is an assurance that there will be a very strong Labour Club? I hope the union officials and the union at Southampton University will reconsider their decision, which we would all regret.

Mr. van Straubenzee

I hope that the corporate view of the House will be listened to. Meanwhile, I know that the right hon. Gentleman will wish to recall, in the interests of accuracy, that the Federation of Conservative Students is larger than all its opponents put together.

27. Sir R. Thompson

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science if she will seek powers to make it a condition that when students' grants include a compulsory deduction to cover the amount payable to the appropriate Students' Union of the college or university, proper accounts showing how this money has been spent shall be made available annually to members of the Students' Union concerned.

Mr. van Straubenzee

I consider it essential that full and proper accounts should be kept of student union funds and that such accounts should be available to members. Both these matters are primarily the responsibility of the university and college authorities.

Sir R. Thompson

Will my hon. Friend bring some pressure to bear on them to ensure that they carry it out? Is he aware that in a case of which I have sent him particulars the ratepayers of Croydon, although very anxious to promote higher education, strongly resent a process whereby the money they have provided is often spent on squalid and disreputable causes unconnected with education and with no accounts being provided?

Mr. van Straubenzee

We have already had exchanges on the first part. If there are examples where money is not being properly accounted for, within the limits of my previous statement that this is primarily a matter for the university or college authority I will always be happy to look at them.

Mr. Molloy

Many of us on this side of the House are grateful that the hon. Gentleman has not joined in the campaign to knock British students. Is he aware that only a few weeks ago the Secretary of State made a correct and proper remark in the House to the effect that students co-operate in many issues involving her Department? Is the hon. Gentleman prepared to advise his hon. Friends that if they are concerned about funds—anybody's funds, public or otherwise—they should start examining issues like V. and G. and that mentioned in the Press this morning?

Mr. van Straubenzee

I am here concerned with the funds which are provided for student unions. Anxiety about some of the financial transactions of some unions is spread right across the board among those who support and those who oppose student matters, and, therefore, it is not surprising that it has been the subject of close public inquiry.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

Whilst I certainly agree with my hon. Friend that the over- whelming majority of student unions are fairly and responsibly run, are there not cases of abuse in individual unions, such as the case of Southampton, about which we have heard, and is there not a case for following the recommendations of the Select Committee and appointing a registrar of student unions?

Mr. van Straubenzee

That is one of the possibilities. I have made it clear that my right hon. Friend, in concert with the local authorities, has initiated inquiries, as have the Vice-Chancellors, and the results are now being studied.