HC Deb 19 March 1985 vol 75 cc769-70
10. Mr. Latham

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science what progress has been made with his discussions about the controls which are available over expenditure of public money by student unions.

Mr. Brooke

Discussions are proceeding between officials of the Department and representatives of higher education interests. These are preliminary discussions intended to inform the Government as a basis for decision upon appropriate next action. The Government will make a statement in due course.

Mr. Latham

Is it not deplorable that Jewish students at Sunderland polytechnic have been denied the right to a Jewish society of their choice? Surely Jewish taxpayers should not have to pay for a union which operates such blatant discrimination.

Mr. Brooke

I share my hon. Friend's vivid anxiety that the principles of freedom of speech and association should be maintained, especially in places of higher education. I understand that the authorities at Sunderland polytechnic are actively examining the issues raised by the student union's refusal to ratify the constitution of the proposed Jewish society, and that the matter will be considered by the polytechnic governors at their next meeting. My right hon. Friend is minded to make inquiries of the authority and the director if second thoughts do not prevail.

Mr. Janner

May I thank the Minister for that reply? Has he considered whether the Sunderland students' action is in breach of the Race Relations Act 1976 and whether it should be referred to the Commission for Racial Equality by the Government, as it has been by the Jewish community in this country?

Mr. Brooke

I have noted what the hon. and learned Gentleman said. He will also be aware that the National Union of Students has taken up with the student union at the polytechnic the inappropriateness of what it is doing.

Mr. Peter Bruinvels

Does my hon. Friend agree that student unions are abusing their role and spending far too much money subsidising trips for students to miners' picket lines—when they existed—to anti-Government meetings in London and all that sort of thing? Is it not time to calm them down once and for all?

Mr. Brooke

Limitations on the use of student union funds are set by charity law. That was made clear by my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General in the guidance issued to institutions in 1983. Expenditure must further the interests of students as students.

Mr. Sheerman

While the Minister is being urged by his colleagues to introduce a final solution to this matter will he try to remember that this is the International, Year of Youth, whose aims are peace, participation and development? Participation—growing up and learning about democracy—is an important part of a student's development. Would it not be more sensible for the Government, when they are investigating and discussing, to discuss matters with the National Union of Students, which represents the students of this country, and which has not been approached by the Minister? Could he not talk to it and get that democracy moving?

Mr. Brooke

I applaud International Youth Year, of which the hon. Gentleman reminds me each month. I hestitate to say to him that it is arguable that voluntary participation is sometimes preferable to participation in which there is a greater degree of coercion.

Mr. Leigh

Have the Government given consideration to making universities, rather than student unions, responsible for the funding of recreational activity by students, thus enabling us to have voluntary rather than compulsory membership of student unions and achieving a considerable saving of public money?

Mr. Brooke

The matter is obviously one for the universities. In some universities that provision is rendered by the universities.