HC Deb 15 June 1992 vol 209 cc752-8

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. David Davis.]

10.32 pm
Mr. Graham Riddick (Colne Valley)

I am pleased to have the Adjournment debate but I am a little surprised, if not dismayed, that it is necessary at all, because I remember urging the Government to abolish the student union closed shop in a debate in March 1988. A number of my hon. Friends spoke in that debate, including my hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, West (Mr. Jones), who is also present tonight. At that time, an early-day motion calling for its abolition attracted more than 200 signatures.

Since that debate, Education Ministers have expressed support for the abolition of that closed shop, but nothing has been done. I believe that the time for action has now arrived. I therefore welcome my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education to the Front Bench in the expectation that he will be the man who grasps the nettle.

It should be noted how many of my hon. Friends are in the Chamber to hear this debate. They may have come to listen to the brilliant oratory of my hon. Friend the Minister, or even to hear my brilliant oratory, but that is unlikely. It is probably because of the strength of feeling within the Conservative party, which is also reflected outside the party.

The student unions closed shop is the last great remaining closed shop in this country. Every individual who wishes to study at university, polytechnic or college must belong to the student union of the institution which he or she chooses. It is indefensible that there is no choice. In eastern Europe, the compulsory, communist state-run student organisations are being closed down and replaced by independent student unions organised on a voluntary basis. Ironically, Britain is being left behind in that matter.

The Government must now give students the freedom to choose for themselves whether they wish to belong to student unions and the National Union of Students. It is simply a question of choice. The Government have extended choice to millions of our citizens in a whole host of ways, not least by effectively abolishing the trade union closed shop. The abolition of the student unions closed shop would therefore fit in perfectly with the Government's philosophy.

I warmly welcome yesterday's report in The Sunday Times, which suggests that the Government intend to make membership of the NUS voluntary. However, that would tackle only half the problem because, in practice, there is a double closed shop. At present, all students belong to their individual institution's student union and 97 per cent. of all student unions are affiliated to the NUS, which means that most students are automatically members of the NUS.

I read in this morning's Daily Mail that the current NUS president, Mr. Stephen Twigg, said that the vast majority of students are in the NUS by choice. That is laughable and suggests that the NUS is well out of touch with ordinary students. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to take on board the fact that the double closed shop can be abolished only by making membership of each student union voluntary.

Examples of abuse by the NUS and individual student unions are innumerable and give impetus to the case for reform. Lancaster University Conservative Association was recently fined £400 for having the temerity to suggest that the student union should be radically reformed to benefit all students, not just groups peddling minority issues.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster)

The vast majority of students at Lancaster university are thoroughly sound and sensible. They go on to get excellent jobs, and the university is one of the finest in the country. There is just a small core of left wingers who have taken over the union, often standing as independents, which they are not. The vast majority of students would welcome affiliation and voluntary membership.

Mr. Riddick

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who brings considerable knowledge to the debate. That example proves that a small number of left-wing activists give students as a whole a bad name.

Universities, including Nottingham and Bath, have banned Nestlé products due to Nestlé's alleged practices concerning baby milk in the third world. In 1990, the Polytechnic South-West sabbatical officers and other union executive members expressed support for the IRA, both in the students' magazine and at a meeting. It is fair to say that, over the years, the NUS's position on terrorism has given succour and comfort to the IRA because of its unwillingness to condemn the IRA outright.

When Nicaragua had a left-wing Government—there are not many of them left—many student unions insisted that only Nicaraguan coffee should be offered in their cafeterias. Not only did this deny students choice, but the coffee tasted lousy.

There are several hundred student sabbatical officers—in effect, a taxpayer-funded army of political activists, predominantly of the left. A vice-president of the Oxford university students union who attended a recent conference in Blackpool was quoted in his student newspaper as saying: There is no future for the NUS, it has had its day. The delegates were like little kids, idiots. The Labour party's relationship with the NUS is worth examining. Let me give the House an example. Tom Franklin, a Labour party official, gave instructions to the Labour-controlled NUS on how to organise the emergency conference last March. He asked the NUS to get pro-Labour student unions to send delegates who would support the official NUS line. He said: Ask them how they are going to elect the Delegation; remind them that it doesn't have to be by cross-Campus Ballot. So much for Labour's new-found interest in ballots based on one man, one vote.

The secretary of the National Organisation of Labour Students defended the Labour party and said: There is nothing wrong with this. Tom and I worked closely with the NEC of the NUS. We help them get elected. We expect them to do something in return for us. The NUS tried to deliver for the Labour party by targeting 70 marginal Labour seats during the general election campaign. It would appear that the Labour party has been manipulating the NUS for its own political ends.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

Is my hon. Friend aware that the real corruption of student unions comes from the fact that the number required for a quorum is extremely small? In a students union society down the road, where there are 6,000 or 7,000 students, it is only 50. That is how they get through all sorts of unwanted, undesirable and wrong resolutions and other motions.

Mr. Riddick

What my hon. Friend says is true, and it shows that this whole situation is rotten to the core and ready for reform. In the past, we have been told that reform of campus student unions has not been forthcoming because of the difficulties and complexities involved. I have no doubt that these could be overcome. We should not allow an unholy alliance of vice-chancellors and the institutions they represent, officials at the Department of Education and the NUS to thwart reform.

Only today, I learned that Bradford university does not allow students to be registered to use the library unless they can produce NUS membership cards on registering. This is a disgrace. I hope that the university, which is in my region of West Yorkshire, will reverse that practice immediately.

At that moment, money for student union membership is passed directly as a block grant from the local education authorities to the institutions and then on to the student unions. The student never sees his contribution, and often is not even aware that his money has been passed over to the student union. This is not the way to encourage accountability. Each union has a guaranteed income without the need to attract a customer for its services.

The services that student unions offer could be organised in a number of ways. Part of the money that goes directly to the unions should be passed to students so that they could chose for themselves which societies to join, and whether they join the student union. That maximises choice. That is what it is all about.

The rest of the money should be handed to the universities and colleges, which in turn should be responsible for the provision and funding of welfare and sports activities. Other facilities, such as bars, shops and cafeterias, should be run on a commercial basis. That might involve franchising or contracting out the provision of the services. Some universities might want to set up a campus enterprise board to administer them.

Student magazines and newspapers could also be run commercially. I do not believe that there is any need to set out a tight prescriptive formula on how all these services should be provided. Each institution should have a great deal of flexibility, as long as the scope for abuse is minimised.

I am convinced that it is not beyond the wit of man to find an alternative way of providing and financing the services that student unions operate, at the same time as introducing voluntary membership of those unions.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)

Does my hon. Friend agree that this debate is not about banning student unions or the NUS? If they provide the services that students wanted, the students will voluntarily use their funds to join them—but at the moment they have no choice.

Mr. Riddick

That is a powerful point. We are talking about choice. We simply want to allow students to make up their own minds on how money is spent and on what is done in their name. If the NUS is such a fine organistion —that is questionable—it will have no difficulty in attracting thousands of students to join it. That goes for the student unions too.

Politicised student unions misusing public money have had their day. On 12 November last year, a Times leader thundered: A new statute is needed to enshrine the voluntary principal in British student representations, difficult as the Government has found that in the past, but a worthy task for the next Parliament. We are the next Parliament—

Mr. Robert B. Jones (Hertfordshire, West)

My hon. Friend has so far not mentioned the UN declaration on human rights, which is highly relevant and all about the right to associate or not to associate. We must give students that human right, just as we have given it to other union members over the past few years.

Mr. Riddick

I am pleased that I gave way; my hon. Friend has added a new dimension to the debate.

It is significant that so many hon. Members are here in the House late at night to listen to an Adjournment debate. Such debates are not usually well attended—a Member is luckly if more than four others turn up. That shows the depth of feeling—

Mr. James Pawsey (Rugby and Kenilworth)

Among Conservative Members at least.

Mr. Richard Caborn (Sheffield, Central)


Mr. Riddick

I cannot give way to the hon. Gentleman, because I do not have enough time.

Mr. Caborn

Give way!

Mr. Riddick

The hon. Gentleman knows that I have only half an hour—

Mr. Caborn


Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes)

Order. The hon. Gentleman knows quite well that if the hon. Member who has the Floor, especially in an Adjournment debate, does not give way, he must resume his seat.

Mr. Riddick

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. If I had more time, I would happily give way, but I am coming to the end of my speech, and I want to encourage one of my hon. Friends to speak as well.

A poll carried out in February 1990 showed that more than 80 per cent. of students believed that students should have the right to join or not to join their student union. I agree. Here is a chance to strike a major blow for choice and freedom. The time is ripe, and I hope that the Minister will grasp this opportunity.

10.49 pm
Mr. Bob Dunn (Dartford)

I had not intended to speak in this short debate, on which I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Riddick). However, I was intrigued by a statement attributed to a Ms. Laura Matthews, a spokeswomen for the National Union of Students, who, according to a report in a newspaper today, said: We are not a closed shop because students choose to belong to the union. That is not the case at all. People choose to become students, but they must not automatically be obliged to belong to a closed shop students union. The Conservative Government have abolished vested interests and monopoly power at all levels in the trade unions and local government, and I abolished the Inner London education authority. This issue is a raw nerve for the Opposition parties, which have behaved so badly in the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley should be congratulated by the House on his determination in putting his case. I hope for a good reply from the Minister.

10.51 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education (Mr. Nigel Forman)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Riddick) for drawing this important subject to the attention of the House and for putting his case in such a characteristically forceful way. I congratulate my hon. Friend on his pulling power in such debates. I am also grateful to my hon. Friends the Members for Lancaster (Dame E. Kellett-Bowman), for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway), for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans), for Hertfordshire, West (Mr. Jones) and for Dartford (Mr. Dunn) for their supportive speeches.

I am glad to have this opportunity to debate the issues. I have listened carefully to the debate and assure my hon. Friends that I take the matter seriously. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education has also shared with me his deep concern about the issues of personal freedom that are involved. As my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley rightly said, this is simply a question of choice.

As the House knows, we have already taken action to deal with the abuses of freedom of speech and the misuse of public funds. Under the Education Act 1986, institutions must take steps to ensure freedom of speech within the law, and must establish codes of practice for this purpose. Students who feel that there is a bias or discrimination against a student society or individual may appeal to their institutions for redress. However, the National Union of Students is not subject of the same obligations and is stil able to urge its members to adopt "no platform" policies. I deplore that and I intend to consider it very carefully.

We have also acted on the use of public funds. The Attorney-General issued guidance in 1983 which provides detailed information on how campus unions with charitable status may use public funds. His office is able to intervene where there is a possibility that these guidelines will be breached. There have also been instances when irregular expenditure has been successfully challenged in the courts.

Although those measures have proved beneficial in cutting the scale of abuse, there have been continuing expressions of concern. My hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley gave further examples. That is why my predecessor—my hon. Friend, the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Howarth)—initiated consultations on student union matters with representatives of student interests and higher education institutions throughout the United Kingdom.

The issues raised in the consultation covered three main points: first, whether membership of campus unions, and hence indirectly association with the NUS, should remain compulsory; secondly, how freedom of speech on campuses can be guaranteed; and thirdly, how the proper use of public funds by campus unions and the NUS can be ensured. These are not simple issues, and that is why the Government are taking time to consider them thoroughly.

In essence, there is here a conflict of principles. At present, students have no choice over whether to join their campus union. It is almost impossible for them to leave the union if they do not agree with its actions. That contravenes a basis democratic principle, that membership of such organisations should be voluntary. I have great sympathy with students who do not wish to belong to an organisation which they feel does not represent their views.

In other words, there are ways in which campus unions are a form of closed shop, as my right hon. Friend said over the weekend. However, there are differences as well. Campus unions are not pre-entry closed shops in the usual sense of the term. Unlike a trade union closed shop, a campus union exercises no control over which students may join the educational institution concerned, although anyone joining the educational institution is automatically made a member of the campus union. Membership of the NUS, too, differs from a closed shop arrangement, in that campus unions vote on whether or not to affiliate.

Herein lies the difficulty. I share the concern of my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley that full-time and sandwich students have no choice over whether to join the union.

Mr. Jack Straw (Blackburn)

Will the Minister confirm that there is one other major difference between a closed shop in a trade union and membership of a student union, which is that membership of a student union imposes no obligation or loss of rights on individuals? It merely gives them rights that they are free to exercise or not in terms of the use of services.

Mr. Forman

I cannot accept that argument. The voluntary principle is not preserved when students are automatically joined to the campus union. Even though they have the possibility of voting technically to affiliate subsequently through their campus unions to the NUS, the initial decision to be in the campus union is not for them. That was the central point to which my hon. Friend was speaking.

On the other hand, in a free society it is of course reasonable for students to have a body which can represent their interests. The principle of freedom of association would suggest that students should have the right to join together to form an organisation to undertake the functions they feel necessary to meet their legitimate needs. The difficulties arise when a small minority of politically motivated students use campus unions as a platform for their opinions and exploit compulsory membership for their own ends.

The use of public funds is another factor to be considered. The campus unions and the NUS are private associations, yet their funds originate largely from the public purse. I say "largely" because private funds are also involved. As my hon. Friend knows, and as he said, the campus unions are funded by block grant from their parent institutions. The funds out of which the institutions pay grant comes from a variety of sources. They come from the public purse in the form of funding council grant and tuition fees paid on students' behalf by local education authorities. The institutions also receive public funds in the form of research council grants.

But their income also derives in part from private sources: industrial research contracts, for example, fees paid by self-financing students and endowments. The campus unions add to the grant they receive from the institutions' funds that they raise on their own account—bar profits, for example. The inclusion of money from public sources in the funds which the campus unions use, and out of which they pay for NUS affiliation, should impose a due restraint upon them and their actions, but it does not seem to have done so. That is another factor which I shall weigh in my consideration of the issues.

There are also practical considerations. Campus unions supply some useful student services at relatively low costs, such as catering, welfare and sporting facilities. We could not consider action in relation to student unions without considering how these services might otherwise be maintained for the benefit of all students. I listened carefully to my hon. Friend's interesting suggestions on alternative ways in which services might be provided.

The consultations initiated by my predecessor are continuing. I plan to bring them to a close in the near future by having a final round of discussions with higher education institutions and others with an interest in the matter.

Mr. Pawsey

My hon. Friend has said that the consultation period has been somewhat protracted. Is he able to advise the House when he expects to bring forward some firm proposals?

I draw my hon. Friend's attention to the fact that there are no fewer than 31 Conservative Members in their places for this important debate. I ask him to contrast that presence with the number of Opposition Members who are in the Chamber.

Mr. Forman

I am impressed by the support that is gathered on the Government Benches. Arguments have been advanced with characteristic forcefulness by my hon. Friends.

I believe that proposals can be brought forward in good time. I cannot be more precise than that at the moment. My hon. Friend will appreciate that the complexity of some of the issues is considerable.

In the light of these discussions, I should be able to reach conclusions, although I am not yet in a position to tell the House what those conclusions will be. My hon. Friends can rest assured that I shall take careful account of what has been said this evening. I shall be seeking to move in the direction of the voluntary principle, which is what has already been flagged by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at one minute to Eleven o'clock.