HL Deb 06 February 1985 vol 459 cc1059-61

2.48 p.m.

Baroness Cox

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will consider sympathetically the proposals from the Federation of Conservative Students for the abolition of the present system of compulsory membership of students' unions and its replacement by a system of voluntary membership.

The Earl of Swinton

My Lords, the Government have noted these proposals, which would require legislation to implement. They do not at present intend to introduce legislation for the purpose, although the question of student union activity is under review. The Government have sympathy with the aim underlying the FCS proposals of preventing a small and often unrepresentative group of students from determining student union policies and actions in the name of a whole student body. The Government will be consulting higher education interests about what action it might be appropriate to take on the issue, and in so doing will take these proposals into account.

Baroness Cox

My Lords, I thank my noble friend the Minister for his reply, which is a little disappointing. Would he explain further the reasons for keeping a system going—his Answer notwithstanding—in which over £40 million of public money every year is given to student unions? Many thousands of pounds of that money are subsequently squandered on expenditure which has nothing whatever to do with education: for example, for the funding of buses and coaches for demonstrations, and for donations to political causes such as funds for striking miners.

The Earl of Swinton

My Lords, the Government have much sympathy with the question of my noble friend. The present arrangements which give rise to automatic membership of student unions derive from the provisions of charters and statutes in the case of universities, and articles of government in that of public sector institutions. Provisions can only be amended at the initiative of the governing bodies of the institutions or by legislation.

I am sure that my noble friend will be glad to hear that the Government believe that reform is needed, but they have no wish to involve themselves directly in matters which have traditionally and rightly been regarded as the responsibility of universities, polytechnics and colleges. They therefore intend to consult the institutions themselves as to how reforms can be introduced to ensure that union policies and actions are properly representative of their membership. In the light of the outcome of these consultations, the Government will consider whether further action may be appropriate.

Lord Grimond

My Lords, when the Government are further considering this matter, will they bear in mind that the student unions perform many useful tasks for students, as well as making a nuisance of themselves on occasion? Would they also consider that many students are short of money, and they might prefer that this quite large grant out of public funds which is available to their unions was paid to them, and they could then make up their minds regarding what they want to do with it?

The Earl of Swinton

Yes, my Lords, I agree largely with what the noble Lord, Lord Grimond, has said. Most student union expenditure is on the provision of welfare, sports and social services which need to be available within institutions and are rightly paid for from public funds. In so far as the Government might consider it appropriate to constrain expenditure by student unions, they will propose to transfer any savings that might arise into the grants made to individual students to enable them to choose individually whether or not to spend the money on excluded activities.

The Earl of Lauderdale

My Lords, can my noble friend confirm whether there have been occasions when students have been expelled from their courses for not belonging to a union? If so, is not that an absolute scandal?

The Earl of Swinton

My Lords, I do not know any details. I shall have to write to my noble friend.

Lord Harris of High Cross

My Lords, will the noble Earl redeem his rather disappointing reply to the noble Baroness by throwing light on two quite specific questions? First is he able to confirm from his extensive briefing that the total cost to public funds of support for student unions is well in excess of £20 million? Secondly, can he tell us anything about the recent developments in Australia where there has been legislation against requiring students to subscribe and belong to unions against their wishes?

The Earl of Swinton

My Lords, my ignorance of what happens in Australia is only matched by my ignorance of the answer to the first part of the noble Lord's question. I shall have to write to him on both points.

Lord Glenamara

My Lords, will the noble Earl bear in mind that in the view of many of us the noble Baroness has grossly exaggerated such problem as there is? Will he also bear in mind that the income of students' unions from grants and from subscriptions is used to provide facilities for all students? It would be grossly unjust if some students were allowed to avoid paying their share.

The Earl of Swinton

No my Lords, I do not think that my noble friend has grossly exaggerated. She has put her case fairly and I hope that we are proceeding in the right way by consulting the institutions concerned.

Baroness David

My Lords, is it not the case that the Federation of Conservative Students is a slight embarrassment to the Conservative Party? Have there not been two official complaints from the Young Conservatives and the Conservative Student Unionists to the party about the tactics used by the federation in disrupting conferences and preventing free debate? At the December Conference of the National Union of Students a guide was produced on how to disrupt; and by putting up eight to 10 candidates for each elected post at the Easter Conference are they not still further pursuing disruptive tactics?

The Earl of Swinton

My Lords, I answer for the Government and not for the Conservative Party; but the federation certainly have not embarrassed me.

Lord Bauer

My Lords, is it right for the noble Earl to belittle such matters as the expulsion of students from their courses for refusing to join a students' union, as has happened in Bristol and Manchester, among other places? Is this not a deplorable restriction on access to higher education?

The Earl of Swinton

Yes, my Lords, if this is so, I think that it is.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, will the Minister agree that it is not inconceivable to assume that many students belong to political parties other than the Conservative Party? Before anything is done, ought not the views of those and the percentage who do not belong to any political party be heard as well as Tory Party views before the Conservative Government indulge in any action on behalf of one political section of the National Union of Students?

The Earl of Swinton

My Lords, obviously this is true. It is a good thing that politics do have a place among students, and that is healthy and right. Yes, my right honourable friend is always ready to consider the views of any student body.

Earl De La Warr

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that recently the Essex University Students' Union voted against a Motion condemning the Brighton bombing?

The Earl of Swinton

My Lords, if they did so I think that they were probably mistaken.