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Student Unions (Funding)

Volume 129: debated on Thursday 10 March 1988

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11.41 pm

I am delighted to have this opportunity to initiate a debate on the important subject of the financing of student unions, a subject which has been of concern for some years to hon. Members, to the Government, to students, indeed to everyone interested in the proper use of public funds and individual rights.

Concern has focused recently, perhaps particularly, on the compulsory membership of the National Union of Students. I draw the attention of the House to early-day motion 449 sponsored by my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Janman) and endorsed by 213 other hon. Members. That motion welcomes the Employment Act 1987 with its measures to
"reverse closed shop arrangements, but notes that hundreds of thousands of students will still have no choice over whether or not they join the National Union of Students; and hopes that the Secretary of State for Education and Science will take steps to rectify this anomalous position as soon as possible."
My hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, West (Mr. Jones) raised this issue during business questions on 25 February last and the Leader of the House said it would be appropriate for hon. Members to table an amendment to the Education Reform Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock and others have done just that, tabling a new clause to the Bill to move to a system of opting into membership of the NUS or other national student bodies. It would be premature to expect the Minister to leap to his feet tonight and announce that the Government intend to accept that new clause; we shall have to wait for the issue to be debated for him to do that.

I was a voluntary member of a students' union at the university of St. Andrews, where I was also president of the students' representative council, a separate organisation. That structure has some attractions, to which I will come later.

Students' unions north and south of the border began as voluntary organisations, as private clubs giving facilities to members. But as the concept of the student grant developed, membership dues were increasingly paid for most students by grant-giving bodies. Those bodies, the Scottish Education Department and local authorities in England and Wales naturally questioned those payments as not being strictly necessary. The response to that was to make membership compulsory. When that happened, of course there was automatic payment of fees for those who wished to join the students' union, and the union had the bonus that membership was compulsory for those who did not wish to join or were indifferent to joining.

That change had two inevitable effects. First, it made the students' unions much more free of any real need to satisfy their membership. Secondly, the fee, in effect, was negotiated by the union and the university or college authorities. It was paid for by the taxpayers and ratepayers. Inevitably, the fees went up.

Change was inevitable, and in 1980 the Government announced that in future the unions would be financed from the general funds of the university or college. That meant that the student union allocation was competing with other demands from departmental budgets. It was hoped that financial realism and the need for the universities and colleges to provide proper institutional oversight would lead to wholly satisfactory arrangements.

It is my contention that that was a fundamental mistake by the Government because it broke the link between the membership of students' unions and their income. One of the books on the subject noted the consequence that
"The responsibility that should be at the root of any democracy has been entirely removed. Members have no financial responsibility for what the union spends or how it spends it."
The income of the National Union of Students, which in 1986–87 amounted to about £1·84 million, was from the taxpayer through block membership by student unions. That means, as the early-day motion of my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock points out, that perhaps hundreds of thousands of students who have no wish to do so are forced to be members of the NUS, but, on the other side of the equation, many individual students may wish to be members of the NUS but if their student unions have opted out they cannot join because there is no longer the possibility of individual membership.

A fundamental point in relation to Government legislation in other areas is that, since membership of those unions is compulsory, and is a closed shop, in effect students are forced to join two closed shops.

It may be thought that the consequences of compulsory membership are not a matter of concern, or that any concern is purely theoretical. People may say that students will be students, nothing is ever perfect, and does it really matter in practice? I must tell my hon. Friend the Minister that I believe that it does really matter.

It matters to one of my constituents who was a full-time treasurer of his students' union. He was sacked because he refused to sign a cheque for students' union funds to go to the fighting fund for the striking miners. He argued that that was wrong, he refused to do it and he was sacked. It is not a matter of theory to him; it is a matter of real concern.

It is a matter of real concern to Mr. Paul Soden who refused to join the students' union at Manchester polytechnic. Although he was willing to pay the money, he was expelled from the polytechnic. It was a matter of real concern to Mrs. Patsy Fry who was expelled from her course at the Queen's road polytechnic in Bristol solely because she refused to join the students' union.

It matters that at Strathclyde university my right hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) was unable to address a meeting; it was disrupted and had to be abandoned. Conservative students have been refused the right to speak at student association meetings solely on political grounds and have been physically attacked by their political opponents.

It is a matter of general concern to society that students may pursue a so-called no-platform policy under which those who profess views with which student union leaders do not agree are refused the right to speak. That goes right to the heart of academic freedom and democracy, whatever the views of the people concerned.

The hon. Gentleman says that he supports academic freedom. When the Education Reform Bill reaches its Report stage and the Opposition table an amendment relating to the definition of academic freedom for academic staff, I assume that the hon. Gentleman will support it.

I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman's concept of academic freedom and mine are the same. However, I speak as a former university teacher and I have been in touch with my hon. Friend the Minister about that Bill. He gave a very helpful reply to the point that I raised with him.

I am interested in the intellectual conclusion that the hon. Gentleman draws: that our definitions of academic freedom are different. I suspect that the evidential basis for that conclusion is very weak, and it might be helpful if the hon. Gentleman were to define academic freedom.

Academic freedom is fundamental to our society. If people are invited to give their views to a particular institution, they should have the right to do so. That fundamental right has been denied by student unions from time to time. I have alredy mentioned my right hon. Friend the Member for Henley. Lord Joseph also suffered such attacks when he was Secretary of State for Education and Science.

I am not making a general attack on student unions or on the National Union of Students, but there are matters of general concern about the NUS. There are longstanding links with, and on some occasions there has been explicit support for, the IRA. At the 1987 NUS conference, Sinn Fein members called for the intensification of the anti-Unionist campaign. It matters that taxpayers' money has been used by the NUS to campaign against the Abortion (Amendment) Bill. Hon. Members may hold widely differing views about that Bill, but why should taxpayers' money be used in that campaign?

My hon. Friend the Minister ought to be concerned about the fact that there was a national demonstration against the Education Reform Bill, not because there was a demonstration, or because students were there, but because subsidised tickets were available from, for example, the students' union at Bristol university — I have a report about it in my hand — to attend the demonstration. Why should my hon. Friend be in charge of handing out taxpayers' money for people to come on subsidised bus trips to oppose the Government's legislation? That is an example of what can happen.

What is the answer to these problems of individual freedom and potential abuse—the problems, in effect, of two closed shops?

My hon. Friend has been talking about two closed shops, referring to the local students' union and the National Union of Students. He should also bear in mind the affiliation of the National Union of Students to the International Union of Students. There is therefore a third closed shop.

My hon. Friend has added a new dimension to the debate. I had thought that two closed shops were good going.

What, then, is the answer? I do not think that it is any good tut-tutting, or blaming Left-wing students; after all, they are just taking advantage of the opportunities that the system offers them. I think that the answer is to apply the principle that the Government have applied elsewhere, especially the returning of trade unions to their members.

The Government should recognise that we are talking about three different functions: first, the services for students, which require to be paid for—usually, under the present system, via the taxpayer; secondly, local representation on the individual campus, and the need for a channel of communication between students and the university or college authorities; and, thirdly, a national trade union.

In regard to the first function, I feel that it would be preferable if the Government simply increased the grant under the present arrangements, and gave students the choice whether to spend the money on being members of a student union. After all, students are by definition intelligent people capable of making a rational choice.

As for the local representational function, there is a case for a direct grant from the university authorities for that limited function. As for the third function — the financing of a national trade union—it is absurd, that that is currently compulsory and financed by the taxpayer. As my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock has suggested, let individual students opt into membership of a national union, and let the Government give direct grants to such a body if they wish to do so, for specific and agreed purposes. There are various possible methods of achieving those objectives.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will recognise that there is a genuine problem, and that he will agree that the Government should apply their general principles to the problem of what have been called the forgotten closed shops: the same principles of individual choice that have been so successfully applied by the Government to other areas of national life.

11.58 pm

I should like to declare an interest, as a life member of St. Andrews university students' union. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Eastwood (Mr. Stewart) for initiating a debate about this important issue. I have felt passionately about it ever since I was a student, and, indeed, ever since I was a student union official.

My hon. Friend the Member for Eastwood was a very distinguished president of the student representative council, but I think that I go one beyond him in that I was not only an officer of the student representative council, but also an officer of the students' union. I think that the traditional pattern in the Scottish universities of separating the services role of providing food and cheap refreshment from the political representative system is quite a good one.

My most vivid memory is of the seemingly interminable debates that took place in the students' representative council at St. Andrews when I was there about its membership of the NHS. When I first went to St. Andrews — I imagine that the same was true when my hon. Friend the Member for Eastwood was there—we were affiliated to the Scottish Union of Students, an entirely separate body. The NUS had ambitions, as trade unions do from time to time, and sought to take over the SUS. In order to do so, it offered free membership of the NUS to the student unions presently within the SUS.

We tried that and about two thirds of the way through the year the student representative council in St. Andrews decided that it would vote to disaffiliate from the NUS because it felt that it had had rather bad value for money. It was also concerned about the extremist political image of the NUS.

Despite the fact that St Andrews had a year's trial membership, the NUS said that we could not leave without giving a year's notice and paying the affiliation fees for that period, so we were unable to disaffiliate. It took several years before a referendum of the students decided to pull the university out of the NUS, a model that was followed subsquently by a number of other Scottish unions.

The clear point that came out during the course of that debate about membership of the NUS was not just the value-for-money one but the moral one. The NUS was clearly recognised at that time as an extremist political body. Its political stance on Northern Ireland, for example, was unconditional support for both wings of the IRA.

As a delegate to the NUS conference in Birmingham in the early 1970s, I attended the debate at which that motion was passed. I found it deeply offensive, as I know did the students at my university. Many of the students at St. Andrews come from Northern Ireland's unionist community. There has always been a close relationship between the Province and Scotland. It was intolerable for them that their money, through their subscription to the NUS, should be used to support a body which was actively bombing, maiming and killing their friends and relatives in Northern Ireland.

But the issue was not just the NUS's policy on the IRA; there were many other policies that were equally unacceptable, either to large groups of students or to individuals with views on particular matters. I cite, for example, the religious views of Jehovah's Witnesses, which do not permit them to join such bodies; they must therefore decide whether to go to university and be obliged to compromise their religious views, not to go to university, or to find one of those few universities that are not affiliated to the NUS. That is an intolerable infringement of people's conscience and religious freedom.

In recent years there have been many examples of intolerance practised by local student unions and the NUS. I do not know whether my hon. Friend the Minister will refer to this, but one that sticks in my mind is the discrimination against Jewish students that has been specifically practised over the years.

The student unions have taxpayers' money and money from their individual members and they dole it out to societies affiliated to the union. They pick and choose the causes that they want to support. A body of which they approve might receive a large grant and one of which they do not approve might get no grant at all. Jewish society after Jewish society was denied any funding out of allocations in individual universities because of the pro-PLO stance of the local student union, and that is intolerable.

I said in an intervention in my hon. Friend's speech that he had overlooked — I am sure unintentionally — the third closed shop, the International Union of Students, which is closely identifed not just with the far Left but with the Soviet Union and its satellites. Almost every hon. Member, whatever his or her political affiliation, would find the motions passed by the IUS at its conferences deeply offensive, yet students are forced to subscribe through their funds, or through taxpayers' funds, to those causes.

This is a moral issue. The Government should not stand aside and say that the matter is for the students to decide and that they can vote extremists out of office, because even quite moderate student unions would not in any way satisfy the point of conscience raised about Jehovah's Witnesses. As my hon. Friend the Member for Eastwood said, unions which have compulsory membership grow lazy and unresponsive to their members, because they know that they will get the same amount of cash whether the service they provide is good or bad.

My hon. Friend touched only lightly on possible solutions. I agree with him that in the long term it is perfectly proper to separate the political representative functions — the trade union functions — of student representative councils from the functions of providing services, but both functions should be voluntary. In the short term, there is no case against the membership of the National Union of Students being made voluntary. I recommend to my hon. Friend that students who wish to become members of the NUS should have to choose to become members.

That would not cause any administrative problems. It is possible at present, and it has always been possible, for students of colleges which are not affiliated to the NUS to join it, and many students do. In my days as a student at St. Andrews, before we affiliated to the NUS, many students belonged to it, although they did not have to.

It could also provide a choice of unions—that is a theoretical possibility, but one that should be encouraged — because different unions with different objectives could be set up. That would provide students with a choice, which would be beneficial to them as it would enable them to shop around and obtain better concessions on items such as travel and insurance.

This is the last great closed shop. It is a moral affront to anybody who believes in democracy and it is a moral affront to taxpayers who are forced to pay for this absolutely extraordinary farce. What other trade union has its subscriptions paid for by taxpayers? Not one. That is why the model should be outlawed by my hon. Friend when he gets a legislative opportunity.

Some of us have stayed up late tonight because we remember all too vividly the intolerance of the National Union of Students and Left-wing student unions. We have been acquainted with far more modern instances of that by our constituents, and I hope my hon. Friend will be able to give a positive lead today.

12.8 am

I am grateful for being called in this important debate, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Eastwood (Mr. Stewart) on his great success in coming third in the ballot.

The hon. Gentleman is very familiar with the matter and will appreciate that the ingenuity of my hon. Friend has allowed his name to come so high in the ballot.

The hon. Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Fatchett) will appreciate that, although many of my hon. Friends are here tonight at this late hour, we represent but the tip of the iceberg. As the hon. Gentleman ought to be aware, nine tenths of the iceberg appears below the surface. If my mathematics are correct, I would imagine—

It is nine tenths of the iceberg, only if the hon. Gentleman has 45 supporters, or should we say 50?

From the number of signatures to my early-day motion, I suggest that each of us represents one iceberg.

My hon. Friend has made an extremely important point by showing the strength of feeling on this issue. More than 200 of my right hon. and hon. Friends signed the early-day motion, which has now been incorporated in an amendment to the Education Reform Bill. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will acknowledge the strength of feeling and bring proposals forward when the Bill reaches its Report stage.

Like my hon. Friends the Members for Eastwood and for Hertfordshire. West (Mr. Jones), I must declare an interest. I was also a pressed man in the National Union of Students when I was at Southampton university in the great, heady days of the late 1960s, when all was turbulent. The hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), who sadly is not with us tonight to share in these important proceedings, had been elected as chairman of the NUS. Of course, he was a more moderate gentleman then, and by comparison with the rest of the Labour party he is almost one of us now. That shows either that wisdom comes with old age, or that the Labour party has moved dramatically to the Left. I suspect that the latter is probably the case—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Leeds, Central will have to speak up if he wants to intervene from a sedentary position.

I was at university at a turbulent time. I managed to become a member of the students' representative council and participated in the affairs of the union. I am delighted that a newspaper has taken a potted look at what it calls "a random harvest" of the latest political leanings and activities in various universities around the country. I see that Southampton university is described as "apathetic and very Tory". They strike me as excellent things for a university to be.

One of the problems that arose when we were all pressed men in the union was that we had to fight constantly against a certain degree of apathy and deal with professional student agitators.

I cannot let my hon. Friend get away with calling this apathy. Rather, it involves other priorities. There is nothing wrong with a student having enjoyment or work as priorities rather than mucking around with Left-wing politics.

That illustrates the passion with which my hon. Friend views these matters. He is so concerned that he has anticipated the very comment that I was about to make.

At the time of the great troubles, Professor Max Beloff asked why students who had gone to university to study and learn, and to make friends, should, as part of their wider education, become involved in grotesquely trivial political matters. He said that to play a game of cricket or pursue a young lady were equally valuable pursuits. In the light of yesterday's debate in the Chamber, that seems to be a wholly honourable thing for a young man to do at university.

It was a feature of the times that, to preserve a moderate balance, in Southampton we tried to get the entire engineering section to vote at lunch time for some common sense. The trouble was that, unlike the social scientists, who kept gentlemen's hours, the engineers had to work and engage in a certain amount of discipline. They would pitch in at 5 minutes past 1, having come straight from lectures, vote down all the political nonsense from the Left, and disappear at 2 minutes to 2 to get back to lectures, and at 5 minutes past 2 the die-hard Lefties, who did not have to go back to lectures, would reverse everything that was a genuine reflection of the views of the normal students at the university.

At least engineering students could spend their lunch time voting. I spent my lunch time quaking because at 2 o'clock I was due to have an economics lecture from my hon. Friend the Member for Eastwood (Mr. Stewart).

I am delighted that my hon. Friend was quaking. It clearly illustrates that my hon. Friend the Member for Eastwood was doing an extremely good job. As a result of it, my hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, West is now in the House, and we are all, therefore, beneficiaries. My hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, West told me that I could not go home but should join in this debate. It is a very important debate and, of course, I postponed my departure to be here to demonstrate my concern rather than be with my wife and family and my constituents.

My hon. Friends have made strong points about the fact that the fee that is paid to student unions is in no way negotiated by the student concerned. It does not come out of the student's pocket, and therefore there is no connection between the fee that is paid and what goes on in the students' union. I think that we would all accept that much of what goes on in student unions, and what went on in the 1960s and the early 1970s, is unexceptional. Student unions should provide social and sporting facilities for the better education and enjoyment of students, but after Fred Jarvis became involved — I understand that he was one of the early NUS presidents after the war—the students' union became politicised. Much has happened to the trade union that he now heads. Everyone is now looking back on that period, as it is 20 years since the great problems of 1968. The unions were thrown into turmoil.

I am one of the few hon. Members who were in Grosvenor square in March 1968 for the great Vietnam demonstration.

Well, there were three of us. I suspect that I am unique among those of us who were there in Grosvenor square on that horrifying and frightening occasion in so far as mine was the only banner in support of the Americans. I took the precaution of ensuring that there was a thin blue line of men from the Metropolitan police between me and the hordes, and very wise I was, too.

Half an hour before, we had heard these people coming down the streets. There was a roar. They entered the square and I saw them tearing up the square with their bare hands and tearing down palings and jabbing the policemen's horses with them. It was a frightening experience — all the more frightening because of the politicial pusillanimity of the Government of the time, who allowed all that to go on.

Subsequently, I went to the London School of Economics. I ruffled my hair, tried to look shabby and said that I was a comrade from Southampton who had come to try to help. It shows the naivety of the Left-wing students at the time that I was posted to security. I was completely unknown to them. I merely said that I was a comrade come to join them. They played the BBC news over the loudspeaker system at the LSE, and they all sat there wondering what to do. They were the first item on the news — this massive demonstration in Grosvenor square—and none of them had managed to fathom the magnitude of what they had done, or what they would do thereafter. The whole thing was what I could call, "Kicking against the pricks." I must be careful how I continue, but I believe that that expression would not be wholly inappropriate to our political leaders at the time, who allowed themselves, supinely, to be dealt with in that way.

Time is pressing, and I know that some of my hon. Friends and the hon. Member for Leeds, Central wish to speak. I have three principal anxieties. The first is about freedom of expression. I went through that experience in the 1960s and was vilified. I tried to organise a meeting for Patrick Wall, the former Member of Parliament for Haltemprice, and he was howled down despite the fact that we had installed extra 50 W amplifiers. My hon. Friends who knew Patrick Wall in the House will know that he is an extremely mild-mannered man, yet he — an elected Member of Parliament—was denied the opportunity of speaking about the defence of our country, which should not be controversial.

To try to defuse the problems, there was a joint declaration from the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals and the National Union of Students. It was a disaster—

It certainly was not. That is why I am so angry about the NUS. It is not a principled bunch of people, and it never has been on such matters. It has never been prepared to guarantee freedom of expression, and that is why my right hon. and hon. Friends were forced, two years ago, to introduce the Education (No. 2) Act 1986, section 43 of which deals with freedom of speech in universities, polytechnics and colleges. That is not only an indictment of the NUS; it is a heavy indictment of the supine men and women who have been responsible for running our universities. At Southampton, when we wished to organise a meeting to which Enoch Powell had been invited and the student union refused to allow us to have a room in the union, the vice-chancellor said, "You are asking me to take your hot chestnuts out of the fire for you." The man was not prepared to stand up for freedom of expression.

My hon. Friend the Member for Eastwood mentioned the no-platform policy, which is still very much in existence. Let us not forget that in the past few months my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Mr. Carlisle) has been subjected to assault and battery. In Manchester, three years ago, the former Home Secretary, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Brittan), was subjected to the most grotesque attack. I say to the hon. Member for Leeds, Central, and I should be interested to hear his response, that those who espouse his brand of politics tend to attack those who espouse our brand of politics, and those who espouse our brand of politics tend not to attack those who espouse his brand of politics. That fundamental difference needs to be remembered.

My second anxiety is about the ultra vires payments. For as long as I can remember, student unions, given this funding, which does not even pass through students' pockets, have attempted to divert it into unworthy causes—causes outside the remit of any student union, either for the funding of demonstrations or for the funding of strikes and strikers.

During the National Union of Mineworkers strike, outrageous attempts were made in universities to fund the strikers or to send people to support the picket lines. What had that to do with learning? Absolutely nothing! Even the president of the National Union of Mineworkers was incapable, and remains incapable, of learning anything, so there was no value in that action.

My third point relates to the concept of accountability by opting in. The fact that the National Union of Students says that it speaks for 1·2 million people, or however many it is, gives to it a spurious authority, when its membership is entirely press-ganged. My hon. Friends have mentioned what is happening nationally and on the international scene. The NUS is used as a political vehicle when it has no right to be hijacked.

Like the Scottish Labour party, the system is an anachronism. It is out of date and serves no useful purpose. Therefore, I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to give us some indication tonight that the commitments given by successive Front-Bench Conservatives, notably when they were in opposition, will become robust. I hope that he will translate into Government action that which tripped so easily from the tongue when in opposition. We hope that the Minister will be able to send us home to our constituencies tonight full of encouragement and joy.

12.27 am

I, too, add my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Eastwood (Mr. Stewart) on winning the ballot, which is the easy part, and also on raising such a sensible subject.

My hon. Friends have identified the problem. I believe that there is a problem, first, with the method of funding and, secondly, the related problem of the closed shop, which leads directly from the method of funding. As my hon. Friends rightly say, three closed shops operate. I should like to talk about two of them. The first is the National Union of Students. Any student who belongs to a students' union that is affiliated to the NUS finds himself automatically affiliated to the national union as well as to the individual students' union. It is absolutely right that my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Janman) should have tabled an early-day motion, and he has secured the support of well over 200 Conservative Members for it. There is no justification for dragooning thousands of students into the NUS.

I must gently admonish my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock, although one has to be very careful before doing so as he is one of the "driest" Members of the House, for concentrating his motion and, indeed, his amendment to the Education Reform Bill upon the closed shop of the NUS. There is another closed shop, of individual students' unions, which I believe is a more serious problem. The situation is such that, if one wishes to study at any university, polytechnic or college in this country, one has to belong to a students' union. I cannot see how that situation can be defended in any way.

The Government abhor industrial closed shops and the most recent Employment Bill, currently going through another place, will effectively neuter their effect. However, the Government allow the closed shop of the students' unions to continue. The Government must now concentrate their minds on that issue. I am sure that my hon. Friends will agree that there should be no step-by-step approach. We must deal with the NUS and the student union closed shops.

I am grateful for the gracious way in which my hon. Friend has admonished me. Does he agree that the fact that the student closed shop—irrespective of how one wishes to define it — is funded by the taxpayer means that it is far worse and less defensible than industrial closed shops?

I agree. There is no defence for a closed shop that is wholly funded by the taxpayer. It is extraordinary that the Government are prepared to allow this situation to continue. I hope that the Government will now grasp this important nettle.

The money for students' unions is passed directly, as a block grant, from the parent institution to the compulsory membership union. The individual student does not see his contribution. In many cases he has no idea that that money has passed over to that union. There is no accountability. Each union therefore has a guaranteed income without the need to attract a single customer for its services.

Generally, the services comprise bars, cafeterias, refectories and a varied range of sporting and welfare services. Entertainment events are also organised throughout the terms. However, the block grant also helps to fund a rag-bag of special interest and political groups. The money also funds the payment of sabbatical officers — people who, by and large, are Left-wing political activists. It is a classic case of jobs for the boys.

It is bad enough that any Government should be funding such things, but it is extraordinary that a Conservative Government should do so. It is estimated that about £40 million of taxpayers' money is handed over to an extraordinary assortment of Trotskyists, Marxists, Maoists and other Left-wing activists.

There is scope to introduce a market mechanism to ensure that the services provided are subject to the same economic laws that have led to dramatic improvements in other parts of the state sector. The Government have already grasped the difficult nettle of nationalised industries. They are more effective, efficient and market-orientated. We are now trying to effect such changes in Government Departments and agencies, and that is absolutely right.

I am interested to hear the hon. Gentleman's comments. Will he tell us in what way British Telecom is now more efficient?

I am not sure whether I should be taken down that road, but, in my experience, British Telecom was the most appalling monolithic nationalised monster in the 1970s. One had to wait months, in some cases up to six months, to have a telephone installed. That situation has now been completely reversed. Of course British Telecom is not perfect, but is improving. Furthermore, investment in British Telecom today is far higher than it was when it was a nationalised industry.

I do not want to give way to the hon. Gentleman on the subject of British Telecom. I shall happily give way to him, but not on the subject of British Telecom.

I shall deal with the hon. Gentleman's comments about British Telecom later. He might be interested to hear my comments.

I shall look forward to that.

Student unions are featherbedded, unaccountable and excessively wasteful. Often they are loss-making, scruffy and down-market and provide only limited or poor quality services in an atmosphere of shabby, political agitprop. Leeds university is a good example of that. My hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. Nicholson) went up to Leeds only last week and I am sorry to report to the House that his speech was interrupted by a load of militant Socialists and Trotskyists who did not like what he had to say. There is no justification for such behaviour.

The students' union at Wolverhampton polytechnic is £70,000 in the red, yet the union prefers to spend its lime persecuting members of the Conservative association and spending large sums of money on far Left political causes. The majority of students at Wolverhampton polytechnic wholly ignore the seedy and unpleasant students' union and instead use the facilities in the nearby city centre. The pattern of far Left political control is replicated throughout the country.

I wish to turn now to the possible solutions to the problem. One involves the facilities which students' unions currently provide for their members. Those facilities, including bars and cafeterias, should have to stand or fall on their own efforts. They must be made market-orientated. If Labour Members were to say that that was not possible, I have no doubt that breweries would be only too happy to supply beer at very advantageous prices to the students' unions. We all know how much beer students can consume. Furthermore, the breweries would be only too happy to lend money at very generous rates of interest.

Other solutions could be found if university and college authorities retained a certain amount of the block grant to provide, for example, sports facilities. The money left over should then be allocated to individual students so that no money went directly to the students' unions. If left to individual subscriptions, the National Union of Students would wither on the vine.

The Government have a duty to grasp the nettle. They must take away the money and power which they are inadvertently giving to those Left-wing agitators and militants.

12.39 am

These are interesting times for the Secretary of State for Education and Science. He has already been ambushed by the right hon. Members for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) and for Chingford (Mr. Tebbit) and forced to change his mind about the abolition of the Inner London education authority. That defeat did his political stock no good. He has now been in open disagreement with the Prime Minister about the provisions of the Education Reform Bill. It is interesting to see what today's Financial Times has to say on the subject. It mentions the increasingly authoritarian style of the Prime Minister and the powers of the Secretary of State:

"As to the Education Reform Bill, there are at least 184 new powers. You may think, 'So what?'"—

I am sure there will be more by the time the Bill reaches Report stage in another place.

"You may think, 'So what?' But it means that the Secretary of State for Education, Mr. Kenneth Baker, can set a national curriculum for schools, by order. He can set attainment targets, by order. As this week's disclosure of a letter from an official in No. 10 Downing Street to his counterpart in the Department of Education indicates, the order is as likely to reflect the views of the Prime Minister as those of her Education Secretary."
So the Secretary of State is having some difficulty winning his way on crucial issues such as assessment, and it is clear that the real Secretary of State is the Prime Minister.

Tonight, the Secretary of State faces his third major political ambush—the St. Andrews mafia have come for him. They are here to persuade the Secretary of State to change his mind yet again. They may be on to a winner, not because of their intellectual arguments but because we know that the Secretary of State is desperate for a few friends. When one's stock is as low as the Secretary of State's, even the St. Andrews mafia may comfort him.

Conservative Members may find some support, but I warn them in advance that I have had the pleasure of seeing the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State in Committee, where he said no every time. I suspect that he will say no again tonight. He was christened Stonewall Jackson by my hon. Friends in Committee. I am sorry to disappoint the Minister's hon. Friends, but I can forecast what he will say.

On the subject of the St. Andrews mafia, I went to that organisation — that is the operative word—too, but before certain new hon. Members made it unrespectable. I was at Queen's college, Dundee, and we used to suggest international visits to St. Andrews from Dundee. In those days, the students' union and representative council were run by a blue mafia — they were extremists. One of them was called Duncan Pirie, but has since changed his name to a posher version—Manson Pirie. He now runs one of the eccentric Right-wing organisations that writes the manifestos that people such as the Minister must stand up and defend with the stonewall expression that my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Fatchett) has described. However, hon. Members should not be put off; some decent people came out of St. Andrews, even if they are under-represented in the House.

My hon. Friend proves that at least one decent person came out of St. Andrews. Clearly, my hon. Friend's experience of travelling from Dundee to St. Andrews has made him a suitable candidate to be a foreign affairs spokesperson.

The hon. Member for Eastwood (Mr. Stewart) talked of academic freedom. It might be useful to return to that theme because one or two of his hon. Friends spoke about it. I intervened in the speech of the hon. Member for Eastwood. We all know him to be consistent, and if we can show him at a later stage in the passage of the Bill that we can come forward with a definition of academic freedom for academic staff that is agreed by the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals I have no doubt that he will support it.

Perhaps I could suggest to the hon. Gentleman a little background reading of the reports of some of the debates that have taken place. He might be interested in today's issue of The Independent or, in the context of this debate, yesterday's issue of The Independent. In that there is a review of the proceedings in Committee on the Education Reform Bill. With some perception, the author says that on the question of academic freedom the Secretary of State was somewhat embarrassed and found his position difficult to maintain. The journalist said of the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science, the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Jackson), that there was no such embarrassment.

May I ask the hon. Member for Eastwood and those other hon. Members concerned about academic freedom to forget what the Under-Secretary may say in that context, but to support the Secretary of State and fight for academic freedom for individual staff?

Some hon. Members have spoken about freedom on the campus. I have always supported freedom of speech on the campus and it must be supported as long as it is within the law. If hon. Members look at the record of the debates on the Education Act 1986 they will see what I said on that occasion. I have always argued that the no-platform policy causes the National Union of Students a great deal of difficulty and is wrong in much of its implementation.

Yes. My view is on the record and there is no attempt to fudge the issue. I make the point clearly to the hon. Gentleman that that principle of freedom of speech within the law must be maintained. Those who break the law are not exercising the right of freedom of speech; they are abusing it. In terms of student union politics I have always held that position.

I should like to turn to two aspects of the hidden agenda before coming to the real agenda. That hidden agenda has become clear because of the failure of Conservative student politics. The Conservative student movement has been an incredible embarrassment to the party and to Conservative Members. It is not surprising that Conservative Members now look slightly sheepish.

The record of the Federation of Conservative Students is a catalogue of abuse. Those who need the press reports about the Young Conservative conference at Eastbourne just a few weeks ago will know about the behaviour of the former Federation of Conservative Students and the way in which it tried to use physical and political violence to make sure that it could impose its views. We saw the behaviour of the FCS when its members damaged the students' union at Loughborough. Was that two years ago? We have seen the intervention of the right hon. Member for Chingford when he was chairman of the Conservative party. He had to intervene because the FCS had become such an embarrassment to the Conservative party.

All that is not surprising, because the politics of the far Right clearly has some influence in the Conservative party, but it is an influence that the party wants to hide. The right hon. Member for Chingford is not known for niceties and acted when it became known that the FCS was becoming a political embarrassment. It talked in many contexts about legalising drugs and intervening in central America. It produced the scandalous draft of the newsletter at Aston university after the Bradford City football club fire. After those events, the political wing of the Conservative party in student organisations was in disgrace and the right hon. Member for Chingford was right to close it down.

Will the hon. Gentleman accept that there is a fundamental difference between a student organisation that is part of a political party that is not funded by the taxpayer and a national student organisation that is undemocratic, has a dragooned membership, has extreme policies and is funded by the taxpayer?

I am very interested in the hon. Gentleman's intervention. I wonder why he does not answer my point. My question is, very simply: is he embarassed by the behaviour of the former FCS, or did he support it and its policy? I should be happy to give way to the hon. Gentleman, because I think that he would like to answer that question. It is not about taxpayers' money. What I want to know from him is whether he stands by the old FCS and what it stood for. Will he tell us?

It is totally irrelevant to the debate, Madam Deputy Speaker. What we are debating tonight is the funding of student unions and the funding of the National Union of Students. It seems to me that it is about time that the Front-Bench spokesman for the Opposition started to address that topic.

Again, Madam Deputy Speaker, the weasel words of the hon. Gentleman will be noted with great interest. What the hon. Gentleman will not do—I suspect that it comes out of that same stable of views—is condemn the Federation of Conservative Students.

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I understood that this debate was about the finance of student unions. The hon. Gentleman, so far, has talked about the Education Reform Bill and his views on that, and about the FCS and his views on that, and we have had 11 minutes of it. We have yet to hear from him about the finance of student unions. Is the hon. Gentleman entitled to use all this debating time on material which is unrelated to the subject?

In my view, the hon. Gentleman is not out of order; nor has he been on his feet yet for 11 minutes. Mr. Fatchett.

I could make progress, Madam Deputy Speaker, if there were not so many interventions. It is not my fault; I am not trying to delay the House. I can understand the hon. Gentleman wanting to get the subject away from the Federation of Conservative Students. This is one part of the hidden agenda — the failure of the Conservative party to recruit among students in our universities and polytechnics. There is only one saving grace as far as the Conservative party is concerned in terms of recruitment, and that is the alliance. It does worse, but only just, and if the FCS has more influence the Conservatives will do worse than the alliance.

The other part of the hidden agenda is the clear authoritarianism of the Conservative party. My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Battle) has said how interesting it is that Government Members defend freedom of speech when at the same time we have the language of the Prime Minister about her desire to "extinguish" Socialism—the language of violence and eradication.

The real authoritarianism of this Government stretches to the press, to the BBC and to all those institutions that offer alternative views. We know, and it has been clearly stated, that every student union that disagrees with the Conservative party is a target for that authoritarianism. If it disagrees with the Conservative party, it is in danger of being closed down.

When it comes to the argument about the closed shop, I feel that I am on very safe ground indeed. I rely on the former Secretary of State for Education, Lord Joseph. It seems to me that Lord Joseph came out of the Right-wing political stable of the Conservative party. He differs, I suspect, from a number of hon. Gentlemen here tonight in that he is a thinking man, a sensitive man. In October 1983, at the Conservative party conference, he said of student unions:
"a wrong impression has been given by the phraseology we use, we use the words of industrial trade unionism. In fact the student union is not the same—mercifully—as an industrial union.
The only work it can stop is by itself, by its own members, to its own harm. What we have in the student union is provision that enables automatic membership, automatic access to be given to students at a polytechnic to the facilities such as libraries and sports facilities provided by the public and I do not see how we can therefore make membership voluntary."
Lord Joseph was right in October 1983 and I suspect that some Conservative Members present tonight supported him at that time. He clearly said that the student union was not a closed shop on the basis of an industrial closed shop. The student union is of the nature of a providing body, whereas the closed shop is in essence part of an economic collective relationship. Because Conservative Members have failed to relate their arguments on this issue to the points made by Lord Joseph, their argument falls.

The student union provides a range of services which are among the opportunities available in student life. They extend beyond the political. While the Conservative party does badly on the political side in that context, there are sporting and cultural facilities and many of us have benefited from them.

I remember Grosvenor square in 1968. Although I was there, I hope it was not I who allowed the hon. Member for Cannock and Burntwood (Mr. Howarth) to be responsible subsquently for security. I recall, too, when at the London School of Economics, having the advantage of playing for the LSE cricket club, which was subsidised through the student union, of being elevated to the dizzy heights of vice-captain and secretary of the cricket club, and of performing those tasks using all the skill with which I have run my subsequent political career. We won many matches, including the Universities Cup. My only mistake as secretary was to have three teams playing on two pitches, an occasion when Socialist planning did not work.

Within the political process at local and national level we have the opportunity for individuals to express their views. The hon. Member for Cannock and Burntwood spoke of his time at Southampton university and of activating the silent majority. That is all part of the democratic process, and I respect his efforts in that matter. But what I suspect the hon. Gentleman and many of his hon. Friends regret is that the Conservative party cannot find a substantial majority among student bodies, and that that is the reason for their attack tonight.

We believe in student bodies. There is a role for the NUS as a voice that can represent the interests of students to Government. That is why we want to maintain the system as it is and why I hope the Minister will reject tonight's Right-wing monetarism—this Right-wing free-market force from St. Andrews—and will recall what my hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) said about better forces having come out of St. Andrews. I am sure that those better forces would recommend the continuation of the student union arrangements as they now exist.

12.58 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science
(Mr. Robert Jackson)

The debate has been interesting and useful, and may well be pregnant with consequence. We are grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Eastwood (Mr. Stewart) for raising the matter.

Following the precedent set by my hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, West (Mr. Jones), I declare my interest as a former president of the Oxford Union, a student union which happily conforms to the model prescribed by my hon. Friend the Member for Eastwood.

Two different but related sets of issues have been raised in the debate: that of local unions—unions at the level of the institutions—and that of the NUS; and I wish, first, to register the significance of the debate. Hon. Members have shown an impressive commitment by their eloquence and arguments. There was of course the impressive commitment reflected in early-day motion 449 put down by my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Janman), which has now attracted about 214 signatures. By the standards of parliamentary icebergs—if that is what early-day motions are—that is a major iceberg. All that constitutes at least a significant expression of opinion. I believe that it should cause heart searching on the part of those who find their stewardship under such formidable criticism.

I must also register what might be called the propriety of the debate. Local unions and the National Union of Students derive the bulk of their finance from the taxpayer. They are not, they cannot regard themselves, and they cannot be regarded as simply private bodies. The words of the Attorney-General's guidance on expenditure by student unions in 1983 underline that point.

I do not believe that it would be wise policy for us, as Members of Parliament who represent the taxpayer, to press the principle of accountability too hard. We may pay the piper, but experience often shows that the piper will play best if he chooses his own tunes. My hon. Friends are right to insist that hon. Members have a proper interest in how several tens of millions of pounds of taxpayers' money is being disbursed by student unions and the NUS.

Having said that, I now advert to some of the difficulties that I consider to be in the way of some courses of action that have been proposed this evening. With regard to local unions, I remind the House that we are considering organisations that are part of the structure—often the constitutional structure — of institutions—universities and polytechnics — which are autonomous, and whose autonomy all Governments, especially a Conservative Government, are bound to respect.

As recently as 1983 the Attorney-General, in his guidance to student unions, to which I have already referred, remarked:
"It is clear … that if a college is to function properly, there is a need for the normal range of clubs and societies so as to enable each student to further the development of his abilities, mental and physical. Equally, it is likely that the college will gain from the fact that the students hold meetings to debate matters of common concern and publish some form of campus newspaper. Reasonable expenditure on such purposes is, in the view of the Attorney General, plainly permissible for a Student Union."
That was not only the view of the Attorney-General in 1983; it is embodied in the statutes and charters of many autonomous universities and colleges, each of which has found its own way of giving expression to the view.

The Government feel that Parliament should act to override such a view only when very powerful considerations of public policy are at stake. That is the first difficulty in some of the proposals put forward in the debate.

Another set of difficulties are less of a practical than of a philosophical order. The great principle that has been hovering over the debate is that of freedom of association. This was referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, West when he spoke about a moral issue. I think that he is right about that and that the hon. Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Fatchett) fell below the level of the debate when he failed to recognise that important dimension of it.

The principle of freedom of association is complex. On one side, it imposes a requirement on an individual to be associated with a body whose activities are abhorrent to him. That was the case made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, West. The other side of the argument is that the principle of freedom of association defends the right of corporate associations to associate freely together, as, for example, a student union will affiliate to the National Union of Students. My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock will acknowledge that he came upon that difficulty when he was framing subsections (3) and (4) of his draft clause, which could appear to permit a local union to purchase services, but would make it unlawful for a national student body or the National Union of Students to be paid to provide such services. That is a somewhat paradoxical limitation of the principle of free contract.

I have alluded to some of the difficulties with which this question is fraught, but I do not intend to stress only the difficulties. It is clear from the debate and from the early-day motion that there is a strong current of concern in the House that focuses particularly on two questions.

The first relates to safeguards for individual students who reject compulsory affiliation, especially to the National Union of Students. The Government must take note of the concern that has been expressed on that point. The second relates to the extent to which student unions, and especially the NUS, distinguish, or fail to distinguish, between services that directly support the position of students as students and their overtly political campaigning. These campaigns are often on matters that are far removed from the interests and concerns, to use the words of my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General, of "students as such" or of their "colleges as such." Hence the concern that has been expressed tonight by my hon. Friends.

There is a case to answer, and the National Union of Students must be allowed to answer it. How thereafter the matter should be taken forward remains to be seen. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science is conscious of the strength of feeling in the House, as shown by the number of signatures that the early-day motion has attracted. He will therefore wish to make a statement at an appropriate moment. In the meantime, I know that he will want to pay careful attention to all that has been said during the debate.

1.6 am

This subject has been well covered tonight. The basic principle is that each student should he able to decide whether he or she joins the National Union of Students above and beyond automatic membership of the local students' union. It is important to differentiate between the Socialist definition of choice, which is collectivist—that students should be bound by the decision of a student union general meeting— and our more correct definition of choice, which leaves the individual to decide.

The current means of arriving at NUS membership depends upon the taxpayer, by a very tortuous route, funding the organisation rather than those individuals who decide to join it. I shall concentrate on the NUS and set out a few of the views that are held by that organisation which the taxpayer is funding. Before doing so, it is worth pointing out that my early-clay motion was signed by Conservative Members, by three Ulster Democratic Unionist party Members and by one Social Democratic party Member. There was also a supportive amendment to my early-day motion that was signed by six official Ulster Unionist party Members.

The NUS supports the African National Congress in South Africa and SWAPO. It supports the statement that South Africa should be made ungovernable and that its system should be made unworkable. On economic policy, the NUS supports positive discrimination for the working class, women, blacks, other ethnic groups, lesbians and gay men, the disabled, young people and those who are classed as too old to get a job. I am not quite sure who is left out. It supports non-privatised industry and the scrapping of all the Government's trade union laws.

In December 1984 the NUS voted to donate £1,000 to the striking miners. It is encouraging a campaign of civil disobedience against the community charge, a campaign that is to be funded by the taxpayer. The NUS intends to support and pay the legal fees of those students who will not pay the community charge. On defence, the NUS supports CND. On drugs, it supports legalising cannabis. An article in the national student magazine, which is funded to the tune of £ 24,000 a year by the NUS, gave instructions on how to make "crack" — a particularly virulent form of cocaine — describing the drug as "staggeringly pleasurable", and went on to say that it would
"get you as high as you are ever going to get".
On Ulster, the NUS has never condemned the action of the IRA, and supports British withdrawal and a united Ireland.