Oxford Union under fire for 'excessive' expenses claims by its top officials
Have the 'Cabinet ministers of the future' been taking liberties with perks? Izzy Boggild-Jones, Tom Rowley and Tom Peck investigate
Saturday 15 May 2010
Long known as the parliamentarians' finishing-school, the Oxford Union readies its members for the highest offices in the land. William Gladstone, Michael Foot, Boris Johnson all found their oratorical tongue at the dispatch boxes of the union.
But now it seems that Westminster's recent penchant for "generous" expenses might just have its roots here too. The union's officers now find themselves in the uncomfortable glare of public scrutiny after their expenses were published in the university's student newspaper, The Oxford Student.
It transpires that they spent almost £50,000 on drinks, dinners and "miscellaneous expenses" last year. One union president claimed for new curtains and carpet for the presidential office, former home of two of the UK's new cabinet members, William Hague and Michael Gove, and the spotlessly moated former minister, Douglas Hogg.
The society's officers spent £17,000 on dinners for themselves, guests and debate speakers last year and almost £15,000 on general debate expenses. This includes a free "president's drinks" for union officers and other guests after the weekly Thursday debates.
Officers are also "required" to attend a weekly £30-a-head three-course dinner in a grand room named after former union librarian and prime minister Harold Macmillan.
Much like their alumni in parliament, union officials have been reticent in granting access to each expenses receipt. One of the society's rules states that "all income and expenditure records will be available for inspection", but the union's bursar, Lindsey Warne, claimed that receipts are not expenditure records. But, she said, all the claims were "viable and honourable".
A spokesman for the union said that ordinary members were able to attend post-debate dinners and drinks if applications were received in good time, but that numbers were limited. The union is unhappy with claims in the student paper that the money spent was for the exclusive use of the officers themselves.
Students pay up to £198 to join the society, which is popular not just for its impressive record of guest speakers (who have included Albert Einstein, Ronald Reagan and Shakira, no less), but also as it comes with free admission to one of the town's less salubrious night-spots. According to the union's own figures, an estimated two-thirds of undergraduates are members, with 12,000 in total across Oxford.
Angry students are now mounting a campaign for the receipts to be published; all highly distracting with examination term in full swing.
Approval of expenditure is approved by the society's bursar, who said: "It is done individually on whether it is a legitimate expense or not. You take each one as it comes."
The Freedom of Information campaigner Heather Brooke, who campaigned for five years to expose MPs' expenses claims, has also entered the row, calling for the receipts to be published. "We couldn't have seen the extent of the abuse without the actual documents," she said. "You want the source material, not someone's interpretation of it.
"If we're going to see a new generation of politicians [coming from the Union], we would hope they treat the people they represent as equals and recognise an obligation of openness."
A Union spokesperson said members are welcome to view the receipts, which are stored in several boxes, but that they will not be ready until the summer holidays.
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