Patten faces U-turn over student unions

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The Independent Online
MINISTERS may have to scrap measures to end the student union 'closed shop' after a planned compromise to placate Conservative peers ran into legal difficulties.

The possibility of the Bill being axed - which would be a humiliating rebuff for John Patten, Secretary of State for Education - has been raised at high-level ministerial meetings chaired by Lord Wakeham, Leader of the House of Lords. It would mark another damaging U-turn for the Government and for Mr Patten, who announced the policy at two successive party conferences.

A fierce dispute over the issue between Mr Patten and Lady Blatch, his minister of state, was said last week to be deadlocked. Lord Wakeham's compromise measures, which would institute a right for students to opt out of their unions, are now regarded as impossible because they would contravene European conventions.

No date has been fixed for the Bill's committee stage in the Lords, which was due to have begun two weeks ago. The issue is due to be discussed at a Cabinet sub-committee although this is unlikely to meet this week.

At the heart of the row is Clause 20 of the Bill, backed by Mr Patten, which would deprive student unions of public funds for political activities.

Lady Blatch wants the clause abandoned because it faces almost certain defeat in the Lords. She has told Mr Patten that she cannot get the Bill through the House of Lords, where two influential Conservative peers, Baroness Perry and Lord Renfrew, are leading a rebellion.

Under the proposals, the Government would have power to decide which students activities should receive public money. Sport, welfare and internal representation will continue to qualify, but political and other societies, the student media and possibly catering would not.

The amendments proposed by Lady Blatch would remove this clause, replacing it with a statement that unions should operate in a fair and democratic manner, and that individual students should have the right to opt out of unions.

However, lawyers have told Lord Wakeham that the right to opt out would contravene European conventions because student unions would be forced to provide facilities for non- members. Ministers are now working on plans that would force universities to set up separate parallel student bodies to provide 'core' services such as bars and sports clubs.

Conservative peers argue that the Bill threatens both student democracy and freedom of speech. They also object to government interference between university managements and their students.

If the Government were to abandon the Bill, ministers could still announce a package that would achieve most of its aims. For instance, a code of practice for student unions to ensure money was properly used could be made a condition of university funding.

The second part of the Bill sets up a teacher-training agency to allocate funds for teacher training. The money is at present channelled through the Higher Education Funding Council. Vice-chancellors argue that a better solution, which would not require legislation, would be the creation of a sub-committee of the funding council to handle training.