Letter: John Patten and the students' unions

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The Independent Online
Sir: John Patten's announcement today of student union reform is the inevitable consequence of the abuses carried out by student unions in recent years. They have taken funds for students' welfare and used them for peddling the political views of their officers. This has frequently been in flagrant breach of the charities laws that govern student unions. The laws ban political campaigning and affiliations to political causes. Contrary to the National Union of Students' new 'student- friendly' image, the breaches have become more numerous.

Twice in the last two years, individual students have had to obtain High Court injunctions. I, while still a law student, drafted the legal papers in these cases. The Anglia Higher Education College case (Webb v O'Doherty) halted student union campaigning against the Gulf war. When the union officers (on NUS advice) resisted the case, they lost and the NUS paid the legal fees of the student, Jason Webb. Despite this, dozens of student unions campaigned against the war.

The Greenwich University case (Meyer v Thomas) banned student unions from campaigning over Palestine. Although this made the law quite clear, Loughborough University Students' Union decided in March to run a Palestine campaign. The union is now being investigated by the Attorney General.

In the last two years, student union activities have been investigated by the Attorney General and the Charity Commissioners approximately 20 times. These have included student unions at Hull, Cambridge, York, Bradford and Swansea. These incidents, arising from complaints by individual students, are merely a fraction of the abuses taking place.

The debate on student union reform has been running for more than 20 years. Student unions and the NUS have had ample opportunity to change from politics to services. They have failed to take that opportunity. They are now paying the price.

Yours faithfully,

RICHARD HARWOOD

Mansfield, Nottinghamshire

1 July

The writer was National Officer, Conservative Students (1991-92).

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