Oxford Union under scrutiny for extravagant spending

The Standing Committee spent nearly £300,000 in the 2016 financial year

The Oxford Union’s Standing Committee spent £291,791 in the 2016 financial year, Cherwell can reveal.

However, despite President Chris Zabilowicz’s public declaration earlier this month that he wanted “our Society to be as transparent as possible”, the Union refused to let members view the detailed records of expenses claimed by elected officials. This is despite their own rules appearing to mandate it.

Accounts seen by Cherwell give an insight into where thousands of Oxford students’ membership fees go. Of the £291,791 spent, over £50,000 went on ‘debate costs’, which includes exclusive dinners, speaker expenses, and drinks. This represents an increase of over £10,000 from the 2015 figure of £40,128.

When approached for clarification on the figure, the Union stressed the costs of paid staff to make and serve the dinners, as well as the expense on table cloths and other items.

One member, who was invited to an exclusive Union dinner, told Cherwell: “The dinner was three courses of high-quality food. Costs will have been driven up by the large amount of free alcohol available – both white and red wine, with port at the end. It felt a bit like an exclusive club.”

There has also been a rise in ‘food and stationery’ expenditure by the Committee. While in 2013 this was £5,025, by 2016 it rose to £8,222.

Of the expenses contributing to this category, the majority came from food, with stationery accounting for just £450.

An £8 per day food budget, for Union staff working a full vacation day, was a major contributor. A £120 breakfast budget in the Easter and Christmas holidays, rising to £200 over the summer, were further significant expenses within the category.

Despite making an appointment with President Chris Zabilowicz in advance, the Bursar Lindsey Warne refused to let Cherwell staff see receipts, not believing these to constitute part of the expenditure records. This interpretation was later confirmed by Zabilowicz.

Instead, the Union only allowed the figures which are already available to any member without an appointment.

Cherwell contacted the Financial Director of a major UK law firm for their opinion. They disagreed with the Society’s interpretation that “income and expenditure records” only refers to the audited accounts.

Instead, they stated that the rules permit members to a more transparent view into the Society’s finances, including a detailed breakdown of income and expense claims. They told Cherwell it would be “very hard to argue” that Rule 63(b) just meant audited accounts, “as if that was the intention there would be no point in adding 63(b) as 63(a) would suffice”.

As per the Society’s rules, a request was also sent to the Treasurer Gui Cavalcanti to see the ledger, which is meant to contain “the receipts and expenditure of the Society… which shall be open to the inspection of Members”.

On arrival at the appointment, however, it became clear that the ledger did not exist and had not for some time. There is no suggestion of criminal wrongdoing by the Oxford Union Society.

This is not the first time the Union has come under fire for appearing to not adhere to its own rules regarding its financial transparency.

The Oxford Student used Rule 63(b) to request access to the full 2008-09 income and expenditure records in 2010, after initially being refused access to the full receipts.

At the time, Simon McIntosh of consultancy firm Grant Thornton said: “Bluntly, records of expenditure do include expenses claims and all that goes with them.”

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In the face of growing student pressure the Union later backed down, giving members access to expenditure records including receipts.

When contacted by Cherwell, the Union refused to comment on why their understanding of “income and expenditure records” has changed to not include receipts.

The 2008-09 accounts are considerably more detailed than the ones available today. For example, they list the amount of money spent on miscellaneous expenses by individual positions, such as the president, treasurer and librarian.

The accounts are now itemised so that assessing the expenses of individuals is impossible. Instead, the Standing Committee account has a ‘Miscellaneous’ category.

The old accounts also revealed how much was spent specifically on dinners and drinks by the Committee. Now it is grouped under ‘debate costs’.

The 2008-09 accounts were termly, meaning one could attribute their numbers to a particular administration. The audited accounts given to Cherwell were only annual figures.

This is in contravention to Rule 63(a), which states that all termly budgets and accounts must be kept on file in order that members may view them at any time during office hours. The Bursar stated that she could not recall when these changes occurred.

Zabilowicz told Cherwell: “The Oxford Union staff and committee are scrupulous when it comes to the Society’s finances. The Society has never – and, I imagine, will never – offer speakers’ an honorarium [sic]. Any expenses of the Society must be reasonable (a theme throughout the rules), and this is closely scrutinised by the Society’s Finance Committee which any member can attend.

“Every year, we have professional and external auditors go through the accounts, after which the accounts are available for any member to view. Debate Select Committee expenses have to be approved by both the Treasurer and the Bursar during a meeting of the Finance Committee.”