Fears about security at the Oxford Union have intensified after a series of incidents including the theft of money and claims of assault on the premises.
Staff and committee members have also complained that they have been placed in dangerous and unpleasant confrontations with intruders due to a lax entrance policy.
President-Elect James Dray raised the issue of security in last week’s committee meeting, stating that there is “a huge security problem with numerous thefts from the gardens and the buildings, which makes the buildings unpleasant to be in during the day.”
This week, the debating society’s standing committee was told that recent thefts included Bodleain cards, membership cards, and money belonging to treasurer Nouri Verghese.
When asked why the Society’s sophisticated card scanners were not being used to screen those entering Union buildings, President Corey Dixon was forced to admit that they had been stolen.
One member of staff at the Union, who wished to remain anonymous, said that although security has improved in the last year, progress had been slow. He said that a major worry for Union staff is a homeless drop-in centre, the Gatehouse, almost opposite to the entrance. “We often have to turf out alcoholics during the day; I can only imagine it would be worse at night.”
Secretary Laura Winwood admitted she had also been forced into an unpleasant confrontation with intruders in Union buildings. She reported to the Standing Committee an incident in which she had tried to apprehend two men she believed to be potential thieves in the courtyard, saying “They grabbed me by the arm and threw me back. They were quite big and thuggish. There really is a problem”.
Other staff members said they had felt threatened by homeless individuals who entered the building during the holidays. During the committee meeting it emerged that there is only one full time security guard at the Union, despite the premises having two main entrances.
Bursar Lindsay Warne said “standing committee approved a £9,000 reduction in our security budget, which as we pointed out at the time meant we had to fire somebody.”
Dixon said he was “very happy to pass a motion to hire another door staff”, but no decision has yet been taken. Last week he proposed a poll of Union members to gauge response to their money being spent on security measures
Staff, however, criticized his decision not to consult them on any possible changes.
An employee of the Union said “It seems obvious to consult the staff about security, after all, we are the ones most affected.”
Union members seem surprised at the lack of security around the buildings and the level of crime reported, with one commenting “for the fee that we’re paying, you’d expect that they’d at least be able to look after my bag. There might be an open gate policy, but at the end of the day it’s a private building. It should be safer.”
Several of the thefts occurred during Presidential Drinks. There are concerns that non-members are often allowed to attend the weekly invitation-only event, with librarian Stuart Cullen admitting that he knew some who had been allowed to stay.
Dray told standing committee members that he had looked into the possibility of an automatically operated gate with an attached scanner able to read Union membership card barcodes. He added that the Cambridge Union operated a similar system, and claimed to have spoken to a company who believed they would be able to make such a system worked.
However, when asked for details, he stated that he was unsure of the specifics of the plan. “This isn’t something I’ve looked into or investigated properly,” he said.
Dray also said that he felt Union members might oppose such plans, saying “a number of members have said in emails to me that they opposed any gate”.
There have also been concerns over uncontrolled admission of members of other societies during joint events at Frewin Court, and the Union’s difficulties in controlling their behaviour. Bursar Warne said she felt that a proposed Oxford University Conservative Association event on the premises was likely to be particularly troubling.
“On past experience, they will cause trouble, and they will throw up everywhere”, she told committee members.