Could new legislation cripple OUSU?

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Today the Transparency of Lobbying, Non Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill goes to Parliament, as of course you already know.

The lengthy title and the highlighting of the word ‘transparency’ probably mean you are fairly bored but on the whole positive about this piece of prospective legislation at the moment: maybe you hope that it might represent Nick Clegg finally coming good on a promise to the electorate and cleaning up politics. If you’re a member of the Labour party, or a sympathiser, you might expect it to curb some of what you see as the egregious power, exercised through backroom lobbying, of Unite and the other big trade unions.

In reality, this law is a disaster. The statutory body that will be empowered to administer it, the Electoral Commission, has called it ‘impossible to enforce’, and Parliament’s own Political & Constitutional Reform Committee is seething because it is scheduled to host the consultation on this issue on the very same day the government introduces its bill. Our local MP, Andrew Smith, has called it ‘profoundly undemocratic’.

Why does one more piece of poorly written and rushed legislation matter, in a news cycle dominated by the unimaginable suffering of the people of Syria? This new law deserves your attention, Oxford student, because, believe it or not, it has the potential seriously to undermine the work of your student union. Under the new law, any expenditure by OUSU that could potentially be seen as relating to politics will have to be approved through a cumbersome process that will be administratively cripping for such a small organisation.

Of course OUSU shouldn’t be party political, and despite what some mutter in the back room of the KA, it isn’t. It must, though, engage with current political issues: as OUSU’s sabbatical offers go into bat for an increase in student support and bursary money from the University in Michaelmas, they must take into account, and use in their arguments, major events that have disproportionately affected students: the economic crisis means more people’s parents are less able to offer any financial support, and that vacation work is harder to get hold of; the increase in tuition fees could continue to have long term affects on access work; and the reduction in government financial support for higher education is, as you would expect, tightening budgets across the University. 

All these changes are political. They are covered by the new law-to-be. If OUSU wants, as it surely must, to raise awareness about this campaign among Oxford students; if it wants to involve Oxford students in its campaigning to make sure that the University spends as much as is humanly possible on securing the financial means for any student who is offered a place to take that place up and complete their course, then it will have to spend precious resources, both the time of sabbatical officers and the hard-won extra money granted by the University this year, on the ‘significant new burdens’ (again from the Electoral Commission) of form-filling and box-ticking this law requires.

Many Oxford students, often for very valid reasons, are suspicious of OUSU. In this case, though, if we don’t speak up and try and prevent the passage of this horror-story-bill, we will stymie any chance of really effective campaigning that could deliver more money to help the poorest of our fellow students. Such a failure to act would be negligent in the extreme, and in a University constantly under attack as a citadel of the posh and the privileged, a Student Union equipped to campaign for fair and generous student finance is a key weapon: we must not lose it. Write to your MP. Tweet. Blog. Act. Save OUSU’s ability to campaign for students.

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