Oxford Union officials’ £50,000 in perks

This is the article the Union didn’t want you to see about the expenses receipts it won’t show you.

This week, senior Union officials refused to let reporters inspect receipts submitted for expenses claims made by elected officers over the past two years.

Bursar Lindsey Warne said that the claims were all “viable and honourable” but asserted that the society’s rules did not allow members to scrutinise them.

An investigation by The Oxford Student has revealed:

• Union officials spent almost £50,000 on dinners, drinks and ‘miscellaneous expenses’ in 2008-09
• The weekly debate dinner, which senior Union officials are required to attend, costs around £30 a head
• There is no list of what Presidents are allowed to claim in expenses. Josh Roche redecorated the office, claiming for a carpet and curtains
• £63,000 over budget this year, the Union has scrapped maintenance and repairs spending, while President’s Drinks will go ahead

Oxford’s students pay up to £198 to join the society, plus a £7 annual subscription.

Current committee members and former Presidents have this week lifted the lid on the society’s system of perks. We have agreed to protect their anonymity because they could face censure for speaking out without permission.

Oxford Union officials spent £48,719 on dinner, drinks and “miscellaneous expenses” in one year

Thursday nights have long meant free food and drink for Oxford’s hacks in the know. Top Union officials are obliged to attend a three course dinner with speakers in the Union’s grand Macmillan Room before the debate and Members’ Drinks afterwards.

The President may invite guests of their choice to the pre-debate dinner, which costs the Union £30 per head, according to finance committee minutes. The Union rules outline that only five ordinary members may join the dinner without charge.

A former Union official said: “It’s not a very nice environment for an ordinary member to go to. It’s not something they’d enjoy…The President’s mates go to debate dinners all the time.”

After the debate the familiar faces of Oxford hackery – including Union officers, journalists, members of student political societies and OUSU – queue up the stairs to the Gladstone Room for the free drinks party more commonly known as ‘President’s Drinks’.

Speaking to this newspaper last term, Cullen said that President’s Drinks were “effectively the reward [to committee members] for doing the work”.

He added: “We have an enormously larger number of events than other societies do, nor do most other societies require people to spend…a significant proportion of their vacation in Oxford over the vac, which I think is the key point. It’s on that basis that they get to invite people to drinks as well.”

Corey Dixon, ex-President, claimed that the weekly post-debate drinks are not something he looked forward to, “The President doesn’t enjoy President’s drinks. I hated it.”

At the end of each term, the outgoing President’s final debate – though advertised in the termcard – is often little more than an all-expenses-paid drinks party for them, their committee and their friends.

One Union insider explained that the farewell debate had very little in common with the more traditional weekly debates held through the rest of term, “It’s not open to members. The point is that you go to the debate drunk, speak for thirty seconds about why you like the President and then you go and drink more.”

Another well-placed source said: “The farewell debate can be vastly, vastly expensive. It depends on the predilection of the President.”

One former committee member pointed out that few ordinary members ever attended farewell debates. “The President, committee and their friends just get lashed. If I was President, I would pay for it myself. You can say farewell much more cheaply.”

Winwood, this term’s President, confirmed that she would be holding a farewell debate and inviting college friends, but said that she would ask them to bring a bottle of wine each to reduce expenditure.

Committee members and Union officials are entitled to a range of privileges at the Union’s expense, ranging from free snacks and drinks in the bar on Mondays and Thursdays for elected members, or every day for officers, to a tab in the bar for the President. One former Union official said: “The main problems are bar tabs and President’s Drinks. I’ve had jagerbombs on the President’s bar tab. It’s far from unusual for the President to sit there and do three rounds for all his friends who happen to be around.”

During the vacation, members of standing committee can claim up to £7 a day for food allowances. Several ex-officers have defended this practice, pointing out that it prevents active participation in the Union being restricted to a wealthy few.

Dixon emphasised the financial burden the Union poses on officers, “It is already biased towards rich people. The second we defer we have an eight week period to find a job in Oxford, in order to make enough money to pay for the year, including your term [as President] because you don’t have time to work. The free drinks at the bar, and free meal which are the only monetary gains are minimal given the massive burden it imposes on you.”

Last year the total spending on Standing Committee’s food and stationery topped £10,000, while miscellaneous expenses for Standing amounted to £1,749.

The Union’s accounts include a termly total for ‘President’s miscellaneous expenses’, but no breakdown of the individual purchases which make this up. In a meeting with the President and Bursar, it was confirmed that both ordinary and committee members may only have access to these figures, and not the full breakdown of spending. One Union insider, when asked how elected officers are held to account in the Union, said: “In theory you do it through Standing Committee. In practice people’s thoughts about their own [Union] careers stop them from doing so.”

Tom Meakin, who was Union Director of Communications last term, said: “Students in…positions of power want all the trappings – prestige, CV points etc – but none of the obligations; the small matter of being accountable, for example.”

According to the audited accounts, ex-President Josh Roche claimed £4,075 in ‘miscellaneous expenses’ in Michaelmas 2008. But this has since been reduced to £2,058, a figure that has been approved by finance and standing committee, as a drinks event for members was incorrectly included in the total.

When pressed for why this total was over ten times the £199 claimed by Charlie Holt in the subsequent term, Deputy Returning Officer Andrew Grey said that Roche’s term had been “very, very busy”.

The Union’s Press Officer explained, after seeing some of the receipts herself, that the term-to-term differences could be explained by variations in the President’s necessary spending.

“Josh’s expenses were bigger because he was refurbishing his office,” she said. He replaced the carpet, curtains, a light and had the office redecorated.

While the amount budgeted for the President’s miscellaneous expenses is set at a termly £83, the amounts claimed over the last two years have in fact been consistently higher than this amount.

The Bursar confirmed that there was no specific list of what items can be claimed as legitimate expenses by the President.

She said: “It is done individually on whether it is a legitimate expense or not. You take each one as it comes.”

There is no suggestion that the Union or any of its officials have behaved improperly or broken any regulations.

On the paper trail

The society’s rules state that “all income and expenditure records will be available for inspection by any member by appointment with the President.”

Despite making an appointment with President Laura Winwood a week in advance, at which point the disclosure of expenses claims was discussed, the Bursar, Deputy Returning Officer Andrew Grey and Winwood refused to let members scrutinise receipts, claiming that they were not “expenditure records”.

Warne said: “I don’t understand that to include receipts…Are you suggesting that the auditor doesn’t do their job sufficiently?”

But Allan Holmes, a tax specialist at leading law firm Dickinson Dees, questioned the Union’s definition.

He said: “Receipts must form part of the expenditure records as without them it is impossible to verify the entries on any expenditure statements.”

Simon McIntosh, an accountant at top consultancy firm Grant Thornton, agreed. He said: “Bluntly, records of expenditure do include expenses claims and all that goes with them.”

Later in the meeting, Winwood claimed it could take until October to collate the receipts for inspection, even if members were allowed to view them.

McIntosh was surprised by this assertion, stating that since the Union’s accounts have been audited all the receipts should be kept together in order.

The Union did not want this article to be published. Grey reminded reporters of rules that restrict the free reporting of the Union’s affairs.
Winwood told the reporters: “You are accusing us of hiding something – as, I’m sorry, your email does suggest, that we are being less than transparent. You can order an investigation, a disciplinary procedure – I’m sure that it wouldn’t go very well for you, actually…There’s already one SDC [Senior Disciplinary Committee] next week.”

Heather Brooke, the freedom of information campaigner who exposed the MPs’ expenses scandal last year, said that MPs’ abuses of the system would never have been detected if journalists had not been allowed to see the original receipts, suggesting that seeing a paper trail would prove that the officers had behaved honourably.

“We couldn’t have seen the extent of the abuse without the actual documents. You want the source material, not someone’s interpretation of it, which is why you would want to see the actual receipts.

“If we’re going to see a new generation of politicians [coming from the Union], we would hope that they treat the people they represent as equals and recognise an obligation of openness.”

She added that she would raise the issue when she speaks at the Union next month. “If I’m sitting next to the President, I will certainly bring it up,” she said.

Stuart Cullen, last term’s President, said he would not object to members viewing receipts. “I myself spent nothing other than what has been spent previously by Union officers and Presidents, so would have no principled or personal objection to you seeing them,” he said.

Budget cutbacks

Finance committee minutes for last term reveal that the Union is currently £63,000 over budget, based on higher spending and lower income during Michaelmas and Hilary terms. While some of this can be accounted for by delayed invoices for sponsorship, meaning that total overspend will be less than this, the rest is due to sponsorship targets which have not been reached and costs incurred through holding additional debates.
The Senior Treasurer explained to members of finance committee that sponsorship had been underachieved by £25,000, debates were £9,000 over budget and the Union overspent by £12,000 on the membership drive.

In one finance committee meeting, ex-President Corey Dixon said: “This committee’s budgeting has been incredibly poor, with worryingly high targets for sponsorship.”

In the finance committee minutes, it was suggested that the budget for this term should be cut by £50,000. A motion was passed to prevent any spending at all on the maintenance and repairs budget, and additional cuts were suggested to the library budget.

In our meeting, the President and the Bursar were unclear how much is being cut from each area, with current cutbacks including a more frugal approach to President’s Drinks, and a lockdown on chocolate and soft drinks in the bar for committee members.

The President outlined that alternating the traditional weekly President’s Drinks with quieter post-debate drinks for speakers in the President’s office would feature among the range of austerity measures. Winwood explained: “I reduced my budget and we looked at more fiscally appropriate ways to do things. Instead of putting people up in the Randolph, putting them into Oriel SCR for instance.”

In fact our investigation shows that the option of accommodating speakers in Oriel rather than the exclusive Randolph Hotel was first discussed by standing committee as early as Michaelmas Term 2008, when the Senior Librarian pointed out that officers had not taken up his offer to view the alternative accommodation. Finance committee minutes show that the accommodation is £76 cheaper per person per night than the Randolph.

New financial rules which force Presidents to pay at least 10% for spending over budget were intended to encourage the Presidents to act in a more fiscally responsible way. But since Presidents can simply increase their budgets through the standing committee, it is not clear how effective this deterrent will be.

Last term the then-President Stuart Cullen took a motion to finance committee to increase his speaker and debate budget by £5,000 each. The minutes record the opposition of the Treasurer, Treasurer-Elect and Secretary of the time, along with one ex-President and the Senior-Treasurer, but the motion was passed. One Union insider admitted that the rule would have little impact if Presidents know they can avoid the fine in this way: “Every President knows that they can come to Standing Committee and say ‘please vote my increase’.”

THE EMAIL EXCHANGE: How the President turned our request down

From: Tom Rowley
To: Laura Winwood
Sunday 2nd May, 5.24pm
As Union members, Izzy Boggild-Jones and I would like to request printed or emailed copies of Union accounts for 06-07, 07-08 and 08-09 to take away (we saw the 08-09 ones with the Bursar on Friday, but she did not let us take them away). We would also like to request budgets for 09-10 and the completed Michaelmas Term 09 accounts.

In addition, we would ideally like to come into the Union either tomorrow or on Tuesday morning (the earlier the better) to view receipts submitted for election tribunal expenses, miscellaneous expenses – President, miscellaneous expenses – Librarian, miscellaneous expenses – Secretary, miscellaneous expenses – Treasurer, miscellaneous expenses – standing committee and debates – general expenses for all terms from Michaelmas 2008 to Hilary 2010 (inclusive). Might this be possible?

We also wonder whether we might be able to set up an interview with you about the finances at any time on Tuesday or Wednesday morning? Might this suit? We think this will probably be a better way to discuss these issues than liaising via email or through press quotes.

The President did not reply to this email. When our reporters visited her office at 2pm the next day, she agreed to speak to the Bursar to locate the receipts and meet us at 11am the next Monday to scrutinise them.

From: Laura Winwood
To: Izzy Boggild-Jones, Tom Rowley
Monday 10th May, 4am
Since last Monday I’ve had chance to speak to the Bursar about the particulars you wanted to see and I’m afraid I will have to disappoint: it would seem that you have already seen the audited accounts for year ends 30 June 2008 and 2009 and we won’t have the audited accounts for MT09 until September – these include the breakdowns of officer miscellaneous expenditure, I believe.  So I’m afraid there is nothing that we can present to you tomorrow morning.  Please do come by during my open hours if you would like to discuss anything further but an advance warning would be appreciated – just so I can have a chance to speak to the relevant people so I have my facts clear!

From: Tom Rowley
To: Laura Winwood
Monday 10th May, 8.11am

As you will appreciate, it comes as rather a surprise to us to receive
such a negative response to an enquiry more than a week after our
original email, a week after we set up the meeting with you, the
Bursar and the Senior Treasurer and only a few hours before we are due to meet. This is disappointing.

We very specifically requested receipts for all officer expenditure
since MT08 over a week ago, which, as Union members and having
consulted the rules, it is our right to consult. You said that it
would take a week to collate these and we understood. That week has now passed, though, and we see no reason why we should not expect to consult the receipts at 11am as arranged. If we cannot, it will seem to us that the Union – and yourself and the Bursar in particular – are willing to be less than transparent with ordinary members.

We will come by at 11am, as arranged, and hope to be able to see the receipts and itemised standing committee expenditure since (and including) MT08 then.

Receiving no reply, our reporters arrived at 11am. Despite several attempts to phone the President, she did not respond. At 1.15pm, she arrived and agreed to meet them at 2pm. This is when the Bursar and the President declined to show the reporters the receipts.

MT08        HT09        TT09    Actual total    Budget total
Debates:         £6,257        £4,756        £3,910    £14,923    £11,000
general expenses
Debates: speaker    £2,547        £4,362        £3,818    £10,727    £9,000
Travel & accom.
Debates: dinner    £5,842        £6,278        £5,091    £17,211    £14,500
Speaker meetings:    £3,109        £3,150        £3,077    £9,366        £5,900
Speaker meetings:     £2,579        £2,016        £4,802    £9,397        £6,900
Photography        £1,799        £1,943        £1,843    £5,585        £5,500
Total debating     £15,754    £13,445    £1,690    £30,889    £31,280
Membership drive/    £26,396    £4,632        -£4,632 £26,415    £23,000
Student fair
Advertising events    £3,963        £3,613        £3,663    £11,239    £12,000
Advertising Purple    £1,680        £75        £199    £1,954        £2,000
Term card production    £11,834    £9,590        £5,768    £27,192    £28,000
Social events costs    £37,163    £19,886    £17,681 £74,730    £70,000
Internet café costs    £555        £246        £236    £1,037        £1,000
Election/tribunal     £2,419        £2,204        £1,880    £6,503        £6,000
Misc. expenses –     £4,075*    £199        £349    £4,623        £250
Misc expenses –     £0        £7        £28    £35        £150
Misc. expenses –    £119        £14        £13    £146        £150
Misc. expenses –     £0        £0        £16    £16        £150
Misc. expenses –     £1,330        £336        £83    £1,749        £600
Standing Committee
Standing Committee    £5,936        £2,687        £1,393    £10,016    £5,425
Food and stationery
*According to accounts passed by the Standing Committee. The figures for Josh Roche’s term have since been adjusted. This figure is now £2,058.

The contested rule

63b: ‘All income and expenditure records will be available for inspection by any member by appointment with the President within ten working days.’

The Bursar’s interpretation: “I don’t understand that to include receipts.”
A leading finance lawyer’s interpretation: “Receipts must form part of the expenditure records.”