Oxford Union officials have this week backed down in the face of a growing campaign to allow members to scrutinise elected officers’ expenses claims.
Union President Laura Winwood confirmed on Tuesday that the receipts would be available for scrutiny over the summer, just a week after refusing reporters the right to inspect them on the grounds they did not constitute “expenditure records”.
But the Union has hit out at the “unworthy” Oxford Student in the wake of last week’s demand for elected officials to be transparent with ordinary members of the society, cancelling all press interviews with Union speakers the day after the story was published.
The receipts, originally requested more than a fortnight ago, will not be available to view until the vacation as Winwood says she is too busy to allow members access to them during term-time. A spokesperson confirmed that it would be necessary for the President to observe members while they scrutinised the receipts.
Winwood said: “The reporters from The Oxford Student have requested nine terms’ worth of receipts – these are shelved in numerous boxes in the basement…I am more than happy to show the Standing Committee’s receipts. However, this has to be over [the vacation] when Union officials are less busy.”
This is at odds with the Union’s refusal to show reporters the receipts last week, when Winwood said: “We don’t believe you do actually have the right to see receipts.”
The society’s rules say “all income and expenditure records will be available for inspection by any member by appointment with the President” within ten working days.
But Bursar Lindsey Warne agreed with Winwood that this does not include receipts, saying: “I don’t understand that [expenditure records] to include the receipts.”
A press spokesperson now says: “I definitely can confirm we will show you nine terms’ worth of receipts.”
The receipts will itemise the £48,719 Union officials spent on drinks, dinners and miscellaneous expenses in 2008-09, as revealed last week. The spending includes drinks and dinners for numerous guests of the society.
Winwood has this week appealed to ordinary members to inspect the society’s accounts, stating that the Union has nothing to hide.
She said: “All expenditure and income figures are checked thoroughly by the finance committee and the standing committee, of which our Senior Treasurer, a qualified accountant, is a member.
“We currently have an opening on the board of finance committee – please feel free to apply if you would like to be part of the system that brings Standing Committee to financial accountability.”
Winwood said the paper would only be allowed to go ahead with planned interviews with Union speakers if it printed a full-page apology to the society.
Despite this, a spokesperson for the Union said: “This is by no means an attempt to restrict reporting activities on the society.”
Previously scheduled interviewees included Paddy Ashdown, George Alagiah, Iain Duncan Smith and Caprice.
The spokesperson added: “The Oxford Union has no obligation to allow student newspapers to interview speakers hosted by the Society. We allow student media to benefit from our activity as we believe what our speakers say is of benefit to a wider audience…We have deemed the newspaper unworthy of further cooperation.”
One Union insider questioned the decision of the society, which Harold Macmillan called “the last bastion of free speech”, to cancel the speaker interviews.
He said: “Arguably you could say that some things in [last week’s] article were misleading – we do have to hold dinners for the speakers – but given that it was well balanced, I don’t think the response was proportionate. Also, don’t the members have a right to know that we overspent £12,000 on the membership drive, for example?”
The investigation also revealed that the Union would be cutting back on spending this term to make up for overspending in the previous two terms and an underachievement of sponsorship, which has left the society £63, 000 over budget.
Winwood said she would cut costs by holding a quieter President’s Drinks on alternate weeks, saying: “I’m cutting the cost of drinks and I’m alternating between having one in the Gladstone Room where I’m trying to get members to come and then every other week just in my office for the speakers.”
But the Union’s press spokesperson this week seemed unaware of the new regime of austerity, saying: “Every week I have been to President’s Drinks they have been taking place in the Gladstone Room. This week they will take place there.”
The Oxford Student understands that the drinks were also held in the Gladstone Room last week.