“We do not attract corrupt people” – The Cambridge Union distances itself from Oxford controversy

Hazel Shearing 1 May 2014

The Oxford Union Society has undergone a week of conflict after a motion passed on Monday to fund the Union President’s legal fees was reversed yesterday in an emergency meeting. The Cambridge Union Society has stressed that corruption allegations in Oxford bear no resemblance to events last year in Cambridge.

On Monday the Oxford Union’s Emergency Standing Committee passed a motion to grant Ben Sullivan £1,200 in legal fees by a margin of nine to two. Sullivan claimed the expenses in order to fund a legal battle against The Tab in an attempt to disassociate himself from the Christ Church drinking Society, ‘The Banter Squadron’.

Sullivan has been accused of lying by denying his association with the ‘Banter Squadron’, as well as bargaining with The Oxford Tab to report on other scandals at Oxford instead.

A Special Adjournment Motion was proposed earlier in the week, which would have given attendees of tonight’s debate the chance to vote on whether or not his legal fees should be paid from the Union’s bank account. The proposition, which collected 30 signatures, came under heavy fire during a debate on the motion and was criticised by the Society’s Treasurer Stephen Dixon, who argued that the Union should not “air its dirty linen in public”. Tonight’s vote was cancelled as a result of the criticism, which has led to further controversy.

The original decision to pay the expenses had been made by a Vacation Standing Committee and was ratified by an Emergency Standing Committee at the beginning of term. However, yesterday the Union’s Standing Committee for this term held an emergency meeting in the light of the cancelled vote, in which they concluded by 11-3 to reverse the Vacation Committee’s decision.

After yesterday’s meeting, Sullivan commented exclusively to The Oxford Student that the “Standing Committee originally agreed that funding my expenses was viable in light of all the information, much of which isn’t public at the moment due to in camera rules. We didn’t anticipate this level of opposition which we have taken into account with this decision.”

However, the decision to cancel the vote in favour of a Committee meeting has also been condemned by some members of the Union. The Returning Officer, Josh Atkinson, claimed that the move was “not possible” according to the Union Society’s rules. Others have protested that the reversal has cut the debate short on Sullivan’s expenses.

This is not the first time that an Oxbridge Union has been involved in controversy this year. At the beginning of December candidates at the Cambridge Union were also accused of corruption. Candidate Will Thong was disqualified from the presidential elections after allegations that he bribed and blackmailed debater Matt Hazell and offered then-candidate Michael Dunn-Goekjian his vote for the role of Debating Officer if Dunn-Goekjian agreed to withdraw from the presidential race. There was also further controversy over the usage of The Tab’s comment space for the pollicisation of candidate policies.

However, the Cambridge Union denies that the events in Michaelmas are comparable to the current controversy in Oxford. Speaking exclusively to The Cambridge Student, Oliver Mosley, the CUS Head of Press, commented: “The Cambridge Union would like to make very clear that the events at the Oxford Union, whilst still unfolding, bear almost no resemblance to any incidents at the Cambridge Union in recent memory.

“The Union does not attract corrupt people, and does not in any way promote a culture of corruption”, he continued, “this is a complex body to run, and it is natural for the students doing so to occasionally make mistakes. The key thing to note that is, at Cambridge, we have the necessary checks and balances… to ensure that mistakes are discovered and, where necessary, punished."

Mosley noted that all CUS Officers are subject to “an internal disciplinary code and Constitution”, which is responsible for “scrutinizing the actions of the Standing Committee”. The Bursar, who Mosley pointed out is a former NATO senior intelligence officer, is present at Standing Committee meetings and has the power to advise, and pass on concerns about governance to the Trustees.

“The lesson of incidents like those seen during the Michaelmas election is that breaches of the Union’s rules are discovered swiftly and dealt with effectively, thanks to a rigorous governance structure that was established when the Union became an incorporated charity in 2010. It is important to note that since then, no officers at the Cambridge Union have been found guilty of anything like the scale of corruption alleged in this instance.”

The Cambridge Union Society did not comment on the Oxford Union’s decision to reverse funding this week and declined to explicitly explain how the events unfolding in Oxford this week would have been dealt with by the Cambridge Union.