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Union seeks legal advice over financial transparency rules

Requests for a detailed breakdown of the Society’s audited accounts for the 2016-17 financial year have been unsuccessful

The Oxford Union has refused to show members a detailed record of its expenditure including receipts, despite appearing to be mandated to do so by its own rules.

The decision raises concerns about the ability of members to properly scrutinise Union officials. Rule 63(b) ofthe Oxford Union dictates: “All income and expenditure records will be available for inspection by any member by appointment with the President within ten working days.”

Since the 2nd October, Union members affiliated with Cherwell have repeatedly requested a detailed breakdown of the Society’s audited accounts for the 2016-17 financial year, without success. Emails sent to the Bursar’s account sometimes met with no reply for two weeks.

President Stephen Horvath told Cherwell that the rule in question “has not quite kept pace with modern auditing practices.” This is despite receipts being shown to Union members on request as recently as 2011.

The Union now says it has sought legal advice which will support its view that the “all income and expenditure records” of Rule 63(b) means simply the audited accounts – despite Rule 63(a) already allowing members access to these accounts without need for an appointment.

Union officials have also expressed concerns about the implications of new EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) legislation as a reason to deny requests for financial transparency. However, the Union also refused Cherwell’s request last year – before GDPR legislation had come into effect.

In 2017, Cherwell contacted the Financial Director of a major UK law firm for their opinion. They disagreed with the Society’s interpretation that “income and expenditure records” only refers to the audited accounts.

Instead, Rule 63(b) should allow for a detailed breakdown of income and expense claims. They told Cherwell that it would be “very hard to argue” that Rule 63(b) just meant audited accounts, “as if that was the intention there would be no point in adding 63(b) as 63(a) would suffice”. 63(a) allows any member to view the audited accounts without an appointment.

In a statement to Cherwell, Horvath said: “We are awaiting the return of our audited 2017-18 accounts from the auditors, and will then be able to provide further information.

“The Bursar has repeatedly arranged for members to see detailed breakdowns of our income and expenditure. We are awaiting a formal legal opinion from our solicitor on what records we can legally publicise, beyond those records which we have already shown. We expect to receive this opinion by the end of this week.”

This is not the first time the Union has come under fire for appearing to not adhere to its own rules regarding its financial transparency.

The Oxford Student used Rule 63(b) to request access to the full 2008-09 income and expenditure records in 2010, after initially being refused access to the full receipts.

At the time, Simon McIntosh of consultancy firm Grant Thornton said: “Bluntly, records of expenditure do include expenses claims and all that goes with them.”

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