Students are "fed up" with the bad press the Oxford Union is generating. Photo: Flickr
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Oxford Union speakers urged to withdraw after rape allegations against president

The women’s officer of Oxford’s student union, OUSU, and another student have started a campaign for the Oxford Union president to resign from his post after he was accused of rape and attempted rape.

Oxford students have launched a campaign to force the Oxford Union's president to resign after he was accused of rape and attempted rape. 

The Oxford University Student Union’s Vice President for Women, Sarah Pine, and second year history and politics student Helena Dollimore are asking high-profile speakers to withdraw from Union debates.

Two weeks ago, the Union's current president, Ben Sullivan, was called in by police for questioning on allegations of rape and attempted rape. He has been released without charge on bail, and returned last week to his position. He denies the allegations, and made this statement to the debate chamber:

“As you may be aware no charges have been brought against me and I have the utmost faith in the police and Crown Prosecution Service and the British legal system as a whole. I know that sooner or later the truth will prevail and justice will be served.”

Pine and Dollimore have so far contacted about 30 of the upcoming speakers, explaining the situation and asking them to pull out of their appointments at the Union. They include Human Rights Watch’s David Mepham (who has agreed to pull out), band Foster the People, American entrepreneur Julie Meyer, Newton Investment CEO Helena Morrissey, MEP and former Belgian prime minister Guy Verhofstadt, actor Evanna Lynch, Baroness Lawrence, singer Paloma Faith, and New Statesman editor Jason Cowley.

Pine, who is campaigning in a personal capacity, calls it a “push for equality in the Union”. She decided to contact most of the Union’s booked speakers because they “wouldn’t have been aware of the situation and might not have been aware of the students’ feelings around it”. However, she admits that “there are differences in opinion” about whether or not Sullivan should resign.

Oxford student Helena Dollimore, who is campaigning jointly with Pine, said that she believes high-profile speakers should reconsider their commitment to the Union. “Ordinary students are just getting quite fed up at the Oxford Union and the press it’s generating, the reputation it’s generating, the message it’s sending out about our university.”

A vote of no-confidence in the president has been called for this Thursday by an ordinary Union member, but I am told that even if this passes, it does not automatically mean Sullivan will resign.

The open letter has been signed by New Statesman columnist Laurie Penny and feminist campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez.

UPDATE: Under Oxford Union rules, a member can only be suspended if criminal charges have been brought, in which case the Standing Committee can take action. See p16 of the Oxford Union rules for further details.

UPDATE, 18 JUNE 2014: Thames Valley Police confirm that the case against Sullivan has been dropped and he will not face charges.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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Calum Kerr on Governing the Digital Economy

With the publication of the UK Digital Strategy we’ve seen another instalment in the UK Government’s ongoing effort to emphasise its digital credentials.

As the SNP’s Digital Spokesperson, there are moves here that are clearly welcome, especially in the area of skills and a recognition of the need for large scale investment in fibre infrastructure.

But for a government that wants Britain to become the “leading country for people to use digital” it should be doing far more to lead on the field that underpins so much of a prosperous digital economy: personal data.

If you want a picture of how government should not approach personal data, just look at the Concentrix scandal.

Last year my constituency office, like countless others across the country, was inundated by cases from distressed Tax Credit claimants, who found their payments had been stopped for spurious reasons.

This scandal had its roots in the UK’s current patchwork approach to personal data. As a private contractor, Concentrix had bought data on a commercial basis and then used it to try and find undeclared partners living with claimants.

In one particularly absurd case, a woman who lived in housing provided by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation had to resort to using a foodbank during the appeals process in order to prove that she did not live with Joseph Rowntree: the Quaker philanthropist who died in 1925.

In total some 45,000 claimants were affected and 86 per cent of the resulting appeals saw the initial decision overturned.

This shows just how badly things can go wrong if the right regulatory regimes are not in place.

In part this problem is a structural one. Just as the corporate world has elevated IT to board level and is beginning to re-configure the interface between digital skills and the wider workforce, government needs to emulate practices that put technology and innovation right at the heart of the operation.

To fully leverage the benefits of tech in government and to get a world-class data regime in place, we need to establish a set of foundational values about data rights and citizenship.

Sitting on the committee of the Digital Economy Bill, I couldn’t help but notice how the elements relating to data sharing, including with private companies, were rushed through.

The lack of informed consent within the Bill will almost certainly have to be looked at again as the Government moves towards implementing the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation.

This is an example of why we need democratic oversight and an open conversation, starting from first principles, about how a citizen’s data can be accessed.

Personally, I’d like Scotland and the UK to follow the example of the Republic of Estonia, by placing transparency and the rights of the citizen at the heart of the matter, so that anyone can access the data the government holds on them with ease.

This contrasts with the mentality exposed by the Concentrix scandal: all too often people who come into contact with the state are treated as service users or customers, rather than as citizens.

This paternalistic approach needs to change.  As we begin to move towards the transformative implementation of the internet of things and 5G, trust will be paramount.

Once we have that foundation, we can start to grapple with some of the most pressing and fascinating questions that the information age presents.

We’ll need that trust if we want smart cities that make urban living sustainable using big data, if the potential of AI is to be truly tapped into and if the benefits of digital healthcare are really going to be maximised.

Clearly getting accepted ethical codes of practice in place is of immense significance, but there’s a whole lot more that government could be doing to be proactive in this space.

Last month Denmark appointed the world’s first Digital Ambassador and I think there is a compelling case for an independent Department of Technology working across all government departments.

This kind of levelling-up really needs to be seen as a necessity, because one thing that we can all agree on is that that we’ve only just scratched the surface when it comes to developing the link between government and the data driven digital economy. 

In January, Hewlett Packard Enterprise and the New Statesman convened a discussion on this topic with parliamentarians from each of the three main political parties and other experts.  This article is one of a series from three of the MPs who took part, with an  introduction from James Johns of HPE, Labour MP, Angela Eagle’s view and Conservative MP, Matt Warman’s view

Calum Kerr is SNP Westminster Spokesperson for Digital