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Tuesday 15-12-2015 - 18:36

This morning the Daily Mail has run a series of stories defending the government’s Prevent legislation and criticising students’ unions for No Platform policies. I’m writing to students’ union presidents this morning to say this is an attack designed to undermine our legitimate concerns and our work to keep students safe.

 

Today the Daily Mail is doing what the Daily Mail does best - misrepresenting students’ views and attacking students’ unions. Click here to read the lead story. I am determined to ensure the headlines do not stop us doing our job. We stand against violent terrorism and work every day to keep students safe from harm, hate speech and harassment.

On the ground students are being questioned for reading books on counter-terrorism measures for coursework, lists of society members are being handed over to Prevent officers, and academics across the country are seriously concerned at being asked to monitor students under vague guidelines. Students and students’ unions officers are living this daily reality and are struggling with the bad implementation of poor policy. When this is an issue that affects so many students, it is ludicrous of anyone to suggest we would not, or should not, voice these concerns.

Theresa May knows that our views on this are shared by academic staff and trade unions, as well as some high-profile journalists and other politicians. Today I want to say to the home secretary it is time to put the rhetoric away and start listening, so that we can stop anyone thinking violent terrorism is the answer to anything.

But the Daily Mail’s hatchet job today, which is expected to continue for the next few days, has misrepresented NUS several times and suggested that we are working with organisations like CAGE.

It is intensely frustrating to me that students’ unions work to raise concerns on Prevent is being overshadowed and conflated with discussions about NUS’ relationship with CAGE. As national president, I took the decision not to work with CAGE because individuals associated with CAGE – and I mean directors of CAGE - have made comments which contradict NUS’ policies on anti-Semitism and violence against women.

I take our policies and rules incredibly seriously. Conference chose to pass policy into our rules which defines anti-Semitism by the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC)’s ‘Working Definition of Anti-Semitism’. We also have policy on standing against violence against women, and we also have our No Platform list which today I have defended from attacks yet again.

I have to be able to look every single students’ union officer in the eye and say that this organisation respects the decisions that we take together, as students’ unions. I cannot do that if I know we would be working with an organisation whose own website has words which suggest the 9/11 terrorist attacks were a Jewish conspiracy. I cannot do that if we would be working with an organisation whose own leader would not denounce female genital mutilation or the stoning to death of women when questioned about it. I cannot do that if we would be working with an organisation whose staff have in the past appeared at rallies organised by Hizb-ut-Tahrir or alongside them on panels – an organisation that you, students’ unions, voted to put on NUS’ No Platform list.

It is precisely because we stand against anti-Semitism, violence against women and for our right to No Platform that I will not work with CAGE. It is for these reasons and these reasons alone and I’ve laid out this position consistently - including in an email directly to the presidents of 14 students’ unions before whose institutions were being targeted by those on the right who want to attack us, including the Henry Jackson Society.

Today’s front page and four page spread in the Mail is precisely why I was so frustrated to learn that NUS’ name had been put to the ‘Students not Suspects’ tour on dates where a director of CAGE was to appear on it. But just like everyone else I only learned of this when a Facebook post appeared on my newsfeed.

I want students’ unions to know the actual facts, not the spin.

Students not Suspects’ was organised by a number of individuals as part of a grassroots campaign. Individual officers from NUS speaking on the tour made a personal decision to appear on the dates alongside Moazzam Begg. Where CAGE were not appearing I have always said that NUS officers should of course raise students concerns about Prevent, as we all have done so for some time.

I want to support you to bring about practical change on Prevent, engaging with your institutions on your terms, not the government’s. Because this is an issue on which we are all agreed. Our focus must be on convincing the government that they need to think again. I have done everything in my power to ensure we rebut the idea being peddled by the Mail and the government that students should not be heard. That may well have frustrated some, but I do it because it is my job to defend and support students’ unions. NUS cannot and should not be making it harder for you to do your jobs.

The government has a lot to learn from students’ unions and our work in ensuring all students feel part of their campus and local communities through building a cohesive and welcoming society.

As I laid out to the Home Affairs Select Committee just a few weeks ago, we believe the best way to build that strong society is through dialogue between faith groups, making sure students of faith are understood by their institutions, and mitigating the risks around external speakers. This is exactly what we've been working with students' unions to achieve over the last few years. Such work is vital in refuting the criticisms of those who want to silence us because we don't believe the government's approach to countering violent terrorism works.

NUS will always defend students’ unions – it is why we exist. I am determined we do that by making your jobs easier in the months ahead.

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