Union Council discusses lots, decides little

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Union Council on Monday 20th February consisted of almost 3 hours of various student representatives discussing, mainly, a debate on whether or not SUSU should continue to sell products from Nestlé, in its outlets. This debate was sparked after Chloe Green brought the issue to the attention of Southampton students with an article on The Wessex Scene Online, 6 weeks ago.  The final decision of the discussion was that the councillors just don’t know.

It took 6 council members speaking formally, over 85 minutes of discussion and 3 amendments before Aaron Bali, who submitted the motion, decided to withdraw it. The decision by the end of the discussion was that council was not adequately informed enough to make a decision as important as this on behalf of the entire student population.  It was agreed that all council members would therefore report this issue to the students that they represent to gather a consensus, which can be brought to the next Union Council.

Sam Ling, who sits on council as an Ordinary Council Member (and therefore as a neutral party to represent the interests of all students), presented his disappointment that Union Council, the highest body of power in the Students’ Union, couldn’t come to a decision on this “simple” issue. In the council’s defence, the issue of Nestlé’s practices has been debated for over 30 years, so perhaps it was too much to ask to conclude it in less than 2 hours. However, for as many questions that were left unanswered about Nestlé, just as many were raised about the efficiency and structure of our own Union Council.

Over 50 minutes had passed before the first motion was even considered, another half hour was squandered deciding how best to delay the Nestlé motion to the next council and a further 40 minutes was used to address and withdraw a motion based on nothing more than miscommunication, due to inefficient posting of the minutes from previous Union Council meetings. With these inefficiencies in mind, there is a lot that has to be changed in the way council works. Most members left the meeting in far from pleased moods, after both the main motions were dropped; whilst all the remaining members had already left half way through.

There is a fine balance that needs to be reached between achieving a formal system, where councillors can precisely adjust the constitution of the union through motions and reviews, and allowing councillors a chance to discuss what is best for them and the thousands of students that they represent in a format that is productive, engaging and efficient.  At the moment, this balance has not been achieved. Union President, Billy Fitzjohn, has already stated that there needs to be some reform in the way Union Council works and has asked students to help him with this consultation. If you have any suggestions to improve the structure and format of Union Council, then please email Billy on pres@susu.org.

However, as much as can be done to improve the structure of Union Council, it has to be asked if the councillors are accurately fulfilling their roles. The Nestlé motion in council was delayed because councillors felt that they could not speak on behalf of the students they represent. Part of being a member of Union Council is taking future motions (as posted on susu.org) to the students they (are supposed to) represent and discussing them, prior to council. No matter how efficient the structure of council, it is doomed to fail if the select students that fill it don’t adequately represent the students of Southampton.

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Discussion10 Comments

  1. avatar

    I am not a Union Council Member, but I was in the majority of this weeks meeting (being FESM Faculty officer I can attend but not vote) and would like to add some form of counterpoint to this article.

    I am not going to be making myself popular with this, but with all due respect to the people who wrote and proposed this motion to Union Council (viewable at http://minutes.susu.org/files/council_64.pdf ), It should not have been brought to council in the form it was.

    Firstly and fore mostly, the facts in the motion were not referenced to their sources in the published version of the Motion, so councillors couldn’t do adequate fact-checking. This is not necessarily the fault of the proposers as they had the references on their submission, they seem to have been lost somewhere in translation.

    However these references, once given; come almost entirely from the charity IBFAN (the International Baby Food Action Network), now I’m not an expert at spotting biased information, but looking at their website it is hard to conclude that they are impartial. If the proposers of the motion had wanted to satisfy the Union Council and avoid this problem, more sources, with more of them being independent agencies (eg: the WHO). I would applaud the proposers from including UNICEF, although the figure quoted is used spuriously (4000 deaths a day from poorly sanitised water, not “due to not being aptly breastfed”)

    This is to say nothing of the possible (but not quantified) damage this blanket ban on Nestle products could do to SUSU’s financial footing, and customer choice concerns due to the apparent wish of the proposers to eradicate Nestle not only from SUSU, but Campus’ entire.

    I’m not going to say that this motion should not be brought to Union Council, because it is a good issue for the union to discuss if enough students are genuinely concerned by it.

    This event has uncovered problems in the way Union Council operates, but can you really blame Councillors from not being 100% on the ball when they have both dissertation deadlines, and SUSU elections to be worrying about?

    As a final note, we had several big “politicised” motions in council in the 2009/2010 academic year, the major difference between this one and those being the level of student-on-the-concourse engagement with the issue.

  2. avatar

    It was technically me that decided to withdraw the Nestle motion, as after my amendment passed it became my motion. I did make sure this is what Aaron wanted to do before doing though, as it didn’t feel right taking the decision myself.

  3. avatar
    Charlotte (VP Comms)

    As I said in council, I believed the Nestle motion was too complicated for councillors to have discussed with their committees, in NO way was it simple -the term that was being banded about yesterday. I do not think that council is therefore ineffective because we didn’t make a decision, it means that councillors are switched on enough to realise when they don’t know enough about a topic and to admit this and question it. If we had rushed through this motion yesterday, we would have pushed through a motion that is too big for a room of councillors to decide -we are not government, we are a students’ union, and snouldn’t compare our processes. I for one did not have the background knowledge to discuss with my committee, nor did I have the time or understanding of where to find the information needed, to see both sides of the argument and take all the myriad considerations that came up yesterday into account. As it stood, we were given many conflicting points of ‘fact’ that would have made me very uncomfortable as a sabbatical to lead the Union down a road that was this foggy. Yesterday’s discussion proved that councillors were very split on the discussion, which was a very worthwhile discussion to have. To me, whether or not to join the NUS is as big a consideration as whether or not we ban all Nestle products from campus. I believe this is either an issue for AGM or Referendum and will put forward this assertion if the necessary unbiased student feeling cannot be gleaned by the time the issue next comes around.

    In terms of the second motion, there had clearly been some miscommunication between officers, but the issue that made it look as though the amendment was suggesting that all student leader elections must take place in the summer term was one that needed raising! Clarity was needed, not necessarily motion, as was realised once that clarity had been sought. Those public discussions were insightful and actually proved vital to the exec review, despite not necessarily being given in the correct forum. We will continue with exec review as instructed by councillors at the previous meeting, bearing in mind fresh concerns raised by RAG, AU and Societies regarding timing of elections, alongside the other concerns that have come out of the open forum, previous council meetings, previous exec review meetings and via the susu blog comments.

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    Charlotte, with respect, I know all of the sabbaticals are busy, but isn’t it part of your job as a sabbatical to research topics such as the Nestle motion for Union Council? A quick search on Google would have provided you with plenty of information needed for you to form a detailed and balanced opinion in not much time, so I’m surprised you don’t have the understanding of where to find information.

    Also (if it’s allowed), why did no-one take advantage of the internal email system to ask students their opinion? It seems as if the entire debate is between the council elite, with some claiming to represent the majority of students, which is strange.

    Obviously it’s good that the decision was postponed until the next UC given the situation, but it sounds like it was mostly a lack of planning that led to the decision rather than a divide between informed opinions?

    Charlotte (VP Comms)
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    Google provided me with some but not all information, as it would have taken me straight to and NUS page if I googled pro/anti NUS. Internal emails are not available to us across the board, we can utilise school presidents to mail school and clubs and socs can be mailed, but that is about the extent of it. I’m not saying you’re worng, and I believe most people will have a better grasp of this issue than me, but frankly, in the build up to elections, finding the time to do detailed research on the issue, then amongst my cohort, when we are talking about a boycott of a product (a HUGE motion) just wasn’t possible further than the google search, the conversations and the reading of the various comments here that I looked at. Why would Council think that a neutral body of facts needs to be produced when asked the question over whether or not to be in the NUS, but not when we are comnsidering boycotting nestle?

    anon
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    Google provides far more than one result for a search- its called research. I was under the impression that researching a topic of which you have little knowledge is a major skill that you are meant to develop throughout your three years at uni. Money well spent there.

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    As a former Union Council member this seems to be a cultural trend amongst Councillors. I disagree that the UC itself has much wrong with it, it is rather the way the sessions are conducted and chaired (this is by no means aimed at the current Chairmen as I suspect its an inherited culture). Even when I was involved relatively recently I was always shocked by how often Councillors, even prominent ones, would happily admit they hadn’t even bothered to read the minutes, let alone research those topics. It always struck me as bizarre how people refused to do research before debates. I’m sorry but if you (by which I mean everyone from Sabb to UCOM) can’t be bothered to prepare for a debate make way for someone with a modicum of commitment.

  6. avatar

    Expecting them to immediately vote through your Nestle thing was naiive. It’s a motion that isn’t important enough to rush through, and potentially has an impact on the income of the Union. It’s a good thing they didn’t rush it through IMO.

    Henry C Taylor
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    ‘Your Nestle thing’ is a major boycott that’s been running since the late 1970s, Dhanesh. No-one was asking for anyone to immediately vote it through, only to prepare more on the matter in question before council – something that sabbs are paid to do, but seemingly didn’t. If the decision to postpone council had come about through an informed argument on the issue reaching a stalemate, then fair enough, but I’m not sure that’s what happened.

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