Last Wednesday, the EUSA Trustee Board concluded that ‘while the [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions] will be published as normal alongside other Student Council business, the BDS motion as it is written cannot legally be implemented by EUSA’. As Chair of the Board, I want to make it clear that this decision was made on legal grounds. The Trustee Board is a non-political body, made-up of 5 student, 4 sabbatical and 3 external trustees. It exists to provide legal, financial and reputational oversight of the organisation. It is also there to promote the smooth implementation of democratically passed policy, except when it breaks the law.
To exist as a charity, independent from the University, EUSA has to abide by charity law. This states that while we are able to expend resources on issues that affect present and future members ‘as students’ (tuition fees, academic support, and counselling waiting times), it is unlawful to expend resources on issues that do not directly affect ‘students as students’: conflicts in the Middle East or Israel-Palestine, for example.
The legal advice we received from the National Union of Students (NUS) and a leading human rights law firm, Matrix, was clear in saying that the situation in Israel-Palestine was not an issue that affected our members ‘as students’. It may affect our members as globally conscious citizens perhaps, like it will for many members of the public, but not directly as students. £9k tuition fees, funding for the University Counselling service and affordable housing are issues that specifically affect students whilst they are at university.
Our legal advice made it clear, therefore, that EUSA’s Trustee Board would be breaking charity law if it expended any resources on implementing BDS policy. By ‘resources’, this means commercial products, as well as the time of paid Sabbatical Officers. It is, therefore, considered unlawful to both enact the boycott of Israeli goods within EUSA’s commercial services and for EUSA Sabbatical Officers to expend their time lobbying the University to enact BDS.
Some of our members will be unhappy that this Student Council policy will not be enacted. Some may consider the charity law and the ‘students as students’ aspect a nuisance. But failing to meet our legal obligations as a charity carries with it significant risks. Our existence and ability to operate as a students’ union is dependent on our status as a registered charity. Without which, we would not be able to be registered as a students’ union or receive funding from the University.
This may explain why other students’ unions have made precisely the same decision on BDS policy. The Trustee Boards of Students’ Unions across the country – including King’s College London (KCL), Manchester and Warwick – all decided that implementing BDS policy would be out with their legal powers as students’ unions.
Ultimately, the EUSA Trustee Board made their decision based on the considerable weight of legal advice, which said that enacting BDS would break our legal obligations as a charity.
Trustees of any charity have a responsibility to ensure that their organisation abides by charity law. The overwhelming majority of the Board, therefore, felt that following this legal advice was the sensible decision to make.