Legal snares restrict politically intrepid

March 7, 1997

UNIVERSITY groups must obey strict rules to avoid bias in the run-up to the general election, student leaders have warned.

The law considers students' unions charitable organisations, which means they must not try to persuade members of the public to vote for or against a candidate or political party.

Activities are also limited by the Representation of the People Act, which controls publicity for candidates and the amount of money spent during an election on their behalf.

Anyone breaking the provisions of this act risks six months' imprisonment and/or aPounds 2,000 fine.

Students may not spend more than Pounds 5 organising or publicising a public meeting during the election without including it in a candidate's election expenses and for this they must have the authority of the official agent.

All candidates, including extremists, must be given an equal opportunity to speak, unless the police advise it would lead to crime or severe public disorder.

But students' unions are only able to campaign on issues affecting their members so that candidates can only be questioned on matters such as student hardship and education funding.

Campaigns by student unions, the National Union of Students and Rock the Vote, a non-party political programme run by the NUS and the insurance company Endsleigh, claim to have added an extra 250,000 students to the electoral roll. This means more than 400,000 more students are now eligible to vote than in 1992.

A number of universities and colleges have arranged for block registration of eligible students, while nearly all students in halls of residence should have been registered by their union.

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