National Union of Students challenges William Shawcross on remarks about extremist speakers

Toni Pearce, president of the NUS, has written to the Charity Commission chair to point out it takes a strong line on the issue

Toni Pearce
Toni Pearce

The president of the National Union of Students has written to William Shawcross, chair of the Charity Commission, to challenge remarks that he made about student unions giving support to extremist speakers.

Toni Pearce’s letter, dated 9 October, was written in response to comments made by Shawcross to the Rathbones annual charity symposium on 12 September.

Shawcross said: "In the last decade, student groups in London universities frequently invited the Islamist propagandist Anwar al-Awlaki to speak in person or by video. It was he whose sermons incited a young British Muslim student to try to murder her MP, Stephen Timms. It was a mercy Mr Timms survived her knife attack."

Shawcross revisited the topic at a speech to the Charity Law Association on 9 October, when he talked about the commission’s guidance on extremist speakers.

"The guidance explains the steps trustees – of student unions, for example – must take to ensure their charity does not give a platform to people espousing illegal views or promoting violent extremism," he said. "Charities must not be misused as vehicles for radicalisation."

In her letter to Shawcross, Pearce said the NUS took a strong position on extremist speakers at UK universities.

"I note the concerns you raised around student groups’ invitations to controversial speakers and the link to violence and terrorism over the past decade," she said.

"Our long-established ‘no platform’ policy makes it clear that NUS will not give a number of organisations, or those representing them, a place at our events, nor will we share a platform with them."

Pearce said the NUS would not work with organisations including Hizb ut-Tahrir Al-Muhajiroun, the Muslim Public Affairs Committee, the British National Party and the English Defence League as part of its 'no platform' policy.

"I would like to make it very clear that NUS takes a robust position in regard to extremist speakers at UK universities," she said.

Pearce said the NUS had carried out student interfaith project work for the last five years as part of the government’s anti-radicalisation agenda, and as part of this work it had produced guidance for its member unions on managing the risks associated with external speakers.

She said the guidance outlined a ‘risk-based approach’ to hate speakers for its member unions, which was produced after the union liaised with the commission.

A spokeswoman for the commission said the regulator did not wish to comment.

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