Union refuses to back down on referendum

Officer team refuses to acknowledge any foul play during campaign

Barney Willis to Scrutiny Committee: ‘I wouldn’t change anything’

Welsh speakers have been made to feel “isolated” and “exiled from their own capital” say campaigners, as the backlash continues following the shocking behaviour of sabbatical officers during the recent Welsh Language Officer referendum.

In response to the backhand behaviour of the ‘No’ campaign during last week’s referendum, disillusioned members of the opposing ‘Yes’ campaign have launched a scathing attack on the Students’ Union sabbatical team. ‘Yes’ have issued calls for the officers to admit the use of scare-mongering and exaggeration by the campaign, the evidence for which was revealed in the last issue of Gair Rhydd.

In a meeting organised at the behest of current part-time Welsh Language Officer, Steffan Bryn, Students’ Union President Elliot Howells was grilled by members of the ‘Yes’ campaign, who said that they believed that the current sabbatical officer team had failed “to keep the interests of the students at heart”.

However, Howells refused to apologise to angry members of the ‘Yes’ campaign despite complaints that he and the other officers had engaged in ‘unethical’ behaviour during the referendum.

Howells asserted that “no lies were told” by anybody affiliated with the ‘No’ campaign. The SU President further denied the misbehaviour of Union officers during the referendum.

Despite this, Gair Rhydd published evidence last week that Students’ Union officers intended to “influence” students to vote against the creation of a full-time Welsh language officer.  During the voting period, both VP Societies and VP Education sent mass emails threatening members of societies and sports clubs with substantial budget cuts of a combined £46,000 in the case of a victory for the ‘Yes’ campaign.

However, over the course of the meeting between Howells and the ‘Yes’ campaign, the Union were still unable to reveal the full-extent of the costs of employing a full-time Welsh language officer. This is despite Howells presenting conflicting figures of “over £30,000” and “at most £26,000”.

Accused of putting the Union as a commercial entity before students, Howells was condemned by members of the ‘Yes’ campaign for stating that the creation of a full-time Welsh Officer was “not in the best interest of the Union.”

Meanwhile, VP Societies Barney Willis appeared before the Scrutiny Committee to insist that he would “do it all again”, in reference his emails sent to encouraged a no vote.

In a shocking development, Willis was encouraged to strike the remark from the record, and is not believed to have been included on the minutes. He revised his suggestion to say that he “stands by what [he] did” as the sabbatical officer in charge of the Students’ Union’s Guild of Societies.

In response to complaints that full-time officers should not have sought to promote their own views on the matter, Howells insisted that “officers have a right to express an opinion”, and share their knowledge of Students’ Union procedure. In the meeting held between Union staff and ‘Yes’ campaigners, the statement was met with support by both current VP Heath Claire Blakeway, and Students’ Union Chief Executive Daniel Palmer.

In defence of his blog posted on the Students’ Union website urging students to vote against the creation of a full-time Welsh language officer, Howells suggested that it would be “irresponsible” to prevent sabbatical positions from expressing their opinion.

However, the President’s explanations were slated by members of the Welsh speaking community, who condemned both Howells and other sabbatical officers for expressing their opinion through official Students’ Union social media accounts.

One member of the ‘Yes’ campaign in attendance stated: “When using official channels, you should have the interests of the students at heart.”

“Students are intelligent enough to make their own decisions without being influenced.”

As a result of the developments, concerns have been voiced over the behaviour of sabbatical officers in the next academic year.

In the meeting, students demanded to know whether future SU President Claire Blakeway understood the severity of the behaviour conducted by fellow officers.

One student demanded: “Do you understand why we feel cheated?”

“We have tried to achieve integration with the Students’ Union but this has only lead to isolation”.

In an attempt to improve relationships with the Welsh speaking community, Union staff have acknowledged the need to improve Welsh language provision at both the Union and University.

“We now need to look at how to engage and represent Welsh students in order to ensure what we’re doing is wanted”, stated Head of Membership Services Steve Wilford.

However, requests from staff for co-operation and suggestions for future plans were met with resistance, as members of the ‘Yes’ campaign responded with cries that their calls for action have been ignored.

One campaigner explained: “The students have demanded the creation of a full-time Welsh language officer. We want that change now.”

Meanwhile, the Union’s plans to introduce a full-time Students’ Union staff member to improve Welsh language facilities were met with further criticism, as members of the ‘Yes’ campaign emphasized the inability to bring Union staff into account in comparison to elected officers.

“What can a member of staff do that a sabbatical officer can’t?” members of the ‘Yes’ campaign questioned.

They continued: “This is clearly what the Union wants, and not what the students want.”

As a result, it was suggested that in line with existing societies and AU executive committees, a Welsh Language Executive Committee be created in order to examine the Union’s progress towards improving Welsh language facilities.

It was also suggested that a member of the Welsh speaking community be placed on the Union’s scrutiny committee, in order to hold current sabbatical officers to account.

Both Howells and Blakeway admitted that further plans to improve facilities for Welsh language speakers had yet to be put in place. In the meeting they emphasized that collaboration with the Welsh community was needed in order to pave the way for future developments, and that without it, it was unlikely that there would be any further progress.

Currently, members of the ‘Yes’ campaign claim that the lack of a full-time Welsh sabbatical officer has caused significant problems for first language Welsh speakers.

“Last year two of my friends failed their exams due to a failure to provide Welsh translations,” one stated.

As such, the need was highlighted for a full-time officer within the Union, able to ensure a link between all bodies within the Union.

As leader of the ‘Yes’ campaign, Bryn explained: “we need to take out the middle management and ensure we have a sabbatical officer with a free timetable to meet our needs.”

Demands for details of the current budget for Welsh language provision were also left unexplained, as Howells was unable to provide figures for the current academic year.

However, according to his own investigation as current part-time Welsh language officer, Bryn suggested that the figure exceeded no more than £800 of the £600,000 block grant allocated to the Union by the University.

Such estimates present a stark contrast to the £2.5 million allocated to the refurbishment of the Students’ Union announced last week.

This vast sum has been brought under scrutiny by students in favour of a full-time Welsh language officer, with some members accusing the Union of purposefully withholding the news of the refurbishment until after the end of the referendum period.

These accusations were emphatically denied by Union staff.