A recent advice surgery I held at St Hilda's specifically for students brought forward some important and interesting issues -- showing how students talking with their MP can make a difference.
Some of the issues raised with me included the menace of smoking at hospital entrances, inappropriate abortion counselling advertising, and the campaign for the Living Wage in university departments and colleges.
Several students raised the issue that the pro-life charity LIFE has been advertising their counselling services on buses in Oxford, giving the unrealistic impression that LIFE is offering an impartial counselling service for pregnant women. I have asked the Advertising Standard Authority to investigate this and they have started making enquiries. Having investigated the matter further I was deeply concerned by reports that investigative undercover exercises conducted by Brooks Advisory Centre have alleged that inappropriate and biased advice has also been given to pregnant women by LIFE. For example they reported one counsellor in a care centre in Oxford falsely linking abortion to an increased risk of breast cancer. Women who are in need of counselling should have a right to expect a high quality and compassionate service, with impartial and confidential advice and support based on medical evidence.
These reports are very worrying and underline the need for proper regulation and oversight of all centres offering pregnancy and abortion counselling. I have since raised this issue with the Secretary of State for Health asking him to review these services and to bring them within the responsibilities of the Care Quality Commission, which regulates other health provision.
Student participants of the Oxford University Student Union's Living Wage Campaign also came to see me to see me to discuss the campaign and let me know their views that the Living Wage be extended across all university departments and colleges, including all subcontracted staff (e.g. cleaning staff) who are often paid a lower rate. I fully support the campaign and have raised this with the University's Vice-Chancellor, urging him to meet with students to discuss a way forward with their campaign.
At the advice surgery I also met with a student who raised concerns that smokers are lining up just outside the entrance to hospital, meaning that visitors and vulnerable patients entering the building are in a thoroughfare of passive smoking. He made an interesting suggestion, based on his experience of hospital services in Canada, that smoking should be legally banned within a fifteen metre radius of the hospital to prevent this occurring, which I have since taken up with the Secretary of State for Health.
Another important issue I have become involved with is the campaign over restrictions to student visas, after a number of concerned students contacted me to express concerns about their difficulty in acquiring visas for study. Overseas students make a very important economic and cultural contribution to our country, and the restrictions to student visas are inflicting serious damage on the reputation and attractiveness of the UK as a place of study. I contributed to a debate in the House of Commons on this, and regularly take up the cases of individual constituents who contact me and who are having visa difficulties.
I have also recently met with a campaigner for fairer gambling who raised concerns with me about the increased incidence and risk of gambling amongst the student population. I very much welcome student views on this, and ideas on the best way of tackling the problem.
Student voices can make a difference, as I hope the above examples show. It sadly remains the case that 18 to 24 year olds are less likely to vote than any other age demographic, including a large number of students, which is a worrying trend. A number of the policies pursued by the coalition government -- the unprecedented rise in tuition fees, and scrapping of the Education Maintenance Allowance, policies which have caused so much damage for a generation of young people -- show what can happen when young people's needs are marginalised in the democratic process and they don't exercise their vote whether through disillusionment, or for a variety of other complex reasons.
I have always valued the contribution of our universities and students to the local quality of life and vigour of political campaigning. As the City and European Elections come into view -- and with individual electoral registration on the horizon too -- it is important to underline that students can make their voices heard not only by talking with me, but through local campaigns and by exercising that most fundamental of democratic rights -- their vote.