Thames Valley Police have confirmed that they were called to the Oxford Union to investigate reports of a party at the Union attended by over 50 people on the evening of Friday 11th December.
At the time, the city of Oxford was in ‘high alert’ level Tier 2 coronavirus restrictions, which banned the mixing of households indoors.
Thames Valley Police arrived at the scene on 16th December, and were shown around by the Union’s President, James Price, and Librarian, although Slack messages evidencing the party had since been removed. Thames Valley Police have said:
“Thames Valley Police received a report on 16 December 2020 of a breach of coronavirus restrictions at premises in Frewin Court. Officers attended however no offences were identified. They did pass words of advice and a reminder of the current restrictions.”
The event, described by the Union’s ex-Treasurer as “irresponsible” and “out of hand”, was attended by the Union’s President, President-Elect, Librarian and Librarian-Elect, according to insider testimony to The Blue.
Pictures showing the presence of the President-Elect and a Deputy Returning Officer have been seen by The Blue along with testimony from individuals, including those on and off the committee, that can account for other senior officers’ presence.
Sources – including those who attended the party, as well as those tasked with cleaning the site the following day – told The Blue that there had been a large presence of Union committee members and other students, including postgraduates from the Saïd Business School and members of the Oxford University Conservative Association.
The President, in messages seen by The Blue, sent to the Committee: “Hi all – please feel free to come by if you want a place for SOCIALLY DISTANCED drinks etc” at 19:58 on 11th December. Friday of Michaelmas term’s 9th week is a day that has historically been used for a Union committee social. The next day, a Committee member replied: “this aged well”.
A short while later, in a now-deleted message sent to the Secretary’s Committee, the then-Secretary, who recently resigned from the Union after their promotion to Treasurer, stated in a message to the committee “there was apparently a party in the building and it got out of hand”. They suggested that they “personally feel it was wrong to throw a party, to have it attended by officers, and to put [secretary’s committee members] on the receiving end of the inevitable guillotine”.
Anonymous insider sources have said that an internal “cover up” followed these events as senior officers deleted nearly all messages from shared messaging platforms and committee members were prompted to relay the ‘official’ line. This suggested that committee members were working in the buildings, when suddenly, they were met with the presence of a large number of MBA students who were promptly “removed from the buildings”.
The recently-resigned Treasurer, who was Secretary at the time, maintains that the “illegal gathering” and the lack of responsibility taken by the President and senior officers were among the actions that later prompted their resignation.
After the end of the second national lockdown in early December, the UK Government continued tiered restrictions on socialising indoors and outdoors in a bid to curb the spread of COVID-19. Oxford was then under Tier 2 restrictions, meaning that members were only able to use the Union buildings for “work purposes or for the provision of voluntary and charitable services” as indicated by the Government’s Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (All Tiers) (England) Regulations 2020. People present also attested to a lack of COVID-19 security at the party, including masks not being worn and social distancing not being maintained.
News of the party follows numerous controversies surrounding Price’s term in office, including the invitation of commentator Debra Soh, widely criticised for transphobia. The planned event prompted a critical statement from the Student Union’s LGBTQ+ Campaign, but is still set to go ahead.
In December, the Union also invited Graham Lineham, a vocal critic of trans rights, but rescinded the invitation as part of a ‘binning’ process of speakers invited as back-ups. In recent terms, this same practice has seen the likes of a former NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) president disinvited for being “too small”.
Price, who graduated seven years ago, was elected in June 2020 after the Union waived a residency requirement due to the pandemic, which resulted in Trinity term being conducted virtually. Price’s manifesto stated that he was running “because [he] think[s] it’s funny, and also because [he] would be better than anyone else”. Over 300 alumni registered to vote following the announcement of his candidacy, and he received endorsement from the actor and anti-lockdown commentator Laurence Fox.
Prior to winning the Union election, Price stood unsuccessfully in the 2019 General Election as the Conservative candidate in Swansea West. He has also worked as a Special Advisor to the Leader of the House of Lords.
The Union denied that a party had taken place in their comment to The Blue:
“These claims are untrue, malicious and defamatory. When it was brought to the attention of the Union that a group of outside students were gathering inside the building without permission and against Covid guidance, they were asked to leave by the Union. They duly did so. This was done safely and without argument. The Oxford Union adheres to the Government’s prevailing covid regulations and guidance.”
This article was corrected at 15:51 on 06/02/21, due to a factual inaccuracy. The photo seen by The Blue shows a Deputy Returning Officer not the Returning Officer, of the Oxford Union, along with the President-Elect. The article has been amended to reflect this.