Labour has today called for an investigation into the appointment of Conservative peer James Wharton as chair of the Office for Students (OfS), the independent higher education regulator for England.
Kate Green, the shadow secretary of state for education said the appointment was part of a “another example of cronyism”. She has called on him to resign the whip.
Ms Green today wrote to the cabinet secretary, Simon Case, to call for an investigation into the appointment. She also questioned his suitability, saying he lacked the “statutory qualifications for this post”.
The shadow education secretary said Gavin Williamson and Boris Johnson “must be upfront about how this role was appointed and what measures have been put in place to avoid any real or perceived conflict of interest”.
The letter to Simon Case made reference to the 2017 Higher Education and Research Act (HERA), which “sets out clear criteria that should be considered when appointing members of the OfS, including the chair”.
Ms Green continued: “What experience does he have of either promoting the interests of students, providing higher education, or employing the graduates of higher education courses in a range of disciplines? More generally, what experience does he have of a broad range of higher education?”
“What experience does he have of creating, implementing, or managing a regulatory system in any sector or industry? What experience does he have of managing the financial affairs of an organisation?” she added.
It’s ridiculous to think James Wharton could make independent decisions while continuing to sit as a Conservative peer. He must resign the whip without delay
– Kate Green, Labour
Full text of the letter below
The 36-year-old Lord Wharton – who served as Conservative MP for Stockton South from 2010 to 2017 – was formally appointed yesterday. He said during a confirmation hearing with the education selection committee that he would continue to take the Conservative whip while chairing the independent OfS.
The decision to appoint Lord Wharton attracted controversy because other regulator chairs have not been affiliated to a political party during their tenure.
Andrew Tyrie was a former Conservative MP who, on his appointment as chair of the Competitions and Market Authority (CMA), renounced party membership. He was elevated to the House of Lords several months after taking up the CMA chairmanship and sat as a crossbench peer.
Kishwer Falkner, chair of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), now sits as a non-affiliated member of the House of Lords, having resigned the Liberal Democrat whip on her appointment.
After she was named chair of the Charity Commission for England and Wales, Tina Stowell sat as a non-affiliated peer, having served previously as Conservative leader of the House of Lords.
Conservative and Labour members of the House of Commons education select committee raised concerns about political neutrality with the Conservative peer, who managed Boris Johnson’s Conservative party leadership bid in 2017.
Conservative MP David Simmons asked how Lord Wharton would vote if his role as OfS chair and Conservative peer conflicted. “What I’ve made clear, and [Conservative party whips] have agreed, is that on issues where there is conflict with my role with the OfS, if appointed, they will give me more latitude and understand that I may need to vote against, or speak against, some of the things the party in government could bring forward.”
Wharton said that said parliament’s upper chamber “is more independent” and did not think his membership is “going to be a problem”.
“When it comes into conflict, my first duty will be with ensuring that that independence is given paramount importance and upheld,” he added.
Wharton said he would explain his disagreements with government policy, should they arise, with ministers privately. “If you can’t find resolution by appropriate and informal engagement, then I’m not afraid of media. I’ve had a fair share of it in my time in politics in the past,” he explained. “I can assure you that I will be independent and open and say what I think when issues arise. And if that brings me into conflict with the government, so be it.”
The commissioner for public appointments Peter Riddell criticised the government for “packing” the panel to oversee the appointment of the next chair of the Office for Students (OfS) with political allies of the Conservative Party.
Full text of the letter:
I am writing to you following the appointment of the Prime Minister’s former campaign manager, the Conservative Peer James Wharton, Baron Warton of Yarn, as Chair of the Office for Students (“OfS”), the independent regulator for the higher education sector.
It seems to me that Baron Wharton has none of the statutory qualifications for this post, and both the higher education sector and the wider public will be deeply concerned that this is simply another example of cronyism, which undermines trust in public life at a time when it is needed most. This will only be made worse by Baron Wharton’s decision to keep the Conservative whip, bringing into question his ability to make independent decisions.
At a time when it is vitally important for the public to have confidence in government appointments, it is extremely disappointing that they continue to appoint those with close ties to the Conservative party to public jobs without the necessary experience or credentials.
In this case, it is particularly alarming that this appointment is being made during a pandemic in which students have been forgotten by this Government and are being denied a full university experience, yet Baron Wharton admits he has no direct experience in higher education.
Gavin Williamson and Boris Johnson must be up front about how this role was appointed and what measures have been put in place to avoid any real or perceived conflict of interest.
I have a number of questions therefore that I hope you will be able to investigate.
In particular, you will be aware that the Higher Education and Research Act sets out clear criteria that should be considered when appointing members of the OfS, including the chair. In what ways does Baron Wharton meet these criteria?
What experience does he have of either promoting the interests of students, providing higher education, or employing the graduates of higher education courses in a range of disciplines? More generally, what experience does he have of a broad range of higher education?
What experience does he have of promoting choices for consumers and service users in other sectors, other than encouraging a choice of candidates for the position of Leader of the Conservative Party?
What experience does he have of creating, implementing, or managing a regulatory system in any sector or industry?
What experience does he have of managing the financial affairs of an organisation?
Is continuing to take the Conservative whip while in post consistent with the seven principles of public life, particularly his ability to make objective decisions?
Would it not be appropriate for Mr Wharton to resign the whip with immediate effect upon starting the post?
I look forward to your urgent response
Kate Green, shadow education secretary