Labour is calling for an investigation into the appointment of Boris Johnson’s former party leadership campaign manager as chairman of England’s independent higher education regulator.
Conservative peer Lord Wharton of Yarm, the former MP for Stockton South, was appointed as chairman of the Office for Students (OfS) by Education Secretary Gavin Williamson this week.
It comes after Lord Wharton, who previously managed the Prime Minister’s Conservative party leadership campaign, suggested he could retain his party’s whip in the House of Lords if confirmed in the post.
I’m delighted to announce Lord Wharton as the new Chair of @officestudents and look forward to working with him on the priorities I have set out. I want to thank @MichaelBarber9 for his service and work to champion students’ interests.https://t.co/hv4wVXaRDu
— Gavin Williamson (@GavinWilliamson) February 9, 2021
Labour’s shadow education secretary Kate Green has written to the Cabinet Secretary Simon Case to call for an investigation into the appointment of Lord Wharton.
Ms Green said: “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.”
Ms Green added: “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 the letter, Ms Green questions whether it would be appropriate for Lord Wharton to resign the whip “with immediate effect” upon starting the post.
Yet more @Conservatives cronyism. James Wharton has admitted he has no experience of higher education but being friends with the Prime Minister is good enough to get appointed chair of the @officestudentsMy letter asking for an investigation into how this appointment was made 👇 pic.twitter.com/vkP10Eu7VS
— Kate Green 💙 (@KateGreenSU) February 10, 2021
Last week, Lord Wharton told the education select committee that he recognised the “crucial importance” of the universities’ watchdog being independent and added he would “uphold that”.
When asked whether he would retain the Conservative whip, Lord Wharton said he has had a discussion with the whips in the Lords and they said they would give him “more latitude” and they would understand that he may need to vote against some of the Government’s proposals.
James Wharton, who is now 36, was the Conservative MP for Stockton South from 2010 to 2017 and he served as a parliamentary under-secretary of state for international development during this period.
Before becoming an MP, he studied law at Durham University where he was the race awareness officer. He then trained to be a solicitor with a regional firm in north-east England after he graduated.
Lord Wharton was interviewed for the OfS role by a panel that included Tory peer Baroness Wyld, former Conservative MP Eric Ollerenshaw and Nick Timothy, who advised Theresa May as prime minister.
In correspondence with Robert Halfon, chairman of the education select committee, Peter Riddell, the commissioner for public appointments, said he had expressed concern about the interview panel’s “overall balance in terms of experience and political activity”.
But Mr Riddell said he was “satisfied” that the panel questioned the six candidates “consistently and with reference to the criteria for the role”.
Lord Wharton, who is succeeding Sir Michael Barber in the role, will start as chairman of the OfS at the beginning of April.
A Government spokesperson said: “The chair of the OfS is a public appointment, made by ministers in line with the Governance Code on Public Appointments, which sets out the principles of public appointments.
“The appointment has been regulated by the Independent Commissioner for Public Appointments who plays a vital role in ensuring the process is open and fair.”