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No 10 accused of ‘growing catalogue of cronyism’ after appointment of Gavin Williamson’s friend James Wharton

Education secretary Gavin Williamson - Credit: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire

Labour’s shadow education minister has called on Tory peer James Wharton to resign his party’s whip after being appointed chair of the universities watchdog.

Kate Green said Wharton’s appointment to the Office for Students (OfS) was the latest in a “growing catalogue of cronyism” committed by the government.

The Tory peer was confirmed as chair on Tuesday afternoon, despite the Commons education committee voicing strong concerns last week about his ability to be independent. He will receive a taxpayer-funded salary of £60,000 for just two days’ work a week. 

Reacting to his appointment, Green said: “Students have been forgotten by this government, which is more concerned about securing jobs for their friends.

“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.

“It’s vital for public confidence that concerns surrounding senior appointments are urgently looked at. This is why a Labour government will end this cronyism by restoring transparency at the heart of government through establishing an integrity and ethics commission.”

The OfS was established to regulate universities in England in 2018, so that “every student, whatever their background, has a fulfilling experience of higher education”, and acts as a champion of equality and diversity.

Wharton, a former MP for Stockton South who was awarded a peerage by the prime minister in August, told the Commons education committee that he would be keeping the Conservative whip and that he would negotiate a deal with whips to allow him to speak out.

This comes after shadow Cabinet Office minister Rachel Reeves promised a Labour government would “clean up cronyism” and deliver the “biggest wave of insourcing of public services for a generation”.

MORE: British newspapers call for probe into Cabinet Office FOI unit after journalists have requests blocked

Research by Labour unveiled on Monday suggests the value of contracts awarded to companies with connections to the Tories amounted to almost £2 billion.

Reeves revealed she has written to the top 10 firms with Tory connections that secured contracts during the Covid-19 crisis in a bid to unveil their profit levels.

“We deserve to know how and if friends and donors of the Tory Party have cashed in on a national emergency,” she said.

“This is no way to run our country, and we need answers.”

A government spokesman said: “As the National Audit Office has made clear, there is no evidence of ministerial involvement in procurement decisions or contract management.

“We have robust rules and processes in place in order to ensure that conflicts of interest do not occur.

“Contracts are awarded on a combination of price and quality, not the political or other affiliations of owners or stakeholders.”

In November, the commissioner for public appointments, Peter Riddell, accused the government of “packing” the OfS’ recruitment panel with political allies.

Riddell suggested this undermined the confidence of such organisations.“There are, however, signs that this balance is under threat ­– that some at the centre of government want not only to have the final say but to tilt the competition system in their favour to appoint their allies. For instance, in recent months I have on a number of occasions had to resist, successfully so far, attempts by ministers to appoint people with clear party affiliations as Senior Independent Panel Members (SIPM) when that is expressly barred under the Code,” he said.

“There have also been attempts to stretch the Code by, for example, packing the composition of interview panels with allies, notably in the current case of the panel for the competition of the Office for Students, which has a panel of five where there is no one with senior recent experience of higher education or a student involved.”

Riddell also criticised the appointment of Dido Harding to lead NHS Test and Trace and to be interim executive chair of the new National Institute for Health Protection “without any process of regulated appointment”.