New OfS chair Lord Wharton must resign Tory whip, says Labour

Appointment of former Conservative MP as chair of English higher education regulator ‘adds to catalogue of cronyism’

February 9, 2021
James Wharton

The new chair of England’s independent higher education regulator must resign the Conservative whip in the House of Lords “without delay” after his appointment was confirmed, Labour said.

Kate Green, the shadow education secretary, said the selection of Lord Wharton of Yarm to lead the Office for Students (OfS) “adds to the Conservative government’s growing catalogue of cronyism”.

Lord Wharton is a Tory peer and former MP who led Boris Johnson’s party leadership campaign. His new two-days-a-week post, which he will start in April, comes with an annual salary of £59,000, on a four-year term.

In an appearance before the Commons Education Committee on 2 February, Lord Wharton said he planned to retain the Conservative party whip but pledged to uphold the OfS’ independence from the government.

Ms Green said she doubted that this would be possible.

“This latest appointment adds to the Conservative government’s growing catalogue of cronyism. Students have been forgotten by this government, which is more concerned about securing jobs for their friends,” Ms Green said.

“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.”

Lord Wharton’s appointment was confirmed by Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, after he was endorsed for the role by the Education Committee.

He and five other candidates had been interviewed for the role by a panel that included three Conservatives and a former Tory parliamentary candidate. These were Nick Timothy, who advised Theresa May as prime minister and is now a non-executive director at the Department for Education; former Conservative MP Eric Ollerenshaw; Conservative peer Baroness Wyld, a former head of the prime minister’s appointments unit; and, listed as an independent panel member, Dame Patricia Hodgson, the former Ofcom chairman and a former Conservative parliamentary candidate. The final member of the interview panel was Susan Acland-Hood, the permanent secretary of the Department for Education.

In correspondence with the select committee that was published as part of the committee’s report, Peter Riddell, the commissioner for public appointments, says he had expressed concern about the interview panel’s “overall balance in terms of experience and political activity”.

However, Mr Riddell adds, he has read a copy of the interview panel’s report and has been “satisfied that the panel questioned the candidates at interview consistently and with reference to the published criteria for the role”.

Mr Williamson said he was “confident” that Lord Wharton “has the skills and experience to guide our students and the sector through these difficult times”. The Department for Education was contacted for comment.

Lord Wharton, who will succeed Sir Michael Barber as OfS chair, was MP for Stockton South from 2010 until he lost his seat in 2017, and served as a junior minister under David Cameron and Theresa May.

chris.havergal@timeshighereducation.com

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