Warwick and conflict of interest

July 16, 1999

Graham Zellick's argument (Soapbox, THES, July 9) seems based on two misrepresentations. Diana Warwick will speak and act in the Lords in her personal capacity and not on behalf of the CVCP. There is thus no violation of the principle that the CVCP has to be strictly non-political. We do not think a university is "acting politically" when its executive head is a peer taking a party whip. Furthermore, Warwick will not "represent the Government". That is the task of government members.

Taking a party whip in the Lords does, clearly, indicate that one can normally be relied on for support, but there are plenty of peers who continue to take the whip while speaking against their party on particular measures. They are not like MPs, who have been elected on the understanding that they support a particular manifesto and are subject to disciplinary action through withdrawal of the whip and, ultimately, deselection. You cannot really do anything to a backbench peer. That is why it will be possible for Warwick to argue the universities' case in the Lords, whether or not it accords with Labour Party policy.

That is exactly what many members of university staff have done in the past when they sat in the Lords and took a particular party whip.

These cases also suggest that the "charity" argument is a red herring. I know of a number of university employees who have continued quite justifiably to draw their full salaries in the same situation. Universities are not registered charities, but they do have charitable status and have to observe the same proprieties. But being a working peer can be fitted in with demanding full time employment, as many examples show. The issue is a practical one of whether Warwick will continue to do a good job for us, as I am confident she will.

I do have some sympathy with the complaint about lack of consultation. I have been an opponent of certain centralising tendencies in CVCP. Yet all vice-chancellors must have faced similar problems of how to handle a sensitive issue that must remain confidential until an essentially irrevocable decision has been made.

I am also unimpressed by the argument that because some people have behaved badly, Warwick, who has not, should resign. Perhaps we should ask whether anyone of her calibre would now be prepared to take on the job with an organisation that treats its chief executive so ungraciously.

James Wright, Vice-chancellor, University of Newcastle

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