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Exclusive: Minister owned shares in firm recruited for DfE schools deal

DfE says shares are in a blind trust and schools minister Lord Agnew complied with the ministerial code

Lord Agnew has called for a debate about whether academy chairs should be paid

A schools minister has been urged to be more transparent about his financial interests after the government signed up a company he held shares in to a DfE sponsored commercial deal to help schools recruit staff.

Lord Agnew does not declare his shares in Zen Educate, which provides a platform to match teachers with roles in schools, in the published Cabinet Office list of ministers’ interests or the Register of Lords’ Interests.

Last month, the company announced in a blog that it had been officially accredited on the DfE’s commercial deal to help schools hire supply teachers and agency workers.

Lord Agnew has urged more schools to make use of the DfE’s "commercial" deals like this to save money.

The DfE said Lord Agnew had no role or discussions about Zen Educate being added to the list of suppliers, and the procurement was not run by the DfE.

It added that the minister's shares are held in a blind trust, which is managed by trustees who make decisions about them without his knowledge to avoid concerns about potential conflicts of interest.

But the arrangement would not stop Lord Agnew from gaining an indication of whether he still owned the shares through publicly available Companies House records.  

A DfE spokesperson said the blind trust was why the shares were not declared in the Lords, and added that it was “clear” that Lord Agnew had met the requirements of the ministerial code.

In his entry in the list of ministers’ interests, Lord Agnew gives his financial interests as “blind trust / blind management arrangement”.

It does not list the individual items that are held within this blind trust.

Last year, Theresa May faced calls to disclose the contents of the blind trust she set up when she became prime minister.

Critics said she would have known what items were in the trust when it was set up, giving the potential for conflicts of interest.

The DfE said that, because of the blind trust, Lord Agnew, who became a minister in September 2017, does not know which shares he still owns.

However, a document filed at Companies House and available to Lord Agnew and other members of the public shows that, as of February 20 2018, he owned 7,176 shares in Zen Educate. It is not known if he still owns shares in the company.

Henry de Zoete, a former adviser to Michael Gove, is also listed as a shareholder.

Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the NEU teaching union, said: “I think [Lord Agnew] is incredibly misguided but I don’t think he is dishonest.”

However, she noted that as academies minister he oversees the DfE’s push for greater transparency about pay and more scrutiny of conflicts of interest in academy trusts.

She added: “I think it’s incumbent upon ministers who are saying they want transparency and accountability in the system to subject themselves to the same standards of transparency and accountability that they say they want schools to be subject to.”

The DfE told Tes that the procurement for the supply teacher framework was run by the Crown Commercial Service, and not the DfE, and all decisions were made by an independent board.

Slava Kremerman, chief executive of Zen Educate, told Tes that the company has never benefited from Lord Agnew’s role as a DfE minister.

In a statement, he said: "Theodore Agnew invested in Zen Educate as a private citizen interested in helping the education system before he became a minister.

“When he became minister, he declared all of his interests including Zen Educate through the formal channels in government.

“His investment in Zen Educate is in a blind trust. Zen Educate has no interaction directly with the minister."

A DfE spokesperson said: “Acting on advice from the Cabinet Office, Lord Agnew placed these shares, along with others, in a blind trust. As it is a blind trust the management is handled by trustees. This is why they do not appear on the House of Lords register.

“The minister has complied with the requirements on private interests as set out in the ministerial code.

“Blind trusts are well-established mechanisms to ensure that there is no conflict of interest between a minister's government role and their personal interests.

“Lord Agnew is not privy to the information in relation to his blind trust - decisions taken in relation to the acquisition or disposal of interests will not be disclosed to him, so he will not be aware of what shares he still owns.”

The news comes amid continuing controversy about Lord Agnew, who founded the Inspiration Trust academy chain, and potential conflicts of interest with his role overseeing the academy system.

Since October 2017, Tes has been seeking a copy of agreement Lord Agnew reached with the DfE and Cabinet Office “to prevent any conflict of interest between his ministerial role and charitable interest”.

The DfE rejected a freedom of interest request, and the Information Commissioner’s Office is currently investigating Tes’ appeal.

The continued secrecy over Lord Agnew’s conflict of interest agreement was mocked by shadow education secretary Angela Rayner in her keynote address to this year’s Labour Party conference.

Last week, Tes revealed that the DfE may allow Lord Agnew to make decisions in his capacity as a minister about the Inspiration Trust after he cut his last formal links with the organisation in August.

*Tes is part of Tes Global, whose businesses include three teacher supply agencies.

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