Secrecy over Agnew conflicts of interest

DfE says releasing academy minister's conflict of interest agreement 'may invite external scrutiny'

Secrecy

The Department for Education has refused to say what steps a minister who oversees academies while remaining a trustee of a controversial academy trust has taken to avoid conflicts of interest.

The decision to keep Lord Agnew’s conflict of interest agreement secret following a freedom of information request from Tes was branded an “absurd spectacle” by Labour shadow education secretary Angela Rayner.

Lord Agnew founded the Norfolk-based Inspiration Trust in 2012, and stood down as chairman when he became a schools minister in September 2017, but he remains a member and trustee.

His ministerial responsibilities include academies, multi-academy trusts and free schools.

When the peer was appointed, the DfE said he was “agreeing arrangements with the permanent secretary and Cabinet Office to ensure that processes are put in place to prevent any conflict of interest between his ministerial role and his charitable interests”.

Tes asked for a copy of these arrangements in October 2017. Under the Freedom of Information Act the DfE should have responded after 20 days. 

Finally, after a delay of more than five months, the department said this month that it would not release the conflict of interest agreement because doing so “may invite external scrutiny”.

'Absurd spectacle'

Ms Rayner said: “The Tories promised that they would run the ‘most transparent government ever’ but we now have the absurd spectacle of their unelected schools minister refusing to be transparent about his own transparency policy.”

She added: “With critical decisions about schools routinely being made by at the stroke of an appointed minister’s pen without any oversight by elected MPs, it begs the question as to what accountability there is.

“Even worse, there is bound to be the perception of a conflict when that minister is not only a Tory donor but is intimately involved in running the very academy chains he is meant to be supervising and sometimes choosing between.”

Lord Agnew declares his positions at the Inspiration Trust in his House of Lords register of interests and the government’s list of ministers’ interests. However, no information about how these conflicts of interests are managed has been published.

Concerns about Lord Agnew’s simultaneous roles as a minister overseeing academies and an academy trustee have been raised in the House of Lords as recently as 25 April, when Labour peer Lord Watson of Invergowrie asked why Lord Agnew was allowed to continue to hold his positions at the Inspiration Trust.

In its response to the Tes freedom of information request, the DfE said that “releasing detailed information on the administrative process for handling the minister’s conflicts of interest may invite external scrutiny, which would distract from the effective operation of his office”.

It also refused to release the agreement because it said it contains information that was “provided to us in circumstances where there was an explicit or implied obligation of confidence”.

Tes has asked for the decision to withhold the information to be reviewed.

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