Ward eats his words in front of MPs

19th December 1997 at 00:00
Ben Russell reports on how the Association of Colleges chief executive was hauled back before a Commons select committee on Tuesday

Roger Ward had a confident air as he walked past the groups in huddled conversation waiting outside committee room 15 at the House of Commons.

The embattled chief executive of the Association of Colleges had been hauled back before the Commons education select committee to answer one question: Why had he given evidence claiming his association held a full register of interests when no such document existed?

Margaret Hodge, the powerful committee's Labour chairman, had taken the highly unusual step of recalling Mr Ward after three of his senior colleagues had written to her casting doubt on his remarks (see letter below).

AOC chairman Howard Phelps had also written, Mrs Hodge said, asking to put the record straight. Mr Phelps had warned Mr Ward the situation was "extremely serious" and that he could face disciplinary charges.

The issue was first raised when Mr Ward appeared before the committee on November 25 and answered questions about revelations in The TES about his links with controversial lecturing agency ELS and finance group Burke Ford Reed, allegations Mr Ward denies.

Asked whether he could supply MPs with a copy of the AOC's register of interests Mr Ward had told them to "consider it done".

But on Tuesday, appearing before MPs with AOC chairman Howard Phelps and deputy chairman Graham Baskerville, Mr Ward admitted the register did not exist. He told MPs he had made a mistake, and had intended only to refer to his own list of interests, a list he described as a "private file note".

He said: "The document I was referring to was my own personal file note - or register of interests if you like."

Asked by Mrs Hodge why he had assured the committee a register would be available, Mr Ward replied: "It was not intended to be wrong. I was referring to my own note."

Mrs Hodge pressed: "Are you saying that your file note was or was not a register of interests?" Mr Ward answered: "It was my private copy." Asked when he started the private note, Mr Ward replied: "It was very early when I started keeping my own register of interests. I think it was in 1995."

Don Foster, Liberal Democrat education spokesman, pressed further: "You wrote this document for yourself? No other person knew or had seen the document?" Mr Ward agreed.

Mr Foster continued: "Given the note was a private document, seen by no one, in no sense could the document be described as a register of interests in the normal use of the term?" "Absolutely," Mr Ward replied.

The MP pressed further. AOC chairman Howard Phelps had argued that the committee might cast doubt on other parts of Mr Ward's evidence if members had been misled on one point, Mr Foster said. Had Mr Ward misled the committee on any other point? Mr Ward said: "No sir."

Earlier, Mr Phelps and Mr Baskerville had been questioned closely about why the AOC had not drawn up a register earlier.

Mrs Hodge said: "Why did it take you so long to think about establishing a register of interests?" Mr Phelps replied: "I think there's no real answer to that . . . In mitigation you can see there was a lot going on and we were forming a new association from lots of bits and pieces. We had to have new policies and new committees. It was wrong."

Another committee member, Gerry Steinberg, asked Mr Phelps why the issue was regarded as so serious for the AOC.

Mr Phelps replied: "Recent events have done us no good at all. We are sitting here to restore our position as people worthy of trust."

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