Here we go again - Lord Wharton of Yarm did not declare his financial support for Rachel Houchen’s husband


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From The Times

A Tory peer interviewed the wife of a close ally for a job at the education quango he chairs without listing in his written declaration of interests multiple donations he made to her husband.

Lord Wharton of Yarm interviewed Rachel Houchen, wife of the Tees Valley mayor Ben Houchen, for the role of non-executive director of the Office for Students, the government quango that oversees universities, before she was appointed last March.

Under appointment rules, ministers appoint officials such as non-executive board members after they are interviewed and recommended by an assessment panel. These should include a central departmental official, an official from the public body itself and an independent member.

There are no explicit requirements to declare financial links. Under the rules for panels, ministers “should consider whether there are relationships or circumstances which are likely to affect, or could appear to affect, the panellist’s judgment”.

Labour described the appointment as “another example of Conservative cronyism”.

Wharton’s recorded declaration said: “James knows Rachel Houchen and encouraged her to apply but felt that he could still be objective in his assessment of her interview and whether she fulfilled the criteria. As a result, he was of the view that this was not a conflict, and it was appropriate for him to be involved in the interview. The panel chair and independent panel member were in full agreement.”

At the interview, Houchen was “identified as a very strong candidate that brought a unique insight of the challenges of progression to higher education from northern schools”. She had previously worked as an assistant headteacher.

The panel recommended her for the £9,180-a-year role out of a field of 13 candidates interviewed and she was appointed by Nadhim Zahawi, then education secretary.

Houchen declared her relationship to her husband as a connected party as part of the appointment process.

In Wharton’s interest statement in relation to the interview disclosed to The Times under the freedom of information act, Wharton did not state that he had previously made multiple donations to Ben Houchen.

Rachel Houchen is married to Ben Houchen, mayor of Tees Valley

Rachel Houchen is married to Ben Houchen, mayor of Tees Valley

Wharton gave the Teesside mayor £10,000 in December 2019 via GBMW Limited, a company wholly owned by Wharton.

Houchen’s register of interests for the Tees Valley combined authority in May 2017 and his register as a member of the board of Transport for the North in May 2018 both list donations from Wharton.

The total donated is not listed in the returns. Ben Houchen and Wharton were approached for this information

The pair are close political allies from Conservative politics in the northeast. Wharton, the former MP for Stockton South, was described by The Telegraph as one of the Teesside mayor’s “best friends”.

Houchen also campaigned on the doorsteps for Wharton in the 2010 and 2015 election for his Stockton seat.

The appointment caused a political row at the time, due to Wharton and Ben Houchen’s prior relationship.

Labour asked Michelle Donelan, who was at that point education minister, “with reference to the appointment of Rachel Houchen as a non-executive director of the Office for Students (OfS), if it will make an assessment of the political impartiality of the OfS.”

She responded: “Rachel Houchen was appointed following a fair and open competition, in line with the governance code for public appointments.”

The former commissioner for public appointments Peter Riddell raised concerns about the appointment of Wharton as chairman of the Office for Students last year.

“I’ve been concerned about the balance of panels,” Riddell told Prospect Magazine. “This is when [Gavin] Williamson was secretary of state for education. And I protested at the time. I expressed my views quite strongly.”

Riddell said that of the five people on Wharton’s interview panel, “a majority had clear Tory ties”, including an ex-MP and a Conservative peer.

“Williamson appointed James Wharton [to chair the body], who was a former Tory MP. And that created quite a lot of comment. But that was his decision, that’s for him . . . my concern was that the process wasn’t as independent as I think it should have been for such an important role.”

Wharton had no professional or political experience in higher education prior to his appointment. He told the MPs that this was a strength, allowing him to offer a “fresh perspective”.

Also missing from his CV was Wharton’s role in managing Boris Johnson’s Conservative leadership campaign in 2019.

When questioned by MPs about this omission and whether it represented a clear conflict of interest, Wharton said: “I have not discussed this role in any way with the prime minister, and I do not see how that brings me into conflict.”

In 2020 Riddell raised wider concerns about the appointments process.

He said that he had concerns that “some at the centre of government want not only to have the final say but to tilt the competition system in their favour to appoint their allies”.

The Department for Education blocked the release of this information for eight months, before complying with an order from the government’s transparency watchdog, the Information Commissioner’s Office, to disclose Wharton’s declaration.

The department had tried unsuccessfully to argue that despite being a peer of the realm disclosing the information would infringe Wharton’s privacy.

Susan Hawley, director of Spotlight on Corruption, said: “It is extraordinary that Lord Wharton did not fully disclose key conflicts of interest that might impact upon his role in this recruitment. Failing to properly handle conflicts of interest in public appointments is a recipe for accusations of cronyism.”

Matt Western MP, Labour’s shadow universities minister, said: “This is yet another example of Conservative cronyism that is eroding public trust in government.”

Wharton was approached for comment.

Rachel Houchen said: “The suggestion, in the 21st century, that I was given this role because of my husband is frankly insulting and untrue.

“As a northern, comprehensively educated woman with a long career in education and an active supporter of access to higher education for students from underprivileged backgrounds, that has been recognised nationally, I applied for the OfS role as I have the perspective and skills to provide a more diverse and representative northern voice. Something that is severely lacking in many government bodies.”

Ben Houchen said: “It is an insult to Rachel and everyone across the north to imply that her background and the skills she has are not welcome in a London-centric Whitehall bubble that fails to reflect the voices we have in the north.”

A spokesman for the OfS said: “Appointments to the OfS board are made by the secretary of state for education and are a matter for the Department for Education.”

The Department for Education said that the process met the requirements of the public appointments code, and that the panel unanimously agreed that Rachel Houchen met the standard for appointment at interview and was a very strong candidate.


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People like Wharton, Houchen, Clarke, Young. Gullis, Anderson, Johnson, Sunak, Truss. Keating, Davis, Patterson, Patel, Dorries. Zawahi. Osbourne. Cameron. Hancock, Raab, Gove. Bridget. Francois. Braverman, Javid, Williamson. Where do we draw the line.

They’re lying SCUM. The lot of these Tory f*ckers. Thieves. Cheats. Liars.

Anyone who votes for this needs to have a real good look at themselves. As for bringing de Pfeffel back, no chance. Boris Johnson is the worst of the lot FFS. Sacked from every job he’s ever had, forced to resign in disgrace, currently under how many investigations? As I read a while back, bringing him back would be like trying to put your own sh*t back into your ars*hole. Apologies for that image.

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