The announcement this afternoon that Gavin Barwell is to be the parliamentary private secretary to the controversial education minister, Michael Gove, has led to renewed questions about the Croydon Central MP’s position with the multi-million-pound education charity, the Whitgift Foundation.
Even local Conservative councillors, attending meetings of residents’ groups in Barwell’s constituency earlier this summer, have agreed that his position as a governor of the Foundation and chairman of the governors at Trinity School presents too many potential conflicts of interest for the MP. A role for Barwell in the education ministry, while he remains involved with a Foundation that owns and runs three fee-paying schools, may only serve to magnify those potential conflicts. Private school-educated Barwell has no experience of working in education, having gone straight into politicking after leaving university. He has recently been shown to have broken the law on the handling of his constituents’ personal information, although the Office of the Information Commissioner opted not to impose the maximum £10,000 in fines; Barwell’s conduct at the Department for Education, with the school careers of millions of children in his hands, will require much greater care. But his commitment to privileged private schools and their tax breaks raise serious questions about Barwell’s suitability to oversee policy for the state system.
Charlotte Davies, the chair of the South Croydon Community Association, is one of a number of Barwell’s constituents who have written to the MP concerned about his links with the Whitgift Foundation and its wider interests. Having received no response from her MP to a letter written in early August, Davies last week followed up on behalf of SCCA, saying, “you are unable to represent me effectively on many of these issues as there is a huge conflict of interest between your role as Trustee of the Whitgift Foundation and your role as my MP”. Croydon councillors, all of them Conservatives, from Croham and Fairfield wards, had been in attendance at meetings when writing to Barwell about his position with the Foundation had been agreed.
In any case, Barwell’s PPS appointment looks like something of a sop to the former employee of tax-avoider Lord Cashcroft, and is at best a sideways move for the ambitious 40-year-old, coming very late in the government reshuffle. Barwell was previously PPS to Greg Clark at the local government department. Signal that his appointment to be the sidekick to Gove, the former Murdoch journalist, is not a promotion is that the Croydon MP is to replace David Evennett, who was promoted to the Whips’ office in the reshuffle. Insiders at Conservative HQ suggest that Barwell is distrusted by many constituency associations because of his behaviour when Cashcroft’s “bagman”, disbursing funds for campaigns and other activities. Such a reputation may have been seen as a handicap to Barwell gaining a junior whip’s position. He may also have been held back because he is not a woman, a Liberal Democrat, from an ethnic minority, an Old Etonian nor a Bullingdon boy, and that failing to fall into any of these categories will have stunted his chances of promotion. Being a rare Tory backbencher to speak in favour of Lord’s reform will have not done much for Barwell’s popularity among his more lowly Conservative colleagues at Westminster, either, though his magnificent efforts to display his loyalty to David Cameron in that respect at a difficult time for the Prime Minister now seem to have done him no good at all. Barwell had predicted that Inside Croydon would describe his non-advancement as a “huge blow”. Today, Barwell wrote on his website, “It’s a real privilege to have been asked to support Michael in his work. He is delivering much-needed reforms to our education system, which has in the past – under governments of both parties – let down many of our young people particularly those from more deprived backgrounds. I believe that the changes he is making – giving schools more freedom to innovate; giving teachers more power to impose discipline; closing down under-performing schools; focusing resources on pupils from more deprived backgrounds; encouraging pupils to study the subjects employers and universities value; and ensuring our curriculum and exam system compare with the best in the world – will ensure that our young people can compete in the global economy when they leave school and, by particularly benefiting those from more deprived backgrounds, make this country a fairer place. “National competitiveness and a fairer society – these are the issues that brought me into politics. And with the shortage of school places, particularly at primary level, a huge issue in Croydon, it’s also a great appointment from a constituency perspective. I can’t wait to start.” Given that Barwell’s performance in his year-plus as a PPS at the local government department delivered none of his promised new government jobs for Croydon, nor any other notable local benefits, it might not be wise to hold your breath waiting for major improvements in the borough’s schools, many of which had long-overdue and much-needed buildings halted in July 2010 when Gove axed projects for 715 new schools in one of his government’s first moves that stifled potential economic growth.
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