THE DEPARTMENT for Education has been accused of a politically-motivated cover up of alleged fraud at one of its flagship free schools because of its links with a vice chairman of the Conservative Party.
Bradford MP David Ward also called for an investigation into the DfE’s handling of the Kings Science Academy in the city which was found by Government auditors to have fabricated invoices to claim thousands of pounds of public money.
The coalition backbencher demanded to know why the department did nothing when told by fraud authorities in September that its findings against the school had only been recorded as information and would not be investigated unless they were reported as a crime. A police investigation was only launched around seven weeks later after the matter had been leaked to the public.
During a Westminster debate about the free school yesterday Mr Ward accused the DfE of failing in its public duty to expose suspected criminal activity and claimed the independence of the civil service must be in doubt.
The Liberal Democrat for Bradford East also accused Ministers over the separate issue of the free school land deal, saying he believed the company of Alan Lewis, a vice chair of the Tory Party, had been given preferential treatment by the DfE. And Mr Ward claimed he had obtained evidence which was at odds with Mr Lewis’ statement about his role at the school.
Mr Lewis’ company stands to get almost £6m in rent over 20 years for the school being built on its land. Mr Ward said: “I would like to see the evidence that the near £300,000-per-year rent is not far in excess of what Mr Lewis could reasonably have been expected to get for the partially tenanted, largely derelict buildings that stood on the site.”
Education Secretary Michael Gove told MPs earlier this month that Mr Lewis was receiving “an appropriately agreed guaranteed market rent, less than he was receiving for it beforehand”.
During yesterday’s debate, however, Labour’s shadow Schools Minister Kevin Brennan said one of the architects involved in preparing this free school bid had told him he found that statement “very difficult to believe”.
Mr Ward asked what evidence there was that Mr Lewis’s company had not made “excessive profits” from the school which now stands on the site.
His speech also raised the issue of Mr Lewis’ involvement in the Kings Science Academy. He is the school’s executive patron and the DfE has said it wrongly believed he was chairman of governors for a year after being told this by the school on October 2011. It says it discovered in October 2012 it had been misinformed.
The department now says the school had no chairman of governors in its first year. Mr Lewis has denied he was ever the chairman or ever had responsibility for the school’s financial management and governance.
Mr Ward said: “I have evidence of an email to the DfE which has been amended by Mr Lewis so that it now shows him as the chair of the governing body.”
He also referred to a DfE letter he had seen which he claimed shows Mr Lewis was the “key individual” for receiving financial reports about the school. Commenting on the DfE’s official position, he said: “How on earth can the DfE have mistakenly believed a vice chair of the Conservative Party was chairman of governors for 12 months?”
During the debate George Galloway, the Respect MP for Bradford West, suggested Mr Gove could not come clean about what was happening at the school for “party political reasons”. Speaking to Mr Ward he said: “The more that you speak the more I am bound, I think, to ask you if you agree with me that it’s already obvious that the nub of this question is that Alan Lewis is a very senior member of the Conservative Party and that the Secretary of State for Education simply could not, for party political reasons, come clean with the people of Bradford and MPs on this matter.”
Mr Ward replied: “It’s an excellent point because all the way through this you have to ask ‘why?’ There must have been a justification for the cover-up and it can only have been two things, really – because this was such a flagship policy for the Conservative Party that they couldn’t afford the embarrassment or secondly because of Alan Lewis’s involvement and his association with the Tory Party.”
The Lib Dem MP also asked why the school’s principal Sajid Raza had been allowed to remain in post after the DfE’s audit.
Criticising the DfE’s handling of the case Mr Ward highlighted a Yorkshire Post exclusive which showed that after the DfE reported the matter to national fraud centre Action Fraud, it was told in an update the matter was only being dealt with as an information report. The DfE were also told it would not be investigated by police unless it was reported as a crime. Seven weeks later, however, when the DfE investigation was leaked, the department put out a statement which said police had been informed and decided no further action was necessary. It then came to light a week later that Action Fraud had wrongly record the matter as an information report. West Yorkshire Police are now investigating and Mr Raza has been arrested and released on bail.
Schools Minister David Laws said when the matter was reported to Action Fraud, the DfE also contacted West Yorkshire Police to check it had reported the matter properly, saying if there had been an attempt to cover up matters that second call would have been unlikely to have happened. He praised the school’s current chairman of governors John Bowers, who was appointed after irregularities came to light, for his work improving governance. Mr Laws also said the cost of the lease on the school site was set after an independent valuation.