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Office for Students

Volume 789: debated on Tuesday 27 February 2018


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will now repeat as a Statement the response to an Urgent Question made in the other place by my honourable friend the Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation. The Statement is as follows:

“Mr Speaker, the Office for Students, which will be operational from April this year, is the biggest regulatory change to higher education in 30 years. It will run a new regulatory framework that will for the first time put the interests of students at the heart of higher education regulation. It will focus relentlessly on student choice and value for money and will ensure that the concerns of all students of higher education in England are heard in the corridors of power. It has a commensurate wide-ranging remit and powers to deliver for students.

It is ably lead by Sir Michael Barber, who has a long record of working for Labour and Conservative Administrations, including advising a Labour Prime Minister and Secretary of State. He has also been a Labour parliamentary candidate. Nicola Dandridge, the CEO, has a background in Universities UK and as an equalities lawyer. They are supported by a board of 12 further members with a wide range of talents and from different backgrounds, including senior leaders in higher education, graduate employers, legal and regulatory experts, as well as a student representative. I am particularly pleased that Chris Millward, the Director for Fair Access and Participation, sits on the OfS board, putting widening participation and fair access at the heart of the organisation. Toby Young would have been just one non-executive member of this board.

The board will put quality of teaching, student choice and value for money at the heart of what it does. The Commissioner for Public Appointments advised the department on 11 January, two days after my appointment, that he was looking into the appointments process for the OfS and the department provided him with the relevant paperwork. We are grateful to him for forwarding his report yesterday. His report recognises the good intentions of Ministers and officials, and that the advisory panel did judge candidates on a fair and impartial basis. That said, we note his findings and will carefully and seriously consider his recommendations. The commissioner raises important points about due diligence in public appointments. We have already accepted that in the case of Toby Young, due diligence fell short of what was required and the department has therefore already reviewed its due diligence processes and will seriously consider the further advice from the commissioner.

The commissioner has rightly observed that it was wrong not to have made a formal request to him regarding the approach the department took in appointing the student experience role, and therefore this was in breach of paragraph 3.3 of the governance code. We should also have clarified in the announcement that it was an interim position, although the candidate had been informed of this and all failing candidates in the process had also been informed that the appointment was an interim one. I understand that informal contact was made but I do accept this should have been formalised with the commissioner. Without this formal advice, and under pressure to make an appointment by 1 January, it meant that the announcement was not made in line with the commissioner’s expectations. I can also confirm that in line with the commissioner’s steer, we will shortly be launching a recruitment campaign for a permanent “student experience” representative and intend to appoint before the end of June this year. We are glad that the commissioner agrees that the incumbent in the interim role, Ruth Carlson, is free to apply. I would like to put on the record that she is doing an important job and extend my thanks to her for agreeing to accept the interim appointment.

There are lessons to be learned here and we will learn them. I will be writing to the commissioner shortly with an initial response to his findings and the next steps we will take with regard to his recommendations”.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, but I have to say that the response in no way measures up to the seriousness of the case and the commissioner’s report. The Government only recently told the House that the process to appoint Mr Young was a fair and open competition in accordance with the code of practice, but the commissioner has found that this was not the case. Indeed, it is a damning indictment of the department and of the Minister responsible, Mr Jo Johnson. The department delayed responding to the commissioner, which held up the investigation. The appointments were not conducted in respect of all the candidates on an equal basis, and an all-male appointment panel was used twice. Moreover, can the Minister tell me why it was impossible for the department to check Mr Toby Young’s past social media activity when it was quite easily able to check the social media activity of the candidate found suitable for appointment to the student experience representation role? Why was it not made clear in the advert that Ministers had decided not to appoint someone with close links to the National Union of Students? Will the Minister tell me why being elected by students somehow makes someone unsuitable to represent them?

The commissioner concludes that the code was broken. Can the Minister tell the House whether the Cabinet Secretary is now investigating that breach and other breaches raised by my noble friend Lady Prosser in a recent debate? Further, does the Minister believe that after this level of interference, we can possibly call the Office for Students an independent body? Finally, can the Minister tell me why Mr Jo Johnson, who was responsible for this debacle, has not resigned?

My Lords, the noble Lord asked a number of questions and I will attempt to answer them. On the question about delay, we understand that this was the first formal investigation under the Government’s code, and formal timelines had not yet been identified for such an investigation. This necessitated liaising with colleagues in the Cabinet Office who led on the Government’s code. Much has been said about the failings in respect of the Toby Young appointment, as the noble Lord put it, and I informed the House of our views on that. As I promised, lessons are being learned and have been learned. The department has set up a nominations committee as a result of the issues that have arisen, so action is being taken within the department to ensure that these problems do not occur again. That action particularly focuses on the due diligence involved. I emphasise that the 40,000 to 50,000 tweets were obnoxious and salacious and must not occur again; the department must improve the due diligence. I assure the noble Lord that the Office for Students is independent, but as he will of course know from the debates on the Higher Education and Research Bill, the ultimate responsibility lies with the Secretary of State.

My Lords, clearly, the Minister, who is an honourable person, is as annoyed and embarrassed as we are about this report, and I understand that. The Government have failed in every respect to follow their own governance code: they interfered in an appointments process that was not transparent, fair or open. To secure the appointment of Mr Young, the Minister invited him to apply; inadequate due diligence was undertaken in respect of a person infamous for his extreme views, and inaccurate press statements were issued that were not immediately corrected. The Government also took steps to ensure that other candidates for the student places were not appointed. The failure of the Government to follow their own code is a damning indictment and will do nothing to restore public confidence in the probity of such appointments. Will the Minister assure us that Ministers will not be inappropriately involved in future appointments and that the governance code will be followed to the letter?

The Minister mentioned the establishment of a nominations committee. Perhaps he can tell us its terms of reference and its membership. Mention was also made of social media. I understand that the DfE has already put into place changes in its approach to social media. Will the Minister go a bit further and talk some more about that? Finally, Mr Young is also the chief executive of the New Schools Network, and the work of supporting free schools—the raison d’etre of the New Schools Network—has been put out to tender. Bids are currently under consideration for this multi-million pound contract. Will the Minister assure us that the award of this contract will be properly managed and that correct procedures will be followed in every detail?

First, in response to the noble Lord’s comments about the Office for Students, I have made it clear that lessons needed to be learned. Altogether there were 14 appointments, and the process of due diligence normally went well for the other appointments. Let me make it clear, however, that we are learning lessons from the Toby Young appointment. It is important to get a bit of perspective on this. On the student appointment, we have said that lessons need to be learned about the Government’s failure to make it clear that this was an interim appointment. I reassure the noble Lord that, for future appointments, with the lessons learned, this will not happen again. In putting some perspective on this, however, it is in order for Ministers to recommend names, but it is not in order for them to go further than that. They can recommend names, and then it is over to the panel to independently select suitable candidates. On the make-up of the nominations committee, it is led by a number of non-executive directors—three to be precise, but I will need to confirm that with him.

On social media, I feel that I have covered that already, notwithstanding the Urgent Question today. Lessons have been learned on undertaking due diligence in looking at the social media issues that arose over the Toby Young appointment.

As for the noble Lord’s question about the New Schools Network, that is very much a matter for it. The New Schools Network is a small independent charity. I do not want to go further on that front.

My Lords, as the Minister said, the Office for Students is an influential and powerful body and should therefore have appropriate people on it. However, given the flaws that have emerged in the way the appointments were made, is it not time for the Government to look again at whether there should be representation from further education and the unions? He has addressed the matter of the student representative—which really needs to be sorted out; there is no great clarity on that—but those other representations would be useful for the Office for Students. Can I also press the Minister on the point raised by noble Lord, Lord Hunt: why was the interview panel an all-male panel?

I think the noble Baroness and I have had an exchange on the make-up of the Office for Students before. It is important that the members of the panel represent a broad range of areas within the higher education sector, and indeed the further education sector. I reassure her that there are some representatives covering further education. However, I also reassure her that that issue will be borne in mind when further and final appointments are made.

My experience in six government departments over 12 years—true, it was at a low level, as a Minister of State—and in a non-ministerial department for four years subsequently was that the Civil Service was meticulous in ensuring that Ministers followed the rules. That was also my experience with a range of independent committees, Permanent Secretaries and chief executives. My question is—I have only read the press reports on this—what are the lessons to be learned? Will there be any changes to the Ministerial Code? It seems to me that the Ministerial Code should cover this, which it clearly does not, because we still have a Minister in post. The issue here is not the code for appointments, but that the Ministerial Code has clearly been breached, if not in the letter then certainly in the spirit.

I think I have made it clear to the House—and I shall make it clear to the noble Lord—that lessons are being learned. We will respond to the views of the Commissioner for Public Appointments on this process. It may well be that we look at the Ministerial Code, but I cannot confirm that. We have already said that lessons need to be learned regarding the mistake that was made in not declaring that that this was an interim appointment for the student representative.