Schools minister Lord Agnew continues to be involved in Inspiration Trust, the multi-academy trust (MAT) running academies in Norfolk.
Lord Agnew resigned as chair of Inspiration following his appointment as Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for the School System in September 2017. But he didn’t resign as a trustee/director of Inspiration until 31 August 2018, a year later.
Lord Agnew’s continued involvement with Inspiration raised concerns about conflict of interest between his role as a MAT trustee while carrying out ministerial work. This includes responsibility for academies and free schools.
Lord Agnew’s connection with Inspiration Trust did not end with his resignation as trustee. He still remains a member. MAT members appoint MAT trustees and appoint or remove fellow members.
Inspiration Trust accounts for year ending 31 August 2018* say Lord Agnew has 'indicated' a wish to resign as member but this would entail changes to the trust's articles of association. These changes are said to be 'pending approval by the Department for Education'.
The trust’s articles of association* were ‘amended by special resolution’ on 21 July 2017, shortly before Lord Agnew became a minister. These say members ‘may agree unanimously in writing’ to remove a signatory member provided it is in the MAT’s interest.
The articles also say ‘any member may resign’ unless the number of members is fewer than three. Inspiration has five members including Lord Agnew and his wife. Lord Agnew’s resignation would still leave four members.
There doesn’t seem to be any requirement in the articles of association for the Department for Education (DfE) to approve the resignation of an Inspiration Trust member. Its funding agreement says Inspiration must let the DfE know names of any new members and, if applicable, the name of any member they replaced but doesn’t seem to required DfE approval for the removal of a member.
It may be there’s some clause hidden in small print somewhere. If anyone can point me to it, I’d be grateful. But in the meantime, there seems to be no reason why Lord Agnew should stop being a member of Inspiration Trust and thereby ending his close association.
This is especially true as the merger of Inspiration Trust’s free school, Trafalgar College, and Great Yarmouth Charter Academy ‘achieved ministerial consent’ according to the recent accounts. This approval ‘entailed the closure of Charter as a converter academy, and the relocation and renaming of Trafalgar as a continuing free school but operating under the Charter name.’
This raises the questions about the identity of the minister who consented to the controversial merger and which minister, if any, would be involved in discussions about proposed new buildings and refurbishment at Charter.
Such questions would not have arisen if Lord Agnew had severed all ties with Inspiration as soon as he became a minister. Instead, his involvement with the trust continues.
UPDATE: 7 January 2019, 12.57. Nick Gibb was the minister responsible for signing-off the merger, court papers seen by Warwick Mansell and described here reveal. Gibb was initially reluctant to sign off the scheme but changed his mind a few days later.
The papers also show the Treasury criticised the DfE for the way it had behaved. DfE action would result in a ‘accounting loss’ which could occur if the site of the closed Trafalgar College was sold for a price lower than the original purchase price. The Treasury wrote:
‘Perhaps more importantly, it’s clear that this situation could have been avoided if the Department had been able to deal more strategically with the emerging local situation…)’
'This appears to be a very strong example of the risks of approving new schools in areas without a basic need for places, without a plan in place to address overcapacity and achieve best value for money.’
*Company documents available for Companies House