Labour has called for an investigation into allegations the government threatened to pull the plug on a free school project if its local MP “didn’t vote in one particular way”.
Christian Wakeford, who defected from the Conservatives to Labour on Wednesday amid criticism of Boris Johnson’s leadership, made the claim today in another blow for the embattled government.
Wakeford, the MP for Bury South in Greater Manchester, announced last February that a new free school had been approved for the Radcliffe area. The new school is due to open in 2024 and will be run by Star Academies.
Any evidence that decisions about free schools are political is likely to call into question the process for approving applications, and the role of independent regional school commissioners.
Applications to open free schools are currently assessed on the “basic need” for school places and evidence of low educational standards in a particular area.
Wakeford made the claims after he was quizzed about allegations by a Conservative MP, William Wragg, that politicians had faced “pressures and intimidation from members of the government” in the ongoing furore over parties held in Downing Street during lockdown.
Wragg, a former member of the Parliamentary education committee, alleged that whips had threatened to “withdraw investments” from MPs’ constituencies “which are funded from the public purse”.
Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner called for an investigation into “grave and shocking accusations of bullying, blackmail, and misuse of public money”.
“The idea that areas of our country will be starved of funding because their MPs don’t fall into line to prop up this failing prime minister is disgusting.”
Government using children as ‘political football’
Stephen Morgan, the shadow schools minister, said it was “utterly disgraceful that the government has been using children’s learning and opportunities as a political football to corral votes in Westminster”.
Wakeford did not respond to repeated requests for comment from Schools Week.
He told the BBC yesterday morning he was “threatened that I would not get the school for Radcliffe if I didn’t vote in one particular way”, adding that the town had “not had a high school for the best part of 10 years”.
“How would you feel when they hold back the regeneration of a town for a vote. It didn’t sit comfortably, and that was really the starting to question my place where I was, and ultimately to where I am now.”
It is not known which vote in Parliament this relates to, or when the alleged threat was made or by whom.
A Downing Street spokesperson said in response to Wragg’s comments that it was “not aware of any evidence to support what are clearly serious allegations”.
“If there is any evidence to support these claims we would look at it very carefully.”
But another Conservative MP, Michael Fabricant, tweeted that “if I reported every time I had been threatened by a Whip or if a Whip reported every time I had threatened them, the police wouldn’t have any time to conduct any other police work”.
The Department for Education said it was a political matter.
The government’s rationale for selecting free schools was scrutinised by the National Audit Office in 2013. A report found over 23 per cent of higher-scoring applications had been rejected at that point, while 17 per cent of low-scoring applications were approved.
The report said most high-scoring applications were rejected on “practical grounds”.