West Yorkshire Police have been asked to investigate the circumstances surrounding a £6m land deal between a scandal-hit free school and a company owned by one of the Conservative Party’s most senior figures.
Bradford West MP George Galloway has written to West Yorkshire police chief Mark Gilmore raising concerns about the agreement struck by the Kings Science Academy to rent land in the city from a firm owned by Tory Party vice chairman Alan Lewis.
Mr Lewis is also an executive patron of the school, which was praised by Education Secretary Michael Gove when it opened in 2011 but has become mired in allegations of financial irregularity.
Last week Mr Galloway highlighted the land deal in Parliament, laying down an early day motion stating Mr Lewis’s firm is due to receive almost £6m over 20 years to lease the land on which the academy was built. The motion said the deal represented a “clear conflict of interest”.
Mr Galloway’s letter to the chief constable said he has been contacted by a whistleblower raising concerns about the value attached to the land deal, and proposed the issue be included in an ongoing police investigation into financial irregularities uncovered by the Department for Education (DfE).
A spokesman for Mr Lewis denied the deal was improper in any way. A spokesman for West Yorkshire Police said: “We can confirm that we have received an email today from Bradford MP George Galloway providing further information in relation to this matter.”
The affair appears hugely damaging to the DfE and Mr Gove, who has long championed free schools as his flagship education policy and dismissed opponents’ concerns about the DfE’s potential lack of oversight.
The DfE has already been accused of a “cover-up” over its handling of the scandal now engulfing Kings, which only came to light when a damning internal report detailing allegations of serious fraud at the school was leaked last month. The DfE released a redacted version of the report, alongside a statement claiming police had decided not to take action.
But the department admitted yesterday it did not actually pass the report on to the authorities when it first raised concerns in April – instead reporting its contents “verbally” to Home Office agency Action Fraud.
Action Fraud then wrongly filed an “information report”, rather than a “criminal report”, meaning police failed to take it further. Action Fraud has since apologised.
In a written answer yesterday, Education Minister Edward Timpson said Action Fraud told his department in September that police “had assessed the case, but determined there was not enough information to take it further”.
The DfE insists it acted entirely properly in merely relaying the details of the case over the phone, rather than submitting the detailed report.
“We were not asked to provide a copy of the report,” a DfE spokeswoman told the Yorkshire Post.
“We supplied all the critical information from the report verbally. As it has publicly stated, the error was made by Action Fraud logging the call incorrectly.”
The DfE also confirmed it had oversight of the land deal with Mr Lewis before the final agreement with Kings was signed off in 2011.
“As with all proposed free school sites, detailed due diligence assessments and independent valuations were commissioned before entering into a lease agreement,” it said in a statement.
A spokesman for Mr Lewis’s Hartley Group said he had never had any responsibility for the financial management of the school, and that the agreed rent level was lower than that paid by previous tenants at the site.
A statement said Mr Lewis was approached by the founders of King’s in 2010, who were seeking land at below market rent.
It went on: “The terms of the lease with King’s were of course worked out on a completely arms length basis. The agents acting for the DfE, leading property experts DTZ, spent many months negotiating a very advantageous deal for the DfE with the independent estate agents Knight Frank acting for Hartley’s property division.
“In the interests of supporting the school’s mission to provide quality education to disadvantaged youngsters, Mr Lewis instructed Hartley to accept a rent for its site that works out at significantly less than the site had been generating for the company before from previous tenants.
“Furthermore, in order to facilitate turning over the site to the school, Hartley stopped accepting long-term tenants some 18 months prior to granting the lease, in addition to the 19-month rent-free period the school received at the start of its lease.
“Thus, in financial terms the school has benefited substantially from the patronage of Alan Lewis.
“Hartley has also supported, and continues to support, the school by allowing them rent-free use of... other buildings we own in the Bradford area.
“At no time has Mr Lewis had responsibility for the financial management of the Academy”.
Mr Galloway’s request to the police comes after fellow Bradford MP David Ward told the Yorkshire Post he would question Education Secretary Michael Gove about Mr Lewis’s involvement in the school.