Tory donor’s role at corporate watchdog under scrutiny

Theresa May’s new corporate governance review will be chaired by a businessman whose family company has given £450,000 to the Conservatives and which has just one woman on its board, it has emerged.

Labour questioned whether James Wates, the chair of Wates Group, was the right person to be put in charge of bringing in a voluntary code to help improve the behaviour of big private businesses.

He has attended functions of the prestigious leaders’ group of donors, which gets privileged access to the prime minister and some of her cabinet. A subsidiary of Wates Group gave hundreds of thousands of pounds to the Conservatives between 2001 and 2017. The company has just one woman and no people from ethnic minority groups on its nine-person board.

It comes just days after Tina Stowell, a Tory peer and former leader of the House of Lords, was announced as the government’s preferred choice to be the chair of the Charities Commission. She will resign the party whip when her appointment is confirmed.

Greg Clark, the business secretary, announced the choice of Wates this week, saying he would be charged with drawing up the “UK’s first-ever set of guiding principles for large private companies”.

But Laura Pidcock, the shadow minister for labour, questioned whether a major donor was the right person for the job.

“On the face of it, this appointment flies in the face of Theresa May’s promise that her government would not be driven by the interests of the rich and powerful,” she said.

Darren Jones, a Labour MP and officer on the all-party parliamentary group on corporate governance, added: “This is an important post tasked with improving governance, trust and ensuring workers have a voice in large firms. The task needs to be approached without fear or favour, yet the government has handed the job to someone who has given hundreds of thousands to the Tory party.

“There are serious questions to answer about this appointment. How was James Wates selected and why do the Conservatives think it’s appropriate to place a big donor in such a position?”

A spokesman for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy said: “James Wates is an experienced and widely-respected businessmen with a track record of promoting responsible business practices.

“This appointment was made in line with cabinet office propriety and ethics standards.”

A spokesman for Wates Group said the company had been recognised as a leader in social responsibility under the chairmanship of James Wates.

“As chairman of the one of the UK’s leading, privately-owned businesses, James Wates brings a wealth of experience to this role and is committed to playing his part in helping to improve corporate governance,” he said.

“Diversity across the construction industry is a major challenge, and James Wates is both professionally and personally committed to seeing this improve, through supporting initiatives within Wates, as well as though his role as ambassador for the Young Women’s Trust.

“The role James has been appointed to will involve working with a range of experts on corporate governance issues. The coalition group developing the principles, for which the Financial Reporting Council is providing the secretariat, includes a diverse range of organisations including the Trades Union Congress.”