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Campaigners criticise Keegan’s Catholic ‘conflict’

The education secretary faces “serious conflict of interest questions”, a campaign organisation said, over a donation from the Catholic church while its leaders were lobbying to abolish the free school faith admissions cap.

Parliamentary records show Keegan declared an “in-kind” donation with a value of £17,710.60 from the Catholic Bishops Conference England and Wales.

This was for an intern in her parliamentary office for ten months from October 2022 to July last year, records show.

The donation included an educational allowance of £7,000 paid directly to the intern, plus accommodation valued at £10,710.60.

The internship was organised through the Faith in Politics initiative.

Its website describes it as a “year-long internship scheme that uniquely offers a foundation of Catholic faith and spiritual formation for those who believe they may have a vocation to public service in politics or public affairs”.

Over the same period, the Catholic church was lobbying for the removal of the 50 per cent cap of faith-based admissions for free schools, stepping up its campaign last June.

‘No lobbying’

The cap, introduced in 2010, has particularly hindered plans to open Catholic free schools because canon law prevents them from turning away pupils on the basis of their Catholic faith.

Earlier this month, the government announced it would scrap the cap and remove a block on new faith special schools.

Stephen Evans, chief executive of the National Secular Society, said the donation raises “serious conflict of interest questions.

Gillian Keegan

“Democracy demands fair and unbiased governance. We can’t have ministers taking financial contributions from the Catholic Church and then advancing a policy that serves their agenda.”

But a source close to Keegan said it was “totally wrong” to suggest there was a conflict of interest around the appointment and there was “no lobbying” as part of the internship.

They said the intern was interviewed and appointed before Keegan became education secretary, and the placement ended last July, 10 months before the announcement was made.

They added that Keegan’s office had hired interns since 2018 and used schemes that provided funding as she would not hire unpaid staff.

“Gillian has always been about spreading opportunity around and does that in her own office.”

A Catholic Education Service spokesperson said the Bishops’ Conference “has run an internship scheme for nearly 20 years” and placed interns in the offices of “Catholic MPs from all parties”.

“This is part of the church’s mission to encourage Catholics to follow a vocation to serve in public life and the interns work for the MP, not the church, with nothing required or expected in return.”

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