Profile: New children's minister Nadhim Zahawi

By Tristan Donovan

| 11 January 2018

A former child refugee who became a successful businessman, Nadhim Zahawi has been appointed children's minister in Theresa May's reshuffle.

Nadhim Zahawi entered parliament in 2010 after being elected as MP for Stratford-upon-Avon. Picture: UK Parliament

Born in Baghdad in 1967 to Kurdish parents, Zahawi came to the UK aged nine when his family fled Iraq as Saddam Hussein began to take control of the country's government in 1976.

Raised in Sussex, Zahawi was privately educated at the King's College School in Wimbledon and went on to study chemical engineering at University College London.

In 2000 he co-founded the internet polling firm YouGov in his garden shed and remained its chief executive until his election to parliament.

His political career began in 1994 as a councillor in the London Borough of Wandsworth, a position he maintained until 2006. He was also a member of the team behind Jeffrey Archer's failed bid to become London Mayor in 1999.

He entered parliament in 2010 when he was elected as the MP for the safe Conservative seat of Stratford-upon-Avon.

Zahawi has courted a degree of controversy during his time in parliament due to his business interests and use of parliamentary expenses. Until just before New Year he was chief strategy officer for the oil exploration and production company Gulf Keystone, which was paying him almost £30,000 a month. He also has a stakes in Zahawi and Zahawi Ltd, a business advisory service, and recruitment agency SThree.

The Guardian has reported that he has a UK commercial and residential property portfolio worth more than £25m and connections with two companies based in Gibraltar, one of which owns £20m of shares in YouGov.

In 2013 the Mirror reported that he had claimed nearly £6,000 of parliamentary energy expenses in a year and used this to heat a horse riding school stables and mobile home on his country estate. Zahawi apologised, stating that the claim had been made accidentally, and repaid the expenses.

Despite being in parliament for more than seven years, there is little on record about his views on social care, early years, or special educational needs.

However, the Iraq-born MP has first-hand experience of being a child refugee and has been an important figure in the government's work on developing apprenticeships. He has also spoken and written several times on the issue of child poverty. In 2014 he told the Independent that his experience as an 18-year-old of his family having to rely on state benefits following a failed business venture, at the age of 18 shaped his political views and lead him to join the Conservative Party.

He told the Independent that welfare felt like a "trap" and that he sees education as core to tackling poverty.

"Many of my left-leaning friends will say you can't tackle education until you can tackle the challenge of poverty," he said.

"I see it the other way round, you don't tackle inequality and poverty unless you tackle education."

Since entering parliament he has been a member of both the business, innovation and skills select committee and the foreign affairs select committee. And, in November 2015 then Prime Minister David Cameron appointed Zahawi as co-chair of the Apprenticeship Delivery Board, which was tasked with advising the government on how to achieve its goal of having three million people start apprenticeships by 2020.

Zahawi backed leaving the European Union and has been a loyal supporter of Conservative policy throughout his parliamentary career, casting not a single vote against government legislation during his time on the backbenches. His appointment as children's minister is his first position as a government minister.

One of Zahawi's first moves as children's minister was to meet with chief social worker Isabelle Trowler.

Andy Elvin, chief executive of the fostering and adoption charity Tact, said that this represented a promising start: "We're very encouraged that he is already out and about meeting social workers as it's important that we have an engaged and visible children's minister."

Elvin added that he hoped Zahawi's experience of being a child refugee would lead to the Department for Education taking "a stronger role in challenging the Home Office on the issue and bringing more of that policy responsibility into the Department for Education".

"We also hope he gets involved early in the national fostering stocktake and I hope he also takes the time to ring Edward Timpson to get his views on how to build on his work, as Timpson was one of the best children's ministers we ever had," he added.

"While we don't know much about his views, hopefully that means he will be coming in with an open mind and ear."

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