Michael Gove and his family spent a luxury holiday with the chef he later commissioned to carry out an official review into school dinners, it emerged last night.
The Education Secretary, his journalist wife, Sarah Vine, and their children spent the Easter holiday at a villa on the outskirts of Marrakech with Henry Dimbleby, the co-founder of healthy fast-food chain Leon, and his family.
During chats at the poolside, over cocktails in Marrakech's ancient medina and during dinner, Mr Dimbleby and Mr Gove discussed how to improve school meals for tens of thousands of children, and shortly after the holiday, the minister asked the chef if he would carry out an investigation into the issue.
When the review was launched earlier this month, Jamie Oliver, who was instrumental in setting up healthy eating standards in schools under the previous Labour government, said children needed urgent action to improve their meals, not long-running, costly reports.
Last night, the disclosure that Mr Gove holidayed with his new school-meals adviser fuelled the controversy, with Labour describing it as "shocking" that Mr Gove had not been upfront about his relationship with someone commissioned to carry out a government review.
Earlier this month, Mr Gove announced that Mr Dimbleby, the son of the broadcaster David Dimbleby, and his fellow Leon founder John Vincent would carry out a review into school food, reporting by 2013 with an "action plan" to improve meals. It triggered the fury of Mr Oliver, who said it was "not the time for more costly reports" into school dinners, and the inquiry would only "delay action". He added: "Now is the time for action, and that doesn't seem to be what we get from Mr Gove when it comes to school food and education."
At the time of the announcement, no mention was made of the Marrakech holiday, or the friendship of the two couples since the Easter break.
Last night, Mr Dimbleby said he and Mr Vincent had been passionate about improving school food for several years, and insisted that he had not been friends with Mr Gove before they stayed at the Marrakech villa as the guests of a mutual friend.
Yet the relationship will attract criticism because Leon will undoubtedly benefit from the publicity surrounding the review. Mr Dimbleby and Mr Vincent are being paid administrative costs and expenses. Since returning from their holiday, Mr Gove and Ms Vine have been to dinner at the east London home of Mr Dimbleby and his wife, Jemima.
During the week-long holiday, Ms Vine tweeted, after complaining that Marrakech was "wetter than Wales": "Luckily @Henry_Leon [Mr Dimbleby's Twitter name] is making cocktails, so phew." The next morning she tweeted: "Can I just say, if Henry Dimbleby offers you a cocktail, be ready."
The disclosure of the friendship will fuel concerns by critics over Mr Gove's stance on school food. Earlier this year, Mr Oliver criticised the Education Secretary for allowing academies and free schools to opt out of healthy-eating standards for school dinners Ω which the television chef had been instrumental in creating Ω allowing suppliers to reintroduce cheaper and less healthy food into schools.
Mr Dimbleby told The Independent on Sunday: "This is not a job that is going to make us money. It will take us away from Leon, and we are very nervous about that. The only reason to do it is to make a difference.
"Jamie's job is to keep up the pressure and he is brilliant at it. He is very supportive. Since this came out, he's been 100 per cent behind us and said these guys will do a good job. He has a thing about the very specific issue on regulation. I hope he carries on keeping the pressure up."
A Department for Education source said: "Michael Gove met Henry Dimbleby for the first time on holiday when they stayed at the same house as guests of a third party. Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent bring a wealth of practical experience in delivering good food on a budget and it is for this reason they were chosen to undertake this work."
Sharon Hodgson, Labour MP and the party's spokesman on children's affairs, said that Mr Gove needed to publish all correspondence relating to this review, including from his personal email accounts.
She added: "I have no doubt that Henry and John will listen to the experts in the sector, but this revelation casts serious doubt on the impartiality of the review's findings Ω especially given that Michael Gove's policy so far has been to exempt vast swathes of schools from having to abide by the quality standards Labour put in place."