06 September 2023

Rishi Sunak faces ‘cowboy builders’ jibe from Labour over school concrete crisis

06 September 2023

Sir Keir Starmer claimed “cowboys are running the country” as he criticised Rishi Sunak’s handling of the schools concrete crisis.

The Labour leader used Prime Minister’s Questions to highlight schools earmarked for repairs in 2010 but which remain on the list of nearly 150 education settings with collapse-prone reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (Racc).

Mr Sunak said he would “make no apology for acting decisively in the face of new information” in relation to schools, adding the Government is doing “everything it can to fix this quickly and minimise the disruption to children’s education”.

But Sir Keir told the House of Commons: “The truth is this crisis is the inevitable result of 13 years of cutting corners, botched jobs, sticking-plaster politics.

“It’s the sort of thing you expect from cowboy builders saying that everyone else is wrong, everyone else is to blame, protesting that they’ve done an effin’ good job even as the ceiling falls in.

“The difference is that in this case, the cowboys are running the country.

“Isn’t he ashamed that after 13 years of Tory Government children are cowering under steel supports stopping their classroom roof falling in?”

I think he just doesn't get how this 'It's all fine out there' is so at odds with the lived experience of millions of working people across this country

Mr Sunak replied: “This is exactly the kind of political opportunism that we’ve come to expect from Captain Hindsight over here. Before today he’s never once raised this issue with me across this despatch box.

“It wasn’t even worthy of a single mention in his so-called landmark speech on education this summer. And if we’d listened to him, our kids would have been off school and locked down for longer.”

Mr Sunak earlier defended his decisions on school maintenance when he was chancellor, saying: “The professional advice from the technical experts on Raac has evolved over time and indeed it is something that successive governments have dealt with, dating back to 1994.

“Now, as new advice has come forward the Government has rightly decisively and swiftly acted in the face of that advice.”

On school budgets, Mr Sunak added: “Far from cutting budgets, as he alleges, the amount spent last year was the highest in a decade.

“That spending review… maintained the school rebuilding programme, delivering 500 schools over a decade, a pace completely consistent with what had happened previously.”

Sir Keir later said a contract had been signed for refurbishing the Department for Education’s headquarters, adding: “It cost, I can’t quite believe this, £34 million.

“Can he explain to parents whose children aren’t at school this week why he thinks a blank cheque for his Tory ministers’ office is better use of taxpayers’ money than stopping schools collapsing?”

Mr Sunak repeated the Government has acted “decisively” on schools and criticised the Labour-led Wales Government for its response.

Sir Keir, in his concluding remarks, said: “I think he just doesn’t get how this ‘It’s all fine out there’ is so at odds with the lived experience of millions of working people across this country.”

He added: “What he won’t admit is that the reason he cut these budgets, ignored the warnings is quite simple: just like he thought his tax rises were for other families to pay, he thinks his school cuts are for other families to endure.

“Doesn’t it tell you everything you need to know that he’s happy to spend millions of taxpayers’ money sprucing up Tory offices, billions to ensure there is not VAT on Tory school fees but he won’t lift a finger when it comes to protecting other people’s schools, other people’s safety, other people’s children?”

Tory MPs could be heard rejecting the suggestion taxpayers’ cash was spent on “Tory offices”.

Mr Sunak said: “I know he comes here with his prepared scripts but he hasn’t listened to a single fact on six questions about the record amounts of funding going into schools, about the incredible reforms to education impacting the most disadvantaged children in our society – a record we’re rightly proud of.”

Shadow Commons leader Lucy Powell later raised a point of order to say it was “categorically untrue” of Mr Sunak to say Sir Keir had not raised the issue of school safety in his education speech during the summer.

The best videos delivered daily

Watch the stories that matter, right from your inbox