Starmer says ‘cowboys are running the country’ in school concrete crisis jibe


Sir Keir Starmer has said cowboys are “running the country” as he took the Tories to task over England’s crumbling schools crisis.

The Labour leader said school closures as a result of unsafe concrete are an “inevitable result of 13 years of cutting corners and sticking plaster politics”.

The attack at Prime Minister’s Questions came as the Department for Education (DfE) finally bowed to pressure and published a list of almost 150 schools in England that have had to close or partially close due to issues with reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RAAC).

Politics Live: Starmer attacks ‘cowboy’ Tories on school crisis

The government has faced criticism for attempting to shift the blame after Education Secretary Gillian Keegan said other people had been “sat on their arses” in a sweary outburst and told school leaders to “get off their backsides”.

Sir Keir said: “It’s the sort of thing you expect from cowboy builders saying that everyone else is wrong, everyone else is to blame, protesting they’ve done a f****** good job even if the ceiling falls in.

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

Labour says the Conservatives scrapped building work planned for at least 19 schools with RAAC during their last term in office.

The schools had projects earmarked for completion under Labour’s Building Schools for the Future programme, which was axed when the Tories came into power in 2010 and the austerity years began.

Sir Keir mentioned a number of these schools during the PMQs clash, but was accused of “political opportunism” by the prime minister.

Rishi Sunak said Labour’s programme was “time-consuming and expensive, just like the Labour Party”.

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The state of England’s schools is in the spotlight after more than 100 were ordered to fully or partially shut just days before the start of term due to concerns about the safety of collapse-prone RAAC.

There have been warnings about the unsafe material for years but the government has insisted “new information” about the extent of its risk only came to light this summer.

Mr Sunak told PMQs: “We make no apology for acting decisively in the face of new information… Of the 22,000 schools in England, the vast, vast majority won’t be affected.”

However, he faced a grilling on why he rejected a funding request to fix 200 schools a year while chancellor, approving a scheme to refurbish around 50 a year instead.

PM grilled on £34m DfE refurbishment

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Starmer asks about £34m refurb of DofE offices

Sir Keir called on the prime minister to publish the requests from the Department for Education (DfE) for the school rebuilding programme and what risks he was warned of.

Earlier this week, a former top civil servant at the department, Jonathan Slater, said it had warned of a “critical risk to life” in making their bid to the Treasury.

But Downing Street said it would not be publishing the DfE’s submission requesting more funding.

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Speaking after PMQs, the prime minister’s official spokesman said: “We don’t as a matter of course publish advice to prime ministers, or ministers. I’m not aware of any plans to change that longstanding approach.”

Sir Keir also pressed Mr Sunak on the £34m cost of the refurbishment of the Department for Education office.

He asked “why he thinks a blank cheque for his Tory ministers’ office is better use of taxpayers’ money than stopping schools collapsing?”.

Sir Keir added: “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’s no 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.”

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.”

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