Rishi Sunak was sucked back into the row over crumbling concrete in UK schools when a senior minister said he’d rejected a request for extra money for repairs, piling pressure on the prime minister as he struggles to restore public faith in the governing Conservatives.
(Bloomberg) — Rishi Sunak was sucked back into the row over crumbling concrete in UK schools when a senior minister said he’d rejected a request for extra money for repairs, piling pressure on the prime minister as he struggles to restore public faith in the governing Conservatives.
The Department for Education in 2021 bid for cash to be able to repair 200 schools per year, long-serving schools minister Nick Gibb told Sky News on Tuesday. However Sunak — who was then Chancellor of the Exchequer — instead stuck to an existing target at a quarter of the level, he said.
Just four school refurbishments had been completed under that plan in the last two years, Sunak’s spokesman Max Blain told reporters, though he argued that didn’t take into account works carried out under other programs.
The revelation threatens to further derail Sunak’s bid to reset his government as Parliament returns from its summer recess, following a limited set of cabinet changes last week that underwhelmed members of his own Conservative Party. The Tories trail Labour by some 20 points in recent polls, ahead of a general election that’s widely expected next year.
Moreover, the row doesn’t look like going away, with newspaper headlines on Tuesday dominated by Education Secretary Gillian Keegan being caught making unguarded comments at the end of a television interview where she was still wearing a microphone. It’s handed Labour more fodder to attack the Tories over their handling of public services during more than a decade in power.
“The defining image of 13 years of Conservative government is one of children cowering under steel props, there to stop the ceiling falling in on their heads,” Labour’s education spokeswoman, Bridget Phillipson, told the House of Commons on Monday. “The public realm is literally crumbling around the next generation.”
Labour Leader Keir Starmer on Monday followed Sunak’s mini cabinet reshuffle with a more extensive one of his own, promoting several Members of Parliament who had served as advisers or ministers during the Tony Blair era. They included Pat McFadden, Liz Kendall, Peter Kyle and Hilary Benn.
Sunak must call a general election for January 2025 at the latest, and he’s urged voters to judge him on five key promises relating to the economy, National Health service and immigration, all of which are proving tricky to meet.
Now, the revelation on schools spending will add to pressure on the prime minister to explain how funding decisions led to a crisis last week when more than 100 schools were told to close buildings because of the risk posed by the presence of Reinforced Autoclaved Aerated Concrete (RAAC). The material was used in a ceiling that collapse in a primary school in 2018.
As many as 1,100 schools could face closures, while buildings including hospitals and courts could also be impacted.
Cabinet Office minister Jeremy Quin is leading cross-departmental work looking into the possible existence of RAAC in other public buildings, Blain said. Mitigations were being put in place, although the “way to manage RAAC will vary depending on the circumstances” as some buildings such as hospitals have their own estate managers, while schools do not, he added.
Blain said under all programs, 72 school refurbishments were completed in the tax year ending in 2021 and 47 the following year.
On Monday, Sunak denied he was responsible for the crisis, and Gibb sought to excuse the Treasury’s rejection of the bid for extra cash in 2021, saying the finance ministry “has to compare that bid with all the other priorities across Whitehall, from the health service to defense.”
But Tory lawmakers and officials said Keegan was facing internal pressure over her handling of the row. One official told Bloomberg on Monday that it was a failure by multiple departments and successive governments, putting the blame on education ministers, the Treasury and Downing Street for failing to get ahead of the problem.
(Updates with political context starting in third paragraph.)
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