TORY Prime Minister Rishi Sunak cut the schools repair budget in half in 2021 when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, it emerged yesterday morning.
While thousands of teachers and children walk into school this morning wondering if the building will collapse on their heads, Sunak claimed that it was ‘absurd’ to accuse him of endangering them.
However, he could not refute the allegation made on BBC Radio yesterday morning, that he had halved annual funding to repair schools, when the education department had actually said it needed to be doubled.
Jonathan Slater, the former top civil servant at the Department for Education, said on the Today programme that early indications had shown that up to 400 schools required refurbishment each year.
However, Slater said that the government had agreed to fund work on just 100 schools a year to fix crumbling concrete and other problems.
But after a review by then-Chancellor Sunak, the budget was further cut – to just 50 schools a year
‘We were saying there is a critical risk to life if this programme is not funded,’ Slater said. ‘I was absolutely amazed to see … the decision made by the government.’
He directly accused Sunak of deciding to cut the fund by 50% for 2021 – meaning just 50 schools would be refurbished or rebuilt – when experts had said that it should be doubled, to 200.
Confronted, with the accusation later, Sunak claimed it was ‘utterly wrong’ to blame him for failing to fix crumbling concrete in England’s schools.
He was also asked about the timing of school closures, just before the start of the new academic year.
‘Of course I know the timing is frustrating,’ Sunak said, claiming: ‘New information came to light relatively recently’ and the government had acted ‘as swiftly as possible’.
Sunak made it seem like concerns over RAAC (Reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete) in public buildings only surfaced last week, but that’s not the case.
A ceiling containing RAAC panels collapsed at a primary school in Kent in 2018. In 2019, an official advisory body – the Standing Committee on Structural Safety – warned RAAC was a ‘significant risk’ and new guidance was issued in 2021 about how to manage it.
Thangam Debbonaire, former Labour Shadow Housing Secretary, said: ‘When the Tory government ended in 1997, a Labour government took over, we put in place the building schools for the future programme.
‘And that’s because we knew that there were 10,000 buildings that had been built before 1941 that were going to come to the end of their design life by 2020, and a further 14,000 that were built in the 60s, 70s and 80s, that also needed to be refurbished, rebuilt or replaced by 2020.
‘ … The Tories then came in in 2010 with their Lib Dem partners, who cancelled that programme, since which time we have seen a process of managed decline by successive Tory governments failing to get a grip on this problem, lurching from crisis to crisis.
‘We come then to the last few years in which Rishi Sunak, then Chancellor, halved the amount of building maintenance budgets in 2020. We’ve had a failure of gross extent to get a grip on the problem since then.’
Niamh Sweeney, deputy general secretary of the National Education Union, said: ‘We have seen since June that affected buildings have had propping up mitigations put in place. That is still ongoing. We need confirmation from the government that this will be dealt with swiftly.
‘What we are saying is that the government needs to take responsibility, they need accurate records that all of those inspections have been taking place.’