I beg to move,
That an humble Address be presented to His Majesty, that he will be graciously pleased to give directions that there will be laid before this House by
(b) all papers, advice, and correspondence, including submissions and electronic communications (including communications with and from Ministers and Special Advisers) within and between the Cabinet Office (including the Office of the Prime Minister), the Department for Education and HM Treasury relating to these submissions concerned with school buildings.
Today we seek the release of papers that would tell us what has and what has not been happening in our schools—papers that the Government refused again yesterday to release and about which the Prime Minister again evaded questions today. However, this debate is about much more than just the documents. It is about more than reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete. It is about more than school buildings and their safety. This debate quite simply is about responsibility, and whether the Prime Minister will come clean about the allegation that he knew the risks, that he was warned, that he was told.
That is the issue in the motion before the House today: whether the Prime Minister was told that urgent action was needed to secure the safety of schools, but instead he slashed the cost of champagne; whether he will accept responsibility for his choices and whether he will be clear where responsibility lies. All of us are here with deep responsibilities to our constituents, to be open, to be honest, to take decisions objectively and selflessly, to accept accountability, to have integrity and to show leadership.
Let me be clear right from the outset that a Labour Government would have shown leadership on this, not just in the last few weeks but for years on end. That was our record in government. A Labour Secretary of State, faced today with a sudden crisis such as this, would have got those lists of the affected schools out quickly, would have been straight back to London, would have been communicating every day to parents and above all to children, would be taking steps not just to mitigate the immediate challenges around safety—[Interruption.]
Order. She is not giving way. Perhaps she will give way later.
We would remember the lesson from the pandemic that every school day matters. We would be ensuring the continuity of education for every child in school. We would be ensuring in-person learning for all our children. We would be doing that right now, and we would not be looking for plaudits, blaming others, or demanding praise. We would accept responsibility for what had gone wrong on our watch, and we would take responsibility for fixing it—fixing it fast, fixing it to last and fixing it for good.
The Government cannot even fix sending out their suggested interventions for today’s debate to the right set of Back-Benchers. It is hardly a surprise that they cannot fix the chaos in our schools. Here we are today, because of the utter shambles that has accompanied the start of a new school year for so many children. The public realm is literally crumbling around the next generation. The defining image of 13 years of Conservative Government is children cowering under steel props to stop the ceiling literally falling in on their heads.
Is it not always the case that when the Conservatives are in power, our schools crumble? In 1997 one in five schools were inadequate and needed to be rebuilt by a Labour Government. Because the Conservatives slashed the rebuilding programme, under this Government we are in the same dire situation again, and the only party that can fix it is a Labour party in government.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Like him, I remember the transformation that that Labour Government delivered. I will come to that in more detail during the debate.
The Welsh Labour Government have complained that the briefing they received lacked the technical detail required to take forward the work on schools. Does the hon. Lady agree that the Secretary of State should provide the other Governments with full details from the working group when they become available?
I know that Conservative Members have a keen fascination with all things going on in Wales at the moment, and that Ministers have not always been in full possession of the facts at the Dispatch Box, so I will put a few on the record so that we can all be clear about the situation in Wales. In Wales, school capital funding has increased by around 122% in cash terms, and 23% in real terms, between 2014-15 and 2023-24. Perhaps we can use that as the basis for slightly more informed debate during today’s discussions.
Today, our first priority must be safety—as it must always be. Guaranteeing that safety must ultimately be the responsibility of Ministers and of Government. That is why I repeatedly pressed the Secretary of State to publish a full list of all the schools with concerns about RAAC, which she has at last published today. However, I gently note that there could be omissions on that list, a number of which have already been drawn to my attention. I hope that we can get full clarity about the situation across our schools.
The hon. Lady has made a whole series of allegations and challenges about the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister, but surely, in a devolved arrangement, all those responsibilities and challenges apply equally to the First Minister. She has recognised that the list of schools in England has been published; why has such a list not been published for Wales? Does she accept that that is an example of the Welsh Government failing education and schools in Wales?
The difference between the Labour Government in Wales and the Government here in Westminster is that, over the last 13 years, the Welsh Government have continued with a school rebuilding programme, unlike the UK Government, who have cut funding and cut support to our schools time and again.
We want to be clear, open and honest with local authorities and multi-academy trusts about the steps that the Secretary of State is taking to get in place the protections and mitigations that are needed. She said on Monday:
“Absolutely nothing is more important than the safety of children and staff. It has always been the case that where we are made aware of a building that poses an immediate risk, we have taken immediate action.”—[Official Report,
Vol. 737, c. 52.]
Yet she was keen to spread the responsibility for the concrete crisis through time and space, including to her colleagues, who I understand had been sitting on their backsides; to the Welsh Government—a topic of interest for Members—whose ability to act swiftly has been hampered by key information not being shared; and to the last Labour Government, who left office 13 years ago.
The Secretary of State was keen to emphasise that it was not her Department’s responsibility, or hers, to ensure the safety of our children at school. Pushing responsibility on to others—local authorities, the schools themselves, multi-academy trusts—without the powers, resources or support they need, is very simply passing the buck, and my word, there has been an awful lot of that this week.
As Ministers have been keen to remind us, concerns were first raised about RAAC back in the 1990s. By then, the wider issue was that too many schools, built quickly and cheaply in the previous 50 years, were approaching the end of their design life. The issues were many: RAAC, asbestos and the simple reality—in the school I went to and in so many other state schools across our the country—of buckets in corridors, classrooms blackened by mould, windows that did not close and doors that would not shut.
I was at school back in the mid ’90s, but I know how serious Labour politicians took those warnings, and I am proud that as the scale of the challenge became clear, Labour Ministers rose to it. In 2004, the Buildings Schools for the Future programme was launched to rebuild every secondary school in our country over 15 years. In 2007, Building Schools for the Future was joined by the primary capital programme to give every child the chance to learn safely in a first-rate learning environment. That was done not because it was simple or quick, nor because there were no easier, more popular or more eye-catching choices, but because it was right, because it was responsible, and because that Labour Government believed then, as we do now, that excellence must be for everyone, and that every child deserves the best start—not just some children, but all our children.
The change we saw in 2010, when the Conservatives entered Government, reflected a very different approach: an entirely botched cancellation of existing programmes not by Ministers long since retired, but by the Minister for Schools, Nick Gibb, who is still sitting on the Treasury Bench today, and by a former Education Secretary, Michael Gove, who is still in the Cabinet. Ambitions were reduced and timelines extended. Ministers knew the consequences when they took those decisions. They banked the savings and left our schools to rot slowly, quietly and inexorably.
Does my hon. Friend not think that the vast, overinflated amounts of money spent on some free school sites could have been better spent dealing with the collapsing schools?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for all the work that she has done over many years, as Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, to draw our attention to the problems. I will say a bit more about the recent report by the National Audit Office on many of these issues.
When we leave risks unattended, they worsen and, in time, things start to fail—first quickly, then suddenly. In July 2018, a ceiling suddenly collapsed at Singlewell Primary School in Kent, where RAAC failed without warning. Mercifully, no one was hurt. Months passed, and an alert from central Government and the Local Government Association went out that autumn emphasising the risks. It said:
“The limited durability of RAAC roofs and other RAAC structures has long been recognised;
however recent experience (which includes two roof failures with little or no warning) suggests the problem may be more serious than previously appreciated and that many building owners are not aware that it is present in their property.”
Let me emphasise that final point: many building owners are not aware.
A few months after that, in May 2019, the Standing Committee on Structural Safety issued a note on the failure of RAAC planks. It said that all those installed before 1980
“are now past their expected service life and it is recommended that consideration is given to their replacement.”
It was not until March 2022—almost four years after that ceiling collapsed—that the Department for Education responded to the challenge of RAAC. How? It sent out a survey—not a surveyor, not a team of surveyors, and not even funding for surveyors, but a survey. If the issue was such a priority, and if the Secretary of State and her Department believed in immediate action, why, after a school collapsed in July 2018, did it take almost four years for the Department to send out a survey about RAAC in March 2022? I appreciate that the Secretary of State was not in post throughout that time, but responsibility in Government is not merely individual; crucially, it is collective and enduring. It stretches across Government and down the years. If she does not understand that point, perhaps she could seek advice from the Schools Minister, who has been in post for so many years, as he is today.
I have here a briefing document. It would save us all a bit of time and energy if Conservative Members just gave us the number and let us deal with it. The Welsh Labour Government have been taking consistent action to rebuild schools during their time in office; the hon. Gentleman might not like it, but it is a fact, and that stands in stark contrast to what has been happening here in England.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful case. The Work and Pensions Committee highlighted last year the growing number of retired schoolteachers succumbing to mesothelioma because of exposure to asbestos during their working life. At the current rate of progress, it will take 350 years to remove all the asbestos from schools. Does she agree that the Department must get a move on with that?
My right hon. Friend is right to draw our attention to that matter, and I appreciate the work that his Committee has done on it. It would also be helpful if we had some clarity today from the Secretary of State about the risks that might arise when RAAC interacts with asbestos. If she could say a little bit more about that, I am sure all Members from across the House would be grateful.
I am just going to make a bit more progress.
For a responsible politician, being in government is not simply a matter of pressing the agenda of their political party, their donors or those who profit from Government contracts. It is about rising to the challenges that face our country, and accepting the blame when things go wrong as the price of acclaim when they go well.
“a school can collapse for many reasons, not just RAAC”.
They can indeed! So many things are wrong right now with our schools estate: there are faulty boilers, inadequate insulation, roofs leaking, and asbestos in around four out of five of our schools; and as the pandemic taught us, ventilation is simply not good enough in too many of our schools. How do we know that? The condition data collection tells us all of it. By the Department’s own admission, that exercise was not even a proper structural survey, despite coming 20 years after the risks of RAAC were first flagged, and seven years after the Government cancelled Labour’s school rebuilding programmes, having not even looked at hazardous materials.
The condition data collection found that more than 7,000 elements of the school estate were in poor condition and needed to be prioritised for replacement. Were all those someone else’s responsibility, too? Even the money that the Department did commit—the spending allocations of which the Minister for Schools speaks so proudly so often, with the keen pride of a Minister wholly oblivious to the scale of their own failure—was not all spent. Again, whose fault is that? Whose responsibility might that have been?
We are told that part of the difficulty in recent years has been finding the skilled labour to deliver the work that our schools so desperately need. I invite Conservative Members to reflect briefly on why exactly that might be. Could it be the dramatic overall drop in apprenticeship starts, the shortage of construction apprenticeships in recent years, or the utter failure of the Government’s apprenticeship levy to deliver spending on skills at the scale and pace we need? Could it be their wider failures on further education and in-work training? Thirteen years into a Conservative Government, who will take responsibility for that?
It was a Conservative Prime Minister who once savaged the press of this country for seeking “power without responsibility”. Today, that is the entire ideology of the whole Conservative party. That failure to accept responsibility is not merely the ethic of the Secretary of State and her Ministers; it comes right from the very top. Today’s Prime Minister was yesterday’s Chancellor, and we know—not just from the former most senior official at the Department for Education, but from the Schools Minister himself—that at the 2021 spending review, when even Ministers knew that the problems needed tackling urgently and the rate of rebuilding needed to soar, the now Prime Minister said no, and every Conservative Member accepted that. Cheaper champagne, yes; safer schools, no. There has never been a clearer picture of the priorities of the Conservative party.
The Prime Minister, fond as he is of private donations to his old school, has form on saying no to high standards in schools for other people’s children. He said no to the proper pandemic recovery plan that the Government’s own recovery tsar recommended. In 2021, he said no to the capital spend that would have kept our schools safe and our children learning. Last spring, he said no to the desperate pleas of civil servants in the Department for Education for the resources to make schools safe. In his spending review speech back in 2021, he even boasted of returning overall real-terms education spending in a few years’ time to the levels of the last Labour Government. That was not an admission, wrung as a repentant confession; it was a boast, made with pride, that one day—but perhaps not yet—he would take education as seriously as Labour.
“Following years of underinvestment, the estate’s overall condition is declining and around 700,000 pupils are learning in a school that the responsible body or DfE believes needs major rebuilding or refurbishment. Most seriously, DfE recognises significant safety concerns across the estate, and has escalated these concerns to the government risk register.”
Just yesterday, in respect of RAAC, the Comptroller and Auditor General was clear that
“the long-term risks it posed took too long to be properly addressed”.
On the sustained inadequacy of the Government’s capital programme, he went even further:
“Failure to bite this bullet leads to poor value, with more money required for emergency measures or a sticking plaster approach.”
Failing to bite the bullet; poor value; a sticking-plaster approach—13 years into this Government, those are absolutely damning words from the Government’s own spending watchdog.
My hon. Friend will be aware that Jonathan Slater, the former permanent secretary, said that civil servants told the Government that there was a “critical risk to life” because of the dodgy buildings, and the failure to follow advice and invest in making sure our schools are safe. Does she agree that this Government are seriously putting children’s lives at risk through their incompetence and negligence, and through the failure of the Prime Minister to make sure there is proper investment in our schools?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. If Ministers are confident about everything they have done and the decisions that were taken, they will back our motion today, allow us to see the papers, and be transparent with this House.
I should be shocked by the lack of humility from Conservative Front Benchers, but sadly, I am not. Schools are literally collapsing around us, and the Conservatives want people to thank them for it. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Education Secretary needs to get a grip and explain why her offices got a £34 million refurbishment while schools are crumbling under this Tory Government?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who makes a very important point.
Finally, let me turn to the wording of the motion. I know that many Conservative Members share Labour’s concerns, and I ask them today to think of the young people and the school staff in their constituency. However loyal they have been in every past debate, I ask them to help us put truth and transparency first, and to force responsibility on their Front Benchers. It is time for the full truth to come out about why our schools are unsafe today, and whose decision that was. It is time at last for Ministers, and the Prime Minister in particular, to take and accept responsibility for the broken country they will leave behind. I commend the motion to the House.
Before I call the Secretary of State, it will be obvious to the House that a great many people wish to speak this afternoon, so there will be a time limit of approximately five minutes on Back-Bench speeches. I give that warning; I can see that colleagues are looking at their long notes, and hopefully taking a few pages out of them.
This Government are committed to making sure that every child in this country gets a first-class education and every opportunity to make the most of their abilities. More than that, underpinning that commitment is a deeper one: to ensure that children are safe and secure in the places where they learn. I am glad that Bridget Phillipson has chosen to raise the issue of the safety of school buildings and investment in the school estate. Nothing is more important than the safety of children and staff in our schools, and no issue could highlight more my willingness to take the right decisions, even if they are politically difficult. The country, and the children in our schools, deserve nothing less. As I set out in the House on Monday, the Government will not shy away from that responsibility, no matter how much the Labour party descends into the political gutter.
I understand that parents, schools and this House are concerned about the issue of RAAC; we are acting responsibly and moving decisively to address it, and minimising disruption to education. [Interruption.] Emily Thornberry is shouting from a sedentary position, so I will answer her question: £34 million was signed off for a Government building for the Department for Education. That was signed off by the Department’s commercial director, and was nothing to do with me. That was based on a decision made in 2019, before I was Minister. The right hon. Lady is very experienced, so I am sure that she will understand that Ministers do not sign off on Government buildings. It was the commercial director of the DFE who signed that off in 2019.
To go back to the issue in this case, because that was very misleading, we are dealing not with an issue caused in the last year, the last five years, the last decade or even the last 20 years, but with a legacy issue dating back to the 1950s. As the Chancellor set out, we will not shirk this responsibility and we will spend whatever it takes to keep children safe.
In Leeds, our school repair backlog is over £66 million, and the council is given £6 million a year by the Government to tackle that. The lead councillor for education, Councillor Jonathan Pryor, has written to every single Secretary of State for Education since 2018. Eight letters have been sent to raise school condition funding, but all pleas have been ignored. Does the Secretary of State really think that is acceptable?
I will look at Leeds specifically, but we have awarded millions to Leeds. The biggest difference between our programme and any programme that was ever done by your Government when they were in power—
Order. I think the Secretary of State means “his Government”.
I am sorry. Unlike the hon. Gentleman’s Government when they were in power, we actually did a conditions survey. We have done two conditions surveys and we have done a full RAAC survey, which we are now finishing with the responses that are coming in. We know the conditions; previously, the Labour Government did not know anything about the conditions and no decisions were made based on the condition of schools.
St Francis’ primary school in my constituency identified RAAC problems way back in 2019. It had to fund its own survey to do that. Since 2019, St Francis’ has submitted two bids to make its roof safe, and both were rejected. They appealed both times, and both appeals were rejected. Can I ask the Secretary of State how she can justify the rejection of those bids, and how can she justify the potentially much higher costs that must now be paid from the public purse to make St Francis’ safe?
The hon. Lady raises a good point, because of course the responsible body, St Francis’, has done the right thing by doing its survey. That is what everybody was asked to do in 2019 and in 2018, and in guidance since then. There are conditions and condition-based requests, and if the school wants to get in touch and give us the details, I am very happy to look at that case. I am very serious about making sure that we get rid of RAAC in our schools.
The school estate consists of over 22,000 schools and sixth-form colleges, with over 64,000 blocks. Of course, the condition varies across the estate, and a number of buildings are reaching the end of their useful life. That is why we have a 10-year rebuilding programme, and why the spending reviews in 2020 and 2021 allocated more than £7 billion for maintenance allocations for schools on top of that programme.
I should make a bit of progress, because I do have an awful lot of this in the speech. I really do want to satisfy people with detailed information because I have a lot of it.
Although local authorities, academy trusts and other bodies are directly responsible for school buildings, we support them by allocating significant capital funding each year, delivering major rebuilding programmes and providing guidance on effective estate management. Responsible bodies’ local knowledge of their estates and their work to maintain their estates make them much better placed to ensure that school and college buildings are kept safe, compliant with regulations and in good working order. However, the Department always stands ready to provide additional support on a case-by-case basis if we are alerted to a safety issue by those responsible bodies. This is the normal pattern of maintenance—a careful and calibrated local response.
However, we judged in this case that the issue of RAAC required us to take a much more proactive and direct approach. This approach is unprecedented across the UK, where England is leading. Sensing the scale of the potential challenge, we improved our surveying so that we had the capacity to act, even if we did not need to do so. Our condition data collection, which ran from 2017 to 2019, visited nearly all 22,000 schools and sixth-form colleges, and is one of the largest data collections of its kind. It helps us to understand what is needed in schools and to target our efforts in the way that best meets needs. In contrast, over the 13 years of the last Labour Government, there was not a single comprehensive review of the school estate. Yes, that is right: they were simply in the dark. Individual reports from the condition data collection—
I will make a bit of progress, and then I will come back to both hon. Members.
As we became aware of the specific issues with RAAC, we supplemented the data collection with more targeted surveys especially for RAAC. That was done so that when we made decisions, we would be able to act. I will leave colleagues to draw their own conclusions from the fact that Labour-run Wales is now playing catch-up to identify where RAAC is in its school estate. On the question from Hywel Williams, we briefed Wales verbally on new technical guidance on
None of us should be here to criticise the scrutiny of safety in schools, so can I thank the Department for dispatching fast, as requested, two surveyors to look at the one school in my constituency of Gloucester that is potentially affected? I also thank them for completing their mission fast, so that the head could today confirm to his teachers, parents and pupils alike that there is no RAAC in the school whatsoever.
I thank my hon. Friend, and he is absolutely right. That is what we are doing with any work. We are being ultra-cautious here. The decision I have made is ultra-cautious, and first of all it is to make sure that we survey all schools as quickly as possible.
By the same volition, a school in my constituency sent in the results of the survey on
I will definitely look at that case, because that sounds as though it took place before the decision I took and also before I stood up the caseworkers, proppers, cabinets and portacabins. If the hon. Lady will give me the details of that case, I will look at it, because that should not be happening. What should be happening is exactly the same as what my hon. Friend Richard Graham laid out.
The Secretary of State is confident, it seems, that there are enough surveyors to do this work, but since she made this decision about schools, questions have been raised about many other public buildings and I suspect structural surveyors are now in much shorter supply. Is she still confident that structural engineers and surveyors will be available to do this work, and is she sticking to her timetable of having answers by the end of next week?
I am confident that, because we started early, we have done a lot of these surveys already. Quite a lot of the schools were involved at the beginning, so I am confident of that. I am also confident that the NHS has conducted surveys of its main buildings, and I think the courts have also done surveys. However, we have now increased the number of surveying companies from three to eight to make sure that we can get through all the cases, including any that Members are concerned about, as soon as possible.
Back in January this year, I submitted a written question to the Government about the number of schools in my constituency of Wirral West that had buildings rated as very likely to collapse. In the response I received, the Schools Minister said:
“Department officials are clear that there are no areas within schools open to pupils where there is a known immediate risk of collapse.”
Presumably those buildings would be evacuated if that was the case—
Order. I appreciate that the Secretary of State has been very generous in giving way to Members, but she will not be as aware as I am that there are 22 people who wish to speak this afternoon. The Secretary of State is very politely giving way to Members who are not going to take part in the debate, and if we have long interventions from those Members, people who are waiting to speak will not have the chance to do so when we come to the end of the debate. I am trying to get some fairness into this, but I do appreciate that the Secretary of State is being polite and I will allow her to respond to the intervention.
Thank you for that, Madam Deputy Speaker, and for giving me the reminder, because I do not want to take time away from people who have put in to speak. What my right hon. Friend the Schools Minister said is absolutely right: any time there is an immediate risk, action is immediately taken. However, what we were doing was more preventive than that: finding out where everything was, so that we could act. When the three new cases happened over the summer, that is when I made a decision to be very cautious, because I did not want to take any risk whatsoever. I knew exactly where to go, because I knew exactly which schools were judged as non-critical. I knew exactly what we needed to do.
I am sorry but I will not give way. I know I promised the hon. Gentleman, but I will see if I can make a bit more progress.
We deposited copies of the school condition data in the House Libraries on
The 2021 spending review announced a total of £19 billion of capital funding to support the education sector between 2022-23 and 2024-25, including £5.4 billion for school condition allocations. That includes £3.6 billion announced in allocations for the first two years of the period to improve the condition of the school estate. That is in addition to the school rebuilding programme, which is rebuilding 500 schools over 10 years. That builds on nearly £30 billion of capital between 2016-17 and 2021-22, including over £13 billion for improving or replacing buildings.
Improving education is this Government’s mission. Ensuring that our education settings are safe is a key part of that, and we therefore prioritise it as part of our capital funding, and actively manage funding and support for the school estate to stay open and safe. I also note the distinction between our targeted approach and what came before. The system we inherited was found by an independent review of capital to be poorly targeted and wasteful. We on this side of the House have acted to protect children, while others have ignored problems for decades. School building is more effective and efficient than ever before. The significant investments made in education in recent years by this Government, coupled with essential reform, have raised standards for our children and given them a better chance of success in life.
Since 2010, we have reformed our capital programmes to bring down the cost of school building. The James review of education capital in 2011 found that Building Schools for the Future, the programme that the hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South is proud of, was overly bureaucratic and did not deliver outcomes that were good or affordable. Just as the people of Birmingham are finding out so heartbreakingly today, and as I saw as a young girl growing up in Liverpool, the consequences of Labour always see things worse off than when they started. By contrast, at the 2020 spending review we announced our 10-year school rebuilding programme, which will transform buildings at 500 schools across England. We have already announced 400 of those schools, including 239 in December 2022, prioritising those in poor condition and with evidence of potential safety issues.
Perhaps I could make a little more progress, as I feel I will not have been fair if I don’t.
We currently have a further 100 places on the programme, and the Government will continue to focus on investing in the school estate. We strive to deliver value for money—it is easy to spend money, but getting value for money is what the people of this country expect—and ensure that our capital funding is spent as efficiently as possible. As the National Audit Office concluded in 2017, the priority school building programme, the predecessor to our school rebuilding programme, replaced schools more efficiently, costing approximately a third less per square metre than the previous capital programme, Building Schools for the Future.
We committed to 500 schools over 10 years through our rebuilding programme, with an average of 50 schools entering delivery every year. That is in line with the scale of projects delivered every year since the start of its predecessor. There has been some debate about the scale of rebuilding in recent days, but the level of our ambition is unchanged. We have not scaled back our ambitions for school rebuilding, and we will not. Although the school rebuilding programme is in its initial stages of delivery, it is ramping up as more projects begin construction. The exact amount that rebuilding programmes spend will differ year on year, based on the stage of delivery that projects are in at any given time. That is the norm for significant capital projects, which means that when we try to make comparisons, a lot of cherry-picking goes on.
Overall since 2012, 524 schools have been rebuilt or refurbished through our central rebuilding programmes, and a further 408 are in the pipeline. We are building schools more quickly, more efficiently, and better targeted on condition and need than ever before. Sometimes, however, there will be issues that we have to deal with outside the normal processes. The role of Government and of Ministers is to respond to that, and to take ownership and full responsibility.
When new information about RAAC crossed my desk over the summer, I understood that the buck stopped with me, even if the problem was 50 years in the making. As I set out in my statement to the House on Monday, the safety of pupils and staff is this Government’s absolute priority. We have regularly and swiftly updated our guidance in line with the latest technical advice, to ensure that responsible bodies are aware of the risks and able to act. In light of the three new cases over the summer, and given the disparate nature of the schools estate and, most importantly, the fact that children were involved, we made the difficult decision that it was no longer reasonable or safe for spaces known to contain RAAC to be used. That was a very difficult decision, because there were operational implications for others, and an impact on parents and children.
It is important to note that the technical advice on RAAC does not say that we must put mitigations in place in all buildings—that is not what the RAAC advice says. Where RAAC is present, we can keep it as long as we manage it well. We have acted with the utmost caution to reassure parents and teachers, and to establish a comprehensive plan to mitigate and resolve settings with RAAC, because we know where they are. Let me be clear: we were able to do that only because we had prepared for this eventuality. I had hoped that that preparation would be unnecessary, but sadly it was not and I had to take a decision. I am grateful to previous Secretaries of State who made decisions to ensure that we were able to establish where RAAC was present, and to act rapidly. We could show leadership, we could show direction, and we could tell people exactly where to go with their portacabins and with their propping.
Professional advice from technical experts on RAAC has evolved over time, and the question of how to manage its risks has spanned successive Governments since 1994.
Nobody is blameless in that, including Labour Members, who were warned in 1999, 2002, and 2007 alike. Unlike them, I am interested in keeping our children safe and improving learning. They try to play politics, and they can play politics all they like, but as they are finding in Wales, the public can smell opportunism and recoil at politicians who fail to show leadership.
We on the Government side of the House saw the risk and decided to prepare. My Department alerted the sector about the potential risks of RAAC in 2018, and in February 2021 we issued guidance. We were concerned that not all responsible bodies were acting quickly enough, so we decided to take a more direct approach, as I laid out on Monday, ensuring that we got all the surveys. We found out where RAAC was and we took action.
The vast majority of schools will be unaffected, as we have set out in information published today, and 104 of the affected settings are offering face-to-face education for pupils. Each impacted school and college has a dedicated caseworker to help implement a mitigation plan. For the past few days that has been my main concern—operationalising this, and ensuring that we can establish and scale up a programme to give schools the support they need due to the decisions I had to take. Most people will receive little disruption to their education, but that could include using other spaces on the school site, or in nearby schools or elsewhere in the local area, until structural supports or temporary buildings are installed. Project delivery, property and technical experts will be on hand to support schools to put face-to-face education measures in place as quickly as possible. We have published the list of schools that we know to be affected by RAAC, and we will be publishing an update in two weeks. It was important to give those affected schools and colleges time to focus on mitigations with support from my Department, and to inform parents directly. Thanks to the hard work of education leaders and local councils, 104 settings are providing face-to-face learning for all pupils this week. A further 20 settings have hybrid arrangements in place, with some pupils learning off-site, while 19 have delayed the start of term by a few days to ensure that pupils can start attending face-to-face learning safely on site. Only a very small number—four—have needed to move to remote learning. We anticipate that the majority of those will be able to offer pupils face-to-face learning soon, ensuring that disruption to education is kept to a minimum. Nine settings have since been found not to have RAAC after being reinvestigated.
I want to be clear that we will spend whatever it takes to keep children safe, with extra funding coming from DFE capital budgets to fund mitigations. That includes paying for emergency mitigation work needed to make buildings safe, including alternative classroom space where necessary. Where schools need additional help with revenue costs, such as transport to other locations, we are actively engaging with every school affected to put appropriate support in place. We will also fund longer-term refurbishment projects, or rebuilding projects where needed—taking responsibility, taking action and showing leadership.
As all Members know, the spending review is the process that determines how the Government will spend money over the course of a Parliament. It would be inaccurate, incomplete and inappropriate to disclose the details requested of the sensitive negotiations between His Majesty’s Treasury and individual Departments—inaccurate, because it would show only part of the picture of a complex decision-making process that takes place between multiple Departments, Ministers, officials and other individuals with varying priorities; incomplete, because such a process has to look across the board at priorities and trade-offs for all Departments to ensure we can deliver for everyone, yet this motion focuses on only one; and inappropriate, because it would be categorically in breach of the long-standing traditions and expectations that confidential and often commercially sensitive information is not disclosed into the public domain and that officials can give full and frank advice to Ministers.
Some Labour Members present have themselves served in government. They know that those in the civil service use every ounce of their professional skill to help them as Ministers and deliver the objectives of the elected Governments they serve. I have to ask: what would those Members say to those officials about a motion that might result in the making public of the advice of civil servants—people who can never answer back themselves—which they had thought was being given to Ministers in confidence? We know that they would not want that to be done.
It is vital to the conduct of good government and very much in the public interest that officials and Ministers in Departments and across government have a safe space to provide free and frank advice to inform policy and spending decisions. I note that such an exemption is one of the bedrocks of the freedom of information laws that the Labour party introduced. In the case of the spending review and related discussions, anything else would undermine that position and make it harder for Governments—now and in the future—to make the right balance of decisions and to maximise value for money for the taxpayer. That cannot be right, regardless of party, colour or the political events of the day.
I repeat what I said at the start of this speech: nothing is more important than the safety of children and staff in our schools. We are investing billions of pounds rebuilding our schools and providing the funding and support that academy trusts, local authorities, dioceses and schools need to manage the school and college estate effectively. As the Prime Minister and Chancellor have said, we will spend whatever it takes to keep children safe in our schools. After this debate, I will return to that work and to overseeing the operational response that ensures we are keeping children safe and protected and their education ongoing. In the meantime, I urge all colleagues to vote against this motion this evening.
As I said earlier, a great many people wish to catch my eye, so there will be a time limit, immediately effective, of five minutes on Back-Bench speeches.
The debate we are having today is important. It goes to the very heart of what it means to govern and the very purpose of good government, which is to educate and protect our young people properly. The issues of the safety of school buildings and the safety of our children are of paramount importance. I am shocked that even has to be said, but unfortunately what has emerged in the past week has made it apparent that it does. Despite the Secretary of State’s exasperation on this issue, I will not be congratulating her on her handling of it.
The Secretary of State is a member of a party and a Government that have seen school budgets as expendable and a place to save money, whether that is the abolition of Labour’s Building Schools for the Future programme, which I will say more on later, or the Prime Minister deciding in his previous role as Chancellor of the Exchequer that the safety of our people is not a priority for this Government, a view that he has continued into his premiership. I am sure that the Government will be tired of hearing the words of Jonathan Slater, the former permanent secretary to the Department for Education from 2016 to 2020, but he knows what he is talking about. He said that the investigations by civil servants led to them recommending that 300 to 400 schools needed repairs each year. The Department requested Treasury funding to cover 200, yet the decision made in 2021 was to halve the number of schools repaired from 100 to 50. Who was the Chancellor at that time making those decisions? It was the Prime Minister, who is now presiding over this Conservative Government’s education crisis.
This is not just numbers on a page. Across the country, more than 100 schools are affected. Eleven so far have been reported in the north-east, four of which are closed. They are vital to the future of our children, but those schools are now unsafe. It is shameful. Tellingly, in his response to the former permanent secretary, the Prime Minister said in an interview with the BBC:
“If you look at what we have been doing over the previous decade, that’s completely in line with what we have always done”.
Yes—cutting funding to repair and build schools. I could not agree with the Prime Minister more. It is exactly what Conservative Governments have done over the past decade: ignoring the priorities of the people of Sunderland, the north-east and the country, ignoring the life chances of our young people and ignoring this issue, which has been on the Government’s desk for a few years. We go from crisis to crisis, and it is working people and families who suffer. That is why we need change in this country.
Building Schools for the Future, the programme that the last Labour Government had for replacing all or part of schools that needed to be rebuilt, was abolished by the Conservative-led coalition in 2010. When Labour left power, the economy was growing. It was the policy of austerity by the coalition Government that led us to recession. The Conservatives then were the same as the Conservatives now: a threat to our economy, with a lack of care for our schools.
In Sunderland, in 2010, under BSF wave 2, the council was informed of an indicative budget of £137 million to cover 14 school rebuilds or ICT infrastructure replacements. When the plug was pulled on BSF, that funding was withdrawn. The issues in the schools remained. Today, two of those schools have been identified on the list of the 500 schools in the worst condition in the country. Thirteen years later, action has not been taken. Refurbishment of the others has had to be funded by alternative capital due to the absence of Government support. Six of them are still in need, with no progress since 2010. That is shocking.
The use of RAAC in school buildings, and probably other public buildings as well, is not the responsibility of any one Government, but sorting the problems that has caused is. The Government’s complete lack of prioritising school buildings being fit for purpose or funding education properly has led to the crisis that many of our schools find themselves in today. This is a self-made schools crisis that the Government have brought on themselves. It has forced schools to close and it is the result of years of neglect by Conservatives. The Secretary of State might like to play the victim here, but it is our children who are in danger in this crisis. Someone needs to take responsibility for putting our young people in danger, and so far the Prime Minister is refusing to accept it. The Education Secretary has said that the safety of school buildings is not the responsibility—
Order. I am afraid that the hon. Lady has exceeded her five minutes. I call the Chairman of the Education Committee.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate, and I am grateful to the Opposition for giving us the opportunity to debate this issue, which is of urgent concern across the country. The Education Committee has requested Ministers to attend a session, and I am glad to report that we will have a Minister attending the Committee the Tuesday after next to give evidence on this important issue.
I want to raise some of the specific concerns we are hearing from school leaders about the way in which the announcements came about and their timing. I think we all agree that it is deeply unfortunate that changes had to be made so late in the school holidays, and before. I understand from conversations that I have had with Ministers today and from public statements that some of the information came to light only very recently. The Select Committee will push for a more detailed timeline on when information came to light and when decisions were made.
I heard many times when I was a Minister the concern of heads and leaders in education about announcements made late in the holidays, just before schools return, and I think we all agree on that. It is deeply unfortunate and troubling in this case. However, I do understand Ministers taking a zero-risk approach on roof collapses and children. From what I have been told, it seems that the estimation of risk—the idea that there were lower-risk and higher-risk forms of RAAC—fundamentally changed. It is important that we get more detail on that so that we can scrutinise the decision making.
On the consequences for schools, we now need to ensure that there is the minimum disruption. I welcome some of the steps set out by the Secretary of State in that regard. I welcome the fact that there are dedicated caseworkers working with those schools where issues have been identified and that more surveys are taking place where there is uncertainty. I would gently say that there is deep concern over the fact that responsible bodies are many and various in this respect, and their capability in understanding their buildings is highly varied. What works for a large multi-academy trust or a local authority managing a number of schools and has a dedicated estates team can be different from a more isolated school and single-academy trust. In particular, small primaries will not necessarily have the expertise to manage these issues. I seek assurance from the Secretary of State that there will be extra support for those more needy schools and that the Department will cover the costs where there is uncertainty of surveying. It is important that we have that assurance in the coming weeks.
I am grateful to the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, Dame Meg Hillier that I was able to join that Committee’s session on school capital before the summer and to question the permanent secretary at the Department for Education over RAAC. At the time, it seemed that visits relating to RAAC and the gathering of information were being accelerated, but given what we know now, in the light of the risk changing, it is a great shame that all those visits had not been completed by that time and we did not have a more complete risk picture. An update on the figures given to that Committee would be useful. I look forward to joining the Public Accounts Committee in our scrutiny of this issue when it meets next week.
There are many more questions to ask. Crucially, we need to ensure that lessons are learned from this for the long run and that when we build public buildings, we do so with materials that have a life that will match their use. That means multiple generations, not 30 years or 50 years.
I will give way briefly to the hon. Gentleman, but I want to conclude shortly.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. Given the concern he is now expressing about how public buildings were built in the past, does he stand by his comments about Labour’s motion on school buildings in May that he described at the time as scaremongering?
That motion was similar to this one—a Humble Address—which, for the reasons already set out, I do not think is an effective way of going about getting the relevant information. I think that proper parliamentary scrutiny is the way, and I absolutely intend to provide that proper parliamentary scrutiny. There are huge risks in the approach that the Opposition are taking with repeated Humble Addresses, undermining the confidentiality of advice given by officials to Ministers. The idea that a future Labour Government would want to disclose all submissions in spending reviews is, I am afraid, for the birds. We have to be realistic about making sure we have a proper process of scrutiny.
I will hold Ministers to account on this, and as Chair of the Select Committee I have a lot of questions to ask. My members do as well, and I know that a number of them have affected schools in their constituencies. We will want to press Ministers on those issues. I do not think that a Humble Address is the right way to go about it, and that is why I will not support the motion, but I do fundamentally believe that we must ensure there is more investment in replacing school buildings and increased investment in the quality of the school estate. Yes, that is to address issues such as RAAC, but it is also to address issues that have caused real harm, such as asbestos, which we may not have much time to talk about in the debate. It is important to take into account the point made by the Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee, Sir Stephen Timms, in that respect as well.
I will not detain the House longer because I will have my opportunity with the Select Committee to ask Ministers much more. This is a hugely important issue and we need all Governments to get it right. I urge Ministers in the UK Government to work with the devolved Administrations to ensure that they can take the proactive measures needed to make schools across the UK utterly safe.
I want to start by extending my thoughts to every student, parent, teacher and school staff member who is this week having their education disrupted, unable to do their job or having to work around the clock to find alternative teaching settings. My first question is: what new evidence has been presented? I do not believe that “evidence” is the right word to be using. Through the Public Accounts Committee, NAO reports and visits, I have been looking at RAAC and, just from having a glance online, it is easy to find multiple reports, including a report from February 2022 by the Institution of Structural Engineers that says that although visual surveys help to assess the condition of panels,
“the nature of any warning signs of sudden failure at the bearings are not fully known…Not all defects are visible…panels which appear to be in a good condition may conceal hidden defects which could present a risk to the integrity of the panels…The corrosion of reinforcement could lead to large pieces of RAAC falling which presents a risk to occupants.”
So I do not believe that there is new evidence; what I believe is that the risk has come to fruition. What we need to understand is why, in this place, we have not taken the risk seriously enough when we have known since 2018 about the risk of sudden failure without any warning signs.
Thankfully, I have been informed by the DFE that it is not aware of any confirmed cases of RAAC in my constituency, but Government actions have undermined my constituents’ confidence in the inspection process. One school, which we are in close communication with, had a second survey carried out this week by the local authority after there was confusion by the Department as to whether the first survey had taken place. RAAC was not identified in either survey. However, some parts of the survey could not be completed due to the possible presence of asbestos, leaving that school in limbo, not knowing if RAAC presents a problem underneath the asbestos.
Parents should not have to worry about the safety of their children when they send them to school, and teachers should not be worried about their workplaces being at risk of collapse, but here we are. I am frankly not that surprised that the Secretary of State said it was “not the job” of the Department for Education to ensure that children are learning in safe school environments. At the start of the year, I raised the case of my constituent Carla, a parent who suffered a serious head injury after a 15-foot piece of board flew off the outside of her child’s school. She suffered significant injuries: she had a black eye and went on to have headaches—she needed to have an MRI scan—and minor scarring, and she still suffers from tinnitus. It could have been a lot worse—someone could have died as a result of that event. As Carla said in her statement to me,
“this…could have been prevented and it was pure luck that no one died”.
That happened when she was going to collect her children. It is exceedingly lucky that the three incidents this summer happened when no one was there to be hurt.
According to data from the Government, from 2017 to 2019, 27 schools in Sheffield had at least one grade C “poor” construction type, and 14 were found to have at least one grade D construction type. I have visited schools and spoken to headteachers, all of whom report a similar story of decade-old buildings going unchecked, repairs to the basics being left undone, and of struggling to manage capital budgets that have been cut over the years to fix things such as boilers. I am really concerned that, to grapple with this issue, we need to ensure that all the school estate is looked at in the round so that issues such as asbestos do not get forgotten.
While two schools benefited from the Government’s last round of funding, it was barely enough to cover the basic repairs. Many missed out on any funding at all. I have to question why the guidance to schools on this year’s funding round stated that not all RAAC is dangerous. I would like to ask the Secretary of State if she stands by that statement that not all RAAC is dangerous. Why was it not the aim to eradicate RAAC from schools, as stated by the NHS and the Department of Health and Social Care?
Finally, I hope that schools will be reimbursed for the costs associated with RAAC litigation and setting up classrooms and temporary accommodation. I want to know what assurance the Secretary of State has received that the 600-odd schools awaiting inspections or that have been inspected is the upper limit of those at risk of RAAC. What assurances does she, and the Department for Education, have about the quality of the surveys being conducted?
I rise as the Member of Parliament who, unfortunately, probably has more RAAC schools than any other. That does not take into account nearby secondary schools, three of which are identified on the list of cancelled projects in the Building Schools for the Future programme with RAAC in Colchester, in the constituency of my right hon. Friend Priti Patel, and which are all likely to be attended by pupils from my constituency.
I heave a deep sigh. Opposition day debates are about blaming the Government—I have been in opposition, and we all know that. They are not about what has fundamentally gone wrong and what lessons there are to be learned. Like the Prime Minister, as he pointed out earlier on the spending review, I can find no reference to RAAC schools in Hansard relating to any statement, urgent question or debate from 2010 when the Building Schools for the Future programme was cancelled, and cancelled it was for very good reasons. Labour’s motion is retrospectively trying to allocate blame in the past, not explaining what a Labour Government would do now or in future.
I am tempted to my feet to say that there was a properly planned programme of renewal of schools, and although RAAC in itself was not the only issue being looked at, it was part of that discussion. Just because it is not named does not mean that there was not a plan. There was a plan, and a Conservative Secretary of State axed that on day one of the coalition Government.
That is of no comfort to my constituents, I am afraid, because nearly all the schools concerned are primary schools, and there were no primary schools in the Building Schools for the Future programme because it was a politically driven programme funded by the discredited public finance initiative, which made it extremely expensive. I do not think we should go back there.
The Labour party does not actually criticise what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State decided last week to protect the safety of schoolchildren and teachers. That was the subject of my intervention on the shadow Secretary of State, Bridget Phillipson. Does she think that the Secretary of State has done the wrong thing? I will give way to her now if she would like to say that.
No, but the point is that this debate arises because the Secretary of State made a brave and courageous decision to act on the advice she was given. The Opposition has nothing whatever to say about that. She did the right thing. [Interruption.] If the shadow Secretary of State wants to intervene, by all means she may.
There we have it: the hon. Lady will not say that the Secretary of State has done the wrong thing. Let the politics play itself out.
What we have here is a much more fundamental, wider systemic failure in the management of building safety, which has gone on for decades. Dr John Roberts, the former president of the Institution of Structural Engineers, wrote in The Times earlier this week:
“As a chartered structural engineer in active practice from the early 1970s, I never considered using RAAC as it did not “feel’ correct for permanent structures.”
So why was it used? One lesson is that perhaps Ministers should encourage their officials to challenge them more with uncomfortable truths—let us agree that.
The wider question is why such a critical building safety issue was systemically neglected, decade after decade. We should thank the good Lord that none of the ceilings collapsed on a classroom of pupils, or the Government would by now be announcing a full public inquiry rather like the Grenfell inquiry. There the parallels continue, because like cladding, RAAC is a long-persisting and neglected building safety risk, which successive Governments have failed to address.
I and others, including the former fire and housing Minister Nick Raynsford, the former chief investigator of the Air Accident Investigation Branch Dr Keith Conradi, and senior buildings surveyor Kevin Savage, made a submission to the Grenfell inquiry. Our recommendations to help to address the failings are principally twofold and relate to unresolved conflicts of interest in the building safety management regime of buildings, which are not addressed by the Building Safety Act 2022 or the establishment of the building safety body, which is now a statutory function of the Health and Safety Executive. At present, it is the HSE—
No, I will press on, if I may. At present, it is the HSE that decides how a building safety failure should be investigated, unless the Government take over with their own inquiry.
There is a need for a truly independent building safety investigation body, equivalent to the accident investigation bodies in aviation, marine, rail and offshore safety. No regulator like the HSE should also investigate safety failures, because it may find itself conflicted if part of the failure arises from a failure of regulation. That is what Lord Cullen found in the Paddington rail crash inquiry and why the Rail Accident Investigation Branch of the Department for Transport was established.
I am sorry; I have no time.
The second conflict that needs to be resolved concerns the role of local authority building control bodies and their private sector counterparts, known as approved inspectors. The Building Safety Act will regulate the private sector approved inspectors but not local authority building control, which was not only responsible for approving the cladding on Grenfell Tower but, I hazard a guess, probably approved the building control on most of the schools built with RAAC.
The main point is that failures such as RAAC and cladding arise because of the failure of the building management safety system, which is endemic to that system. The failures also arise from the failure to find the causes of building safety incidents through a proper independent investigation body that possesses permanent, accumulated expertise that a one-off-public inquiry has to attempt to acquire from scratch.
I hope that amid the politicking, all political parties will recognise that such reforms are necessary in building safety management, or there will be more systemic failures in building safety arising from things such as the wrong cladding and the wrong concrete in the future. I have 15 seconds, if Ian Lavery would like to intervene.
I had hoped that the hon. Gentleman would raise a point relevant to my speech. There has been enough politicking about this issue. I am making more serious comments about the building safety management system of this whole country, which affects a whole lot of other public buildings as well.
I fear I will upset the Chair of the Liaison Committee, Sir Bernard Jenkin, because I will use my speech to blame the Government. The Secretary of State must be the only scouser I have ever met who thinks Liverpool is left better after the last 13 years of Conservative government. It has been evident to my constituents for many years that our public services are crumbling under the Tory Government. Never has that phrase has rarely been so literal as it has become in the last few days.
Just days before schools were set to reopen after the summer holidays, our education system was thrown into chaos by the crisis of unsafe concrete in our public buildings. More than 100 schools have already been forced to close due to the risk of collapse. The Prime Minister himself suggested that more than 1,000 could be affected. This scandal goes to the heart of the incompetence and short termism that has characterised the last 13 years.
The emerging timeline of events is truly staggering: upon taking office in 2010, the Tory-Liberal Democrat Government scrapped Labour’s school rebuilding programme, which the then Education Secretary called a waste of money. Department for Education officials said that 300 to 400 schools needed to be rebuilt every single year because of degrading concrete, but the Government said they would only pay for 100. In 2018, the Department was informed of the sudden collapse of a roof on a school in Kent. Since summer 2021, its own risk register recognised a critical and very likely risk that building collapse could cause death or injury. Officials in the Department again asked for funding for school rebuilds to be doubled. Instead, the then Chancellor, now Prime Minister, recklessly cut school funding in half. Now our schools, the bedrock of our society, are literally potentially collapsing around us and the Tory Government have the audacity to expect gratitude.
Today, Labour will force a binding vote to reveal what the Prime Minister knew about the risks posed by reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete before slashing the school rebuilding programme. Conservative MPs have a choice: stand with those of us on the Labour Benches and let parents know the truth, or stand with the Government and cover up what was known and the scale of the crisis.
The crumbling concrete in schools, hospitals and courts is a fitting metaphor for Tory rule and the years of neglect of public services across the country. After 13 years of a Conservative-led Government, Britain is falling apart. Our NHS is on the verge of collapse, our railways are in chaos, raw sewage is being pumped into our rivers, and housing is unaffordable and insecure. My constituents say, election after election, that enough is enough. I hope the rest of the country will follow suit shortly. We need nothing short of a national renewal, and Labour stands ready to take office and begin the difficult task of rebuilding Britain for the better.
Unlike some, I welcome the opportunity to follow up Monday’s statement from the Government Front Bench and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to discuss RAAC. More than 50 schools in Essex are affected, and I begin by paying tribute to Essex County Council and its leadership: Councillor Kevin Bentley, Councillor Tony Ball and officers led by Claire Kershaw. They have been robust in their leadership and are doing so much to help parents, teachers and pupils. I should add that our council is working not just with local authority schools, but academy trusts too. They are not saying that it will help one school over another. They are stepping up to deal with the challenge and we are grateful to them.
I commend them for convening Essex MPs. Madam Deputy Speaker, my right hon. Friend Dame Eleanor Laing, has also raised concerns on behalf of her schools directly with the county council, as has the Minister for Skills, Apprenticeships and Higher Education, my right hon. Friend Robert Halfon. He has a school that is affected: Sir Frederick Gibberd College. We are working together because we believe in finding solutions. We are not interested in politicking at this time.
I want to thank parents and pupils in Essex for understanding the difficulties we are all facing. They have been inconvenienced by the RAAC issue, but it is important to point out that, certainly in my constituency, community groups and businesses have come forward to help find alternative provision and sites. I thank them too. The focus right now has to be on finding solutions to the immediate challenges we are facing, minimising disruption to learning, and ensuring affected pupils, parents and schools are supported. I do not think they are interested in political point scoring; they want answers and solutions.
I will use my time to put some questions to those on the Government Front Bench, and I know they will come back on them in due course. I welcome from the Minister the details of the steps that have been taken across Government to mobilise the strong operational—that is the whole point—delivery response we want. The Prime Minister gave an assurance earlier that all funding necessary will be provided, including capital and revenue. That is important because our county council is already liaising, co-ordinating and covering costs in the interim. It will be sending in an invoice, and we hope it will come to the Department for Education. The council will, of course, need to know when those costs will be met and who in the Department it will be liaising with, so I would like some assurances on that.
We have concerns about the impact on learning. I have raised—I raised it on Monday in this House—concerns around children with special needs, disabilities and vulnerabilities, and the impact of missed learning on parents, with difficulties around childcare. We are looking at finding practical solutions, so I would welcome any update from the Front Bench on that, too. We will need to think about how the impact, particularly on exams and Ofsted inspections, will be managed. It is inevitable, post pandemic, that we will see more Ofsted inspections locally—I know that from my own schools—but we have key year groups in exam years and we have to support them.
On temporary measures being put in place, all Members will be concerned about the pressures on the market and the demands for portable classrooms and facilities. The Secretary of State and I have already spoken about those demands and the potentially increased costs, so it would be helpful for the Government to give a supply update. Alongside the pressure of supply for temporary classrooms is the impact on the construction sector and extra insurance costs and premiums. Schools and the local authority will be looking at those issues and quality control measures.
This has already been touched on in the debate and over the past few days, but issues other than RAAC are affecting our schools, and I have raised them in the past, such as damp and old buildings that are worn out and need updating and replacing. Perhaps not today—this is an Opposition day debate—but we will need an update on what this all means for us going forward.
Finally, this is a difficult and challenging time for teachers, schools, pupils and parents. On behalf of all of those affected in the Witham constituency, Essex and the whole country, today is a chance for the Government to give an assurance that they will do everything possible to ensure that face-to-face education can come back for affected schools and that we are doing everything we can to support them.
Earlier today the Prime Minister said that he had acted decisively on RAAC. Earlier this week, the Secretary of State said that schools in which critical RAAC had been identified had been fixed immediately. As we have come to expect from this Government, neither of those statements are true. Critical RAAC was identified at St James Catholic Primary School in my constituency in June and action was not taken immediately—or, indeed, at all. It was told that it could open in part and then, as with many other schools, it received just 24 hours’ notice that it had to close in full.
Schools would not be in this position had the Government acted decisively. They have known RAAC was unsafe since 2018, and they could and should have taken action much earlier. Decades of cutting money from vital public services has literally left buildings crumbling and left our kids at risk, sitting in unsafe buildings. The Government’s decisions have left all our public services on their knees, not just our schools but crumbling hospitals and courts. It is not just the buildings: whole services have collapsed.
Staff, too, are being failed: workers in schools, the NHS and local government have all been left propping up services. Huge increases in workload, coupled with real-terms pay cuts, have also left public sector workers at the point of collapse. We know that the Government’s rhetoric on levelling up is yet more untruths and we know why: the Prime Minister boasting about moving money from poorer areas to richer areas, cutting tax on champagne, spending millions on new offices while our northern communities like Hebburn, Boldon, Jarrow and Gateshead in my constituency are left behind. It does not surprise me to see so many of my colleagues from the north-east present today.
Communities are neglected and left paying the price of Tory chaos while Ministers, their spouses and their cronies get richer. Conservative Members attempt to gaslight the country into believing that everything is okay, but despite their panto screaming during Prime Minister’s questions, they know the reality: that 13 years of Tory Governments has ruined our country. From the cost of living crisis and food and energy bills to our waters, schools and NHS, every part of our country is falling down.
The Secretary of State likes to keep saying that decisions were “nothing to do with me”, but the fact that our schools and the country are falling apart is absolutely down to the Government. At this moment, thousands of parents are petrified because of this crisis, while we have a Prime Minister and a Secretary of State with feet of clay. They need to accept that their time is up, and move aside so that the Labour party can start clearing up the mess that they have caused.
No Member of Parliament would dispute the crucial importance of safe and secure school premises—or indeed all vital premises, whether those are hospitals, courts or prisons—or the fact that they require adequate Government investment. Implicit in the Opposition motion, however, is an allegation that the Conservative Government have failed on education, and failed children more broadly, and that is a charge that I do not accept—nor, in fact, do some of Labour’s most revered figures. Philip Collins, writing in The Times on Monday, said:
“The core case for the government would be in education. Its emphasis on academic knowledge has been salutary.”
He goes on to say that the Conservative
“free school programme created productive experiments in school improvement.”
I can attest to that, because I sent my kids to a free school. He continues:
“The stress on phonics to teach reading”— introduced in 2010 by the Schools Minister—
“has worked. In 2012, 58 per cent of Year 1 pupils achieved the expected reading level. By 2019, that had risen to 82 per cent.”
Members must be familiar with this by now, but in this year’s progress in international reading literacy study, an international five-yearly assessment, the UK ranked fourth globally and first in the western world for child literacy. The proportion of schools rated good or outstanding by Ofsted has increased from two thirds in 2010, when we came to office, to 90% today. Time is limited, so I will not go on, but the fact is that the quality of children’s education has never been higher because of the reforms introduced by this Conservative Government.
Let me now deal with the issue of buildings. There were good aspects of Labour’s Building Schools for the Future programme. St Bartholomew’s School in my constituency was rebuilt as a result of that programme, and I give Labour credit for that. However, the private finance initiative programme was badly lacking. The National Audit Office noted that the building was a third more expensive than it needed to be, and that is not in dispute. The independent James review said in 2011 that Building Schools for the Future had been “time consuming” and
“had an approach that, with hindsight, was expensive and did not get to schools with the greatest need fast enough.”
Given the dire state of the public finances when we came to office, it was right to shelve that scheme. I know that that the note left by Liam Byrne, does the rounds on social media, and Labour Members will groan, but it still blows my mind that a senior member of the last Labour Government thought it was a joke that they had run down the public finances in that way. To them, the interests of the public were somehow derisory, and secondary to the primary objective of thumbing their nose at the incoming Conservative Government who had just won a general election.
I entirely disagree with the claim that the Conservatives have put nothing in place of that programme. In the three and a half years in which I have represented my constituency, a brilliant new primary school, Highwood Copse, has opened in the south of Newbury. Two more, Francis Baily Primary and Whiteland Park Primary in Thatcham, have received significant funds for badly needed overhauls. Three secondary schools, Trinity, Park House and Kennet, have also received significant funds; in fact, only one secondary school has not received money. John O’Gaunt, a secondary in Hungerford, was one of the 239 schools selected for funding from the Government’s £1.8 billion school rebuilding programme in September. I have watched school premises in my constituency improve significantly, so I know that the money is there.
Finally, I want to align myself with what was said by the Chair of the Education Committee, my hon. Friend Mr Walker. I know from working closely with my local headteachers that they need information and transparency. I respect the Secretary of State for taking a difficult decision in the light of information that became available, but I would also say that the information published today reveals a more positive picture than was first feared. More than 100 of the 156 schools affected—less than 0.5% of the total of 22,000 in the country—are already back in operation, and running face-to-face teaching. Only four are currently online. I do not like online teaching; it did not work very well for my kids. I understand from what the Prime Minister said that we are talking about a matter of days or weeks, so I ask the Secretary of State for transparency and a clear timeline for those schools.
The shadow Secretary of State for Education said that the symbol of 13 years of a Conservative Government was children cowering under concrete blocks, but the enduring image of 13 years of a Conservative Government is higher levels of academic excellence than have ever been achieved by any Government, and that would be impossible under anyone other than the Conservatives.
In the week of the first anniversary of a prime ministerial reign that was outlasted by a lettuce, we again see laid bare the staggering incompetence of this Conservative Government. Mortgage holders, private renters and those looking to get on the housing ladder bore the brunt of that debacle; this time it is children, parents and teachers who are paying the price for the Government’s failures—and failures do not get much bigger than this.
The Prime Minister’s decision to slash the number of schools to be rebuilt, reportedly against the advice of officials, has left classrooms up and down the country unsafe to learn in. Taxes on many parents have never been higher; it is not unreasonable for them to expect that their children could go to a school that was not at risk of crumbling around them, yet the Conservatives seemingly disagree with that not especially lofty aspiration. They want my constituents to thank them for doing a good job as vital public services are quite literally run into the ground.
My experience of the Conservatives’ school shambles came at quarter to 5 last Friday, when I received a letter from the same Secretary of State who wants to be patted on the back for doing a good job because she knows where the affected settings are. In that letter, she advised me that an education provider with many sites across Greater Manchester had a confirmed case of RAAC at its site in my constituency. Assuming an error, as I was previously unaware of any issues, I called the MPs’ hotline to confirm whether the affected site was indeed in my constituency. The adviser was adamant that it was, despite my protestations. It was only when I spoke to the principal of the site in my constituency that it became clear that the site was completely fine, and that there was no RAAC involved at all.
The Secretary of State is nodding. The site referred to was 15 miles away in another constituency and was a different part of the same group. For this to happen once would be bad, but for it to happen twice in the same letter—this is a comedy of errors from a Secretary of State who supposedly knows where the affected buildings are—is deeply concerning. Of the four schools that I was notified were at risk from RAAC, one is not even in my constituency. This is just a glimpse of the chaos and incompetence that has characterised the past week. If the Secretary of State is leaning into her knowledge of where the problems are as an example of her efficacy, I suggest that she rethinks her strategy.
Countless schools are now in limbo, with headteachers being told that they have suspected issues with RAAC but will have to wait weeks for a survey to confirm it. What a horrible position to put school leaders in. Should they tell parents about suspected RAAC issues and risk causing unnecessary panic, or should they say nothing to parents about their children learning in a potentially unsafe building? Had the Conservatives not cancelled Labour’s school rebuilding programme in 2010, every secondary school building in England would have been significantly refurbished or rebuilt by 2020. Instead, the defining image of this Government will be children sitting in unfit buildings, worried that the ceilings could literally crumble above them.
If the Conservatives want any credibility on education, they should vote with Labour today to release the documents showing what the Prime Minister knew, when he was Chancellor, about the risks posed to children from RAAC before he slashed school rebuilding programmes in 2021, and when he knew it. For Members who think that parents, children and school staff deserve answers on who is responsible for this mess and have a right to know the true scale of this crisis, there is only one way to vote today, and that is to support this motion.
It is a pleasure to contribute to this debate. I have a school in my constituency that is affected by RAAC, Wood Green Academy, and I pay tribute to James Topham, its headteacher, who has done a fantastic job of swinging into action by staggering start times and ensuring, as best as possible, that education can continue. I thank my right hon. Friend the Minister for Schools for working with me over the weekend and in the early part of this week to address that situation. I know his officials have followed the issue closely and will continue to do so.
The frustration for Wood Green Academy is that its two affected blocks house specialist classrooms for design and technology, and for other important, specialist parts of the curriculum that we need to support, particularly in my constituency, to ensure the participation of students. I pay tribute to the school for its work to minimise disruption.
In listening to this debate, it has been nice to hear that the Opposition finally remember where Wednesbury is. For the benefit of Labour Members, it is about 12 miles from Birmingham, which is the council they bankrupted yesterday. Wednesbury is in Sandwell, where the council was put into special measures because there was a lack of transparency and borderline corruption in the way that Labour was running the authority. Wednesbury is also about 40 miles from Stoke-on-Trent, which has just said it has gone bankrupt, too. I will not take lectures from Labour Members on chaos.
We need to look at the bigger picture. My hon. Friend Laura Farris gave a fantastic speech, and I pay tribute to the measured way in which she tackled this issue. The issue of funding has been at the heart of some of the Opposition’s lines today, but the shame and scandal of Labour’s PFI programme continues to haunt my community. I hope that when the Minister sums up, he will confirm that if schools with PFI contracts are impacted in any way by the need for emergency remediation, we will consider ways to resolve the issues caused.
One of my headteachers has had to choose between buying books and paying £20,000 to get the grass cut—that is the legacy of Labour’s school building programme, and this is in the most deprived community possible. Labour Members sit there and they gaslight, with this arrogance that winds up the communities I represent. All they have done is turn their back on those communities; it is as simple as that. Every single Labour Member should apologise for the legacy of PFI, because it is scandalous—absolutely scandalous. Once again, it is my constituents who will have to suffer for half a century because them lot decided to play fast and loose, however they wished. It is absolutely outrageous.
We have to look to the future, and the truth is that Government funding, particularly in my constituency, has been quite generous. Last year, there were announcements of condition improvement funding for Silvertrees Academy and Ocker Hill Academy, both in Tipton, in some of the most deprived and needy parts of my community. We have also seen a 28% cash increase in the basic needs allowance for 2022-23. To say that there has been a slashing of funding and capital investment is a narrative that my communities simply do not recognise.
The technical points of the motion are important. As I said when we debated a similar motion earlier this year, the House has mechanisms that we can use to allow for the scrutiny that the motion suggests. My hon. Friend Mr Walker, the Chair of the Select Committee, is no longer here, but he touched on that. As the Secretary of State said, and as former Ministers know, although I am unfortunately not one of them, it is important that Ministers be able to take discreet advice from their officials, so that they can make the right decisions without fear that officials who cannot stand up for themselves will be put at the forefront of scrutiny. I cannot support the motion, because it undermines a process that Labour Members used themselves when they were in government—please help us if that ever happens again. I find it hilarious that they think that the motion proposes a viable process that would not set a precedent in any way, shape or form.
Let me get to the heart of this: we need transparency. I thank my right hon. Friend the Minister for Schools for the work that he has done. We clearly have to look at the matter from an operational point of view, and at the core of it is making sure that children get the education they deserve.
I support the motion, which stands in the names of my hon. Friend Bridget Phillipson and the Leader of the Opposition. It is interesting to follow Shaun Bailey. May I just correct him by saying that PFI was started by the Conservative Major Government?
As pupils, parents and teachers were preparing for a new school term last week and this week, they were met with horrifying news that threw into question whether their schools were safe to go into. Headteachers were left scrambling around over the weekend to arrange new sites and portacabins, or, worse, telling parents that their children were not to come into school this week.
I will not give way, as I know there are quite a few people to speak.
Schools have been rushing to book surveys to find out whether they have RAAC. This is a week when parents should be filled with joy and excitement about a new year, taking photos of their year 7s in their new uniform, not worrying about how to find holiday childcare for another week—or two weeks, who knows?
This situation did not happen by accident. Conservative Members like to pretend that the past 13 years were a fever dream, but this crisis stems primarily from the decision made in 2010 to cancel Labour’s Building Schools for the Future scheme. It was a massive and historic programme of investment. That investment would have benefited schools in my constituency and across England: schools that had RAAC; schools that have asbestos; and schools that had had little serious investment over the previous 18 years of Conservative government prior to 1997. In 2010, the Conservatives cancelled that programme because they do not know the value of investment or the role of public services, and did not care about the condition of our schools. The Prime Minister is so out of touch with the country that he struggles to use a contactless card machine. What hope do we have that he might really understand UK state schools?
When the Prime Minister was Chancellor, he made the decision to block extra funding to the Department for Education—funding that would have gone towards fixing, repairing and improving our school estate. One of the most senior civil servants in that Department even admitted that funding for school buildings was blocked because the Government wanted to push more towards free schools. For example, that involved paying £11.25 million of taxpayers’ money—way overpaying—for a former sports facility on old metropolitan open land in Osterley. Once again, the Conservative ideology trumps value for money and public safety.
We live in a country where ambulances do not turn up, the police have to be ordered to investigate crime and school buildings now face collapse. Thirteen long years of Conservative rule have utterly ruined our public services. There is no more fitting legacy than the fact that the public realm is literally collapsing in front of us. The letter I received from the DFE on Monday says that
“there is nothing more important than the safety of children, young people, and staff in education settings”.
Even if that were the view of officials within the DFE, it clearly was not the view of the Prime Minister, who was Chancellor in 2021 when the Government knew about this problem—indeed, there had been warnings long before that. If the Government really thought that there was nothing more important than the safety of children, young people and staff in education settings, why are schools collapsing and why are children being told to say at home this week?
Hon. Members have a choice today: they can vote with Labour and give parents the right to know who is responsible for this mess, or they can vote to conceal the true scale of the crisis and the Prime Minister’s failure to keep our children safe.
I am grateful for the chance to speak in the debate, following the statement made by the Secretary of State for Education earlier this week.
I draw the attention of colleagues on both sides of the House to the speech made by my hon. Friend Laura Farris—this is bad timing on my part, as she is just leaving the Chamber—about the legacy of this Government on education, which is something to be proud of. I will not use my time to repeat her points, but when I post on my Facebook page later, I will add a link to her speech so that all my constituents can see it too.
In 13 years of Conservative government, standards have gone through the roof. My right hon. Friend the Schools Minister and others in government should be proud of that and trumpet it at every possible opportunity. I can point to recent examples in my own constituency, including Queen Elizabeth’s Academy, Oak Tree Primary School and Vision West Nottinghamshire College, that have gone through difficult times in terms of quality but are rated “good”, some for the first time ever, because of incredible amounts of local work and a drive for higher standards and better opportunities for kids in my constituency from this Government. No one should let anybody tell them that the Conservatives do not care about kids, education or schools because that is demonstrably nonsense.
In the debate, Labour Members have been asking for information that they would never release themselves. If the shoe were on the other foot, they would never allow that to happen and they would vote against such a motion. They know perfectly well that there has to be the ability to have a confidential conversation behind the scenes when budgets are set, because otherwise no ideas would ever come forward and no plans would ever be made. The Government are releasing information about schools in England, which is being published today, but that cannot be done for schools in Wales because Labour-run Wales does not have that information, as work to mitigate the challenge has not been done.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State had very little choice last week when she made the decision. There is no choice about when expert advice comes forward and changes the balance of risk. She had to take a risk averse, safety-first approach. That was absolutely the right thing to do. The immediate response has been very good. I felt her frustration yesterday, because this work has not just happened in the last week but has been going on for years. The Department for Education took a decision, identified the schools, supported those schools and committed the funds to tackle the problem. That happened fairly quickly and the outcome, as my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury said, is that fewer schools are affected than was originally thought last week. That is something of a success.
The history of the issue goes back several years. The idea raised by Opposition Members that the problem emerged only last week or in 2022 is nonsense. I am the leader of a county council, the responsible body for maintained schools in my constituency and around it. We have been doing survey work with the DFE since 2018-19, so it has been ongoing for a long time. There have been local and national condition improvement funds to work on the quality of those schools in that time. As a result, when the announcement was made last week, we had very good data and information to be able to tackle the situation quickly.
The sum total of affected schools in Nottinghamshire—there are no affected schools in my constituency—is one primary school being delayed in its return by a couple of days. That is not an accident; it has happened because a lot of work, funding and support has gone in over a long period of time. In places where that has not happened, the DFE stepped in directly in 2022, which was a good and responsible thing to do. I pay tribute to the work of colleagues in the Department and in my own council who have managed this well over a number of years. We have a local £9-million school condition improvement fund of our own and four schools in my constituency are being rebuilt. These are all good news stories for schools, not just because of the quality of education I have described, but for school buildings in my constituency and around it.
The level of building—500 new schools over a decade—is consistent with any programme in recent decades. The numbers under the programme that Labour Members are lauding ended up being something like 25 or 30 fewer than that. They never reached the target they said they were going to reach—shock, horror! This problem was an issue back in 1997 to 2010, but it was never mentioned at any point. They tell us now that if they had been in government, they would have used their psychic powers to figure out the problem before the experts did and would have tackled it well in advance. Of course we know that that is not true or possible.
The biggest concern I want to raise is about reassurance. I have heard three times from Opposition Members that schools are literally falling down around our children—name one, because they are not. Each time I hear that, I am reminded that I will be getting emails from my constituents saying, “I am worried about my kids’ safety in their school,” when no schools are affected in my constituency, they do not need to worry and those kids have all gone back—every single one—safely to school this week. That fearmongering and rhetoric is irresponsible. Parents will be unnecessarily worried about the condition of their kids’ school when I know, for all the reasons I have described, that we have managed this well over a number of years and it is not an issue in my constituency. I urge hon. Members to think long and hard before they put that unnecessary stress on parents who are already finding this difficult.
Today’s debate will mean a lot to my constituents, many of whom have been thrown into disarray because of this avoidable scandal. How Tory Back Benchers vote this afternoon will show those constituents just whose side they are on: the side of parents, teachers and pupils, or the side of this rotten Government who need to go.
My constituents want two things today. First, they want Ministers to know exactly what they had to go through when St Leonard’s Catholic School in my constituency was ordered to close last Friday. Secondly, they want to know what the Government are doing for them and their children, so that this crisis does not become a disaster.
I mentioned in my contribution on Monday that the closure of St Leonard’s caused real difficulty and distress for my constituents. They understand that this is not the fault of St Leonard’s, which, by the way, had lobbied the Schools Minister in the coalition years about its crumbling school, but they do know that this is the fault of Conservative Ministers past and present.
On Friday, at the last minute, childcare and work had to be rearranged, all against a backdrop of austerity and the cost of living crisis. One of my constituents could not afford to take time off work, so they had to ask their parent to take time off to look after their child. Parents have told me that this has caused their children anxiety and frustration—children who have already been through so much because of the disruption of the pandemic. Parents have also written to me to express how horrified they are that they have been sending their children to an unsafe school. They are perplexed about why the school could not have closed earlier—after all, RAAC was identified in the spring and we have had an entire school holiday to repair this mess.
Parents and children alike are extremely concerned by the effect that this situation may have on GCSE results. There is already a grade attainment gap due to inequality between the north-east and the rest of the country—something my constituents know all too well—which further compounds their anxiety.
I should say, Madam Deputy Speaker, that I have heard more practical ideas from my constituents than I have from Ministers or the local council, which has been absent throughout this crisis. Even in a time of great stress, parents are thinking of ways to help their children and their children’s friends, as is Durham University, which has been of great assistance to my office since last Friday. The same cannot be said of Ministers, who are more concerned with inter-departmental arguments between No. 10 and the Department for Education.
The Education Secretary told me on Monday that there would be financial support for St Leonard’s, but will support also be offered to the parents and pupils who have been affected? Will additional travel costs be reimbursed? Will the Department meet extra staff costs? Will the Department meet all the capital costs, or will St Leonard’s be expected to pay? And will the Education Secretary return to the House next week to outline a support package? I am mainly thinking of those parents of children with special educational needs, as well as children on free school meals. A teacher at St Leonard’s has told me that they are most concerned about the impact on those children from vulnerable backgrounds, for whom school is a safe haven.
Conservative Members must do the right and honourable thing this afternoon and join us in the Lobby. If they do not, they will have no right to ever say that they are on the side of hard-working parents, pupils or teachers.
The education of the next generation is an issue that is close to my heart, as is the case for Members across the House—on that we can agree this afternoon. It is our duty to ensure that children can study with minimal disruptions. I strongly support the measures that the Secretary of State has taken to address the issue of RAAC in schools throughout England.
I wish to highlight three of those measures. The first is that the Government have acted quickly to issue guidance to schools on how to manage the risks associated with RAAC, which is in sharp contrast to what the Welsh Government have done. In 2018, the Department for Education published guidance for schools about the need to have adequate contingencies if they had RAAC. It initiated its survey of the schools estate for RAAC in March 2022 and updated the guidance in light of new evidence last month.
The second point that I will make is that the UK Government will ensure that schools have the funding that they need so that teachers can focus on getting students back to school, and so that students are safe. The Chancellor and the Prime Minister have confirmed that the Government will spend what it takes to address the problem as quickly as possible so that children can go to school safely.
The third point that I will emphasise is that the Government are ensuring that the majority of schools affected by RAAC remain open for face-to-face teaching, minimising the disruption to students’ learning. By supporting schools to put mitigations in place, the Government have helped the majority of schools to remain open for face-to-face teaching, ensuring that disruption to pupils in affected schools is minimised. In contrast, the Opposition are playing politics and refusing to take responsibility for their failings in Government. They failed to address issues with RAAC, despite warnings about the problems in 1997, 1999, 2002 and 2007 from the Building Research Establishment and the Standing Committee on Structural Safety.
Finally, as a Welsh MP for Clwyd South I make no apology for commenting on the situation in Wales. I note that no Welsh MPs have taken part in the debate or been present on the Opposition Benches this afternoon. The Welsh Government have taken their eye off the ball, relying on councils to do the work that the UK Conservative Government are leading on in England. As I said in my earlier intervention, the Welsh Government ordered surveys only in May 2023; the UK Government started engaging with schools in March 2022. Where is the accountability? Where is the responsibility?
That lack of preparation work means that school surveys in Wales will not be completed until December this year. Education has been devolved to Wales for 26 years. Labour is in charge of schools in Wales, so building safety is its responsibility. The Welsh Government receive £1.20 for every £1 spent on education in England, but in 2019 the independent Auditor General for Wales discovered that only £1.05 reaches the classroom. Labour prioritises its vanity projects, such as a new blanket 20 mph speed limit, costing the economy £4.5 billion, and introducing legislation for more politicians in the Welsh Parliament, but it has cut the education budget in Wales in real terms this year. The Welsh Government’s approach to RAAC shows a woeful lack of responsibility by the Labour party in Wales, of which they and those on the Opposition Benches should be deeply ashamed.
A couple of people have dropped out, which gives us a little more time. I will remove the time limit for a bit and see how we go. I may have to reinstate it, but a little more time is available.
While it is welcome that it has been reported today that RAAC has not been found in any of our schools in Salford, I must stress that the fact that the Government were unable to produce that information until today, having known about the risk since at least 2018, when a school roof in Kent collapsed, is completely unacceptable.
I am glad that Salford has no schools with RAAC problems, but in Bolton we found out on Friday that St William of York, St Andrew’s Church of England and St Bernard’s were affected. St Bernard’s was not even on any list, and St Gregory’s is still awaiting the result. Do you agree that the Government should publish the full list, not the half-baked one that they published this afternoon?
I completely agree with my constituency neighbour. I stress that not just schools are affected by this crisis; it extends to public buildings, and concerns have been raised in recent days by the building industry that certain residential properties, particularly social housing, could also be affected. On hospitals alone, a report by the National Audit Office in July this year said that structurally unsound RAAC was present in at least 41 hospitals. The Turnberg building at Salford Royal Hospital is reported to be one of them.
Despite this clear national building safety crisis, there is no detail from Government on what action will or will not be taken, no detail on the urgent funding and support that will be provided to remediate and no assurances so far that the costs will not come out of existing school, NHS and local authority budgets. Worse still, there appears to be an emerging message today from Government that this crisis is stand-alone—that it is simply a sad indictment of less-regulated old building practices that are now outdated.
That is not the true story. The real culprit here is the unashamed pursuit of austerity by this Government and the coalition before them. Let us not forget that, to start with, the coalition ripped up Labour’s Building Schools for the Future programme in 2010 and never adequately replaced it. Worse still, between 2009 and 2022 the Department for Education’s capital spending declined by 37% in cash terms and 50% in real terms. That is in addition to NHS and local authority budgets being slashed on a similar basis, with the effect that most ongoing public sector estate upgrade programmes were torn to shreds.
Sadly, as the Institute for Fiscal Studies states:
“The current crisis illustrates just how costly failing to keep on top of necessary investment in buildings and infrastructure can be.”
How much money was actually required, had the Government taken action on schools when it should have? The National Audit Office in 2017 published a report on capital spending that stated that it would cost £6.7 billion to return all schools to a satisfactory or better condition. That report was also clear that there is a significant risk of major costs arising from deterioration of the estate.
Action was needed in 2017, but in November 2020, in the Government spending review, they allocated only £3.1 billion—less than half the amount of investment required just to keep buildings ticking over safely. Then the story becomes even more absurd: in March 2022, realising that there was a problem, the Department for Education sent a questionnaire to all schools asking if they had RAAC on their estate, but later told schools not to spend any money on surveys to find out.
Even after that, in May 2022, when Government documents were leaked to The Observer showing that school buildings could be a risk to life—causing great alarm in schools up and down the country—half the schools then applied for funding to remediate and did not get a penny from Government. In June 2023, the National Audit Office said the condition of school buildings was “declining” and warned that 700,000 pupils were learning in buildings that it described as unsafe or ageing. It stated clearly that the DfE had received significantly less funding for school buildings than it estimated it needed between 2016 and 2023.
The Government knew that this crisis was coming, and the causes of this crisis were very deliberate. Austerity is, was and always will be a political choice, but it is both immoral and economically illiterate. The only political choice the Government should have made was to ensure the safety of their people. Sadly, if they had made that choice, the cost borne then would be a mere shadow of the cost required today.
It is a pleasure to follow Rebecca Long Bailey, my fellow Science, Innovation and Technology Committee member.
We began this debate with a bit of a lecture from the shadow Education Secretary, who presumed to tell us what the nature of government was. Government involves difficult decisions; it involves responding to events, but it also involves living within our means and prioritising the safety of the people we represent—in particular that of children. As other hon. Members have said in this debate, I honestly believe the Education Secretary had no other option: when the risk assessment changed, as a result of things that happened just in August, she took a rapid, proactive and very precautionary decision to make sure we addressed it in the most appropriate way possible. She demonstrated the wisdom of that approach in the responses she gave Members on both sides of the House during her statement on Monday.
When Labour is in charge of things, it does not always take that approach; it fails on all the things that I have mentioned. Labour fails in places such as Birmingham, where it has run out of money, and in neighbouring Stoke-on-Trent, which looks like it will go bankrupt as well; it has clobbered people with taxes in places such as London, where the Mayor and his ultra low emission zone are epically unpopular with voters and the hard-working families who have to pay that cost; and, of course, on this particular issue, Labour fails in Wales, where it has had its head in the sand.
I have looked at the BBC list of all the affected schools in England, Scotland and Wales. For Wales, there is a link to one article that says that only two affected schools were found, both in Anglesey. Well, in a construction scandal that has affected countries across the world, with all the buildings built with RAAC over the years, if there are only two in the whole of the Welsh education establishment, I will eat my hat. Two have been found in Anglesey, but Labour needs to get its fingers out and start finding the others as soon as possible.
Instead, the shadow Education Secretary indulges in the luxury of opposition. What have Labour Members focused on since this story broke? They want the list. Why do they want the list? They want to scaremonger and whip up a media storm about it. My hon. Friend Anna Firth, who is no longer in her place, mentioned on Monday a special school in her constituency. The name of that school got into the press—presumably the local press—and the school was then mobbed by national media. That is presumably what Labour wants to happen in all cases.
One school in my constituency, Sir Thomas Boughey Academy in Halmer End, is on the list. That school is very instructive on why we are right to have taken the course that we have, because it has been proactive and, working with the dedicated caseworker provided by the DfE, has explained things to parents. In fact, the school has already taken much of the required action to repair the hall, classrooms and roof constructions in which it found RAAC. There is currently a small amount left in a boiler room, but it is being removed and the room has been made safe. That school is able to be open today with face-to-face teaching in all classrooms and no restrictions. Only that boiler room still has RAAC because the school took proactive action, and that shows the value of the work that the English Government—the UK Government—have been doing in getting that surveying ahead of time. That is not happening in Wales because Labour has not done the work.
We are proud of our record on education, and my hon. Friend Laura Farris spoke powerfully about that. Outputs matter most, but on inputs, we are providing record funding in real terms, with a schools budget of nearly £60 billion next year. We have record numbers of teachers—468,000—and a teacher’s starting salary is now an extremely competitive £30,000, delivering on a pledge that the Government made. On top of that, we are spending £181 million on initial teacher training incentives to get people into the areas in which we need to see more teachers, including maths and science. We on the Science and Technology Committee conducted an inquiry on diversity in science, technology, engineering and maths, and we considered the need for better teaching in science, particularly for girls. We are delivering that through teacher training incentives.
Outputs are more important, and our record is absolutely outstanding: 88% of schools are rated “good” or “outstanding” compared with the 68% figure that we inherited from the Labour party in 2010. An English 18-year-old from a disadvantaged background is now 86% more likely to go to university than they were a decade ago—I represent a number of disadvantaged communities—and I am proud of that record. Many of those people go to Keele University in my constituency.
Phonics is the absolute epic success story of this period of Conservative Government. I pay tribute to the Minister for Schools, my right hon. Friend Nick Gibb, who is sat on the Treasury Bench. Our primary children are now the best in the western world at reading. We have rocketed up the league tables not just for reading and literacy, but for maths. We are proud of our record here in England. Sadly, the Scottish education system is not as good. By delivering what we have through phonics, we are giving children the best possible tools to succeed in a world in which they will need more and more of those tools.
In all honesty, given the amount of money that was available to Labour during the boom times for the City in the 1997-2010 Parliaments—of course, it then famously ran out—it should be ashamed of its record. Not only did Labour not deliver the Building Schools for the Future programme, about which Labour Members have spoken many times today, but it was a costly and slow scheme that did not deliver what it promised. More than that, Labour failed on outputs. It left children unable to read or write. We have put that right in our time in government.
I am very proud of what we have done on education. I think that we have reacted in a responsible way to the RAAC situation. As I said on Monday, I recognise that the timing is terrible. I pay tribute to Mrs Hingley and her staff at Sir Thomas Boughey Academy for what they have done to ensure that their school, like so many others on the list, remains open for full face-to-face teaching today. It is not the case that children are cowering in classrooms, which was an appalling thing for the shadow Education Secretary to say. What they are doing is learning, which is what they should be doing.
It is a privilege to have the opportunity to contribute to this debate, but I must say that I am particularly disappointed by the tone with which it has started. This is a very serious issue: there are a high number of concerned parents and teachers and headteachers who work in those buildings, and obviously, their primary concern is the children.
I would specifically point out the selective interpretation and opportunism shown by Labour Members, because they only have to look the other side of Offa’s Dyke or the Prince of Wales Bridge to see what is happening in Wales. They forget that Labour has been in power in Wales for 26 years—if that has not been sufficient time to reform education and rebuild these buildings, I do not know how long they will need. Let us remember that education in Wales is entirely devolved. That gives the Administration the freedom to survey, assess and repair buildings, and rebuild them where necessary. Labour has been in power for 26 years, but the reality is that we still do not know the state of the buildings in Wales. That is the truth of the Labour Administration.
The synthetic anger we have heard from the Labour Benches has created an awful lot of hot air, but I can direct exactly the same questions and accusations at the Administration in Wales. They have been there for 26 years, but we still do not know. Can we imagine the synthetic anger that we would hear from Labour Front Benchers, and Back Benchers, if the Secretary of State or the Minister said today, “I am sorry, but we still do not know; it is going to take another couple of weeks”? There would be understandable outrage, but Labour Members are completely ignoring the situation and the state of the education service in Wales.
The right hon. Gentleman is talking about Wales. Speaking as an English MP, the BBC is reporting that at least 13 schools with RAAC were set to be rebuilt under a Labour plan, but those building projects were scrapped by the Conservative-led Government in 2010. The former Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, said that he scrapped that scheme because he did not want to “waste any more money”, and work on 700 schools was halted. Does the right hon. Gentleman not agree that that was an appalling thing for him to do?
With the greatest respect to the hon. Lady, I am not sure whether she is referring to Wales or to England. The point I am making is that Labour has been in power in Wales for 26 years. Two schools have been identified as having RAAC issues, but we simply do not know about the rest. There would be understandable anger and frustration if the Secretary of State or the Minister dared to come out with that response.
No Welsh Labour MP has participated in this debate, and up until now, none has even been present in the Chamber. Let us remember that the former First Minister in Wales said in relation to education that the Welsh Administration had taken their “eye off the ball”. I do not think their eye has ever been replaced on the ball, bearing in mind the standards in Wales.
Many colleagues on the Conservative Benches have listed a whole host of education outcomes and uplifts—my hon. Friend Aaron Bell just went through a whole host of successes, and other colleagues have mentioned the number of good, excellent and outstanding schools here in England—but sadly, my constituents do not get the same benefits. Any international comparison, be it the programme for international student assessment or any other, shows that Wales has fallen back in comparison with England.
The Opposition day motion is opportunistic, as we have already highlighted, but let us at least humour it for a moment. When Catherine McKinnell responds for Labour, will she assure me that if my colleagues in the Welsh Senedd table this motion, Labour Members will support it? Exactly the same questions apply in Wales as in England, so I ask her to respond specifically to that question. I will happily give way if any Labour Front Benchers want to intervene now, but I notice that they are all keeping their heads down. They are frightened; I suggest that they are embarrassed to look at me, and to respond to the questions that we are raising.
The investigation started in England 18 months ago, and it started at a much later point in Wales. The reality is that we still do not know the outcome, and we have two weeks left to wait. I can imagine the anger that would be felt by Labour Members if that position was shared by my right hon. Friend the Minister. However, let us be realistic about this: new evidence comes to light and therefore new decisions need to be taken, and that is exactly what has happened in this situation. There is a whole host of Ministers, officials, teachers and parents co-ordinating efforts to make a real difference and get through this immediate challenge, much of which will be very short-term. This has been a long-standing problem, and there is a need for a whole host of quick decisions to be taken, as well as for transparency and for clarity.
Let me close my contribution with the comments of the Children’s Commissioner for Wales. This is not from any party political person, but from an independent individual appointed by the Welsh Government. She has said that the statements issued by the Welsh Government Minister so far
“don’t give families the clarity they need on what this means for them or the next steps for their school”, and on
“what exactly will happen over the next few weeks and reassurance that schools are safe.”
That is from the Children’s Commissioner for Wales, appointed with statutory responsibility to protect the interests of children, and even she has lost faith in the decision making, transparency and clarity of the Welsh Government.
Finally, will the shadow Minister reassure me that, if my friends or colleagues in the Senedd table this motion, Labour Members will support it?
I rise to speak in this debate because I suspect I have mentioned RAAC on the Floor of the House more times than most since I was elected. Indeed, I have been banging on about this issue since my maiden speech three and a half years ago.
My focus has been on RAAC in the health sector and hospitals, particularly the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in King’s Lynn. Unfortunately, it happens to be the most propped hospital in the country. It has many thousands of steel and timber support props in place, and they are there to keep the staff and patients safe. That failsafe work has been funded by the Government at a cost of tens of millions of pounds, as it has been in other hospitals. That demonstrates a commitment to address RAAC issues in hospitals, as well as across the education sector, other parts of the public sector and public buildings.
I am delighted that the Health Secretary announced in May that the Queen Elizabeth Hospital and the other RAAC hospitals would be added to the new hospitals building programme, the biggest hospital building programme in history, and we will have a new hospital in King’s Lynn by 2030. That really underlines the commitment of this Government to dealing with RAAC. I have discussed this directly with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister on a number of occasions, as well as with his advisers and many Ministers.
Ironically, given the issues I have had locally in the NHS, I have not been notified so far of any issues of schools being affected in my constituency of North West Norfolk. When recent events occurred Ministers responded rapidly, and that has caused concern for pupils, parents and teachers, not least given the timing, which was not of course in the Minister’s gift. I understand that concern well from my local hospital. Working around props and other support measures brings many challenges for staff and patients, as it will for teachers and pupils. Having had the new advice, work is now under way in schools to ensure that they remain safe spaces for children to learn and for staff to work. Other Members have attested to the rapid nature of the support provided by my right hon. Friend the Minister as well as by Baroness Barran and others in the Department.
In Norfolk, my hon. Friend George Freeman has an affected school. I know that he is supporting it to manage the issue, working closely with the Department for Education. As it and other schools across the country do that, it is right that the Chancellor has committed to spend whatever it takes to address these issues and to keep pupils safe.
We heard earlier during Prime Minister’s questions about the increased spending that he approved for maintenance in the education budget in his previous role. I welcome that, and I welcome the extra £2 billion funding this year and next, given the pressure that schools are facing. That is vital to continue the major improvements that we have seen in literacy and other standards through our reforms, which my hon. Friend Laura Farris set out so ably. I also declare an interest as a governor of a school that is part of the school rebuilding programme—a programme that will deliver 500 new schools as well as dealing with maintenance and backlog issues.
I hope that the considerable expertise that exists in the Department of Health and Social Care, the NHS, other parts of Government, and externally, is being shared and made available to schools, advisers and local authorities, as well as co-ordinated through the Cabinet Office, so that other potentially affected sectors, such as our prisons estate and courts, also benefit from it.
Of course pupils, staff and parents at affected schools are concerned, and it is important that we tackle these issues in a serious and considered manner, and not by using some of the alarmist language we have heard today that will just create unnecessary concern. I know from issues that my hospital has faced—I am a regular visitor, talking to staff—how important it is for the confidence of staff and patients that we do this in a measured and responsible way, learning from what we know about RAAC in the NHS and elsewhere, and how we have secured it. School leaders will always put the safety of their pupils first. We should ensure that they have all the support and resources they need to do that, and that is what this Government are doing.
It is only day three of a new term, yet once again we find ourselves in the position of having an Opposition day debate on an incredibly important subject that is pure politicking from the Labour party. We have not heard anything new, other than what we heard at the beginning of the week when we devoted an hour and a half to a mature and sensible debate on this matter. I would have hoped that Labour Members would have spent the long summer recess reflecting that so often these debates make things worse, not better, because they frighten the public and spread confusion and misinformation. Sadly that has not been the case, and once again, today we have heard point scoring, misinformation and scaremongering.
I believe what the public want and deserve at this point is a responsible sense of risk and proportion about this problem. We know that 156 schools have been affected by RAAC, 52 of which—one third—already have mitigation measures in place. Only 104 schools were informed this week, which is under 0.5% of the 22,500 schools across the country. Some have been closed as a precaution, including one in my constituency that I will come on to talk about. The vast majority of schools in our country are not closed, and even some of those with RAAC have not been closed in their entirety. The majority are expected to open next week.
Unlike Labour Members, I wholeheartedly applaud this Government for putting the interests of pupils, families and staff first. The absolute last thing we could possibly want is for a disaster to happen in any one of our schools, but we should not be spreading fear or exaggerating the scale of this problem. It is recklessly irresponsible to scare children by suggesting that their schools are not safe, when they overwhelmingly are—99% of schools in this country are safe, and children have gone back and are learning in them.
Over the past 13 years, this Conservative Government have invested in their schools and school buildings. We have invested £28 billion since 2010. We have invested £15 billion since 2015, to improve the safety of our schools, with priority given to those with potential safety issues. Of course we are committed to go further than that, and as a member of the Education Committee, I have a strong focus on this area. According to the Commons Library, estimated capital spending in our schools for the past financial year—2022-23—is around £6.4 billion. That is a 29% real-terms increase compared with the year before. We are also undertaking a huge rebuilding and refurbishment programme to improve over 400 of our schools, including Blenheim Primary School in Southend, which very much welcomes being part of this programme. I am looking forward to seeing spades going into the ground. If I may, I remind the Schools Minister that he would be welcome to come to Blenheim Primary School to see that new refurbishment taking place.
Let us compare our record with Labour’s record in government. Its Building Schools for the Future programme was slow, costly and substandard. That is an apt description, I would say, of the entire last Labour Government. In 2006, the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment found that half the schools built by Labour were architecturally substandard, with a mere 4% being excellent. We need to understand not only exactly why RAAC was used in schools but, more importantly, how we can avoid anything like this happening in the future. We need to ask whether all the money that we are spending on remediation measures would not perhaps be spent more sensibly on rebuilding programmes. There is a range of things we need to look at, and that is why I called yesterday for a special session of the Education Committee looking into this issue. The point of that session is to learn and scrutinise, not to point fingers as the Labour party is seeking to do today.
In Essex, we are disproportionately affected by RAAC because we had such an extensive school building programme in the 1950s and 1960s. Sadly, in my constituency, the brilliant Kingsdown School is closed this week after RAAC was found in some of its buildings. Kingsdown School is the only special school in the country that has this problem, so the House will forgive me for dwelling on its issues in particular. It is waiting for three things. The first is the result of a risk assessment. The inspectors appropriately went in very quickly last week, but the school needs the results of that risk assessment if it is to open next week. It also needs emergency equipment in the form of portaloos, demountable classrooms and a portable staff room. Those things have been promised, and the sooner they are delivered, the better. The third thing is remediation measures, because these plans are short-term and the children in the school are among the most disabled, physically and mentally, in Southend, if not the south-east. This is a special school where some of the children need special feeding equipment or a special temperature. There are hoists everywhere. This is not a normal school, and these remediation measures are vital. It is a special school, and I make no apologies for arguing that it should be a special case.
I finish by applauding the work of the headmistress, Louise Robinson, who has been working around the clock along with Conservative-controlled Southend-on-Sea City Council; Councillor Helen Boyd, the cabinet member there; and Liz Hunt. They have been working hard to get things moving. The only thing that has not been helpful at all has been the press attention on this special school. The headmistress told me that she cannot pick up the telephone because the press are focusing on this school. That is appalling when one considers how anxious the parents and children must be. It is a completely inappropriate intrusion. I finish by reminding the Labour party that by calling today’s debate—
This is a concerning issue, and the amount of politicking and scaremongering of parents, teachers and pupils that the Opposition do on it worries me. Many schools and public buildings built with RAAC are characteristic of the brutalist style of architecture favoured between the ’50s and ’70s. The buildings were cheap and not built to last, and they popped up under various Governments. That shows the seemingly prevailing attitude of short-termism at the time; Governments knew it would be somebody else’s problem in the future, as indeed it is now.
It must have been the same attitude that prevailed in 1997 and 2002, when a Labour Government took no action on RAAC, despite being warned about the dangers by the Building Research Establishment. My right hon. Friend Michael Gove stood at the Dispatch Box in the coalition era and criticised Labour’s Building Schools for the Future programme for often targeting the wrong schools, and in the light of this week’s evidence, it seems that he has been proven right, so I find the Opposition’s outrage quite performative. The Department for Education, as I understand it, published guidance to schools on the topic in 2018.
I am sorry, Madam Deputy Speaker, but my back has just gone. I have a problem with my back. Carry on.
I do hope that Sara Britcliffe is okay. I thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and the House for allowing me to go and lead a Westminster Hall debate just now; that is why I was out of the Chamber for 30 minutes. The crumbling concrete crisis is one that I first raised with the Secretary of State on the Floor of the House back in January. It is extremely damaging for several reasons. It is not just because anxious parents have had to tell their children why their schools are shut, or drive them to alternative sites. It is not just because children’s learning has been disrupted yet again, with some eating lunch in marquees or going to the toilet in portacabins. It is a concrete sign of a Government who have given up on communities up and down the country.
For many families, the school is the public service that they interact with most. When parents read about crumbling concrete; when the parent-teacher association has to fundraise for basic repairs and maintenance; and when the local school’s rebuilding plans are rejected year after year, they know that the Government have let them down and taken them for granted. Just consider how that makes our young people feel. If their classroom has buckets in various corners; if they spend all day in a coat because the boiler is broken; or, worse, if their school closes altogether, the message that they hear is that they do not matter—that their education, their future, is not worth investing in.
When the announcement was made, parents looked to the Conservative Government for three things: empathy, responsibility and leadership. I am sorry to say that they have provided none of them. A Government with empathy would not put out a social media advert saying that “most schools are unaffected”. Instead, they would tell concerned parents that one school with risky RAAC was one too many.
This may be just the tip of the iceberg. Some schools in Twickenham and Richmond are awaiting surveys. Other councils are wading through the guidance and complaining that the DfE has lost the questionnaires they have sent in. Pupils just over the river from my constituency at St Paul’s Primary School in Thames Ditton, at Langney Primary Academy in Eastbourne, or at the Royal College Manchester in Cheadle will now want the Government to give them a concrete timeline on when their at-risk buildings will be repaired.
An Education Secretary who understood collective responsibility would take the flak for her Government’s failings, not pass the buck and fish for compliments. A Prime Minister who showed leadership would listen to his officials and invest in our children. Is it “completely and utterly wrong” to blame him for the crisis? Let me ask this: who was Chancellor in 2022, when, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the three-year average spend on education capital was at its lowest since 2004? Who was Chancellor when education officials told the Treasury that it would cost £5 billion to mitigate the most serious risks of building failure, yet signed off only two thirds of that amount? Who was the Chancellor who was told to build more than 200 schools a year but approved only 50? It was
Every crumbling classroom stands as a concrete sign of years of Conservative neglect of our children and our communities. Of course, pupil safety is paramount and unsafe classrooms should be shut, but we should never have got to this point. This crisis was years in the making.
Liberal Democrats know that when we invest in the fabric of our schools, we invest in our children’s future. Our nurseries, schools and colleges should have been treated as critical infrastructure, yet too often with this Government, children are an afterthought. Liberal Democrats would have invested in our schools, removing risky RAAC and clearing the backlog of school repairs.
In May, I told the House:
“Neglecting school and college buildings endangers our children and may well contribute to this Government’s downfall.”—[Official Report,
Vol. 733, c. 249.]
I am sorry to say, on behalf of parents, pupils and school staff, that the chickens are coming home to roost.
This debate is incredibly important, as it gets to the heart of the responsibility that we all share to the next generation—a responsibility to give every child the best start in life, and the opportunity to thrive at school and throughout their life, and, above all, a responsibility to keep children safe. The Government are not just failing in that fundamental responsibility; worse, they are hiding—from reality, from scrutiny and from the consequences of their decisions over 13 long years. Those consequences mean that this week, children cannot go to school because their buildings are unsafe. And still the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister—and, I have to say, hon. Members on the Government Benches—are desperately trying to pass the buck. They are refusing to be honest about the fact that they speak not just for this Government today, but for the Governments in which they have served, and on whose record they stand.
The Secretary of State has been asking for praise today, because she finally published the list of affected schools, but this is about much more than the schools on her list. It is about schools the length and breadth of this country that are not fit for our children to learn in or staff to work in. That is why our motion asks for two things. First, we are asking for the Department for Education submissions to the spending reviews in which, instead of increasing school building budgets, the Prime Minister—then Chancellor—chose to cut them. Secondly, we are asking for the correspondence on those submissions, like that released in The Observer last year, in which officials at the Department for Education warned that school buildings are a risk to life.
The hon. Lady is making a number of serious allegations. Does she apply those equally to the Welsh Government, considering that they have been in power and in charge of education for 26 years in Wales? I repeat the point I made in my contribution: would Labour Members in the Senedd support a similar motion that would achieve the same effect, if tabled by Conservative colleagues?
Unlike the Conservative Government in England, the Welsh Government are investing in rebuilding schools, which is why they face a different situation from the one we face. Today we are looking at history and for transparency, not for a geography lesson.
Parents and the wider public deserve to know how and why decisions were taken, such as why the number of schools that the Government are planning to rebuild each year has been cut to just 50. The Prime Minister has been looking for plaudits, but under his leadership, the Treasury almost halved the money going into school building. This week we heard the former permanent secretary say that he was shocked when the number of schools that the Government planned to rebuild each year was not increased to 300, but cut. That is what officials said was needed to keep children safe; not thriving—we are not talking about bells and whistles—but just safe.
The Prime Minister, as Chancellor, said no to the request to rebuild our schools and make them safe, just as he turned down a request to deliver a proper recovery programme for the children recovering from the pandemic. While donating to American colleges, he has condemned children in England to crumbling buildings and, now, another round of learning from home.
Conservative Members have a choice today. They can vote with us to be honest with parents, pupils and staff about the decisions the Prime Minister took and the consequences for our children, or they can stay in their “not me, guv” ranks and vote to keep parents in the dark yet again. The Prime Minister promised to lead a Government of integrity and accountability, so today, at least, they have an opportunity to make that a reality.
My hon. Friends the Members for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott), for Sheffield, Hallam (Olivia Blake), for Liverpool, Walton (Dan Carden), for Jarrow (Kate Osborne), for Stretford and Urmston (Andrew Western), for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury), for City of Durham (Mary Kelly Foy) and for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey) all made incredibly powerful speeches about the importance of this issue to the children, parents and school staff in their areas. Many Conservative Members also highlighted the challenge the issue has posed in their constituencies, yet all sought to deflect the blame. That is why this debate is about taking responsibility. The speeches from my hon. Friends set out very clearly why this matters to the parents and in particular the children in our constituencies who are affected by it.
We are, of course, pleased that the Government finally published the list of schools this morning, but are they sure it is accurate? Just today we are hearing reports that schools the Secretary of State told to—if I am allowed to say it—get off their arses have in fact returned their RAAC surveys and, in some cases, have gone ahead and remedied the RAAC themselves in the absence of any support from the Government. Other schools are emerging that are not on the list but have been identified as having RAAC. There is concern, and it explains why the Secretary of State has been so reluctant to release the list. There seems to be a lot of chaos in Government, not only in the lead-up to this situation but in handling it at this stage.
I have no doubt—[Interruption.] The Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities has literally just walked in. I am not sure what his contribution is at this stage, but I will come on to him in a moment. I have no doubt that when the Minister of State stands up, he will, like the Secretary of State, want to talk about Labour’s record on education, so I thought I would get ahead of him. Labour in government reduced class sizes by recruiting thousands of new teachers and introduced teaching assistants to raise standards for all our children. We increased participation in post-16 education and saw record numbers progressing to university. And we had a school rebuilding programme.
Building Schools for the Future set out a pathway to rebuilding or refurbishing every secondary school in England, backed up by the primary capital programme to invest in the maintenance and repair of primary schools across the country. The last Labour Government set out a plan to transform our country’s school estate, leading to improvements in standards and behaviour and making schools a safe place for children to learn, because Labour knew then, as we know now, that children cannot get a first-class education in a second-class school.
It only took the current Levelling Up Secretary six years to admit that he regretted scrapping the Building Schools for the Future programme and cancelling over 700 school building projects, but it seems that the lessons he learned are not being passed on to his colleagues. It will therefore be for the next Labour Government to make our school estate one to be proud of once more and to make sure that every child in every corner of the country can go to an excellent local school.
I expect the Minister will also quote from the James review and tell the House about the surveys of school buildings that his Government have undertaken. When he does, perhaps he could clarify this. On
“visual inspections only, and do not assess the overall structural integrity of a building.”
Two days later, in response to another question from my hon. Friend, he repeated that, saying that the condition data collection is “not a safety survey”. However, less than a month later, on
It is becoming clearer by the day that 13 years of Conservative government have failed our children. For our school estate, they have been 13 years of cut-price sticking- plaster solutions and inefficient repairs, when green rebuilds and long-term plans were required. We have seen ageing buildings, many of which were built decades if not more than a century ago, with unmet repairs, cracked walls, asbestos, buckets placed in classrooms catching leaks and crumbling roofs. The Government’s complacency on this is unforgivable, but it is clear that they are not going to own up voluntarily to the scale of this problem or their failure.
Whether the issue is lockdown parties, speeding tickets, Government contracts or school buildings, this Government are incapable of transparency. That is why the House must force them to be transparent and to be honest with parents about the choices they made to leave the school estate crumbling around our children, because it is parents, children and school staff whose lives could be at risk—those are not my words, but the words of senior officials in the Department for Education. Last year, the Government invited bids from schools for building replacements or repairs. More than 1,000 schools applied, yet the Prime Minister proudly told us that he planned to rebuild just 500 over the next decade.
We are already seeing the impact of these short-sighted decisions on our school estate. My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam has told the House that a parent in her constituency was injured when a piece of cladding fell on her. A recent freedom of information request from Schools Week found that a teacher was reportedly admitted to hospital after being hit by a falling ceiling tile at a school in Bradford. What could have happened if those events had occurred at a different time or place when there were more children in the classrooms does not bear thinking about.
Until the Government own up to their responsibility, it falls to the House to ensure that children go to schools that are safe, that teachers and staff are not put at risk, and that we are honest with the public about the decisions that have been made. For more than a decade, Conservative Governments have neglected that duty. As my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Sunderland South said in her opening speech, the defining image of 13 years of Tory government will be children cowering under the steel supports that stop the ceiling falling down. I say to the Government, “Come clean, own up, and support our motion today.”
Let me start by welcoming Catherine McKinnell to her new post and congratulating her once again on her—in my view—promotion to that position.
This has been a debate on an important subject, but behind all the understandable concern is one key piece of information that the House and the country need. Until last week, the advice and guidance that the Department for Education issued to schools was that if RAAC was present in a building, structural surveyors should assess it, and that if it was graded as being in a critical condition, the building should be taken out of use. Where RAAC was assessed as non-critical, the advice was to continue monitoring it, but not to take the building out of use. What happened over the summer was that the Department was made aware of three cases—one commercial and two in schools, one of which was outside England—in which RAAC that had been graded as non-critical collapsed or failed. It had become clear that visual assessment alone would not definitively identify a cracked panel that was on the verge of failure.
Given that evidence, I say this to every Member of the House: “How would your decision differ from that of the Secretary of State and Ministers at the Department for Education on the question of whether to change the guidance to require all buildings with critical and non-critical RAAC to be taken out of use? What would your decision have been, given that evidence?”. Professional advice from technical experts on RAAC has evolved over time; indeed, the question of how to manage its risks across all sectors has spanned successive Governments since 1994.
The Department for Education systematically made the sector aware of the latest guidance from technical engineers in 2018, following a sudden roof collapse at a primary school. We published a warning note, with the Local Government Association, that asked all responsible bodies to identify any properties constructed using RAAC and to ensure that RAAC properties were regularly inspected by a structural engineer. In February 2021, we issued a guide on identifying RAAC. Concerned that not all responsible bodies were acting quickly enough, in 2022 we decided to take a more direct approach. We issued a questionnaire to the responsible bodies for all 22,000 schools to ask them to identify whether they had, or suspected they had, RAAC. Responsible bodies have submitted responses to those questionnaires for 95% of schools with blocks built in the target era and we actively chased the remaining responses.
In September 2022, we started a significant programme of technical surveys, with the DfE sending a professional surveyor to assess whether RAAC was present in those schools where the responsible body had responded to the questionnaire saying that there was suspected RAAC. There are more than 22,000 schools and colleges in England, and the vast majority of them are unaffected by RAAC. To date, 52 schools and colleges have put mitigations in place. Of the 156 schools in the list we published today, 104 are providing continued face-to-face teaching for all pupils. A further 20 schools have some pupils learning off-site and 19 have delayed the start of term by a few days to ensure that pupils can start of the term in face-to-face teaching safely on site. Only a very small number—four—have needed to move to remote education. They include St Leonard’s Catholic School in Durham, which was mentioned by Mary Kelly Foy.
Every school and college that is impacted has a dedicated caseworker to help implement a mitigation plan. This will include using other spaces on the school site, in nearby schools or elsewhere in the local area until structural supports or temporary buildings are installed. We have increased the supply of temporary buildings, working with three contractors, and we have accelerated the installation of these. We have the support of leading utility companies to ensure that those temporary classrooms can be connected to the utilities and opened. In the small number of schools with confirmed RAAC that have disruption to face-to-face teaching, this has lasted only a matter of days in the past. We have also set up an operational hotline to ensure that Members of this House and other interested parties can, if appropriate, fast-track issues to caseworkers.
Since 2010, we have invested billions of pounds in school capital. We have created over 1 million more school places and opened over 650 new free schools, helping to drive up academic standards in some of the most disadvantaged parts of the country. We launched the priority school building programme, rebuilding or refurbishing 260 schools between 2012 and 2017. In 2015, we launched the priority school building programme 2, rebuilding or refurbishing 272 schools between 2015 and 2020. In 2020, the Prime Minister, when he was Chancellor, announced the school rebuilding programme to invest in 500 projects over the next decade for new and refurbished school buildings, prioritising buildings in the poorest condition. It is only this Government who have conducted surveys of the whole school estate, starting with the property data survey in 2012. We had the condition data collection in 2017 and now we are partway through the third survey of all our schools. It is only because of this work that we can target capital spending on rebuilding schools in the worst condition.
There have been questions from hon. Members on the details of the funding arrangements to support affected schools and colleges. To reiterate the words of the Chancellor, we will “spend what it takes” to keep children safe. That includes paying for the emergency mitigation work needed to make buildings safe, including alterations and alternative classroom space on school and college sites where necessary. Where schools need additional help with revenue costs, such as transport to other locations, we are actively engaging with every school affected to put appropriate support in place. We will also fund the longer-term refurbishment or rebuilding projects where these are needed to rectify RAAC in the longer term.
Julie Elliott complained about schools closing because of RAAC but, as I have said, only four of the 156 listed schools have actually closed. My hon. Friend Mr Walker is right to say that it is clear this Government are taking a zero-risk approach to the safety of buildings where new evidence emerges.
Olivia Blake and the shadow Education Secretary, Bridget Phillipson, both raised the issue of asbestos. All schools have an asbestos register and, if asbestos needs to be removed to put in place RAAC mitigation works, it will be removed.
My hon. Friend Sir Bernard Jenkin correctly challenged the Opposition to say whether they think the Secretary of State has taken the right decision, and they could not answer because they know it is the right decision. He asked important and serious questions about how RAAC was allowed to be used in the first place.
Dan Carden seemed very cross on behalf of his constituents but, of course, none of the 156 schools on the list we published today is in his constituency or in Liverpool. My right hon. Friend Priti Patel raised the issue of costs, and we will cover all capital costs and, subject to need, revenue costs. Schools should discuss this with the DfE.
My hon. Friend Laura Farris, in a brilliant speech, was right to quote Philip Collins’s article in The Times this week, setting out how standards have risen in our schools because of Conservative policies on the curriculum and on phonics since 2010, and because of all the work done by Education Secretaries since 2010, including my right hon. Friends the Members for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) and for Chichester (Gillian Keegan). My hon. Friend the Member for Newbury rightly cited all the new school buildings in her constituency, as we can also see throughout the country.
My hon. Friend Shaun Bailey, in a passionate speech, was right to criticise the PFI arrangements under Labour’s Building Schools for the Future programme, which we are all paying for today. In their brilliant speeches, my hon. Friends the Members for Mansfield (Ben Bradley) and for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Aaron Bell) were both right to say that the Secretary of State has taken the right decision in the interest of safety.
My hon. Friend Simon Baynes was right to contrast the swift action by this Government with the approach taken by Wales. That point was also made by the former Secretary of State for Wales, my right hon. Friend Alun Cairns. My hon. Friend James Wild was prescient, as always on so many things, in raising in this House, on a number of occasions, the issue of RAAC in the NHS. My hon. Friend Anna Firth spoke about Kingsdown School, and I will raise the three issues she mentioned.
Under Conservative Governments since 2010, despite the challenges of managing the aftermath of the 2007 to 2009 banking crash and the state of the public finances we inherited from the previous Government, despite the huge financial challenges of supporting the economy and household incomes during covid, and despite the energy price hike as a result of Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine—despite the massive financial implications of all these challenges—we have created 1 million more school places and invested heavily in improving the quality of the school estate. We are spending record amounts on schools: £59.6 billion next year, the highest on record in cash terms, in real terms and in real terms per pupil. Standards are rising, with 88% of schools judged good or outstanding today, compared with 68% in 2010. Maths standards are rising, with England excelling in international league tables, and the reading ability of our nine-year-olds is now the fourth best of the 43 countries that test children of the same age.
We put the safety of children and staff above all else. We have proactively sought out RAAC in our schools, more comprehensively than any other jurisdiction. We have monitored the growing evidence on RAAC, and we acted swiftly and with caution for the safety of children and staff at every step. When the evidence changed, we changed our advice to schools. We are supported and funding the repairs and temporary remedies that we need to put in place in the tiny minority of schools that have been affected. That is our approach, and I urge hon. Members to back that caution and concern about the safety of our children and school staff by voting overwhelmingly against this motion tonight.