Good morning. PMQs is one of the toughest ordeals he has to face but, as Rishi Sunak prepares his scripts for the first PMQs of the autumn, after a summer where the Tory fightback appeared to have zilch positive impact on public opinion, at least he has one consolation. He won’t have to spend time guessing what Keir Starmer is going to ask. Not only has Labour briefed on this; Starmer has even been rehearsing his line of attack on the BBC this morning.
Starmer has been visiting a school in London affected by the Raac (reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete) building safety crisis and, in an interview with BBC Breakfast, he accused Sunak of prioritising a tax cut for champagne drinkers ahead of funding school building repairs.
Setting out his case, Starmer said:
Then you add to that in 2021 a list of schools that needed work done was put before the prime minister when he was then chancellor, and he refused to allow the funding to go forward.
As a direct result, you’ve got pupils this morning who are not in school.
I’m here at Park View. They learned about six months ago that they had this concrete in their upper floor in the building just behind me. They lost 15 classrooms in one go. And straightaway they had to try to teach 200 children in a big hall and the others online for a whole term. Now they’ve had since then, to put in Portakabins as a temporary measure. That’s the human impact of the government’s failure on this.
Referring to PMQs, Starmer said he wanted Sunak to explain why he did not appove all the extra funding for school buildings being requested by the Department for Education.
I think the least that we’re entitled to is to know what risks were pointed out to him in 2021 when the prime minister took those decisions, and an answer for him as to why he didn’t allow that funding to go forward.
When it was put him that the government coming into power in 2010 had to cut back on the Building Schools for the Future programme because borrowing was too high, Starmer suggested that was no longer relevant. He said:
I think that many people across the country are getting pretty weary of a government that’s now been in power for 13 years saying in answer to any question about their own failure, ‘It’s not our fault, we couldn’t have done anything.’ Are they seriously saying to the country that in 13 years they couldn’t have done anything about their failures?
Starmer also said that at the same time Sunak decide not to fund school repairs properly (in the autum budget and spending review of 2021), he cut the tax on champagne. Starmer went on:
These are choices. [Sunak] didn’t say, ‘Well, I can’t do that in relation to champagne’. He took a choice to cut the [duty] rate in relation to champagne and not to sign off the necessary funding for school.
This is an attack line Labour was also using on social media yesterday.
These comparisons are often trite because you might assume that axing a cut in champagne duty would not be enough to fund a large-scale school repair programme. And the Treasury red book for autumn 2021 shows that the alcohol duty reforms announced by Sunak (which reduced the duty on sparkling wine) only cost £20m in 2022-23. But it said in 2023-24 they cost would be £115m, and by 2026-27 the cost would be £155m. That is more comparable with the cost of fixing the Raac crisis which, as Robert Booth reports, is approaching £150m.
The red book shows that a one-year freeze in general alcohol duty announced by Sunak at the same time was going to cost more than £500m in 2022-23 – enough to fund a substantial school renovation project. But Labour would rather focus on the tax cut for champagne, because that implies Sunak, and the Tories, prioritise the rich.
As I write, Sunak is probably crafting his response. Here is the agenda for the day.
Morning: Keir Starmer visits a school in London with Bridget Phillipson, the shadow education secretary.
10am: Sir Mark Rowley, the Metropolitan police commissioner, gives evidence to the London assembly’s police and crime committee.
Noon: Rishi Sunak faces Keir Starmer at PMQs.
Around 2pm: MPs start a three-hour debate on a Labour “humble address” motion which, if passed, would force the government to publish internal documents about the Department for Education’s demands for extra money for school repairs in 2020 and 2021, and the Treasury’s response.
2.15pm: Andrew Bailey, governor of the Bank of England, gives evidence to the Commons Treasury committee.
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