The chancellor has admitted more schools and other public buildings with structural problems could come to light in the coming weeks.
It comes as the government investigates the extent of problems with crumbling concrete, also known as reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RAAC).
RAAC is a type of concrete that has also been used in public buildings, such as hospitals and court buildings.
More than 100 schools and colleges have been told by the Department for Education (DfE) to partially or fully shut buildings – just days before the start of the new school year – over fears about the safety of facilities built with RAAC.
The government has so far identified 156 schools that contain RAAC – with 104 schools or “settings” told to close or partially close, on top of another 50 where mitigations have already been put in place.
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However, speaking on Sky News’s new politics show Sunday Morning with Trevor Phillips, Jeremy Hunt admitted that more schools and other public buildings with structural problems could come to light as the government carries out its “exhaustive” programme into the problem.
“Obviously we might find new information in the weeks or months ahead and we will act on it, but in terms of the information we have today we have acted immediately, we will continue to act, we will continue to invest,” he said.
The announcement by the DfE that some schools may be forced to close prompted anger from parents and opposition parties, with Labour accusing the government of “staggering incompetence”.
But Mr Hunt defended the government’s response to the issue, saying it would “take action immediately” on any risks – which also include concerns of possible asbestos outbreaks in public buildings.
“As soon as problems have been identified, we’ve started a huge survey of every single school in the country, so we could identify where these problems are,” he said.
“And I think it’s very important to reassure parents that where there is an issue, as soon as we find out about it, we will act.”
He added that the government would do “what it takes to make sure that children are safe” and that as chancellor he would “prioritise spending money to sort out these problems where that needs to happen”.
Elsewhere in the programme, Mr Hunt was asked about the state of the British economy after he welcomed figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) which showed that the UK’s economy was 0.6% larger than pre-pandemic levels by the fourth quarter of 2021 and had the third-fastest recovery in the G7 during that period – behind only the US and Canada.
He told Trevor Phillips:
• That despite the economy performing better than expected, he would not have taken a different approach because it was the government’s “priority” to bring down inflation – which peaked at over 11%
• His plan to reform the public sector does not involve “more cuts” and that the government will prioritise reducing debt over increasing borrowing by making public services more efficient and cutting the amount of time frontline staff spend on administrative tasks
• The government believes it is “morally wrong” to leave substantial debt to future generations – as he attacked Labour’s plans to increase borrowing by £100bn”.
Schools impacted by the RAAC crisis have been advised by the government to find space in nearby schools, community centres or even “empty local office buildings”.
Ministers have said such spaces should be utilised for the “first few weeks” while structural supports are installed to mitigate the risk of collapse of structures built with RAAC.
Schools Minister Nick Gibb has pledged to publish the list in “in due course”, while it is understood a full list will only be released by the DfE when all parents are informed and mitigations are in place.
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The crisis has prompted Labour to ramp up its calls for the government to reveal the “full extent” of the impact of RAAC.
Speaking to Trevor Phillips, Labour’s shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson said her party wanted to force a vote to get the government to release the full list of the schools affected.
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“Children are going to have to move to alternative accommodation or portable cabins with steel props holding up the ceiling,” she said.
“I don’t think there can be a more defining metaphor for the last 13 years of Conservative government than children sat in classrooms with steel props to stop the ceiling falling in on their heads.”