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PMQs: Keir Starmer refuses to say he backs schools re-opening amid row with Boris Johnson on child poverty

PMQs: Keir Starmer refuses to say he backs schools re-opening amid row with Boris Johnson on child poverty

Keir Starmer was repeatedly asked if he backed schools reopening (PA)

4 min read

Sir Keir Starmer refused to say if Labour backed schools re-opening amid a Commons row with Boris Johnson on child poverty.

The Labour leader accused his Tory opposite of not reading a Government-backed report that said there are now 600,000 more poor children in the UK than there were in 2012.

But the Prime Minister said the best way of helping the worst-off kids would be to encourage them to get back into the classroom as the pair clashed at Prime Minister's Questions.

And he repeatedly called on Sir Keir to “say schools are safe to go back to” - accusing the Labour chief of having the “great ox” of the education unions “stood upon his tongue”.

It came after the leader of the Opposition criticised the Government over measures to combat child poverty.

In the wake of a U-turn on providing free school meals over the summer, Sir Keir told MPs: "A report last week from the Government's social mobility commission concluded that there are now 600,000 more children living in relative poverty than in 2012.

"The report went on to say child poverty rates are projected to increase to 5.2 million by 2022.

"What does the Prime Minister think caused that?"

Mr Johnson replied: "I can tell him that on free school meals this Government is very proud that we set up universal free school meals.

"And I'm very pleased that we are going to be able to deliver a Covid summer food package to some of the poorest families in this country, and that is exactly the right thing to do.

"But I must say that he is completely wrong in what he says about poverty. Absolute poverty, relative poverty, have both declined under this Government.

"There are hundreds of thousands, I think 400,000, fewer families living in poverty now than there were in 2010.”

But Sir Keir hit back, saying: "The Prime Minister says poverty has not increased.

"I just read a direct quote from a Government report... produced last week which says it has gone up by 600,000."

He added: "The social mobility commission has a clear answer to my question - this anticipated rise in child poverty is not driven by forces beyond our control.

"I'm sure the Prime Minister would agree that an even higher child poverty rate would be an intolerable outcome from this pandemic, so what is he going to do to prevent it?"

Responding to that swipe, Mr Johnson said he was of course “deeply concerned” about the impact of coronavirus on the poorest kids in the country.

But he added: “One of the ways we could do that by the way is to encourage all kids who can go back to school to go back to school, because their schools are safe. 

“Last week I asked him whether he would say publicly that schools were safe to go back to. He hummed and he hawed. 

“Now is his time to say it clearly: schools are safe to go back to.”

After the Labour boss failed to do so, the PM said: “How can he talk about tackling the effect of coronavirus on the most disadvantaged? 

"It is the most disadvantaged kids who need to go back to school and it is those groups who are unfortunately not going back to school. 

“Let's hear it from him one more time. Will he say that schools are safe to go back to? Come on.”

Sir Keir replied: "This is turning into Opposition questions.

"If the Prime Minister wants to swap places, I'm very happy to do it, to do it now."

The PM said of the Labour leader: “The unions won't let him say the truth.

“A great ox has stood upon his tongue. Let him now say that schools are safe to go back to.”

Speaking after PMQs a spokesman for the Labour leader said: "Keir has said repeatedly he wants schools to reopen as soon as possible and he offered to work with the prime minister on this issue."

He added: "Ultimately it was Gavin Williamson who said on June 9 we're not able to welcome all primary children back for a full month before the summer.

"That was a Government U-turn, that was a Government failure and this is a Government with the majority of 80, it should be taking the responsibility for its own failures."

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