Sir Keir Starmer has branded Rishi Sunak “Inaction Man” over problems facing the UK’s schools and prisons.
The prime minister has been greeted with an array of problems since MPs returned to Westminster after the summer recess, including a crisis involving concrete in public buildings, the escape of a terror suspect from prison and allegations a researcher in Westminster spied for China.
The Labour leader attacked Mr Sunak’s record on his handling of the issues during a testy session of Prime Minister’s Questions, telling the Commons: “Probation, prison, schools, China – yet again, Inaction Man fails to heed the warnings and then blames everyone else.”
He added: “He is failing to stop terrorists strolling out of prison, failing to guard Britain against hostile actors, he is completely failing to stop the boats. How can anyone trust him to protect the country?”
Mr Sunak’s problems began when the Department for Education (DfE) announced that more than 100 schools had been ordered to close or partially close due to the presence of reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RAAC), a type of concrete that is prone to collapse after a period of time.
The saga landed his education secretary, Gillian Keegan, in hot water after she was caught on camera complaining about not being thanked for doing a “f****** good job” over the crisis – comments for which she later apologised.
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The sense of chaos prompted by the school closures at the start of the autumn term was compounded by the escape of Daniel Khalife from Wandsworth prison, which prompted a four-day manhunt that culminated in his arrest and capture in Northolt, west London.
And earlier this week, it was revealed that a parliamentary researcher with close links to senior Tory MPs was arrested on suspicion of spying for China – a charge he has strenuously denied.
Sir Keir called for a “full audit of UK-China relations” and highlighted findings from parliament’s intelligence and security committee that said the government had “no clear strategy when it comes to China”.
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“This has been raised time and time again. But, yet again, the prime minister fails to heed the warnings and he’s now desperately playing catch up,” he said.
The prime minister replied: “As always, the leader of the Opposition is just playing catch up and hasn’t caught up with the reality of what’s actually happening.”
Labour has sought to use the incidents to highlight the Conservatives’ record in government, particularly with regard to spending and management.
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Another issue the Opposition has sought to highlight is the small boats crisis in the Channel, after the recent good weather saw more people make the perilous journey.
Speaking in the Commons, Sir Keir said Suella Braverman’s first anniversary as home secretary had coincided with 40,000 people making the journey, adding with a joke: “That is if you overlook the six days she missed when she was deemed a national security risk.”
Mr Sunak hit back by pointing to the government’s Levelling Up Bill, which he said would result in more house-building.
The Tories have accused Labour of “blocking” housebuilding by opposing its plans to relax environmental rules to boost housebuilding.
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Current EU-era rules mean that when developers build new homes in protected areas they are required to provide mitigations to ensure no new additional nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus make it into rivers and lakes.
Labour opposes the change on the grounds it will increase river pollution but ministers believe removing the requirements will “unblock” 100,000 new homes by 2030.
Mr Sunak told MPs: “He talks about trust, he tried in this House to talk the talk on housebuilding, but at the first sign of a cheap political hit, what did he do? He has caved in.
“Rather than make the right long-term decisions for the country he has taken the easy way out,” he said.
“It is typical of the principles-free, conviction-free type of leadership that he offers.
“Flip-flopping from being a builder to a blocker. The British people can’t trust a word he says.”