Education Secretary Gillian Keegan has defended being on holiday during the summer while further evidence of the use of unsafe concrete in buildings came to light.
Ms Keegan was on holiday in Spain from 25 August to 31 August when she admitted that three new cases of reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RAAC) emerged – one in a commercial building, one in an education “setting” and one in a school in England.
Ms Keegan has been at the forefront of the RAAC crisis that is unfolding in schools in England, where more than 104 schools have been ordered to close or partially close because of the concrete – which is prone to collapse after a period of time.
The issue has caused disruption for thousands of pupils just as they go back to school following the summer holidays.
Earlier today Ms Keegan apologised for her “choice language” after she was caught complaining about not being thanked for doing a “f***ing good job” over the crisis.
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The interview with ITV News was played back to Ms Keegan when she appeared as a guest on Sky News’ new Politics Hub show with Sophy Ridge this evening.
Challenged by presenter Sophy Ridge about whether it was a “mistake” to go on holiday, Ms Keegan replied: “To be honest, for the whole of the summer, obviously I had to sort out industrial action, then I had to do A-Levels and I had to the GCSEs – so the first time I could go on holiday…”
Ridge interjected: “So we should feel sorry for you?”
Ms Keegan replied: “Not at all. I don’t expect anybody to feel sorry for me. I’m certainly not getting that vibe from you.”
The education secretary said her trip to Spain was a “family occasion”, but that she “worked remotely” while away, adding that the surveys and investigations were still ongoing and she was planning to return “straight away” for when they came back, which she did.
In the interview with ITV News in Westminster – which caught her on camera swearing – the cabinet minister criticised others for being “sat on their arses” and claimed the government had gone “over and above” in addressing concerns relating RAAC.
While her mic was still on she said: “Does anyone ever say ‘You know you’ve done a f***ing good job because everyone else has sat on their arses and done nothing’.
“No signs of that, no?”
Ms Keegan later apologised and admitted she was “frustrated with the interviewer” who was “making out it was all my fault”.
Her outburst came after she had come under pressure over the unfolding crisis, with critics accusing the Tories of a “shambolic” handling of the situation after claiming that risks associated with the dangerous material have been known about for years.
RAAC is essentially a lighter-weight form of concrete, used to build roofs, schools, colleges and other buildings from the 1950s until the mid-1990s.
The government said “new information” about RAAC came to light over the summer, prompting them to issue the safety warning just days before the start of the school term.
But experts have long warned the material has now reached the end of its shelf life and is liable to collapse.
As a result of RAAC being identified, pupils face being taught in temporary classrooms, on different sites, or even forced into pandemic-style remote lessons.
In a statement in the House of Commons this afternoon, Ms Keegan promised to publish the full list of affected schools “this week” as she sought to stress that disruption would be minimal.
Asked whether she would like to apologise for how the crisis has been handled, Ms Keegan said she was “really sorry” that pupils were missing school”, but added: “Prioritising safety is the most important point – and I wouldn’t apologise for that.”
But Labour’s shadow health secretary Wes Streeting, speaking before Ms Keegan’s interview with Ridge, said he believed she had “misunderstood why people are angry”.
“To start the term with this chaotic backdrop – and then to see the education secretary saying why [aren’t] people thank me I think is an insult,” he said.
Former education secretary Baroness Nicky Morgan also told the Politics Hub that the fiasco was every secretary of state’s “worst nightmare”.
But she said her successor had done the “only thing” she could possibly could have done in her situation, adding that England has an “aging school estate”.
There are questions about who bears responsibility for the RAAC fiasco that is now affecting schools.
Challenged by Ridge on the fact that Labour did not address this problem when it was in government before 2010, Mr Streeting pointed to the budget to rebuild schools being cut and the Conservatives having had 13 years in government to fix this issue.
However, he refused to say how much Labour would spend fixing the issue, saying: “We don’t know how much this is going to cost yet.”