Keir Starmer has accused Boris Johnson of inaction and delay over a crisis in childhood poverty, one exacerbated by coronavirus, using prime minister’s questions to accuse the PM of complacency over the issue.
Johnson, who on Tuesday reversed government policy to extend free school meals into the summer following a campaign by the footballer Marcus Rashford, insisted he was giving enough support to families and councils.
The prime minister also responded to a series of Starmer’s questions by asking him about the attitude of some Labour councils to reopening schools, prompting the Labour leader to suggest at one point that the pair could swap places.
Beginning with a reference to the success of Rashford’s campaign, Starmer said he welcomed “the prime minister’s latest U-turn, on free school meals – that was the right thing to do”.
Citing a report last week by the government’s social mobility commission, Starmer said 600,000 more children were living in relative poverty than in 2012, with a projected 5.2 milliontotal by 2022. He asked: “What does the prime minister think caused that?”
On the U-turn, Johnson said: “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’s exactly the right thing to do.”
The PM said Starmer was “absolutely wrong” about child poverty, saying both absolute and relative poverty had declined.
The prime minister seemed uncertain about aspects of the social mobility commission report. When Starmer told him that it also predicted even worse outcomes due to the impact of Covid-19, Johnson appeared to believe the 600,000 figure was also a forecast, saying “a new concept is being introduced into our deliberations”.
“I’m sure the prime minister has read the report,” the Labour leader said, to laughter from some MPs. “The prime minister obviously hasn’t got the first idea about what the social mobility commission report actually said last week – a government body.”
Citing the furlough job-protection scheme as an example of how ministers were protecting the economy, the PM said: “We intend to make sure that we minimise the impact of coronavirus on the poorest kids in this country.”
The pair also clashed about funding for councils. Starmer cited forecasts of a £10bn shortfall in local authority funding due to coronavirus, and quoted a letter to the government from Conservative-run Lancashire county council, saying an extra £3.2bn in funding for councils would not nearly cover Covid-related costs.
Starmer said: “The prime minister just doesn’t get how critical this is. I spoke with council leaders across the country this week. They face a choice – the prime minister must know this – between cutting core services or facing bankruptcy under section 114 notices.
“Either outcome will harm local communities and mean local services can’t reopen. That will drive up poverty, something the prime minister says he doesn’t intend to do. Will the prime minister take responsibility and actually do something.”
Johnson replied by saying he had outlined additional funding, and was “very proud” of this, and the work of local councils.