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Starmer denies ‘supervised toothbrushing’ in schools is nanny state politics

Sir Keir Starmer has denied his plan to bring in supervised toothbrushing of young children in schools amounts to nanny state politics.

The Labour leader said the Conservatives should be ashamed of the decline in some health outcomes for British children – suggesting that it amounted to criminal neglect.

Defending Labour plans to introduce supervised toothbrushing at free breakfast clubs, Sir Keir said tooth decay should be consigned to the history books.

He also vowed to boost dental services to ensure children can get appointments when they need one – part of plan to create the “healthiest and happiest generation of children” ever in Britain.

But the announcement drew criticism from teaching unions, with leaders saying it is “not the role of teachers to be making sure children brush their teeth each day”.

Keir Starmer during visit to school nursery in Stanmore, north London (PA)
Keir Starmer during visit to school nursery in Stanmore, north London (PA)

Asked by reporters if supervised toothbrushing for three to five-year-olds was nanny state politics, Sir Keir said: “We want to encourage good parenting, but I don’t think we can just turn our back on it.”

He added: “When I first read the statistic that for six to 10-year-olds that the biggest admission to hospitals I was really struck. That is shocking – and I don’t think you can simply say, ‘That’s none of our business.’”

Sir Keir said that both parents and the government had a role in the wellbeing of children. “It’s saying there is a role for the state in this,” he said – adding that he was “up for that fight”.

Labour analysis of OECD data shows that British children are falling behind their international counterparts when it comes to poor health outcomes.

Children in the UK today are smaller than Haitian children, haver greater obesity levels than the French, and are less happy than the Turks, the figures show.

Starmer said he was ‘up for the fight’ on whether support for children was nanny state politics (PA)
Starmer said he was ‘up for the fight’ on whether support for children was nanny state politics (PA)

Sir Keir told reporters he was “very concerned” that the height of children had fallen behind some many other countries, adding: “That is primarily down to malnutrition ... it’s something the government ought to be ashamed of.”

The Labour leader added: “Frankly if this was a parent who had treated children this badly – as badly as the UK government – they would probably be charged with neglect.”

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said they were relieved that supervising toothbrushing won’t be a part of the school day – but added: “We remain somewhat sceptical about how this will work in practice.”

Daniel Kebede, general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), said free breakfast club provision was a positive development for many schools.

But he added: “What is essential to the effective rollout of breakfast clubs and toothbrushing supervision, however, is sufficient funding and staffing levels. It is not at all clear who will administer these new drives.”

Other aspects of Labour’s plan include introducing a 9pm watershed for junk food ads, banning vape adverts aimed at children, better access to mental health support, cutting waiting times for hospital care for children, and ensuring more dental appointments.

Sir Keir said the child health action plan was fully costed and would be made “definitely [in] the first term of a Labour government – these are things we would seek to do pretty much straight away”.

Andy Bell, chief executive of the Centre for Mental Health, welcomed Labour’s proposals to “improve support for children and young people’s mental health”.

And Dr Lade Smith, president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said the number of children struggling with their mental health has increased “significantly” in recent years. “It is positive to see commitments being made by the Labour Party to tackle this issue and reduce NHS waiting lists.”

Tory public health minister Andrea Leadsom said Sir Keir “should focus on fixing his own house before criticising others”, adding: “This is the same old Labour of more spending and more taxes.”

On a visit to Alder Hey Children’s Hospital in Liverpool this afternoon, the shadow health secretary Wes Streeting responded to Conservative criticsm of the policy.

Speaking to broadcasters, he said: “If the Conservatives want to throw around silly labels like ‘nanny state’, and then they’re going to throw much more mud than that in the run up to the election, I don’t think the public are going to buy that after 14 years of their failure.

We’re not going to sit idly by while tooth decay sees so many children admitted to hospital.”