Below is the full text of the speech delivered by Shadow Child Poverty Secretary Wes Streeting to the annual Labour Party conference in Brighton this morning.
It’s great to be here in Brighton and I want to thank the whole Party for your support during my recent experience with kidney cancer. Thanks to the NHS, I’m cancer-free, fighting fit and back in action. I’ll be working night and day to make sure that at the next general election we get the Tories out, Starmer in and a Labour government lifting millions of children out of poverty again. For me this is personal because I experienced poverty first-hand.
Growing up on a council estate in the east end of London with a single mum juggling whatever work she could find with bringing me up. Unlike some dads, my Dad – who was just 17 when I was born – has always been there for me. But even so, my mum struggled. When the work was there, it was low paid and insecure. When it wasn’t, we relied on the benefits system to put food in the fridge and money in the electric meter. And sometimes that ran out, too. Which meant my mum going without and both of us sitting in the dark.
I used to think I was really unlucky. But the tragedy is that for the kids growing in poverty today, things are worse now than they were then. They’re not in a council flat, they’re in temporary accommodation being pushed from pillar to post. Their parents don’t have the support network of family and friends that my Mum had, because they’ve been uprooted – like the mum I met who was moved from Ilford to Wolverhampton. And they don’t have the great state education I had, because the moment they settle in, it’s time to move school again.
Worse now than in the 1980s, but the same Tory values in action. In just a matter of days Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak will take £20 a week out of the pockets of hard-pressed families with a cut to Universal Credit that will plunge 200,000 kids into poverty. This isn’t a government that’s ‘levelling up’, it’s punching down on struggling mums and dads and their kids. And Boris Johnson has the audacity to tell parents slogging their guts out on minimum wage to work harder. This coming from a man who hasn’t done a single day of hard work in his life.
It’s not just that they’re failing to tackle child poverty, it’s that they don’t even have the ambition to do it. A poverty of ambition for other people’s kids, that they would never tolerate for their own. Rising child poverty, less security and fewer opportunities for kids. That’s the Tory record in government. Sure Start, record investment in schools and millions of children lifted out of poverty. That’s Labour’s record in government.
There’s no more important mission and no better expression of the values that we hold and our ambition for Britain than to end child poverty in this country once and for all. And I’ve got some good news for our Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves: as well as being the right thing to do, tackling child poverty saves money, too. Because it’s not just children’s potential that’s being wasted through childhood poverty, but taxpayers’ money, too. Under the Tories, the cost of child poverty to the economy has risen to a whopping £38bn. Wasted lives and wasted money.
Rachel is right: there are a lot of people in this country with not a lot of money. They expect governments to be as careful with their hard-earned taxes as they are with their own family finances. We need to shift the balance from spending money on the symptoms of poverty, to attacking its root causes. Investing in success, rather than paying the price of failure. That’s what the last Labour government did and it’s what the next Labour government will do – with leadership from the top in a new child poverty reduction unit in Keir Starmer’s Number 10.
It’s not talent or potential that’s unevenly distributed in our society, it’s opportunity. And under the Tories the gap between kids from the richest and poorest backgrounds is widening. Kids who go to private schools are given a whole range of opportunities that set them up well for learning and for life, opportunities that are denied to too many kids in the state schools.
Under the Tories, we’re going backwards. Kids’ participation in music is down, competitive sport, in and out of school – down and for theatre and drama, participation is down by almost a half. They wouldn’t accept it for their own kids. We won’t accept it for any kids. Never let anyone tell you that aspiration only belongs to the middle classes. Working-class parents like mine are just as ambitious for their kids and so am I. It’s our job to make sure that they have opportunities to match their ambitions.
Some parents make big financial sacrifices to send their kids to private schools because their kids are given the experience, the confidence and the expectation that they will become cabinet ministers, captains of industry and stars of screen and stage. With Labour, private education will be made redundant. Because we will make sure that every child in our country has those opportunities. Opportunities that give them the security that comes with having a good career, a home of your own and a strong community where you’d want your own children to grow up.
That’s why I’ve launched Labour’s ten by ten ambition – to give every child a great childhood with every child enjoying ten great experiences by the age of ten. Playing an instrument, learning to swim, riding a bike, competitive sport, drama, debating, camping, visiting museums and galleries, trips to the seaside and the countryside and great local libraries.
Because if there’s one thing – over and above everything else – that makes the most difference to tackling poverty in our society, it’s a great state education. It gave a boy from a council estate in Stepney the chance to become the first person in his family to graduate from university to stand here on this platform today. Labour in opposition can’t lift millions of children out of poverty, but a Labour government can. So let’s work together and win together to give every child the very best start in life.