Wes Streeting (Ilford North) (Lab)
This has been an excellent and wide-ranging debate. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron), and I say to my hon. Friend the Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Ms Rimmer) that it was well worth the wait to hear her speech on the importance of rebalancing health and social care to help us tackle the pressures on the NHS.
We have heard some fantastic speeches, disproportion-ately from the Opposition side of the House, I might say. My hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) highlighted the increasingly poor outcomes for pupils with special educational needs and disabilities, and in particular the terrible injustice of the growing inequality between those who can pay for a diagnosis and those who cannot. My hon. Friends the Members for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe) and for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury) made wide-ranging, powerful speeches on this Government’s failure on education catch-up, school buildings, Sure Start and so many of the pillars of educational success built by the last Labour Government and now sadly eroded under the last 12 years of Conservative Government. My hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) highlighted the link between mental health and educational outcome and the importance of prioritising mental health for children and young people.
My hon. Friends the Members for Bradford South (Judith Cummins), for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) and for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) all got their teeth into the crisis in dentistry; not for the first time, my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford South has sounded the alarm, but maybe the Secretary of State will listen to those alarms this time—if not to my bad puns.
My hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) gave a tub-thumping speech rightly asking where the employment Bill is and the promised employment rights that have failed to materialise. He also made a powerful argument for a full ban on conversion therapy. If this is to be the best place in the world for children to grow up, it is absolutely right that we ban that abhorrent practice; it is not therapy in the slightest. I pay particular tribute to the hon. Members for Bishop Auckland (Dehenna Davison) and for Birmingham, Northfield (Gary Sambrook), who highlighted the importance of this being an LGBT conversion therapy ban, and applaud them for making that case from the Government Benches. As the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield rightly said in what was a very entertaining speech, today this country has already become that little bit better as a place to grow up, thanks to the courage of Jake Daniels in becoming the first male footballer to come out since 1990. It really should not take courage in this day and age for a footballer to say that they are gay; in fact, it really should not be relevant at all, but sadly we know that it is. He has made himself a powerful role model and, I hope, an example that others will follow.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge highlighted the crisis in the NHS and the life-and-death consequences of ambulance waits. He asked “Where is the urgency?”—a very fair question that I hope the Secretary of State will answer. My hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Janet Daby) spoke powerfully about the experience of young people in the criminal justice system.
Then there were speeches about levelling up. My hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Mohammad Yasin) highlighted the gap between rhetoric and reality. My right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Dame Diana Johnson) well summarised the Government’s approach to levelling up in their planning reform: the Victor Meldrew approach, as she called it, levelling down next door’s conservatory—hardly the level of ambition that this country needs. My hon. Friend the Member for Bradford West (Naz Shah) highlighted how levelling up is a slogan without substance. There was a pretty interesting—depending on your perspective—effort from the hon. Member for Bosworth (Dr Evans), who offered a new slogan for the Government’s planning policies: “INBED with Gove”, a mental image that none of us wanted but that we have been left with none the less at this late hour.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bradford East (Imran Hussain) gave a searing account of poverty in his community. He is right: this is a matter of political choices. We heard about the consequences of those choices in the speeches of other hon. Friends. My hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) highlighted the disaster of children growing up in overcrowded temporary accommodation, with huge consequences for their learning and their life chances. My hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) spoke about having to run summer holiday lunch clubs and Christmas hamper schemes because of the grotesque level of poverty in her constituency.
My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) described the embarrassment and humiliation of parents who are unable to provide for their children. Children share their parents’ anxiety about how to make ends meet, so they do not even tell them when they are required to bring in some extra kit for school, such as for cooking classes, or when there is an extra ask for school trips. That is a thoroughly damning indictment of this Government.
If I may say so, as the son of a single mum, I was really moved by how my hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) described her experience. If only it were as simple as Ministers claimed on the morning round today—if only people could just put in a few extra hours or take on a better-paid job—but it is just not as simple as going out and finding more hours. Many of our constituents are already working three jobs. How many more jobs and how many more hours do the Government want them to take on?
I hope that hon. Members will forgive me, but the very best speech today was the maiden speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mrs Hamilton). We dearly, dearly miss her predecessor, our dear friend Jack Dromey, but I know that he would have been proud to see her make that speech today, as we all were.
This is a great country with a world of opportunity. I am glad that I was born in Britain, but this is also a country that is being held back by intolerable levels of inequality and by a Government who are simply unable to face up to the scale of the challenge. Half a million more children are set to be plunged into poverty, following the Chancellor’s spring statement. Two million adults are going full days without meals. Many more are relying on food banks to feed themselves and their family, as I found when I went around the country in the local election campaign. In Colchester, the food bank told me that NHS nurses were coming in and accessing it. Pensioner poverty is again on the rise, with out-of-control bills, a real-terms cut to the state pension and national insurance rises meaning that working pensioners will be more than £1,200 worse off over the next two years.
This cost of living crisis is not just a Treasury issue, but a health issue. If millions of people in this country face a choice whether to heat their homes or to eat regular meals, they will get sick or will fail to recover from sickness. Before we entered the pandemic, average life expectancy—surely the most basic measure of the progress of a country or a society—had stalled for the first time in decades. It is a mark of shame that, in 2022, in the sixth richest nation on earth, 5,000 people were admitted to hospital for malnutrition in the last six months. Cases of scurvy have doubled since 2010—scurvy! Twelve years of Conservative Government is ushering in the return of Dickensian diseases to Britain. What kind of country have we become when millions of people who work full time still cannot afford the basics?
The British people deserve a Government on their side. Instead, we have the only Government in the G7 who think that now is a good time to raise taxes on working people. We have a Government who are happy to add to working people’s tax burden but, as we know from members of the Cabinet, spend plenty of time avoiding paying their own. The Government promised 38 new pieces of legislation, but not a single one will put more money into people’s pockets. All the Government have to offer families struggling today are sneering lectures telling them to work harder, find a second or third job or book themselves in for a cookery class.
We have seen this Government’s approach when challenged on the cost of living. Blame the people. Blame the Bank of England. Blame anyone but themselves. Even when challenged about his own spring statement that plunges half a million more people into poverty, what was the Chancellor’s excuse? The computer said no. That did not stop him taking 20 quid a week off the poorest people in our country, did it? It worked then. Surely it works now.
Britain deserves better. We need a Government who understand what life is like for most people in this country. If we had such a Government, we would not have the Education Secretary talking about tipping the balance in favour of private schools. Who is he trying to kid? He is defending the 7% of people who go to private schools, who are going to have a brilliant world of opportunities available to them, but failing to stand up for the 93% who do not. Let me tell him about tipping the balance, as someone who received free school meals, went through the state education system and made it to Cambridge University. I was one of just 1% of kids on free school meals to make it to Cambridge University, and I am proud that I got there, but do not tell kids from state schools who are making it now, and who are finally being judged on their merits, that the system has been tilted in their favour. Those kids know full well from their life experience, from their childhood and from growing up under a Conservative Government that the party and his colleagues have done everything they can to tilt the balance in favour of people like him, from backgrounds like their own, at the expense of people from backgrounds like mine. That is the truth.
What the Education Secretary does not understand is that it is not talent or potential that is unevenly distributed in this country; it is opportunity. Participation in extracurricular activities is falling in state schools. Fewer children are doing sports, drama and music, and the least well-off children are three times more likely to do no extracurricular activities at all. The Conservative Government may accept this poverty of ambition for our children, but the Labour party will not. Just as we rebuilt the education system under the last Labour Government, so we will have the same level of ambition for the next one. I am very sorry to disappoint my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East, but we will be putting her lunch clubs out of business, because the next Labour Government will work to end child poverty, not to increase it.
I turn to health. There was just one mention of health in the Queen’s Speech: the long-awaited overhaul of the Mental Health Act. The proposed changes are welcome, but this legislation alone will not solve the challenges facing people who live with severe mental illness, reverse this Government’s persistent neglect of mental health services or narrow the gaping mental health inequalities that mean that black people are over four times more likely to be detained under the existing Act.
Our mental health services simply do not meet the scale of the challenge. A quarter of beds for patients struggling with poor mental health have been cut over the last 12 years. One in every three children who seeks support from mental health services is turned away at the door, and 1.6 million people in total are waiting for treatment. They are waiting too long, and those who are offered treatment are often sent to the other end of the country because there are no local beds and services available.
People struggling with poor mental health will not get the support they need if we do not have enough frontline staff. That is why Labour’s plan would guarantee mental health treatment within a month to all who need it. That would be done by investing in an additional 8,500 staff and offering specialist mental health support in every school. Because politics is about choices, let me be clear about the choices we would make. We would pay for that mental health support for every child in the country by removing the VAT exemption from private schools and closing tax loopholes for private equity fund managers. I know that the Education Secretary is pitching himself as a defender of private school privilege ahead of the next Conservative leadership election and the Health Secretary may well have benefited from these tax loopholes himself. Let me tell Members on the Conservative Benches—there will be a Conservative leadership election a lot sooner than there will be a Labour leadership election.
I hope we can agree that mental health is one of the most urgent needs of our time, particularly after the pandemic, which was difficult for so many. I am glad that the Health Secretary is here to respond, because I would like him to account for his Government’s record. Patients are being made to wait longer than ever before as we sleepwalk towards a two-tier system that betrays the founding principles of our NHS. The self-pay healthcare market in the UK has doubled since 2010. People have been forced to go private because they will not get the treatment that they need. Billions more have been spent on private insurance and operations. Private healthcare providers are rubbing their hands together because they know that people are increasingly choosing to jump the queue while the rest are left to wait for up to two years for care.
The Health Secretary will tell us, of course—let me save him some time—that our NHS is suffering from a covid backlog and that the problems facing the health service are all the result of the pandemic. There is a backlog in the NHS, but it is a Conservative backlog. The NHS was experiencing record waiting lists going into the pandemic. It was 100,000 staff short, with another 112,000 vacancies in social care. Suspected cancer patients have been waiting longer to be seen every single year since Labour left office. Not only was there just one piece of legislation across health and social care, but, as I mentioned, the Government have dropped their long-promised employment Bill. What does the Secretary of State say to the millions of family carers in this country who were promised a week’s carer’s leave—just one week a year to have a break—but who have been let down and left waiting again and again by this Government?
The fact is that the longer we give the Conservatives in office, the longer patients will wait: longer for a GP appointment, longer for an ambulance to arrive—now two hours for thousands of heart attack and stroke victims—longer for an operation, with some patients waiting since before the pandemic began, and longer for pensioners and the disabled to wait for suitable social care. We are paying more. We are waiting longer. That is the Conservative record, and the longer we give the Conservatives in office, the longer Britain waits. Well, their time is up.