The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997


Sir John Major’s Speech at Consortium for Street Children – 15 November 2016

Below is the text of Sir John Major’s speech at Consortium for Street Children on Tuesday 15 November 2016.


It is hard to believe it is nearly a quarter of a century since I spoke at the launch of the Consortium. Today, it is a global network to protect children, and its growth and success is largely due to the dedication of many of the pioneers who are here this evening. They have taken us a long way.

It is easy to see why they are so committed, and why I wished to be a part of their work 23 years ago. All children deserve care – not just some of them. They deserve a home, a family, security, education, adult guidance and – above all – love and affection. And yet – although we cannot be precise as to numbers – it is likely that, in 2016, 150 million children enjoy none of these benefits. They face the world alone, and can be found on every Continent. In every way, this is unacceptable.

When children are not cared for – we have all let them down. By we – I mean governments and individuals. It is – to me – extraordinary that they have been left so far behind for so long. Extraordinary – and indefensible. It is as if they are invisible to the conscience of the world.

Now – at last – we may be on the eve of a breakthrough that is long overdue. Next Spring, the United Nations will issue a General Comment – an unimaginative name for a vital advance. A General Comment is a legal framework that will offer guidance, and set out governments’ obligations to children and how our responsibilities to them should be met. This will provide – for the first time – an opportunity for civil society to hold policy-makers to account if they don’t take action: and for street children it could – and should – be Liberation Day.

But, of course, the effect of this won’t be instant – for the children or anyone else. The scale of the task is immense, and what needs to be done will take a very long time. But, once begun – and with continued advocacy – it should develop its own momentum.

On behalf of those street children everywhere who don’t know – and may never know – who their advocates have been, a heartfelt thank you to all those here this evening who have done so much to bring this about.

However, important though this advance is, it’s not enough. Declarations don’t house the homeless or feed the hungry. But it most definitely marks the beginning of what we hope will bring about the end of this truly terrible – and unacceptable – human neglect.

So we all need to make sure the General Comment is implemented fully. I say this because we have all seen how grudging the international response has been for refugee children – despite the horrors of Syria. This should make us realise that, although we may cheer this advance, we cannot yet celebrate a victory.

Over 23 years, and across 130 countries, hundreds of thousands of deprived children have been helped. But we have so much more to do. Sometimes their enemy is not disinterest – but the lack of Government action or the wrong action.

As a child in Harare told us about the police: “They treat us as animals, they can raid us and lock us up in a cell for three weeks and they would only give us dry bread for food.”

The General Comment can be used by Governments to eliminate police round-ups of children who are loitering, or sleeping in public places.

And, from a Mexican child: “There are street children who die, while others survive, because they don’t have the money to pay for a hospital.”

The General Comment spells out to governments their obligations to end discrimination so that, for example, specialised health services and education are made available – free of charge – to street children.

I could go on.

In the past, UN action has sometimes been ignored. We must make sure this one is not. These neglected children are in dire need and, having put so much effort into getting this far, we must understand that there is still so much more to be done.

Uruguay has – or is about to – announce that she will be an “Early Adopter” of the General Comment – which is tremendous news, but we must plead with/encourage/persuade others to do the same.

So we still need pledges – of help, of expertise, of cash – to increase the momentum of our campaign. As a wise man once said – “Money is the root of all progress”: and that is certainly true of our own work.

To those of you who already feel overwhelmed by all your other responsibilities, I would only say this: Many – most – of us present have children – or, in my own case, children and grandchildren. How would we feel if any one of them was condemned to live the life of a street child? Cold; hungry; and certainly alone; with no-one to turn to, and no-one to rely on. Even worse, without the most basic human need of all: hope.

Would we not think we had failed? Yes, we would.

So, in a sense, we are all parents of these lost children. And when we think of it in that way, we know we must help.

So, thank you for what you have done, are doing, and will be doing to help those who cannot help themselves.

Let me close with the following thought:

When you go home this evening, you – like millions of others around the world – will walk into a warm and welcoming place. You may pour yourself a glass of wine … or two. You may look inside a well-stocked fridge for a snack. You may pop something into the oven. Or flip on the kettle to make a hot drink. You will then climb into a soft and comfortable bed; warm, well-fed and – above all – safe and secure behind a locked door.

As I say, like millions of others. But with one key difference: as you turn the lights out you will be the ones who – by being here tonight – have helped some of the youngest and most vulnerable people in our world clamber out of despair to – hopefully – experience the same degree of comfort and security.

And that, I hope, will lead to a very peaceful night’s sleep indeed.

Thank you for being here, and joining our crusade for fairness to children: it is a cause to warm the conscience.