Priority Questions. - Child Support.

Frances Fitzgerald

Question:

104 Ms Fitzgerald asked the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs the extent of child poverty and his response to the NESF (No. 8) report which finds that 25% of children live in households whose income is below half the average income and that Irish children have the highest rate of income poverty in the EU; the measures he will take to ensure the Government's failure to poverty proof budget 2000 is not repeated; the action he will take to address this issue; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [20267/00]

The National Economic and Social Forum's Opinion No. 8 commented that 25% of children live in households with below half the average income and that Irish children have the highest rate of income poverty in the EU. Based on the 1997 figures, this places Ireland in a similar position to the UK and Portugal as regards income poverty.

The PPF provides an opportunity to progress a number of policies on the needs of children. Under the terms of Framework III of the pro gramme, new targets will be considered under the various NAPS themes, including child poverty. These targets are to be considered in consultation with the social partners.

The view that child benefit represents a key instrument in tackling child poverty is widely acknowledged. The 2000 budget provided substantial increases in monthly rates of child benefit resulting in a full year increase in investment of £106 million – a record increase in child benefit. This brings the total investment in the scheme to £575 million.

The PPF also contains a commitment to substantially increase child benefit over the lifetime of the programme with a priority focus towards £100 per month for the third and subsequent children. This year the basic monthly rates for child benefit have risen to £42.50 for the first two children and £56 for the third and subsequent children.

I have always stated that employment is the best way out of poverty for adults and children. The Government's policy is to ensure that everyone has an opportunity to fully participate in society and work is the key to achieving this objective for those who can work. Measures such as the family income supplement have helped to encourage parents back into the work force By increasing income from work, the individuals themselves are not the only ones to benefit, but also the families and communities in which they live.

On a more general note, all policy proposals across Departments are poverty proofed to ensure the needs of children along with other target groups are kept to the fore in the design of policy.

At the time of the Celtic tiger, is it not a dreadful indictment that a report by the NESF published a few weeks ago indicated that 25% of children live in households on below half the average income and that Irish children have the highest rate of income poverty in the EU? What measures will the Minister take to address this situation? Has he set new targets for the elimination of child poverty? Does he believe that child dependant allowances should be restored in addition to significant increases in child benefit to begin to deal with the disastrous effects child poverty has on the lives of children over their entire lifetime, as we know from research? What priority is the Minister giving this issue? Is this his key priority area?

ESRI figures published last Friday by myself and the Taoiseach at the launch of the second annual report on NAPS show a sharp decline in poverty in recent times. Those figures were based on 1998 and the ESRI indicates there has been a further substantial reduction in the past two years. The Government has decided to include child poverty under the new NAPS targets. Under the PPF we have agreed to consult the social partners in this respect.

Has the Minister reached agreement with the social partners on the target for child poverty?

No, the issue of including it, and the parameters in that respect, are being discussed with the social partners. That is the agreement under the PPF. In 1994, households with children accounted for more than half those below the 50% relative income level. This figure fell to 28% in 1998.

I recently launched an evaluation report on the one parent family payment in which I indicated we were taking steps to assist lone parents. Children in single parent families are the most likely to fall into poverty because the parent has less ability to work. Parents in two parent families have a better chance of participating in the economy.

The Minister referred to a fall in the figures for consistent poverty. However, is it not the case that despite the fall in consistent poverty, relative poverty remains a major problem and that children are particularly at risk, as is pointed out by the report?

Statistics can be used. Relative poverty is not accepted on its own as an indication of poverty. Consistent poverty is probably the best indicator. Everyone in politics knows that 110,000 people have come off the live register since this Government took office. Given that in 1990 one million people were working and now there are 1.5 million people working, it is obvious that this has assisted, particularly in geographic areas where up to recently people could not even get a job interview because they had given a certain estate as their address. Such people now have equal opportunity. Because of that the pattern of intergenerational unemployment and the consequent intergenerational poverty is broken. That is not to say we do not still have difficulties. We do. However, if one looks at the latest statistics from the ESRI and the indications from the ESRI for the future, it can be seen that we are tackling poverty in a sustained, targeted and strategic way. It is not something at which one can wave a magic wand and solve the problem overnight.