I am pleased to have the opportunity to raise this issue.
I congratulate the Children's Rights Alliance on the excellent work it is doing. Unfortunately, I congratulate it on a day when we have to condemn the Government's decision to target children and the poorest and sickest in society by axing its promise to extend the medical card scheme to an extra 200,000 people. These cuts are being introduced at a time when casualty and prescription charges have been increased. The commitment given in the health strategy just a year ago is one of many reneged on by the Government.
It is unfortunate that those on the lowest income, as low as €130 a week, should be targeted to pay for the Government's mishandling of the nation's finances. Not alone is eligibility not being expanded but medical cards are being withdrawn from people at a time when the Government is increasing charges for health care and medicines. It is counter productive to deny access to primary care. Early intervention can save thousands of euro in hospital costs.
The Estimates for the Department of Health and Children indicate that many of the services that relate to children, such as dental, ophthalmic and aural services and pre-school support schemes have benefited by only 5% while medical inflation is at 10%. The domiciliary care allowance and maternity grant have been increased by only 1%. In effect, these are cuts in services to children.
The UN convention on the rights of the child states that every child has the right to an adequate standard of living and that states party to the convention have an obligation to ensure children are able to fully develop their human potential. Ireland is a State party to the convention, having ratified the human rights treaty in 1992. At least 8% of Irish children live in constant poverty. That means they live in a household with an income below 60% of average disposable income and experience enforced basic deprivation. Approximately 24% of Irish children lived in relative income poverty in 2000 with a household income of below 50% of the average disposable income.
A recent conference on child poverty featured the launch of a major study on ending child poverty in rich countries and found that employment based strategies alone cannot be relied on to eliminate poverty. The conference, which drew together Irish and international experts on poverty and social development, called for the expansion of a universal child benefit payment combined with targeted supplementary payments for disadvantaged families. More than any other group in society children are vulnerable to the negative impact of spending and tax policy decisions made during periods of financial crisis. This is particularly true for children who live in poverty, for those with special needs and for those who can secure their fundamental human rights only if and when the Government meets its obligations.
Recently there has been a succession of announcements and proposals which are inconsistent with the best interests of children and if implemented they will undermine and potentially reverse a number of national policies and commitments relating to children. Cuts in programmes for those with educational disadvantage, cancellation of the extension of the medical card to hundreds of thousands of families who live in poverty, shelving much of the health strategy and the suggestion that child benefit be taxed are but a few of the announced or reported cuts that involve the rights and welfare of children. In this environment virtually every element of the national children's strategy and the national anti-poverty strategy requiring public expenditure is at risk and in need of defensive campaigns to preserve some degree of what was promised or what exists already.
A group of three wise men, whose views on children's rights and needs are unknown, have been asked to undertake a review of all Government spending, including that on programmes which affect children. Another group has been established to examine tax policy. At 3.20 p.m. today the Children's Rights Alliance condemned the Government's decision to break its promise to provide medical cards and Mr. Dooley stated, "We try to teach our children the importance of keeping our promises. What are they to think when they hear that the Government is breaking its promise to them, the children? What kind of example is that to set for children?"
We are disappointed the increase in the Health Estimates for mental health services is just 5% at a time when medical inflation is at 10%. That is, effectively, a cut of 5%.