Child Poverty.

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 Not alone is eligibility not being expanded but medical cards are being withdrawn from people at a time when the Government is increasing charges for health care and medicines.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%.

The pre-budget submission by the Children's Rights Alliance advocates the implementation of a range of measures towards the objective of ending child poverty. Our programme for Government recognises that the tackling of child poverty is a core element of our work and several initiatives are in place to enable us to progressively achieve the goal of ending child poverty in our society.

Children have been specifically identified as a group vulnerable to poverty in the revised national anti-poverty strategy, NAPS, Building an Inclusive Society, published by the Government in February 2002. A key overall objective of the strategy is to eliminate child poverty and move to a situation of greater equality for all children in terms of access to appropriate education, health and housing, thus breaking the cycle of disadvantage and exclusion experienced by certain children in society.

The NAPS contains a specific commitment to set the equivalence rate for basic child income support at 33% to 35% of the minimum adult social welfare payment rate. This commitment is allied to one which aims to achieve, by 2007, a rate of €150 per week, in 2002 terms, for the lowest rates of social welfare. The revised NAPS also includes a number of specific targets relating to children, notably in the areas of education and health.

The most recent results available, from the Living in Ireland Survey of 2000, show that we have made significant progress in relation to reducing child poverty in recent years. From a level of 24.8% in 1987, consistent poverty among children fell to a level of 8% in 2000. A number of factors have positively influenced this trend, the most important of which is the unprecedented growth in employment and fall in unemployment that we have experienced in recent years. Significantly fewer children are now living in workless households. Unemployment now stands at just over 4% compared to the level of 11.9% in April 1996, the latest figure at the time the NAPS was launched, a very substantial achievement.

A second key factor is the effective use of the child benefit scheme in combating child poverty. This is mainly due to the fact that it is neither taxed nor withdrawn if employment is taken up and thus does not contribute to poverty or unemployment traps or create employment disincentives. Payments under the scheme now amount to €117.60 for the first and second children and €147.30 for the third and subsequent children. This represents a trebling of payments since 1997.

The heavy investment of the last two years has yet to be reflected in the child poverty rates as the latest poverty figures, as I have stated, relate to the year 2000. While the extent of child poverty, and the progress we make towards eliminating it, are largely measured through factors related to income levels, interventions not directly related to income, such as family policy, have a direct effect on children's lives and can help prevent poverty and social exclusion, both now and in the future.

The ambition of eliminating child poverty is extended to the national children's strategy, published in November 2000, a ten year Government plan to improve children's lives. The plan covers a wide range of areas relating to children, including the issue of child poverty. The strategy embraces a whole child perspective, which reflects a more complete understanding of how children live their lives and the central role families and local communities play. New structures have been established to support the implementation of the strategy, including a Cabinet committee on children, a broader role for the Minister with responsibility for children, the establishment of a national children's office and a role for the city and county development boards in the local implementation of the strategy, the objective of which in relation to child poverty is to provide children with the financial supports necessary to eliminate child poverty.

In addition to setting targets under the NAPS and increases in child benefit, the actions proposed under the child poverty objective of the strategy include initiatives to support money management in families and further securing supports for lone parent families. We have made significant progress in recent years in reducing child poverty. However, the dynamic nature of poverty and social exclusion ensues we need to adjust our policy responses to meet new needs all the time. I am confident that the policy frameworks in place allow for a multi-dimensional response to the problem of child poverty, the eventual elimination of which will remain a priority for the Government.

The Dáil adjourned at 5.25 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 19 November 2002.