The report to which the Deputy refers is, I understand, Community Platform's mid-term review of the Sustaining Progress agreement. A copy of the report was made available to my Department yesterday and is being examined. As Minister with overall responsibility for the national action plan against poverty and social exclusion, I noted the platform's reported contention that national partnership is not meeting the needs of people living in poverty. The Deputy will be aware that Sustaining Progress and the plan against poverty and social exclusion are complementary strategic initiatives aimed at delivering a fair and inclusive society to all citizens. Spending on social welfare has increased from €7.8 billion to €12.2 billion since 2001. During this period, the lowest social welfare rates have increased by 40% while the consumer price index has increased by just over 13%.
On foot of the 2005 budget, welfare payments have increased by three times the expected rate of inflation. Over its lifetime and in addition to increases in weekly payments, the Government has introduced substantial increases under the child benefit scheme which is a key element of its drive to combat child poverty. Between 1997 and April 2005, the rate of child benefit was increased from €38.09 per month for the first two children and €49.52 for each child thereafter to €141.60 per month for each of the first two children and to €177.30 per month for the third and each subsequent child. There have also been significant improvements in my Department's family income supplement scheme, including the assessment of entitlements on the basis of net rather than gross income and progressive increases in the income limits. It must be further emphasised that improvements in social welfare have taken place against the backdrop of Ireland's achievement of the lowest unemployment rate, at 4.4%, in the EU.
To address the circumstances of those children most at risk of poverty, I am considering the introduction of a second tier of supports in addition to child benefit and other support entitlements to be aimed specifically at families in greatest need. I am also concerned about the vulnerable circumstances of many lone parents, most of whom are women. My Department is involved in an interdepartmental working group which is developing a strategy to eliminate obstacles to employment for lone parents. My Department is also participating in an interdepartmental working committee on early child care and education which is chaired by the National Children's Office. The work of the committee is at an advanced stage and its outcome will make an important contribution to the determination of the right mix of services and income support to facilitate employment take-up and care for children.
Poverty is a multidimensional problem which requires action across a wide range of policy areas if it is to be tackled decisively. In addition to income supports, the national action plan sets ambitious targets across a range of policy areas, including employment, health, education, housing and accommodation, all of which impact on poverty and social exclusion. Social inclusion commitments under Sustaining Progress, especially many of the special initiatives to be progressed during the lifetime of the agreement have added a strong impetus. There has been substantial social partnership involvement in the development and ongoing implementation of the national action plan against poverty and social exclusion. The social partners are represented on the social inclusion consultative group, which along with other institutional structures, supports the implementation, monitoring and evaluation of the national action plan.