I propose to take Questions Nos. 60, 118 and 128 together.
I recently launched the Combat Poverty Agency study on the dynamics of child poverty. The study's key findings are that children tend to move in and out of poverty and that child poverty, and its duration, are affected by a wide range of factors, including the employment, education and health status of parents, and by the number and age of children in the household. The report accordingly recommends that the policy response to child poverty should be multi-dimensional in nature, focusing on income supports, combined with measures that support employment, education and accessibility of services such as childcare and health.
This Government does have a strategic process in place for combating poverty, including child poverty, in the form of the National Action Plan against Poverty and Social Exclusion (NAP/inclusion) and the National Children's Strategy. "Ending Child Poverty" was also one of ten special initiatives under the social partnership agreement, Sustaining Progress. While these elements remain under active progression, I fully expect that the successor to Sustaining Progress and the next NAP/inclusion 2006-2008 will add further impetus to the process. The Agency's latest report will contribute to policy development in this area.
It is estimated that some 65,000 children remain in consistent poverty, and moving these children out of poverty remains my priority. I hope in this regard to build on the good progress we have made so far. Some 100,000 children have been lifted out of deprivation inside the last decade as a result of targeted measures and supports. The most significant measure my own Department has taken in recent years to support families with children has been the very substantial real increases in child benefit rates. Between 1997 and 2006, the rate of child benefit rose from EUR38.09 per month for the first two children and EUR49.52 for each child thereafter to EUR150.00 per month for each of the first two children and to EUR185.00 per month for the third and each subsequent child. Child benefit is paid to over half a million families in respect of approximately 1.1 million children at a cost in 2006 of more than EUR2 billion.
Child dependent allowances are also paid each week in respect of some 349,000 children. The National Economic and Social Council (NESC) has been examining how these allowances could be incorporated into a new second tier of financial supports, in addition to child benefit and other entitlements, aimed specifically at helping those children most in need. I expect to shortly receive specific proposals from the Council in this regard.
I have also made substantial improvements to the family income supplement which assists families at work on low pay. Assessment of entitlement to payment is now on the basis of net rather than gross income, while increases in the income limits have made it easier for lower-income households to qualify under the scheme. My Department also undertook a very successful nationwide awareness campaign last March to promote and encourage take up of the scheme.
Additional to the above improvements, Budget 2006 contained a range of measures aimed at families with children, which resulted in part from the work of an inter-departmental working group on early child care and education, chaired by the National Children's Office. More than 350,000 children under 6 years of age, in 250,000 families, will qualify for the new annual EUR1,000 early childcare supplement which will be paid on an agency basis by my Department. The cost of the supplement will be approximately EUR360 million in a full year.
Targeted early childhood education provision is a key element of the School Support Programme (SSP), under the new action plan for educational inclusion DEIS (Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools), which provides for a standardised system for identifying levels of disadvantage. The objective in relation to early childhood education is to concentrate actions initially on those children aged from three up to school enrolment, who will subsequently attend the 180 urban/town primary schools serving the most disadvantaged communities. The Department of Education and Science is working in partnership with my department and other departments and agencies to complement and add value to existing childcare programmes in disadvantaged communities, with a view to ensuring that the overall care and education needs of the children concerned are met in an integrated manner.
One of the key tasks in the "Ending Child Poverty" initiative under Sustaining Progress was to address obstacles to employment for lone parents, whose children are among those most at risk of poverty. Arising from work done in this area by the Senior Officials Group on Social Inclusion and a working group chaired by my Department, I launched in March of this year a major Government discussion paper, "Proposals for Supporting Lone Parents". The report puts forward radical proposals for reform of the income support system for all parents on a low income. It proposes an expanded availability and range of education and training opportunities; the extension of the National Employment Action Plan; focused provision of childcare; improved information services and the introduction of a new Parental Allowance for low income families with young children. These proposals are currently the subject of an extensive consultation process and I expect to bring proposals for legislation in the course of this year. Preparation of an implementation plan regarding the non-income recommendations of the discussion paper is in progress.
The establishment of the Office of the Minister for Children under the Minister for Children represents a major re-organisation of policy and services for children and brings together the areas of child welfare and protection, childcare, youth justice, early childhood care and education and responsibility for the National Children's Strategy. This structure will facilitate the development of a strategic and co-ordinated approach to children's policy and the delivery of services, both at national and local level.
I am confident that, through the targeted measures already being taken by this Government, and the initiatives being planned, a decisive and lasting impact will be made in the eradication of child poverty.