I propose to take Questions Nos. 88, 90, 120, 127 and 151 together.
The CORI Justice annual socio-economic review published last week sets out a comprehensive and detailed analysis of developments in Ireland in recent years and the challenges Ireland faces to achieve a fairer society. I welcome the review and its contribution to shaping policy priorities to bring about a more inclusive society.
The review acknowledges the significant progress that has been made in lifting people out of poverty. The "poverty line" used in the review refers to the income threshold based on a percentage of average median income. This percentage is 60 per cent for the EU threshold. People with incomes below the 60 per cent threshold are regarded by the EU as being "at risk of poverty", relative to the prevailing living standards of the countries where they reside. Whether people "at risk" are actually in poverty depends on other factors such as degree to which their income is below the threshold, the duration of low income, employment participation, family responsibilities, disabilities, housing and access to other resources and services. A high proportion in this category in more developed and prosperous countries such as Ireland are not experiencing actual poverty.
For example, 60 per cent of median income for a family of two adults and two children in Ireland in 2004 (latest comparable figures available) was 17,802 euro. By comparison, this threshold was four times higher than that for Bulgaria which was 4,269 euro and significantly higher than that for a number of other EU countries. This means that many classified as "at risk of poverty" in Ireland have incomes and purchasing power that would put them well above the "at risk of poverty" threshold in many other EU countries. To provide a more balanced view of the situation the EU Commission now publishes a table giving the levels of the 60 percent threshold for all EU countries adjusted for purchasing power.
For the UN, the percentage of average median income used is 50 per cent. Using the latest EU SILC figures for 2006, 9.1 per cent overall were below the 50 per cent threshold, compared to 18.5 percent below the 60 per cent threshold.
The consistent poverty measure, developed by the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI), measures actual poverty and deprivation as compared to relative income. It is used in Ireland as the basis for setting objectives and targets and measuring progress under the national anti-poverty strategies and national action plans. .A person with income below 60 per cent of median income is regarded as being in consistent poverty if he or she also experiences deprivation in relation to two out of 11 items considered essential for a basic standard of living in Ireland. The importance and value of this type of measure is now recognised at EU level. Work is in progress to develop a clear and consistent basis for its application EU wide to complement the "at risk of poverty" measure in providing a more balanced and accurate analysis of the overall poverty situation.
There is, however, no acceptable level of poverty and tackling poverty and social exclusion remain key priorities for the Government. The degree of progress made in recent years, however, augurs well for what can be achieved in the future. For example, unemployment in the last quarter of 2007 at 4.5 per cent and long term unemployment at 1.2 per cent are among the lowest in the EU. Between 1997 and 2008 spending on social welfare increased from €5.7 billion to €17 billion. The impact of these changes has resulted, for example, on the basis the most recent information available, in the consistent poverty rate being reduced from 8.2 per cent in 2003, when the EU-SILC survey was first introduced, to 6.5 per cent in 2006.
Looking to the future, the overall goal of the National Action Plan for Social Inclusion (NAPinclusion) 2007-2016 and the social inclusion commitments in the National Development Plan is to reduce the number of persons experiencing consistent poverty to between 2 per cent and 4 per cent by 2012, with the aim of eliminating consistent poverty by 2016. Twelve high level strategic goals and over 150 detailed targets are designed to achieve this aim. They cover a range of services that includes early childhood development and care, education, health and long-term care, housing, income support, employment supports.
However, experience has shown that more effective outcomes can be achieved by an integrated approach that focuses on the multifaceted needs of people and by greater coordination of policies and programmes to meet those needs. The NAPinclusion addresses this challenge through adopting a lifecycle stage approach, in line with Towards 2016, with specific measurable goals set for each lifecycle group: children; people of working age; older people and people with disabilities; and their communities.
Ending child poverty is a particular priority. Budget 2008, for example, included €194 million improvements in income supports to combat child poverty focused on increases in the early childcare supplement and in child benefit. Further such improvements for families with children included increases in the family income supplement, in the back to school clothing and footwear allowance and the school meals scheme.
Employment is the main route of poverty. Most children in poverty or at risk of poverty are in households where parents are not in employment or in low income employment. A major priority in the strategies is to remove obstacles and disincentives to employment for those of working age such as access to education and training, income support, health, housing, transport, and lack of child care services through an integrated policy approach at both national and local levels. Provision for carers is also being significantly improved. These actions are specifically targeted at those of working age that are identified in the CORI review as being most vulnerable to poverty and social exclusion, including the working poor, lone parents and people with disabilities.
A further major priority is to ensure that older people, who are most dependent on income support, health and other relevant services, have an adequate standard of living and a good quality of life. Budget 2008 has taken the first step to fulfilling the Programme for Government commitment to achieving a pension of at least 300 euro per week by 2012 by increasing the State Pension (Contributory) by 14 euro a week to 223.30 euro and the State Pension (Non- Contributory) by 12 euro a week to 212 euro. Since 2002, the level of the State Pension (Contributory) has increased by over 147.30 euro to 223.30 euro. These measures have contributed to reducing consistent poverty among this group by almost a third from 3.1 per cent in 2005 to 2.2 per cent in 2006. The proportion of older people below the EU ‘at risk of poverty' threshold has also more than halved from 29.8 in 2003 per cent to 13.6 per cent in 2006.
My priority, in working with Government to deliver the NAP inclusion over the coming years, is to build on the significant and visible progress already made in reducing poverty. It will involve, in particular, delivering real improvements in living standards and well-being for the most vulnerable in our society and continued investment in a range of measures to bring about the fairer and more inclusive society to which we all aspire. Full account will be taken of CORI's analysis and recommendations in the further development of policies and programmes to achieve these goals.