Barnardos and Society of St. Vincent de Paul: Pre-Budget Discussion

I welcome Dr. Tricia Keilthy, acting head of social justice and policy, Society of St. Vincent de Paul, SVP, and Ms Suzanne Connolly, director of children's services and chief executive officer designate, and Ms Niamh Kelly, policy officer, Barnardos. I will invite the witnesses to make opening statements in a moment, following which I will afford colleagues an opportunity to ask questions.

I draw the attention of witnesses to the fact that by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, they are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. However, if they are directed by the Chairman to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.

I also advise them that any submission or opening statement they have made to the committee will be published on the committee web page after this meeting.

Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

I ask everyone to turn off their mobile phones. Apart from interfering with the meeting, they interfere with its recording. In invite Dr. Keilthy to make her opening statement.

Dr. Tricia Keilthy

I thank the committee. The Society of St. Vincent de Paul is delighted by and welcomes the invitation to outline our proposals for budget 2019. I will begin by providing the context in which we suggest our priorities.

The negative social and economic costs arising from the recession are still apparent to members of the society throughout Ireland. As the pervasive impact of the housing and homeless crisis intensified over the past 12 months, our 11,000 members continued to provide support to thousands of families in need, including help with food, fuel and education costs. In 2017, one in three of the 130,000 calls for help to SVP were related to food poverty. Our experience shows that when times are tough, food is typically what families cut back on. Increasing housing and energy costs mean this is increasingly the case. In 2016, the society spent more than €30 million providing direct assistance to households in need. It is clear that the costs of childcare, housing, education, utilities, transport and healthcare are impacting dramatically on people's ability to get out and stay out of poverty. As such, our 2019 pre-budget submission focuses on five priority areas, namely housing and homelessness; education, including early years education; energy and utilities; income adequacy, which is of most interest to the committee today, and health care. Ireland must invest significantly in these critical areas if we want to tackle inequality and social exclusion. It is essential, therefore, that our policy priorities for the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection are read in the context of our entire pre-budget submission which seeks to balance investment in public services with income supports and emphasises investment in public services and supports over reducing taxes.

I turn to income adequacy. Social welfare schemes are an essential form of support and are the last resort for those in difficult circumstances. It is vital, therefore, that all social welfare payments are adequate so that people do not continue to be trapped in poverty. First and foremost, we ask that social welfare rates be set at a level that is sufficient to lift people out of poverty and provide them with a minimum essential standard of living, or MESL. Reaching this target will require action over a number of budget years, but it must begin with incremental changes in budget 2019. Recent research published by our colleagues in the Vincentian Partnership for Social Justice shows that budget 2018 increases in social welfare helped some households to move towards income adequacy and a minimum essential standard of living. Nevertheless, the partnership's analysis is that more than 70% of urban households do not have a sufficient income to meet an MESL. One-parent families, people living in rural areas, single working-age adults and households with older children are at the highest risk of income inadequacy. For example, social welfare income for a one-parent family with two children living in a rural area is €153 short of what that family requires to cover basic needs. The reality behind these figures is reflected in the work of SVP members who visit people in their homes every week. These families face the stress of having to choose between paying for electricity or food and the daily worry that a car may break down or that someone may get sick, which will require cutting back some other necessity.

Lone parents are at the greatest risk of income inadequacy and continue to be the largest group assisted by the society as children in these households are almost four times more likely to experience consistent poverty. Since 2012, SVP has been particularly critical of the decision to abolish the features of the one-parent family payment which supported lone parents to take up employment and education. Research published by the ESRI last week shows clearly that changes to the support resulted in income losses for employed lone parents.

That is why we are asking that the earning disregard is increased to €161 to restore the 2010 value in terms of hours worked at the national minimum wage. We also request that the working family payment be made payable with the jobseeker's transition payment and that the anomalies created by the reforms, which made it more difficult to access Student Universal Support Ireland, SUSI, maintenance, are addressed.

The rate for those under 26 is a potential driving factor in increased rates of poverty, deprivation, homelessness and emigration among this group. For example, between 2007 and 2015, the rate of severe deprivation among those aged between 18 to 24 increased twice as much as those in the general population. Age segregation in the social welfare system must end. We are requesting that the adult rate of jobseeker's allowance be restored to those aged under 26 on a phased basis over the next three budgets. We are also asking that the cost of education allowance is extended to all recipients of the back to education allowance, not just those with child dependants.

In terms of energy poverty, in the past six months almost all energy suppliers have increased their costs as a result of increasing wholesale prices and that is reflected in the work of our members who are seeing a rise in requests for support with utility costs. There has been an average increase of 7.6% in energy costs in the past 12 months up to May 2018.

Investing in more appropriate and tailored dissemination and outreach initiatives and campaigns towards those households in energy poverty and expanding schemes to improve energy efficiency, particularly in the private rented sector, are key asks in our budget submission to the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment. Nevertheless, income supports are vital for energy poor households and that is why we ask that fuel allowance be increased to a value of €795 to restore purchasing power parity to 2010 levels. This can be achieved by increasing the rate to €24.85 and reintroducing the 32 weeks payment period.

In addition, with more unpredictable weather patterns, we are also requesting that a cold weather payment be introduced to ensure that energy poor households have some certainty in terms of energy costs during prolonged periods of cold weather. Increasing the living alone allowance by €3 can also provide additional protection to older people who are more vulnerable to energy poverty.

In terms of the exceptional needs payment, it is our experience that the reduction in Government spending on the programme by 60% between 2008 and 2017 and the restructuring of services, including the closure of local offices, has imposed further hardship on low-income people. It is the experience of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul that this budget reduction is resulting in officers having to refuse payments they would have previously approved or approving payments for lower amounts. Delays and difficulties in accessing services create unnecessary stress and strain on people when they are vulnerable. It is critical that front-line services are adequately funded and that the total budget available for exceptional needs payments is increased by €20 million to meet exceptional and unexpected costs faced by low-income families.

SPV is asking that budget 2019 would reflect a real commitment to tackling poverty and deliver on the goals of a more fair and inclusive society. That will require a genuine whole-of-Government approach to budgetary decisions and assessing all public expenditure against its impact on poverty. When prioritising resources decisions should be equitable, fair and just, protect the vulnerable, address structural inequalities and promote the well-being of this and future generations.

I thank Dr. Keilthy. Our next speaker is Ms Suzanne Connolly. I note that Ms. Connolly is chief executive officer, CEO, designate so in that regard, I wish her well in her future role. I invite her to make her opening statement.

Ms Suzanne Connolly

I thank the Chairman. On behalf of Barnardos I thank the committee for the invitation to speak here today. Barnardos works directly with more than 15,000 children and families, providing services in 40 centres throughout the country. We see first-hand the transformative effect child centred policy decisions can have on a child’s life but, too often, we see how a lack of statutory investment means that children are lost. When a child is lost, the world takes notice. It is front page news. However, one in seven children in Ireland is lost. We lose children every day to homelessness, poverty and neglect. These children are lost through no fault of their own and it is entirely preventable.

It is ten years on from the economic crash and by adopting austerity policies, the State may have ensured Ireland’s economy recovered but it also guaranteed that those hit hardest by the recession are those who are most vulnerable. Child poverty has risen exponentially during this time from 6% of children in 2008 to 11% in 2016; that is more than 73,000 children. For a decade, these children have been forgotten. That is collateral damage of a financial crisis created before they were even born and in 2019, we have an opportunity to transform these children’s lives.

The most effective way for the Government to ensure a child reaches their potential is to support their family. We recommend that the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection focuses on two income supports in 2019, namely, those for lone parent families and families with teenagers. Lone parent families are consistently among the most vulnerable in society and families with teenagers face increased costs when it comes to food, clothing, school and social costs. We call on the Government to make changes to the payments and schemes available to lone parents to support them rather than penalise them when trying to access employment. For families with children over 12 years of age, we ask the Government to increase the qualified child payment by €5 per child at a cost of €35 million.

Parents are the biggest influence in a child’s early life, particularly in their first year. Paid parental leave in a child’s first year, shared between both parents, is increasingly recognised as both in the best interests of the child and good for society in general. In Ireland, a 2018 survey found that 69% of people are in favour of financial support for parents to stay at home for the first 12 months of their child’s life. Developing strong attachment between parent and child early on is critical in promoting positive outcomes for children. We recommend the introduction of an additional eight weeks paid leave in a child’s first year to be shared between both parents at a cost of €59.2 million per year, with a commitment to a further 16 weeks split over two consecutive budgets.

Making education a positive experience for all children, no matter how much money their parents earn or where they live, should be a core goal of budget 2019 if the Government truly intends making Ireland’s education system the best in Europe by 2020. While the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection assists some families with the cost of school through the back to school clothing and footwear allowance, this represents just a portion of the cost of sending a child to school. Barnardos school costs survey highlights the cost of sending children to school in Ireland. School books are essential for children to receive an education yet we know they are expensive, subject to change and increasingly issued in single use format. We recommend €20 million of the Department’s budget be diverted to fund free school books for primary school children.

Barnardos welcomes the increase in this year’s budget for the school meals programme. However, there remains a significant shortage of appropriate food preparation and storage facilities in schools, which affects the effectiveness and sustainability of the school meals programme. We recommend further investment of capital grants to improve school infrastructure and capacity to provide nutritious meals for children at a cost of €2 million.

The Department supports families to secure and retain a home through rent supplement. As more tenancies switch to the housing assistance payment funded by Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, this Department should shift its focus to other supports being made available to families in the home. We work with families across the country experiencing homelessness and food, travel and social costs in emergency accommodation for these families are significant. We recommend an emergency accommodation expenses payment be made available to families experiencing homelessness at a cost of €61 million.

The cost of heating and powering a home is on the rise, with a 5% increase in the past year. The past decade has seen a near 20% increase in the cost of fuel and electricity, which represents a higher proportion of household expenditure for those who earn the least, and a price hike hits them hardest. Fuel poverty impacts children’s health and can mean children have less food, clothes and other basic necessities.

We recommend an increase in the fuel allowance by €5 per week at a cost of €45.6 million.

Our vision is for a country where no child has to suffer and where each child is able to reach his or her fullest potential. Investing in children in budget 2019 would go some way to realising this vision. Our statement this morning has focused on our recommendations to the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection but Barnardos has made a number of recommendations to other Departments, which we would be happy to discuss also. We look forward to hearing members' thoughts on our proposals and welcome any questions the committee might have.

I thank the witnesses for their opening statements. This discussion is part of a process and it should not be viewed in isolation. In advance of the budget, the Minister will sit on that side of the room and committee members, who will have read submissions and heard testimony from other organisations, will address those issues directly to the Minister. For the witnesses' information, the committee last year submitted a significant piece of work on lone parents. That report was published and we challenged the Minister with it in last year's budget. To be fair to the Minister, some issues were addressed. Members have discussed this and while the report may be a year old, the recommendations and the findings are as relevant today as when the report was published. We will be re-focusing on this with the Minister. I want to give the witnesses a sense that this is not just a one-day appearance. This engagement is in preparation for a meeting the committee will have. The testimony and opening statements that we hear today, along with the other pre-budget submissions, will be addressed to the Minister by the committee. I wanted the witnesses to understand this.

I welcome all the witnesses and thank them for their excellent presentations, which are really appreciated and helpful on an annual basis as we head into the budgetary process. I have engaged with the witnesses continually and it is striking that all the issues contained in the pre-budget submissions are the same issues year on year.

The facts and statistic from the Central Statistics Office, CSO, and the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, all show the same trends of figures increasing for the most vulnerable people in society, those living in poverty or at risk of poverty. The latest ESRI report highlights two specific groups where the figures are frightening, namely, one-parent families and people with disabilities. One-parent families are at a 26% higher risk of living in poverty. The figure for people with disabilities is 11%, which is well above our EU counterparts. It is even more striking that we do not have an anti-poverty strategy. Perhaps the witnesses will give their views on this. We seem to be a rudderless boat in this regard.

All the evidence and statistics show that poverty levels are increasing. The total money paid out by charities such as the Society of St. Vincent de Paul is going up annually. The evidence shows a rise in fuel poverty because much of the money goes to help families to heat their homes, be it trying to pay electricity bills that increase annually. Some €12.5 million was paid out in food vouchers. This is staggering in this day and age. All the evidence is there. I commend the work being done by Barnardos and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul but unless an anti-poverty strategy is introduced, the Government cannot target measures in the budget or be serious about tackling any of the real issues facing real people.

I and many groups such as St. Vincent de Paul have been consistent in our concern around the discrimination towards young, unemployed people who are under the age of 26. Discriminatory cuts were imposed on these people. We see the evidence at this committee that these cuts are a driving factor in increased rates of poverty, deprivation, homelessness and emigration among this group. Between 2007 and 2015, for example, the rate of severe deprivation among 18 to 24 year olds increased twice as much as in the general population. I challenged the Taoiseach on this when he was the Minister for Social Protection and I have challenged the current Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Deputy Regina Doherty. One statement that really struck me, and which really hit home that these Ministers really do not get it, was when the former Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Leo Varadkar appeared before this committee. I challenged him on the discriminatory cuts to our young unemployed and he asked how can young people travel to Ireland from other countries, "get off the plane" and get a job straight away. He said that raised serious questions about what the young, unemployed people in Ireland are doing. I believe that this statement shows clearly the ignorance and lack of respect for our young, unemployed people. Nobody wants to sit around at home doing nothing. This aspect needs to be addressed.

With regard to one-parent families, all the evidence and statistics are there and the witnesses have put together some good proposals on how to deal with that. I seek their views in this regard. Earlier this year I produced a report on creating a child maintenance service. This report formed part of the basis for this committee's report calling for a child maintenance service. I see child maintenance as one key way of helping to lift children of one-parent families out of poverty. I proposed that a child maintenance service be set up on a statutory basis to address the crazy situation where lone parents must go to the District Court to try to chase up maintenance payments. Regardless of whether they get the payment, it is taken into consideration as means and income, which has a compounding negative impact. Perhaps the witnesses could give us their views on this point.

The statistics show that fuel poverty is a growing crisis. We have heard the anecdotal evidence of people sitting in public buildings and on trains to try to keep warm. There are some good proposals by the groups for increasing the fuel allowance. I see this as one of the key ways to address fuel poverty. There are other areas and Departments that can help with retrofitting houses and so on but the fuel payment is one key way to help to lift people out from fuel poverty. The Society of St. Vincent de Paul have proposed a cold weather payment. During this year's cold weather there was real ambiguity as to whether an extra payment would be given and there was massive confusion. The United Kingdom has a system whereby payment is automatic if there is consistent cold weather. This should be put in place. What are the witnesses' views on the model in place in the United Kingdom? Has it been looked at and could it be rolled out in Ireland?

I shall now turn to the issue of back-to-school costs. I welcome the survey launched last week by Barnardos. Could we get some feedback on how many people partook in that survey so far and how long will it go on for? Last year we had big announcements from the Government and the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Bruton, about an initiative to try to reduce the costs of sending children back to school. The facts show that this was a lot of hot air and bluster. The Minister had said there would be incentives for schools, that plans and proposals would be brought forward to help reduce back-to-school costs and that the Department would pay additional money to schools. No school has been given any additional money for adopting cost-saving measures. No monitoring of the schools in this regard is happening. The initiative was little more than hot air.

The back to school clothing and footwear allowance is one way of putting money back into the pockets of families struggling to put shoes on children's feet, clothes on their backs and books in their schoolbags. I would like to hear the witnesses' views on the Government proposals last year and whether the initiative has had any benefit or impact. The evidence I have from listening to people out in the real world is it has had no impact whatsoever and it shows the Government's focus is not really on trying to address the serious costs of sending children back to school. I am concerned about things like using workbooks instead of proper schoolbooks, which means they cannot be handed down to younger children. I might get an opportunity to come back in.

I will afford all colleagues an opportunity to ask questions first and then we will see about a second round.

I thank the witnesses for their presentations and for the work both organisations do on an ongoing basis. It is very important, as is their policy engagement. I particularly commend the Vincentian Partnership's minimum essential standards of living work, which has been a service to all of us as policymakers but also right across the sector by itemising the costs of living. What it shows about the choices people have to make is very useful. I note that, as well as the concept of adequacy, which is something on which we have had discussions before. In a previous life with the National Women's Council of Ireland, I had extensive debates on the question of adequacy in respect, for example, of the minimum wage and so forth. It is a concept we need to bring back in, not to set the limit of our ambition, but to ensure it is met. I applaud the Vincentian Partnership for that.

Many interesting issues have been highlighted but I will try to focus on three. One is in respect of the very good proposal of beginning to look at the question of the under 26s and taking measures in that regard. The committee has previously heard about the demographic shift and pensions and yet over 200,000 young people have left the country. Many have returned but we still have a large number who have left. The question of making sure people are supported is important so we do not have a push factor that pushes young people to emigrate. There are opportunities now but it is still a concern that at a time of great need it was one of our responses. I support the measure. Do the witnesses have comments on emigration or the choices young people make?

The second issue I will raise is a key concern and is one of the tests of the Government and society. In terms of lone parents, we have had alarm bells ringing for years now, which have intensified since the wrong decisions were made in the changes that were introduced. We have clear signals in terms of the high rates of poverty and deprivation and what it does to children. The witnesses have a number of suggestions. One is around restoring income disregards, which I think is useful. We have had a partial roll-back on that policy because it was found that cutting income disregards in no way incentivised people into full-time work; it simply led to income loss. The ESRI report shows that another measure, which was designed to encourage people into full-time and well-paid work has driven people, for fear of sanction, into poor quality work. I am talking about the fact that when a child is 14, lone parents are forced onto jobseeker's payments and the care work they do becomes invisible. One of the recommendations we made as a committee, on which I would appreciate the witnesses' thoughts, was on jobseeker's transitional payments. While people would be given employment supports and access to training, they would not be sanctioned and the requirement for full-time availability would be waived. One recommendation of this committee is that jobseeker's transitional payment should be extended until a lone parent's child is 18. Lone parents are usually women. It would also allow for the income disregard for lone parents potentially to be extended because they would be treated as lone parents by the system. Will the witnesses expand on the points they made in their presentations about the costs of teenagers and the facts of families with teenagers facing increased costs? It was highlighted in both presentations. There is a period during which there is higher vulnerability, higher costs and more danger. Will the witnesses address the issue of families, particularly lone-parent families, where the children are aged between 14 and 18? Do the witnesses think it would be useful to extend jobseeker's transitional payment? What other supports do they think would be useful? The qualified child payment was one that got a small increase in the last budget. It was one of our recommendations. It could be improved.

Will the witnesses address the issue of lone parents specifically? They also mentioned the anomalies with regard to the SUSI grant and lone parents seeking to go back to education. Could the witnesses expand on that a tiny bit?

I had two other key questions. One was in respect of the energy payments. The witnesses mentioned energy efficiency in the private rental sector but we should have a public rental sector as well. It is there but it is dwindling. The scope for better energy efficiency supports is an issue. One of the advantages of a public rental model is we can ensure higher standards and better energy efficiency. Where exceptional needs payments intersect with that is an issue.

On the question of emergency payments, families in homelessness were mentioned. We do not want to normalise it. How can we ensure that as policymakers, we push to make sure people have those emergency payments and that people have some discretion to make choices as a family to address their needs and that we are not normalising what is an unacceptable situation?

Gender inequality proofing of the budget is an obligation. Is it something the witnesses will be pressing the Department on?

I do not have many questions after the last two speakers.

They helped the Deputy out.

Nearly everything has been covered. The Barnardos Lost campaign has been very effective. It should continue in that vein. It really focuses on the losses of children in poverty. It is really effective.

I will touch on the issue of the austerity cuts. We are coming up to the budget, which is why the witnesses are here lobbying for us to put forward some of these ideas. We have to have a conversation about whether money should go on tax cuts or into areas where people have been particularly affected by the austerity cuts to bring them up to the level they were at before 2008. The increase in cost of living expenses and things like fuel price increases will put more pressure on people who are in poverty. It will cause a lot of financial pressures and emotional pressure on families trying to deal with these costs. We have to broaden that conversation out particularly in the run-up to the budget. I have made the point there should not be any tax cuts because it does not benefit those who need it. There should be an anti-poverty strategy to bring people back to the level they were at before the austerity cuts. There has been real structural damage to families over that period and ten years of it has caused major psychological and health problems. What are the witnesses' thoughts on that?

The €5 per week that Barnardos is calling for will cost €45.6 million.

Given recent announcements on gas and electricity prices, would such an increase be enough?

The Employment (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2017, which is before the Dáil, can play a role, particularly for lone parents working in the retail sector. The banded hours provision might help workers to access a certain number of hours within a specific period. It was disappointing that an amendment on offering additional hours to workers in the retail sector was lost because the inability to work extra hours when necessary is causing poverty. This was a blow for people. The banded hours provision is a step in the right direction in any case.

I do not know whether Barnardos and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul have considered banding together to put forward an anti-poverty strategy targeting particular areas for funding. A €5 cut in tax will not make any difference to anybody, whereas targeting money into areas will make a difference. We should make that argument in the Dáil and here.

I apologise for being late. I was attending a meeting between members of my parliamentary party and representatives of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul on its pre-budget submissions.

I am glad Deputy Joan Collins raised issues related to decent and quality work. During my short spell as the Minister of State with responsibility for business and employment, I started the process of abolishing zero-hour contracts and improving the precarious work environment that far too many people face. Unfortunately, it seems the legislation that was originally proposed has been diluted, as Deputy Collins said, and some important amendments were rejected last night which would have made a big difference to those in precarious work.

When meeting non-governmental organisations, NGOs, which do important work in this area, we often discuss the redistribution and heavy-lifting the social welfare system does to support people in low-paid work. By and large, however, NGOs do not speak enough about the obligation to make work pay that should be imposed on employers to ensure we have decent standards of employment in this country. As we all know well, the onus for redistributing wealth in this country is placed on the social welfare system when it should fall far more heavily on employers. Employers, especially larger companies, are generally doing well from the economy on the backs of working people who often work in precarious jobs, notably in the retail, hospitality and other low-paid sectors.

On that basis, have Barnados and SVP both made submissions to the Low Pay Commission's, LPC, review of the national minimum wage? The LPC was set up in 2015 and is doing important work by taking an evidence-based approach in its annual recommendations to the Government on what the rate of the national minimum wage should be. It is my party's long-held view that the national minimum wage should be transitioned to what might be described as a living wage. Like Senator Higgins, I am supportive of the work which the Vincentian Partnership for Social Justice and others are doing on the living wage technical group, income adequacy and so on. We could never say the minimum wage is anything but a basic statutory floor below which nobody should be allowed to fall. It never claims to be an adequate minimum income for anybody. We need to seriously work towards the provision of a living wage to ensure work pays. I would like to see that and I hope Barnardos, SVP and those they represent want to see it as well. While there is no doubt the social welfare system should play an important role in redistribution, we often forget there should be an onus and responsibility on employers to ensure work pays and to ensure the dignity of their staff. The work we do collectively, and the work I have done in recent years, has been about achieving that objective and I believe it can be achieved.

I am pleased to note both charities, Barnardos in particular, support the valuable work of my colleague Senator Ó Ríordáin on back-to-school costs. We often forget the back-to-school allowance does not cover everything. We know there are serious responsibilities placed on parents, often in difficult circumstances, to pay inordinate amounts of money for school books every year. The Labour Party has made some proposals to address this issue, including a proposal to prohibit so-called voluntary contributions which continue to place a major strain on families.

I will not go through all the proposals but two things struck me. There is a sharp focus on fuel poverty as a result of last winter when all of us, as public representatives, saw its immediate impact at first hand. In the case of fuel payments, the issue is not only how much recipients receive or for how long they receive the payment, but rather their ability to respond to an unforeseen event such as a long period of cold weather or a period of particularly cold weather. People need certainty in this regard because last winter they were afraid to spend money they did not have. While an additional payment was subsequently made, the initial uncertainty caused great concern. The scheme must be made flexible to take account of unexpected events such as severe or prolonged bad weather. We need to be able to respond in a more timely fashion.

Senator Higgins referred to the emergency accommodation expenses payment. Will Dr. Keilthy clarify how she sees that operating? A total figure is provided but who would avail of the payment? I generally know what she means but will she explain in a little more detail?

As public representatives, we see that the people who often struggle most are pensioners who lose a spouse because while their income effectively halves, the costs of running their home, such as heating, do not halve. That transition period can be difficult for that group. Apart from the emotional loss, they also have financial difficulties. Do Ms. Kelly and Dr. Keilthy have any observations or comments on that?

Dr. Tricia Keilthy

I will take the questions thematically because there are many common issues across the feedback. We fully agree on the delay and concerns about the publication of the forthcoming national anti-poverty strategy. It is critical in regard to the issues we highlighted, which we see every day. We need a clear statement on where we want to see our country go on this and how we will get there. It is important that the strategy is published and features targets, including sub-targets, for groups such as lone parents and people with disabilities. Furthermore, supporting actions and ring-fenced resources to implement the strategy must also be provided. The Europe 2020 strategy includes commitments on poverty and we also have commitments under the sustainable development goals. These commitments need to feed into the national anti-poverty strategy as well.

Our big ask is that the strategy needs a genuine whole-of-Government approach. It is not only a matter for the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection. Everybody in government has a responsibility to treat the difficulties people have with housing costs, childcare costs and utilities as a priority. The issue Senator Higgins raised regarding gender and equality proofing also needs to be part of the strategy. While we fully support the gender and equality proofing movement, one concern we have is that the poverty proofing element may get lost because socioeconomic status is not one of the grounds for discrimination under our equality legislation. It is important, therefore, that his work is also highlighted because it is a major issue that people can be discriminated against based on socioeconomic status.

A separate commitment is required in that area.

Dr. Tricia Keilthy

On lone parents, four reports have been published since the most recent budget, the Indecon report and three reports from the ESRI. It is an issue that needs to be taken seriously. We acknowledge that some incremental changes were made in budget 2018 but we must look in particular at the losses incurred by lone parents who are working. Senator Higgins made sensible proposals on the jobseeker's transition payment. It is an important window that would allow lone parents to be supported to ensure that when they make the transition to employment, the employment is of a good quality and they can get the type of work that provides an adequate income.

The issue of lone parents also relates to the issue of decent work and precarious work. We support the Employment (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, which is a positive step forward and also made a submission to the Low Pay Commission. We advocate the introduction of a living wage and support the Vincentian Partnership's work on that.

The type of work that is available is a critical issue if we want to find a sustainable route out of poverty for lone parents. That also relates to ensuring access to education so that people can acquire good qualifications and have decent opportunities. It is important that the Departments of Education and Skills and Employment Affairs and Social Protection examine the types of supports available and ensure that poverty traps are not being created. Lone parents who want to take up education and training and are in receipt of rent allowance must decide whether to move back to the back to education allowance and keep their rent supplement in which case they do not receive the SUSI maintenance payment. The anomaly where people are given different supports depending on their tenure type is something must be addressed.

Evidence clearly shows the impact of the lower rate of payment for people aged under 26. It discriminates against younger people, pushes them into poverty and is linked to youth homelessness, which has increased significantly in recent years. We all know the difficulties people experience in securing HAP tenancies. Someone on the lower rate of social welfare who competes against someone on the higher rate will be at a loss. That is another issue that arises.

We fully agree on the points made on energy poverty. We had the very same experience during the cold weather. People were unsure about turning on heating because they did not know what costs they would incur later. A cold weather payment would be one way of giving people certainty that they have adequate resources and do not need to go without and suffer through cold weather. We have made a detailed submission to the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment on retrofitting schemes on extending some of the warmth and well-being and the warmer homes schemes to the private rented sector. I fully agree with the point on the importance of energy efficiency in the public rented sector also. We have also made recommendations to the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government.

On adequacy, we need to move the conversation towards defining the social protection floor that no one must fall below. The Vincentian Partnership has done very detailed, comprehensive work to provide that benchmark. If social welfare rates are benchmarked against this standard, it puts a value on caring work, ensures that unemployed or older people are not faced with undue hardship, and it makes a very strong statement about the type of society that we want to have. It also provides an evidence-based approach to setting our social welfare rates and the benchmark we hope to see put in place.

I will speak briefly on the cost of a teenager, an issue on which Barnardos will have more information. We have asked for for the increase for the qualified child, IQC, to be increased. The IQC rose in last budget but it did not recognise the cost faced by families with older children. It would be a move towards a higher rate and recognising the additional costs. Social welfare supports meet more than 80% of a primary school child's needs but just over 50% of the needs of a secondary school child. An issue that comes up continually for our members is that child benefit stops once a child reaches 18 years, regardless of whether or not the child is in school. We must recognise that children start school later and are more likely to do transition year. When child benefit is withdrawn, it represents a major loss of income for families, especially low-income families, during a particularly expensive year when families must pay for mock examination fees, examination papers and so forth. That is another issue we have sought to have addressed.

Ms Niamh Kelly

Barnardos supports the publication of an anti-poverty strategy. Through the child poverty strategy and the Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures document, we have seen the need to put in place a strategy with an action plan. It should have cross-departmental buy-in and have funding behind it to ensure it is implemented. We call on the Government to publish a strategy.

On fuel poverty, we support a cold weather payment. This year has shown the need for a more responsive approach. Weather seems to be changing as our climate is changing and extraordinary weather events are becoming more common. Energy efficiency is key. Living in drafty, mouldy environments has a serious impact on children's health. Children develop at a fast rate which means these conditions have a greater impact on them. Parents cut back on certain items to pay for fuel and keep the house warm, which means children might go without other necessities. As Senator Higgins stated, energy efficiency is key in public and private housing, not only the private rented sector. An additional problem for tenants in the private rented sector is that they are scared to report deficiencies in housing because they do not want to be turfed out. They do not want someone to come in to the home to look at the boiler because it can be used as an excuse for the landlord to look at things. Many tenants stay as quiet as they can to protect their tenancies.

On lone parents, we support extending the jobseeker's transitional payment until a child is aged 18 years. That is a sound proposal and we echo the Senator's praise for the Vincentian Partnership's work in this regard. It has been crucial in recent years in pointing out the disparity in costs. Childcare costs are huge but teenagers cost the most and there is no recognition of that across the payments. We would like to see an increased payment for teenagers and the extension of the payment for lone parents beyond the child's 14th birthday. Children do not stop being children at 14 years. The cut-off applied at age 14 is an anomaly in the system.

Another key area regarding lone parents, which was very much tied in with the changes that were introduced, is the availability of affordable, sustainable, quality childcare. In our wider proposals, we call for an expansion of the early childhood care and education, ECCE, scheme. We would like one year's paid parental scheme to be introduced for all families to provide a safety net for all parents.

That is more of an issue for lone parents. Such initiatives would go some way towards improving opportunities for parents and their families.

Does the unavailability of the ECCE scheme during the summer have an impact on families?

Ms Niamh Kelly

Yes, it does. Childcare does not stop being an issue in the summer months, no more than children stop being dependent on their parents at 14 years of age. We would like the scheme to be available throughout the year and cover more age groups. We view it as very positive and parents and society at large view it as beneficial. However, some parents who live in rural areas must travel a distance to reach their nearest childcare provider. Restricting the time to just three hours almost makes it not worthwhile for them to avail of the scheme which in general we would like to be expanded.

This week Barnardos commenced a survey of back to school costs. As many as 1,200 parents have answered our questionnaire in just three days, which is higher than the normal response rate. Schools do some good work on an ad hoc basis. For example, some now allow children to wear generic uniforms, while some have incorporated an all-encompassing schoolbook rental scheme such that some parents no longer have to pay a lot of money. They no longer have to make voluntary contributions or when they do, the contributions are voluntary. We know that such things happen on an ad hoc basis and that costs may be much higher at a school down the road. We would, therefore, like the Government to provide schools with an appropriate amount of funding and leave parents to provide the implements children need to learn. That is why we ask the Department of Education and Skills to provide funding for schoolbooks because they are essential to a child's learning. Children need schoolbooks in order to go to school. The State should provide such funding, as happens in the United Kingdom. Deputy John Brady referred to workbooks. Again, the cost varies greatly. There is huge inequality in terms of children's access school in what is supposedly a free education system.

Senator Gerald Nash suggested voluntary contributions should be prohibited. We would like contributions to be just to fund voluntary activities, not for a list of other things. We have received feedback from parents that schools have asked for voluntary contributions in order to provide toilet paper in school toilets or to keep the lights on. Parents should not be forced to pay for such things. We also believe parents should not be singled out or pressurised into making contributions. Many parents have given us a lot feedback on this matter. They have informed us that their children have been singled out in class or that letters have been sent home with children. We believe children should not be made aware of such contributions in their days-to-day school life. Rather than a prohibition being placed on voluntary contributions, we want the capitation grant to be increased to a point where schools would have enough funding and, therefore, there would no longer be a need to ask parents to make voluntary contributions.

Barnardos would like a payment to be made available to families living in emergency accommodation. It works with such families who have told us that their child support costs are higher as oftentimes they do not live near the school or preschool. They may have to pay twice the cost when they have children in preschool and school. They may also have health appointments to attend. All of these costs add up. There is a scheme in place whereby families are given a topped up Leap card. Unfortunately, the scheme is not available everywhere and we know that families cannot access the scheme in Cork city.

Families who live in emergency accommodation find that providing food is extremely expensive. A scheme of family hubs has been introduced, which is a positive step. However, we share the concern expressed by Senator Alice-Mary Higgins about institutionalisation or making such accommodation the norm. Unfortunately, around 60% of the children in question still live in bed and breakfast or hotel accommodation and do not live in family hubs. Therefore, their families do not have access to cooking facilities. We do not want such accommodation to become the norm for children and want the practice to end immediately. We want the Government to invest more and action to be taken to tackle the social housing crisis. In the interim, families living in emergency accommodation should be provided with support. As they cannot cook for themselves, they must eat out all of the time, which is a huge cost. Families with older children or children in varying age groups face huge social costs. As they live in small rooms, there is not a lot parents can do with their children. The parents must take them out of the rooms and go somewhere else, which costs money. When the weather is nice, one can visit a local park, etc., but what can parents do with their children in the wintertime when they live in such a small space and their children need to go outside and play? Many hotels and bed and breakfast establishments prohibit children from playing on the surrounding grounds. Therefore, families cannot avail of outdoor spaces in the places where they live. I have outlined our rationale for introducing a payment for families who live in emergency accommodation. Our calculations are based on the increased qualified child payment and on the number of children who live in emergency accommodation which, unfortunately, stands at over 38,000.

Deputy Joan Collins mentioned the impact austerity had on people's health and well-being. I echo what my colleague, Ms Connolly, said in her opening statement for Barnardos. The impact of austerity policies on children has been acute and severe. Children develop at a greater rate in childhood than at any other time in their lives. The cutbacks and lack of services have had a more severe impact on children than on adults. We would like the Government to focus less on tax cuts and more on investment in services. We see value in community services being available to children and I mean wraparound services that start pre-birth and last until children reach adulthood. Barnardos wants the budget to focus on such services.

Do members wish to ask brief concluding questions?

No, I just wish to make a couple of comments.

I thank the delegates for their attendance and answers to questions. I concur with Ms Kelly's comment on tax cuts. I want to comment on the notion that up to €500 million be put into a rainy day fund. There is enough evidence available to prove that every single one of the people mentioned in the pre-budget submissions is experiencing a rainy day. Therefore, there should not be tax cuts; rather than putting money into a rainy day fund, we should invest in critical areas and thus help many people.

I wish to make one comment on back to school costs. I concur with Ms Kelly's recommendation that schools receive an increased capitation grant because schools and the education system are grossly underfunded. Let me give one example of a school that operates a voluntary contribution scheme. At the close of the school year the school issued correspondence to all parents asking them to supply a self-addressed stamped envelope in order that it could post their children's school reports. It is shocking that schools must operate on such small budgets that they cannot afford to spend between €200 and €300 to issue school reports. There is a serious problem when they do not have enough funding to pay for such basic administrative items and that parents must pay again, even though they have already made voluntary contributions. I concur with everything the delegates have said.

I thank the delegates for their excellent and clear answers to questions. They spoke more eloquently than I about extending the jobseeker's transition payment and addressing anomalies in order that people would be given real options in making good choices. Something that crops up repeatedly is a request that people can access good quality employment and avail of back-to-education schemes.

It is also important that people do not have the threat of sanction hanging over them and that care be recognised. These are all important matters to bear in mind in our work across the social protection system.

I am struck by the fact that children are developing fast. While we might say something will be considered in two or three years' time - we are all familiar with things being kicked down the road - developmentally those two or three years might be the key years for a next generation. I concur that this is more important than tax cuts or even some of the tax reliefs we provide. In areas such as private pensions, for example, we might seek to redirect the reliefs to providing security for people of all ages in the State.

I was struck by the comment on the impact on children of voluntary contributions to schools and so forth. I recently had cause to examine the capitation grants paid to two schools in my constituency. Obviously, the capitation rate is so much per child per annum. As the schools in question had approximately 200 students, they were receiving approximately €35,000 per year. Without getting into their full accounts, their annual insurance premium was €11,000, while their lighting and heating costs were between €16,000 and €17,000. These figures do not include items such as cleaning, photocopying and so forth. When I looked at the figures for a school that was double the size, the figures for lighting, heating and insurance did not double. The schools that are somewhat smaller are struggling disproportionately. If they had double the number of students, they would not have double the costs. I was taken by the real challenge posed to these schools because when one took out the bare necessities, it simply was not doable. I accept that point.

Dr. Tricia Keilthy

To follow up on that point, there is a piece of work to be done. Not only must capitation rates be restored to 2010 levels, for which we are calling, we must also look at the adequacy of capitation rates. A review of childcare subsidies is being carried out. A similar review could be carried out by the Department of Education and Skills to examine the adequacy of capitation rates. It is a major issue for our members in the context of voluntary contributions. Last August we received 5,000 calls for help in meeting back-to-school costs. It is a big issue which must be examined seriously.

Ms Niamh Kelly

There are areas where savings could be made by schools, for example, if they were to group together to meet energy costs and the like. That is something that must be examined. There must be a more creative way of looking at how we best fund schools in order that parents will not have to foot the bill at the other end.

I thank all of the delegates for their attendance, opening statements and contributions. As I said at the beginning of the meeting, this is part of a process and not stand-alone. We will have the Minister before the committee in September when we will address the issues raised today and in the submissions, as well as in others.

The joint committee adjourned at 12.05 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 27 September 2018.