National Anti-Poverty Strategy: Presentations.

I welcome both delegations. The Combat Poverty Agency is represented by Ms Helen Johnson, director; Ms Fidelma Joyce, policy liaison officer; and Mr. Padraig Connolly, policy analysis. The European Anti-Poverty Network Ireland is represented by co-ordinator, Mr. Patrick Burke; chairperson, Mr. Brian O'Toole, co-ordinator of the Irish Traveller Movement; and Ms Frances Byrne, co-ordinator and one of the parent executive of the network. They are all welcome and I call on Ms Johnson to make her presentation.

Ms Helen Johnson

I will ask Ms Joyce to make the introduction to the presentation and then I will elaborate on the details of the proposal.

Ms Fidelma Joyce

The Combat Poverty Agency is happy to have the opportunity to present its submission on the national action plan against poverty and social inclusion. We also welcome the opportunity to share this space with the European Anti-Poverty Network Ireland and to acknowledge that valuable work it does in building understanding about poverty and poverty elimination and its engagement in policy making at European level, which it brings to national and local level.

I will outline a brief introduction to the EU social inclusion process and Ms Johnson will follow with a presentation on the submission. The EU social inclusion strategy is a key policy priority because it has the backing and commitment of all EU governments. Since the European Council in Lisbon in March 2000, there has been agreement to promote sustainable economic growth and quality employment, which will reduce the risk of poverty and social exclusion. The Council also agreed to strengthen social cohesion in the Union between 2001 and 2010.

The Council agreed common objectives, about which the committee will hear more later, to underpin this commitment. The social inclusion process will continue for ten years and there will be five national action plans within that time. We are discussing the second round of national action plans. The national action plan against poverty and social inclusion is an ambitious way of mobilising all areas of government, not just national government but local government, and society to achieve the goal of the Union, which is to have a decisive impact on the eradication of poverty and social exclusion by 2010.

The Government presented its first national action plan in June 2001 while in the process of reviewing the national anti-poverty strategy. Once the action plan was submitted to Brussels, the Commission drafted a joint social inclusion report, which was adopted by the European Council later that year. The report included an analysis of the national action plans and highlighted a number of issues such as the lack of new policies in the plans, poor emphasis on rights and lack of integration of the interests of women or ethnic minorities.

However, the report also made particular comments about the Irish national action plan. Calls were made regarding the enhancement of investment in the provision of services; the need to tackle urban and rural deprivation; to have an adequate social care infrastructure; to reduce income inequalities; to promote the further independence of women; to target employment; and to raise educational achievement.

The action plan was created as the Government was in the process of revising the NAPS. Things have changed since the action plan was introduced. We have the revised NAPS to build an inclusive society. We very much welcome the establishment of the office of social inclusion within the Department of Social and Family Affairs. We have also had the first meeting of an annual social inclusion forum by the National Economic and Social Forum to review progress on NAPS targets.

There have been other development at European level during that period. Agreement has been reached on 18 common indicators so that progress on achieving the goals set out in the NAPS can be monitored and benchmarked.

We have also seen the establishment of a transnational exchange programme, which offers space for both Departments, non-governmental organisations and other bodies to come together to carry out projects which will build learning around poverty and social inclusion and further enhance the national action plan. The Combat Poverty Agency is engaged in two such projects, one with the European Anti-Poverty Network.

The office for social inclusion is drafting, on behalf of the Government, the new national action plan against poverty. In preparing the plan there have been very extensive consultations. A number of seminars took place around the country. There were a number of national seminars addressing issues such as public services and the plight of immigrants and ethnic minorities in Ireland. It included cross-cutting themes dealing with local policy and the insurance perspective of men and women being included in the plan. This process has been written up in a report which was submitted to the office for social inclusion. It will inform that office in drawing up the final draft of the national action plan. Many organisations were engaged in the consultation process, including local authorities, community and voluntary organisations. More than 66 written submissions were sent to the Department. There has been a lot of thinking going on among local government, community and voluntary organisations, the Combat Poverty Agency and other bodies in terms of what should be the priorities in the national action plan. It is important to dovetail the Irish national anti-poverty strategy and the new national action plan on social inclusion to bring together within the new national action plan programmes which will deliver on these targets, including the target set by the EU to substantially eradicate poverty by 2010.

Ms Johnston

I wish to tell members a little about what the Combat Poverty Agency thinks should be included in the national action plan 2003-5. We are basing our submission on the structure set down by the European Union, as outlined by Ms Joyce, while drawing on our research and information to date on the learning gained from the consultation exercise Fidelma has described, and building on the existing national anti-poverty strategy and the new partnership agreement, Sustaining Progress. All of this is a context for the proposals we want to make.

As we already have a national anti-poverty strategy, containing 36 targets for poverty reduction, including an initiative in Sustaining Progress, why do we need another plan? The answer is that it is a European requirement that this plan should build in a European dimension to the work we are already doing to see how we can contribute in the wider European context to poverty alleviation across Europe, particularly within Ireland. We can learn from what our European neighbours are doing and also contribute to their learning. It is important that the plan brings that added value so that we can benchmark how we are doing in terms of tackling poverty in a European context. We can also learn from what Europe is doing, using the various instruments they have. These include transnational exchange projects - we are already involved in those - peer review, whereby people undertake a review of the plan in terms of how we are doing and the common indicators agreed at European level. We can collect data indicating the extent to which we are meeting targets and addressing educational disadvantage, improving health care and so on.

It is important to underpin the national plan with a commitment to economic, social and cultural rights as informing how we work towards poverty alleviation. There has been a great deal of debate about rights, law and so on but, at the very least, there is a requirement to set standards whereby people are entitled to a minimum income and education. We are happy to open up that debate, which is important, so that it does not get bogged down in legal issues. People who experience poverty should have an opportunity to inform policy and participate in its development and implementation. This has started through the consultation process.

On the national action plan, where are we at present and what are the issues we need to address? The figures indicate that consistent poverty means being on a low income - less than €175 per week - and being deprived of basic necessities. These include not being able to have a meal in the day, not being able to afford new shoes, not being able to have a coat or to heat one's house. We are currently improving on these statistics. In 1994, almost 15% of the population experienced such poverty and in 2000, the most recent figures we have available, that was down to just over 5%. We have made progress on this. However, there is still 5% of people living in consistent poverty, which needs to be addressed. If we look at income alone, many people are below a certain level of income, that is, €150 per week or below 60% of median income. Median income is income from the person with the lowest income to the person with the highest income - median in the value in the middle. This has increased in the period 1994-2000 from 15.6% to 22%. More than one-fifth of the population are living in relative income poverty, or less than €150 per week. This is a European measure, and, therefore, we can see how we are doing compared to other European countries. One of the reasons this has been increasing is that incomes as a whole have been increasing, particularly for people in employment, and social welfare rates have not kept pace. There has been a widening gap in this respect, which we must address as we go forward with the national action plan. As economic growth has slowed down, we are seeing rising unemployment and restricted public finances. This presents a particular challenge in trying to address poverty. The key challenges are to try to maintain employment and invest in physical, human and social infrastructure to meet the EU target of eliminating poverty by 2010.

I would now like to set out the targets we are proposing should be set in the national action plan. We have called them primary and secondary targets. Primary targets are global overall targets which will make a difference. I have already referred to relative income poverty of €150 per week. We need to reduce the proportion of the population subject to such poverty. We are suggesting that it should be reduced by one-quarter by 2005, which is the end of this planned period, and further decreased by 2007, which is the end of the national anti-poverty strategy period. In order to do so we would need to reduce income inequality. As there is relatively high income inequality in Ireland, we should try to reach the EU average and be the best three in Europe by 2007.

In Ireland there is a high number of jobless households, even though the long-term unemployment rate has fallen. There are what we call work-rich households and work-poor households. There are many households with two earners, or more, and there are a large number of households where no one in the household is working, and they are being left behind. We need to pay attention to these households to ensure that someone is able to get a job. We must try to reach the EU target in this regard.

We must look at education and health services. We suggest that the proportion of early school leavers should be reduced by 2005. People who leave school early have a lesser chance in life in terms of being able to progress. Life expectancy in Ireland must be improved, which is one of the lowest in the European Union. These are our primary targets.

We also have a number of secondary targets which relate to vulnerable groups who have a high risk of poverty. Our existing strategy includes targets for children, women and older people and also makes reference to people with disabilities, although no target has been set in that regard. We believe a target should be set to reduce poverty among people with disabilities. We should also set targets for reducing poverty among migrants and ethnic minorities, including Travellers. These are named groups for whom no targets have been set in terms of reducing their poverty. Another group identified as being at risk of poverty are gays, lesbians and bi-sexuals. They should also be included in the strategy and should have a poverty reduction target.

What policies can be implemented to try to improve the plight of those living in poverty? We need to set a target of raising the minimum social welfare rate to €150 per week. This is not a new target; it is an existing one in the national anti-poverty strategy. We are suggesting that we should aim to reach that target by 2005 rather than 2007. The effect of that would be to raise the commitment to ensuring that target was met. We are also suggesting the introduction of a child income support package of €55 per week. In that, we are combining the child benefit and child dependant allowances and that would require meeting the commitment to raise child benefit to €150 per month and also increasing the child dependant allowance.

On housing, there is a need to deliver 20,000 new local authority housing completions over this period. While there is a commitment to build more local authority housing, improvements will only be made if that promise is honoured. We also need to increase the number of pre-school places for disadvantaged children. Those already in place are making a difference but we need more of them. We also need to increase the medical card threshold. Many families currently in receipt of low incomes do not have access to medical cards.

On the strategic approach that we should adopt in implementing the plan, we believe it is possible to combine an economic and social approach. We need to focus on production but that needs to be supported by a strong welfare system and by good community-based support. We should all be working towards the one goal; an inter-dependence of economic and social development. We are moving away from the current two-tiered system to a more flexible one. Instead of having a strong public-private structure within education and health, we maintain our flexible labour market but we underpin it with strong social provision which may require raising the level of social expenditure in child care services and in other essential services while still enabling people to access employment. That is the type of strategic approach we are suggesting.

We need then to look at the resources that might be available to support that approach. Some of the resources could be made available by reviewing tax reliefs not currently being collected by Government - €7.3 billion in 2002. While some of those reliefs are important many of them are redundant because of changed circumstances. The last budget, even though it delivered relatively little in overall terms, had a redistributive focus in that it put more of its resources into welfare than into tax. We believe that kind of balanced budget should continue. We need to ensure those in receipt of low incomes receive a real increase above inflation.

We need to secure value for money in public services. We are seeking reform of some of the systems, in particular those in health where we are trying to tie in performance management, change management and planning for change, so that we do not simply build on to what we are already doing but rather we change how some of these services are delivered so as to make them more efficient and value for money. We need to take into account the needs of those living in poverty and to target job supports for those in receipt of low income and at risk.

The remainder of our presentation deals with specific recommendations across a number of areas outlined by the European Union in relation to employment, access to resources and targeting vulnerable groups. I will run through some of them quickly and if members are interested in specifics I will be happy to elaborate on them afterwards. The first objective relates to improving access to employment resources, rights, goods and services. We are suggesting, on the employment front, that we continue to try to facilitate employment growth. We have learned, from our consultations, that the cuts which have taken place in some of the services, in particular community employment, have had a detrimental impact on disadvantaged communities and low income groups. That scheme needs to be reformed and sustained in disadvantaged communities. The same applies in regard to the back-to-work allowance where people now have to be unemployed for five years before being eligible for payment. That is a backward step.

On housing and accommodation, where there are many commitments in that regard it is important to deliver on them rather than setting new ones. That includes promises in regard to Traveller accommodation and the residential tenancy Bill for the private rented sector. Recent figures in relation to homeless people have shown that there has been very little if any decline in that area in recent years.

On income, we need to index social welfare rates to wages, and certainly above inflation, otherwise we will have an increasing income inequality and relative income poverty. We need to review the child income support structure and to look at the balance between child benefit and child dependant allowances and other possible ways of supporting children and low income households. On health, we need to increase the threshold for the medical card - that issue has been well documented - and also look at ways of developing a fair and more universal health system. On education, we want to look at ways of eliminating costs of participating in education for disadvantaged families. Supporting children in education is quite a burden for low income families. Even though education is supposed to be free there are many additional costs involved. We believe those costs should be eliminated for low income families. We also need to seek to improve the number of students from disadvantaged backgrounds going on to third level education.

The second objective relates to preventing the risk of exclusion. We refer here in particular to our knowledge-based society and IT. We believe, in today's modern society, that no child should leave school without being able to use and having access to the Internet, otherwise they will be socially excluded in the future. We also need to ensure better access to banking and credit particularly in disadvantaged communities. That would contribute towards reducing indebtedness. A key issue in Ireland remains the accessibility and affordability of child care. We must look at ways of improving things in that area.

The third objective relates to helping the most vulnerable. I have identified a number of issues. One is the need to underpin entitlements and standards by taking a rights-based approach. People should have a right to access certain essential services. There is also a need for more information about the situation and circumstances of particular target groups such as ethnic minorities - how many people are in vulnerable situations and what needs to be done to address their needs. This relates to the system of direct provision which gives people very little flexibility and very poor living standards. The current bar on employment, denying people the right to work in Ireland, also needs to be addressed.

We need to work towards eliminating child poverty through meeting existing child benefit commitments and child income support. An increasing number of female headed households are at risk of poverty. These are mainly older women living alone and who are also lone parents. Those are the key target needs in terms of people in vulnerable situations. Finally, I will flag some of the institutional arrangements required to be put in place to ensure this plan can be delivered. The key principles are gender proofing and a requirement that Departments work together to meet the needs of people. That requires accountability, transparency and efficiency. There are some quantitative data but there is a need to hear the experiences of those who live in poverty and to articulate that into policy development. There is a need for mainstreaming, in other words, unless the system which delivers main health and education delivery addresses the needs of people living in poverty, things will not really change overall. This must be taken into account as well as taking the targeted approaches into account.

The national plan must also be delivered at a local level and there is an important role for local government to play in this respect in the development of local anti-poverty strategies. We suggest training for senior managers and elected officials on the subject of social inclusion which should be included in performance management in local authorities.

I thank the Combat Poverty Agency for its presentation. I apologise for missing the earlier part of the presentation.

I thank the group for giving the committee a very enlightened and valuable presentation. I welcome the structures that have been put in place and the co-operation of the Combat Poverty Agency with the EU exercise. I was involved in the agriculture sector of the European Union and I am aware of the importance of getting the support of the EU.

A woman contacted me last week to say that neither of her two sons was able to find a job for the summer because of the downturn in the economy. That puts pressure on the family because one of the sons is at college and the other is hoping to start college. They were forced to turn to social welfare and undergo a means test. This is a direct result of the student jobs scheme being done away with. That scheme cost €4 million last year which is not a major expenditure. I also think of the 30,000 medical card holders who thought that not only would they retain their cards but that 200,000 others would be given medical cards. It seems that we are going backwards rather than forward. I appreciate that the figures show that we have gone from 15% to 5% in a particular category in the context of the national policy but the next line states that the relative income poverty has gone from 15.6% to 22%.

My constituency of Cavan-Monaghan is in the Border region. We have not been lucky enough to get much high-tech employment and we depend on the furniture and food industries. It is not just those on social welfare that have been feeling the pinch but also the people on low incomes. When they cannot get a medical card, they have to pay the extra costs. Some people regard the medical card as a means of going to the doctor but there are other elements to the scheme; it means that a person living in rural Ireland is not eligible for school transport or other benefits if they lose their medical card. Those are issues of interest to me.

I represented this committee on a visit to Finland where 70% of the children receive pre-school education. We are inclined to talk here about the benefits of our low tax regime but the benefits of a proper infrastructure and a proper educational system are apparent in places such as Finland. The €150 target social welfare payment was mentioned in the submission. How realistic is that proposal? Those on the lowest levels of social welfare received a €6 increase this year. While the Government will argue that it should be compared to what happened in 1996, these people are meeting the increased costs of rent, food and all the necessities of life.

The submission mentions the amount of €7.3 billion in tax relief. That is an important issue and I was aghast when in the last budget, the horsey set - and I make no apology for saying that - got off scot-free once again, for whatever reason and those on the lower levels of social welfare did not get much benefit.

I agree that there is a need for change in management. I only have to recall the anger when my late colleague, the former spokesman on finance, Deputy Jim Mitchell, mentioned the need for streamlining the public service. The Department of Health and Children is being given a budget from the nation of €9.2 billion and we all know that the health services in the main have deteriorated rather than improved. I support the comments of the delegation in that context. Does the agency see any solution? Will there not be a trade union backlash? There is a limit to the amount of money available to pour into the system and the money has to be raised from somewhere.

The submission mentioned the cuts in the CE schemes. I am the representative of a rural constituency that has benefited greatly from a CE scheme. The Patrick Kavanagh centre has been wound down because of the cuts in the scheme. There are dozens of people aged 50 years and older who will never have a job again and who, through their involvement in the heritage centre, were given dignity in work. Those looking after handicapped people are no longer paid to do so. The Government has failed to bring in the 207 full-time care jobs. The back-to-work scheme is there in name only. Many people who were almost ready for full-time employment lost out when the scheme finished.

The county council for my area held a meeting last Monday. We were asked to pass the education grants structures without even having sight of them. We were advised that if they were not passed, many students would suffer. There are many anomalies in that system under which people in the lower poverty range do not benefit. One only has to consider Deputy Richard Bruton's figures that 70% of those in prison are from backgrounds of low education, and a failure to ensure that such people are represented and get an opportunity to attend third level colleges constitutes a false economy. Those of us in the Border region would be even worse off than we are today if it had not been for the benefits of Northern Ireland's education system.

The Chairman will be glad to hear that I have almost concluded. I agree with the remarks about the decision not to allow refugees and others to work. It is one of the issues about which public representatives receive most criticism. When people who were born and reared here approach politicians in desperation because they cannot get help, one of the first things they say is that their problems would be resolved if they were from Romania or some other country. It is wrong that such sentiments should be encouraged, but that is what we are doing by not allowing refugees to work on some sort of temporary basis. I am happy to support the efforts of the delegation in any way. People often say that their sons and daughters who went to England or America worked for a living. They do not realise that many people who live here are denied the right to work here.

I welcome the preparatory work that the delegation is involved in. The committee finds it valuable to have a group to give it some independent advice. We hope to use the advice as the year goes on, perhaps to get some better results for those who are in most need, including those relying on social welfare and those on low pay.

I understand that Ms Johnson has time constraints.

Ms Johnson

I want to leave shortly after 3 o'clock, but I am happy to take more comments and questions before then.

I compliment the delegation for its presentation and the invaluable report it has produced. I compliment Ms Joyce and Ms Johnson for the straightforward manner in which they made their important presentation.

This is a proposal for a new plan. What progress has been made on the first plan, which deals with the period between 2001 and 2003? Can representatives of the various groups outline to the committee their levels of satisfaction with the progress that has been made on the first plan?

We are linking with the EU in a certain way, by trying to make comparisons between Ireland and other member states. How difficult is it to make such comparisons? Do we try to use a common denominator in this area? What is Ireland's position in the league table of the various areas that have been discussed?

There has been a great deal of talk about the Traveller community over the years. Many policy positions have been outlined. Where stand the various plans, from the perspective of the organisations represented at this meeting? Is there a commitment at national and local levels to dealing with accommodation for Travellers and the need to remove members of that community from the poverty trap?

Another objective that has been outlined is to examine the link between child dependency allowance and child benefit. What is the rationale behind this objective? Where does Ms Johnson believe this approach will lead, in terms of dealing with poverty?

The Labour Party favours the implementation of all the objectives that have been outlined today. If we endeavour to put pressure on the Minister, Deputy Coughlan, as she prepares for the Estimates or the budget, she will say that she has been given a limited allocation and that she cannot implement all the objectives. Is the delegation willing to prioritise certain matters that need to be implemented?

The delegation referred to tax relief and value for money in the context of seeking additional capital resources. Can Ms Johnson elaborate on what is meant by value for money? Deputy Crawford mentioned the trade unions, but I do not think anybody in the trade union movement is against the provision of proper and improved services. On benchmarking, we should all ensure that there is a better service in all parts of the system. We need to deal with this matter.

I am interested in the levels of poverty that exist among older people. Is such poverty to be found principally in urban or rural areas?

Can the delegation tell the committee, based on its experiences, what the effect of the cutbacks in community employment schemes has been? I compliment the delegation on its presentation.

I will be brief, as I appreciate that Ms Johnson is anxious to leave. Page 4 of the presentation states that constant poverty has decreased, but that relative income poverty has increased. Will Ms Johnson explain this to me, as it does not seem to add up?

Everybody would like the policy targets that were outlined in the presentation to be met, but, as the last speaker said, priorities should be clarified as there may be difficulties at budget time. The Minister, Deputy Coughlan, is very caring, but she cannot deliver everything that is being sought if she does not have the money to do so.

The delegation also spoke about poverty among people with disabilities. I am interested in how we can help in that regard, perhaps by providing money or other forms of assistance.

The goal of reducing by 10% the proportion of early school leavers was also mentioned. Research shows that education is the only way to get out of the poverty trap. It often happens that sons and daughters of those on social welfare, many of whom leave school after national school, get caught up in a cycle of poverty. How can we help such people to stay in school for longer, perhaps to be taught a trade, so that they can leave a trap that may have continued for generations?

What are Ms Johnson's three priorities in terms of dealing with relative income poverty and associated issues?

While I do not wish to cover the points which have already been made, an increase in the medical card thresholds is of paramount importance in the context of the relief of poverty. Many people who come to me say they are refraining from attending the doctor in order to save a few bob. Women in particular are putting their children before themselves. This is linked in many cases to the community employment schemes. Many of those on such schemes were women who were trying to earn extra money to better their children's and their own lives and to pay doctor's bills. There is an intrinsic link between the community employment scheme cuts and the failure to raise the medical card thresholds. Medical cards are very important in terms of combating poverty. I would like to hear the opinion of Ms Johnson with regard to these points.

Ms Johnson

I am conscious that the European Anti-Poverty Network, and its representatives are to make a presentation to the committee following mine. Some of the points I know they are to address I will not answer directly, but my colleagues will remain after I leave and members may question them if they feel I have not responded sufficiently.

Progress on the first plan has been limited, primarily because the plan itself is limited. It was insufficiently developed as the review of the national anti-poverty strategy was under way when it was introduced. It was argued to European officials that the plan was insufficient because the national strategy was in development and would replace it. The national anti-poverty strategy is based on a comprehensive document in terms of targets. We have an information table in our full submission, of which the committee has a copy, which sets out progress on the national strategy to date.

I have not had a chance to read that.

Ms Johnson

Members will not have had a chance to read it. The table is on page 9. Rather than spend time on its details, I refer members to it.

We have been asked how we can make progress on comparisons with other European states. There are 18 agreed indicators to be applied to countries across Europe and we must provide information regarding them. They include income, employment, education and health measures while housing measures are being developed. It is therefore possible to make comparisons across Europe and that will continue to be the case.

I will not address the Traveller accommodation plans. While they are very important, they will be dealt with in detail by my colleagues who have more expertise in the area.

The matter of child income support was raised in the context of the priorities of the Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Coughlan. Our argument that child income support, particularly child benefit, should be a Government rather than a social welfare budgetary matter has not gained much currency. Child benefit is paid in respect of all children, not just those in low income families, and takes up a massive amount of the social welfare budget, limiting opportunities to address other issues of concern to those on low incomes. One way to focus on the needs of low income groups would be to pay child benefit through the Department of Finance while reducing the social welfare budget, though not to the same extent.

Older people have increasingly become at risk of poverty. As Irish pension rates are quite high compared to other countries, this group was not particularly at risk in the 1990s, but that has changed particularly for those who are dependent on supplementary pensions and older women who live alone. That is the case whether the people involved live in urban or rural areas, though the problem is more acute in rural Ireland where there are limitations in terms of access to services etc.

Cutbacks in community employment schemes have had a huge impact on supports and opportunities provided to those taking up places on schemes. I am sure my colleagues will be saying more on the matter.

The consistent poverty measure includes deprivation as well as income and reflects the inability to afford a meal, coat or shoes. Such poverty has decreased as most people can, by and large, afford such things as we move into 21st century Ireland. However, the income distribution gap has widened. As people were able to find jobs - some of them very well paid - during the period of the Celtic tiger, incomes generally increased. However, the incomes of those in insecure employment, low-paid jobs and on social welfare benefit have not kept pace with those of higher earners. As more people are falling below average income, which is half of the incomes in the population, the income poverty measure has increased. One measure refers to income and the ability to participate and afford things available in society. This measure has improved, but it is quite basic in 21st century Ireland. The income/poverty measure has increased due to the growth in incomes across the population with which those on social welfare and in low paid jobs have not been able to keep up. There are now more of them in the population.

The committee asked about education and disability. No account is taken of the extra costs incurred by those with disabilities in terms of heating their homes, buying aids and adaptations and meeting medical expenses. Much of the income of disabled persons is absorbed in that way which is a key target area that should be examined.

We were asked to select three priority areas by the committee. The first is the need to increase social welfare rates. If we fail to continue to increase social welfare rates, the living standard of those dependent on them deteriorates to a greater degree than would otherwise be the case. The lowest rates in particular are the least inflation-proof and we argue that they be increased at a rate above inflation in line with general income increases. As the future of our society is dependent on the children of today, our second priority should be to continue to improve or, at least, maintain the advances we have made in relation to child income support. The Government should continue to work towards meeting the commitment which has been made in respect of child benefit.

Our third priority should be to continue to invest in education. We must invest in education at an early stage; at pre-primary school level, early education level and in the primary schools. Unless we put in the resources, people will continue to drop out only to be picked up later. While all other issues are very important, I point to the above as the committee has asked me for three priorities.

I take this opportunity to thank Ms Johnson, Ms Joyce and Mr. Connolly for making their presentation to the committee and for providing us with some documentation. We will invite the members of the delegation back in the not too distant future and we look forward to their continuing contribution to our work. Delegates should feel free to contact the committee in relation to any matters they feel are important. I appreciate that Ms Johnson must leave as she has another appointment. I thank the Deputy Chairman for saving me as I was 20 minutes late. I apologise for not being present. I welcome from the European Anti-Poverty Network Mr. Robert Hanan, co-ordinator; Mr. Patrick Burke, chair-person; Ms Gráinne O'Toole, co-ordinator for the Irish Traveller Movement and Ms Frances Byrne, co-ordinator of the One Parent Exchange Network.

Mr. Robert Hanan

We have, at short notice, circulated two papers in advance of this meeting and, therefore, members may not have had much time to study them. The first paper is a compilation of the main detailed policy proposals put forward by members of the European Anti-Poverty Network Ireland and members of the community platform on the next national action plan on poverty and social exclusion. The second paper, which we will be dealing with today, is the submission to the committee, which outlines some of our more broad stroke overview proposals.

I thank the committee for giving us the time to make the presentation on this important national action plan, particularly at this time of year which I know is difficult in terms of the other commitments of Deputies and Senators. I also welcome the fact that we have a chance to share this debate with the Combat Poverty Agency because it, and the office for social inclusion in the Department of Social and Family Affairs, has played an important role in bringing the debate about the next national action plan around the country in recent months and in monitoring the plan and bringing it forward.

The European Anti-Poverty Network Ireland is a network of community and voluntary organisations in Ireland ranging from small local community development projects, Traveller groups, unemployed groups around the country to larger national organisations and networks. We are part of the European Anti-Poverty Network which has member networks in all 15 European Union member states. The network sees the development of these national action plans as one of our main priorities. We also co-ordinate our work very closely with our colleagues in the community platform which is the main network of national level anti-poverty organisations. The idea is that the four of us will bring ideas and discuss members' ideas around the plan. We will try to bring a flavour of some of the range of concerns and ideas coming from local organisations and also from a range of different specialist interest groups throughout the community platform.

For that reason, we do not plan to go into great detail on the policy proposals which we have put forward in our submissions from the EAPN and the community platform but we want to flag a few of the issues which we feel can make a difference to the next national action plan on poverty and social exclusion.

The national action plan is part of a Europe-wide strategy which was agreed at the Lisbon Council in the spring of 2000. The commitment to making a decisive impact on the eradication of poverty and social exclusion by 2010 was entered into as part of the Lisbon strategy for modernising the European economic and social model. One of the three key pillars of model, along with the development of a competitive economy and better quality and broader range of jobs was seen as the fight against poverty and social inclusion.

We are beginning with a strategy which commences with a strong political commitment. As committee members will be aware from dealing with European issues, there is often a perception in Ireland that European strategies are handed down from Brussels. One of the reasons we welcome this strategy is that there is a strong top level commitment, signed up to by the Taoiseach and his 14 colleagues at European Council level and that it has an ambitious objective of making a decisive impact on the eradication of poverty and social exclusion over a ten year period. That commitment gives it a strength that many previous strategies, policies, plans and reports over the years have not had. That is one of the reasons we also welcome the fact that this committee is taking such an interest in this strategy and we hope that will be a feature of the rest of the plan over the next few years as the ten year strategy rolls out.

As Ms Johnson mentioned earlier, the European strategy and the national action plans provide an opportunity for us to learn across the EU. It provides an opportunity for us to compare how we are performing in the fight against poverty and social exclusion in Ireland with our European Union counterparts. The fact that the joint inclusion report, which was drawn up as an analysis of each of the 15 plans and a comparative analysis between them, allows us to see how we are dealing with a range of different issues such as health and accommodation rights, the rights of minorities and so on.

Deputy Crawford mentioned the experience of Finland and referred to the difference between the way that country and other EU member states which have invested seriously in social infrastructure and the welfare state, and the way we tended to approach social issues in Ireland in the past. Members will have been struck by the United Nations human development report yesterday which showed that Ireland is yet again both one of the richest countries in the world - we are now the third richest country in terms of GDP per capita - behind Luxembourg and the United States - and the country in the EU with the highest rate of relative poverty. That is something which we would say does not come like the weather in hitting us by chance. Rather, it is a result of a series of well thought out political decisions over the years and priorities adopted by different Governments under various electoral pressures which simply have not put the investment into the social infrastructure and the re-distribution of wealth which could really make a difference. That fact that we are so much richer should give us pause for thought as to how we used that money in the Celtic tiger years.

We have the opportunity to compare and learn through the joint inclusion report, the 18 common indicators, which Ms Johnson mentioned. That report allows us to compare progress in each of the member states and, through the exchange of examples of good practice which is part of this process, and through the beginning of a system of peer review, allows countries to compare how they are approaching these issues across the EU. Being part of the European strategy gives us a strength which many of our nationally based processes have not had in the past. It does not take away responsibility from national or local level or from us, as community and voluntary organisations, to take up the fight against poverty and take the lead, but it allows us to compare how we are performing in those areas. There is a clear link between the objectives, targets and actions and the 15 Heads of State adopted clear and ambitious objectives and provided a system where these can be turned into serious targets and need to be linked directly with actions.

It is not enough, as we have done in the past, to simply name targets and hope we get there. We need to see the resources, the actions and we need to see how each one will be financed. This is something we will come back to in regard to our priorities in terms of resources.

The fact that there is an emphasis on rights throughout the objectives agreed by the Heads of State which underlie these plans in important and is a particular challenge for us in Ireland. In many EU countries, they already think of their approach to poverty and social exclusion, they phrase much of the language of their legislation and strategies in terms of the rights which are denied to people by their being excluded from society by living in poverty and being excluded from basic services which we consider to be human rights. We do not tend to use that language in Ireland and there is often a fear of it because it is often connected with legalistic approaches or that it will lead us into expenditure which has not been provided for or thought about. However, it is important that we have now made that commitment as part of this strategy to start to re-think our approach to these areas in terms of rights.

One of the four objectives adopted underlying this strategy is a commitment to participation. The term which is used is, "mobilising all of the actors in the fight against poverty and social exclusion". There is a clear role named for groups like national government - and we hope that includes the parliamentary system. We have argued strongly over the years for the involvement of committees such as this in the process, as well as a strong role for local government and a strong role of responsibility for organisations such as ours where people provide services or represent the interests of people on the ground who are affected by these strategies. It is not just a matter of debating between experts what people need but giving people a chance to say what their needs are and to contribute to designing policies and strategies to address those needs and monitoring how those needs are being met.

There is also a very strong commitment in all areas of policy under this strategy to deal with the theme of gender and look at the ways different policies impact on the interests of women and men; to deal with the interests of race and look at the ways different policies impact on different ethnic minorities - and my friends from the Irish Traveller Movement will talk more about this later; and to look at the new challenges of responding to the opportunities offered by increasing immigration of different types, how to respond to that and ensure that we are supporting this new resource and not simply creating more poverty.

I will conclude with a few words about the first round of plans. I mentioned that the plan being written at present and which will be completed by the end of July 2003 will be the second two-year plan in the ten-year strategy to make a decisive impact on eradicating poverty and social exclusion by 2010. The impression of our members throughout the European Union is that very few of the Governments who prepared the first plans really took them seriously.

There were a number of reasons for that, one of which was that they gave themselves a very short timescale. They adopted the objectives at the Nice European Council, which are well known here for lots of other reasons, in December 2000 and gave themselves only a few months to write the first round of plans. It is a new process and involves many changes to the way governments do business. We have had two years to think about how to approach the plans and none of those reasons are valid any longer. We are hoping and looking forward to a much more ambitious approach in the next round of plans in Ireland and in the other 14 current member states of the EU and the ten new member states due to join in 2004. We are hoping that this process, and the commitments that the Taoiseach and other Prime Ministers entered into, will be taken seriously.

In the first round, as Ms Johnson mentioned, there were very few new policies, something the European Commission analysis also agreed with. It simply listed as what was being done. There was a very poor emphasis on rights like minimum income, accommodation, health-care and cultural participation, and the Commission in particular highlighted the fact that there was very little mention of the particular interests of women and ethnic minorities. These are the types of issues we hope to see addressed more seriously in the plan in August 2003.

The context in which we are working is in many ways a difficult one. Deputy Callanan highlighted this earlier in talking about the hard choices that need to be made, particularly in the next budget. Some very serious and tough choices must be made in the next budget in favour of people who are still excluded from the Celtic tiger economy, the people who lost out or certainly did not benefit to the extent that most people did in the years of the boom. They now need to start feeling some of that benefit. We are still one of the fastest growing economies in the European Union despite the slowdown and, according to a report yesterday, the richest country in the European Union apart from Luxembourg. We can afford to eradicate poverty in the next budget.

The signals we are getting are that the next budget will take decisions which will mostly impact on people living in poverty and social exclusion and will not benefit those people but actually cut back on services. We need to see a budget that takes this plan seriously. We need to see promises and targets in this plan that show how the plan's objectives will be achieved, rather than simply adopting a plan and then moving away from it when it comes to really serious discussions like the budget and the national development plan.

I regret very much that I have to leave due to a personal commitment I could not change when I heard the group was attending. I apologise to all members of the delegation for having to leave and I look forward to reading their submissions and answers to some of the questions I posed earlier regarding Travellers. I can always contact the delegates personally.

I welcome the opportunity to engage in some of the issues and I welcome some of the earlier comments on dignity, false economy and promoting anti-racism in terms of asylum seekers being able to work. On the key issues that have been raised I wish to briefly highlight and re-emphasise a few points and maybe look to the future also.

To pick up on Ms Byrne's point, we hope that the plan will be ambitious and will set very specific targets. Unless we have mainstreaming and resources devoted to a lot of these issues it will again just be a case of broken promises. We need, for example, to see the next budget make an impact on the €150 per week commitment to those on lower social welfare benefits and so on. We need to see things like that begin to happen now. If they do not, we will have a serious problem down the line in terms of the ten-year target of making a serious impact in eliminating poverty. This plan must be at the heart of Government policy and work across Departments or else we will see very little happening down the road.

In recent times we have been particularly concerned, if not outraged on occasions, at the number of rights that have been clawed back from the most vulnerable groups in society. We do not see any signal at present of that changing much. For example, people mentioned earlier, and Ms. Byrne will pick up on it later, the impact on communities of the loss of CE places. We still have no disability rights legislation. Only last week we saw the equal status legislation with amendments being guillotined through, and that legislation has not even been reviewed yet. This was done to suit powerful interest groups, and it means that a range of groups, including people with disabilities, Travellers or any others who have been discriminated against by licensed premises, must now try to get representation in the District Courts. Many vulnerable groups will not be able to afford that.

People mentioned earlier that accommodation policies for Travellers have not been implemented across the country. More than 1,000 families are camped on public land with no basic services. The commitment given to us back in 1995 has still not been delivered. There is no need for families to be living in public spaces or for conflict with the settled community if bays are made available, as promised to us, across the country. The first year in which the full budget was actually tapped into by local authorities was 2002. It is one area where the budget is being made available year-in year-out but money is not being drawn down by local authorities, apart from 2002, when a lot of refurbishment took place and some bays were built.

We live in a climate that is particularly hostile to Travellers and other groups like asylum seekers. We have heard a great deal of racism over recent years which has put people in a very vulnerable position. We have also seen a trespass law introduced under the provisions of which Travellers are moved off public land. They then move on to other places but are also moved of those. This is contrary to what many of our politicians at the time would like us to have believed and hits vulnerable families who have nowhere else to go. That is the long and the short of it. It is not hitting large groups of Travellers who move on to public spaces for three weeks but families who do not have anywhere to go and do not even have access to a toilet. That is the level we are talking about.

Members mentioned the debate around rights and about how this gets lost in terms of legal action. The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform uses this argument all the time. This denies the reality out there. People focused earlier on education. What the plan is saying on rights is that people should have a right that allows them effective access to education, justice and other public and private services. It is so basic and is what we all want for all members of our society. I emphasise what the plan says about housing and accommodation, which again is so basic. It calls for, "policies which aim to provide access for all to decent and sanitary housing, as well as the basic services necessary to live normally having regard to local circumstances;" that is, electricity, water and heating.

That is what we are talking about, sad to say, in a country that is the third wealthiest in the world after the US and Luxembourg, but with one of the highest levels of poverty in Europe. The argument around rights needs to be shifted. Each citizen at the point of birth should expect to have a decent education and a decent place to live and, as Deputy Crawford mentioned, dignity and respect in society. That is not asking for a whole lot. That will not be the cause of huge expenditure. It has to go to the heart of Government policy.

Some of the other areas about which we are concerned were mentioned earlier. Participation is one. The voices of the most marginalised in society are not heard any more. We have Sustaining Progress as the new national agreement. Only two women are sitting around this table. Our groups are not in the agreement. There is nothing in it for us. We are still committed to dialogue and to social partnership, but nobody hears the voice of the most marginalised in society.

I wish to touch on some more issues, for example, that of homelessness. There have been increases in the amount of resources going into bed and breakfast and emergency accommodation, but this does not get to the root of difficulties. The homeless group has been saying that we need to put the homeless action plans on a statutory basis and deliver on its objectives. The same applies to the Traveller accommodation programmes. We have good legislation which provides that all local authorities must implement these programmes. We need leadership and the strength to implement them. On participation and having a voice it is important that in the monitoring of this plan we have constant engagement with those most affected by social exclusion and poverty.

I wish to highlight the gender aspect. I know Frances intends to talk about lone parents but I wish to say that women constitute one of the groups who are at most risk of poverty. We need to look at issues specifically affecting women and men. I have mentioned some ethnic minority groups. We have talked about direct provision, dignity issues and the right to work in relation to that. Last week I was very shocked that the Immigration Bill was rushed through with no dialogue. What is the point in trying to impact on the political system and get our voice heard when we are not being listened to? We do not feel we are being listened to at this juncture. That is the context in which we are operating at present, which we would consider a very hostile environment, to say the least.

On looking to the future, we look forward to the implementation of this plan in respect of which we all engaged in the consultation processes. As was said earlier, there were about 66 submissions, so it was a good process. We need to see very clear targets set in the medium term. We will be watching closely to see whether some of the commitments will be met in the next budget. We need to start that happening if these targets are to be met.

On discussions like this in the future, we would welcome further input. We see the role of this committee, in terms of monitoring and looking at the plan on a regular basis, to ensure that these are not just meaningless targets and commitments. We also see the committee as having a role in proposing priorities for the next plan because it can see the gaps quite clearly from the work in which it is involved and the comments made today.

I did not mention - it should be highlighted - the National Action Plan Against Racism, which is due to be published soon. That needs to be integrated to tackle new issues as well as old issues of racism here that undermine the work we are all trying to do.

Finally, we want to flag the Joint Inclusion Report under the scrutiny process. Mr. Hanan will speak briefly about that process.

Mr. Hanan

I know we have taken up a lot of the time of the committee. It would be interesting to hear the committee's views on the opportunities offered by the new European scrutiny process to engage with the Joint Inclusion Report. The committee is probably aware that the Joint Inclusion Report is a very useful analytical document which compares the national action plans in all 15 countries and also provides a specific commentary on each country's plans. There will be solid commentary on Ireland's national action plan as well as comparative information on the other plans. That Joint Inclusion Report will be drafted by about the middle of September by the European Commission and will go out for discussion to be adopted ultimately by the European Parliament and by the Council of Ministers, which means that, as a Council of Ministers document, it will come within the ambit of the new scrutiny process. It will be very important, and we have been flagging this with parliaments in all 15 countries. It will be particularly important for the Oireachtas, as the voice of the people in Ireland and the group most responsible for calling the Government to account, to have a good look at that. If the committee is looking at that Joint Inclusion Report under the scrutiny process and talking to the Minister about it we would also welcome an opportunity to come back to comment on it.

Ms Frances Byrne

As other colleagues have said, it is a pleasure and a privilege to be present.

I intend to focus on lone parents and wish to mention community employment in that context. As others have mentioned, including the director of the Combat Poverty Agency and members of the committee, the cutbacks on community employment have had a tremendous impact on communities. Lone parent participation on community employment programmes doubled nationally and tripled in some areas. It has stayed at around 40% of all of those working on community employment. The reason is that the former Minister for Social Welfare, Mr. Proinsias de Rossa, introduced the one-parent family payment and this, in combination with the local, flexible and part-time nature of community employment, allowed lone parents to take that first step back into the workplace. The cutbacks are, therefore, highly regrettable.

While the Government is committed to having a ceiling of 20,000 places by the end of this year, there are rumours, about which I heard from people in Deputy Ryan's and Deputy O'Connor's constituencies who knew I was coming here today, which are quite worrying from a lone parent perspective. While the number of places may not be falling, there is talk of spreading community employment over a 30-hour week instead of a 20-hour week and amalgamating it with other employment schemes. If that is true, it will eliminate the possibility of access to community employment for every lone parent in the country.

The reason community employment worked was that it was possible to do it while one's children were at school. From the perspective of lone parents, if they have child care needs, the earnings in this regard, introduced in the first instance by Minister Woods and then strengthened by Minister de Rossa, made it possible to meet those needs. People are quite shocked to find that Ireland has the highest poverty rate outside the United States in the developed world. We were not shocked in OPEN because while in Ireland generally the level of poverty is 15.3%, for lone parents it is 26.2%. According to the Economic and Social Research Institute that has fallen by less than 3% over the lifetime of the Celtic tiger. There are a number of reasons for this, which I will not go into now, although I would like an opportunity to do so at some stage. Part of the reason is that we have both a social welfare system and accommodation system which is trying to cope with changes in family formation.

As we have said in our submission, the number of lone parents in Ireland is quite small at 13% or 14%. However, when we look at housing lists, it is 47%, which is the figure from the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. A total of 47% of housing lists nationally are made up of lone parents. In urban areas where there are more lone parents there is a higher rate. It rises to 60% in some areas. That happens because of the way that points are given out and because we keep building three-bedroom houses. Naturally, two-parent families will receive priority for them, so there is a real need and the National Economic and Social Forum has examined this issue, with all the social partners involved, and made a recommendation about changing the way we build local authority houses.

Finally, on community employment we have, with the agency's support through the excellent working against poverty grants scheme, just finished some research which we will be publishing by the autumn. I would greatly welcome an opportunity to attend and talk to the committee about it. It is about the one-parent family payment, which has not been touched since it was introduced in 1997. One of our findings is the importance of the combination of the one-parent family payment and community employment. I am not just saying that as we have actually done the research on it and would welcome the opportunity to return and talk to the committee about it.

As others have said, it is regrettable that we are not getting positive noises coming down the tracks about the budget. We all feel that there is a kind of warning being issued. The target that the agency spoke about trying to reach is €150 per week. We should have increased by €11.20 per week last year but instead Minister McCreevy gave €6 per week to those on social welfare. In order to achieve the target in time for 2007, never mind by 2005, which the agency is recommending and which I think we would all support, the Government would have to give about €16.40 this year. I do not think that is going to happen, so we are already slipping behind in relation to the anti-poverty strategy targets which the Government has signed up to. That is serious and I greatly welcome the fact that the agency would like to have income poverty made a matter of priority. It is the greatest priority.

Mr. Patrick Burke

I too am very happy to be present to participate in this discussion. As well as being chair of the European Anti-Poverty Network I am also the director of Threshold, a national organisation that has been working for the past 25 years in the whole area of appropriate and sustainable accommodation for people, particularly those experiencing poverty and social exclusion.

I wish to make some comments specifically about our hopes on this round of NAPS and accommodation. Ms Byrne was pressed earlier to give three areas of priority, something I am sure she found very difficult to do because clearly, all of the issues that have come up today are priorities for the people experiencing poverty and social exclusion. If one is homeless on the streets of Dublin, Cork or Limerick, the one priority is a bed for the night and, in the long-term, a much more sustainable housing arrangement. For us and for people experiencing homelessness and insecure accommodation, the priority should be delivery of appropriate housing.

On the private rented sector, Threshold deals with 16,000 to 17,000 people per year. Many of the inquiries, difficulties and advocacy work we do concerns people experiencing difficulty in the private rented sector. We have welcomed the Residential Tenancies Bill 2003 in general. We have campaigned for a good number of years to have greater security of tenure for people, although we are concerned with some aspects of the Bill. I will not go into those in detail now but we are still very much concerned about minimum standards. It is our experience from dealing with people on a daily basis that many landlords are still to be compliant with that aspect of legislation.

We are also concerned with the recent cap on the supplementary welfare allowance. It is our experience that this is leading to homelessness because when landlords decide to increase the rent beyond the mark people just cannot afford to pay it and leave the tenancy. It is causing great hardship. There is a myth out there that rents are on the way down. It may well be the case in the higher end of the market but in our experience rents are still very much on the way up in the lower end of the market.

We welcomed the Taoiseach's announcement last week about the allocation of public lands for affordable housing but clearly this is not an anti-poverty measure. Some 85% of the people on the social housing list receive incomes of less than €16,000 per year and there is no way that they can aspire to getting on to the affordability market. That is a very significant number, which leads me then to the whole area of social housing. Our worry is that we are definitely not going to reach the targets outlined in the national development plan.

Output in 2002 was up by 20% to 4,500 but this is still a long way short of the national development plan target of 41,500. If we are to reach this target we would want to be achieving an output in the region of 8,000 per year for the next four years. We want to ensure that this round of NAPS will affirm the commitments that have been made in the national development plan. I will not delay any longer but the items we have mentioned are possible to achieve. We can make a major impact in tackling problems of social exclusion and poverty if the political will is there to allocate appropriate resources.

I apologise for having to leave the meeting for a short time and I regret I missed some of the contributions. I will try not to repeat questions, although I would like to hear the thoughts of our guests on the health board problems and so on. There is an overstaffing problem there at administration level. I know my colleague felt I was hitting at the unions but I do see a serious problem there. I was involved in a farming organisation for 23 years so I do have a sympathy with the unions. We have gone so far down the road on administration structures that it will be hard to minimise that. I would like to hear the thoughts of our guests on that topic.

I thank the delegation for their openness and frankness. On health rights, just last week a two-year-old child died because of lack of access to a hospital. I had a family bereavement only last week. My cousin, when asked that night if she was satisfied with the hospital, said she was very satisfied with the treatment her husband received in his last few days but that if he had been brought to the proper place seven months earlier he possibly might be still alive.

On the whole issue of a two-tiered health system, how does the delegation see us dealing with that? They say they have looked at these issues at European level and we seem to have one of the worst crises here. Only recently I visited the Isle of Man, where the staff were apologetic for the fact that there was up to a six-month waiting list for a hip operation. If we had our waiting list for such operations down to six months we would think it was a miracle.

How does the delegation see us dealing with the issue of disability? Those on disability allowances especially have very few rights, and they have the increased costs of heat, electricity and so on. They are now so far down the list in terms of the level of increases received over recent years that it is a very serious problem. I tie in with that the whole issue of CE schemes. Do our guests have any proposals in that whole area? Two groups are being badly hit by the cutbacks in CE. I mentioned one of them earlier - those over 50 or 55. Our guests have highlighted the whole issue of single parents. It is great to see such people getting a certain amount of work and being able to leave their flats, dungeons or whatever to give a service to the community. It seems strange that that scheme was curtailed.

The last issue our guests dealt with was that of housing. I welcome the proposal to build 10,000 extra houses in the Dublin region. How do the delegates feel that none of these is scheduled to be built in rural Ireland?

The issue of those not allowed work here ties in with the whole Traveller problem of social exclusion. In Monaghan County Council, we provided good facilities for Travellers in two districts of the county. In Clones and Monaghan town, there are properly structured halting sites. However, the council finds it impossible to acquire property to build halting sites, even though 100% funding from the Government is available. Recently, another group of Travellers moved into the Clones area causing problems within their community because there was no extra space available. This issue will have to examined on a nation-wide basis.

Another group who are classified as Travellers are also business people. I am referring to those who, for example, travel the countryside selling gates and other goods. This group causes frustration and consternation where they move into places in big numbers. However, differentiate between those two groups and be proactive in dealing with issues for genuine Travellers. I must question whether the business groups are actually in need. The amount of money they seem to have at their disposal - they drive 2002 and 2003 registered vehicles - must be looked at by Government. We look closely at other groups who are not paying their taxes. I have also raised with retailers how is it possible that lorry loads of gates can be left along the road. These Travellers deal mainly with farmers and most of the transactions are in cash. There are other implications which I will not refer to by their movement in the countryside. They give the genuine Travellers who need proper accommodation in settled areas for schooling a bad name.

I wish to re-emphasise the use of education to get people out of poverty traps. Some great work is being done by social groups. However, more could be done to educate people who will not be continuing in full-time education in practical skills. It was said that county councils are not doing enough to assist Travellers. However, it is not as easy as it looks. Galway County Council has done a great deal for the Traveller community but we do come up against resentment. Most Travellers are genuine, but there is that small percentage that will cause problems. As a result wider society has a fear of that problem. The Traveller community should get together and try to conform better to society.

Commissioner Ward from Tuam is the first mayor from the Travelling community in the State. I congratulate and compliment him as he speaks in the same terms as I do. He has worked hard to improve the conditions of the Traveller community. He also strives to get that 5% of the Traveller community to conform.

From the delegations' research, is alcohol abuse a big factor with the homeless? Does marriage breakdown also play a role, as I note that a large number of men end up on the streets? It is natural that the wife and children keep the home after a marriage break up. However, it seems to be the man who ends up on the street. We appear to have neglected that area over the years.

There is a strong political commitment to lead the fight against poverty and social exclusion as set out at the Lisbon EU Council meeting in 2000. One of the objectives was to deal with rights-based entitlements. How does that square with the tardiness shown by some member states, not least Ireland, on issues such as rights-based disability legislation?

Do the delegates see this 2003 to 2005 plan as providing a framework for the next three budgets to achieve the targets set out? Is this plan the essential yardstick by which we will evaluate progress?

What are Mr. Hanan's views on the Tánaiste's comments on income tax? There is the view that those on lower income should be out of the income tax net. Certain budgets showed that an individual on £200 gained £10 while those on £50,000 gained £2,500. It was very much on a percentage basis rather a needs basis.

Mr. Hanan

Between us we will do our best to answer all the questions asked. Unfortunately, I only heard the comments on income tax second-hand so I cannot directly comment on the words that were used by the Tániaste. We feel strongly that an anti-poverty strategy must include a serious allocation of resources to help the fight against poverty. This includes the build-up of services that are accessible to everyone and not just to those who can pay and the redistributing of income to ensure that those on the lowest level have enough income to live their lives in dignity. It is somewhat pre-emptive, particularly in the current economic climate, to rule out tax increases to reach that objective. Ireland has one of the lowest overall tax takes in the EU. It also has one of the lowest spending levels on social protection. That manifests itself in the state of the services which many people in poverty and social exclusion avail of.

Some of the problems arise from the way in which resources are allocated. We regard the SSIAs as a luxury for people with money rather than a necessity for people who really need support from the State. Priorities are set on the amount of different types of services and provisions which are really accessible only to people who already have some level of income. It is quite important.

We need to look at how money is spent, and at the overall tax take. As I have not done the figures this morning, I cannot say whether or not we need a specific increase in tax, but I would be very surprised if a Minister for Finance could proceed to the next budget and say that it is possible to avoid raising the overall taxes and at the same time provide the sort of resources that we need to deliver a serious attack on poverty and social exclusion here.

We felt, therefore, that it was wrong to rule that out at this stage in the debate. We need to look at the level of tax. That does not mean that people on the lowest income levels have to go on paying the amount of tax they are paying at present, because the feature of the Irish tax system that really stands out is the fact that so much tax is loaded on people at the lower end of the scale, and so little is paid by people who either own large amounts of property or are making large profits through speculation, large-scale business or through direct income. Very little of the tax take is paid by people who can afford to pay it, and a great deal of it is paid by people who cannot. This leaves many people in the country feeling we have a high level of tax, when overall, we do not. Perhaps the wrong people are paying.

As for health, we could probably have an entire session dealing with that. We have made some proposals in our submission on the plan, and they boil down to two things. There is an advantage in taking a long-term perspective - we are looking at a ten-year strategy, not an emergency response in a particular budget.

First, we need a single integrated health service. We cannot go on asking the taxpayers to pay for a system that allows people who have money access better services faster and more reliably than those who cannot afford to. We need a single integrated waiting list and health service. We can learn a great deal from most of our counterparts in the European Union in regard to the sort of decisions they have made between the 1930s and the 1950s, never mind the decisions they are currently making about setting up a serious integrated health service wherein rights arise from one's citizenship and needs rather than from the amount of money one can pay.

We also need some targeted responses to the needs of particular groups, such as Travellers, migrants, people in rural and urban areas. It is striking that most of these needs have been well identified in Government strategies. Most of what we are looking for in this strategy has been promised at some stage in the past by some Government, and we want delivery. If one looks at the 15 or 16 proposals we have made in our submission under the heading of targeted health strategies, just about everything there has been discussed, identified as a need by some arm of Government, and promised. We need delivery on those strategies. We need a comprehensive health service based on rights rather than money, and we need targeted strategies for people most at risk. Everyone here is well aware of the close link between poor health and poverty, social exclusion and discrimination in general.

I have been attempting in my submission to contrast the difference in the ambition of the political commitment, as announced in the Lisbon strategy, and what is actually being delivered. By political commitment I meant political commitment on paper, the fact of the Prime Ministers coming together and making these commitments which we have sought for a long time and very much welcome. We now need to see them taken seriously, particularly by finance ministries and the people making the hard political decisions.

There is often a feeling that social issues, the sort of issues that come before this committee, are the soft issues about which nice statements can be made around the edges. The issues are central. The only countries that have created more equal societies and taken on the issues of poverty and social exclusion in a serious way are those that have put those issues right at the centre of their budgetary and economic policies. That is what we have not seen here. We have seen it in writing but not in practice. That is what we are looking for in this plan. We will know in a couple of weeks' time whether it will be delivered or not.

As for budgets, if the next three budgets are not organised around the principles of the strategy against poverty and social exclusion, the strategy will not happen. It is not just a matter of wishing to see it delivered. If there is a Government commitment and a Government statement adopting a national action plan to eradicate poverty and social exclusion here over the next eight years, it must be central to the next few budgets, particularly in times when there is less money around and there are harder decisions to be made.

I will pick up on some of the issues in relation to Travellers. The Housing (Traveller Accommodation) Act is being reviewed at the moment by the Government. We are involved in that review. The key issues arising relate to the difficulties in delivering at local level, planning issues and so on. We are in discussion on these matters, and I know the Department will be contacting the local authorities and other interested parties in order to resolve the issues. There is a general understanding that the Department has not delivered, and there is recognition of some of the barriers at local level in terms of delivery. These are the issues we are looking at. Last year, planning was a major issue. The Traveller accommodation programmes did not necessarily correspond in some cases to the county development plans. That was an anomaly we needed to address. Once the Traveller accommodation programme is adopted, we see no reason it cannot be implemented directly. There is no reason to go back over it - the rows over locations should first be resolved, and the programmes then implemented. That is an issue already discussed.

Transient provision has been committed to in the Act. It is a legislative duty for local authorities to provide for transient accommodation across the country. We have always urged that for Travellers who are not in need - those who have businesses - the council could provide venues at commercial rents, and allow those Travellers to trade.

I met councillors in Clones to ask them to look at ways in which provision could be made. Particularly in summer, Travellers will always continue to travel. It is part of their cultural heritage. Conflict has increased over the years as spaces become scarce. Boulder policies, for example, have closed off many additional camping areas. We have asked the Government to look at a way of allowing temporary use of land for families, a way which would accord with planning regulations, in order to alleviate some of the difficulties.

Reference has been made to the members of the Traveller community who, as has been said, give the others a bad name. This is a debate we have to get out of. Travellers cannot be held accountable for what the rest of the community does. Contrary to popular belief, Travellers are not all related. They do not all know each other. No other community has to police itself. Mention was made of Martin Ward in Galway, who was elected as mayor of Tuam. There are many Travellers like Martin around the country who are making their own lives, providing for their families and contributing substantially to society. Generalised anti-Traveller remarks are causing a lot of hurt. This is where we need political leadership. We need people to point out that if Travellers are engaged in anti-social activity, those individuals should be dealt with.

In this debate, we spiral every year into the same black hole, and particularly this year. As we approach the local elections, we will hear the same rubbish that is trotted out year in, year out. We have had many calls from councillors, now that the summer is here and the problems are again arising. What happens is that all Travellers get blamed. This contributes to the image of Travellers as deviants who are not wanted in any area. Political leadership is needed in this regard. Transient accommodation is needed too. Chris Flood, who has always taken the political initiative, has pointed out that if the places were provided for Travellers to live, the conflict would disappear in terms of Travellers camping on public spaces, and Travellers being pitted against the settled community. In terms of anti-social behaviour, let Travellers be dealt with like everybody else. The law on trespass, for example, affects only Travellers. It is hitting families badly across the country.

I cannot emphasise this enough. I do not know what else to say about it at this stage. We are working with the Government to try to ensure that the review is robust and that it looks at the key barriers. We accept there are local authorities which have tried to deliver on the programme, but face consistent barriers in relation to that. A local authority official told us last year when we were researching the problems being experienced that there was nobody "breathing down my neck" to get delivery. We, too, believe it needs a strong centralised approach, given the barriers that exist locally. I will pass over to Frances Byrne

Ms Byrne

I will make quick comments on the community employment schemes, about which Deputy Crawford asked, on education, which Deputy Callanan highlighted, and on one aspect of homelessness - marital breakdown. I have to respond to that, but I will be very quick, because I am conscious of time constraints. A previous speaker hit the nail on the head in the comment that nobody, except Traveller organisations, is knocking down the doors of local or national politicians on the question of Travellers' rights. I am not being overly dramatic when I say that as a settled Irish woman, it makes me ashamed that my settled majority community discriminate in this way. I do not say that lightly. It is up to all the settled community to get real about this issue. It is our issue. We keep calling it a Traveller issue. The voters and politicians in the settled community are stopping this from progressing. I say that in solidarity with my colleague.

Deputy Crawford talked about community employment in relation to older people. Helen Johnson of the Combat Poverty Agency spoke earlier about the emerging poverty of older women. We are convinced some of those older women have been lone parents. What every organisation will say is that while services are very powerful if delivered by local people, there is also the impact on the individual, and, therefore, that role exists in the wider community as well. The benefit of community employment, apart from service delivery, has meant that people who heretofore had been disengaged from the labour market by age or caring responsibility or by their lack of self-esteem - if they have been long-term unemployed - have had an opportunity to re-engage. These people need that step into the labour market. That is why it has worked.

The submission of the group with the recommendations states the cut is coming in relation to 5,000 places. The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment said there would be 2,500 additional places in the social economy but that was to try to soothe some of us. We suggest strongly that those places should be put in place before the CE cuts are made, but we doubt very much if that will happen. There are other recommendations in our submission. On education, I could not agree more with Deputy Callanan's point about early education. Neither could I disagree with what Combat Poverty had to say about that topic. However, on many of our public services - I agree, wholeheartedly, that education is the answer - we started at a very low base. It is a bit like the argument over the health services. We had a cohort of people who left school early in the 1980s, went into low-paid vulnerable jobs and are now drifting into long-term unemployment etc. We now see them emerging again.

We recommended about 100 hours of part-time education for workers who only have the junior certificate - or the group certificate, as it was, or the intermediate, in my day - so that they may upskill while they are in employment. We brought that to the partnership talks but it was not taken up, despite the fact we had support from the trade union movement. I do think we are playing catch-up and that this is one of the realities. We need early education so that we do not end up where we did before, but the people who suffered in the 1980s should not be left behind, as with the health service.

My final point relates to the homeless. Marital breakdown is certainly a factor because we do not have suitable housing for single people, with or without children. Again, it is an issue that has been raised at the National Economic and Social Forum. By and large we are talking about fathers. I am glad Deputy Crawford put it on the record, because I would not dare say what he said about women getting the home and that being the natural thing.

That does not always happen.

Ms Byrne

No, but it was a brave statement. Nevertheless, I believe it reflects the reality about how most people organise their lives while they are in relationships and married. When the NESF engaged consultations, there were heartbreaking stories from fathers who had nowhere to take their children when they gained access to them at the weekend. That is an issue for our society. We shy away from these family formation issues because we are uncomfortable with them. We are also uncomfortable about public policy. The reality, sadly, is that people's relationships do not last. There are pressures. There are at least 160,000 lone parents here, according to the census. That means 160,000 families have to face those issues. The Deputy's comments are therefore welcome in this regard. Recommendations on accommodation and housing for all families are sitting on Government shelves waiting to be implemented.

Mr. Burke

My colleague has answered most of the questions and comments by Deputies on accommodation, except for possibly one. Deputy Crawford passed a remark about affordable housing, the announcement last week and whether or not that would be a good idea for the rural parts of Ireland. Obviously, we support that. I reiterate that affordable housing is not an anti-poverty measure. Some 85% of people on housing waiting lists are on incomes of less than €16,000 per year. Therefore, they will not reach the threshold. For the benefit of Deputies working in rural areas, even if there are allocations of affordable housing, there will be people looking for support in their efforts to provide social housing. As chairman of the European Anti-Poverty Network, may I just take the opportunity to thank the committee on behalf of my colleagues for affording us the opportunity to participate in this lively exchange this afternoon. We look forward to working with the committee when the plan is issued and when the Joint Inclusion Report is published.

On behalf of the committee I take this opportunity to thank all the personnel, from the Combat Poverty Agency and the European Anti-Poverty Network, for making the presentations. It was a stimulating exercise. I am sure the delegates evoked and provoked a number of wide-ranging questions, which will have to be addressed. We will focus on the fact, as was indicated, that this committee will have a significant role to play in the evaluation and monitoring of the implementation of the various objectives of the new plan, 2003-05. We intend to take our role seriously. We will be relying on the delegates to help us in that regard. We intend to invite the groups - we hope they will accept - to help us on that particular aspect. Outside help on the evaluation and assessment process will be important. I thank our visitors sincerely. We look forward to continuing co-operation and hope to meet the delegates again in the near future.