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Wednesday, 1 Oct 2008

Role and Functions: Discussion with Combat Poverty Agency.

Today's business is a presentation by the Combat Poverty Agency on its current work and emerging issues. The Chairman apologises for his absence but he hopes to join us shortly. On behalf of my colleagues, I welcome Mr. Kevin O'Kelly, acting director, Mr. Brian Duncan, chairman, Mr. Peter McKevitt, board member, and Mr. Bevin Cody, head of communications and public affairs.

I draw everybody's attention to the fact that while members of the committee have absolute privilege, the same privilege does not apply to witnesses appearing before the committee. It is generally accepted that witnesses have qualified privilege, but the committee cannot guarantee any level of privilege to witnesses appearing before it. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice that members should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

Mr. Brian Duncan

It might be worthwhile to say a little about the agency. Mr. O'Kelly and Mr. Cody are full-time employees of the agency whereas Mr. McKevitt and I are board members. Mr. McKevitt is general manager for the Rehab Group in the north east and midlands and he is based in Dundalk.

The agency has been in existence for 20 years and significant changes have taken place during that period. Under the legislation, we have four functions: to undertake research; to support innovative projects to test solutions against poverty; to promote public education and understanding of poverty; and to give advice to the Government. We bring a number of attributes to the job, including professionalism, knowledge of the sector and strong independence. Successive Governments have respected the agency's independence, notwithstanding the fact that they might not always have liked what we said. That is one of the core competences we bring to our work.

I hope we will have plenty of time for a robust discussion and we will address any questions the committee has. We have put together a brief background document on the work we are doing and Mr. O'Kelly will refer to that. How much time do we have?

The norm is for a delegation to make a presentation of between ten and 12 minutes following which members will engage in a question and answer session. Given the nature of parliamentary business, colleagues may have to come and go.

Mr. Kevin O’Kelly

I have circulated a brief PowerPoint presentation and Mr. Cody and I will explain the slides. The latest official figures on poverty from the Central Statistics Office show that 6.9%, or approximately 293,000 people, live in consistent poverty. They live on approximately €210 per week and they cannot afford, for example, a hot meal every two days, to heat their homes, buy new cloths or socialise once a month. A number of different deprivation criteria measure consistent poverty. The Vincentian Partnership for Social Justice carried out a more detailed qualitative study of poverty in Ireland, which found that 12 out of the 27 low income families interviewed could not afford minimum essentials in their weekly budget. People continually have problems living on a day-to-day basis.

Increasing unemployment is adding to the problem of poverty. As members will be aware, in recent months the number of people on the live register has increased by 73,000 and the unemployment rate is projected to increase to 8%. One of the important points to note regarding those living in poverty is that the inflation rate for basic goods is higher than the overall inflation rate. Food prices, for example, have increased by approximately 6.5% in recent months, while the cost of fuel and heating has increased by 11% or 12%. These are key factors in addressing increases in the cost of living for people living in poverty.

We continually emphasise the Government's commitment to eliminate consistent poverty by 2016. Over the past 20 years, considerable progress has been made in this respect. In 1986, when the Combat Poverty Agency was established, there was no measurement of poverty, but using current measurements we estimate that approximately 16% of the population lived in consistent poverty in the late 1980s. The figure has, therefore, decreased significantly in the past 20 years.

As regards work carried out by the Combat Poverty Agency since we last came before the joint committee, members may have read the report on the social determinants of ill-health we published in August. This report examined the links between poverty and poor health. Another task the agency performs each year is to advise the Government on how the budget can be framed to help people who are living in poverty. This year we tried to be much more focused in our pre-budget advice concentrating on six key areas. For example, we have highlighted that higher inflation is hitting people on low incomes. We have also made recommendations on maintaining welfare payments at a level which would allow people living in poverty to deal with higher increases in inflation.

The Combat Poverty Agency has also examined how we can protect vulnerable groups such as older people and older children. Our work shows that children of 12 years of age and over have a greater chance of falling into poverty due to the higher costs associated with that age group. We are doing substantial work in the area of educational disadvantage and examining various aspects of the cost of education. One of the proposals we made in our pre-budget advice to the Government was to introduce an additional payment in August to assist families with school-going children to meet the costs of returning to school in September. We have made specific proposals on that issue.

As regards health inequalities, the Combat Poverty Agency has been working with the interdepartmental group established following last year's budget to examine access to medical cards. We drew on research we did on behalf of the interdepartmental group to make specific proposals about improving access to medical cards for people on lower incomes. We have also made specific proposals on how to tackle problems in the area of social and affordable housing in the present climate. We also used research and work we have been doing for the past three or four years to produce six key recommendations on fuel poverty, which has emerged as a key issue in recent months.

Yesterday, the Combat Poverty Agency launched a policy statement on financial exclusion, a key part of our work in recent years. Ireland has the fourth highest level of financial exclusion in the 15 pre-accession European Union member states. Four of the EU 15, Luxembourg, Belgium, the Netherlands and Denmark, have little or no financial exclusion because they have established approaches to address the problem. If people do not have access to financial services or credit, they turn to money lenders, many of whom operate illegally and charge excessive interest. This is a key problem which creates recurring indebtedness. The agency has made recommendations on tackling financial exclusion. I have copies of our policy statement if members would like one.

It would be interesting, as part of a dialogue with the joint committee, to offer advice on various aspects of poverty and social exclusion which we encounter and identify emerging issues. We have presented to the joint committee our annual analysis of the budget. We will carry out a further such analysis shortly after the budget, which will examine the impact of the budget proposals on people living in poverty. We will continue to engage with the joint committee on our forthcoming research. By the end of this month we hope to publish a report on research we have been carrying out on the cost of school books. This project is being done in conjunction with the Department of Education and Science to ascertain how the school book schemes can be improved across primary and secondary levels. We also hope to publish a report on energy efficiency and fuel poverty in November. The Combat Poverty Agency has been working on a detailed study of this issue with Sustainable Energy Ireland.

We hope to continue to brief members either individually or jointly on key emerging issues the agency is identifying in the area of poverty. We may also ask the joint committee to visit some of the innovative projects on which we have been working. The Combat Poverty Agency has an opportunity to increase our engagement with the joint committee by feeding into its work and advising members on the findings of our research and innovative projects. Ms Cody will discuss the unique features of the Combat Poverty Agency.

Ms Bevin Cody

The Combat Poverty Agency is regarded as a model of good practice across Europe. This week, we hosted a delegation from Belgium, which is examining ways of addressing poverty in Belgium and considering the possibility of establishing an independent agency to advise on poverty. We are consistently asked what makes the Combat Poverty Agency unique. The unique feature of the agency with which most people will be familiar is that we are independent and provide independent assessment and commentary on poverty trends. Our independent position means we have the freedom to objectively point out what needs to be done. We also ensure our information and advice is available to everybody.

The Combat Poverty Agency has a specific focus on poverty. While we examine social inclusion and the links between it and poverty, we address the specific problem of poverty in society and the difficulties experienced by disadvantaged groups. We are also unique in that we combine our research with practically tested solutions to poverty. We are not simply a research organisation that produces reports and moves on. We work with communities to undertake innovative projects that look at how different solutions address different problems and we draw on those lessons to feed into the policy process.

All our staff are recruited on the basis of their specialist expertise on poverty. We have a technical expertise in terms of analysing the CSO statistics and, among other things, providing advice on poverty impact assessment. We share the information across the board with other organisations involved in poverty and social inclusion work. For example, we work with the Health Service Executive and various social inclusion units in different Departments and local authorities to build their capacity through our technical expertise, which would not necessarily be available to them within their organisations.

We also act as a bridge between the State and the community and voluntary sectors. Our independent position means we are trusted by the community and voluntary groups yet we have direct links to Government. We are able to facilitate consultations, engagement and to make introductions. Unlike most other organisations involved in anti-poverty work, one of the things that sets the Combat Poverty Agency apart is the fact that it operates across the board at a variety of different administrative levels. We work with European partners on projects that share learning across Europe. We work at a national, all-island and local level. That means we can bring policy lessons from one place and apply them across the board to other areas.

A feature of the Combat Poverty Agency that is sometimes not recognised because it is behind the scenes is that when we undertake work or publish a report or policy statement, we do not leave it at that. There is a long process of engagement with different stakeholders to support and collaborate with them to see through the recommendations and get them adopted into the mainstream so that we can then move on to something else. That position as a catalyst for change is something that has defined us in the past 20 years.

I thank the delegation for the presentation. I now propose to take questions and observations from colleagues.

I welcome the delegation. We are pleased to have it before the committee. I wish to deal with whether the Combat Poverty Agency will be here next year. There is broad support for reform of the public service and a reduction in the number of State agencies. That is something the Fine Gael Party has proposed. The Combat Poverty Agency was not on Fine Gael's list of agencies to be abolished.

Mr. Duncan has outlined the functions of the organisation that was set up 20 years ago. In evaluating which agencies should be retained and which should be abolished we must look at how successful they have been in carrying out their functions. Mr. Duncan and Ms Cody have outlined to a great extent the work of the agency. Would it be possible to elaborate on each of the four headings highlighted by Mr. Duncan in terms of research, support for innovative programmes - that may have been dealt with by projects like Building Healthy Communities - public education in understanding poverty, and advice to Government. I wish to hear some expansion on the latter heading in particular.

From my meetings with the Combat Poverty Agency with colleagues it is evident that the agency is used by the Government to provide information to it and Departments. Where would that information come from if the agency ceases to exist? I was surprised to hear the Department of Health and Children asked the agency to carry out research for it, given that one would expect the Department to have expertise in that area. How will that work if a decision has been taken to abolish the agency or subsume it into another agency? If, as has been suggested, the agency is amalgamated with the Office for Social Inclusion, what access would other Departments have to an office under the remit of the Department of Social and Family Affairs? From my reading of the briefing documents gained under freedom of information legislation - given to the Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Hanafin, and her predecessor - the office does not have a brief to carry out research for other Departments. I am concerned that the research function would be lost. It may be more important for the Opposition than the Government to have access to the type of information provided by the agency, given that it is independent and reliable when we try to effect change or hold the Government to account on decisions it makes. I ask the witnesses to deal with that in their response.

We received an e-mail today about the inter-agency strategy group for energy. Has the agency been consulted by the strategy group or asked for an opinion on what it is doing. It is coincidental that the e-mail arrived today when we have had a few committee meetings since it was set up.

The working poor are people who are not on social welfare but who find it difficult to make ends meet. They fall into a particular trap that is not discussed to the same extent as the traps that people on social welfare fall into. That is especially important in terms of the budget and issues such as fuel poverty.

I have dealt with two social welfare Bills to date. When we use statistics provided by the agency or other source we are told that the information can be calculated in a different way. Can the agency provide a definitive definition of poverty? Who came up with the fact that 293,000 people live in consistent poverty? We raised child poverty on several occasions in the Dáil. When we refer to the failure to reach our targets we are told the targets have been recalculated. If we keep changing the goalposts how can we ever achieve anything?

In the recent social welfare Bill when the tide was supposedly still rising we were told that it would lift all boats and that the way forward was to increase general payments, namely old age pension and one-parent family payments as distinct from the living alone allowance, or fuel allowance, rather than having second-tier payment targets for those most in need. Does the agency have a view on that, and has the view on how to best deal with those in need changed in recent months?

I am interested to hear what research has been carried out on the school meals scheme. I am concerned in particular about the quality of the food provided under the scheme, the availability of it to the children who need it, and how that is done in a way that does not stigmatise children or set them apart. Some schools do it very well but I am not sure whether that is the case in all schools. Given that obesity is becoming increasingly prevalent I am not sure the scheme is tackling it in the way it could.

I welcome the delegation and thank it for the material provided. Whether as Opposition spokespersons or Members with an interest in social welfare and exclusion generally, we are all individually indebted to the Combat Poverty Agency for the work it has done to support this committee through the past 20 years, particularly at this time of year in the run up to the budget. We rely on it and receive material from it, much of which is stored until the pre-budget period when we trawl through it, get the benefit of the research carried out and come up with issues to raise with the Minister. The work the agency does before the budget is very helpful, as is the post-budget analysis. On an individual and committee basis we are very heavily reliant on its work. We return to it as the source of reliable research done in this area. Various organisations examine different aspects of equality and exclusion but the Combat Poverty Agency is the reliable standard to which we return. We know we will get good quality information and research on which to base articles, party policy documents, questions to the Minister or responses to the budget. It is extremely worthwhile work and as a committee it would be unthinkable that we would be in a position where the Combat Poverty Agency no longer existed as an independent organisation. That is being proposed by the recent review and it is a matter of concern for this committee. I hope that at the end of our discussions here today we might reach a view as a committee on the Combat Poverty Agency and relay that view to the Minister. We will deal with that at the end of the session.

I want to ask specifically about the proposals on the table for the future of the Combat Poverty Agency. There is general agreement across both sides of the Dáil that there is a need to rationalise the State agency sector. Over recent years there has been a great proliferation in agencies and what many call quangos. One must question the value of a number of them. However, it seems extraordinary that the first agency targeted is one that has existed for 20 years, was established by Government and has the high regard and respect of people on all sides of the Dáil. It is difficult to know what is driving the Government's approach in terms of examining the future of the agency. When most people talk about the need to cull the various State agencies they refer to the need to make cost savings. However there are no cost savings proposed in the Government's proposal for the Combat Poverty Agency. It might be helpful if the delegates remind us what the agency costs the Government in funding every year. Is the agency aware of proposals to make any cost savings if it was subsumed into the office of social inclusion, as recommended?

The second argument used by some for this move is that much of the research done by the Combat Poverty Agency is duplicated in other State agencies. In particular one hears that the ESRI does a large amount of research on poverty, as the Minister has said. What is the Combat Poverty Agency's response to that claim? As members will be aware, the proposal is that the Combat Poverty Agency would be subsumed into the office of social inclusion in the Department of Social and Family Affairs. There are major issues relating to the loss of independence but it would be helpful if the agency outlined its concerns on that proposal.

I do not want to go into the overarching issue, which was not brought up by the delegates, who are very impressive individuals. Whatever decision is made by the Government, it will not reflect on the people who work in the agency. I am interested in the issue of financial exclusion. I have not thought much about it but the delegates have inspired me to think about it and look into it more. Although the summaries are available, I would like to see as much detail as possible of the research. Is the full research available on the agency's website? If it is a serious problem we must do something about it. Does it include those who have deposit accounts in post offices or who have some contact with the financial system, although maybe not the banking system?

How does it affect people in their daily lives not to be able to have what we take for granted in terms of direct debits, cheques and laser cards? I wonder if there is more to it than what is listed on page two. It would be good if we could get more information on that issue and maybe the committee could take it up as a specific project with support from agencies. If lack of access to financial services is causing serious problems, some of the conclusions the agency has drawn in the recommendations are not extravagant. They are very basic solutions to a problem. I wonder if the committee should take it up as a project that could probably get results, if it is necessary. Could the delegates expand more on that? I would like to see the full research on that. I would be really interested if it is available on the agency's website.

I thank the Combat Poverty Agency for coming here, as it has so often done before. I join my colleagues in assuring the agency of our support in trying to get a realistic outcome to the proposal. Being taken into a Department would remove a major element of its independence. The agency's information has been invaluable throughout the years. I have been in and out of this committee a few times and we have always used the agency's information, knowing it to be foolproof.

I apologise for not being here at the beginning of the meeting, but we have some other priorities regarding banks that have been excluded from this issue, namely, Ulster Bank, Northern Bank and National Irish Bank that serve the Border areas more than anywhere else. We must watch those issues too.

The delegates mention education costs in the budget and I am very interested in school books and such items. There seems to be a major emphasis on changing the syllabus on an annual basis and I wonder what we can do about that and what we can propose to eliminate the extraordinarily high cost to parents. We often talk about those on social welfare or who have medical cards, but those worst hit at the moment are often those on middle incomes with high mortgages and who are now caught in the trap where one member of a family no longer has a job. Such people are still not eligible for a medical card and the cost of school books is extraordinary. The same issue arises in health inequalities. I cannot help telling the story of a man I spoke to yesterday evening whose mother is seriously ill with a stroke. Although she wants to be at home and they want to have her at home they can get only five hours home help per week. It costs him €650 and he is on social welfare. The inequality in such situations is unacceptable.

As one who represents a rural constituency, the issue of the living alone allowance is of extreme importance. If one is living in a rural area and must provide transport by car, the living alone allowance will do very little to compensate for the fact that one is living alone. I wonder what research has been done on that. I may not be able to wait for the answer but I will retrieve it from the Official Report. That is an important issue that has not been changed for years. I come across cases where a retired couple live together. When one passes away, the household goes from two pensions to one. A house and car must still be maintained but this is an impossibility on a pension and the few bob provided by the living alone allowance. This must be examined realistically, otherwise we will create severe poverty and problems.

Deputy Catherine Byrne can give an urban view following Deputy Crawford's contribution.

I did refer to Tallaght.

I thank the delegation for the presentation. Combat Poverty has worked on the ground where I live and made a major impact on the community, not only in dealing with serious poverty issues but also housing. The reality was brought home to me when a local shopkeeper told me he has opened up an account book to provide people with basic food such as milk and bread. I thought that had gone out with the Indians, a long time ago, but it seems to be alive and well again.

The other aspect of the report that struck me was schools. Breakfast clubs have improved children's lives, making a major impact on children in the inner city and in my area. I welcome proposals for a hot meal during the day for many school children. If we are to combat obesity, one way to go is through a hot meal programme. This is worth examining. It would cost money but there are ways and means, as was proved here last night, to do something if we really want to. This issue crosses all parties.

Senior citizens in the area in which I live are most disappointed with Dublin City Council's controlled heating measures in the senior citizens complex, where the heating comes on at 7 a.m. and is turned off at 11 p.m. This must be examined. Elderly people are reluctant to turn on one bar of the electric heater, never mind two, and this will be a major issue when we see elderly people ending up in hospital unnecessarily because they are afraid to turn on two bars on the electric fire.

The Combat Poverty Agency works on the ground and I have seen its work locally. In educationally disadvantaged areas, does the agency have statistics on the misuse of drugs? Does the agency see this as part of the whole picture and part of the agency's remit? Can it identify this as an issue in certain areas where the social environment is not as prominent and poverty exists?

I am interested in young people who now have huge drinking problems at 11 years of age and misuse illegal drugs after that. Has the agency undertaken work on that?

I thank the delegation for attending and briefing the committee so well. Yesterday, I attended the opportune and timely launch of the agency's no-frills banking proposal, which is worthwhile. It is the epitome of the type of policies and proposals that the agency makes. I commend it on the proposal.

I am interested in the back to school grant. A back to school clothing and footwear allowance exists but many people lose out because they may be €10 or €20 over the limit. How will the proposal be means-tested? As stated in the presentation, it is an extremely expensive time.

I have read much of the documentation but there are very few tangible statements that can justify how the Combat Poverty Agency makes a difference, even though I know it does. There is much aspirational content but the number of people in the poverty trap, especially children, is escalating despite the fact that we have come out of a boom. I admire and appreciate the fact that the agency can act as a watchdog and an independent voice. Can the agency give this committee statistics to show that a certain number of people are no longer in the poverty trap because of it? That is very difficult and I wonder if the agency can do it. I appreciate the work it does and believe it should remain.

Were I not in the Chair, I would make a couple of remarks so I ask colleagues to allow me to do so. Like Deputy Byrne, I am aware of the efforts of the Combat Poverty Agency in my constituency. As Deputy Crawford mentioned the Border counties, I will mention Tallaght. In my parish of Fettercairn there is a worthwhile health project in co-operation with the Combat Poverty Agency. It is an excellent project in a part of the parish devoid of services. The Combat Poverty Agency has done a tremendous job.

Why does the Combat Poverty Agency help community groups and what is the level of its participation? To paraphrase Deputies Enright and Shortall, why does the board believe the Combat Poverty Agency is still needed? Would it make sense for the Combat Poverty Agency to be involved under a different heading, such as social inclusion? All colleagues have made good points and we look forward to the response of the delegation. I refer to the point made by Deputy Byrne about the involvement in communities, which may not be known to everyone, but perhaps that is unfair. Perhaps that should be applauded. I thank the delegation and my colleagues.

Mr. Brian Duncan

In the first instance, the review is a matter for the board. Perhaps Mr. O'Kelly, with support from my colleagues, can address other issues and we can conclude with points on the future. Valid points were raised. On behalf of everyone working for the Combat Poverty Agency, I thank the members for their comments.

What differentiates this agency from the Office for Social Inclusion is that the people involved have a passionate commitment and desire to eliminate poverty. They could get better, more attractive and interesting career opportunities outside but there is a major commitment in the past 20 years to address poverty. That is such a part of what we do and what would be lost. The clear message from the Combat Poverty Agency is that we do not want to go into the office for social inclusion.

People joined the Combat Poverty Agency to make a difference but we do not see how we can do that in a different environment. Deputy Enright made a valid point on the need to rationalise public agencies. In my day job I do consulting work in the public sector; therefore, I am sure if as a consultant I were asked to look at it, I would come to exactly the same conclusion. Equally, I do not want to say everybody else but not the Combat Poverty Agency should be rationalised, as that would not be fair and reasonable.

We addressed this issue in our submissions to the review body and subsequent submissions to the Minister. We suggested it would be appropriate for the Combat Poverty Agency to go in under the National Economic and Social Development Office, NESD0 group of organisations which includes the National Economic and Social Council, NESC; the National Economic and Social Forum, NESF, and the National Centre for Partnership and Performance, NCPP. There could be a sharing of resources, facilities and information. We do some of this but it would be more efficient if we were part of the one organisation. We would see this as a good model.

We were also asked by the Department of Social and Family Affairs to look at our cost base which is approximately €5.5 million but that includes research projects and communications. We have about 20 staff, for whom the related costs are about €2 million, and the rest is money we spend. Some time ago we came back with proposals to reduce our cost base by 10% from next year onwards. We do not like doing this and clearly there are things we would not want to do but we recognise that we are in crisis and ultimately if we do not solve it, the people who will be disadvantaged are the majority we look after. We were, therefore, happy to come forward with recommendations. We believe we have done our bit. It is worth making the point that we have not increased our staff complement since our establishment 20 years ago. We have not expanded rapidly compared with other organisations and are still working with the initial staff complement.

I suspect that if one came to this meeting today one would wonder why there was a proposal on the table to integrate the Combat Poverty Agency with the office for social inclusion. I have asked myself that question a few times and think it has to do with the process used, about which incidentally we were very unhappy. Some of my best friends are civil servants but in this case civil servants asked other civil servants instead of engaging, as we suggested to them, in wider consultations such as consulting community groups, the people with whom we work outside Departments. That was not done. Nevertheless, the civil servants actually came up with two options, one of which we would totally support, that the Combat Poverty Agency should work with the NESDO. It is actually stated in the report that this is a viable option but nothing more is said about it. It is hard to know why they came to their conclusion. I received a letter from the Minister this morning stating she is still considering the proposal and has not made a recommendation to the Government. As far as we are concerned, at this time it is simply a recommendation by the civil servants.

I am conscious of time. I think the correct way to proceed is to allow my colleagues to address the points raised and at the end we will deal with the general question as to why we think the Combat Poverty Agency should remain independent, if the Chair is amenable to that suggestion.

Mr. Peter McDevitt

I would like to build on the case outlined by our chairman, Mr. Duncan. In response to Senator Nicky McFadden who has asked for evidence of how the Combat Poverty Agency makes a difference, there are a myriad of schemes, programmes, developments and proposals made to the Government. My colleagues would have that information but, to give members an overall flavour, the estimated percentage of those living in consistent poverty at the formation of the Combat Poverty Agency was 16.5%, a figure that has now been reduced to 6.9%, which equates to nearly 300,000 people. That is a reduction in the numbers experiencing consistent poverty, from approximately 750,000 to 300,000.

The Vice Chairman asked why should the Combat Poverty Agency still be needed. The number on the live register is 6.1% of the working population or 73,000 people. The estimate for next year is approximately 8%, a rise of 20,000 people. That is why we need to address poverty which is in addition to the needs of those on the edge and low income groups. It will get worse. Deputy Crawford made the point that if two members of a family worked, only one would now have a job. People will have much lower disposable income.

Mr. Kevin O’Kelly

There is an awful lot to get through. Let me outline how we work in the Combat Poverty Agency. Under the legislation, we must prepare a strategic plan every three years, have it adopted by our board and then submit it to the Minister. That plan is framed in the policy environment; therefore, we work within the Government policy framework at any given time. Our strategic plan is within the framework of Towards 2016, the national action plan for social inclusion, the national development plan and the integration of those plans as they tackle poverty and social exclusion. Every year we develop a work programme around the key issues addressed in our strategic plan and try to bring them forward.

Deputy Enright raised questions on specifics around research projects and communications. I listed a number of the key research issues with which we are dealing in my opening remarks. It is important to state our researchers are licensed by the Central Statistics Office to use its data sets; therefore, we can make a micro analysis of the data, which the CSO does not do. We go into the data sets such as the EU survey of incomes and living conditions to examine the impact of particular policies on various disadvantaged groups. It is one of the things we continually do from a quantitative point of view. When I mentioned the work we did for the interdepartmental group on access to medical cards, an aspect was that we were able to go into the CSO data set and see the individuals who did not have medical cards. One is dealing with specific limitations in some of these data sets but it is one of the things we do and we use it a lot in looking at the quantitative aspects of our research.

We are addressing the issue of the working poor. One of our researchers is working on the latest EU data and using the CSO information to look at the working poor. We hope to have that study completed soon. The first draft has been completed. We are also involved in a peripheral way in advising the Council of Europe on a major study being undertaken across the 47 member states of the Council on the working poor. We hope the report will be completed by the end of the year and we can make it available to the committee. That gives an indication of the broader issue coming up, an issue of concern to us about the growing problem of people at work who fall within the official definitions of poverty.

As regards projects, my colleague, Ms Cody, mentioned that we were working very closely in the implementation of policies. We have tried to stress the work we do in the implementation of programmes but it is below the radar. We work on the implementation of programmes and actions with the HSE in trying to confront poverty and social exclusion. Much of our research has shown that there is a direct correlation between ill health and poverty. If we can get poverty levels down, we will not have the same demands on the health service. We will not have the same demands on the health services. Our research has shown that. As Ms Cody has mentioned, we have a project team working with local authorities on the implementation of local level social inclusion policies and on moving local authorities towards a more socially-responsible delivery of local services.

Deputies Enright and Crawford and Senator McFadden mentioned school books. We have been looking at this matter in conjunction with the social inclusion unit in the Department of Education and Science and we hope to publish our findings before the end of this month. There is a range of schemes and no single approach to the distribution of school books. In some schools schemes work very well and in others not so well. We found a difficulty with children who qualify for free school books in primary school but not in secondary school. The difference in the cost of school books in primary and secondary level is enormous and this puts a tremendous strain on families who are dependent on the school books allowance. We will make recommendations in this regard.

Deputy Crawford also mentioned medical cards. My understanding is that having a medical card entitles one to other allowances, including school books.

It also entitles families to school transport and other services.

Mr. Kevin O’Kelly

The medical card is not just a medical card. It allows access to other entitlements and is very important from that point of view.

Deputy Enright asked about the definition of poverty. There are two definitions of poverty. We have been criticised for using the definition of relative poverty, which is 60% of the median income in any member state. This is an EU and not an Irish, Central Statistics Office or Combat Poverty definition. We also use what we call the deprivation index. Someone who cannot afford any two of the items on the index is considered to be in consistent poverty. It is a complicated process but it is the one with which we work. The official definition and statistics which we use come from the Central Statistics Office.

One of our current problems is that the most recent statistics from the CSO are comparisons of 2005 and 2006. In November next the CSO will publish the statistics for 2007. We are always working approximately one year behind, which makes it difficult to keep up to date with what is actually happening.

I think our chairperson, Mr. Duncan, has dealt with the points raised by Deputy Shortall regarding cost savings.

Is Mr. O'Kelly saying there are no obvious cost savings to be made?

Mr. Brian Duncan

There are no obvious cost savings in the next stage. The report by civil servants to the Minister makes no suggestion of cost savings. It simply states that Combat Poverty will be dumped into the middle of the office for social inclusion. We have already identified cost savings of 10%, which I presume will apply in that case.

Mr. Kevin O’Kelly

We do not see any cost savings. I do not wish to say this with two board members beside me, but if there was no board there would probably be a cost saving.

Mr. Peter McKevitt

I would not be sure of that.

Mr. Kevin O’Kelly

Deputy Thomas Byrne mentioned financial exclusion. We will send him our report on financial exclusion. It is very detailed and addresses a number of the points he raised. We have also been involved in a number of EU level studies on financial exclusion. Our policy statement draws on the research we have done in Ireland as well as research done at European level and gives an EU perspective on the issue. Financial exclusion affects people on a daily basis. The move to electronic banking systems makes it more difficult for people who do not have bank accounts and work in a cash society. It makes paying a bill by cash more expensive. This issue is addressed in the report.

I agree with Deputy Crawford's observations on the living alone allowance. In our budget advice in the last number of years, and again this year, we said something needs to be done about the living alone allowance. Research shows that older people living alone are at a greater risk of poverty than couples because their individual outgoings are much higher. We continually make this point. Unfortunately, it has not been taken on board.

Deputy Crawford's mention of school books, when we addressed the committee last year, was one of the reasons we took up this issue. We began to investigate the matter, talked to the Department of Education and Science and followed it through when we discussed the budget last year.

Deputy Catherine Byrne raised a number of points and I agree with much of what she said. She spoke about breakfast clubs. Our board held a meeting in Ballymun early this year and looked at some of the approaches taken there. They are very successful. Children who get proper nourishment at school have a great educational advantage. This is something we support.

Deputy Byrne also mentioned the problem of heating for older people. With Sustainable Energy Ireland, we are looking at the issue of insulation and heating of houses and how these can be improved. We hope to make an initial report on this by the end of November. We have been working with Sustainable Energy Ireland on this issue for a number of years and have done a detailed comparative study of a rural area of Donegal and an urban area of Cork city. We will let the committee have that study when it is complete.

I wish to address the question of educational disadvantage. We have done some scoping work on addiction as a whole that considered alcohol, drugs and gambling, but at present we are focusing our resources particularly on the link between alcohol addiction and poverty. There are other State agencies examining the question of drugs. We collaborate with them but we have not carried out any recent research on the impact of drugs.

We have supported a lot of research on educational disadvantage. It indicates clearly that children going to school in disadvantaged communities are behind their peers in middle-class and better-off areas by the end of primary level. We have passed that research on to the Department of Education and Science.

Senator McFadden asked about Combat Poverty's list of achievements. Ms Cody mentioned in her part of the presentation that we test possible solutions and try to be innovative about our approach to solutions to poverty and social exclusion. We then try to have them mainstreamed into national or local policies. Some initiatives that come to mind include the Money Advice and Budgeting Service, which was set up as a result of Combat Poverty's work. The community development programme run by the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs was part of our work. The legislation imposes on us a statutory responsibility for community development. The national anti-poverty strategy, introduced in 1997, resulted from the work of Combat Poverty.

On the work we have been doing with regard to child poverty, we have engaged with both the Department of Social and Family Affairs, and the Office of the Minister for Children.

We have been pushing for developments in the area of early childhood care and education. Educational disadvantage, mentioned by Deputy Catherine Byrne, is a key issue that needs to be addressed. We have done a lot of work examining the links between health and poverty and have tried to influence Government policy in this area.

The Vice Chairman asked why we help community groups. At one stage it was part of the role of Combat Poverty to support community groups under the community development programme but we now do so very much as part of our work on the ground to learn from the experiences of communities. Thus, we can feed policy advice and the knowledge gained into our policy work to the Government. We draw on the innovative community approaches so we can use them to good advantage. We do empirical research but can also prove the solutions and approaches work on the ground.

On the question of why Combat Poverty is still needed, our independent voice is important. We have contacts on the ground and can draw on experiences of communities. I refer to both geographical communities and groups that are working together to deal with poverty issues.

The Vice Chairman mentioned the Fettercairn project. If committee members would like to see some of our work on the ground, I will invite them to Fettercairn where they can examine the project. We will invite other groups to make a presentation.

Not wishing to be flippant, I am sure the Chairman would like us to go via Kerry.

Mr. Kevin O’Kelly

We could go through Offaly, if possible.

Ms Bevin Cody

Mr. O'Kelly has covered most topics.

Deputy Shortall asked about the duplication of research, on which there are two points to be made. The first is that most ESRI research on poverty over the past 20 years has been commissioned and funded by the Combat Poverty Agency. Second, before we start any research project, we engage with other stakeholders to identify what research has been done and what gaps exist that need to be dealt with. We work through steering groups and include other stakeholders. We make a principled point of focusing on the most innovative research areas, an example of which is our financial exclusion work. It was the first study of financial exclusion undertaken in Ireland.

On Deputy Enright's comments on the universal payments, it is true that universal payments benefit low-income groups disproportionately because they make up a higher proportion of their income than with other groups. They are very expensive and we would prefer to see universal high-quality services and more targeted payments, particularly in the current environment.

Mr. Kevin O'Kelly referred to some of Combat Poverty's specific achievements. There is much discussion at present on the large number of institutions dealing with poverty and social inclusion that are supposed to have social inclusion objectives at the heart of their work. Many of the institutions were established as a result of the work of Combat Poverty. The social inclusion units in local government are an example. Since 1999, Combat Poverty has been working to support local authorities in adopting their own social inclusion strategies. This has been a considerable process involving much capacity building in local authorities where the necessary skills did not exist traditionally. There are still many skills gaps that need to be addressed in local authorities. In the space of a seven year-period, the number of local authorities with a social inclusion strategy has reached critical mass. The majority of them have some sort of social inclusion programme and these are still supported through the work of Combat Poverty.

On the question of why Combat Poverty is still needed, nobody has mentioned that the Government has a target to eliminate consistent poverty by 2016. It has an interim target to reduce poverty to between 2% and 4% by 2012. To date, 6.9% of the population is still living in consistent poverty. I refer to the Government definition of poverty. There are still 293,000 people living in poverty, about 35% of whom are under 16.

Combat Poverty can have ongoing insight into the emerging issues that will perhaps, over the coming years, prevent us from sustaining the momentum responsible for reducing poverty levels over recent years. New issues are arising all the time, including immigration, and issues concerning financial exclusion need to be addressed. Combat Poverty has freedom as an independent organisation and is not constrained by a policy implementation framework. Consequently it can ensure problems are identified, addressed and raised with those who need to need to hear about them.

Was the Combat Poverty Agency consulted by the interagency group?

Mr. Brian Duncan

The great strength of the Combat Poverty Agency's board is that it has very competent people. Senator McFadden asked if we can show what the agency achieved. Any organisation like the Combat Poverty Agency has difficulty in highlighting its achievements. We listed the various activities we are involved in, such as the social inclusion unit and MABS, and measuring poverty more effectively. It might be naive to suggest none of these would have happened if Combat Poverty did not exist. However, because of the agency they happened sooner and better. The proof is that we were continually asked to assist with social inclusion units by local governments and the health services.

Around the time the Government announced the strategy, the board also wanted to examine the agency's work. We recognise that 20 years ago the job of the Combat Poverty Agency was to tell people there was poverty and it had to be tackled. These days the Government and all political parties accept this. Our focus is much more on assisting in the implementation of solutions effectively and using the expertise and experience we have built up over the years.

In our proposals to the Minister we suggested the agency should become part of the National Economic and Social Development Office which would bring it closer to the social partnership process. We also suggested we wanted to formalise the working relationships with the Department and the Office of Social Inclusion. We recognise they are an important part of the delivery mechanism. We do not see any benefit in the agency being subsumed by the office of social inclusion. The expertise of the agency would be lost and the number of people working in the Department would increase. We have lobbied the Minister very hard to recognise that.

I thank Mr. Duncan and his colleagues for attending the meeting and outlining the important aspects of the Combat Poverty agency's work. I wish them well and all members have praised the agency's work.

The joint committee went into private session at 12.34 p.m. and adjourned at 12.35 p.m. until 11 a.m. on Wednesday, 15 October 2008.