Adjournment Debate. - Child Poverty.

I thank the Chair for allowing me to raise this important issue. In a week in which there has been much concentration on children's issues, I am disappointed the Minister of State is not available to take the matter but I thank the Minister who is present.

The history of the State's policy towards children is a disgrace. For many years it committed large numbers of children to institutional care. The only reason was that they were poor. The standard of care was inadequate and safeguards scandalously defective. The State still adopts a laissez faire attitude to the well-being of children. It only intervenes when matters are seen to go wrong.

While I welcome the national children's strategy, Our Children – Their Lives, published recently, the issue of child poverty is dealt with in just two of the 129 pages. I fail to understand the statistics which show there are just 560 homeless children in the country. In the Fine Gael initiative on children's rights, R is for Rights, figures show that in Dublin alone there were 1,250 children homeless. There are 90,000 living in consistent poverty and more than 40,000 annual cases of physical or sexual abuse against children. It is time the issue of child poverty was seriously dealt with and it is extremely disappointing more attention was not paid to it in the recent strategy announced for dealing with children.

Child poverty in Ireland is significantly higher than poverty among adults. One in six children fell into the national anti-poverty strategy definition of child poverty in 1997 compared to 9.4% of adults. The findings mean that children are almost twice as likely as adults to be poor. Large families and those without a parent at work are highly likely to depend on incomes well below the average after adjustments for different family size. Three quarters of the children in unemployed families, two thirds of those where the household head was sick or disabled and over half of those in families headed by a full time homemaker are in homes living on half of the average income. Some 45% of families with four children and 44% of one parent families are on similar low incomes. Some 43,000 children, or one in every 25, are in families on a waiting list for local authority housing. Families who live in overcrowded conditions, sharing with other households in unfit housing or insecure private tenancies, are among those. A significant minority of these families are registered homeless or living in hostels or bed and breakfast accommodation. Housing poverty is also a reality for most Traveller children. The Government made a commitment to provide 3,100 accommodation places for Travellers by the year 2000, but only 127 units have been built.

Ireland has one of the worst rates of child poverty in the EU and OECD. I refer the Minister to the budget submission on child poverty entitled Open your Eyes to Child Poverty Initiative where this information is submitted. Poverty is the outcome of an unequal society. Today's poor children are the poor parents and families of the future and an intergenerational cycle of poverty is perpetuated unless anti-poverty interventions are targeted to break that cycle. I call on the Minister to outline in detail what initiatives will be taken to ensure that this cycle of poverty is broken in the generation of the Celtic tiger. For children in poverty it is the age of the Celtic snail.

Unemployment is still a big factor with regard to child poverty. In spite of falling unemployment and an economy now experiencing a labour shortage, there nevertheless remains some persistent unemployment. Many of those now left behind in the booming economy face multiple problems in accessing jobs, poor skills or literacy levels, low self-confidence and poor job skills. For some people, problems with drugs or alcoholic dependence, psychological difficulties and physical or mental illness pose additional obstacles to securing or retaining steady work. The local employment service has a mandate to offer an individually tailored service for those at high risk of unemployment. However, official figures suggest that, at best, only 10% of this group is currently being reached.

Living in a lone parent family is another poverty risk for children. The recent report from the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs on lone parents shows that seven out of ten lone parents and their children are in poverty. This poverty risk is exacerbated by problems of poor education and lack of affordable child care which makes it difficult to secure economic independence and an adequate standard of living. It is disappointing that the national children's strategy did not include a specific analysis and proposals on dealing with lone parenthood and the level of poverty associated with children in such families.

I call on the Government to eliminate extremes of poverty. Any target to eliminate child poverty must also include the elimination of all extremes of deprivation. There should be no children sleeping rough. No child should be living regularly in a hostel, bed and breakfast accommodation or on the roadside. No child should be suffering from malnutrition or going to bed hungry without a main meal. No child should be begging on the streets. No child should drop out of school before transfer to post-primary level or before the leaving certificate because of financial pressure. No child should be addicted to drugs or alcohol, be in prostitution or experience racial or ethnic discrimination.

Children with disabilities have a right to services that adequately address their health, educational, development and social needs. The aim should be to eliminate all gaps in the service currently available to these children. What plans are there to introduce these immediately at a time when the Government has decided to refer to the Supreme Court a case which confirmed that a child with autism should receive full primary education?

I apologise for the unavoidable absence of the Minister, Deputy Ahern, who was anxious to be in the House to take this matter but, unfortunately, is delayed elsewhere.

Why would it be Deputy Ahern and not the Minister of State, Deputy Hanafin?

The Minister has very little time and I ask the Deputy to allow him to make his reply.

Child poverty is a matter of particular concern for the Government and it is committed to ensuring that all families have adequate resources and facilities to maximise their ability to fully participate in society. Government policies and programmes aimed at meeting this objective have resulted in significant improvements to date. The most recent information available from the Economic and Social Research Institute working paper on the 1998 living in Ireland survey results show that, in 1994, households with children accounted for more than half of all those below the 50% relative income line. By 1998 this had fallen to 28%.

The most recent independent survey carried out by the Economic and Social Research Institute shows that the level of consistent poverty among children has dropped to 12%, a fall of almost 30% in the 12 months period from 1997 to 1998. Behind these statistics on consistent poverty is an improvement in the quality of life for another 50,000 children. This accelerates the downward trend in child poverty figures, with consistent poverty among children being halved from 24.8% in 1987 to 12% in 1998. This massive drop in consistent child poverty is largely attributable to the Government's success through measures such as improvements in the family income supplement, targeted child care supports and a reduction in tax rates, the reduction in unemployment to under 4% and the creation of work friendly policies generally.

While creating employment is the most effective way of tackling child poverty, we recognise that it is imperative that significant resources continue to be invested in child-related payments. The dedication of substantial resources to child benefit in recent years represents part of the strategy of reforming income support for children in order to reduce work disincentives by making child income support more neutral vis-à-vis the employment status of the parent. The Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs looks forward to fully meeting the commitment given in the programme for prosperity and fairness by further increasing child benefit with a target of £100 per month for the third and subsequent children. In addition, recognising the complex issues involved in developing a benchmark for adequacy of adult and child social welfare payments, a working group is currently being established with an independent chairperson to examine the issues and will report by April 2001.

The Government's social inclusion strategy entails more than providing additional resources, although resources are of key importance. The emphasis of the Government on a families first approach designed to make families central to the development of policies and services is also relevant. The national children's strategy, which was launched last Monday, 13 November, recognises that poverty is a significant barrier to the potential and participation of children. Highlighting child poverty as a major concern of the Government, the strategy sets out a number of recommendations on which the Government is committed to acting, including an expansion of initiatives to support money management in families through the Money Advice and Budgeting Service, increased assistance through active measures for the long-term unemployed and the socially excluded under the national development plan and the targeting of existing measures to assist in the return to education and employment of the long-term unemployed and lone parents. In addition, child poverty has been identified as a central issue for consideration in the review of the national anti-poverty strategy provided for in the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness.

The Government has already recognised that lone parents face a higher risk of poverty than the population at large. A major review of the impact of supports for one parent families has recently been completed and, on foot of the proposals in the review, the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs, Deputy Dermot Ahern, will bring forward a range of measures to overcome the barriers to employment which currently exist.

The results of the Government's activity over the past three and a half years are conclusive. We have invested millions of pounds in supports and initiatives which aim to help break the cycle of disadvantage. We have invested substantially in public services, health care, education and child care. We have made significant progress to date but we will not rest until child poverty is eliminated. I assure the House we are taking all the necessary steps towards achieving this goal.

The Dáil adjourned at 5.25 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 21 November 2000.