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?