National Action Plan for Social Inclusion: Discussion.

I am pleased to welcome Mr. Gerry Mangan, director, Office for Social Inclusion, Ms Orlaigh Quinn, principal officer, Mr. Eamon Moran, assistant principal officer, Ms Cathy Barron, assistant principal officer; Patrick Burke, director, Simon Communities of Ireland; Ms Candy Murphy, policy officer, One Family, European Anti-Poverty Network; and Ms Vanessa Coffey, research officer, Combat Poverty Agency.

Before we hear from our guests, I must remind members of the parliamentary practice that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against any person outside the House or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. Members who wish to make a declaration in relation to any matter being discussed may do so now or at the beginning of their contribution. Members are also reminded that if there is a possibility of a conflict of interest, they should make a declaration of interest either now or at the start of their contribution. I draw the attention of witnesses to the fact that members of the committee have absolute privilege but this same privilege does not apply to witnesses appearing before the committee. While it is generally accepted that witnesses should have qualified privilege, the committee is not in a position to guarantee any level of privilege to witnesses appearing before it.

I now call on the representatives of the Office for Social Inclusion, Mr. Mangan and Ms Quinn, to make a presentation. Following that, I will invite the representative of the Anti-Poverty Network and the Combat Poverty Agency to make their remarks. I will then open the floor to members for questions.

Mr. Gerry Mangan

I thank the Chairman. We are pleased to make the first presentation on the work of the Office for Social Inclusion. I will begin by outlining the background to the coming into being of the office. It is just ten years since the first national anti-poverty strategy was introduced. A poverty unit was established in the Department of Social and Family Affairs to co-ordinate the strategy and its implementation. The Department had overall responsibility for co-ordinating the implementation of the strategy. Five years later, in 2002, the strategy was revised and a new strategy, Building an Inclusive Society, was introduced. At that stage it was decided to set up the Office for Social Inclusion, with a clearer mandate in terms of developing and monitoring the strategic process. In the meantime the Lisbon summit introduced an EU process committed to making a decisive impact on poverty. That resulted in national plans on inclusion for 2001-03 and for 2003-05. A more streamlined inclusion report was introduced in 2006. The Office for Social Inclusion was involved in developing the latter two. The office was also responsible for developing a consultation process for the national action plan. That is an overall view of the main highlights of the strategic process over the ten years.

The Office for Social Inclusion is located within the Department of Social and Family Affairs and has overall responsibility for driving the Government's social inclusion agenda. This includes co-ordinating the development of the national action plan on inclusion and the social inclusion aspects of other national strategies. Its role also includes monitoring, evaluating and reporting on progress against social inclusion targets. It also has a number of support functions, including poverty impact assessment designed to guide Departments in assessing the impact on poverty of their policies. That does not just include specific policies such as social welfare but other policies which might not have such an obvious connection to poverty but which could have an impact in relation to it. It has responsibility for data strategy because comprehensive data are essential in monitoring progress towards achieving targets and objectives. It also has a communications strategy designed to keep everybody involved informed, both within and outside Government, of progress in combating poverty.

It is useful to summarise the implementation structures which have evolved over the ten years. At the top of the structure is the Cabinet committee on social inclusion, chaired by the Taoiseach. Then there is the senior officials group, chaired by the Department of the Taoiseach, which prepares work for the Cabinet committee. There is also the Towards 2016 steering group involving the social partners. The office clearly has its role in this structure. There are liaison officers in key Departments. The Combat Poverty Agency has a very important role in advising on developments to combat poverty. We have a social inclusion forum which meets once every year and provides all stakeholders with an opportunity to give their views and comment on developments in relation to poverty. There is also a technical advisory group on the provision of data.

The documentation provided gives an overview of the national strategies, which include: the social partnership Towards 2016, a key component; the national action plan for social inclusion, which covers the period 2007-2016; the national development plan and, at international level, we have the open method of co-ordination of the European Union; and there is also an element in relation to North-South co-operation. The strategies have been streamlined in the light of experience over the past ten years. They are designed to ensure a strategic approach and common goals across national strategies. There was concern that they might not have been working together or that there might not have been a joined-up approach. This has been a key goal. Another aim is to ensure focus and co-ordination of the multiplicity of programmes and activities and to ensure strong implementation through delivery and institutional change.

Another key development of a broader nature in relation to the strategy has been the life cycle approach, designed to draw together policies focused on people at various stages of the life cycle — children, people of working age, older people, people with disabilities — and a specific community strand, designed to achieved a more focused approach to supporting communities. They provide a high level strategic framework, they are easily understood, designed to address better the needs of individuals. They also provide a holistic approach whereby there is greater integration of the key services, income supports and activation measures.

My colleague, Orlaigh Quinn, will give an overview of the NAP inclusion programme 2007-2016 which has just been introduced.

Ms Orlaigh Quinn

I also thank the committee for the opportunity to be here today. The ten-year plan has just been published. We have designed it around the life cycle and we have chapters on children, people of working age, older people and so on. There are various commitments relating to communities.

The over-arching goal of the plan is to reduce consistent poverty, the Government's official measure of poverty, to between 2% and 4% by 2012, with a view to eliminating poverty by the end of the plan in 2016. To achieve that goal, the Government has set 12 high level strategic goals which it sees as the most important element of the plan. Within that framework, more than 150 actions and targets are set out.

We have revised the consistent poverty measure, which had become out of date. The Government has accepted the advice of the Economic and Social Research Institute to make it more in keeping with the standard of living in Ireland today. It is therefore in keeping with the social inclusion elements of the plan. That is the main measure. However, we will obviously monitor a whole range of measures in the plan, many of which have been set at EU level, at which level the Government has played a part. For example, we have measures around income, measures of deprivation, early school leaving, jobless households, unemployment rate, etc. It is fair to say that the risk of poverty measure is best known at EU level because it is quite an easy one to keep account of. Given that we now accept that poverty reflects a whole range of areas, it is quite a narrow measure for us. It is not very good internationally because we are all at different levels of economic development. Although 20% are at risk of poverty in Ireland, our income levels are twice as high as in some other countries. We would have a threshold of almost €10,000 compared to Portugal which has half that.

Perhaps Ms Quinn could develop that point.

Ms Quinn

Anyone who is €1 below that threshold is considered to be in poverty; anyone €1 above it is not in poverty. It is a relative measure. The threshold is set at 60% of the median income. Because our income levels are so much higher than in many other European countries, our threshold is much higher. Within each country it gives the standard of living, but across European countries it does not. The Czech Republic's figure is €4,662, yet only 10% are at risk of poverty. Their income levels are much lower.

Education is a key element in addressing child poverty. If a child loses out on education at an early stage, it has huge implications for future life chances and opportunities. Targets are set for pre-school education, literacy at primary school stage and ensuring that children are retained in the education system to leaving certificate. We want to achieve progress towards these specific and measurable targets. We are pleased that the target for child income support was met in the previous plan and we look forward to maintaining it over the lifetime of the next plan.

Employment offers the way out of poverty for families. We are concerned to engage with the people who have had least opportunity to take up employment. The Department of Social and Family Affairs will introduce a new programme to work directly on a one-to-one basis with groups like lone parents, people with disabilities and those who have high rates of poverty and very low rates of employment.

Two elements focus on older people in the life cycle. One relates to community care services. There is also the important issue of maintaining and enhancing the value of social welfare pensions. That will be informed by the Government's forthcoming Green Paper.

The high level target for people with disabilities is promoting participation in education, training and employment. The plan contains a whole range of activities, of which these are just the high level. Community measures include housing, health and the integration of migrants.

We have delivered on previous targets in plans. The focus now is very much on outcomes and deliveries, making sure that the actions are delivered and the targets achieved. We have strengthened many of our institutional structures to deliver on those targets. We have the Office of the Minister for Children, we are setting up a new high level group on employment and there are new mechanisms at local and national level.

Acting Chairman

Thank you. We will now hear the presentation by the European Anti-Poverty Network. I welcome Mr. Robin Hanan.

Mr. Robin Hanan

I thank the committee for inviting us to make a presentation on this plan. This committee has played a very important part, not just in monitoring plans but also in coming up with ideas for the development of the national anti-poverty strategy and the new national action plan on inclusion. That is very welcome.

As a network of national and local anti-poverty groups, we very much welcome the Government's decision to publish a ten-year plan to follow up on the national anti-poverty strategy which is just coming to an end. A long-term multi-annual programme involving all arms of Government and potentially a broader range of society has been really important in keeping a focus on poverty during the past ten years and the fact that this has been driven by specific targets and very strong institutional mechanisms, including poverty proofing or poverty impact assessment, has been very important.

We want to highlight some of the areas where we feel that the plan needs to be strengthened in its implementation. Our members generally were disappointed in a number of areas about the lack of ambition in the plan and in some of the areas where the agendas have not been spelt out in detail. This is an opportunity to talk about some of those areas. The network is also focusing on the potential of the next programme for government to flesh out some of the areas indicated in the plan where we feel that the targets need to be more ambitious or the actions more comprehensive.

Our starting point is that Ireland is now a very rich country in European terms. It is also a country where for long-term historical reasons which are not to do with this Government or its predecessor we have invested less than our European colleagues in some of the services as they affect people experiencing poverty and some of the welfare areas. We need to focus on those areas in order to catch up in the coming years and begin to set a trend in fighting poverty. We are disappointed that the anti-poverty targets are relatively weak. The headline target which drove the last ten-year NAPS, particularly in its last few years, was about ending or almost ending consistent poverty by this year. It is clear that this will not happen, and there are a number of reasons. We would have hoped for a more ambitious target to end consistent poverty within a shorter timeframe than ten years by devoting the necessary resources to tackling it.

We are also disappointed at the failure to deal with relative poverty. In our view, the measure of poverty used by almost all other developed countries, the European Union, the United Nations, is not a substitute for consistent poverty but it does tell us something different about our society. We feel it is important to have as a target the reduction of relative poverty to at least the European average within the lifetime of the next Government. We see that as being a very minimum target. Consistent poverty tells us something about what we can afford to pay, what we can afford to buy compared to what our parents and grandparents could afford to buy. Relative poverty tells us about how we distribute our resources as a society. In our view, the fact that Ireland has one of the worst levels of consistent poverty in the European Union is both a challenge and a scandal which needs to be addressed. It is a matter which needs very strong targets and resources. The European Commission in critiquing the last national action plan last September pointed specifically to the fact that in its view the high level of consistent poverty in Ireland is very closely related to the way in which we structure our tax and social welfare system. We feel that it needs a consistent long-term project to begin to tackle the sort of inequalitites which have continued alongside the overall growth within the Celtic tiger economy. My colleagues will speak briefly about a number of specific areas in which they are involved in policy terms where they feel there are issues that need to be addressed.

Generally we would hope to see in the next programme for government some flesh put on to the very broad policy areas indicated in this plan. The three areas we have highlighted in our submission are, first, income and the need for strong targets; also the need to link the lowest level of social welfare specifically to the gross average industrial earnings. We welcome the fact that the plan refers to keeping the value of social welfare at the same level or at the target level for 2007, but it does not say how that will be measured in relation to the consumer price index or to earnings, which give a better indication of how society and the economy are developing.

The second area we have highlighted is employment. We have spoken previously to this committee about some work we have done in looking at poverty traps which prevent people from taking up jobs. Some of the cut-off points for secondary benefits, in particular areas like rent supplement, make it very difficult for people to take up employment even if all the other conditions are in place. My colleagues will talk about the types of supports which are needed to make the strategies laid out in this plan effective. This plan, as the national development plan and the national reform programme and a number of Government statements, refers to the need to move from welfare to work. Our members support that approach but we also need to look closely at how that is done. For people to move from welfare to quality work, we need to look at the type of work available, supports such as training, child care, and so on which are available. We need to see the whole thing as a package and we would hope to see some specifics spelt out in the near future.

The third is the need to bring our services in areas where they are particularly weak up at least to the level of our richer counterparts in the European Union. I refer to areas like the health service, education and so on as they affect people on low income. These will be areas of debate in the election, but our worry is that the debate will not concentrate on the needs of people on low incomes and on the specific problem of two-tier levels of service.

My colleagues will speak very briefly about their areas.

One of our concerns in the Irish National Organisation of the Unemployed is that in the current national anti-poverty strategy there is a target to eliminate long-term unemployment by this year. Long-term unemployment is up compared to 2002, yet that target has not been reiterated. The goal for employment and participation is not ambitious enough when we look at the range of groups it seeks to cover. For example, there are well over 100,000 in the lone parents and long-term unemployed groups, two of the groups targetted, yet the target aims to work with 50,000 people over a seven-year period. Our other concern is that within that target is an ambition to reduce by 20% dependency on long-term social welfare. That is admirable, provided that people are indeed progressing to well-paid and sustainable employment. How that will happen is not spelt out. It is not concrete and we are concerned about how it will work in practice.

Ms Candy Murphy

The last national plan committed to eliminating consistent poverty or bringing it down to 2% by 2007. The reality is that 10% of children still live in consistent poverty before we even look at relative poverty, and 25% of one parent families live in consistent poverty. We would like to see much stronger co-ordinated action to meet the needs of those groups. While we support work as a route out of poverty, the real route out of poverty for socially excluded groups is education. We would like to see a much stronger role for the Department of Education and Science in supporting disadvantaged groups, particularly one-parent families where 60% of people on social welfare are already working through the income disregard but they are still living in poverty because they do not have the qualifications, child care and other supports to move out of poverty. We would like to see much greater emphasis on education as the route out of poverty, particularly flexible education and training, second chance education, for lone parents.

We support the move to encourage lone parents to work and to participate in the labour market, but we have grave concerns about conditionality and we feel that strong safeguards must be put in place if there is to be an insistance that lone parents enter the labour market when their children reach a certain age.

Mr. Patrick Burke

I would like to refer specifically to homelessness. Clearly the Simon Community welcomes the plan but would like to have seen more ambitious targets in relation to homelessness. The plan gives a figure of about 3,000 for those without homes. That figure would have come from the last count which was in 2005. The count of 2002 gave a total of 5,581. Were we to accept these figures at face value, it would seem that there is a reduction of 2,500 nationally in the number of people experiencing homelessness. All of us working in the sector would acknowledge the increased resources provided, which we appreciate. However, there is a problem around a count. There are two reasons for that. One is the problem of definition. We are currently working on the 1988 Housing Act definition which is viewed by many as restrictive and not robust enough. That was acknowledged in the review carried out by Fitzpatricks and published this time last year. The definition is used differently by various local authorities and therefore there is not consistency in the count. I am happy that the national consultative forum on homelessness which was recommended by Fitzpatricks is to have its first meeting at the end of this month. It will look at the definition of homelessness and a count. To plan for the future it is important to have accurate and concrete data.

We are worried that the target for social housing will not meet the need. There are currently 43,000 people on housing waiting lists and we have maintained that we need to build at least 10,000 units every year for the next four years. The targets in the plan falls a little short of that.

Ms Vanessa Coffey

I am here on behalf of the director, Helen Johnson, to represent the Combat Poverty Agency. Helen sends her apologies as she is unable to attend owing to prior commitments. Combat Poverty thanks the committee for this opportunity to present our response to the national action plan for social inclusion. We welcome this ten-year plan, particularly its coherence with other national policies including the national development plan and the social partnership agreement, Towards 2016.

We very much welcome the over-arching goal to eliminate consistent poverty in Ireland by 2016 and also the range of targets provided in the plan. However, we believe that some of these targets could be more specific. We also believe that although employment is the best route out of poverty, we need to care for those who may not be able to have a job, such as pensioners and lone parents, and ensure that there is adequate income support to lift them out of poverty, together with adequate services. In addition, the plan does not have an income poverty rate or at risk of poverty rate. We believe that a target of this nature is important as income poverty can relate to vulnerable groups and also can be useful for EU comparisons.

We welcome the plan's focus on linking national and local policies and structures, including the plan's recognition of the importance of the county and city development boards in delivering local services, the enhanced role given to the local government social inclusion steering group and the Combat Poverty role in developing poverty impact assessment at a local level. While it is good to have a plan, we believe the key challenge will be delivery and effective implementation.

For successful delivery to occur, we believe there should be strong emphasis on monitoring. Monitoring the plan is necessary as we need to ensure that we are targeting resources at those who need them most and to measure the extent to which the plan is making a difference and evaluate the outcomes. We can improve monitoring by working together and strengthening integrated structures which will ensure that this happens, such as the county development boards, the office of the Minister for Children and the local government social inclusion steering group, all structures which can push policy further. Also important is involving people in poverty and those organisations representing them.

We feel it is important to develop indicators to assess performance over the course of the plan. Combat Poverty looks forward to working with the Office for Social Inclusion on delivering and implementing the plan effectively. I thank the committee for inviting us today and for listening to our presentation.

I welcome everybody and thank them for their most interesting presentations. It is Mr. Mangan's first appearance before the committee and I am aware of the good work he has been doing. Has he any powers, any teeth, in dealing with State and semi-State agencies and local authorities? He said his focus is on co-ordination and delivery of institutional change. Has he the power to tell people what to do? We are elected to represent the people. What can he do to help a lady whose husband is on a low wage, who has two children and is expecting a third, and whose housing is damp, inadequately heated and exorbitantly expensive? She needs help now, not in five or ten years' time. What can the Office of Social Inclusion do to help her? This is the type of case all of us come across every day. We make representations to the local authorities who very often do not or cannot move to assist. Help can be very slow. An expectant mother may be worried about bringing a new baby home to awful conditions; she may be worried about her own and the baby's health.

I note that the over-arching goal is to deal with consistent poverty. I understand the focus is on reducing the number of those experiencing consistent poverty. Is the gap between rich and poor increasing? The Combat Poverty Agency might deal with that question also. Is the Office for Social Inclusion concerned about relative poverty or is it concerned about people having an overcoat and two strong pairs of shoes?

What exactly is meant by activation measures? How do they work? We know that public debt is relatively low compared to what it was. What is the position regarding personal indebtedness? Reports indicate that it is quite high, that people owe more money than ever before. What is the impact of that, especially since interest rates are rising? We all agree that people at work are better off, yet we hear about the working poor. CORI mentioned this recently in one of its documents. There has been a huge increase in the number of people dependent on the family income supplement, yet we are told that only 40% of those entitled to the FIS actually draw it down. That indicates that many more employed people in receipt of very low wages should be getting support. These people are living in poverty.

I also wish to know how housing and child care costs are impacting on people. Many people are living on the margins of society. They include Travellers. The witnesses might comment on these areas.

One target of social inclusion is to halve the proportion of pupils with serious literacy difficulties in primary schools from the current 27% to 13%. The third level goal is to work to ensure that the proportion of the population aged between 20 and 24 completing upper second level education or equivalent will exceed 90% by 2013. What is the current figure?

Mr. Mangan

I will endeavour to answer most of the Deputy's questions and my colleague, Ms Quinn, will add extra information which I may not be able to provide. On the question of what the Office for Social Inclusion does, it would not have a function in dealing with individual cases of the type the Deputy mentions. The front-line services would try to respond to such cases.

We try to create a framework, a structure, within which these matters can be addressed more effectively than might have been the case in the past. We do this through the national plan on inclusion and we work with individual Departments and agencies. That is where we do some strong talking because we bring to it the outcome of nationwide consultations at which concerns such as the Deputy mentioned will have been highlighted.

We make Departments aware of these issues which cross policy areas and the need to respond in a more effective way in terms of policy and its implementation. Very often difficulties can arise in relation to implementation. We monitor on a regular basis the extent to which progress is being made. The outcome of this monitoring goes essentially to the Cabinet committee through the senior officials group.

How is this monitoring done?

Mr. Mangan

Departments have to report to us on a three-monthly basis on progress being made. We produce an annual report which is made available to the public generally, who will be aware of progress. We try to make these reports as comprehensive and as readable as possible. They are published on our website, enabling people to find out what is happening to combat poverty. It is a big part of our communications strategy. That in itself is an accountability requirement.

We also have an EU responsibility and the comittee has heard from the EAPN that the EU will monitor what we are doing. That is another form of accountability. We report to the EU on progress. There is a great deal of transparency on a number of fronts on what is being done to combat poverty. It is through that process that a more effective response to individual problems will be achieved.

The Deputy referred to relative poverty and the extent to which standards of living are diverging. Standards of living generally have improved. It is a feature of rapid economic development that divergence can occur because people who are well placed to get good jobs will see their incomes increase fairly rapidly. It takes a bit longer for income supports through social welfare services to catch up.

That is the experience of other countries as well. Part of our remit is to look at what other countries are doing to tackle these problems. Clearly employment is a key factor. Some households are jobless. People may be lone parents or long-term unemployed. We must remove the barriers to people who are jobless or may be in low paid employment. These barriers are lack of education, poor literacy levels and so on.

Much emphasis is placed on improving services. We have seen from other countries that if there is a good mix of services there will probably be a better outcome. A joined-up approach involving education, training, child care services and so on is the best means of getting people into better jobs. That is very much the thrust of the strategy.

Ms Quinn

Relative poverty is reducing as a result of social welfare increases. The rate for older people, for example, reduced last year from 27% to 20%. The overall rate has also come down by 2%. We have had the phenomenon of an economic boom, many women entered the labour force and the gap widened. Now it is beginning to stabilise and the rate is coming down.

Activation measures are supportive and encouraging, so that people coming into a social welfare office do not simply sign on and get a payment every week. Somebody will sit down with them, see what their skills are and what they are able for. Perhaps they will need literacy training. It is a supportive and case-managed process. Some €50 million has been provided in the national development plan to get this system up and running. Three months will not have to elapse before a person turns up at a FÁS office. There will be immediate contact to assist them back into employment or to take up a course which would be helpful.

It is a concern that people are not availing of the family income supplement. We must move from the attitude that social welfare is for those not in employment. FIS addresses the problem of the working poor. The Department is engaged in research and has identified a group of people who should benefit from FIS but have not applied. They are working with such people to find out why they have not applied for a supplement which has improved significantly in recent years.

We would see the literacy targets are very important. There are serious literacy difficulties in disadvantaged schools. We would see it as a very ambitious target to reduce that problem to 15% from the current rate of 27% or 30%. It is not easy. Major resources will be put into that area.

There has been very little movement in recent years in the statistics on early school leavers. The retention figure for the past 15 years has been 82% and the target is to reach 90%. While 8% might not seem a lot, we would regard it as an ambitious target which will be difficult to reach.

Reference was made to housing and child care. A huge amount of money is being put into the national development plan. The social inclusion chapter has been allocated some €50 million. This is the first time there has been a costed social inclusion chapter in a national development plan. Almost €5 billion is being provided under another chapter for the education and training of people who are out of work. That is a huge investment in people who are furthest from the labour market. It will address many groups such as lone parents, people with disabilities and those who have not worked for some time. Another €3 billion is provided for upskilling the current labour force. The issue of the working poor needs to be addressed. The housing programme agreed in Towards 2016 is also covered.

Some €500 million is provided in the national development plan for Traveller education. There is also major investment in child care, with some 100,000 places being catered for. Apart from actual places, measures will be taken to improve the quality of child care to ensure that children will learn. Targets for pre-school education are very important.

Mr. Hanan

We would argue that consistent poverty and relative poverty are both very important measures of different things in our society. Relative poverty has dropped slightly over the past few years. The most important factor, which the European Commission has highlighted, is that Ireland still has one of the highest levels of relative poverty or at risk of poverty rates in the EU. Most striking is the fact that when the at risk of poverty rate is measured before tax and social welfare are taken into account, Ireland is somewhere near the middle of the bunch, roughly at the average European level. After taking account of the tax and social welfare system, we have one of the worst rates.

The European Commission, in the joint inclusion report, refers to the way in which our tax and social welfare structure, which we have inherited over a long period and which is now undergoing some reform, actually contributes to that. We would like to see much stronger measures in the ten-year plan to change the way the structure works. Some of that comes back to the amount of money we spend, which is well below the European average, while some of it is a matter of how we spend that money. We have talked about this matter in some detail when making other presentations to this committee.

There was an argument some years ago that relative poverty increases almost automatically as an economy grows very fast, but I do not think that argument would be made nowadays. Other countries in the European Union which have grown fast over recent years, particularly the Nordic countries, have managed to do it without increasing divisions in society, at least to date. It is very much about the choices we make as a society between the way we raise tax and the way we spend it.

One of the strengths of the anti-poverty strategy has always been the openness of the plan. It is seen as a national plan, involving this committee, various areas of Government and so on. There was very thorough consultation over a year ago leading up to this plan. It is important now to feed back to those involved in the consultation information as to what has or has not been taken on board. It is quite hard, looking at the plan, to see what has changed in the plan as a result of that thorough consultation around the country.

Regarding activation and the working poor, we welcome the proposal from the Department of Social and Family Affairs to develop active case management, but our concern is how this will fit with the role of FÁS around the national employment action plan. The feedback from unemployed people is that they would welcome direct contact by one of the agencies when something arises such as a suitable opportunity for employment. The various service providers must be more active in their engagement with people.

The take-up of FIS has risen recently, one of the reasons being the PR exercise undertaken by the Department. Our social welfare system is so complex that one would almost need a consultant to guide one through it. People are often concerned that if they go for one type of payment they may lose out on something else. Others are not aware that FIS exists. As the service provider, the State might be more pro-active in clearly informing people about tax breaks and income supports.

As someone who worked with Travellers until last Christmas, I think it would great if the committee had the opportunity to invite the Traveller organisations. They have a range of concerns they would like to raise.

Ms Murphy

There is good and bad activation. Whether it is good or bad depends on the outcome to be measured. If the outcome is exits from social welfare, it could be bad; if the outcome is moving out of poverty, it could be good. We support good activation. They have found in the UK where they put a lot of pressure on achieving exit rates that they have had recycling, people moving in and out of employment and not moving out of poverty. There is much we can learn from other countries. We must pick the right outcome measure to ensure the effect we all want — to move people out of poverty.

The people we represent cannot afford to buy child care in a formal sector. We are seeking a combination of measures, including one year's paid leave for the first year of the child's life. That has many benefits. It also frees up the child care system. State-backed pre-school education has to be introduced. We do not see any evidence of a co-ordinated strategy to address after school care. Many of our members have very serious concerns about leaving children and teenagers with no form of care. In the UK, wrap around care is an integral part of activation strategies and it is mandated that each local authority provide support for after school care.

Some 36% of one parent families have debt problems compared to 9% of families overall. It is obviously linked to very low social welfare income or low pay. We have to look at ways of raising income levels to move people out of debt.

The means by which people have to apply for FIS, asking employers to sign forms, mitigate against take-up. We have to look at a simpler system whereby people will automatically qualify through the tax and social welfare system.

One problem with the plan is that we do not know what resources are additional to what is already there.

Mr. Burke

On housing and affordability, particularly for people experiencing social exclusion, the operation of the differential rent system in social housing is a protection against poverty and social exclusion and is generally operating well. Of concern to us are people in the private rented sector. Over 60,000 people are in receipt of rent supplement. That was always meant to be an emergency measure, to help people experiencing temporary unemployment and so so. It clearly has become a more long-term housing solution. There is anecdotal evidence that rent caps are being exceeded and that is problematic. The rental accommodation scheme introduced by the Government some years ago was designed to address that issue and targeted specifically at people on rent supplement for 18 months or more.

The implementation of that scheme has been disappointingly slow. One of the reasons is the conditions the local authorities saw when they went to inspect some of these properties. The Deputy gave an example of substandard accommodation which does not meet the minimum requirements of the legislation. Threshold, the housing organisation, has produced research showing that up to 60% of income can go on rent alone. That matter needs to be addressed.

For those who are homeless, there is now adequate emergency accommodation in many parts of the country, particularly in Dublin. However, the problem is that people are spending longer and longer terms in such accommodation because there is a lack of appropriate 'move one' accommodation. Affordability is not a matter which arises for these people.

Ms Coffey

We welcome the reformed consistent poverty measure introduced by Combat Poverty and also the target to eliminate it by 2016. The relative income poverty measure has decreased slightly over the past year. The most recent statistics are for 2005. We find this a useful measure because we can compare with other EU countries. We also look at it in conjunction with the consistent poverty measure as often it shows up some interesting comparisons.

I compliment the witnesses on their very interesting submissions. It appears that these organisations are not happy with the plan as outlined. A plan covering the period 2007 to 2016 requires a lot of detail and many of the organisations working on the ground seem to be less than completely happy that this detail has been supplied.

I compliment the Office for Social Inclusion on its work, but it based within the Department. Does it have the ability to say it is not happy with the programme or is it restricted because it is funded by the Department? I feel that is the case. Many other organisations dependent on funding from the Government are reluctant to stand up to the Minister or to question him. Are they happy with what has been achieved so far? If we have not achieved our targets for 2007, despite a period of unprecedented growth, how in God's name can we accept the setting of objectives for 2016?

We are talking about consistent poverty, but relative poverty would be a better measure. The Minister has opted for the consistent poverty measure. All of us have failed — politicians, Government and those involved in making recommendations to Government. Never before have so many people been homeless. Some 20% of our population was at risk of poverty in 2005, though there may have been a little improvement since then. None of us can be satisfied with what has been achieved in a period of unprecedented growth. There are people on the ground trying to help but leadership is not forthcoming at national level.

I am not going forward for re-election but my view is that we should be trying to enable single parents, for example, to take up real jobs. We speak about quality of life, but these people experience great bureaucratic difficulty in getting a home of their own. We are not going forward as quickly as these people require. We talk about reducing the poverty level to between 2% and 4% by 2016. What about the people trying to bring up families, the homeless people who will die on the ground because we will not achieve this? I am not blaming any of the organisations here; I acknowledge what they are doing. We lost the plot in dealing with poverty at a time when we had the means to do it and I fear for many of the marginalised in our society.

I welcome all the groups who have come here today and I am delighted to have this discussion. I welcome what the Minister has done in the last two budgets, allowing people to engage in work while still drawing their entitlement. This is a good way out of poverty. Employment and education are the key. I hope the next Government will continue on that track.

I have often mentioned the example of a widow in receipt of contributory pension who could take up employment and make a decent living. However, a widow in receipt of non-contributory pension was not in the same position. At one stage every penny she earned was deducted from the pension. Now such a person can earn something reasonable, but I hope the figure will increase. This is the right way to go.

Breaking the cycle of social welfare dependency is very difficult. In some cases it has continued from generation to generation. Unless we educate young people to believe that there is a better way and get them into employment, it will not be possible to break that cycle. When these young people reach the age of 18, they sign on for benefit. They feel they have made it and that this will be the way to make a living.

More training must be provided for Travellers to enable them to join the workforce. Many of them have the aptitude to take up various trades. Perhaps the community employment scheme should be used to assist them.

I feel very strongly about the employment of people with disabilities. It is hoped that an additional 7,000 people with disabilities will be in employment by 2010. How is it intended to achieve this? People who come to us have been through training course after training course, yet still cannot find employers who will take them on. The influx on non-nationals may have been to the disadvantage of people with disabilities because it is easier for employers to employ non-nationals. Is it intended to give an incentive to employers? These people are trained but unable to find jobs.

Mr. Mangan

We have heard some very incisive and interesting comments. I will call on my colleague, Ms Quinn, to answer some of the questions.

In terms of the role and function of the Office for Social Inclusion, we try to influence the policy process in a number of ways. We consult very widely with groups such as those represented here. We had a major consultation process starting in September 2005 which continued for over four months. There was written consultation throughout the regions. The outcome was published in a significant report which was fed into the policy process. People knew exactly what the concerns were and what targets they wanted. That is a very important dimension. The key stakeholders who work with disadvantaged people had clear access to policy makers and we try to facilitate that as best we can. We work for the NESF in organising the social inclusion forum which is so successful that people from other EU countries come to see how it operates and are quite impressed. People in Government and making policy are very aware of all the concerns expressed. The reports are also available in the Oireachtas.

We use these reports to challenge Departments in terms of policy developments and so so. Because we have a bird's eye view of the process, we are able to identify areas where there may be barriers to progress within one Department which are affecting another Department. Our poverty impact assessment has been developed to try to achieve this. We are able to say to a Department, for example, that it is creating problems in terms of poverty by the approach it is taking to particular policies or by the lack of resources being provided and therefore stultifying the impact of well-resourced policies elsewhere. That is one of our functions.

By monitoring, we can find out where progress is being made, where implementation may be a barrier to greater progress and so on. It is not all about the plan; it is about a process for which the plan provides a steer as to where things are going in the next ten years. The process is working very well. We hear on an ongoing basis from the organisations represented here and many more.

Do local authorities and the HSE interact with the OSI on a regular basis?

Mr. Mangan

Yes, indeed. I am a member of a local authority steering group. This is a key area in getting better and more co-ordinated implementation. That will be a priority for the next ten years. We set great store on this in trying to achieve targets and objectives of the plan.

It is fair to say that much has been achieved over the past ten years. We have problems with consistent poverty in that almost halfway through the period the method of surveying poverty was changed quite significantly.

Did that massage the figures more favourably for the Minister?

Mr. Mangan

No. The surveys are done under the aegis of the European Union. If we had been massaging them we would not have been very successful. The second survey came up with a much higher rate of poverty than the previous one. It was indicated that if the previous survey had continued, we would have met the target by 2007. Therefore we have had to renew the target to try to reduce it to 4% to 2% on a new basis. The aim is to eliminate it by 2016.

In its most recent verdict on our progress, the EU says clearly that the risk of poverty is high among older people living alone and lone parents, but it goes on to state, "More recent national data from 2005 indicate that at risk of poverty rates for these categories have been significantly reduced, reflecting the impact and focus of the Irish social security system on people on the lowest incomes." We are very pleased that the huge efforts that have been made through the social security changes are bearing fruit in reducing the risk of poverty rate — and that does not include the very high increase provided in 2006 for 2007. It is fair to say that the strategy is working, that there is a greater focus on people in poverty and experiencing social exclusion. I fully accept there is a great way to go, but the strategic process is guiding us very effectively and is constantly being monitored with a view to achieving better outcomes.

Ms Quinn

In our last plan we had three major targets in social welfare rates around child income, the lowest social welfare rate and the pension. Each of those targets has been met. We make no bones about setting ambitious targets and pushing Departments to deliver. We have all come to the recognition that poverty is not just around social welfare and income. We need to look at policies in the round — housing, health, education. This is too important a matter to focus on whether a person is below one line or over a line. We have tried to take that strategic view and wrap our policies around children, people of working age and older people. It is not simply a matter of adding €5 to a rate. The Social Welfare Vote has gone up from €5 billion to €15 billion in the past ten years. We have to shift our focus to public services and the range of supports that people need to lift them out of poverty.

I agree with Deputy Stanton that despite the great efforts to provide training for people with disabilities, it has not been possible for many of them to make the final jump into employment. We share his concern. Some of the areas in which we and FÁS are involved concern very specific supports to employers. There is a wage subsidy scheme. On the social welfare side, we are trying to secure income disregards so that they can keep some of their payments while trying to take up employment. There is no doubt that it is difficult. We have within the public sector a 3% target for people with disabilities and we are conducting a survey on reaching that target. The Government has put great effort into the disability strategy and six Departments have sectoral plans. Work is being done.

Mr. Hanan

I will concentrate on Deputy Ryan's question as to whether we are happy. The answer is yes and no. We have seen some important changes over the past ten years. We have seen a very dramatic drop in overall levels of unemployment. One of the big achievements of the national anti-poverty strategy has been bringing up the lowest level of social welfare and reaching that target. The experience of the network of organisations representing or working with people living in poverty is that most of these changes have left behind a large section of the population. In looking at services, employment, educational achievement and so so, we are constantly looking at the same 15%, 20%, 25% of the population who are being left behind.

In many ways the last NAPS has been a success, but we have not seen the major shift in resources which we have seen in some other European countries at particular points in their history. That is why, as a rich country now, we need to think much more ambitiously about using some of our new wealth to create a much more inclusive society. Over the last ten years we have seen much more sophisticated plans, much more developed ways of delivering those plans. The fact the the Office for Social Inclusion and the Combat Poverty Agency have a role in directly pushing different Departments to take poverty into account in various areas of policy has had an effect which we have begun to see in large and small ways. As a country we are very good on new ideas and are known for it across Europe — people often say Ireland is a great place for innovation, for new ways to approach poverty — but some of the very big decisions about taxing and spending, as we see in the health service and the education system, still do not take account of the poorest in our society. We need to look at issues like relative poverty, not as an exact measure of who is experiencing whatever we define as poverty but as a snapshot of how we divide resources and how far behind other countries we are in terms of creating a more inclusive society.

Deputy Callanan referred to intergenerational poverty and dependency, as well as the issues facing disabled people and Travellers in accessing employment. In looking at activation policies, the one side of the equation we never talk about is the employers. We certainly cannot talk about activating people who are excluded from the labour market with activating the employers. It is the harder side of the equation to deal with, but it is an area in which we need to do considerable work. Many Travellers would have the same feelings as disabled people. They have been trained but there is nothing at the end of it because employers are not willing to employ them. The dynamic is often seen in other disadvantaged areas where people see family members moving on and making progress. We must work to ensure there is something at the end. Most people who stay in the education system to third level or beyond do so because they feel it will be worth their while financially. They do not do it just for the good of their health. We need to work constantly on joining up education, training and employment measures.

Acting Chairman

I thank all the representatives for attending. The work they are putting into social inclusion is very evident and their replies were both informative and comprehensive. Questions and answers were both well put. I hope we will be here in the term of the next Government to invite you back again.

The joint committee went into private session at 4.34 p.m. and adjourned at 4.35 p.m. until 3 p.m. on Tuesday, 3 April 2007.