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.