Wednesday, 10 March 2004

Ceisteanna (26, 27)

Ruairí Quinn

Ceist:

98 Mr. Quinn asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs when it is intended to commence publishing annual reports of progress towards the achievement of anti-poverty indicators; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7822/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Ruairí Quinn

Ceist:

100 Mr. Quinn asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the progress made to date with regard to achieving the target set in An Agreed Programme for Government of reducing consistent poverty to below 2%; the percentage in consistent poverty at the latest date for which figures are available; if the results of the national survey carried out in 2003 are available; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7821/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Oral answers (23 contributions) (Ceist ar Minister for Family)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 98 and 100 together.

The most recent data on the levels of consistent poverty is contained in a report published recently by the Economic and Social Research Institute, entitled Monitoring Poverty Trends in Ireland: Results from the 2001 Living in Ireland Survey. The report shows that the steady downward trend in consistent poverty has been sustained with a rate of 5.2% being recorded in 2001 compared to 15% in 1994. Accordingly, we are continuing to make steady progress towards the achievement of the target set out in the revised national anti-poverty strategy, NAPS, of reducing the level of consistent poverty to below 2% by 2007 and, ideally, eliminating it altogether.

The 2001 Living in Ireland survey was the final such survey undertaken as part of the European Community household panel or ECHP. This statistical instrument is now being replaced with a new instrument, which is known as EU-SILC — the European survey of income and living conditions. The Central Statistics Office is responsible for EU-SILC, as it has a statutory basis in EU statistical law. The earlier ECHP had no formal legal basis. I understand that the Central Statistics Office expects to be in a position to publish the initial results from the 2003 survey by the end of this year, and that the latest information on consistent poverty will be included in these initial results.

The office for social inclusion within my Department has overall responsibility for monitoring progress towards the implementation of the targets set out in NAPS and in the national action plans against poverty and social exclusion. The current NAPS/inclusion covers the period from 2003 to 2005 and was submitted to the EU Commission on 31 July 2003. The plan provides for the following: an assessment of the major trends and challenges in the area of social inclusion; reviews the progress achieved in the previous two-year period; sets out the strategic approach to meeting the challenges; identifies the key targets and the measures in place to achieve those targets; sets out the institutional framework in place to address the issues of poverty and social exclusion; and identifies a number of examples of best practice.

The plan, together with similar plans submitted by the other member states, also provides the basis for a joint inclusion report which will be discussed at the forthcoming spring European Council. The joint inclusion report includes a synthesis report on the challenges facing all member states in tackling poverty and social exclusion, as well as a critique of the individual plans of each member state.

In order to provide continuity in the process, it is planned to publish the first annual report of the office for social inclusion in autumn 2004, covering the year to end July 2004. It is envisaged that this report will provide an analysis of progress towards the achievement of the targets set out in the NAPS and NAPS/inclusion. It will also provide an update on the range of other activities being undertaken by the office.

Is it not the case that amid all the wealth there is deep seated poverty, that a huge cohort of young and elderly people have been left behind by the Celtic tiger and have been forgotten? Is it not a fact that approximately 300,000 children live in relative poverty? This is not just a figure thought out by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul when they mentioned this in November. This is the figure of the Combat Poverty Agency who had to take issue with the Taoiseach regarding the figure because he did not seem to understand it.

Is the agency incorrect that 300,000 children live in relative poverty? Relative poverty is defined as a household where the income is less than 60% of the average industrial wage. Approximately, 70,000 children live in consistent poverty, which means they do not get basics such as a hot meal daily or necessary clothes. Is that not the position? Why do organisations say 25% of such children live in households with an income of less than €138 per week? Is that sustainable? Is that poverty?

Why does the National Economic and Social Council say child poverty is not being addressed? The Minister will argue but the NESC says poverty in the early years leads to low levels of educational attainment, no skills, vulnerable employment, low levels of participation in the work force and high dependence on the State. Is it not only morally right but economically right to intervene and invest adequate resources in this area? The benefit of such investment would permeate all stratas of society in the longer term. Has there been discussions with the social partners on Sustaining Progress? What has happened in regard to the other national agreements? Are they real, radical or redundant in terms of achieving the elimination of poverty, which must be the aim of everybody in this House?

There is no denying there is poverty. Nobody would be silly enough to fail to recognise that. Poverty trends have changed significantly and consistent poverty has reduced significantly, for example. Much of this can be attributed to the increase in social welfare rates and the provision of other health and education supports. I agree child poverty is a most disturbing issue. That is why a special initiative was agreed under Sustaining Progress. I hope to meet the social partners shortly, if I ever get away from debates in the Dáil and Seanad, to discuss the implementation of the initiative because I am interested in addressing that issue. That is why child benefit has been examined. The interaction of CDAs with FIS and how child poverty can be addressed properly is a hot potato.

A number of Government initiatives deserve great credit. The national anti-poverty strategy provides a holistic approach to tackling poverty, as it encompasses housing, education, health and income supports. None of those areas is exclusive of the other because a holistic, inclusive approach must be taken to address poverty.

Astronomical resources have been provided to my Department. It has been allocated €11.3 billion, which is the highest allocation to a Department. We will strive to address the issue of consistent poverty on an ongoing basis. I wish to eliminate such poverty and to at least, attain the targets outlined in NAPS. The Department has been commended by the European Commission on a number of its initiatives, such as the Money Advice and Budgeting Service, which is unique.

It is difficult to compare like with like. Ireland provides for pensioners, for example, whereas the British Government does not provide the same income support for pensioners. The Department provides income support and free schemes and these must be taken into consideration when comparing statistics within the EU.

Groups are often criticised for not being independent in their advisory roles.

That is good.

The Combat Poverty Agency, the ESRI and the NESC do their job and that is important. I meet the CPA on a regular basis to discuss these issues.

The Minister will be aware that more than 300,000 children live in households with a weekly income of less than €175. Is she concerned by the recent report by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul that, over the past year, it has been inundated with requests from people in difficulty, many of whom are on low incomes? The Minister says she have provided welfare increases with one hand but the trouble is the Government takes them back with two hands. The cost of electricity has increased three times in the past year. The minute local authority tenants received their welfare increases on 1 January, the local authorities sent them income queries and part of the increase was taken away immediately. The councils have also introduced stealth taxes such as increases in refuse removal charges.

The Minister increased child benefit by €2 per week. It would not buy a loaf of bread in Mullingar or Navan. There is no point pretending——

We give good value.

Is the Minister worried about the increase in the number of people contacting the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and the increase in poverty? That is sad given that the racing industry gets away without paying a penny in tax. A total of €300 million goes out of the economy on a yearly basis in stud fees and so on while poor people on social welfare are targeted by the Government.

Over the past fortnight, one would think there was not a shortage of money in the State because the local elections are coming up in June. The Minister threw out €1 million yesterday. We should wait until the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs gets his hand on the slush fund relating to dormant accounts. All that money should be programmed and invested in people on low incomes who are suffering, particularly those with children who are experiencing difficulties because their social welfare payments do not sustain them.

The Minister and I regularly disagree about the value of consistent poverty as an indicator and the greater value of relative poverty. However, the ESRI has developed a third indicator, persistent poverty, which measures those who have lived in relative poverty for more than three years. The Minister must accept anyone who lives in such a household is living in poverty. The most recent ESRI report highlighted that the number of people experiencing persistent poverty had increased. The Government parties have been in power for seven years and the increasing disparity between wealth and disadvantage has been brought about largely by policies they have introduced. The Minister has a thankless job running, uphill backwards trying to counteract the effect of policies introduced by the Minister of Finance, the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment and other right-wing ideologues in the Cabinet.

I am delighted I am getting such great support from the Opposition benches.

We are doing our best.

I am running up hills at this stage.

I would like to run some of the right wingers out.

If only we had the opportunity to run up and down any hill, it would be good exercise for us.

Deputy Boyle and I are not going to agree on the issue between consistent and relative poverty. I agree that if relative poverty persists, one has to deal with it. Why is there relative poverty? During the past five year many people have taken up employment, which is very important when we had vulnerable people on unemployment assistance or benefit trying to seek work. I am not the only one to hold the view that being employed and having access to work and supporting people in work and upskilling is very important to the economic well-being of people. It not only gives people an income but it develops self-esteem. The issue of employment is very important in counteracting the issue of poverty. From an academic and policy of view, if relative poverty continues over a long period, it becomes an issue of persistent poverty. What we are dealing with is a consistent poverty level, that is where people are actually in poverty. In spite of all the indicators, my view is that one has to deal with those people first.

The Minister should see what the European indicators say.

Yes, the European indicators are for those at risk of poverty, but we are not comparing like with like. We are not comparing our taxation systems or the additionality within our income supports. They are not being taken into consideration. Many other issues are totally different. The Deputy is right. I have been very much involved in European issues and the "at risk" which is equivalent to "relative" poverty indicator would show that we are very low. That does not take into consideration the policy framework at this time in addressing the issue of consistent poverty, that is people who are in poverty. The "at risk" group may or may not find themselves in poverty. There are other issues in addressing the issue of "at risk" in trying to ensure that people do not fall into poverty and ensuring that people go beyond the level of "at risk" and move into an income median that supports families.

Deputy Boyle is right. Over the seven budgets Deputy McCreevy introduced, he allocated 6.3 times more resources to the top 30% in society than to the bottom 30 %. One does not have to be Einstein or a mathematical genius to realise that this widens the gap between the rich and the poor, between those who have plenty and those who are at the bottom and do not have enough. In that bottom group, we have 300,000 children who are stuck in a level of consistent poverty. The Minister may argue that consistent poverty has fallen. That is a point. However, as the Human Rights Commission and NESC show, child poverty is not being addressed. Resources are needed to deal with child poverty. We are not investing adequate resources and we will reap the whirlwind of our failure to do so in the not too distant future.

It is easy to have a go at the Minister for Finance and that is done in every parliament. If it changes, something will be wrong. Major investment has been made in supporting rates and changes in the social welfare benefit scheme

Including widows.

Members agree that the changes have been tremendous in providing additionality. We have established a number of schemes that have been expanded many times over. It is incumbent on us that we expand the schemes. The Government decided that a child poverty initiative was very important and that is why we are working with the social partners, the community groups and the NGOs to ensure that we address the issue of child poverty. The issue of indictors is irrelevant to the people we represent. They do not care what indicators are about.

They care if they are poor.

They care if the Minister has taken money out of their pockets.

Exactly. It is on that basis that we are supporting people who are in consistent poverty. We are trying to address their social needs and not only their income-related needs. We will continue that investment over the next number of years. The Minister for Finance, who is present, agrees with me.

Written Answers follow Adjournment Debate.