Thursday, 30 May 2019

Ceisteanna (15)

Willie Penrose


15. Deputy Willie Penrose asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection the number of children in poverty; the steps she is taking to tackle the problem; if she has held discussions with the Department of Children and Youth Affairs to address the reported capacity problem within the childcare sector which is regarded as a key driver of childhood poverty; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [22917/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (8 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Employment)

Child poverty remains a significant challenge. It is clearly an impediment to many children making the progress one would anticipate and hope for them because it has an impact across a wide sphere of activities, including participation in education, health and nourishment. There is a clear obligation for us to act in an holistic and positive way at Government level to address this and, in particular, adopt a whole-of-government approach and policies that will eradicate the problem. Perhaps the Minister will outline what she has in mind.

I have been speaking an awful lot about child poverty, lone parents and people living with disabilities in the two years in which I have been privileged enough to be in this position. They need the attention they would not have been given heretofore.

The national policy framework for children and young people, called Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures, includes a target to reduce, by two thirds, the number of children living in consistent poverty by 2020. That was based on figures from 2012. Under the Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures framework, the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, in collaboration with the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection and other Departments, is taking a whole-of-government approach to tackling child poverty and also other forms of poverty. One Department will not be successful on its own. Meeting the target set means reducing the number of children in consistent poverty to 37,000 or fewer by 2020. The most recent available figures from the 2017 Survey of Income and Living Conditions, SILC, report show that there were, on average, 105,000 children still in consistent poverty at the end of 2017.

This 2017 figure is equivalent to 8.8% of children living in consistent poverty. It represents a significant reduction over preceding years, but it is still nowhere close to the original target. As unemployment decreases and the economy continues to grow, improvements in households occur. It also allows my Department and me to get a portion of the revenue generated by the improving economy to spend it on and direct it towards those most in need. As I said to the Deputy, they are children, particularly those living in lone-parent households. They also include those with disabilities. With the co-operation of this House, I have attempted to achieve this in the past two budgets. I hope and aspire to do exactly the same this year.

The Minister is absolutely correct that lone parents and those with disabilities are certainly vulnerable in this area. They are most susceptible to poverty of the level in question. It is appalling. We all have to adopt policies to address this issue. We all support the objective of reducing the number of children in consistent poverty by two thirds, to 37,000. There are approximately 120,000 or 130,000 children in consistent poverty at this point. This is an indictment of all the policies adopted. We have to refocus, recharge and change your ways to deal with this. What steps are likely to be taken to deal with this problem, particularly in the light of the costs that arise for people in consistent poverty?

It is difficult for new parents to secure child places, which are becoming increasingly expensive. Has the Minister had any discussion with the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Zappone, on this issue, which has certainly proven problematic for many, particularly those in rural areas?

I will briefly outline some of the things we have done in the past couple of years that I hope will make a significant impact on the next body of SILC data that emerge, for the end of 2018 and perhaps 2019. The first thing I set out to do was decrease the income disregards for lone parents that had been introduced in 2012. I am happy to say they are all fully reversed. We can still go further, however, and maybe do so this year. We have made significant changes to the working family payment. We increased the qualified child payment for the first time in ten years last year, and did so again this year, particularly reflecting the fact that older children cost more than younger children. The NGOs I have been working with know and appreciate that I do listen to and heed their advice. We increased significantly the back-to-school clothing and footwear allowance last year, again in recognition of the fact that the payment we were making before that did not come anywhere close to meeting the back-to-school clothing and footwear needs. There is also the child benefit, which is the universal payment. There is still a lot a lot more we can do. Arising from the extensive consultation we have had in recent months with NGOs, partners and stakeholders, I hope the national inclusion strategy we launch in the next couple of weeks will have a road map for recovery.

I look forward to the publication of the national inclusion strategy and all that goes with it.

The qualifying child payment was especially welcome this year. Are there plans to increase the payment in the October budget? Child benefit has not been increased in recent budgets. Are there plans to increase it? It is important that we elaborate on and set out our plans for child benefit. While its universality is important, it is especially important to those with large families, as the Minister knows herself. It is critical in addressing the level of consistent poverty, which we must eradicate once and for all. We must set out as a policy objective the eradication of such poverty once and for all. It will be a shameful indictment of us all in this House if, in the next three to four years, we do not get a handle on it and achieve our objective.

I slightly disagree with the Deputy. While I am 100% behind the fact that child benefit is a universal payment and should remain so, I believe that if we increase it, it will not address the needs of those living in poverty in a really targeted way. It would cost an extensive amount of money and this would, perhaps, stop us from addressing the needs of those living in poverty in a targeted way.

There is a lot of hidden poverty, though.

The Deputy is killing me now and I will be slaughtered for saying that if we have money this year - it will depend on Brexit, the budgetary context and all that good stuff - I would love to see it go specifically towards increasing the qualified child allowance and target specifically the needs of lone parents and the costs associated with disabilities. I refer to genuine targeting as opposed to giving an increase to those who may not need it. I acknowledge that this does not account for everybody who gets it.

Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website