Speech for Minister for Social Protection Leo Varadkar TD at Children’s Rights Alliance Conference


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Speech for the Minister for Social Protection
Leo Varadkar TD
at the Children’s Rights Alliance Conference
24 June 2016

 

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Chairman, Minister Zappone, colleagues, distinguished guest, ladies and gentlemen.

I want to begin by thanking the Children’s Rights Alliance for inviting me to speak to you on the important issue of children and poverty this morning. 

Nelson Mandela said that ‘children are our greatest treasure.  They are our future’. 
John F. Kennedy declared something similar a few decades earlier. 
He said: ‘Children are the world’s most valuable resource and its best hope for the future’ and the American writer, Margaret Mead, recognised that ‘when we save our children, we save ourselves’. 
It is a truism that has become a cliché, so often is it stated and restated.  But the problems facing children just seem to get greater. 
The fact that we even have to have a conference on children and poverty in the 21st century says it all. 
We have consistently failed to turn our platitudes into principles, we have failed to protect the weakest in society, and we are now facing the consequences.  It is time for a new approach.
I believe there are four foundational principles that should form the basis of how we treat children in our society.

  1. The first is the principle that no child should know hunger.  Every child should have, at the very least, a basic level of security, knowing that he or she will be able to eat, sleep, and shelter without fear.  It is the most basic of all rights.
  2. The second principle is the principle of good health.  Too often children face delays receiving medical treatments and therapies like speech and language therapy because of cost or - just as often - inefficiency. Ill-health becomes a barrier to the child’s development, in every way.  A sick child, denied access to treatment, reflects a sick society, and is a symptom of deeper problems.  We all know about the link between poverty and child obesity and its long-term sequelae, and also how often that link is over-simplified.  We also know about the impact of alcohol abuse on children both in terms of neglect and abuse.
  3. Education is the third principle.  Education is the way we harness potential, and transform lives.  Everyone must have an equal opportunity to access that transformative power, even if some might ultimately do more with it than others.  It is far easier to build lives than it is to rescue them, and for that we need the building block of an educational system that is open to all and, just as importantly, one of quality.
  4. The fourth principle should reflect our aspiration for society.  Every child should be free to develop as they choose, free to form their own beliefs, their own identities, free from bullying, either individual or institutional. 

So how do we measure up as a society against these four foundational principles?

Introduction
We should start by asking ourselves: what is poverty and why is it important to be here today? The National Action Plan for Social Inclusion states and I quote:

"People are living in poverty if their income and resources (material, cultural and social) are so inadequate as to preclude them from having a standard of living which is regarded as acceptable by Irish society generally. As a result of inadequate income and other resources people may be excluded and marginalised from participating in activities which are considered the norm for other people in society."

In other words, people living in poverty cannot afford to do the things that most people take for granted.  However, we should not make the mistake of thinking that poverty is only about income or income disparity.  It is also about access to the supports and services which allow us the opportunity to fulfil our potential.  If you do not have access to these services, you have to buy them, thus requiring a higher income.  But if you have access to these services without charge, your need for income support is less.  This is something I will touch on later.

Better Outcomes Brighter Futures, the National Policy Framework for Children and Young People tells us that most of our children are doing well overall and are happy and thriving.  And that’s true.  Children today are safer and better educated than any of the generations that went before them.  Child and infant mortality is close to an all-time low.  Physical abuse of children is no longer acceptable and sexual abuse no longer hidden, or at least not in the way it once was.  Teenage pregnancies are at their lowest for decades and children who are gay, lesbian, transgender or questioning are growing up today in a more supportive and accepting environment than ever before. 

Nonetheless, for children growing up in poor families, poverty still means not having the things their peers have, like taking swimming lessons, going on school tours, or taking a trip to the cinema.

This can lead to a sense of exclusion or reduced worth.  It can also lead to bullying because poverty makes it harder to fit in. It can mean that a visit to the doctor, dentist or chemist has to be postponed because parents are worried about the cost. 

As well all know, poverty is multi-faceted and requires many different policy responses.   

The political priority for the last five years was to get our nation’s public finances back in order, eliminate the deficit, reduce debt and get people back to work.  Now that this work is largely done, we are in a much better place and are once again able to ask ourselves – what kind of economy do we want and what kind of society do we want?

My vision is of an enterprise economy that rewards work and innovation not speculation, one in which we are prosperous because of the goods and services we produce and trade overseas.  And my vision of society is one based on personal freedom, one in which the role of Government is to ensure opportunity so that everyone gets a ‘fair go’, and that a strong safety net is in place to create a floor or threshold of decency below which nobody can fall.  Child poverty is one such threshold.

The previous FG-Labour Government made firm commitments to alleviate child poverty and took a number of decisive actions.

We created a new Department for Children and Youth Affairs, with a full Minister at Cabinet and established Túsla as a dedicated child and family agency.  We introduced free GP care for children under six, and funded an additional free pre-school year.

But that’s not enough. Not even close.  And it now falls to the new Fine Gael-Independent Government to take a fresh look at child poverty and ensure that it is tackled in a coherent, co-ordinated and effective manner.

Under the Better Outcomes Brighter Futures Framework and with the Advisory Council, my Department has identified the need to tackle child poverty as a priority. An ad hoc group has been formed with the objective of working with other relevant Government departments and NGOs towards the adoption of an effective whole of government, multi-dimensional approach to tackling child poverty.  The group is co-chaired by my Department and our hosts today, the Children’s Rights Alliance, and its work will be crucial to translating policy commitments on child poverty into reality.

Targets
For the first time since the economic crisis, overall poverty levels have stabilised. The latest figures from 2014 show that consistent poverty has decreased marginally to 8 per cent. 

Deprivation fell slightly representing the first reduction since 2007. Indeed I am pleased to say that the poverty target for older people has already been met.  While we do not yet have the Survey of Income and Living Conditions for 2015, I understand that the positive trend continued through last year. 

The unemployment rate is down from a peak of 15 per cent in 2012 to 7.8 per cent in May 2016 with long-term unemployment below 5%.  This is a remarkable achievement but we must continue to do more.

The Government target is to reduce unemployment below 6% and long-term unemployment to less than 2.5%

Two years ago, the Government set a specific child poverty target in Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures, in recognition of the higher risks and life-long consequences of child poverty. The ambitious and challenging target was to lift 70,000 children out of consistent poverty by 2020, a reduction of at least two thirds on the 2011 level.   That has since been adjusted upwards to 97,000 for reasons I shall explain later.

It’s important to note, that even at the height of the economic boom in 2008, when the consistent poverty rate for children was its lowest, there were still 68,000 children classified as being in consistent poverty at that time.

Since 2008, consistent poverty has actually increased by 5 percentage points to 11.2 per cent in 2014.  It’s important to appreciate though that this is a relative measure, which moves year on year subject to changes in median income. As median income rises without corresponding proportionate rises in the income of the lowest deciles, then the numbers at risk of poverty and in consistent poverty will rise. So an across-the-board increase in child benefit makes all families better off but it has little impact on child poverty.  And a pay increase for young public servants to bring them into line with their older peers can inadvertently increase child poverty even though no child is worse off. The same applies to increases in income for the elderly and students.

In short, it is the increase in median incomes that accounts for a significant element of the rise in the numbers of people including children in consistent poverty, which has occurred between 2011 and 2014, rather than poorer living conditions or living standards. 

In medicine, there is an old adage.  A bad doctor treats the blood test, a good doctor treats the patient.  The bad doctor notices that the patient’s white cell count is high and administers the appropriate medicine instructing that the patient can go home once the blood tests comes back normal. 

The good doctor examines the patient, figures out the underlying causes of the abnormal blood test, treats those and discharges the patient when he or she is well, making provision for follow-up.

I think the same applies to child poverty.  Rather than treating the statistics through simple measures like cash transfers alone, we should rather examine, understand and deal with the underlying causes, like joblessness and poor access to services among other measures. I think that will produce better and more sustainable results.

Government Commitments
The new Programme for Government sets out to tackle child poverty in a number of different ways.  These include increasing community-based early intervention programmes, health, education, childcare and income supports. 

Housing
The issues of housing and homelessness clearly need urgent attention.  There is a strong link between the quality of a child’s housing and their overall outcomes.  Of course there is.  Children should be able to live and grow up in a safe, healthy, sustainable and child-friendly environment that supports their developmental and learning needs.

That’s why Minister Simon Coveney and the Government are currently formulating a new Action Plan for Housing.  At the centre of that new Action Plan is increasing supply of both social and private housing.  Other actions include speeding up the transition to the Housing Assistance Payment which gives greater security of tenure and reduces the disincentive to take up employment, and a significant increase in Rent Supplement, the details of which I will announce in the near future.

Education
Education is a major factor in contributing to the development of children, their future economic independence, standard of living and overall wellbeing.  Missing out on an adequate education can have negative consequences for both immediate wellbeing and adulthood.  Government commitments include reducing class sizes, further increasing the number of special needs assistants and raising the quality of teaching in our schools. 

Childcare
Of particular importance in tackling poverty is the issue of quality affordable and accessible childcare. At present, the cost of childcare is a significant barrier for many parents wanting to take up work, education or training. 

The introduction of the Free Pre-School Year helped to improve affordability.   In addition to providing for a second free Pre-School Year, Budget 2016 contained specific initiatives focused on increasing the affordability of childcare, to lay the foundation for providing more affordable childcare to a broader range of families. I know Minister Zappone will speak on this in more detail.

Healthcare
The provision of free GP care for young children will go some way towards alleviating this worry for many parents.  As Minister for Health, I helped to bring about free GP care children under the age of six. Approximately 360,000 children can now access GP services without fees.  It was hard-fought and controversial and the opponents used all the time-honoured arguments to cloak their opposition to universal health care.  But we got the foot in the door, there is no going back now, and I particularly want to thank the Children’s Rights Alliance and Tanya Ward for your support and advocacy during that battle.

The programme for Government has a commitment to extend that to all children up to the age of 18 with funding in place to extend it to children aged 6-11 later this year, subject to agreement with GPs. 

There are also proposals to improve access to speech and language therapy and dental and oral health for children.

In a few weeks’ time, at long last, work will begin on our new state-of-the-art National Children’s Hospital. I can think of no better way to honour the centenary of the 1916 Rising than to begin construction of what will be the largest single capital investment in healthcare and children in the history of the State on one of the battlefield sites of that rebellion.

Role of Child and Family Income Supports
The traditional model of tackling poverty in Ireland has tended to favour direct cash supports over investment in services.  However, as I mentioned earlier this may give rise to a structural problem of welfare rates constantly having to play catch-up to median income. Furthermore, social transfers must be extremely large to achieve this effect and it may well be that they are reaching the limit of their effectiveness.  Nevertheless, the social welfare system continues to play an important role in alleviating poverty and income inequality.

Ireland is the best performing EU Member State in reducing poverty and income inequality through social transfers, higher than the Nordic countries and about twice as effective as the EU average, a fact that is little-known and rarely acknowledged.  Using comparable data from Eurostat for 2014, Ireland’s performance in reducing poverty, at 58 per cent, was far in excess of the EU norm of 34 per cent.

The recently published UNICEF study on fairness for children states that in Ireland social transfers have nearly halved the relative income gap. The authors go on to say that, without these significant social transfers, the income gap would be among the highest in Europe. This reinforces the crucial role the Irish welfare system has played in protecting the vulnerable in society.

During difficult times social transfers play a pivotal role in cushioning people from the worst effects of rising unemployment and falling incomes. I am not sure if social solidarity would have been maintained in the way it was during the worst years of the recession were it not for our welfare system.

In Budget 2016, the Government committed over €200 million to support families with children by increasing child benefit and Family Income Supplement rates and by investing in the provision of childcare. The social impact assessment of the Budget, published by my Department, shows that families gained up to 2 per cent in average household income on foot of these changes.

Altogether, my Department will spend €3 billion, the equivalent of 15 per cent of its total budget, specifically on children.

This is delivered through Child Benefit, specific weekly increases for children for welfare recipients, the Family Income Supplement and the Back to School Clothing and Footwear Allowance.  The largest is, of course, Child Benefit.

Child Benefit
I am committed to keeping Child Benefit as a universal payment. There will be no means test and no tax on Child Benefit.

However, now that the cuts to Child Benefit have been reversed, I believe that we should start thinking about how we want to help families in the future.  Further flat rate increases in Child Benefit may not be the most effective way to help the largest number of people, or to help those who really need it.

Surely, future increases should focus on low-income families who need it the most, whether it’s through Family Income Supplement, dependent qualified child payments, or the new Working Family Payment when it comes in?

What is worth more to a family: an extra €5 a month, at a cost of €60 million a year, or free GP care? An extra €5 a month or better access to affordable child care?

I’m not advocating one over the other at this stage, but I do think this is a debate which needs to take place.

Employment
As I mentioned earlier, one of the most effective ways to tackle child poverty is to help parents to get back to work. A 20 or 25 percent increase in social welfare could be worth as much as €60 or €70 a week to family but a full time job is worth so much more.

The Family Income Supplement and the Back to Work Family Dividend will continue to support parents to take up and remain in employment, especially those furthest from the labour market.

The key relationship between parental employment status and child well-being is well established.  Assisting families to return to work is critical so they can build better financial futures for themselves over time. It’s the best and most sustainable way of lifting them and their children out of poverty.

The Programme for Government contains commitments to improve the take-home pay of families on low-incomes. One of the most significant is the proposed ‘Working Family Payment’ targeted at low-income families.  Over the course of the next six months, we will develop proposals for the new payment. 

In doing so, we will be guided by two principles.  First, that it should ensure that work pays and that no family is better off on welfare than at work, and second, though equally important, that it has a positive effect on child poverty.

Making Work Pay cannot just be about welfare payments and top-ups.  It also has to tackle low pay.  And so the Programme also commits us to supporting an increase in the minimum wage. The Government will take into account the annual recommendations of the Low Pay Commission on the level of adjustment to the minimum wage each year.

We will also strengthen the role of the Low Pay Commission to examine the gender pay gap and in-work poverty, and strengthen regulations on precarious work.

Working with the Department of Education, we are examining the barriers lone parents face when it comes to education. It is expected that we will have this work done before the Budget in order inform us of what improvements can be made.  And by the end of the year, we will publish an Action Plan for Jobless Families who will receive particular attention in the coming years. 

Recently, I announced details of the Government’s plans to pay two weeks of Paternity Benefit for working fathers. This payment of €230 a week will be paid by my Department over the two weeks of Paternity Leave which are being introduced by the Minister for Justice from this September. Research shows that children benefit most from parental care in the first year. 

We will extend parental leave further next year and will give couples the option of sharing the additional leave.

I am also keen to continue to expand school Breakfast Clubs which are part funded by my Department, and have visited some to see how they operate.  And, I also hope to increase the Back to School Clothing and Footwear Allowance over the course of the next few years, subject of course to budgets. 

Conclusion
The challenge facing us on child poverty is an enormous one.  But it is not insurmountable. Indeed, achieving it is an opportunity to restate our values as a country.   No one individual, no single organisation can hope to succeed in tackling this issue alone. Rather it requires a whole of society approach. I therefore look forward to working with you all as we strive together in achieving our shared goal of tackling child poverty and social exclusion.

The noted American feminist, Alice Moore Hubbard, died in 1915 off the coast of Ireland while travelling to Europe on the ‘Lusitania’.  Decades ahead of her time, she believed that ‘the world can only be redeemed through action - movement - motion’.  In this way, and this way only, ‘humanity will move toward the light’. 

We need action, movement, motion to minimise the problem of child poverty.  We need to recognise that if children really are the future we cannot continue to treat them with policies stuck in the past.   We need to turn our ideals into reality.   I don’t have all the answers, and maybe none of us do.  But we can bring together some incredible expertise on the subject, and many of the leading people are here today.   We can show that we have a determination and a will to tackle this problem.  And together we will find a way.  

Thank you.

ENDS

 

Last modified:24/06/2016