Tuesday, 26th February 2013
I welcome the Minister and thank her for keeping her promise to bring the report before the House. This is a welcome report as it provides us with a strong evidence base, thus allowing us to move from an anecdotal discussion to one based on evidence. I understand this debate will be the first in a series of discussions in the Seanad on this report. I note also that other Senators in my group, including Senator Zappone, would like to speak on the report.
We are all too aware of the serious impact that six successive budgets have had in reducing social welfare payments. These cuts have created a greater risk of poverty and deprivation and increased consistent poverty rates, especially child poverty. Time does not allow me to address in detail the issue of child poverty. My colleague, Senator Mooney, spoke about the European Union statistics on income and living conditions, the SILC figures, which show that between 2009 and 2011, consistent child poverty rates in Ireland increased from 8.7% to 9.3%, while child deprivation rates rose from 25% to 32%. The recent Children Rights Alliance report card gave the Government an “F” grade for child poverty, stating there had been “retrograde steps in targeting children and families.” For the second time in a row, the budget cut the back to school clothing and footwear allowance and four consecutive budgets have reduced child benefit.
All Members are concerned about child poverty and I do not claim any of us has ownership of the issue. However, when we speak of child benefit the focus is often on children’s early years, an area of which I am strongly supportive, whereas we also have figures to indicate what is known as inter-generational transmission. This means that when a child experiences poverty in the teenage years, the problem tends to persist into adulthood. We need to be cognisant, in addressing the issue of child and family income support, of the need to take account of the entire age spectrum of children.
The Mangan report examined six options, generally involving either taxation of child benefit or a two tier system. I welcome the Minister’s statement that she will examine outcomes for children and the use of tax credits, which is an issue the Seanad can debate at a later date.
We need to address the stigma associated with the family income supplement. We have all agreed that employment is good but we need to ensure we have a system that encourages people to enter the workplace, as appropriate.
I very much welcome the unanimous agreement on universality. There should be some form of universality in our approach.
I was very surprised to see Appendix 3, the pre-budget progress report that warned against making across the board cuts in November 2011. By way of clear warning, the group said that if the Government is to decide to reduce child benefit rates, any such reduction should ensure that there are sufficient resources available within the child income support budget for the future implementation of an integrated universal supplementary payment. It also states the consequences of an uncompensated reduction in the child benefit rate would be significant in terms of child poverty. We have seen that in the EU-SILC figures. We have not seen how the changes could have influenced child poverty in the past year and a half.
I really welcome what the Minister said today and I listened very carefully. I noted her focus on outcomes for children and her questioning of what we are about. While we can examine the original intention of the child benefit payment, the fundamental question we need to ask, before asking whether there should be taxation or means testing, concerns the function of child and family income supports. What does our policy require them to deliver? Is it to invest in and contribute towards healthy, well-educated and secure children, which in turn is an investment in healthy, well-educated and secure adults who are less likely to be dependent on social welfare? We have some really tough decisions to make but I believe child poverty can best be tackled by investment in services, not just investment in payments.
We need to ensure there are wrap-around services to ensure healthy and secure childhoods. There is no shortage of services requiring investment. Many colleagues will mention affordable and accessible quality childhood services. I refer to the second year of the early childhood education programme, after-school services, universal health care and schoolbooks campaigns, such as those advocated by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul or the youth work sector.
The Minister mentioned taking some of the savings and putting them into the Children Plus initiative. Only 11% of the savings from the budget went into the initiative, from which children benefited. Some 89% went to the general Exchequer, with no benefit for children. The European Commission’s recommendation of last week on child poverty and well-being, “Investing in children: breaking the cycle of disadvantage”, states the required strategy should be an integrated one based on a three pillar approach. The first is access to adequate resources, the second is access to affordable quality services, and the third is a child’s right to participate. These are the pillars we should be discussing when examining child and family income supports. We need to ensure we have the three pillar approach.
I acknowledge there are tough decisions to be made. Having listened to the Minister’s speech, my question is on the scope of our discussions. Are we looking purely within the remit of the Department of Social Protection? If so, we must get into means testing, taxing and examining tax credits. Can we really look at the outcomes for children, the delivery of services and redirecting, as the Minister stated? We need to ensure we do not take away the safety net. We need to ensure the required services are in place before any further reductions are made.