Early Intervention and Economic Benefits: Statements

Wednesday, 6th March 2013

As always the Minister is more than welcome to the House and we are delighted that she is here. Her statement and speech to us today are seminal. It should be circulated generally. She was very fair in trying to give us a summary of what she has said to us today and it lays a strong foundation for a new home for children. I cannot commend enough what the Minister has said. More people should read her statement. We often focus on only one part of a child’s life but it is important to consider the child’s journey. I thank the Minister for providing that vision and starting this discussion with a very strong foundation. Everybody supports prevention and early intervention but it is music to our ears to hear a Minister promoting these strategies and putting them first and foremost. All too often people only talk about these theories in seminars and symposia while in the House we talk about firefighting and dealing with crises and do not give prevention and early intervention the thought and deliberation that they need.

I welcome the area-based approach to the child poverty initiative but have a difficulty with the selection criteria for the three new sites and the additional four that will come on stream. How do we ensure that the selection process is transparent, that the programmes are rooted in evidence and best practice? Programmes may look good but how do we ensure that they provide the outcomes for children and the delivery that we all want ? I want to see more details.

Often when we talk about early intervention we refer only to early years. That is why I welcome the Minister’s speech because she has looked at the child’s journey, the key transition points, the flash points in a child’s life that are all too often missed. This is true of disability services, where life chances are affected at an early age if we do not intervene when the child is very young. Mental health problems tend to become more apparent in early adolescence. The Minister mentioned the Heckmann curve. In 2010 Cunha and Heckmann wrote a working paper on investment in our young people. Their research showed that the effect of early intervention in the lives of disadvantaged children is reduced if it is not followed up by investment at later stages. We all talk about the importance of investment and what we reap from investing in early years but if we do not provide that continuum of support the investment is lost.

I welcome the Minister’s focus on how to provide services and the suggestion that we might take a step back and ask what is the purpose of child benefit and how do we ensure that it delivers the outcomes it should and that people want. The Minister mentioned the advisory report on which we had a good brief debate in the House with the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Joan Burton, which we will continue. We were glad that she came in so soon after the report was published. There are different ways in which we can provide services and support to children. Should we consider the affordable, accessible and quality child care, or extending the scheme to a second year, or after-school care which is ad hoc and does not have a defined structure. Should we consider universal primary health care for all children or school book schemes?

The Minister mentioned the development in data which is very welcome. I welcome her approach to ensuring that we have an evidence base for moving forward and that we understand why we are doing something. Very often when I hear economists talk about demographics I shout at the radio “That is birth rate”. We have an increasing birth rate but economists do not want to talk about that. Too often children are forgotten in these issues.

The Minister mentioned Eurofound, the foundation based in Loughlinstown for the improvement of living and working conditions. I recently visited the foundation. It is doing some really interesting research on how parenting supports can best be delivered to children. Ireland has the fourth highest rate in the EU of young people who are not in education, employment or training, the NEET category. We do not want to be so high up on that list. Schoolteachers and youth workers can point to those young people much earlier in the cycle. That is where we should intervene. Eurofound did research on the loss to the economy that jobseekers represent. It calculated that they cost Ireland in the region of 2% of GDP which indicates that the cost of youth unemployment is €3.16 billion. Those are the figures but it has been proved that if a young person lives in poverty he or she is likely to continue to be unemployed. The pathway is laid. It is important to intervene early and help to change those young people’s lives. I welcome the fact that the Minister has asked the youth work sector to investigate how we could intervene and best ensure that we do so. We need to find the tipping point at which the young person ends up unemployed rather than going into education, training or employment and see how we can support those young people.

I know that next week the Minister is hosting the EU Youth Conference on social inclusion. It is significant that Ireland has chosen to host that conference under its Presidency and I was delighted to see that the Minister is doing so in co-operation with the European Commission, the European Youth Forum and the National Youth Council of Ireland. The European Youth Forum was born during the fifth Irish Presidency. It held its inaugural meeting in Cork on 6 July 1996. I was there. I am a co-founder of the forum. I was a secretary general of one the three youth platforms. We came together to merge into one. Two of the three secretaries general were Irish. That is why I am so delighted to see them coming back to Dublin.

I welcome the development of the child and family support agency and look forward to seeing the Bill. I have made public my opinion of it to ensure that we debate this. The new agency will have a budget of approximately €545 million for 2013 and at hearings held by the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health and Children last week we heard that approximately €100 million will go to NGOs and services. When my opinion of the new agency was published in The Irish Times I was surprised by the number of organisations which contacted me because they are afraid to speak publicly about this fearing that their funding will be cut. There is a chilling effect. We need to create an environment in which people can make constructive proposals to ensure that the agency works. I know that the Minister does not intend this chilling effect but I was surprised by the number and types of organisations that came to me about this matter.

I thank the Minister. The statement she made to us today should be circulated to all Deputies and Senators.

Social Welfare Bill 2011 – Committee Stage and Remaining Stages

15th December 2011

I thank Senator Mooney. I am of the view that the Minister’s presence in the Chamber may be influencing the true gentleman’s approach.

This is one of the two sections to which Senator Zappone and I are opposed. As an Independent Senator, it is difficult to deal with the Social Welfare Bill because one’s heart must be ruled by one’s head. I want to oppose all cuts but I feel I must highlight those relating to child benefit and the lone-parent allowance above the others that are being made. I welcome the Government’s decision not to reduce the basic rate of child benefit of €140 for first and second children. I am, however, greatly concerned regarding the decision to cut the rates for third and subsequent children. I am also concerned about the decision to discontinue the once-off grants relating to multiple births.

My objections in respect of this matter are twofold. First, I am concerned that what is proposed will increase the exposure of larger families to poverty. The loss of €19 per month for a third child and €17 per month for the fourth and subsequent children equates to a total loss of €432 per year for a family with four children. On the face of it, this figure might not appear overly disturbing. However, it represents a loss of financial support for larger families. The effect the cut in child benefit will have on the 23% of families in Ireland with three or more children cannot be viewed in isolation. It must, therefore, be considered in conjunction with the cumulative impact of the raft of other cuts made across budget 2012 that have specifically affected families and, more particularly, already vulnerable families on low incomes that are reliant on social welfare. In this regard I refer to the cut to the one-parent family payment and the fuel allowance and the increase in health and education costs.

Recent CSO statistics indicate that among those whose consistent poverty rate rose from 6.3% in 2009 to 9.6% in 2010 were families with three or more children. These statistics also attest to a widening gap between the haves and the have nots in Irish society. I wish to provide some examples in this regard. In addition to the €432 families comprising two parents and four children will incur as a result of the cut to child benefit, those eligible for the back to school clothing and footwear allowance will lose a further €310. This will lead to a total loss of €472 per year. If these families live in rural areas, they will lose €1,612 per year as a result of the cuts to which I refer and the increases in respect of school transport. A family consisting of a lone parent and two children will lose €537 per year as a result of cuts to the back to school clothing and footwear allowance, the fuel allowance and the increase in the minimum contribution towards rent supplement. As already stated, the cut to child benefit cannot be viewed in isolation.

The State is constitutionally obliged to protect the unit of society that is the family. However, there is genuine and growing concern among the organisations which deal with struggling families that these new cuts will push many over the edge into deprivation, poverty and despair and will further compound the misery for those who have already crossed that threshold. Children are the most vulnerable members of any family unit and any hardship visited upon that unit is most acutely felt by them.

On Second Stage the Minister compared the rate of child benefit in this country to that which is paid in Northern Ireland. I remind her that while the rate of payment in the latter jurisdiction is lower, in order to compensate for this the system which obtains there provides a raft of other child-related benefits for those who qualify. I refer to free school meals and transport, a preferential maternity allowance, a national health services allowance, access to the start strong health scheme and the sure start maternity grant. I could also provide examples from France and Sweden — I do not want to take up the House’s time in doing so — in order to show how other jurisdictions offer additional child-related benefits which compensate for lower baseline rates of payment. When making comparisons, we must ensure that we take all aspects into consideration.

The second matter to which I wish to refer is the importance of supporting and encouraging a high birth rate in Ireland. The decision in respect of the once-off payments for multiple births displays a lack of strategic thinking. This is the very time when we need to think outside the box. We need to encourage and support a healthy birth rate in Ireland because this will, in turn, support and sustain economic growth. Ireland is in the enviable position of having the highest birth rate in Europe. In July of this year, it stood at 16.5%. The next highest ranking country is the UK, with a rate of 13%. However, Europe as a whole has an increasingly ageing population. The Oxford Institute for Ageing estimates that within 20 years, Europe’s largest population cohort will comprise those over 65 and that the average age will be 50. An ageing population has significant implications for the labour force, the health service, the education and welfare systems and also in the context of technology and development.

I am of the view that child benefit payments reflect the values of our society. It universally demonstrates that children are cherished and that the Irish public wants to support their well-being. I am not stating that we should provide support through benefit payments. I would be happy if we were to support families through the provision of services. At present, however, we do not provide support in this way. As a result, removing the payment is not acceptable.

There is a collective responsibility in respect of this matter. In an economic context, children are what might be termed “merit good”. In other words, they have value to others beyond their families. As future taxpayers and workers, their contributions will assist in the payment of State pensions. Mr. Frank Field, a British MP, is credited with saying “I may not have children but I need someone to have them if my pension is going to be paid”. The State must send out a signal to the effect that it supports and encourages childbirth. The children of today are essential to our future economic recovery. I, therefore, urge my colleagues to oppose section 8. Cutting child benefit and discontinuing once-off grants in the case of infrequent multiple births is not the way forward.

The Lancet

In July 2021, Jillian co-authored an article in the world-renowned medical journal “The Lancet”