Issue 2 - April 2010

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European social inclusion – Ireland pledges support for EU2020 Strategy

European targets to reduce poverty and social exclusion were the focus of a lively debate.  First, Martin Ferris (SF, Kerry N) asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs about the government’s attitudes to EU targets against poverty in the EU2020 Strategy (Dail Eireann, Debates, 30th March 2010, 835-7).  The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Micheal Martin, confirmed that the EU2020 Strategy included commitments to reduce the share of early school leavers to under 10%, that at least 40% of school goers obtain a third level degree and that the number of people in poverty be reduced by 20m, accompanied by a dedicated initiative for a European Platform against Poverty.  Ireland fully supported the core elements of the new strategy and was very satisfied with the thrust of these headline targets, including social inclusion and poverty.  In the case of the education and social inclusion targets, further work needed to be done to reach ‘numerical rates and appropriate indicators’.  The European Council would return to these at its June meeting.  Earlier, in January, the government had made a submission to the European Commission during its consultation process on the EU2020 Strategy.

During questions to the Taoiseach on 31st March, Caoimhghin O Caolain (SF, Cavan Monaghan) asked about the government response to Social Justice Ireland’s criticism of the Council’s failure to actually agree the targets set down in the strategy (Dail Eireann, Debates, 31st March 2010, 11-17).  The Council seemed to be abandoning the most vulnerable people in Europe.  The strategy’s modest targets were overturned and rejected by the heads of government in favour of what Social Justice Ireland called meaningless aspirations.  Did the Taoiseach agree with the European Anti Poverty Network that this sent a remarkably negative message about our commitments.  84m people lived in poverty in the Union, so how did the Taoiseach explain his failure to act against these sorry statistics?  Did he agree that a broad response was required, a poverty reduction strategy with binding periodic targets enforced by the Union with the same vigour as its economic goals?

The Taoiseach told him that there were different views on how to measure poverty fairly.  It had been agreed at the Council that we would come back to the target, as well as education, at the June meeting.  It would be the subject of intense work in the meantime and the European Council would sign off on the strategy at its meeting in June.  He did not accept that the EU was unmindful of the need for social cohesion and as part of the fundamental objectives of the union was a cohesion policy to provide for a socially inclusive society.

The EU2020 Strategy had been devised to learn from the Lisbon strategy, where there were many targets, score sheets and criteria, ‘which unfortunately became a box-ticking exercise in some respects rather than looking for a better outcome with fewer targets’.  The President of the Commission outlined five targets with flagship initiatives cutting rights across social and economic policy to help achieve those targets.  ‘It would not be a question of setting targets, letting matters flow along and hoping that one reached them.  It is an integrated strategy that is trying to minimize the number of targets, five’.  There was a need to look more at the initial indicators set out in the draft.  ‘We felt further work should be done on it.  They have agreed that further work will be done so that we can try to ensure the poverty reduction target can be met’.  Far from being dismissive of the social objectives, the fact that more work needed to be done was an indication of the need to have a robust and rigorous analysis.

Caoimhghin O Caolain told the Dail that there was nothing in his response which told us that the Taoiseach had used the opportunity at the Council to press for a robust anti-poverty strategy.  ‘Ireland is not playing the part that it can and should’.  He feared that he was leaving it to the big wigs to make all the decisions.  Ireland has not played the part on the European stage to put robust targets in place and he had no confidence that the Taoiseach was going there with clear purpose and intent to argue the position cogently and forcefully.  These were not good days’ work for people suffering at the margins of society.  It would need leadership from countries such as ours.  Would the Taoiseach agree that that we should be to the fore in demanding the most stringent targets over a 10-year plan with reviews at periodic points along the way to ensure targets were being met?  Could he give us any hope that he will approach the subject with robustness and determination?  Joe Costello (Lab, Dublin C) added that the target of 25% poverty reduction was the subject of non-governmental organizations throughout Europe exercising a citizen’s initiative: they were collecting 1m signatures to put it on the agenda of the Commission.

The Taoiseach explained to him that the issue was raised by our delegation and others.  This was a work in progress and there was not a dismissive attitude being taken for this target more than the others.  ‘We have our own national anti-poverty strategy.  The basis upon which these European Union strategies can work is that we need to reflect them as well as in national strategies’.  He concluded by saying that the strategy must outline the orientation, priorities and general direction in which we can take Europe forward.

  • See also Dail Eireann, Debates, 23rd March 2010, 88.

> Asked about persistent poverty by Aengus O Snodaigh (SF, Dublin SC), the outgoing Minister of State at the Department of the Taoiseach Pat Carey told him that ‘persistent’ poverty meant being at risk of poverty for at least two years in three and by definition could be calculated only over four-year periods (Dail Eireann, Debates, 23rd March 2010, 87).  The Survey on Income and Living Conditions (SILC) used a rotational sample design whereby a quarter of households was replaced each year, but a small proportion remained in the sample for four years.  It was the view of the Central Statistics Office (CSO) that granted the small number of households, a reliable estimate of persistent poverty could not be calculated, but the CSO was continuing to study the problem with a view to producing a reliable estimate.