Child poverty

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Need to address poverty

Several members demanded more action on poverty.  In the Dail, Barry Cowen (FF, Laois Offaly) drew attention to the pre-budget submission of the Society of St Vincent de Paul which spoke of how Ireland faced into a serious social crisis, with palpable worry and uncertainty among people on social welfare and child benefit rates (Dail Eireann, Debates, 2nd November 2011, 312-331; 3rd November 2011, 548-570).  The proposed flat-rate annual household charge would push them further into debt and poverty and they had no more to give.  According to Barry Cowen, ‘despite soft hints from certain quarters and the accusations of unfortunate recipients having made lifestyle choices, Ireland does not spend a disproportionately high amount of social welfare given its unemployment numbers’.  


John Browne (FF, Wexford) stressed that people on social welfare not be labelled criminals.  Much of this talk led people to believe that only people engaged in fraud were social welfare recipients.  In his view, the percentage of fraud was miniscule.  While it was right to stamp it out, we must ensure we did not go overboard.  He spoke of how huge numbers of people on disability allowance and invalidity pension were having their allowances withdrawn.  They were seriously ill people.  He and his colleagues had all been visited by disabled people and people with serious problems whose allowances were being withdrawn, causing consternation and severe hardship.  Many of them appealed their decisions and generally, nine to twelve months later, the appeals officer restored the allowance.


Responding to the comments, the Minister for Social Protection, Joan Burton, spoke of how the social welfare system had to be put on a more sustainable basis.  The level of spending was completely out of sync with the funding base of the state.  Our welfare system followed a largely passive approach, allowing people to receive benefits indefinitely, with only limited sanctions for those who refused work or training offers and there were very few offers of work, training, or back to education or work experience.  Over the past decade, the OECD countries had successfully introduced such policies, but there had been hardly any such movement here.


The troika, she said, was asking hard questions about how we could preserve such benefits considerably in excess of what was provided to the citizens who were now funding us.  Strong systems of social protection were at the heart of some of the world’s most successful and dynamic economies, such as Denmark, Sweden, Finland, and the Netherlands.  These countries viewed social security as a social contract between the state and citizen, with duties and obligations.  They required the recipients of state assistance to do something in return, whereas we rarely do.  The key element in our transformation fro  a passive system to a more pro-active model would be the new National Employment and Entitlements Service, which would merge FAS, employment services, CommunityEmployment and community welfare into the Department of Social Protection as an integrated one-stop-shop service.  


For Aengus O Snodaigh (SF, Dublin SC), the cuts introduced by the last government had a depressing effect on local economies, leading to job losses and shops closing.  The new government had a similar approach, with one of the most serious cuts to date, the household benefits package and fuel allowance.  Already, there were between 1,500 and 2,00 avoidable deaths each winter due to cold and these cuts would increase this figure.    Eamonn Timmins of Age Action had described this as a life and death issue for older people struggling to heat their homes.  A survey it had done found that almost a quarter of older people stated that their homes were already too cold and 51% went without clothing or food to pay fuel bills.  Anyone who had canvassed in the recent presidential election had come across homes where lights were not switched on and where the interior was almost as cold as outside.  People did not choose to live in such conditions but they could not afford to switch on lighting or heating.  At the same time, ESB and Bord Gais were increasing prices by 20% to 25%.  He attacked the minister for demonizing people by describing unemployment as a lifestyle choice.  This was pursuing people who were easy targets and while he supported measures to address fraud and human error, he would not accept such demonization.  Contrary to what had been said, jobs were not available and retraining and educational opportunities were limited for those living a soul-destroying life on the dole.


Michael Healy Rae (ind, Kerry S) attacked the cuts on social welfare for their effects on the poor and their deflationary effect on the economy, with the least well off paying for the sins of the speculators.  Those with personal wealth found it very hard to understand  why people would go cold this winter and why it was such a horrible decision to cut back on the fuel allowance.  Seamus Healy (ULA, South Tipperary) said that he supported the Age Action Ireland call for a reversal of these cuts, which would  cause hardship and death.  During 2006-7, there were 1,281 excess winter deaths, of whom 1,216 were over 65.  People were dying because they could not afford to heat their homes to a safe level.  At the same time, the government paid over €770m to the speculators of Anglo Irish Bank.


Maureen O’Sullivan (ind, Dublin C) spoke of the need to eradicate fraud, which was estimated at between 2.4% and 4.4% of total spending, or €0.05bn, which could go a long way to increasing payments for those in need and perhaps even bring back the Christmas bonus.    Most funding was lost through error rather than fraud, almost 70%.  Austerity measures would not bring about growth.  If inflation rose 1.5% in the coming year, welfare rates must be adjusted accordingly.  She supported Social Justice Ireland’s view that the impact of budgetary measures must be limited to those who could least afford them.  


Sean O Feargaill (FF, Kildare S) spoke of the substantial increases in social welfare by Fianna Fail, from €6.7bn in 2000 to €20.9bn in 2010, a genuine commitment to those in need.  In spite of the pension, 10% of older people lived below the poverty line and without it 88% would be in absolute poverty.  He was shocked by University of Ulster research on excess winter deaths, which could even be underestimated by 25%.   The consistent child poverty rate had now been reversed, from 11% in 2005 to 19% now.  We must now consider the scale of child poverty and, ‘as each of us sees in our constituency clinics, one-parent households are particularly at risk’. 


Meantime, in the Seanad, Susan O’Keeffe (Lab, agricultural) asked if a way could be found to respond to the increase in numbers sleeping rough in Dublin (Seanad Eireann, 22nd November 2011, 565).  This problem was especially acute in Dublin, where numbers sleeping rough had risen from 60 in 2009 to 87 this November, but also in Cork, Galway and Limerick.  The authorities must ensure that people should not be on the streets when the weather turned colder.  This problem occurred every year at this time but there was a shortage of beds to cover the increased numbers.


Asked about child poverty and the UNICEF report The child left behind by Joan Collins (PBP, Dublin SC), the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Frances Fitzgerald told the Dail that tackling child poverty was a priority for government  and her department was represented on the advisory group on tax and welfare in the Department of Social Protection (Dail Eireann, Debates, 3rd November 2011, 628).  The minister said that although there was a great deal of bad news, The child left behind awarded Ireland better than the OECD average, but she took the point about child poverty.  Children were especially vulnerable to poverty when there was unemployment in the household, making them three times more likely to experience consistent poverty, which was why we must focus on job creation.

> Child poverty: Dail Eireann, Debates, 8th November 2011, 886.

> Table of spending and numbers on child benefit, 2000-2011: Dail Eireann, Debates, 15th November 2011, 666-7.