Dáil debates

Thursday, 14 April 2011

4:00 pm

Photo of Charlie McConalogueCharlie McConalogue (Donegal North East, Fianna Fail)
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Question 7: To ask the Minister for Community; Equality and Gaeltacht Affairs the way she will eliminate poverty and meet targets set in the National Action Plan for Social Inclusion following a commitment made in the Programme for Government. [7988/11]

Photo of Frances FitzgeraldFrances Fitzgerald (Minister, Department of Children; Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
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Elimination of poverty is an objective of Government. We are committed to achieving the targets in the national action plan for social inclusion to reduce the number of people experiencing poverty. That target is to reduce the number of those experiencing consistent poverty to between 2% and 4% by 2012, with the aim of eliminating consistent poverty by 2016. The target is reiterated in the draft national reform programme submitted to the EU Commission in December 2010, which sets out Ireland’s commitments to achieving the poverty target in the Europe 2020 strategy.

The challenge to meet the national poverty target in the present economic situation is considerable, as indicated by the rise in the consistent poverty rate from 4.2% in 2008 to 5.5% in 2009. The overriding objective now is to increase employment, build real and sustainable economic growth and to protect those who are most vulnerable in society.

The Government programme sets out the framework to achieve these aims. Employment opportunities will be increased through labour market activation, skills training and education measures. The Government is committed to ensuring that the social protection system remains an important stabiliser for people against the impact of the economic and fiscal downturn. Research across Europe shows that Ireland’s system of social protection is one of the best at protecting against poverty. Measures to identify poverty traps and to support people in moving from welfare to work and to counter welfare fraud are key commitments in the Government’s plan.

As Minister with responsibility for children and youth affairs, child poverty is a priority concern for me. Poverty affects people differently across their life cycle and children in certain circumstances are particularly vulnerable. The Government’s decision that the Family Support Agency will come under my remit will provide new opportunities to improve services for children and families and to secure improved outcomes for the most vulnerable children. This will be an important consideration in the context of the plans for the new children and families support services agency.

Photo of Michael KittMichael Kitt (Galway East, Fianna Fail)
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Gabhaim comhghairdeas leis an Aire. The Minister talks about the targets in the national action plan for social inclusion for 2012 to 2016, but is she aware of the serious debt in Irish households as shown by a recent study commissioned by the Department into the issue of social exclusion and serious debt? What poverty prevention measures can be taken by the Department to reduce this over-indebtedness?

Photo of Frances FitzgeraldFrances Fitzgerald (Minister, Department of Children; Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
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This is an extremely serious issue that brings huge pressure on many families. Many families face serious debt. The best way of protecting these families and the best way out of poverty is to create employment. Employment is the great protector. I point the Deputy towards the priority the programme for Government gives to providing access to employment, training and upskilling. Providing child care services will form part of this. Certainly the jobs initiative which the Taoiseach yesterday and the Tánaiste today said would be introduced in the House in May will be a key factor in tackling the issue of poverty and helping families facing debt. We also need initiatives from other agencies, including the banks and local support services. Earlier I replied to a question on the availability of community supports. The Government’s commitment to building such supports and services will be very important in terms of the work it can do with families experiencing particular problems with debt.

Photo of Seán BarrettSeán Barrett (Ceann Comhairle; Dún Laoghaire, Ceann Comhairle)
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I remind Deputies that we have one minute remaining for supplementary questions and that we have one minute and 15 seconds left for this question.

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Donegal South West, Sinn Fein)
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Déanaim comhghairdeas leis an Aire. I am glad to see someone coming here from the Seanad and going straight into the Cabinet. Obviously, some people who are working are also living in poverty. We all share the views of the Government that we should stop people living in poverty through the creation of meaningful and well paid full-time jobs. However, there is another element in that cuts also hurt. How many currently categorised as living in poverty have been brought into the tax net as a result of the introduction of the universal social charge, a charge of which the Government voted in favour in the House just over 14 days ago?

Photo of Mick WallaceMick Wallace (Wexford, Independent)
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I agree that tackling poverty is a major issue and a difficult one to address. I ask the Minister to appeal to the Minister for Education and Skills to reconsider reversing the cuts in the numbers of resource and learning support teachers which will impact greatly on the less well-off in our society.

Photo of Simon HarrisSimon Harris (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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The Minister rightly said getting people back to work was the best way to tackle poverty. Will she discuss with her Government colleagues the problems being experienced by my constituents and many others in coming off the dole to engage in short periods of work and who then experience inordinate delays in receiving social welfare payments when they have to go back on the dole? This is a major problem.

Photo of Frances FitzgeraldFrances Fitzgerald (Minister, Department of Children; Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
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I do not have the detailed figures Deputy Pearse Doherty requested. I will see if they are available and ensure he gains access to them. One of the priorities set in the programme for Government is to examine the interaction between the social welfare and taxation codes and make recommendations to ensure work is worthwhile. In particular, the commission will examine family and child income supports and means by which the self-employed can be insured against unemployment and sickness. I am sure many Deputies will have come across cases where this is a major issue and it is one that needs to be addressed. The Government intends to examine it through the commission on taxation and social welfare which will be set up.

Deputy Mick Wallace asked about resource teachers and SNAs, another critical issue. While there has been a significant increase in the numbers of resource teachers and SNAs, it is very much linked with the question of supports for families where children need assessment for various therapies. We need to examine a child’s needs in terms of what is available in schools and also in terms of what therapies are available in the health service. Many parents in desperation ask for resource teachers or SNAs when some of the therapies that should be available to them are not available. There is an interaction between these two issues.