Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Tuesday, 12 March 2013
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Health and Children
Tackling Childhood Poverty: Discussion
At the first session of Thursday's meeting, at 9.30 a.m., we will consider the agenda and minutes from the preceding meeting, in addition to correspondence and the work programme. There will be two parts to the meeting.
That is okay. I thank the members for attending at 5 p.m. this afternoon. I acknowledge it is an awful time for them.
We are present to address the tackling of childhood poverty. I thank the Vice Chairman, Deputy Ciara Conway, for requesting that we include this very important topic in our work programme, and also for agreeing to act as rapporteur on the topic. Ultimately, she will present a report to the committee for its consideration.
I welcome Mr. Toby Wolfe and Ms Naomi Feely from Start Strong, Ms June Tinsley and Ms Suzanne Connolly from Barnardos and Mr. Stuart Duffin from One Family. I thank them for taking the time to attend and for their very interesting submissions.
Witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to this committee. If they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence in respect of a particular matter and they continue to so do, they will be entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise nor make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice, or long-standing ruling of the Chair, to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
I invite Mr. Toby Wolfe, acting director of Start Strong, to make his opening statement.
Mr. Toby Wolfe:
Start Strong very much welcomes the opportunity to speak to members on child poverty. Start Strong is a coalition of organisations and individuals seeking to advance children's early care and education in Ireland. It is a member of the End Child Poverty Coalition and of the Prevention & Early Intervention Network. My remarks will fall into two parts. First, I will make a few points on the role of early care and education in combating child poverty. Second, I will say a little specifically on area-based approaches to child poverty, particularly in regard to early childhood services.
On early care and education in combating child poverty, the negative impact of poverty on child outcomes is well known. It is particularly notable in early childhood. Research in the United Kingdom has found that, by the age of five, children from the poorest fifth of homes are already nearly a year behind children from middle-income households in terms of developmental outcomes. Early childhood care and education can play an important role in combating child poverty, in two ways. First, when of sufficient quality, early care and education has a long-term beneficial effect on children's development and on outcomes in adulthood, especially for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. This helps to break the intergenerational cycle of child poverty.
When early care and education is affordable and accessible, it enables parents to access employment, education and training, thus reducing child poverty in the short term. It is very significant that countries with the lowest child poverty rates, particularly the Scandinavian countries, have early care and education systems that are regularly rated the best in the world.
To realise the benefits of early care and education, the following elements must feature: high quality services, affordable services, accessible services which ensure children from minority groups such as Travellers are fully included in daily practice, and joined-up services, with early care and education services connected with local health services, early intervention services, primary schools and so on.
While early care and education are necessary if one is to combat child poverty, I must stress they are not a silver bullet. The End Child Poverty Coalition has rightly argued that eliminating child poverty needs multifaceted, joined-up solutions that include both income supports and high quality public services, including health care services, education services, housing policy, parenting and family supports, labour market activation policies and so on. Given the interconnection between these different policy areas that impact on young children, it is essential to co-ordinate policymaking at a national level and to co-ordinate the delivery of services and supports at local level.
At national level the co-ordination of services requires the development of national strategies on early childhood and child poverty that draw together different policy objectives and planning across different policy areas and different Departments. Joined-up national policymaking is critical as without the co-ordination of policies at national level, integration of services at a local level can only take us so far. The forthcoming national early years strategy will be a crucial opportunity. It offers real potential for enhancing joined-up policymaking, provided it is able to bring together a wide range of policy areas and has robust implementation and monitoring mechanisms. In terms of local level joining up of services and supports, in our Children 2020 report a couple of years ago, Start Strong proposed the development of early childhood hubs that would link together supports for children's early care, learning, health and development and would link together services outside the home with supports for families in the home.
There are many different models of hubs or integrated services at local level that are possible and I am not going to advocate any one model. I will make a number of general remarks. One type of model of integrated local service is at a very local level, the type of community centre with early care and education services at its core and other services radiating out from it, rather like the Sure Start model in the UK in which they talk about services being at pram pushing distance to facilitate access. Another model of integrated services at a planning level, at county or sub-county level, involves co-ordinating referral pathways and information on services and so on. Different types of model may be appropriate in different areas and perhaps simultaneously. In a rural area, the pram pushing distance will be hard to achieve and one will be talking about a different type of integration of services. I have listed in my submission a range of services that members might be interested in bringing together in terms of early childhood, which include public health nurses, early care and education services, primary schools, after-school services as well as specialist supports such as speech and language therapists and so on.
At county level, the children services committees have been established on a pilot basis as a mechanism to promote the local co-ordination of services and supports for children and families, and it is Government policy to roll them out more widely. At a local service level, there are a number of examples we can learn from in Ireland today. The three sites that form part of the prevention and early intervention programme, Young Ballymun, Tallaght West and Preparing for Life in Dublin 17, all involve a range of linked services and supports for children and families, all three have been rigorously evaluated and lots of learning will come from them in the next year or two.
There are other examples from which we can learn. There are a range of joined-up initiatives being funded through the national early years access initiative, all of which involve multi-agency collaboration. There are also family resource centres operating in disadvantaged communities that provide a range of connected services and supports. There is valuable learning to be had from all of those that can inform the area-based approach initiative to tackling child poverty for which the Government announced funding in the last budget.
It is essential not only the Government develops the county level planning structures further, such as we see in the children's services committees, but also that this area-based approach to child poverty initiative is used at local level to enhance the local integration of services for all children everywhere in the country. There is learning that can come out of this initiative that could inform mainstream services. We must ensure it does so. Most disadvantaged children do not live in disadvantaged areas, so the area-based approach initiative to child poverty, if it is to have a major impact on child poverty, must be treated as a pilot with the aim of drawing out learning to inform mainstream service delivery.
Ms June Tinsley:
Barnardos welcomes the opportunity to make a presentation to the joint committee. I am here with my colleague, Suzanne Connolly, who will follow me in a few moments.
Members may be aware that Barnardos provides services to children and families in more than 40 projects across Ireland. We work in some of the most disadvantaged areas of the county and we are greatly concerned about the ongoing impact that living in poverty is having on the lives of children with whom we work. Like Start Strong, Barnardos is also a member of the End Child Poverty Coalition. The most recent statistics from the EU statistics on income and living conditions, SILC, published in recent months, show that in 2011, 9.3% of children continued to live in consistent poverty. That is an increase from 8.8% in 2010 and equates to more than 106,000 children. For children, living in poverty means living on poorer diets, missing some developmental milestones, suffering from more ill health, struggling in school and increasing isolation because they are unable to participate in many activities such as going to friends' parties, swimming or basic childhood activities. For Barnardos services, we are seeing more children coming into our services hungry and more parents struggling to meet daily costs such as food, heating and housing. We see parents under immense stress trying to cope with welfare cuts, unemployment as well as issues such as domestic violence and addiction. This is having an impact on their parenting ability.
The decisions in the past budgets to make cuts to services and social welfare will only achieve short-term savings as they are realistically jeopardising children's futures. Given how entrenched child poverty can be across generations and areas, Barnardos believes that combating child poverty can only be achieved through a combination of child income supports and access to quality public services. To date, as the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald aptly said in the Seanad last week, we have a legacy of providing cash payments instead of investing in services. This has resulted in the continued existence of poverty traps whereby a family becomes worse off when taking up low-paid employment. We would agree that a shift towards comprehensive services is more effective in combating child poverty, allowing parents to take up low-paid jobs and enabling and supporting children to stay in education for longer. Such services would need to include a mix of universal and targeted services such as early years education, as Mr. Wolfe outlined, access to timely, free and quality health care, and regeneration projects for specific areas of disadvantage. Some efforts are being made to move along in this direction, such as the investment of €2.5 million announced in the budget in 2013 for area based poverty projects.
Barnardos believes that investment in quality, universal and targeted services should not be at the expense of further reductions in social welfare payments, as these families are already at breaking point in their ability to provide for children. Traditionally, services for children have been developed in an ad hoc and fragmented manner, often reacting to specific circumstances or problems. Interestingly, services designed to tackle child poverty and disadvantage have been approached as separate initiatives to those designed to address child welfare and protection concerns, despite many of the same families availing of both. Also, resources have been allocated along historic geographic areas rather than on population need. This fragmented evolution of services continues to fail to tackle the underlying causes of child poverty and has hindered the prevention and early intervention models of service provision that have been proven to make an enormous difference in children's lives, both in the short and long term, and to break that intergenerational cycle of poverty. Local area-based approaches can be successful.
This is proven by work undertaken by Young Ballymun and Barnados' own initiatives such as Tús Maith, which works with children aged from three to five in promoting school readiness and social and emotional competence, or our teen parenting support programme, which Ms Connolly will outline shortly. The benefit of locally developed initiatives such as these is that they are sector led and have co-operation with key agencies. It is crucial these local initiatives feed into the national framework, which is why Barnados welcomes the establishment of the child and family support agency.
This is an opportunity to mainstream learning and the success of local initiatives to combat child poverty on a broader systemic level by changing the way we deliver services. It is crucial that any reform begins with it an understanding of child welfare in its broadest sense to allow for a national framework that encompasses a range of interventions that moves across a continuum of care, from prevention and early intervention to targeted support and protection services, including youth, justice and State care.
It is reassuring to hear from the Minister that prevention and early intervention in family support are important goals for the new agency. Through our experience, Barnados knows that the cycle of intergenerational poverty can be broken through preventative interventions such as targeted family support and supports to keep children in school. At an individual level it means greater educational attainment, better employment prospects and improved health outcomes. At a societal level, the benefits yield greater savings because there is less reliance on social welfare, fewer early school leavers, long-term health and reduced criminal activity.
The child and family support agency will establish the much-needed national framework for consistent, cohesive and accountable child and family services. One of the key challenges will be to get the right balance between universal and targeted services, as services must be able to meet the needs of the child and family across the age spectrum and their different levels of need.
Universal services have an important role to play in reducing stigma and addressing equality issues that sometimes create two-tier systems while addressing challenges facing children on low incomes. To be effective in combating child poverty and welfare and protection concerns, child and family services must be child centred, designed to meet the needs of children and their families, and be evidence based. They need to be flexible in their delivery and form a co-ordinated response across interdisciplinary, statutory and NGO agencies, all working together.
We believe that experiencing poverty and deprivation at an early age can scar a child's life both in childhood and into adulthood. Our response to date has been largely piecemeal and ineffectual. As the recession continues to take hold, a shift is required towards greater co-ordinated and comprehensive services for children and families under a national framework, combined with maintaining child income supports. In addition, we must move away from reform as simply a cost-saving measure towards reform which does its best for children and families.
I will now pass over to Ms Connolly for her comments.
Ms Suzanne Connolly:
I will give a few examples of services which we think are crucial in the context of tackling child poverty. First, I want to talk about the teen parenting project, a national project for which Barnados runs some services. I will give an example of where this is working very effectively. The aim of one of the programmes we run is to ensure young mothers who become pregnant remain in school. The idea is that if they remain in school, not only are they good role models for their own children but also it is hoped they will also be able to gain employment and their children will have more opportunities. A good example concerns one of the teen mothers who went through our service successfully and went on to train to be a teacher herself. She came back to give grinds to other young mothers going through the service. That is a really effective system which is working both for children and their parents.
Another example is our Tús Maith programme, which is a comprehensive early years programme. It views children in terms of their holistic needs. Children who come from very disadvantaged backgrounds often live in poverty of expectation as much as poverty of income. With the opportunity to have an intensive high quality service, it can enable them to learn and develop, as well as increasing their expectations of themselves in small ways. Those crucial years from birth to five can often set children up for life. From feedback from schools, we realise that children who have been through that intensive programme are better able to settle in school and benefit from it.
It is also important to work alongside vulnerable parents throughout a child's life. Some parents will need support throughout their child's life to encourage them to remain in school and to have high expectations for them. This is particularly the case for vulnerable parents who are dealing with alcohol and drug addiction and mental health issues. It is crucial they get the required support.
In some cases, parents are unable or unwilling to make the necessary changes. In those situations we would target much of our work towards the children or young people themselves. That is where other services come in through local initiatives - perhaps through sport or a really good teacher - which can give them a sense of themselves. A range of measures is required to impact on the lives of children and young people.
Mr. Stuart Duffin:
I thank the joint committee for this opportunity to present our views. I apologise for the tome I sent concerning my catch-all, area-based poverty strategy for Ireland. We took the decision to write something as comprehensive as that because of my previous experience of working on a poverty strategy within the Scottish Parliament and also due to our recent work with Ms Barbara Matera, MEP in the European Parliament on lone parents across Europe.
One Family is Ireland's national organisation for lone parents, including those who are in transition either to one or two-parent families. Fundamentally, One Family believes that an area-based approach is crucial, but such an approach needs to be outcome focused. It is only through such an approach that we will begin to reduce child poverty.
Any welfare system should provide security of income, support transition to employment and allow those who cannot afford to work to live in dignity. In doing that we provide a range of welfare to work services across Ireland. These welfare to work services are targeted at lone parents to give them the emotional lift to make the positional shift either into work or education. One of the tenets of our approach to area-based poverty is that employment is one of the key routes in helping to get people out of poverty.
We have a number of current challenges. We are seeing an increased risk of poverty due to dependence on welfare and no spare financial resources. We are seeing tax and welfare traps coupled with transition costs in the system that deepen poverty and exclusion for lone parents. We are seeing internal barriers linked to clients' low confidence and low self-esteem. Another barrier is the lack of access to high quality, flexible and affordable child care.
We have also been examining the education system where we find low educational attainment arising from early school leaving. This highlights the relevance of qualifications as lone parents are being activated back into the work or education environment, given the current labour market requirements. As has been said previously, there are two economies in Ireland: the international trading economy and the domestic one. However, lone parents and many people of low educational skills have very limited access to jobs in the domestic economy. Meanwhile, access to the higher level, internationally traded economy is still more difficult, given the lack of access to subjects like science, technology, education and maths.
An area-based strategy could tackle social isolation and lack of personal supports and networks. This is particularly the case if it is based around communities and the independent sector. Access to transport, education, training and employment both in urban and rural areas is crucial to an anti-poverty strategy focusing on child poverty.
We are also witnessing a range of health challenges arising from stress, domestic violence, legal issues or a poor sense of general well-being. Building up those social capital networks within communities is a key element in giving people an emotional lift to make that positional shift.
We would like to see a redesigning of how we tackle poverty.
At present, there is a lack of commissioning of services at local level in particular. There are too many pilots and not enough mainstreaming. Responses tend to be unresponsive and bureaucratic, which does not help to support the transitions. We are unclear about the role of State and semi-State agencies in respect of pushing forward an anti-poverty strategy. A number of short-term funding initiatives to deal with critical issues are evident and while they are necessary, they never become mainstreamed and are never placed on a long-term footing. Consequently, organisations are constantly on the hamster wheel of funding in an attempt to secure funding for new elements. In addition, fragmentation across Ireland is evident, particularly with regard to services and access. We must have new ideas that create value and must deliver that climate of inspiration. While enterprise and innovation are the engines of growth, they also are the engines of growth in the social economy and in reducing poverty. Consequently, we must invest, consider the mix of services that are being provided and consider an outcome base that actually delivers for children.
I will be brief. I apologise that I must slip away after making my contribution but I thank the witnesses for their attendance and for providing members with such a comprehensive consideration. Mr. Toby Wolfe mentioned the importance of the new national early years strategy from the perspective of co-ordinating an approach for early child care. He emphasised the importance of the leading role of early child care in tackling childhood poverty. What level of contribution has his organisation made in this process? Is he confident the national early years strategy will address his concerns? The next speaker spoke on the need to maintain direct child income supports while at the same time enhancing services. In the last budget, there was a direct cut to direct income support with regard to child benefit, while at the same time the enhancement of services did not match the cuts in monetary terms. While the measure can be dressed up as reform, it was a cost-cutting exercise rather then being real reform.
If one reverts to the time of the introduction of the free preschool year, while that was a welcome initiative, perhaps it did not go far enough and there is room to increase it further. I would be interested to hear the witnesses' views in this regard. Overall, much of this boils down to early intervention at the early stages to ensure parents have access to affordable, high quality and accessible child care. This issue must be addressed fundamentally in the future. At the same time, however, one must give consideration to maintaining direct income support to families. A briefing document circulated before this meeting showed the percentage of children in child poverty actually declined between 2004 and 2008, while the level of direct income support increased at the same time. The findings are clear in respect of the effects of a reduction in direct income support. I apologise again for being obliged to leave but thank the witnesses for their attendance and making the presentations.
I join in the welcome to each of the witnesses this afternoon and will take some of the points made across each presentation. I absolutely agree with the statement from Mr. Toby Wolfe in his submission circulated to members before this meeting. It stated the creation of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs in 2011 was very welcome and has given impetus to the development of a series of children's strategies in addition to the children's referendum. While I agree absolutely, I am deeply concerned and have raised the following point many times with the Minister, whom I hold in high regard, as have other voices. It is that all of these wonderful things Members have helped to establish, because it has been done on an all-party basis, will not reach their real potential without proper resourcing and nowhere is such investment more important than in all our children.
I have a couple of comments and questions to ask. I refer to the three current sites operating the prevention and early intervention programme, namely, Young Ballymun, from which I believe representatives will be appearing before the joint committee shortly, Preparing for Life and the Tallaght West Childhood Development Initiative. As I understand that three further sites have been signalled, have the witnesses received an indication as to where they might be? Members have received no signal in this regard. Each of them has been a marked success and each represents a home grown and home measured template that can be usefully applied. One would wish it will not simply increase from three sites to six but that many others will follow suit. Mr. Wolfe might comment further on this particular area, which goes on to the points made by Ms June Tinsley and Ms Suzanne Connolly of Barnardos.
This is where a little bit of discomfort is created in the committee, because members obviously are drawn from the Government and Opposition benches and have their respective positions in argument on various Government decisions within the Dáil Chamber. I try to avoid this in this forum because I appreciate that all members seek to get the best results for people with regard to health and children's needs. However, it is inescapable and I cannot address the witnesses today without stating that for me, the evidence of real hurt and pain in young faces arises as a direct consequence of austerity and a series of budgetary decisions that have had a great impact on children. I am a father of five and this presents itself in the most innocent way. A child would never think that he or she has not seen Patrick, Seán or Mary at swimming classes over the past month or that someone else has not been seen at music or drama classes. While children still attend school, these are the areas in which the opportunities for young lives today are being curtailed. Moreover, it is not being measured because it is huge.
This worries and concerns me greatly and in respect of Mr. Stuart Duffin's position, while they are not all from lone families, and far from it, a great number of them are. These are the real people with whom I live in my own community. I see this week in, week out, when I am not attending this institution but am living out there, as do ordinary decent people. I am greatly concerned that although members are making all the right decisions regarding structure address, without the necessary wherewithal, the real and critical difference that must be made will not be achieved. This worries me greatly and while I do not need to instance the various measures that have had an impact, child benefit jumps out at one straight away in respect of budget 2013, and there is any number of other areas. Members can welcome the establishment of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs but the real hurt and pain is being effected across the Departments of Health, Education and Skills and Social Protection. Children are being affected in the budgetary decisions that are being made regarding all these and several other Departments. I can pass no better comment at present than to say this must stop. There must be a reversal of these decisions as quickly as possible, in the realisation that all that is being done is investing in childhood misery and real issues that will present in future years.
I will commence where Deputy Ó Caoláin finished, namely, the innocent ways in which childhood poverty can present itself. That is something of which I have no doubt the organisations are aware, but it does reinforce the point. We have seen too many examples of it.
The witnesses are all very welcome. I very much welcome the focus on outcomes and early intervention. My difficulty is that most times when we talk about early intervention it seems to me that we have a system of early acknowledgement but not intervention. One of the issues of concern for me is how we move from early acknowledgement to early intervention. Intervention is a word with which we have become more comfortable, which is great, but it is debatable whether we know its true meaning. It is important that we intervene as well as acknowledge.
In the context of poverty, three new sites are to come on-stream. I asked the Minister in the Seanad last week about how the new sites will be determined or decided. I do not know whether the witnesses have any more information in that regard than I do. We are trying to work out the best way. The current sites are based on a geographical approach but we are aware that certain groupings are particularly excluded. We have seen the impact of the budget cuts on lone parents. We have also seen the effects on Traveller children and migrant children. Yesterday, I visited the direct provision facility in Athlone where there are 100 mobile homes. I still find it difficult to talk about the situation I found there but I commend Barnardos on the work it is doing in the Athlone centre. I say well done to the staff who are running the centre. It is one of the few bits of sunlight in that complex, which is very much outside of the town.
Deputy Troy inquired about the involvement of the groups in the new strategy. I am interested in a response to the question. He also asked about the new child and family support agency. Many of the issues that are being presented to us today are interlinked with the new agency. We had committee hearings where it emerged that of the new agency’s budget of €545 million, approximately €100 million would go to NGOs that are providing the services. How much have the groups been involved in designing and determining those services?
Mr. Duffin said there are too many pilot schemes and not enough mainstreaming. Each group has cited various pilot schemes which are working well but we must examine how we incorporate those models into the mainstream. How much have the groups been involved in determining that or are they still being funded and therefore operate at the behest of the new agency? Are we seeing a change in the model of co-operation? We must move towards outcomes. The model we must aim for is one that is about cash plus services. We are trying to work out how that is divided. In terms of the first three steps to be taken with the new agency, what are the priorities that we must take into account on childhood poverty? Reference was made to public health nurses. What are the areas on which we must concentrate and devise a checklist to ensure that we maintain scrutiny?
Thank you, Chairman. I thank all the witnesses for their contributions. I know some of them better than others. I worked in the area prior to my election to the Dáil. I thank the witnesses for preparing their submissions and attending today’s meeting.
I am interested in finding out the reasons for the stubbornly high rate of child poverty. I do not disagree that the situation is more difficult now than was the case previously. There is no question about that. In 2007, there was plenty of work, yet joblessness increased. One must ask why that was the case and examine what was not working. Unfortunately, this issue has been in the shadows in this country for many years and a holistic approach has never been taken to it. That is where the system has always fallen down. I could not agree more with what Mr. Duffin and Senator van Turnhout said about there being too many pilot schemes and not enough mainstreaming.
In my constituency in Waterford, the community of Ballybeg has undergone significant investment in terms of the services provided and the school but that is one of only ten in the entire country in terms of early years intervention. The system was never mainstreamed even though we can see it is producing results. The line in the budget was significant, if not a small start then at least a step in the right direction in terms of an area-based approach to poverty.
I am fully convinced that we must be able to measure outcomes. There is no doubt there is a dysfunction in the HSE system, but the kind of reform that will deliver for children is the type of nerdy, technical reform which we do not always hear about. I refer to the accounting systems, the measurement of the inputs and how one measures outcomes. Outcomes are not rewarded in the systems as currently constructed in the areas of health and children. They are not identified as value for money. The kind of things the organisations do are what we must inject into the Civil Service. I am interested to hear what the groups would like to see done differently in terms of structure and a broad strategic approach that would lead to good, outcome-driven, needs-based services. That is what we all want, in particular when it comes to children.
Prevention rolls off the tongue now but one could ask what it really means. It is not just about targets; it is about universality as well. Mainstreaming something ensures all children benefit and then the children who need a more intensive service will be more readily identified. There will always be a cohort of children and parents who come forward to seek help but it is the ones that do not who often but not always go on to have difficulties in school and they fall out of the system. Some of the longitudinal studies show that for every euro we invest in a child between the ages of zero and five we have a return of €16. That is an incredible return.
Some of the organisations were involved in examining the Scandinavian model of child care. It is interesting to hear about what those countries did during recessionary times. All of the Departments, not just education and children, but jobs, finance and local government, prioritised investment in young children and they reaped the dividends in the kinds of innovation that emerged. Big companies such as Ericsson came to fruition following such different thinking and investment. The change will not be delivered by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs or the Department of Education and Skills. It must be a priority of Government and of every Department.
I thank all of the witnesses for the presentations today. This is an important issue. I wish to touch briefly on a few matters. In the past ten to 15 years an amount of money has been spent on the improvement of services. Do the witnesses believe we could have achieved a lot more given what we invested? That is something we must examine because I do not wish to see the same mistakes made over the next 15 years.
My second concern relates to our response to the need for change. It was brought home to me by someone who worked in a hospital in the UK where a need was identified for a clinic to be set up to deal with a particular area. Within three months the clinic was up and running and the system was totally focused on the particular problem that had been identified. The person came back to this country to one of the Dublin hospitals and identified an urgent need to set up a clinic specifically aimed at dealing with teenage pregnancies. The view was that a whole team was required to deal with the issue.
The role of the team was not only to be one of dealing with the person during a pregnancy but also of providing follow up services. The individual in question was astonished to find that no effort was made to implement the proposal. Ten years later, however, the proposal has been accepted by the hospital in question. I cannot understand the reason it took so long for the hospital to adopt it. When a clear need for change is identified why do our services take so long to respond? What do Members of the Oireachtas, who are involved in driving policy, need to do to bring about faster change?
I am involved on the periphery of the child poverty issue through my involvement in a project for approximately 30 children, some of who are as young as ten or 11 years old, who have dropped out of a school. The Christian Brothers are providing €90,000 a year while the Department provides €45,500 per annum for the project. When I raised this issue with officials in a telephone call, they spent more time trying to ascertain what other agency was providing funding for the project that trying to identify ways in which the Department could increase funding for the project. I was astonished by the approach they took. How does one change the mindset of decision makers to ensure we respond to change much faster than has been the case in the past 15 to 20 years?
I welcome the witnesses and thank them for their presentations. Mr. Wolfe's submission states that most disadvantaged children do not live in disadvantaged areas. With this in mind, I ask him to elaborate on what characteristics an area based approach would need if it is to be successful and address this dilemma. Mr. Wolfe also noted that Scandinavian countries have in place early childhood education and care, ECEC, systems that are regularly rated the best in world and also have some of the lowest rates of child poverty in the world. What other measures are Scandinavian countries taking to address child poverty that are not being taken in Ireland? The submissions make clear that services must be child centred and the Government must move away from implementing reform purely as a cost saving measure towards reforms aimed at doing what is best for children and families. Are there any indications that such a shift in Government policy is taking place?
Deputy Séamus Healy:
I welcome our visitors and thank them for their presentations. Child poverty and support for children is a difficult area. I have some experience in this area, having been involved in youth organisations throughout my life. In more recent years, I was involved in a community child care facility, which we planned, built and currently operate in Clonmel. Incidentally, Barnardos also does excellent work in the town. While great work is being done in certain areas and is delivering good outcomes, we are working against the tide to some extent as it is unclear if or how the various areas or stages are being linked up. For this reason, excellent work in a particular sphere will benefit children who may, however, fall victim to some other difficulty at a later stage. I ask the witnesses to provide a picture, as it were, of what child services should look like. The requirement to poverty proof decision making and budgets must be addressed. If the provision of support for children is to be effective and successful, poverty proofing must be done on an ongoing basis. How do our visitors see the system as a whole working for the benefit of children?
Mr. Toby Wolfe:
Given the large number of questions members asked, I will try to pick up three or four themes that cut across a number of the contributions. On the stubbornly high rate of child poverty and the need to address the issue, members are correct that this is a major problem. I will refer to several elements of the solution, one of which is, without doubt, investment in services. Deputy Ó Caoláin is correct to point out that austerity has been a significant problem in terms of levels of poverty as well as levels of investment in services. The Department of Children and Youth Affairs will only have a positive impact if investment in services matches aspirations.
More specifically, however, the universality of services is critical. A question was asked about the Danish model and the reason child poverty rates are low in Denmark. Services in Denmark are universal, encompass a wide range of types of services and early care and education services are comprehensive, universal and affordable. The provision of high levels of service means that when labour market activation policies that support parents to leave social welfare and enter employment supports are in place to make these labour market activation policies realistic. This is a critical part of the Danish model.
Linked to the stubbornly high levels of child poverty is a focus on outcomes, which is very important. In that regard, I highlight the importance of quality in service provision. All the research evidence in the area of early care and education services indicates that these services only benefit children when they are of high quality. If one was to carry out outcome assessments of child care services, one would find time and again that child care services with low quality do not yield positive outcomes for children. The quality of services is, therefore, critical.
A couple of questions were asked about the three new area based sites that are being chosen. While I am not involved in the process of selection and do not know what is being done in that regard, I will express a couple of thoughts on the process and what could be sought. The sites selected must be located in areas with very high levels of disadvantage in order that we can impact on those who are most in need. The process must also be transparent and, critically, in selecting the sites I hope the Government will consider the potential for mainstreaming. It must choose projects that offer real potential for mainstreaming to ensure they do not become just another group of pilots sitting on a shelf. These factors will be critical in the selection process.
Questions were asked about the child and family support agency. Senator van Turnhout's contention that we are very good on early acknowledgement but not good on early intervention is correct. While the child and family support agency offers real potential for helping, it also carries risks. The particular risk I propose to highlight is that lip service will be paid to prevention and early intervention and these priorities will not be the main focus of the new organisation, which is likely to be on high end and intensive child protection measures. While such measures are critically important, the prevention and early intervention role also matters. There are risks that in a climate of austerity, budget cuts will be first applied to preventative services. There are also risks around the image of the agency. It is very important that it is viewed as an organisation for all children and families, not only disadvantaged or problem families because if this were to be the case, it would be counter-productive.
The culture and ethos of the new organisation also matters. The preventative approach must be deeply embedded in order that services such as the family resource centres and public health nurses, if they come within the remit of the agency at a later date, feel welcome and are able to do preventative work effectively.
The final strand of questions I propose to address relates to the national early years strategy. Questions were asked about the potential of the strategy and the process involved.
Start Strong, along with Barnardos and a number of other organisations, is on the expert advisory group on the strategy. We have made a submission to the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs. The strategy is still being developed. It is too early to say whether it will be good but I very much hope it will. Some questions were raised about the process at an early stage. I am glad the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs has adopted a very personal approach to trying to ensure the process of developing the strategy is strong. I am looking forward to helping to work on it over the next couple of months. It is important that we get it right. There is a critical opportunity to engage in the sort of joined-up policy-making we need to address child poverty and achieve positive outcomes fro all children.
Ms June Tinsley:
Deputy Troy asked about decisions made in budget 2013 regarding cuts to child income supports and how the savings that accrued through the cuts were not all ring-fenced for services. Obviously, we agree wholeheartedly with him in that we were extremely disappointed by the choice to have another flat-rate cut to child benefit without any form of compensation, particularly for low-income families. That, in addition to a significant slash to the back-to-school clothing and footwear allowance, will really send families over the edge. Already, families with whom Barnardos works absolutely dread getting the children ready to go to school in September. Now that the amounts allocated for the back-to-school clothing and footwear allowance are lower, families must make up the deficit even more.
The impact on children of the measures taken to date under the austerity programme should not be underestimated because parents are living from week to week. Frequently, they are in debt and dread certain times of the year, such as when children return to school and Christmas. Even seeing a party invitation in a schoolbag sends parents into a state of dread as they may not be able to afford to send their child to it.
Trying to strike a balance regarding child income supports and services is a difficult nut to crack but the emphasis should be on services while not diluting the importance of child income supports. What is required is strong political leadership to pursue that agenda. As Deputy Conway highlighted, it has been proven time and again that there is a significant return on investment if one invests in prevention and early intervention services. We advocate the avoidance of the short-sighted approach. Ultimately, children need supports to ensure they become fully fledged adults and can contribute to society. Targeting childhood is a short-sighted measure.
Regarding the three priorities I would advocate for tackling child poverty, the first is investment in the universal child care and after-school care services, which, according to the Scandinavian model, have proven time and again not only to be truly beneficial to the child and to cracking the nut of intergenerational poverty but also to the facilitation of parents taking up employment. The second is investment in education in order to enable children to remain in school. Time and again, access to education has been crucial. Unfortunately, supports in those areas have been cut in the recent past, to the detriment of children's ability to stay in school in some cases. The third priority is investment in health, which is crucial. I refer in particular to access to free general practitioner care. There are long waiting lists for children who require mental health services or speech and language therapy, for example. Since a year is a very long time in a child's life, a child is starting from a very bad place if he or she cannot obtain the supports he or she needs immediately. It is crucial to invest in these three areas in order to tackle child poverty.
With regard to children's services and our involvement in the child and family support agency, I will pass over to Ms Suzanne Connolly.
Ms Suzanne Connolly:
I will talk a little about our involvement with the new agency. We are to meet Mr. Gordon Jeyes and his team tomorrow to talk about service planning and the budget in that context. The new agency presents a fantastic opportunity to improve circumstances for vulnerable children and their parents. The framework is very good. The challenge is that there is no detailed implementation plan. There is a real danger that the focus will be on outputs rather than outcomes. I am really quite worried about that. It is important that there be effective leadership within the system, in addition to real tenacity. It is a question of changing culture and mindsets. The system has been under pressure for several years and it is quite bombarded. If that is accepted and the work is done, there will be a real possibility. If there is denial, there will be no change at all. This is a key time.
One of our negotiating challenges is that, since there is such emphasis on child protection, understandably, there will be real pressure on Barnardos to do that type of work when, in fact, it is really important that it be involved in early intervention and prevention with vulnerable families, who often self-refer. Self-referral is the best way to work with families because they want to work with one. We are based in the heart of communities. We are in Moyross, Southill and Ballybeg and are really accessible. This contrasts with circumstances in which one might have to get a bus when there is no good local transport infrastructure.
I am thankful for the positive comment on Athlone. Approximately two years ago, we had to fight really strongly to hold onto that project. At the time, the HSE wanted to close it as a way of cutting costs. It was really difficult to have an outcome-based discussion on it. The officials were just thinking about saving money and suggested that the closure of the project was the way to achieve that, irrespective of the fact that they could acknowledge that we were delivering outcomes for children. We were able to fight and some people within the system did listen, but it was really quite a hard battle.
The other point to bear in mind in the context of the new area-based sites is that one should be working within existing systems in so far as that is possible. That is a way of changing. What I really like about the young Ballymun model is that those concerned work with public health nurses and schools. This makes a big difference because, if there is not as much funding available in the future the culture will have changed and people will be working better together. This is very important.
To echo what Mr. Toby Wolfe was asking for, I hope there will be a very transparent system and criteria according to which communities can apply. Headstrong is a very good example. It has quite clear criteria determining how a community can be a Headstrong community. If we did something similar in regard to the area-based partnerships, it would be very transparent and, I hope, very effective.
The importance of inter-agency working is often talked about. We all know it is really hard. It can be done. A transparent system that actually asks communities to provide evidence on how they will work better together would be really effective.
Mr. Stuart Duffin:
I am going to make two controversial points first. We need to be mindful of the Scandinavian model. It is good for services but there are penalties and conditions attached to non-engagement that are fairly harsh. It is fine in terms of services but not in terms of the whole package.
Mr. Stuart Duffin:
With regard to the services, if one is not engaged in activation one is on €20 per day. The services exist if one wants to engage, but if one does not there are harsh penalties. I say this as a note of caution because we always talk about the Scandinavian model.
Investment does not necessarily mean more money; it means re-engineering budgets. That is an important concept that we need to get across. This is why we are really campaigning and focusing on outcome-based budgets across Government agencies and Departments. If there is a child poverty outcome-based budget across education, health, etc. – the sharing budget – outcomes will be achieved. This is because of the whole-of-government approach. This is one of the key points on which we need to move forward in terms of having a child-centred budget that addresses child poverty.
One of the key points on the new agency is that the family resource centres are the gateway services. They comprise the services that should be considered in terms of people feeling free and easy in availing of a range of supports.
Those supports should not be delivered on the deficit model but on an asset-based model, in terms of assessing what assets the community and the individuals have and moving forward on the basis of that positive approach rather than on a negative, deficit-based one. It is good and appropriate that we have that family resource centre, FRC, model but it needs to be worked on and developed so that it is seen as a resource in terms of communities.
In terms of examining best practice, there are a number of models around Europe where they are using virtual learning sets so that people can post best practice in particular areas. That is a service that an area-based budget could deliver on because it is about sharing practice and looking at what is working well in places like Dublin or Limerick, for example. That would be relatively easy to put in place.
We also need to look at outcome agreements. Any service, agency or government agency that is delivering in terms of child poverty needs to have an outcome agreement or a contract set up so that the pathway going forward is clear. We are very much focused on evidence-based approaches. I attended the Geary summer school two years ago where, during the course of that conference, Mr. Chris Whelan said that we need to believe what we see, which is an important issue. It is possible to make scientific assessments of poverty but we must also look around us, see what we see, believe it and respond to it.
Finally, there is a real opportunity to see child care as a work force development initiative in terms of creating jobs in child care with a professional pathway. Child care should be part and parcel of economic policy and not just of social policy. Integrating child care into work force development initiatives would create jobs locally and would provide real services.
Yes, of course but I thought it was telling to make reference to it before this meeting finishes. The paper suggested, in 2008, that the levels of child poverty in Ireland had declined over the previous four years. It pointed out that the percentage of children from aged from 0 to 17 years in relative poverty or at risk of poverty had declined from 22.7% in 2004 to 19.9% in 2007, while the percentage of children who were in consistent poverty had also declined from 9.7% in 2004 to 7.4% in 2007. If only that was where we were working from today, four years on.
I thank the witnesses again for their contributions. They have provided a good base of knowledge which will assist us in our discussions with the representatives from Young Ballymun and Preparing for Life on Thursday next. This meeting has given us a broad approach to the whole area and in our next meeting we will get into the specifics of how services are being managed on the ground in order to meet the needs of people and to deliver outcomes. This meeting has highlighted the need for us to start using the language of outcomes and to recognise that they must be a priority, rather than just outputs, as Ms Connolly said.
Ms June Tinsley:
In response to Deputy Byrne's question, I was highlighting the wide-ranging cuts to front-line education supports that have happened in recent years, such as the downscaling of the visiting teachers for Travellers scheme and the reduction in the numbers of language support teachers, resource teachers and guidance counsellors. Those front-line supports, which were available for those pupils who required them, allowed children to stay in school. The withdrawal of such supports means that children are falling behind and are more likely to leave school early. There have also been cutbacks to extra curricular activities in many schools which means that children who might have been struggling academically but doing quite well at subjects such as art or music are losing out and losing interest in school. Some schools within the DEIS scheme have been protected to some degree, which we obviously welcome but across the board, there have been changes to front-line supports and, as a result, some children have been experiencing difficulties, particularly those who are at risk of dropping out.
On behalf of the committee I thank the witnesses for their attendance and their presentations. I remind members that the quarterly meeting with the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs is scheduled to take place in April and questions for the Minister must be submitted by the close of business, that is, 5 p.m., on Thursday, 14 March. Questions can be submitted electronically through the committee's e-mail address, with which members will be familiar.