Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Tuesday, 9 November 2021
Joint Committee On Children, Equality, Disability, Integration And Youth
Child Poverty: Discussion
In our second session, we will engage with representatives from Focus Ireland and Barnardos. I welcome Mr. Pat Dennigan, CEO , Mr. Mike Allen, director of advocacy, research and communications, and Ms Kelly-Anne Byrne, ambassador, from Focus Ireland. We are also joined by Ms Suzanne Connolly, chief executive, and Mr. Stephen Moffat, national policy manager, with Barnardos. The purpose of this session is to engage with the witnesses on child poverty.
Before we begin, I will outline the situation with regard to parliamentary privilege. As all witnesses are appearing before the committee virtually, I must point out that there is uncertainty as to whether parliamentary privilege will apply to their evidence from a location outside of the parliamentary precincts of Leinster House. Therefore, if the witness are directed by the Chair to cease giving evidence in relation to a particular matter, it is imperative that they comply with any such direction.
The witnesses will have three minutes to deliver their opening statements and then we will have a question and answer session with members of the committee who will have five minutes each. I now invite Mr. Dennigan to make an opening statement on behalf of Focus Ireland.
Mr. Pat Dennigan:
We would like to thank the Joint Committee on Children, Disability, Equality, Integration and Youth for the opportunity to discuss the issue of child poverty with it. I am Pat Dennigan, CEO of Focus Ireland, and our delegation includes Mr. Mike Allen, director of advocacy, and Ms Kelly-Ann Byrne, one of our ambassadors with lived experience of homelessness who we have asked to join us as part of our commitment to ensuring that the voices of people who have experienced homelessness are heard where it matters.
Focus Ireland has been working to prevent homelessness and to support people to make sustained exits from homelessness for more than 30 years. Our vision has always been that homelessness can be ended, not just managed. We have long advocated for a commitment to eradicate homelessness and we welcome the goal of working towards ending homelessness by 2030 in the recently published Housing For All policy.
As we have set out in our current organisational strategy, we concentrate our work on single people with complex support needs, young adults, and families. The issue of child poverty is deeply related to people in all three groups. While child poverty is a key part of the cause of homelessness for many single people and young adults, it is also part of the daily experienceof life for children who are homeless with their families. Many children become homeless due to the poverty experienced by their families but the experience of homelessness itself is a deeper and more traumatic form of poverty. We need to understand that the process of their family becoming homeless is in itself traumatic for children and the experience of being homeless is a further trauma.
We welcome the renewed sense of partnership and collaboration between local authorities, Government, State agencies and NGOs that was cemented during the pandemic and the hard-won gains that were achieved but we need this to continue long after restrictions have ended. In recent years, most people entering homelessness have come from the private rented sector and the primary causes of families becoming homeless remain the same, namely landlords leaving the market and rent arrears accruing because supports such as housing assistance payment, HAP, or rent supplement fall far short of real rents.
We would ask this committee to consider several key initiatives that we believe would make a considerable difference to supporting children who are experiencing and those at risk of homelessness. First, funding a sufficient number of child support workers to support children experiencing homelessness should be a key component of Ireland’s plan to deliver the EU child guarantee. The importance of child support workers is demonstrated by our experience with the Focus Ireland family centre and the Dublin family homeless action team. Second, we support former Deputy Jan O’Sullivan’s Private Member's legislation that requires local authorities to put the best interests of children at the centre of their decision making when responding to a homeless family. Finally, we ask that the committee recognises the achievements that have been made possible by partnership between local authorities, NGOs, Departments and other State agencies over the past 18 months and the importance of this approach continuing going forward.
There are a number of other areas of our work which are very relevant to the committee’s work on child poverty. These are outlined in our written submission to the committee and we are happy to take any questions about them. I again thank the Chairman for the opportunity to address the committee.
Ms Suzanne Connolly:
Thank you very much for the opportunity to speak to the committee.
Last year Barnardos supported over 18,000 children and families across Ireland. We work with children and families to help address issues affecting children and young peoples’ development and well-being. The majority of families receiving our support services are experiencing poverty. They are living in cramped, overcrowded and unsuitable accommodation, with parents struggling to meet essential costs such as electricity, heating, transport, clothes and food, not to mention the costs associated with sending their children to school. Research shows that living in poverty significantly affects a child’s well-being and future development. It worsens children’s physical and mental health, educational attainment and causes social exclusion and isolation. It is associated with reduced life chances and increases the likelihood of poverty as adults. Our staff see first-hand the damaging impact that living in poverty can have on a child’s life.
Reducing and ultimately ending child poverty should be a fundamental aim and commitment of Government. Children living in poverty are often far more dependent on State supports for meeting essential needs. Unfortunately, the State all too often fails to meet these needs and children are waiting unacceptable lengths of time for assessment and support around speech and language, and psychological and mental health services. The children and parents we support deal with poverty on top of considerable adversity in their lives, including parental mental health issues, parental addiction, domestic violence, homelessness and parental separation.
Our recent back to school survey of almost 1,500 parents highlighted the financial challenges they faced last year, with 54% stating they experienced financial concerns. Over 50% of parents reported they had been concerned about the cost of returning their children to school and 20% had to take out some form of loan to meet those costs.
Our support services intervene to improve the life chances of children and parents experiencing poverty by providing direct support to families. We provide them with practical support to address immediate needs. This might be through the direct provision of items, including furniture and food, or linking with energy providers to try to reduce payments. One such service is our teen parenting service in Finglas, Tallaght, Waterford and Wexford that works with young mothers to ensure they continue in education through the provision of a range of practical supports, including funding childcare costs, contributing towards travel expenses, purchase of laptops and other support as needed. We know from research that the likelihood of experiencing childhood poverty is closely linked to maternal educational attainment.
In order to address child poverty the Government should do the following as a priority: reduce the number of children experiencing homelessness, placing a six-month limit on the time they can spend in emergency accommodation and ensuring they have access to family support workers; further roll out the hot school meals programme; provide free education to all children, including free schoolbooks, ending voluntary contributions and reducing the high cost of school uniforms; enhance welfare supports for lone parents, whose children are at heightened risk of poverty; and increase access to free childcare for low-income families.
I thank Barnardos, whose representatives I spoke to recently at the Joint Sub-Committee on Mental Health. It was a really good engagement which I enjoyed. I have engaged with Focus Ireland in my past work as an addiction and outreach worker and mental health support worker across Dublin. I know both organisations well.
As has been mentioned, much of the cost of living stuff affecting children is outside of their control. Fuel prices going up, electricity, transport, clothes and food are all outside children's control but they are, for want of a better word, victims of this. There is also a poverty of opportunity out there, especially in more disadvantaged communities.
The first question I will ask concerns an area I am doing work in at the moment. We have seen criminals using children for their own selfish needs as drug mules, drug couriers and so on. Have the witnesses experienced this? Children see this as a way out of poverty. I was speaking to a few of them and to a few organisations. They see the flash cars and jackets and the extravagant lifestyles. Have the witnesses noticed this? Any feedback on that would be great.
Ms Suzanne Connolly:
I thank the Deputy for the question. In the communities we work in, we are well aware of the grooming of young people into inappropriate, short-term attractive propositions. It can give them money and a sense of status and excitement. We try to work with others, including the Garda, to give alternatives to children and young people, but it is difficult. It is particularly important to keep those young people engaged in school as much as possible and ensure they have a routine to their lives. That makes it less likely they will have spare time in which they can be associated with groups in the community which are not there for their best interests and are exploiting them. Education and keeping them involved in activities are key. If the traditional school does not meet their needs, we need to think of alternative schools that will interest and attract them. We need to ensure they can begin to get away from immediate gratification and think of other future possibilities and options for themselves so they do not think they have to go down a particular path.
I get that. That is the poverty of opportunity. It is difficult for children. Ms Connolly mentioned school and in my area we have seen school completion programmes being closed. On one hand, we are trying to get kids into school and support them and, on the other, the school completion programmes are closed.
My next question is on child homelessness. I have seen in my office, as we all have as public representatives, where people come in with their children. I have allowed families to use my phone because they have run out of credit from ringing place after place trying to find a place for the night. I have seen the trauma in the kids' faces every time mother or father is told there is no room at the inn. I have seen the mother and father being like any mother and father, trying to shield their child from this trauma and being unable to do so. When they eventually find somewhere, they might have to get two buses and bring all their belongings across the city just to find a place for the night. Then they go through the whole process again the next day. It is heartbreaking to see. What long-term implications will that have on children, especially on mental health?
Mr. Mike Allen:
I thank the Deputy for that question. We addressed in our statement that there has been a considerable improvement in the conditions in which families are living, particularly in Dublin but in the rest of the country as well, over the period of the pandemic. As the numbers of families who are homeless have fallen, the local authorities and Dublin Regional Homeless Executive have taken the opportunity to improve the quality of accommodation and there are far fewer families living in commercial hotels than there were before. That is not to say it is not an appalling circumstance that people are living in poverty and being affected by it, but the improvement is worth noting, partly because it is important to hang on to it. As the measures which resulted in the decline in family homelessness, particularly those to prevent evictions, are lifted, we see the numbers creeping up again. That will inevitably put pressure on services which are exactly the ones the Deputy referred to.
While there are a sufficient number of emergency places available, families coming into the system just need to go through an ordinary process. They are coming into a system which is already overcrowded with not enough places and so on and there are all sorts of administrative measures, delays and people being moved across town. All our services have talked about the traumatic effect of that. Some of the families experiencing homelessness are coming out of poverty and of existing challenges for the children, but some of the families are becoming homeless because their landlord is selling. They have never had any economic problems or problems like this before. Our services from the beginning of the crisis have remarked that families who came in with no social problems and no impact on the children were, over a short period in homeless services, beginning to exhibit all sorts of problems more normally associated with families who had already had traumatic experiences. It is not a criticism of the local authorities but of the legislation when we say in the submission that the legislation and regulation of homeless services is written on the assumption that people becoming homeless are single men and the response is related to that assumption. None of the things we have done in terms of changing the Constitution, putting children at the centre of it and so on have carried into homeless legislation.
That legislation should be reformed in order that local authorities and public servants delivering public services are clearly informed that they must put the rights and the interests of the child first in any dealings. Unfortunately, there are so many other things going on that in the context of the sorts of circumstances the Deputy described the rights and interests of the child have not been the top priority.
I agree with Mr. Allen that the child should be central in all of this. While there are not as many children being housed in hotel accommodation as there were previously, we have found that children are being housed in bed and breakfast accommodation as a short-term measure. We try to secure a place for them in a family hub where they might get some supports to exit homelessness but we have found people are staying in family hubs for longer because there is nowhere for them to go because of the housing crisis. Even though not as many children are being housed in hotels we are on a precipice for that to happen again if things do not start to move on. I have one further question if that is in order.
I thank the Chairman for that. I also thank all our guests for their contributions. They have articulated very well the points and issues involved and the actions that need to taken. To move away from the bad situations Deputy Ward has outlined, acknowledging that what he said is 100% correct, how is the siloing of supports from one Department to another one and from Tulsa to the council to the Department of Education negatively affecting those involved? We all come across these blockages. We try to help a child and his or her the parents and depending on the school the child is attending he or she may get free meals and the care he or she needs. There are many different hoops to go through. From our guests' expertise and experience, what is the effect of the siloing and the responsibilities different Department have on the cohesiveness of providing adequate services for families and for the betterment of children?
Mr. Pat Dennigan:
I would like to answer Senator McGreehan's question in two ways. It is a challenge we constantly come across in Focus Ireland. We deal with cross-agency and cross-Department issues all the time, be it any of the local authorities around the country, Tusla in dealing specifically with children or the HSE and some of its provisions. There needs to be a whole-of-government or whole-of-State approach to address that.
I would like to address Deputy Ward's question but it would be useful to bring in our ambassador from our Leap programme, Ms Kelly Anne Byrne, who is with us today, to answer that. First-hand experience of dealing with one's own family and all those agencies in seeking help would probably be of relevance to the committee.
Ms Kelly Anne Byrne:
I thank the committee for inviting me here today and for enabling my input and experience to be heard to be able to create change together. I am a lone parent with four children and I am also a carer due to three of my four children having additional care needs. I have experienced first hand that there are huge gaps in government around what is implemented and what practically works for us lone parents and carers. I believe in trying to be the role model for my children that I can be. While being a parent and a carer is already a full-time job in itself, I am still determined to achieve my dreams and goals in life and show my children that they too can break through the poverty barriers and become anything they want to be and live a life and have a career of their choice that they want or love. With hard work and determination and the right structure and support around them, which actually work, they do not feel they have to settle on social welfare or live in poverty for the rest of their lives.
There is a very real disconnection with respect to the number of hours carers are allowed to work or take up some form of training or a course, which does not make any sense as most part-time courses or jobs are at least 20 hours a week in any event during which time our children are cared for in school. Primary school children are in school more than 20 hours a week and secondary school children are in school more than 30 hours a week and they are cared for. The previous Minister, Senator Regina Doherty, increased the hours from 15 to 18.5 in 2020 but, unfortunately, this still prevents carers like myself from being able to work or do training of some kind. I applied for a vocational training opportunities scheme, VTOS, beauty therapy course through Fingal adult education, for which I had to go on a waiting list. I was called for an exam to see if I would be able to keep up with the work required academically, which I passed. I was then called for a formal interview, which I also passed, only to find out the only way I could complete the course was if I gave up my half-rate carer’s allowance as it was 20 hours a week, which would have left me and my family even more financially stuck. I was very disheartened after all the time and effort I put in and having to get childcare to even make the interviews and exam. If we can fill the gaps, it will build a firm solid bridge for lone parents and carers like myself to feel safe and supported enough to be able to upskill and work towards our passions and goals in life. It would help to empower us and to believe in ourselves, which, in turn, would also benefit, empower and support the lives of those around us.
Ms Suzanne Connolly:
I want to respond to Senator McGreehan question regarding silos. What enables services to work effectively is where the relationships are such they are focused on meeting the service requirements of children and their parents, which is the priority. They each say what they need to do to deliver what the children and their parents require. Therefore, the silos do not come into question. That must be the priority. What the committee could consider at some point, working with other committees, is that sometimes we need to encourage that cross-organisational, cross-Department working through the funding arrangements required. We know from our practice in Barnardos that sometimes local relationships are fantastic and work really effectively and that sometimes they involve much hard work. We all come into this work because we want to deliver really good services for children and parents who need it. I always like to finish on that optimistic term. I would also suggest Departments need to lead by example and so do, dare it say it, public representatives, of which these committees are a good example.
I welcome our guests to the committee and thank them for giving their time. My first question, which Deputy Ward may have covered, relates to the partnerships and collaborations with the local authorities, Government, State agencies and NGOs in tackling homelessness during the past 18 months. Our guests have outlined the sense of achievement in delivering some key metrics or figures in this regard. Could they provide an overview to the committee on what has happened in terms of the shift of focus during the pandemic on how this crisis has been tackled, what learnings they have taken from this, and how important collaboration and partnership has been in delivering the results we have achieved, in ensuring we do not take a step backwards and continue in a trajectory to drive the numbers down?
Mr. Pat Dennigan:
The efforts particularly through the pandemic have been huge. We can see that in the numbers. The numbers of children living in emergency accommodation reduced from a high of 3,873 in September 2019 to 2,129 last July. It is no coincidence that last July was the last time that the Covid restrictions on the housing market were lifted. The numbers have increased slowly but steadily since then to 2,344. There is no doubt that through the pandemic the way local authorities, the HSE, various NGOs, agencies like Tusla and other Departments pulled together in an emergency had a huge effect on the numbers and on homelessness. The overall numbers, including children and adults, came down from more than 10,500 to just over 8,000 in roughly the same period. We need to learn from that effort, commitment and partnership and continue it right through what is just a different crisis. The crisis that we are working in now is the crisis of homelessness. The plan to eradicate homelessness by 2030 is something we all want to achieve. If we all work together with that same commitment we can achieve it but we need to start now and ensure we are putting the building blocks in place as well as the small wins that will build and amplify as we get to 2030. We need to put that in place right now.
My next question relates to the Barnardos opening statement, which referred to the back to school survey. As public representatives, we all know that every September parents, regardless of income, find the back to school period places huge financial strain on them. The experience is magnified for those already struggling financially. The myth of free education at both primary and second level is crushed when they look to purchase school uniforms, books, bags and footwear, and then there is the annual school trip. Barnardos comes out very strongly on this. What level of intervention does the Department of Education need to start taking coming up to the next school year? Additional funding is being added to the Department's budget yearly but is there something specific we need to tackle in our education system to address these challenges?
Mr. Stephen Moffatt:
On the previous question, it is vital that we keep an eye on the numbers. Our services are seeing children of families being squeezed out of the accommodation that they were able to access during Covid. Greater numbers are being pushed towards homelessness. That is a very real concern for a lot of our services.
On what the Government could and should do around back to school costs, there are three obvious choices to be made. One relates to voluntary contributions. Time and again, schools look for children from all families to make voluntary contributions, regardless of backgrounds. In some circumstances they are chased up for it regularly. Parents are really struggling with finances and this is pushing them over the edge. Schools should be actively discouraged from doing that and steps should be taken by the Department to ensure that the issue of voluntary contributions comes to an end. There are steps that the Department and schools could take to reduce the stigma particularly associated with parents feeling stigmatised if they do not pay those voluntary contributions.
Another step would be uniforms. The Department has issued a circular on uniforms saying that schools should allow all children to attend school wearing a uniform with, say, an iron-on crest but we know that is not being implemented everywhere. There are circumstances where parents who are struggling with finances are having to shell out considerable sums of money for expensive uniforms. That is not acceptable at the moment. There should never be a burden placed on parents to try to dress their children in a certain way that might mean that they are put under further strain for heating that month. There is a real choice to be made on uniforms.
Finally, there is school books. Time and again parents tell us about the cost of school books and now, additionally, with IT facilities, paying for codes in order to access online activities. It is vital that the Government takes a step back and asks if we are going to supply those books free to children who need them or if we are going to continue to allow parents to feel the pressure of having to provide for them every year.
To follow on from that, where schools do not comply, and very clearly they do not, what kind of sanction should we put in place to induce them to ensure that they do? There are very clear violations of this, as we hear every September.
Mr. Stephen Moffatt:
It is quite a delicate balance. The oversight of schools at national level is within the Department of Education but it falls down at a local level to local boards of management. The Government probably has not done enough on voluntary contributions. Additional steps could be taken within the Department and legislation could be brought in around it, so that, for instance, once voluntary contributions are requested from families, the schools and individual teachers would not know who has or has not paid the money.
With uniforms, either the Department has to introduce some sort of sanctioning programme or it needs to go a step further and say that it will govern uniforms, and that a minimum standard has to be adopted in schools. Then the Department needs to apply that. For example, if schools want to have a uniform that might cost €100 and parents are willing to pay that, perhaps that is acceptable. There needs to be an option for the parents who are not in a position to pay that money to pay for a uniform that does not cost that much without dividing the children between those wearing more expensive uniforms. I am not sure what specific sanctions should be taken. It is becoming clear that if the Department of Education is issuing circulars and they are not being implemented on the ground, it needs to be escalated and a deeper analysis of what is happening at a national level and a questioning of whether those circulars are sufficient is needed.
How you sanction that is a difficulty when you also have to deal with a patron body, when there are disparities. My child's school has a second-hand uniform sale every year and everyone is encouraged to go down that route rather than anything else. You cannot tell as everyone that is in a uniform that maybe older and it does not matter. It is probably a badge of honour at this stage.
I have seen Ms Byrne's video for Focus Ireland.
It is powerful and incredibly moving. It is a great tribute to the witnesses and to the team that assisted in putting it together. They are championing a positive outcome. It is a difficult journey to get there. I would be interested in hearing more about that. One difficulty that would regularly come across my desk is where families are evicted because they have outgrown the home that they are in and find themselves homeless. A two-bedroom apartment might come available but the city council will not give that to a family because the family needs a three-bedroom apartment, but in the interim, while waiting for a three-bedroom apartment, they are in one hotel bedroom in Sheldon Park or a similar place. I find that extraordinarily frustrating. There are no words for it, especially when special needs are concerned. While I think we need to have policies at local authority level about the allocation of homes, at the same time, it seems that we could have something in place on a temporary basis.
Ms Kelly Anne Byrne:
My children and I struggled through homelessness ourselves a number of years ago in the midst of domestic violence. Thankfully, we got the right support. We had to go into bed and breakfast accommodation and to a hostel. We were faced with absolutely nothing. We had to put belongings into storage and we went with just the clothes on our backs to the council. We practically had to beg for help and support. It was extremely tough. I had twin girls and had lost my daughter to cot death while in the midst of domestic violence. We were in turmoil and had no support. It is only when we lost our home that people started to see that we as a family really needed support. A little light then started to shine on us and we started to gain the needed support. I started to get the right support to be able to be the best mam I can be for my children and to have stability. That was when Focus Ireland, the women's refuge and so on came in. We worked our way up and did a lot of healing.
Five and a half years later, thanks to Focus Ireland, we are supported and stable. I am able to look at careers and what I want to do with my life. My kids are stable. They are in school and college. They are in a community. There has been significant progress from the poverty that we were living in to what we are in now. There are still gaps. I feel that I would like to completely come out of the poverty trap and get back into work, to be able to show my children that they can become whatever they want to be. We need the right support and the right hours. We need the Government to work with lone parents and carers to find practical steps that actually work.
I thank Ms Byrne. I am so sorry for her loss. There is no doubt that she had a difficult time. She sums up the experience of being in a community. There is a lovely moment in her video where she says that they fit in, which is powerful. What exactly did Focus Ireland do? How did it support Ms Byrne?
Ms Kelly Anne Byrne:
We initially met a Focus Ireland support worker. We then needed correct care. We had to go into the women's refuge for a while. When we started to gain stability and had the right support, we transitioned from the women's refuge and support to Focus Ireland support workers. My good support worker is with me for life. I always have somebody to turn to and to work with me on whatever I need, whether it is related to my children, life, house or anything else. I have ongoing support, which is something that I never really had. Due to being fostered as a baby, I never really had any family support. It is great to have the right supports around us. Focus Ireland kindly gave us our forever home. We have been living there for more than five and a half years and we cherish it because we know what it is like to go without a home. Having that stability is a foundational start to life that I feel everybody deserves to have.
I thank Ms Byrne. She is an exceptional mother and role model.
I would be interested in anything that anyone has to say on local authority allocations. "Frustrating" is the politest word I can come up with about it.
Mr. Mike Allen:
The situation the Senator describes happens. We experience it often. Deputy Ward and others asked about silos and how those operate. These are silos within local authorities. One side of the local authority says that accommodation is not good enough for people, so they have to move on, and then the local authority says that it does not have anything better for those people, so they have to stay in a place that is much worse than where they were. The practical solution would be a more integrated response from local authorities, geared around the needs of the family rather than the sets of rules that they have. These problems are going to arise. Many of the families stuck in homelessness for a long time are larger families. In the other area of homelessness, we are increasingly looking at the need to build one-bedroom units. We really need to see local authorities build, not a huge number, but significantly more three and four-bedroom social housing units to house people who the local authorities can readily see will need them. That is the medium to longer term solution that needs to be built into Housing for All. The shorter term requires better integration, more listening in Departments, and not letting the perfect constantly be the enemy of the decent. Unfortunately, some people live in poor circumstances rather than just difficult circumstances where they would be more secure.
Waterford County Council has a different way of doing this which we have written on in some cases. It uses its own housing stock for emergency accommodation. Clearly that is not possible in Dublin with the scale of the problem. It is somewhere to get to, where even if people become homeless, they do not end up in homeless accommodation but in something which looks like an ordinary house. They only stay there for a short time since they do not have a right to stay there. The harm that comes from living in unsuitable accommodation is removed from the system. All local authorities should look at it.
I have two more questions. My first is in regard to Barnardos and the hot meals programme that was mentioned in the opening statement. We need to start looking at the DEIS criteria and how that is done. There are schools in parts of my area that have high levels of poverty but they are not in areas that traditionally have high levels of poverty. For example, they could be areas with many HAP tenancies and insecure tenancies, and the cost of rent and the cost of living is going up. Even from talking to the local food bank in my area, I know there are people accessing the food bank who are from areas that did not traditionally access it.
When I was a kid, I would have been one of those who accessed the meals programme and my brothers and sisters and my neighbours would have done the same. There was no stigma in it because everybody was in the same boat. It helped me to get through coming from a disadvantaged area because there was food in my stomach when I was coming home from school. Now, parts of my area have kids going to school hungry and coming home from school hungry, which is really not good enough in 2021.
Do the witnesses from Barnardos have any input into how we might modernise the DEIS criteria or the DEIS programme to make it 2021-proof, for want of a better term?
Ms Suzanne Connolly:
As a quick answer, hot school meals should be universally available and then there would be no question of people even knowing which school they are in or not in. That would be my overall argument. Mr. Moffatt will come in with a far more nuanced approach in terms of what might be possible.
Mr. Stephen Moffatt:
In terms of the specifics around the hot school meals programme, we know from the evaluations that have been done of the benefits to the brains of children and, obviously, the Deputy outlined some of the benefits he has personally experienced. We appreciate that this should be available to all children who would benefit from it. It has been around for long enough that we do not need to slowly roll it out piecemeal. We should acknowledge that it has been further rolled out over the last couple of years. What we know is that not all the schools that applied for the hot school meals programme were accepted onto it. At the very least, every single school that applies for it and meets certain criteria should be able to have its students benefit from it. That is the very first step.
In the longer term, there are obviously issues in that some schools would not be practically placed to be able to be part of the scheme because of the facilities they have. As schools are built, we need to ensure there are kitchen facilities and, where possible, to refurbish existing schools. That is another step that needs to be taken.
In terms of the wider question around DEIS, it is certainly something we understand and appreciate. Among the children using and benefiting from our services, not all of the children experiencing disadvantage are living in areas where they go to DEIS schools. It is certainly something that we must examine to see what impact it has or what it means if children do not have the same sort of support they might have within a DEIS school.
The Government has provided additional money towards DEIS in the recent budget, which is welcome. It is probably a longer-term issue about how the Government builds a strategy around supporting those children who are experiencing disadvantage but who do not live within a DEIS school area. There needs to be a clear plan as to what is going to happen with those children. Is it right that they do not have the same access to support? Is that acceptable? We would argue that the Government needs to think about that in the longer term and really look to address it. Some of that might be addressed by putting more money into DEIS schools so they cover a wider area, and some of it might be having a specific strategy that looks to address the issue of children who are experiencing disadvantage in their education but who might be living in a slightly more affluent area.
I have one further question. I thank Ms Byrne for sharing her journey, which was powerful and very good to listen to. I had a somewhat similar experience, although not quite the same as hers and I did not face the same barriers that she did, especially when looking to retrain and access education. I will give an example from my experience about how things changed for me. I have multiple sclerosis. I was on a disability allowance payment and I needed to change my career because, at the time, I was not physically able to do the work that I was doing. At that time, people were allowed to do a community employment, CE, scheme and keep their disability allowance. As a father of young kids, there was no way I would have been able to afford to do that unless I was getting the dual payment. That was changed within two years of my accessing that programme. If I had accessed the programme two years later, I would not have gone to college, I would not have changed careers and I probably would not be sitting here speaking to these people now.
I take Ms Byrne’s point in regard to carers and disability payments for lone parents. What does she think should change to enable her to access the educational and career paths that she needs at this time?
Ms Kelly Anne Byrne:
Fundamentally, it is down to the number of hours we are allowed to access courses. At the moment, it is still 18.5 hours and if we do any more, if we take on any training above that or if we decide to work over those hours, we have to lose our carer’s allowance. That is just not possible as we would be in severe poverty if we did that. For me, we would need at least 20 hours a week in order to be able to even look at starting to upskill.
As I said, being a mother, a lone parent and a carer is a full-time job in itself. Even to start looking at anything further is a bonus. I do not want my children growing up living in a box, thinking that this is their life now and that they have to follow the footsteps and go onto social welfare themselves. I want them to open their mindsets and to be able to use the abilities they have. Even though some of them have disabilities and things like that, there are ways around it, especially nowadays, when we have moved along a lot from the situation of years ago. We are learning that everybody learns differently and everybody has different ways, and we are adapting to that.
I feel that, for our future, it is time for the Government to allow the correct hours and support us to be able to move on, to gain work and to find a solution, rather than just to stay where we are.
I thank Ms Byrne. I always believe education is one of the best ways to enable people to exit poverty. I mentioned earlier that there are young kids getting involved in criminality in my area. Education is key to preventing that from happening. They can never take it away from you. Once you have an education, they can ever take it away. They might take your home at some stage, they could take your freedom at some stage, but they will never take your education or your knowledge away from you.
I have seen in my own local authority over the years that very good motions were put down in regard to trying to provide extra assistance for people in homelessness. For example, a couple of years ago, a motion was put down in regard to moving councillors’ overseas expenses, which were never used in my time on the local authority, to create a bursary for people in homeless accommodation or who had experienced homelessness in order for them to go back into education. That was voted down by the members of the local authority at the time. This is what I am saying. We need to have joined-up thinking and we need to all be on the same page.
I greatly appreciate all of the feedback and the contributions today.
I have a few points to make. First, in regard to Barnardos, I acknowledge the excellent work that is done. The witnesses might want to comment on the situation coming out of Covid and the need for recovery for children in particular. I am conscious of how they have been affected from a whole range of viewpoints, not just from a school point of view but due to absolutely everything, in particular health and mental health.
The point has been made that child poverty existed before the pandemic, but it was highlighted further during Covid. What are the witnesses' thoughts on these matters?
Regarding the recent increase in energy costs, I know from people coming to my constituency office that people are panicking. In some cases, they are only starting to see increases now, but they are panicking and almost trying to stockpile, which they do not have the means to do.
Those questions are for Barnardos. I will raise a few points with Focus Ireland afterwards.
Ms Suzanne Connolly:
If I address the issue of children post Covid, Mr. Moffatt might speak about energy costs.
Across all of our services, we are aware that children are highly anxious, as are their parents. It is an uncertain time. It is important that children have access to a range of supports depending on the degree of their anxiety. At one level, classroom-based supports can be provided, whereby one talks in general to the class about how all feelings are okay, some of us get very anxious, some of us less so, and we can support one another. That is a universal-type service. Barnardos runs something called the recovery programme, which is part of our roots of empathy programme. It is concerned with normalising feelings of sadness, loss, anxiety and having no control.
However, some children need more than this because their anxiety is more worrying. They need access to individual support through a qualified project worker from an organisation like Barnardos. If they have a more serious level of anxiety, they need access to qualified mental health specialists. We know from our conversations that there is a significant gap because there is too lengthy a waiting list for psychology services.
There is an education link to this, as many children are anxious about their capacity to catch up because of how much schooling they have missed. If children were provided with reassurances that they would be given extra support in a school context, it would make a significant difference. I am delighted that schools are still open. That is essential in terms of the structure that school provides to children from a social and emotional point of view, not just an educational one. Evidence from a survey that we conducted during Covid showed that parents were well aware of this.
Mr. Stephen Moffatt:
Regarding the recovery for children, there are two points, which Ms Connolly referenced. There needs to be direct additional support for children to help with issues around their social and emotional progression and development and their education development. Some steps have been taken by the Department of Education, but whether they go far enough is a wider debate. There has been some regression in children's development. We need to ensure that there is sufficient support to get children to where they want to be and where they should probably be in their development.
We need to remember that children have been impacted by what has happened to their parents during Covid. For many children, particularly those experiencing disadvantage or from disadvantaged backgrounds, their parents may have faced additional adversity and hardship over the past 18 months or so. We know from a survey that we conducted that there was a major increase in financial stress, overall stress and mental health issues. There was also an increase in tensions within the home as well as social isolation for parents. Many of those parents will need additional support. If they do not get it, there is a concern about what the negative impact on the children will be. We will advocate that more family supports need to be available to those parents so that they can get the support they need to address the issues that arose for them during Covid.
Regarding energy costs, we have been having discussions with the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, for example. Families are struggling to meet energy costs. We have been fortunate that the weather has not been terrible, but it will get worse. There have been multiple increases in energy costs across various providers and other providers have pulled out, which has reduced competition. We need to ensure that no child is living in a home that is inappropriately heated. Practical steps can be taken by support agencies like ourselves. We try to work with energy providers to ensure that payment plans are in place and energy is not switched off at any point, but what of a wider plan? Steps were taken by the Government to increase the fuel allowance, but it will not go anywhere near meeting the increased costs this year. We need to think about whether we believe it is acceptable that children are at risk of living in inappropriately heated homes and what the Government believes should be done about this issue. Living in a poorly heated and poorly lit home has repercussions for a child's development.
I agree, particularly with the point on the fuel allowance. A large number of people narrowly fall outside qualifying for it but are still struggling. Sometimes, I do not think there is any joined-up thinking on how to tackle the root of the problem.
I agree that a large number of children are struggling in school. They have lost a year and a half of school. In certain ways, it feels like everything has gone back to normal for them even though it has not. They just go into the next class. There may be emotional impacts for children. If children start struggling and falling behind, they might think they cannot do it, and we all know the vicious cycle to which that can lead. I was glad to hear Ms Connolly mention those points.
What are Focus Ireland's opinions on the situation? The point concerning Waterford City and County Council was interesting, although not every local authority has the resources to manage something like that.
I wish to mention two groups, the first of which is the hidden homeless, namely, people who are staying in overcrowded conditions with family members or friends. I know of families that genuinely want to help out but are afraid to do so because they do not know how long someone might be with them. What might once have been a few weeks or months is now a year or a year and a half. I can understand where local authorities are coming from because they are under pressure. If two or three families are presenting as homeless, who genuinely does not have a bed for the night? People are effectively seen as being sorted even though they are not.
I raise this matter because of its impact on children. Children worry, but it can take a while to pick up on that because they hide their worry. They are trying to cope themselves and they can see that their parents are stressed, so they try to not raise the issue. Previously, they might have been able to have friends over or attend birthday parties, but that type of thing is gone now. This is a difficult situation for people and, sometimes, they can fall through the cracks.
I also wish to discuss the issue of domestic violence. I am frustrated by the fact that it is women – I know that men also experience domestic violence, but we know from the research that it is mainly women – and children who have to leave the home to escape domestic violence. They then present at a refuge or emergency accommodation. A person is left sitting in the house. There has to be a short period in which people leave to get out of the situation, and I understand that there has to be due process and so on, but should we be doing more to ensure that they can return to that home? They are the people responsible for the children. Ultimately, the children should be entitled to their homes. Will the witnesses from Focus Ireland offer their opinions on such situations?
Mr. Mike Allen:
I thank the Chair for those questions. On the first point, we know from Focus Ireland's own research that the most common reason for families becoming homeless is losing what has often been secure accommodation in the private rented sector. This often happens because the landlord is selling or moving family in, which are legitimate reasons under Irish law for evicting someone.
That is the most significant and largest group of people who are becoming homeless. Very often, what happens after the eviction and before they enter homeless services is that they go and live with somebody else among their wider family or friends. It is what the American homeless organisations call "doubling up". That eventually breaks down because it just is not possible for two families to live in a one-family home. Even in the best of family or friend relationships, what starts off as an act of kindness becomes something that could have negative long-term impacts on relationships because of the tensions, and then the family moves into homelessness.
One way of looking at what causes homelessness is that local authorities ask families becoming homeless why they are entering homeless services now. The families say they fell out with their sister or with friends and it goes down as a social conflict, but in fact the real reason they lost their home is for economic reasons, the landlords, and our failure to deliver enough homes and to protect tenants in the private rented sector. They try to prevent themselves going into homelessness by staying with wider family and friends, sometimes for long periods, and then we characterise their reason for going into homelessness as social causes and relationship breakdown. That leads us to completely misunderstand what is happening in terms of driving so many families into homelessness. We must find a better way of measuring that.
One of the most successful programmes of the Dublin Regional Homeless Executive is called Preventing Homelessness. In the technical language it would be known as "diversion". When a family comes in that is facing eviction, it may offer them homeless HAP, which is a genuine prevention of homelessness, or in some cases they convince the family to go back to their own parents or to wider family and stay there. You could argue that that is better than much of the emergency accommodation that might be offered, but it is never counted or measured and there has been no evaluation or understanding of the consequences of that for the family in homelessness or the long-term impact on the children. We are saying that what the Dublin Regional Homeless Executive is doing is a good measure, but the good measures need to be evaluated as well as the poor measures. We need to understand how they can be improved and what their consequences are. We hear it right across the country in a much less organised way that local authorities ask people if they are sure they cannot stay with their mother or cousins. That will be coming back. It has not been around for the past two years, but it will be coming back in a very strong way now that the numbers are going up. We need to understand it better in terms of numbers so that we can put it into our equations for ending homelessness and also knowing how to respond to it.
Domestic violence is very much part of Ms Byrne's story. She told us movingly about the consequences of that. Domestic violence is appalling in itself but the fact that it so often leads to homelessness for the victims of domestic violence is the bit that we can pay a bit more attention to. There is much more that can be done to deal with domestic violence and also a lot more to prevent it turning into homelessness. In recent years, we have been doing a major study with Dr. Paula Mayock in Trinity College Dublin, which will be published before the end of the year. It looks at exactly that question of what happens to households when there is domestic violence. It is not always but usually the mother who flees with the children and ends up in homeless services. Probably the most egregious example of siloisation and lack of integration of our public services when somebody is in crisis is the way we respond to those families fleeing domestic violence; it is up there among the worst that we could do. We will publish that before Christmas. I am not particularly looking for another gig, but if the committee were to invite Dr. Mayock, the researcher, to come in at some stage when the report is out, we would be delighted to go into more detail on what we have discovered in that research and the recommendations emerging from it. We are doing that in partnership with the Housing Agency and the Department of Justice. The partnership while working on the report has been positive, in conjunction with domestic violence charities. I hope the level of co-operation we have had in doing the research will follow through into implementing the recommendations.
I thank Mr. Allen. I cannot wait to see the report. In the course of my work, first as a councillor and then as a Deputy, I am aware that it can be very frustrating. In certain situations women unfortunately end up going back to the home because it is so difficult with the kids and everything else that goes with it. We are failing in that regard. That concludes our questions. If any of the witnesses wants to make a concluding remark, I invite them to do so now.
Mr. Pat Dennigan:
One item that we would like to emphasise before we close is the need for child support workers and help. At the moment, through the support of the HSE, the National Social inclusion Office, Tusla and public donations, we employ ten and a half people in a child support worker capacity across Dublin. They typically work with a caseload of approximately 15 children at a time. We cover between 150 and 160 children at any one time. At the moment, there are 1,806 children homeless in Dublin in emergency accommodation. We estimate that probably about 25% of those would fall directly into having a need for this type of child support work. That is more than 400 children. If we could bridge the gap between the 150 to 160 children and the 400, it would be a huge resource that could be of real benefit in dealing with trauma in homelessness for children. That is the key ask that we would make in terms of prioritisation from the committee, if at all possible.
Ms Suzanne Connolly:
I would like to say how delighted I am that attention is being given to the issue of women, generally speaking, and their children having to flee the home. That would make a massive difference in terms of children's well-being if they could remain in the family home and the alleged perpetrator could leave. That would be a phenomenally successful outcome for children and, generally speaking, mothers.
In the context of what Mr. Dennigan seeks in terms of child support workers, in Barnardos we are asking for family support workers. It is important that whatever services are needed are available across the country. Different organisations could provide the supports needed in different parts of the country and we can draw on each other's expertise. In some areas across the country, we work very closely with Focus Ireland. It provides a particular type of service and Barnardos provides another. I would hate to see a situation where one organisation ends up not being able to provide a service, but that there could be a range of organisations providing this type of support that could be rolled out nationally. Family problems do not happen in isolation. Ms Byrne's fantastic contribution highlights that. Families need overall support for parents and children. They come with a range of issues on which they need support and different organisations can provide that support. Let us think about that when we are being creative about the use of resources because that encourages organisations to work together, which is what children and families need.
Ms Kelly Anne Byrne:
On the point about domestic violence, in my case we lost our home because my ex-partner threatened the landlord. That is how we became homeless in the first place. In other cases, the woman and the child or the man and the children have to flee because it is not safe for them to stay there or to go back there because that is where the perpetrator knows they are. That is why they have to go into some form of hiding or some other safe place until they gain stability and the right supports around them. There would have to be some new form of supports built around them so that they can be in their own home.
That would probably require the Garda to get involved. As of now, I do not see how that is possible. For that reason, parents and their children have to go somewhere safe and hidden as otherwise the perpetrator will know where they are. I wanted to highlight that to the committee.
It is a good example of how we need to ensure it is not the women and children who pay the price in terms of their safety, physical and mental health or, potentially, homelessness. I thank the witnesses for their contributions, in particular Ms Byrne. It was fantastic to have you here and to hear your contribution. We appreciate it. My sincere thanks to Ms Connolly and Mr. Moffatt from Barnardos and Mr. Dennigan and Mr. Allen from Focus Ireland. We really appreciate their contributions. I am sure we will have further engagement with them.
Is it agreed that the opening statements will now be published to the Oireachtas website? Agreed.