Dáil debates

Thursday, 23 September 2021

Ombudsman for Children's Initiative on Eliminating Child Poverty and Child Homelessness: Statements


1:10 pm

Photo of Roderic O'GormanRoderic O'Gorman (Dublin West, Green Party) | Oireachtas source

I am delighted to speak to the initiative that Niall Muldoon, the Ombudsman for Children, has been progressing over recent weeks. It is a timely debate as we see the impact of our vaccination programme on the levels of Covid-19 in the community and the return of children, young people and young adults to schools and further education campuses.

The well-being of children should be a central priority for every government but for this Government that need is acute as we emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic. I am here to speak to the work being progressed by my Department, as well as that of the Department of Social Protection in tackling child poverty, of the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage in tackling child homelessness, of the Department of Education in relation to education of children from disadvantaged backgrounds and, more widely, how this ties in with the proposal from the Ombudsman.

Growing up in a marginalised and disadvantaged community and experiencing intergenerational cycles of poverty, educational disadvantage and unemployment seriously hinder a child or young person's opportunities in life. Our approach to these well-known risk factors needs to be sharper and more systematic, focusing on addressing core characteristics around entrenched child poverty. The prerequisite for these next steps is a renewed and strengthened cross-Government focus on children and young people and to continue to progress in reducing child poverty further with the objective of meeting our ambitious targets. We need to continue our efforts to address the child poverty agenda, building on progress to date and taking full account of the opportunities provided by the EU to resource innovative responses.

The Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures policy framework included a commitment to lift 70,000 children out of consistent poverty by 2020. To date, considerable work has been carried out to target the needs of children in this cohort, involving a cross-governmental and collaborative approach with the non-governmental organisation, NGO, sector and working with the Department of Social Protection and other relevant Departments and agencies. Progress has been made with a 4.6% drop child poverty rate between 2014 and 2019, at which point 8.1% of children were still living in consistent poverty.

Clearly, and let there be no doubt as to the Government’s position on this, much more needs to be achieved. We must redouble and refocus our efforts if we are to reduce child poverty further, particularly in light of Covid-19 pandemic. Critically, we need to look at enhancing policy coherence and improving integrated service provision in tandem with the measures introduced by Government in the past five budgets.

The full impact of the pandemic on the economy is yet to be understood, but it is clear that we need to mitigate its effects on children and young people in particular. It goes without saying that child poverty and our efforts to eradicate disadvantage for the most vulnerable will remain a top priority for the successor national policy framework for children and young people.

The proposal put forward by the Ombudsman for Children is important. In coming through the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic, there is now the opportunity to explore what a better normal could and should be for children and young people. This allows us to open a broader conversation on the issues, experiences and impact that were brought into even sharper relief during the pandemic. It also demands of us a redoubling of efforts to ensure that our focus is firmly on many of the key and enduring challenges facing children and young people. These issues and our responses to such challenges will inform our approach to the very important next steps: Ireland's implementation of the EU child guarantee to address child poverty, and the development of a new national policy framework for children and young people as a successor to Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures.

The EU child guarantee provides Ireland with a real opportunity to refocus and, where necessary, re-evaluate our approach in tackling child poverty and promoting children's well-being. The objective of the guarantee is to prevent and combat social exclusion by guaranteeing access for children who are in need of a range of key services. It calls on member states to guarantee for children in need free access to early childhood education and care, education, including school-based activities, and healthcare and to ensure effective access to healthy nutrition, a healthy meal each school day and adequate housing. The guarantee seeks to promote equal opportunities for children at risk of poverty or social exclusion and to break cycles of intergenerational disadvantage. In 2020, 18 million children in the EU lived in households at risk of poverty or social exclusion. The plan suggests a target for the EU to reduce the number of people at risk of poverty or social inclusion by at least 15 million by 2030, of which at least 5 million would be children. The EU child guarantee offers countries guidance on integrated strategies to tackle child poverty and promote children's well-being. It goes beyond welfare and labour market policies in order to promote access to quality services and the active participation of children themselves. It further highlights the importance of EU cohesion policy in mobilising reform. The text of the recommendation for an EU child guarantee was agreed and adopted by the European Council on 14 June and Ireland played an active role in the drafting of the text and the related discussions. Member state governments will submit to the Commission national action plans on how the child guarantee is to be progressed by mid-March 2022. Another key part of the child guarantee will be the development of an enabling policy framework to deliver on milestones set out in the national action plan. The children and young people's NGO sector will play an important part in advancing and implementing Ireland's action plan under the EU child guarantee, and I look forward to this fruitful and progressive collaboration.

There is no doubt but that children and young people in our society are facing historic adversity as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic and public health measures. I note the findings of the Growing Up in Ireland special Covid-19 survey, which showed numerous difficulties for children across age cohorts. More than half of all 12-year-olds and 22-year-old students reported difficulty with remote learning. Those from low-income families without a quiet place to study or adequate internet were the worst affected. Those from low-income households were also more likely to live with someone vulnerable to severe symptoms of Covid-19 and also reported spending less time outdoors and missing organised cultural events and sports. The Government is committed to mitigating and addressing these problems in a co-ordinated way.

Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures, the national policy framework for children and young people, continues to inform our approach to developing policy for children and young people, offering a positive, inclusive vision for the future of our country. This framework was developed to help all of government make a difference to children and young people's lives. The significant majority of commitments made by the Government under this strategy have now been delivered. As of 2019, almost 70% of commitments are now complete across the Government, with more in progress, and five of six commitments relating to housing are completed or in progress.

The Department of Social Protection works to alleviate and prevent child poverty by providing a number of income supports for families. Budgets over recent years have introduced a number of measures that have had and will continue to have a direct and positive impact on poverty generally and child poverty in particular. The Irish social transfer system is consistently one of the most effective systems at reducing poverty across the EU.

The roadmap for social inclusion is the national poverty reduction and social inclusion strategy and includes the goal of reducing child poverty in Ireland and ensuring that all families have the opportunity to participate fully in society. The roadmap includes a specific commitment to continue to target a reduction in poverty among children and families on low incomes as part of the annual budget process, along with commitments related to the establishment of monitoring of new child poverty targets at national and EU level.

Feedback from the child poverty workshop at the 2021 social inclusion forum noted that the new child poverty target requires whole-of-government support, that the new target should be that no child be in poverty, with adequate poverty-proofing measures, and that income adequacy should be ensured, with increased targeted social welfare supports to prevent families entering poverty.

Work on the development of a new national child poverty target is in the initial stages and will be developed in the context of the new EU child guarantee and the headline poverty target for the action plan for the European pillar of social rights.

The school meals programme provides funding towards the provision of food to over 1,500 schools and organisations, benefiting 230,000 children. The objective is to provide regular nutritious food to children who are unable, due to lack of good-quality food, to take full advantage of the education provided to them. The programme is an important component of policies to encourage school attendance and extra educational achievement. A budget of €65.1 million has been provided for the scheme in 2021 and the programme will continue in 2022. I saw the impact of the additional investment for myself on Monday in a new kitchen facility in Ladyswell National School in my constituency.

My Department is also addressing the impact of child poverty through a focus on prevention and early intervention. Prevention and early intervention means anticipating possible problems, minimising risks as they arise and targeting resources at those at high risk or showing early signs of a problem. Since the publication of Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures in 2014, my Department has pursued a co-ordinated approach to championing prevention and early intervention which addresses the needs of those suffering the greatest disadvantage.

My Department supports the prevention, partnership and family support, PPFS, programme in Tusla. The aim of the PPFS programme is to prevent risks to children and young people arising or escalating through building sustainable capacity and manpower within Tusla and partner organisations to perform early intervention work. As part of the PPFS programme, Tusla also operates the ABC programme, a targeted funding measure aimed at addressing the impacts of child poverty in 12 areas of disadvantage across Ireland. This funding measure is designed to mitigate the impact of poverty and improve outcomes for children, young people and their families across disadvantaged areas through the PPFS implementation structure, including children and young people's services committees, CYPSCs, family resource centres and child and family support networks. The ABC programme is now fully integrated into Tusla as part of the PPFS programme and delivered as part of Tusla's core budget. By integrating it into the wider Tusla infrastructure, my Department has ensured that the Tusla ABC programme is linked into the wider range of measures and responses to addressing child poverty.

I also recognise, however, that these initiatives alone do not meet the needs of children, young people and their families experiencing poverty and disadvantage in our society. As a result, my Department designed the What Works initiative, with funding from the Dormant Accounts Fund, to harness our investment in the area of prevention and early intervention. What Works is regarded internationally as a very innovative initiative led by the Government. It takes a co-ordinated approach to mainstreaming prevention and early intervention and provides investment in this sector to maximise its impact on children, young people and families suffering disadvantage. Recently, I announced that more than €1 million will be allocated to children's services in 2021 alone through the What Works initiative. This funds initiatives such as the What Works training fund, which is designed to support non-profit community and voluntary organisations that are members of child and family support networks, which provide direct services to children, young people and families in areas of disadvantage to meet their training needs. Another example is the Ark's Live from the Ark, funded through the Rethink Ireland's children and youth digital solutions fund, which is aimed at delivering creative workshops and downloadable activity packs to Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools, DEIS, schools nationwide, reaching children who might otherwise not have access to this resource.

As for addressing the issue of child homelessness post Covid, Housing for All: A New Housing Plan for Ireland is the Government's housing plan to 2030 and was launched recently.

It is a multi-annual, multibillion euro plan that will improve Ireland's housing system and deliver more homes of all types for people with different housing needs. It contains a comprehensive strategic approach to tackling homelessness. An important aspect of the plan is supporting families and children experiencing homelessness, which is a priority for the Government. Family homelessness has seen an appreciable reduction since 2019 but remains a key challenge. The overriding objective is to provide homes to households at risk of, or experiencing, homelessness through the various social housing supports available.

Housing for All commits the Government to working towards eradicating homelessness by 2030. This commitment applies to children and families, as well as all who are homeless. Budget 2021 made provision for €218 million in funding for homeless services. This reflects the priority the Government is giving to the issue. The funding ensures that local authorities can continue to provide emergency accommodation and other essential support services to households experiencing homelessness, while also ensuring pathways out of homelessness for households in emergency accommodation are secured as quickly as possible.

For those experiencing homelessness, this additional funding supports the development and operation of increased numbers of family hubs and other supported facilities for single individuals, to ensure that sufficient shelter is available for everyone who requires it. It is important to bear in mind that a hub is not a home and our fundamental objective remains to provide homes for the families concerned. The new facilities provide more security and stability for homeless families than is possible in hotel accommodation. Ultimately, however, the priority must be to exit families and children from emergency accommodation as quickly as possible.

As we are all aware, tackling child and family homelessness requires an inter-agency approach. Housing for All commits to the ongoing enhancement of family supports and prevention and early intervention services for children and their families through a multi-agency and co-ordinated response. It also commits the Government to establishing a new national homeless action committee. This cross-governmental and inter-agency oversight group will be tasked with ensuring better coherence and co-ordination of homeless-related services in the delivery of policy measures and actions. The work of the group will be informed by Housing for All and will oversee the implementation of its inter-agency elements.

In 2020, the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, established a high-level homelessness task force to provide a forum for engagement with key organisations working to address homelessness. The task force is also inputting into the implementation of the commitments on homelessness in Housing for All. Its membership consists of the chief executives of the Dublin Region Homeless Executive, Crosscare, Depaul Ireland, Focus Ireland, the Peter McVerry Trust, Dublin Simon Community, Threshold and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. Homelessness among young people is a core concern of the task force and has been addressed at its meetings, most recently on 26 July and 1 September this year.

I thank the Office of the Ombudsman for Children for this initiative. I look forward to hearing the views of Deputies, which I will take on board when I meet with the ombudsman on this matter in the coming weeks.


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