Thursday, 23 September 2021
Ombudsman for Children's Initiative on Eliminating Child Poverty and Child Homelessness: Statements
I welcome the opportunity to discuss this initiative. Children have been so badly affected by Covid and lockdowns. Schools were closed, sports were stopped and music, art and drama were all gone. Rites of passage, such as communions, confirmations, graduations, debs and even birthday parties, were put on pause. Children were kept apart from one another and from their families, their aunties, uncles and grandparents. In the very early days, children were even labelled as super-spreaders and excluded from public places. These measures were, of course, necessary to protect children, families and the vulnerable in our communities, but that did not make it any easier. As we prepare to get back to normal life, let us work together to make it a better normal for children.
It is often said children are remarkably resilient, but truth be told, the past 18 months has been really difficult on all of us, including children. As we begin to emerge from the pandemic, it is important we learn lessons and do not return to the all the ways of the past. Instead, we must see how we can improve on how children are educated, cared for and supported in society. A better normal, as the Ombudsman for Children says, is what we need to strive to achieve. This is his initiative, seeking the commitment of the Government to prioritising children as we plan for a life post Covid.
Covid has exposed so many inequalities among children and young people, and the particular disadvantage children from certain backgrounds, and from all walks of life, face. This initiative sets out two issues we simply must address, namely, child poverty and child homelessness. A heartbreaking statistic in the ombudsman's report was quoted earlier. Of the 40,000 babies born since the start of the pandemic, 8,000 will left the maternity hospital to spend their first night in marginalised or disadvantaged circumstances or, in other cases, homelessness. I had to read that statistic about four times before I believed it. It is harrowing to see it in black and white and to think we as a society are living that.
Nevertheless, we have made good on promises and progress and it is important to acknowledge that too. Family homelessness is at its lowest level in five years, while this year almost 2,000 fewer children are living in emergency accommodation than in previous years. One child living in emergency accommodation is one too many, but at least it is progress. Today, the Minister announced the appointment of an independent group to track progress on ending direct provision, a living situation that negatively impacts some of the most vulnerable children. One child living in poverty is one too many, and much more still needs to be done to address this issue. Poverty during childhood is linked to poorer outcomes in many other key developmental areas, such as educational attainment, school engagement, social and emotional development, overall health and quality of life. Our schools offer a great pathway for supporting young people living in poverty and lifting them out of poverty. Targeting services in our schools in order that those most at risk of slipping below the poverty line can be identified, helped and supported is such a welcome suggestion on the part of the Ombudsman for Children and is happening in schools throughout the country and in my constituency.
Food poverty, in itself, is a major issue among children. Today, participants in the Food Systems Summit are gathering at the UN to discuss this very issue, talking about how we can move to a more sustainable model of food production globally. Food poverty among children is both a global and a national issue. The Irish Youth Foundation reported last year that 100,000 children in Ireland were going to bed hungry every night.
Greater investment in, and expansion of, free school dinners, hot meals programmes and breakfast clubs could ensure that every child is guaranteed at least one nutritious and substantial meal a day. I welcome the progress that is happening with these schemes. It is a factor that is often highlighted for improving school performance, as well as physical health.
The current back to school clothing and footwear allowance is a lifeline for many families in my constituency. I would welcome further expansion of this to help families with the additional costs and with inflation. It is also very important that a policy successor to Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures: The National Policy Framework for Children and Young People 2014-2020 is decided on soon. We need a new plan for the current time. We must endeavour to give the young people of Ireland a better normal.