Tuesday, 24 May 2005
Question 53: To ask the Minister for Social and Family Affairs if his attention has been drawn to the recent report produced by Community Platform which found that national partnership is not meeting the needs of those living in poverty; if he intends to raise this issue with the social partners; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [13042/05]
The report to which the Deputy refers is, I understand, Community Platform's mid-term review of the Sustaining Progress agreement. A copy of the report was made available to my Department yesterday and is being examined. As Minister with overall responsibility for the national action plan against poverty and social exclusion, I noted the platform's reported contention that national partnership is not meeting the needs of people living in poverty. The Deputy will be aware that Sustaining Progress and the plan against poverty and social exclusion are complementary strategic initiatives aimed at delivering a fair and inclusive society to all citizens. Spending on social welfare has increased from €7.8 billion to €12.2 billion since 2001. During this period, the lowest social welfare rates have increased by 40% while the consumer price index has increased by just over 13%.
On foot of the 2005 budget, welfare payments have increased by three times the expected rate of inflation. Over its lifetime and in addition to increases in weekly payments, the Government has introduced substantial increases under the child benefit scheme which is a key element of its drive to combat child poverty. Between 1997 and April 2005, the rate of child benefit was increased from €38.09 per month for the first two children and €49.52 for each child thereafter to €141.60 per month for each of the first two children and to €177.30 per month for the third and each subsequent child. There have also been significant improvements in my Department's family income supplement scheme, including the assessment of entitlements on the basis of net rather than gross income and progressive increases in the income limits. It must be further emphasised that improvements in social welfare have taken place against the backdrop of Ireland's achievement of the lowest unemployment rate, at 4.4%, in the EU.
To address the circumstances of those children most at risk of poverty, I am considering the introduction of a second tier of supports in addition to child benefit and other support entitlements to be aimed specifically at families in greatest need. I am also concerned about the vulnerable circumstances of many lone parents, most of whom are women. My Department is involved in an interdepartmental working group which is developing a strategy to eliminate obstacles to employment for lone parents. My Department is also participating in an interdepartmental working committee on early child care and education which is chaired by the National Children's Office. The work of the committee is at an advanced stage and its outcome will make an important contribution to the determination of the right mix of services and income support to facilitate employment take-up and care for children.
Poverty is a multidimensional problem which requires action across a wide range of policy areas if it is to be tackled decisively. In addition to income supports, the national action plan sets ambitious targets across a range of policy areas, including employment, health, education, housing and accommodation, all of which impact on poverty and social exclusion. Social inclusion commitments under Sustaining Progress, especially many of the special initiatives to be progressed during the lifetime of the agreement have added a strong impetus. There has been substantial social partnership involvement in the development and ongoing implementation of the national action plan against poverty and social exclusion. The social partners are represented on the social inclusion consultative group, which along with other institutional structures, supports the implementation, monitoring and evaluation of the national action plan.
The Minister is aware that the community platform represents 25 participant organisations including, Age Action Ireland, the Community Action Network, the Community Workers Co-operative, the Forum of People with Disabilities. As the Minister stated, the community platform was set up in 1996 to enable participation in social partnership negotiations at national level. Why would it state in its mid-term review that apart from the pay deal part of Sustaining Progress, it has little connection with real people facing real disadvantage, exclusion or poverty? Is it not a most serious evaluation and indictment of the process that people would feel excluded?
The community platform participated in the social partnership agreements since 2000 but neither it nor the National Women's Council of Ireland endorsed Sustaining Progress because they said it displayed the refusal of Government to engage in addressing anti-poverty or equality issues. Is the Government concerned about the impact and thrust of this evaluation?
Let us take the example of the Community Workers Co-operative, from which the Minister of State, Deputy Noel Ahern, removed all core funding. Surely this action suggests that the Government is not that interested in giving disadvantaged people a key role in the area of citizenship decision making? By withdrawing that funding the Government showed scant regard for what was portrayed as a sincerely held policy. It would appear that anybody who gives any critical evaluation of the social partnership model is ruled out for funding by the Government. Does the Minister accept this is a short-sighted and possibly cynical approach on the part of the Government? Anybody who appears not to share the 'hallelujah' mode of social partnership is effectively ruled out of the process. They perceive themselves to be at the butt end of the big stick from Government. Some of the social partners might not like me saying this. I refer to the groups who appear to dominate the stage to the exclusion of people who make a difference at the level at which they operate and who want to participate and make positive and constructive contributions to this important debate.
Is the Minister concerned that the Government has excluded as social partners many of those organisations interested in the plight of those experiencing poverty? Will the Minister address this issue so that their voices can be heard?
I also wish to hear the Minister's opinion on the fact that the Government is removing core funding from these organisations, many of which are outside the social partnership structure, and are working directly with people experiencing poverty. What representation is the Minister for Social and Family Affairs with direct responsibility for the alleviation of poverty, making to ensure that these bodies receive proper funding from the Government?
Literally dozens of bodies are in receipt of Government funding in the poverty area. They are all working hard. I have met more than 30 of them in recent weeks on a one to one basis to discuss the issue with them. Through those meetings I have gained a better understanding of their concerns. It should be noted that the community platform withdrew from the national partnership process prior to finalisation of the current agreement.
There were 25 participant organisations in the platform, including the Irish National Organisation of the Unemployed, the Simon Community of Ireland, the Migrants Rights Centre and the Vincentian Partnership for Social Justice. I am available at all times to meet those groups and hear what they have to say.
It is probably not the occasion to make a wider statement on the poverty issues raised except to say again that in the past four years the total welfare spend has increased from €7 billion to €12 billion. The lowest rate of social welfare increases has risen by 40% at a time when inflation was 13%. The recent budget was three times the rate of inflation. Child benefit has increased from €38 to €177 against a backdrop of the lowest unemployment rate in Europe of 4%. A great deal is happening out there that requires constant daily investment and attention, which the Government is attempting to give it.