Tuesday, 27 April 2010
European Union Work Plan.
I thank the Minister for addressing this Adjournment matter. We are at something of a crossroads at the current time regarding the work plan for the European Union over the next ten years. We have had the Lisbon strategy from 2000-10 and we are about to embark on the 2020 strategy from 2010-20. It is in that context that I make my request here tonight that the Irish Government take the initiative and support the proposal by the European Commission for the setting of a European Union target of a reduction of 25% in poverty in the European Union at the next meeting of the European Council. This is a most appropriate year in which to set that target because it is the European year of combatting poverty and social exclusion and it is the beginning of a new decade of planning for the future in the European Union.
The strategy is currently being finalised by the European Commission and it is likely that the votes will be taken in June by the European Council on behalf of the member states on whether it will accept a target regarding poverty. As the Minister knows, many of the non-governmental organisations are supporting the European Commission on this matter. It seems to me that there is not much sense in having a general wish that poverty be reduced unless one actually establishes a target and seeks to reach it.
A target of 25% over ten years is not unattainable, rather, it is realistic. It is a reduction of only 2.5% per annum in poverty in the European Union. When one examines the figures and finds that 79 to 80 million people in the European Union are living in poverty or are at risk of poverty and 90 million children are also affected, it gives a fairly stark picture of the situation within the European Union. There are 300,000 people in Ireland in consistent poverty and 18% of our child population is at risk of poverty. We have every reason to have a strong, targeted policy in the European Union on the reduction of poverty and the promotion of social inclusion.
It would be great if by 2020 we could say that the target of taking 20 million European citizens out of poverty had been achieved. Unless we establish the target there is no way it will be achieved. It must be a set target. Set strategies must be put in place to deal with it. We in Ireland established the Combat Poverty Agency, even though the Government abolished it last year. It was established by Frank Cluskey of the Labour Party in 1975. It was transported to Europe and has been part and parcel of the European approach to dealing with poverty ever since. Frank Cluskey stated that inequality and poverty are linked, and that inequality leads to poverty.
We have a good track record in dealing with poverty in this country. Believe it or not, there was a substantial reduction in poverty during the Celtic tiger years. We made achievements, which we recognise, but one cannot achievement anything without setting targets. This is something which we can do and on which we can take the lead, but we must make a decision almost immediately because if we do not make a decision, make sure it is on the table and get the other members to agree to it by the time of the European Council meeting in June, it is likely it will not be done at all.
Dick Roche (Minister of State with special responsibility for European Affairs, Department of Foreign Affairs; Minister of State, Department of An Taoiseach; Wicklow, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Deputy raising this matter. We had an opportunity to discuss it very briefly during the meeting last week of the Joint Committee on European Affairs. I agree with the Deputy that targets are important but they have to be precise and not waffle; they have to be very specific.
The spring European Council reached agreement on the main elements of the new European strategy for jobs and growth, known as Europe 2020, which includes key targets which will guide its implementation and arrangements for its improved monitoring. The European Council also agreed that the new strategy will have a sharp focus on the key areas where action is required, namely, knowledge and innovation, a more sustainable economy, high employment and social inclusion. These areas are very much in line with our own national strategies, building Ireland's smart economy and the national action plan for social inclusion.
The Council further agreed on the five headline targets which are to be covered. They are employment; research and development, including innovation; climate change and energy; education; and social inclusion, in particular poverty. These targets cover the main areas where efforts are rapidly needed and they are interrelated and mutually reinforcing. It is intended that the targets will help in measuring progress achieved in implementing the new strategy. An overall governance structure and monitoring mechanisms were also agreed by last month's European Council. These will place the European Council at the centre of the monitoring progress towards the successful implementation of the strategy over the coming decade. The Deputy will agree with me that there is no better equipped body to do that than that which comprises heads of state and Governments.
In the case of the education and social inclusion targets, further work needs to be done to reach numerical rates and appropriate indicators. These are important targets and it is essential that we get the rates and indicators right, in order that they are relevant and appropriate right across the entire the Union. The European Council will return to elaborate upon these targets at its June meeting, which has already been agreed. The inclusion by the European Council of the headline targets on education and social inclusion, in particular poverty, is a reflection of the extreme seriousness and centrality of these issues to this new strategy. It is only because the European Council recognises that these are areas where efforts are rapidly needed that they have been included in this very select group of just five European Union level targets.
I referred to this during the course of the meeting of the Joint Committee on European Affairs last week. The previous programme had become like a Christmas tree, with everybody adding his or her favourite bauble. The reality is that if one does not have precision and focus one does not get results, which is why the European Council is correct to pick five key targets. Deputy Costello suggested targets are important but they must, as I said at the outset, be precise.
Let me emphasise that it is not a question of Ireland, or any other country, wishing to exclude a focus on the poverty issue.
It is explicitly included but deliberations are needed among the 27 member states and with the Commission on the necessary methods to be employed.
In common with many other EU partners, we had certain concerns about the initial Commission proposal for the sole use of an "at risk of poverty" target when measuring social cohesion. Nationally, we use a composite measure of consistent poverty, which includes the "at risk of poverty" measure, as well as a measure of basic deprivation. The consistent poverty measure provides a more comprehensive picture of the true levels of poverty. We will work intensively over the period ahead with EU partners and the Commission to arrive at a broadly agreeable indicator in this area. We have every expectation that this will be achievable before the European Council will return to elaborate upon these targets at its June meeting.
Prior to the meeting considerable work must be undertaken on various aspects of the strategy, including work related to the EU headline targets on education and social inclusion, in particular, poverty; the development of national targets by each member state in dialogue with the Commission; the identification of bottlenecks constraining growth at national and EU level; the development by the Commission of its proposals for action at EU level, notably through the flagship initiatives; and the development of more focused integrated guidelines, including the broad economic policy guidelines and employment guidelines, which it is envisaged will provide the framework for the strategy at member state level. Proposals for these guidelines were adopted by the Commission in Brussels earlier.
Our national process of follow-up to the conclusions of the spring European Council on this new strategy is under way through a process of interdepartmental consultation. An initial meeting with the European Commission and Spanish Presidency has been scheduled for 29 April. The purpose of this initial meeting will be to begin the process of dialogue with the Commission concerning Ireland's national targets, as envisaged under the new strategy. This will need to happen quite quickly, given the relatively tight timelines agreed and set out by the spring European Council for this work.
In advance of the June Council meeting, when it is intended the strategy, including its five headline targets, will be formally adopted, a wide range of actions will take place both at national and EU levels, ranging from various meetings of EU expert groups and working groups to a series of meetings of the Council in its various formations, including inter alia the General Affairs and Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs, EPSCO, Councils meetings. Ireland will continue to be actively engaged with the elaboration of this new EU strategy for jobs and growth in all these fora. It can provide a useful impulse at EU level to the efforts of member states, including Ireland, to secure a recovery based on inclusive growth.
I assured the Deputy last week that there is no wish whatsoever to water down this process in any member state but given that we have isolated five areas, there is a wish that the targets will be precise and not simply waffle because that is the way we will make the progress we all want.