Dáil debates

Thursday, 5 February 2015

Ceisteanna - Questions - Priority Questions

Child Poverty

9:50 am

Photo of Séamus HealySéamus Healy (Tipperary South, Workers and Unemployed Action Group)
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3. To ask the Minister for Social Protection in view of 400,000 children living in households experiencing multiple forms of deprivation and 135,000 children suffering daily material deprivation, according to the recent Central Statistics Office, SILC, report; the number of children living in consistent poverty, meaning they are living both at risk of poverty and experiencing deprivation, having doubled from 6% to just under 12% between 2008 and 2013; international comparisons that show how Poland and Chile have done a more effective job in protecting children during the recession than Ireland; and the cumulative reductions in child benefit per year from 2008 to 2015, including the reductions introduced by her (details supplied), if she will take immediate action in advance of the next budget to fully restore these child benefit reductions; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [5089/15]

Photo of Séamus HealySéamus Healy (Tipperary South, Workers and Unemployed Action Group)
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There is a frightening scale of child poverty in this country, and professionals dealing with vulnerable families have known that for a number of years. We had further official confirmation of that recently with the Central Statistics Office SILC figures and the UNICEF report of last year. Surely that is a wake-up call for the Minister and her Department to address this issue. I ask that as a first step in doing so she would reverse the savage cuts to child benefit implemented in recent years.

Photo of Joan BurtonJoan Burton (Minister, Department of Social Protection; Dublin West, Labour)
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Child benefit is a universal payment made to families with children. It assists those families with the cost associated with raising children. It is paid to almost 1.2 million children in over 600,000 families. The estimated expenditure in 2014 was €1.9 billion.

In budget 2015, the Government committed a further €96 million for children, including an increase of €5 per month in child benefit. A total of €72 million extra will be spent on child benefit in 2015 with €22 million provided for expenditure on the new back to work family dividend, and an additional €2 million on the school meals programme. Altogether, the Department of Social Protection will spend €3 billion in providing income support for families through child benefit, qualified child increases for welfare recipients, that is €30 per week per child for somebody on a social welfare income, family income supplement and the back to school clothing and footwear allowance.

The CSO SILC release for 2013, which takes the data from 2012 and 2013, which was the height of the crisis we inherited, shows that 11.7% of children were in consistent poverty, a slight but not statistically significant increase on the 2012 rate. On the other hand, the at-risk-of-poverty rate for children decreased from 18.8% in 2012 to 17.9% in 2013. I have already commented in the House today on the importance of social transfers in Ireland in reducing poverty.

The figures for 2013 show that social transfers reduced the at-risk-of-poverty rate for children from 45.5% to 17.9%, thereby lifting a quarter of all children out of poverty. This equates to a poverty reduction effect of 60.7% in 2013, an increase on 2012 when the poverty reduction effect was 50.1%. Ireland is among the best performing member states in the EU in this regard.

The economic recovery this Government has delivered is not an end in itself; what is critical is that it enables us to secure a social recovery, starting with raising living standards. That process started this month, as tax reductions for all workers and the €5 increase in child benefit took effect for all families. Child benefit will remain as a universal payment because of its crucial importance to mothers in particular and to men parenting their children on their own, and I intend to increase it again in the budget later this year.

Photo of Séamus HealySéamus Healy (Tipperary South, Workers and Unemployed Action Group)
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There are 135,000 children living in material poverty in this country, and approximately 400,000 households are suffering deprivation. That is 30% of the population according to the Central Statistics Office. Child poverty has doubled in the period of the recession, from approximately 6% initially to nearly 12% today. The UNICEF report shows that children here have fallen further and faster into poverty over and above any other developed country. Child benefit was cut over the period of the recession by various amounts. For example, a family with three children has lost €1,416 per annum or €118 per month. That has driven children and families into poverty.

Prior to the last election the Minister made child benefit a priority and told the public not to vote for Fine Gael because it was proposing to cut child benefit. I ask the Minister now to reverse the cuts she has imposed on children and families.

Photo of Joan BurtonJoan Burton (Minister, Department of Social Protection; Dublin West, Labour)
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The United Nations Human Development Index Report 2014, which measures people's well-being, including that of children, places Ireland No. 11 just after the Scandinavian countries. We are among the highest performers in the world in regard to the human development index because of our strong social transfer system. The Deputy refers to Poland and Chile. Poland is No. 35 on the index and Chile is No. 41. Those are the countries to which the Deputy wants Ireland to aspire.

To go back to Deputy O'Dea's earlier question, with regard to Poland, the lowest rate payable per child in child benefit per month is €18. In terms of that being an aspiration for Ireland, €135 per month per child, which we hope to increase this year again, is a significantly better performance than the two countries the Deputy quoted so admiringly. The highest amount payable in Poland for children in larger families is €28 a month compared to our €135 per child. With regard to Chile, is the Deputy aware that the family support payment, the subsidio único familiar, is US$13 a month for a three year contract period? That is it.

The Deputy should consider what the reality is in Ireland. We have a huge amount of work to do to get more people back to work and, in particular, to help lone parents back to education, work and training because the Deputy is correct in saying that the greatest difficulties are being experienced by lone parents. However, as Professor John FitzGerald says, our system of social transfers is so strong it lifts 50% to 60% of children out of the risk of poverty.

Photo of Séamus HealySéamus Healy (Tipperary South, Workers and Unemployed Action Group)
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The Minister is being deliberately misleading with regard to Chile and Poland. No one has suggested that Ireland should have levels of child benefit comparable to those countries.

10 o’clock

The Central Statistics Office and UNICEF have stated there are frightening levels of child poverty in this country, that they have increased substantially in recent years, that if they are not tackled, they will create significant problems in the future in respect of dependency and that young people and children will not be looked after properly as a result of austerity. The levels are frightening. The Minister believed previously that child benefit should be increased and protected. Will she do this and reverse the cuts she has imposed on families and children in the past few years?

10:00 am

Photo of Joan BurtonJoan Burton (Minister, Department of Social Protection; Dublin West, Labour)
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I am responding to what the Deputy asked in his question, in which he said Poland and Chile had done a more effective job in protecting children. If his idea of effectiveness, in economic terms, is that US$13 a month for a family for a three year period is better and more effective-----

Photo of Séamus HealySéamus Healy (Tipperary South, Workers and Unemployed Action Group)
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The Minister is deliberately being misleading.

Photo of Joan BurtonJoan Burton (Minister, Department of Social Protection; Dublin West, Labour)
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Whoever researched the question for the Deputy included this in the question. If the Deputy thinks the payment in Poland of €18 to €28 per month is better than €135, I am not sure how he can make the economics better. He should acknowledge that in the human development index, HDI, Ireland is eleventh in the world after the Scandinavian countries and Switzerland, whereas, unfortunately, Poland and Chile are 30 to 40 points behind us.

With regard to child poverty levels in Ireland, a very important issue, in the Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures policy framework for children the target is to lift 70,000 children out of poverty by 2020. Much of this will depend on one or more of the parents of the children finding employment, the children receiving a good education and then being given an opportunity to secure employment.