Dáil debates

Thursday, 23 September 2021

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

 

1:10 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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I am happy to call on the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O'Gorman, to make his statement under Standing Order 55.

Photo of Roderic O'GormanRoderic O'Gorman (Dublin West, Green Party)
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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.

1:25 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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The next speaker is Deputy Funchion, who is sharing time with Deputies Martin Kenny, Buckley, Tully and Gould.

Photo of Kathleen FunchionKathleen Funchion (Carlow-Kilkenny, Sinn Fein)
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I thank Dr. Niall Muldoon and the Office of the Ombudsman for Children for requesting this discussion. Dr. Muldoon has generally been progressive in his role and his office is absolutely excellent in the work it does. We should take every opportunity to discuss issues affecting children, including the impact of the Covid-19 crisis and, in particular, the scourge of child poverty and homelessness.

The pandemic has had an enormous impact on the developmental, physical and mental well-being of children in Ireland. The world as children knew it has fundamentally changed. The unprecedented challenges facing children as we emerge from Covid-19 are not insignificant. The changes have impacted their physical and mental health, the fair and equitable access they should enjoy to education and a secure home, and their social outlets. Children's ability to play was completely curtailed during this period. There was a closure of juvenile sports activities, as well as dance, music and other after-school activities. I have spoken regularly about the Young Irish Film Makers group and the film clubs in which children participate. All those activities were closed or had to go online, which was not great either, particularly for younger children. Interaction was limited and it was difficult for them to concentrate in a Zoom setting. We all find that hard at times and it is even more difficult for this age group.

Children returned to classrooms that were a completely changed environment, with social distancing, segregation by way of pods and the requirement to wear face masks for some pupils. Children in one-parent homes, those experiencing homelessness, persistent poverty and domestic violence, children living in direct provision and young people struggling with addiction and substance abuse have been disproportionately affected by the loss of contact with the outside world. Inequalities already experienced by many vulnerable and disadvantaged children in the Irish Traveller community and Roma and migrant communities have been accelerated as services and supports were temporarily removed or closed during the pandemic. Vulnerable children felt the impact of this the most.

As many parents lost employment or were forced to reduce their economic activity, children were at increased risk of experiencing poverty. The switch to online learning did not work in all households. I personally found the online schooling experience extremely difficult and I do not know how teachers or anybody else does it. It certainly was a challenge. Families already experiencing multiple adversities found that their difficulties intensified during the pandemic. They were unable to access the same level of support from family and friends and, simultaneously, were not able to access the former level of professional support from community health and specialist services. It is unreasonable to expect children of all backgrounds and abilities simply to pick up where they left off. We have a duty of care to help already struggling families and ensure they do not fall into homelessness.

I am also concerned that the pandemic has further embedded the existing developmental gap between disadvantaged children and their peers, which will become apparent when they return to school. I recognise that this is within the sphere of the Department of Education, but anything we can do to help children along must be done. Even if they were not struggling before the Covid crisis, just getting back into the whole routine and system of homework and everything else can be difficult. Many children feel like they went out in third class, say, and came back in fourth class. It is very hard to catch up and anything we can do in that regard will have long-term benefits for children, particularly in terms of their emotional well-being. When children are struggling in school, they start to dread going in and worry about homework. It becomes a very negative circle. Anything that can be done in that regard should definitely be emphasised.

A range of educational, socio-economic and health inequalities have been further exacerbated following the pandemic. Digital inequalities mean that families who might benefit the most from early intervention may lose out. As we come out of the Covid crisis, undetected needs will emerge. As Dr. Muldoon rightly points out, children must be prioritised. As the calls from industry grow louder, children's voices must not be lost. That is key, particularly in the run-up to the budget. We have a real opportunity to address how children are living in Ireland. I and several of my colleagues in Sinn Féin have been working on a document that addresses some of the obstacles facing children and their families as we emerge from the pandemic. In my meetings with various stakeholders and child welfare advocates, I was struck by the need for a cross-departmental strategy for children. A children's recovery plan is essential. We hope to publish our document in the coming weeks.

An issue that continues to come up again and again, and which particularly affects children from disadvantaged and marginalised backgrounds, is that of access to vital early years and childcare hours through the national childcare scheme. Unfortunately, the Department continues to deny that the under-allocation of hours to children on the basis of their parents' employment or educational status is having a detrimental impact. That is unacceptable. I have raised this point in nearly all the questions I have put to the Minister and it remains an issue.

I again thank Dr. Muldoon and his staff for their progressive and excellent work.

Photo of Martin KennyMartin Kenny (Sligo-Leitrim, Sinn Fein)
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I commend Dr. Muldoon and his staff on the work they are doing. Poverty strikes at the heart of people's lives and is central to the issues we need to resolve in our country. Last Monday, I visited a family in my constituency whose situation is an example of the gaps that exist in the system. There are two small children in this family and the mother has a serious problem with her back that prevents her from functioning properly and leaves her unable to work. She cannot get disability benefit because, while she worked at different times, she did not always get stamps and does not have enough of them to qualify. She applied for disability allowance but when the total was added up, comprising her payment of €203, plus €134 for the other adult in the house and €38 each for the two children, it came to €413. As her husband earns €30 more than that, she cannot get any payment. I suggested to her that the working family payment was another option. However, her husband is a bread delivery man.

He gets up at 2 a.m. to deliver bread so that he can be home early in the day to help her with the children because she is unable to manage with them. As he is self-employed, he cannot get the working family supplement. There are significant gaps. I regularly come across this issue with people who are doing their best to survive but find the system is stacked against them everywhere they turn. I understand why there have to be rules and limits but at the same time there has to be an appreciation of the real experience of people's lives. I looked at the two small children running around the sitting room and playing and I wondered what hope they will have in ten years' time if they grow up in that kind of poverty. This mother and the rest of the family are working so hard but are struggling to pay the rent, to manage and to survive. The problem is that children are the victims in all of this because poverty is something that affects them most. I find it mainly affects families such as that, people who are working and trying hard but are falling just short. The Government needs to do more to step up to ensure it fills those gaps and provides for those families.

1:35 pm

Photo of Pat BuckleyPat Buckley (Cork East, Sinn Fein)
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I thank the Minister for his opening remarks. One has to give credit where it is due, that is, to Dr. Muldoon and his office.

It struck me while researching this issue that the Lisbon declaration was only signed in 2021 but child poverty has been around for a long time. The declaration acknowledges that, "homelessness is one of the most extreme forms of social exclusion, negatively affecting people’s physical and mental health, well-being, and quality of life, as well as their access to employment and access to other economic and social services". It is a travesty that it is necessary for us to discuss this matter today, in 2021.

The most recent report from the CSO lists several factors of which account is taken in measuring poverty rates among children. This is about basic deprivation. Some 23.3% of children in Ireland have lived with this. The factors listed include: being without heating at some stage in one year; being unable to afford a morning, afternoon or evening out in the past fortnight; being unable to afford two pairs of strong shoes; being unable to afford a roast once a week; being unable to afford a meal with meat, chicken or fish every second day; being unable to afford new - not second-hand - clothes; being unable to afford a warm waterproof coat, which is especially important in this country; being unable to afford to replace worn-out furniture; and, more important, being unable to afford to buy presents for family or friends at least once a year. That is absolutely shocking in this century.

The Minister referred to family hubs and so on. He is right. It was a disaster as well. I welcome any development in this regard. I am a member of the Committee on Public Petitions, which has done a significant amount of work with many of the ombudsmen. I ask that consideration be given to establishing a sub-committee that would give the ombudsmen a voice in these Houses. We would assist them in any way we can. All those on this side of the House are in agreement that this issue must be dealt with and we can certainly work together on it. I welcome any development that can improve these services.

Photo of Pauline TullyPauline Tully (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)
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I read with interest the A Better Normal report by the Office of the Ombudsman for Children. There are several points I wish to make regarding the report and what it highlights. It is shameful that there is need for such a report. We are supposed to be a civilised society. Although I am not sure that we can ever eradicate poverty entirely, it is frightening that the report indicates that child poverty rates could increase to 19%. That would be almost one fifth of children living below the poverty line. That has long-lasting consequences for children. It affects their health, well-being, life experience, educational attainment and future work prospects.

Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures sets out the Government's previous target of reducing child poverty by 70,000 by 2020, but that target was missed. Not only was it missed, but the rate of child poverty is increasing. As the Minister stated, Ireland signed up to the European child guarantee in June but has a national child guarantee co-ordinator been appointed? Have adequate resources been given to that person or whoever it is that is co-ordinating and overseeing the implementation of this recommendation?

According to the report, homelessness is indicated as one of the most extreme contributors to poverty and a poor standard of living. A home is supposed to be a safe place to which people, and children in particular, can go. A hotel room or a family hub is not a safe place. They do not have the indoor or outdoor space for children to grow, learn and interact normally. There is no privacy in a hotel room. Children are ashamed of the fact that they are homeless and living in those conditions.

Investment in areas with a history of poverty and deprivation is needed. Targeted approaches such as free school dinners, community childcare and parental training supports, for example, need to be rolled out. Families have to be targeted and given the supports they need to get out of the poverty trap because it is frequently inter-generational. A cross-government departmental approach is needed but we have a system that actually reinforces poverty. A single parent recently contacted me to say she got a job but was told that her social welfare entitlements would be cut. She was going to end up financially worse off working than she would if she stayed on her social welfare entitlement. Many people choose to work because they want to work and show a good example to their children but often they lose not only their social welfare entitlements but also their medical card and back-to-school allowance, as well as the right to the housing assistance payment, HAP. Society is encouraging people to remain on State supports and that is not fair and it is encouraging poverty.

Photo of Thomas GouldThomas Gould (Cork North Central, Sinn Fein)
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In a country with as much wealth as Ireland, no child should have to live in poverty. Social Justice Ireland found that there are 190,000 children living in households experiencing poverty. This is a shocking figure. It is a shame on our country that this is allowed to happen. These children are the real victims of the policies of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael in the past decade. The members of those Governments should be here to answer questions about these children and why they have to live in poverty.

The Government and the Minister have talked about solving the housing crisis. I do not believe the Housing for All plan will deliver. There are children living in accommodation now who are worried about having a roof over their heads, as are their parents. These people have problems that need to be addressed right now, today, not in five years' or ten years' time as that policy suggests. The problem when it comes to poverty and homelessness is that the attitude of the Government is to deal with it in the medium to long term whereas the fact is that it needs to take action now.

The Tánaiste tells us that now is not the time for a living wage. This at a time when one in ten children live in constant poverty and many of their parents cannot afford to work, live, pay for childcare or put food on the table. When will be the right time for a living wage? I am asking the Minister that question. He is part of the Government. Why is a living wage not being brought in? The Government is failing to address the increased energy and heating costs that are coming in. Not alone are there children in poverty, there will be children living in cold and damp conditions this winter. They will probably be hoping that Santa will bring them coal to put on the fire because their parents will not have the money to buy fuel. These children are living in poverty and that is the fall-out from decades of Government policy. We hear the Tánaiste and the Taoiseach talking about pensions and paying mortgages for landlords when there are children going hungry every night. It is not good enough.

Photo of Ivana BacikIvana Bacik (Dublin Bay South, Labour)
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I commend the Ombudsman for Children, Dr. Niall Muldoon, and the staff of his office on the publication of the A Better Normal report. It is a very important report and I welcome the opportunity to debate it. I am glad to hear the Minister will meet the ombudsman in the coming weeks to discuss the report.

The report points to the need for urgent political and cross-departmental action and planning for children post Covid. In particular, it calls for the establishment of a cross-departmental time-limited joint Oireachtas committee to address child poverty and homelessness. I hope the Minister will implement that and that all Deputies will be able to join with him in implementing it because clearly this is an issue that requires a cross-departmental and whole-of-government approach, beyond the brief of the Minister and clearly encompassing the Department of Social Protection, Department of Education and Department of Health. That is clear from the report. Indeed, it is clear that is needed if we are to further the recommendations of the Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures review by the Minister's Department.

On the issue of poverty, the CSO has published alarming figures.

The Minister stated that 8.1% of children in Ireland live in consistent poverty. The ombudsman's report points out that Ireland has missed its 2020 target of reducing by 70,000 the number of children in consistent poverty. In addition to that stark figure, we also know that the CSO figures show that 15.3% of children are at risk of poverty and 23.3% of children are experiencing basic deprivation. This really is a huge problem and failing in our system. Perhaps we might recall the words of the famous Irish suffragette and renowned activist on the areas of poverty alleviation and children's rights, Dr. Kathleen Lynn, who said her work was underpinned by a belief that "every child was an individual and must know himself, or herself, loved". The State should be guaranteeing this commitment to children by guaranteeing equality and a high minimum standard of living for all.

I wish to refer to homelessness and Housing First, and then to education and where we need to do more to ensure that we are living up to the commitments in these reports and in the review of the Minister's Department. We know that fear of, and real risk of, homelessness is damaging our children at key developmental periods of their lives. Yesterday, we debated the Residental Tenancies (Tenants' Rights) Bill 2021. We were glad that the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage did not oppose that Bill. I have already contacted the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage to ensure that the Bill will be making further progress through the committee. We are most anxious to ensure that it becomes law. The Bill seeks to address security of tenure, affordability of rents and deposits and quality of accommodation for those in the rental sector. These are crucial issues for children in particular.

We know that three in ten children under the age of 18 are living in rented accommodation, according to the recent census. Focus Ireland tells us that the biggest cause of families entering homelessness is the sale of houses by landlords, with vacant possession thereby ending tenancies. We need to stop this practice. I am aware that it is one of the aims of the Government's own Housing for All plan. The Government is seeking to legislate for tenancies of indefinite duration. Our Bill would provide for that and could, if implemented, play a huge part in addressing the real fear of eviction. It is the fear of eviction that we have heard, from so many individual constituents and respondents to our Labour survey, has such an impact. One respondent who spoke to us last week and who is renting a home from a private landlord, told us of her fears that her children might be without a home upon the impending expiration of the lease. Another spoke of her fear of the health impacts of staying at home with her children in rental accommodation with fungus on the walls and a serious damp problem.

Children across Ireland are facing real impacts on their health and well-being because of poor-quality rental accommodation and fear of eviction. A Labour Party Bill introduced previously by my colleague, former Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, specifically sought to address the impact of homelessness upon children. The Green Party, when in opposition, supported that Bill. I ask that the Department, in collaboration with the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, brings that legislation forward, because we need to ensure that children are protected against homelessness and the fear of homelessness.

On schooling and education, the ombudsman has made recommendations in this area. Indeed, the extent of the recommendations shows the need for a strong intervention from the Department of Education on this issue and for a cross-departmental committee. In February, alongside my colleague, Deputy Ó Ríordáin, I proposed a catch-up for children scheme. I proposed that the Government put forward €100 million to address the severe impacts upon children from prolonged school closures due to Covid-19. This fund, in addition to making up for lost education, would also seek to ensure children were caught up with on extracurricular activities, such as sporting activities and the arts, and, indeed, personal and social development. We know, in particular, that children who are vulnerable, living in poverty or have particular needs have suffered real set backs in their development because of the closures of schools and associated activities. We were most disappointed to find that the catch-up fund that was much more belatedly announced by the Minister for Education falls far too short of what we believe will be needed to ensure that children's development is not severely impacted on as a result of the Covid restrictions.

As I have said, we support the Office of the Ombudsman for Children in calling for the establishment of a dedicated committee to address these issues, including issues around the impact upon children of Covid restrictions, poverty and homelessness. We must ensure that real, substantive actions are taken and that these are taken on a universal level for all children, not on the piecemeal basis that unfortunately has characterised far too much of Government policy on children and children's rights for too long. The UN International Day for the Eradication of Poverty is coming up on 17 October. We think that the Oireachtas should mark the occasion by demonstrating our commitment to ending poverty for children, in particular, by establishing such a committee, as recommended by the Ombudsman for Children.

1:45 pm

Photo of Alan FarrellAlan Farrell (Dublin Fingal, Fine Gael)
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I take this opportunity to welcome Deputy Bacik to the House. I have not been in her presence in the Chamber because of the manner in which the Dáil has been meeting. She is welcome.

I thank the Minister for his introductory remarks. They were thought-provoking and most welcome. As the former Chair of the Joint Committee on Children and Youth Affairs, I had the privilege of meeting with Dr. Muldoon and his team on many occasions. This report is crucial in ensuring that we refocus on the incredibly important issues of eliminating poverty and child homelessness.

There are, perhaps, few more important issues that occupy public debate than those concerning our children and the future of society. I welcome the initiative launched by the Ombudsman for Children. Child poverty and homelessness are intolerable and we must all strive to alleviate the pressure on those affected. It is often said that the best way to judge a society is to inspect how the most vulnerable among us are treated. Fundamental to this notion is that we are aware of the vulnerability. For many generations on this island, children were not seen and not heard. Thankfully, today we recognise the role of children and young people, but there is considerable work to be done to increase their influence. It did not start in 2012, but the constitutional referendum was a step in the right direction in placing children at the heart of our Constitution.

Children account for 25% of our population and are often overlooked. At any moment there are a great number of interests pressing on Government. This is the nature of politics. In such a climate where those without a voice or platform can easily be overlooked, as Members of this House we must use our platform to give them a voice.

A Better Normal, as proposed by the Ombudsman for Children, should be regarded as a starting point. Eradicating child poverty and homelessness will involve both a multifaceted approach on the part of and commitment from successive Governments. The Covid pandemic has uprooted all of our lives and we have become all too familiar with concepts and behaviour which, just a short time ago, would have been unfathomable. Children are not exempt from this experience. Their education has been curtailed dramatically. Their ability to engage with friends and relatives ceased and they too have become familiar with the cold and clinical language that has been introduced to our society over this period. The pandemic also hit low-income families hard, preventing regular income and reliable work patterns and left many families struggling to make ends meet. A recent ESRI report on child poverty in Ireland and the pandemic recession suggested that even in a scenario of partial economic recovery, child poverty rates could rise by 3% to 19%. Moreover, the Irish Youth Foundation noted that of the 40,000 babies born in Ireland during the pandemic, 8,000 left hospital to enter into deprivation, and many into homelessness.

In such a modern society in a country that has seen unprecedented economic gains in its recent history, it is natural for us to ask how this can be. Speaking in 1968, Robert Kennedy remarked that "the gross domestic product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play". This, I believe, is a noteworthy idea in the context of this debate. For children, poverty affects so much more than their living arrangements. It affects their self-esteem and their ability to engage with their peers. It affects their ability to learn and to access quality food. Their mental health is also impacted. This is a situation no child born on this island should endure. No child should wake up in the morning and feel the dread of economic despair, hunger, or indeed, alienation from the society that they believe has forgotten them, to go through their youth as a spectator with no hope of influencing their surroundings. We in this House, through our ambition and actions, should give them the confidence which many suffering the pain of poverty lack.

We can make a profound difference for young people and their families who find themselves in these circumstances.

The initiative, A Better Normal, sets out several goals for us to achieve. Among them are the development of time-limited cross-departmental agendas to address the issues of child poverty and homelessness, the holding of a referendum on the right to housing, continued support for and expansion of free school dinners. I am pleased that 1,500 schools are involved in providing free school meals. Several of them are in Fingal, which the Minister has rightly highlighted. We can make progress on these issues and more. This should be seen as a starting point, not an endpoint.

If we truly want to give children in Ireland the best possible start in life, we must begin by creating a better society, a society in which all of us can participate and with which we can all engage. It is only if we create societal participants that can we give people a sense of ownership of the country. We have long considered ourselves a nation of close-knit communities that believe in a better tomorrow. How better to start in the realisation of that future than by lifting children and other young people out of the depths of poverty?

Increasing after-school activities, which we have debated in this House many times, will provide children with opportunities to grow and flourish, increasing the ability of young people to gain access to transport. It will allow them to engage with the society around them, which I am pleased has been included in the initiative as part of a package of supports for everyday expenses, including in respect of energy and education. Increasing young people's access to books through school and public libraries can give them the chance to pursue their passions and explore new areas of interest. The Government should consider this for the forthcoming budget.

As I have said on many occasions in this House, continued investment in our local communities, youth clubs and outreach programmes is vital in helping young people. I pay tribute to all those who volunteer and work hard to support youth and outreach organisations.

Encouraging our universities to become more diverse in their recruitment and admissions will benefit all in society. The Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Harris, has launched an ambitious programme to reinvigorate apprenticeship programmes across the State. I eagerly anticipate the development of these programmes. The programmes will give thousands an opportunity to build careers and drive the jobs of the future, particularly in the green economy.

Progress has been made on several fronts. In 2019, there were 3,874 children in emergency accommodation. There are now 2,176 but that number is still far too high. In fact, it should be zero. We must build on the progress, however. In addition, earlier this year Ireland signed up to the European child guarantee, requiring us to develop national plans for children in respect of nutrition, housing, health and education. It is a worthy endeavour by the European Union.

In all these endeavours, we must ensure that we provide the adequate and necessary resources that will allow children to become successful and, in turn, benefit all those living in Ireland and those who will one day call this home.

1:55 pm

Photo of Patrick CostelloPatrick Costello (Dublin South Central, Green Party)
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I thank the Minister. This is a matter that the Minister and I have spoken about at times before. I do not doubt his sincerity and commitment to addressing this issue. I am pleased to see there are commitments in the programme for Government on the difficult issue of child poverty. There has been work across government to address the issue of food poverty to ensure no child goes hungry. There has been work on school meals. As expressed in the Ombudsman for Children's report, there is a commitment to a right to housing, this being important in helping to address the issue of poverty. There have been commitments to prioritise and protect supports for lone parents. Children of lone parents are the most likely to be in poverty in this country.

Many of us have been quoting statistics from a variety of reports. The report that really brought the issue home for me and grounded it the most, in the starkest terms, is the one Deputy Farrell quoted, the Irish Youth Foundation's report Generation Pandemic. It states that of the 40,000 children born since Covid hit, 8,000 left hospital and spent their first night in marginalisation, disadvantage, poverty and homelessness. That is a bleak statistic. When one adds to that the intergenerational cycle of poverty and how these children are at risk of becoming yet another such generation with the risk of the continuation of such child poverty into their children as well, the need to act becomes very clear.

The Minister has said himself that this is a huge area. Every Department needs to row in behind the initiative. While we could talk to every Minister in this Chamber about what he or she is doing about child poverty, I want to pick up on one area in which we need to act. It relates to after-school programmes. Children, simply because their parents cannot get work, are no longer able to access after-school programmes. After-school programmes are incredibly important where there is educational disadvantage. An education is important in breaking the intergenerational cycle I have spoken about. After-school projects, the community aftercare private clubs that provide support in the areas of education, nutrition, meals and positive relationships, are the key services that children need access to and that the Minister talked about. These are the targeted services that the Ombudsman for Children talks about. Supporting them is building on the work, already under way, that the Office of the Ombudsman for Children refers to in its report. We need to be considering the community services that provide after-school support and ensure that all children facing poverty or educational disadvantage can gain access to them. We need to regard these services as anti-poverty measures, not simply as childcare or labour activation schemes. That parents cannot get work or are unable to work is not a reason to exclude children from these vital services.

Numerous community groups in my constituency have come together and have engaged with me and lobbied me on this important issue. No doubt they have been on to the Minister also. I am sure they will be working in other constituencies too. This is an issue we must address. We must ensure after-school services — aftercare is another issue that we also need to talk about — can continue and that children whose parents do not work or cannot work will not be excluded from a service that is vital in breaking the intergenerational cycle of poverty.

Photo of Sorca ClarkeSorca Clarke (Longford-Westmeath, Sinn Fein)
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Any opportunity presented to us to examine and plan for the future of our children should not only be welcomed but also grasped with both hands and acted upon. We have seen report after report outlining the challenges facing the younger members of our society but what we do not see is necessary corresponding action to address the concerns being raised. These concerns relate to the right to live free of hunger, to a stable home and to an adequate standard of living that allows for participation and developmental opportunities and creates the positive environment in childhood that leads to a positive lifestyle in adulthood.

While I was reading the Ombudsman for Children's report A Better Normal, one point was very clear to me, namely, the normal that too many children are now living in, particularly after Covid, is far from what we would have experienced as normal as children. It is far from what their peers are experiencing. We are now putting children at a distinct disadvantage at the earliest possible time in their lives. One way to challenge that and work effectively is to engage in cross-departmental action and planning. The Oireachtas committee, mentioned in the report, has a role to play. Cross-departmental action and planning comprise a strategic way in which we can eradicate poverty and family homelessness before they have a lifelong impact.

The report Generation Pandemic states 8,000 babies will have left maternity wards to go into marginalisation, disadvantage and, in many cases, homelessness. That is absolutely shocking. The Children's Rights Alliance publication states, "At worst, governments' responses have laid bare and exacerbated pre-existing long-time structural inequalities and social vulnerabilities." The key phrase is "pre-existing long-time". Clearly, whatever has been put in place before has not worked because otherwise there would not have been weaknesses to exploit during a pandemic.

These sentiments were echoed by Dr. Mike Ryan from the WHO when he spoke about a deeply unfair and deeply inequitable world. We are aware that the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child requires those who have signed up to it to recognise the right of every child to a standard of living, yet the Ombudsman for Children has expressed concern over the invisibility of children in housing legislation. In this regard, I draw the attention of the Minister to a book entitled How Will Santa Find Us?, if he has not read it.

These children are not invisible; they are our future. The Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures policy sets out the Government’s target of removing 70,000 children from consistent poverty, which was missed. Earlier this year, the Minister stated that "progression on a policy successor to Better Outcomes, Better Futures has been delayed until 2022", ironically due in part to the pandemic. This is the same pandemic that is pushing more children into poverty and homelessness, onto a path that is less clear and less well lit and into greater insecurity than they have ever faced in this State. This is denying children the opportunity to reach their potential. We have a very clear, sensible and important proposal for the Ombudsman for Children, one which will have a positive impact on the lives of the youngest members of our State. I urge the Minister to take that on board and act on it.

2:05 pm

Photo of Chris AndrewsChris Andrews (Dublin Bay South, Sinn Fein)
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I welcome this initiative, A Better Normal, from the Ombudsman for Children, in which there are many positives. In that context, I read the Government policy document Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures which refers to making "investment in early years care and education, including maintaining the free preschool year and implementing measures to support and regulate improvements to the quality of Early Years and childcare services". This is all great but it means absolutely nothing for parents of children with autism.

In June, I asked the Minister for Education if she would intervene in the case of the new Shellybanks Educate Together National School in Sandymount which refused to open an autism spectrum disorder, ASD, class in September 2021, despite having the resources and capacity to do so. No classes opened in the school despite demands on behalf of children with autism. Children are still being bussed out of their community, even though there is space in the school for children with autism. What is missing is the will of the board to open ASD classes and include neuro-diverse children in this school. The two classes have been identified since last March after the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, visited the school. No infrastructural changes are required. I give credit to the Minister and the NCSE for pledging to provide all established additional supports necessary for the school to open these classes in September 2021. Since then, the management committee of the school pushed back against this recommendation. The only reason it has offered for doing so is that the classes are not ready yet and will not open until 2022.

Unfortunately, many parents of neuro-diverse children do not have this luxury. How can such a situation still prevail? How can a school and its management board, despite the Department having cleared every obstacle for them, just say "No" and now is not the time? The Minister has failed to compel the school to open the ASD class, despite advice from her officials. We can have all the reports and plans we like but unless the will is there, children with autism will continue to pay the price.

Photo of Jennifer WhitmoreJennifer Whitmore (Wicklow, Social Democrats)
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I very much welcome this very important initiative from the Ombudsman for Children regarding child poverty and homelessness. I acknowledge and thank Dr. Muldoon and his team for all of the great work they have done as advocates for children in recent years.

It is almost exactly a year since I introduced my first Private Members’ motion, as Social Democrats spokesperson on children, calling for a very similar initiative to the one the ombudsman has put forward in the document, A Better Normal. In our Dáil motion, we called for the Government to agree to a new to a new and ambitious target of eliminating consistent child poverty within the lifetime of this Dáil, legislate for this target and establish a special Oireachtas oversight committee on child poverty to monitor the implementation this target. This was my first Private Members’ motion and I introduced it with equal measures of enthusiasm, optimism and I think naivety. Coming to the Chamber to move what I thought was a very important motion, I thought that no Government could turn down an opportunity to put in the infrastructure and plans to address what is a national shame. Unfortunately, I was wrong in that. The Government replaced my motion with a countermotion which had a target in line with the Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures target. Whereas my motion did not go anywhere, the Government reiterated the Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures target, which set out to reduce by 70,000 the number of children in consistent poverty by 2020. That target was missed.

To compound this frustration, the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth announced that the policy successor of Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures, which expired at the end of 2020, has been delayed until 2022. In the years since this Government rejected the Social Democrats motion to eliminate child poverty within the lifetime of this Government, it has missed its own child poverty targets and has delayed the development of its follow-on policy. This is a very worrying track record on the part of the Government as it continues to promote the reopening of the post-Covid economy. If the economy does not recover to pre-pandemic levels, regrettably, the reality is that the child poverty rate in Ireland could increase. The ESRI has calculated it could increase by one quarter.

During the previous recession, child poverty rates doubled, resulting in one in five children being at risk of poverty. It is a stark reminder of the risk to children arising from a recession potentially caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

When we last debated this issue, I could not get my ahead around the fact that for many of these children this will be the second recession will have allowed them to suffer through. While we do not have official child poverty statistics for 2020, we can assume that the risks of poverty have increased due to job losses caused by the pandemic, persistent cost barriers to childcare and education, a widening digital divide during school closures and, most crucially, the housing crisis, which is a key focus in the Ombudsman for Children’s report. Now more than ever, the Government needs to implement the ombudsman’s initiative to establish a special Oireachtas committee with a clear target and cross-departmental engagement to address the endless cycle of child poverty in this country.

It is very welcome that Ireland signed up to the EU European child guarantee in July, reflecting the ambition that every child in Europe should have access to free healthcare, free childcare, decent housing and adequate nutrition, with a primary focus on disadvantaged children, including those experiencing poverty, ethnic minority children and refugee children. However, we have a long way to go. Families continue to face the inordinate task of navigating the high cost of childcare, the cost of education, rising rents, a lack of progress in implementing Sláintecare and growing waiting lists for social and affordable housing across the country. Imagine how families are coping when dealing with being at risk of homelessness and with those emergencies. As soon as this happens, childhood is robbed and life will never be the same again. Preventing this from happening is key.

The latest homelessness statistics show that over 2,000 children are currently living in emergency accommodation. It is an absolute shame that this has continued. We cannot address child poverty without addressing child homelessness. The recent report from the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, IHREC, and the ESRI stated - this is something we will all be aware of - that lone parents are predominantly impacted by this. They represent 53% of all homeless families. It is very welcome that the Ombudsman for Children is calling for the right to housing to be inserted in the Constitution. My colleague, the Social Democrats spokesperson on housing, Deputy Cian O’Callaghan, has suggested exactly what the ESRI has also been calling on the Government to do, namely, address the current housing crisis using the low cost of debt to invest in housing. We have very many organisations, experts and now the Ombudsman for Children all saying the same thing. The Minister and Government must respond to these calls and must act to eliminate rather than just reduce child poverty and homelessness.

I also mention a topical issue at the moment, namely, the impending energy crisis. Coupled with rising inflation and the cost of living, this is a devastating cocktail for anyone facing poverty. Energy bills have risen by 19% since last year and are set to increase even more this winter. This will, no doubt, impact on low-income households and those already experiencing fuel poverty. I have asked for statements to be facilitated in the Dáil to discuss the energy crisis and flesh out these issues because this could be a very difficult winter for many people.

I will use the remainder of my time to encourage the Government to set a firm target to reduce and eliminate child poverty in a new national children and youth strategy, to begin immediately working on the successor to the Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures strategy, and to implement the initiative set out by the Ombudsman for Children by establishing a special Oireachtas committee on the elimination of child poverty. The Government has already lost a year due to inaction. In fact, we have lost many years due to inaction and it is time to act.

The Social Democrats, and I imagine the majority of Deputies, are more than prepared to work constructively with the Government to address these issues.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Gabhaim buíochas leis an Teachta agus anois glaoim ar an Teachta Ó Cathasaigh atá ag roinnt a chuid ama leis an Teachta Higgins.

Photo of Marc Ó CathasaighMarc Ó Cathasaigh (Waterford, Green Party)
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Gabhaim buíochas leis an gCeann Comhairle. I also thank the Minister for facilitating this debate on the initiative of the Ombudsman for Children, A Better Normal. It is an important and timely document as we begin to emerge from the immediate and acute phase of the pandemic and start to consider the long-term consequences and implications on our society, children in particular.

I agree with the ombudsman's stark statement that 2020 was a devastating year for children. He states that children were described as vectors and blamed for transmission, seen as carriers and not welcome in public spaces. In a sense, our children disappeared. They disappeared from our streets, our playing pitches and our playgrounds and classrooms, behind the front gate and the front door, or at least the fortunate ones did.

There are too many families and children for whom the front gate, the front door and the roof over their heads are not a given, that is, those in homelessness or at risk of losing their homes. This debate takes place in the shadow of the report of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission that showed that lone parents and their children account for 53% of all homeless families. Through A Better Normal, the ombudsman is seeking a Government commitment to prioritising children as we plan for life post Covid. We should give that commitment and put it front and centre in our planning for this budget and beyond, to make the welfare and well-being of our children a central part of the work not just of the Minister's Department but throughout the Government as a whole. Just as has been done in New Zealand, where the living standards framework and well-being budgeting encourages cross-departmental thinking, we should put the interests of our children and young people at the heart of our Government's decision-making.

The roadmap for social inclusion sets out a national ambition for 2025 to reduce the national consistent poverty rate to 2% or less of the population. If we are serious about achieving that target and living up to our sustainable development goal of no poverty, we should go after poverty where it is most prevalent, namely, among children, of lone parents in particular. We should do that in the first instance through our social welfare system. In a very specific and targeted way, we should consider increasing again the increase for a qualified child, IQC, as we did in the previous budget. The tax strategy group examined this option and calculated that a €5 increase for under-12s and a €2 increase for over-12s would cost just over €50 million. This would be money well spent in targeting precisely those children we know to be at greatest risk of poverty.

In the medium term and more generally, we should seek to index our social welfare payments against a baseline threshold, such as the minimum effective standard of living, MESL, and take out of the budgetary cycle that kind of simplistic and reductive conversation about the additional €5 on whatever payment it is. Access to affordable childcare is a touchstone issue for working parents throughout the country, with availability in short supply and costs increasing to unsustainable levels for many families. This, again, disproportionately affects lower income families and lone parents in particular, and it is something directly under the Minister's competence. Helping these families access the labour market by providing affordable childcare will make it more possible for them to lift themselves and their children out of poverty.

Dr. Muldoon's report refers specifically to the school meals programme. The Minister will know as well as I that this has been Green Party policy since the time of Trevor Sargent. He, like me, had a background in primary school teaching and I feel the same as he does. The State has the children. We have them in our care, in our schools - let us feed them. It would have a positive impact on nutrition, poverty and social development and benefit all children in the State. If it can be done elsewhere, it can be done here. I reiterate that while we have them, let us feed them.

On the issue of housing, I refer to that harrowing figure from the Irish Youth Foundation that was quoted earlier. Of the 40,000 babies born since the pandemic, 8,000 will have left the maternity hospital to spend their first night in marginalisation, disadvantage and, in many cases, homelessness. We must move on the issue of a referendum on the right to housing.

Zooming out to the big picture, I turn to the heart of why the Minister and I were elected to this House. We need to move with urgency on the issue of climate change. It is our children and their children who will suffer the worst impacts of climate breakdown should we fail to act. Climate strikers will be out again this Friday to make the case and call for radical climate action. It is our responsibility to follow through on the promise we made to our voters to deliver that.

I often think of one of the recurring themes of our President's contributions when he served in this House, namely, that in a republic, there should be a minimum floor of human dignity, below which we should not allow any of our citizens to fall. When we live in a country where almost one in five children lives at risk of poverty, we are not living up to that aspiration. Let us put it front and centre, at the heart of our decision-making, that the welfare of children will be our utmost and top priority.

2:15 pm

Photo of Emer HigginsEmer Higgins (Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
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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.

2:25 pm

Photo of Réada CroninRéada Cronin (Kildare North, Sinn Fein)
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I welcome this initiative from the Ombudsman for Children. I take this opportunity to thank Dr. Niall Muldoon and his office for the professionalism and kindness they showed when I went to them for help recently for some young constituents in north Kildare. Their families, too, were delighted. They are so used to knocking on doors that do not budge that when one finally opens it is a great relief to them, especially when it opens with a welcome.

We need a better normal for children post Covid and I am anxious that all of us do all we can to help in this. In my constituency of Kildare North, there are children who have deep suffering post Covid, on top of their deep suffering before Covid. They cannot see a consultant for chronic pain or a psychologist or therapist for anxiety or depression. School places are an issue, especially for children with special needs. They cannot get their teeth attended to even though it hurts them to eat, and often they are cold because their parents cannot put on the heat. This winter is going to be particularly hard for them in view of the talk about energy prices and with climate change. It will be an issue we will have to tackle.

Many, too, cannot rely on having a home of their own. I do not know if the Minister managed to take a break of a few days this summer, but I recall going on holidays as a young child. One did not want the holiday to end, but going home to one's own house and getting into one's own bed that night was such a comfort. The fact that there are children in this State getting into a bed that is not their own or who do not know what bed they will get into is something we cannot excuse any more. Too many children are spending their childhood on waiting lists and housing lists. It is not yet Hallowe'en, but some homeless children are worried about whether Santa Claus will know where to find them.

Too often, children have been ignored when it comes to health, mental health, dental health, housing, caring, education and special education. It is no wonder the Office of the Ombudsman for Children is so busy. We need this better normal. As the documentation from the Ombudsman for Children states, and as has been stated in this debate, out of 40,000 children born, 8,000 left a maternity hospital to start their lives in poverty, that is, 20% of the children born in the State are born in poverty. It is just devastating for a First World state. We can be under no illusions about the scale of the work involved in this initiative, or the depth of the suffering. I believe there is great will in progressive parties to tackle the inequities, inequalities and the injustices damaging such young lives. We in Sinn Féin will play our part and do all we can to help.

Photo of Violet WynneViolet Wynne (Clare, Sinn Fein)
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The vision set out in this document is extremely timely and necessary. To eradicate child poverty and eliminate child homelessness are two monumental undertakings. They are outside the child's control. No child deserves to be in homelessness or to live in poverty. All Members of the House would agree on that. For a relatively wealthy First World country, the socioeconomic division across our society is striking. The inequity and inequality that persist across the country reinforce high levels of hunger, poverty and insecurity for many children.

Research by the Irish Youth Foundation has shown that of the 40,000 babies born during the pandemic, 8,000 of them left the maternity hospital setting to spend their first night in marginalisation, discrimination and homelessness. Barnardos Ireland tells us that 90,000 children are living in consistent poverty at present and, according to Focus Ireland, child homelessness has risen by 200% since 2014. While 1,500 children were homeless in 2014, in June 2021 the number was almost 4,000. It is essential that radical and immediate steps are taken to address these issues. It is interesting to note that our last housing policy, Rebuilding Ireland, did not even feature homelessness on its agenda. Now, in Housing for All, the goal is to eradicate it altogether, which is quite a leap. Although ambitious, there are concerns about its feasibility.

We must take account of the fact that Covid-19 and lockdowns aggravated many domestic situations whereby children's needs were not being met. These were situations where there were addiction issues, mental health issues, neglect, poverty or violence. There have been almost 25,000 domestic violence incidents reported to the Garda to date this year, and 500 of those were in my constituency of Clare. These situations unfortunately lead to adverse childhood experiences. The more a child is exposed, the more impacted his or her outcomes are later in life. I work on the Committee on Disability Matters and I work in the community with parents who are trying to gain access to services for children with additional needs, my son included. There are distinct disadvantages faced by these children. The major costs associated with assessments, interventions and assistive technologies, for example, further expose them to economic disadvantage and put them at risk of poverty. These are situations where the State must assume a stronger duty of care. Bureaucracy and lack of funding cannot justify children's rights being abused.

I could speak for longer but, unfortunately, I do not have enough time.

Photo of Gino KennyGino Kenny (Dublin Mid West, People Before Profit Alliance)
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I welcome the debate on the report by the Ombudsman for Children. It is an in-depth critique of child poverty in the context of the pre-pandemic and post-pandemic world in which we live. It lays out a policy to address the historical legacy of the deprivation of children in this country.

The pandemic has done some terrible things but it has revealed the chasm or fault lines in society and what we really are. It has opened up that chasm of disadvantage in how children are treated in our society in respect of social injustice. The ironic thing about this debate is that it has taken a virus that has killed millions of people and caused absolute chaos across the world to have an impact on homelessness in this country. Prior to the pandemic there were over 10,000 people in emergency accommodation. Now there are approximately 6,000 and, with regard to children, the number has gone down to about half of what it was. That is more than it should be, but it is incredible that it has taken an invisible virus to do that. The barometer of any society is how children are treated. We speak for children. We have children and we are the voice for children. It is a very proud thing to speak in this Chamber on behalf of children. With regard to homelessness, that is a legacy that the Minister and his colleagues in the Cabinet must address. It is just not acceptable that children in Ireland in the 21st century do not have a home to go to, but they go to a hotel. If anybody can stand in this House and say with a straight face that this is acceptable, he or she is in the wrong game.

With regard to children in poverty, it is not that long ago that the Labour Party and former Deputy Joan Burton had policies which were Thatcheresque for single parents. Her policies have had a legacy issue, and I refer back to the historical legacy issues relating to child poverty. The Labour Party will not be forgiven for many things in working-class communities. One thing it will not be forgiven for, particularly for single parents, is what Joan Burton did to single parents. That is on the record.

The report is very good but we see many reports in this House. Some of them never see the light of day and some of them gather dust. This report has to be implemented in full to address the legacy issues. Children will be adults one day and they will go out and work and so forth. However, families face poverty where there is a family member not working.

They may be on a very low income, which has an insidious effect on children's educational disadvantage. In a particular postal area in Dublin, nine times out of ten a person will go to third level education whereas for people from another part of Dublin the chances of going to third level education reduce dramatically. There is no difference between the two children living in different parts of Dublin. What is wrong? It is not about intelligence; it is about opportunity and income leading to the social inequalities we all experience. I do not doubt the Minister's bona fides in trying to address historical societal issues relating to child poverty.

The main thing in the report is the critique. It looks at the post-pandemic world; hopefully we are coming out of it. It provides an opportunity for governments across the world to look at what they have been doing wrong. They may not be able to correct what they have been doing wrong because of their policies. It is important for this critique to look at a different mindset.

The general election was 18 months ago months ago but it seems like years ago. It focused on a number of things, but the main thing was the lack of public services. That is why Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil went backwards not forwards. Fine Gael has been in government for last ten years. That is why they went backwards and other political entities went forwards; they were saying things that were obvious to try to correct. I hope the Minister can correct them over three and a half years. I am not being partisan. Nobody in this Chamber wants us to have homelessness. Political policies are the reason that people are in homelessness, and that poverty and inequality exist. These things do not just exist for the sake of it. They exist because of policy and it is up to the Government to change it.

2:35 pm

Photo of Richard BrutonRichard Bruton (Dublin Bay North, Fine Gael)
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I am glad we are having this important debate and I welcome Niall Muldoon's report. I know the Tánaiste will meet him shortly to discuss this and many other things.

For generations in this country, early childhood has been neglected in a terribly disappointing way. We have failed to develop adequate policies for early childhood which is so pivotal in the development of any child. Parents do not get enough support; they often cannot even get services. Undoubtedly that impacts more on children coming from a disadvantaged background. It is a major hole in our public policy that has only started to be filled since the publication of First 5, and the present Minister is obviously taking that on.

Dr. Muldoon's emphasis on building back better is very timely. We must tackle the structural changes that underpin this. I particularly welcome his emphasis on targeted services like the ABC programme, the back-to-school initiative, preventing families falling into homelessness and the school meals programme. These are crucial for programmes. His emphasis on living standards is also really important. However, in my view he overlooks very important policy dimensions here. He overlooks the importance of work and the progress that has been made in cutting poverty in this country as a result of getting people back to work.

The trends in poverty in this country before the pandemic occurred have been very positive. Consistent poverty has gone down from over 9% to just 5%. The at-risk numbers have gone down from 17% to 12%. We are heading in the right direction and we are implementing important policies.

The ESRI rightly pointed out that the impact on employment of the pandemic could greatly damage poverty. However, it pointed out that the combination of the Government's support programmes with a partial recovery would prevent that happening. That is an important element of its report. The Government has been successful in preventing poverty occurring according to its research by extending those report schemes.

As the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, pointed out, our social policies have been remarkably effective in reducing poverty. There are more than 40% whose income would be below the 60% median figure but that is reduced to less than 13% as a result of our effective social policies. We are doing some things that are good but we are not doing everything that is needed. Some of the measures that we have seen emerge are ones that we need to see more of. For example, the national childcare scheme supports 85% of the costs of childcare and after-school care for parents with an income of under €26,000. That is a really important scheme and it means that parents on low income can get access to those services. The 55% increase in child dependant allowance now means that for parents on low income, each child is getting up to €4,000 per year. That is a significant measure and is helping to bridge those gaps.

Through the rental schemes we are also providing 85% support of the cost of rent to families who are on housing assistance payment, HAP, or are in social housing. These measures have been really important in stemming poverty and bringing down those figures that I quoted earlier.

I agree absolutely with Deputy Gino Kenny who said we cannot let up on our determination to reduce homelessness. As he recognised, it has reduced by nearly half. However, the child poverty issue is much wider than homelessness. Only about 1% of children who are in poverty suffer homelessness. The needs of the other 99% also need to be addressed. I would like to see a wider context of structural change addressed by the Ombudsman for Children or by the committee should that one be formed.

In my experience we have failed in the education system to adequately address disadvantage. The DEIS programme is useful and has prevented the gap widening between the experience of children in disadvantaged areas and that of those in prosperous areas, but it has not narrowed the gap. We need a much more forensic and more imaginative programme particularly in areas of acute disadvantage where we can address that.

The curriculum is far too narrow and almost sets at a disadvantage from the word go many children who do not have academic-type backgrounds within their family. Access to work opportunities is crucial if we are to take on this issue. While the ombudsman's report emphasises really important issues, the Government must attend to these deeper structural changes.

I agree with what Deputy Ó Cathasaigh said earlier about the support for single parents. The Oireachtas published an important report and the programme for Government commits to implementing that. The programme for Government is absolutely committed to tackling the issue of child poverty. Not only is it explicitly there, but some of the individual programmes that the Government is committing to, such as the national youth homelessness strategy, are a really important element of this. The emphasis on prioritising lone parents is an important part of this.

The introduction of a DEIS-style health scheme in deprived areas will represent a very significant change. For the first time we will be investing more in the health support of children and their parents in areas of acute deprivation. We will be extending the Dublin north inner city initiative which has been successful in bringing communities together to tackle some of these embedded problems. I hope to see that particularly in some of the disadvantaged areas of my constituency.

We will be ending direct provision and I know the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, has personally been highly committed to this.

There are some very solid elements of a programme being formed through the programme for Government. Those also need be considered and given momentum as we seek to address the issue of child poverty and building back better, as we all agree.

The Government needs to give more consideration to the issue of measurement in respect of early childhood and the experience in early childhood. By and large what gets measured gets done and in this country we have failed dismally to measure any indicator of our success in early childhood.

We left it almost entirely to parents to take responsibility until relatively recently in our history. The evidence is there that the experience of a child in those early years and their access to a stimulating environment in play, early education, care and socialisation are crucial. I was educated by the Jesuits and I remember Ignatius Loyola said: "Give me the child until he is seven and I will give you the man." That is not a politically correct comment in these days but there is no doubt that the State in Ireland ignored those early years and left it entirely to parents to try to cope. That is not the way to go if we want to promote progress in our society. We need to start to look at the measures of positive well-being, as well as the measures of failure, which is a measure such as child poverty or homelessness. We also need to measure positive things that we seek to develop and promote, particularly participation in early education and particularly in those disadvantaged areas. In my area of Darndale, the preparing for life programme has been remarkably successful and as a result of that programme, three-year-olds come to early childhood opportunities much better placed to benefit from them than had they not had access to those programmes.

I wish the Minister well in his task. There are massive gaps in early childhood. We need to meet the parents in order that they can participate more fully in the workforce and that is particularly true of families that are on low incomes. We need to create a career structure in order that this sector will thrive and in order that people who go into it and who have problems or special needs can be properly and inclusively supported. We need a genuine developmental strategy for that sector, instead of purely checking the number of spaces and staff per child. We need to develop those 4,000 providers that are the bedrock of creating good early childhood environments. I have been fortunate enough to be in the enterprise sector, where we have 4,000 excellent exporting companies and they have access to training and grants to build their capacity. They also have access to supports if they want to enter new markets or design new products. You name it and they have access to supports. The 4,000 providers that are providing support for early childhood do not, however, have access to any of those supports that could allow them to build their capacity, be more inclusive and offer a wider range of services throughout the day. We also need to look at the assets the Government owns and make sure they are used to support early childhood. We should look at our schools that are empty much of the day and year. Those are assets that could be deployed, as I am sure the Minister would love to be able to, in support of early childhood services.

I am delighted that we have had this opportunity to debate this issue. We are just scratching the surface of the challenges we will face and I would be interested in participating in whatever structure the Minister feels is worth setting up to pursue some of these issues in early childhood.

2:45 pm

Photo of Mark WardMark Ward (Dublin Mid West, Sinn Fein)
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I welcome this opportunity to speak on the report by Dr. Niall Muldoon on child poverty, A Better Normal. One of the themes in the report was housing and child homelessness, which is a big issue. Whether it is children who are living in the box bedroom with their mothers and fathers or families that are separated because of high rents with the father living in his family home and the mother living in her family home and the children being separated, there is a wide range of issues around child homelessness.

I am the Sinn Féin spokesperson on mental health, as the Minister knows. We had a good meeting of the Sub-Committee on Mental Health yesterday and one of the themes that came up was this cross-departmental approach. The Minister mentioned in his opening statement that this is something that is needed. It needs political will and for the Minister and other Ministers in Cabinet to have this cross-departmental approach and to make sure that nothing falls through the cracks because children are falling through the cracks. These are children who are vulnerable and who are in this situation through no fault of their own.

I mentioned mental health and I spoke about it at the protest on housing we had last week out the front. I have been around the block, I have been through an awful lot over my life and I am from an area of high disadvantage but some things still really get to me. I remember allowing families to use my phone because they had run out of credit because they were ringing hotel after hotel looking for accommodation for themselves and their families that night. I saw the look of desperation and the fear in their children's eyes every time the parent was told there was no room at the inn that night. I saw the parents, as any parent would, trying to shield their children from this. It was harrowing and horrific. When they were eventually told there was a room for the night, more often than not they would have to grab all of their belongings and put their children onto a bus and then another bus just to get one night's accommodation somewhere. If that will not have a long-term impact on children and cause them to experience trauma, I do not know what will.

I saw in the report that child homelessness has dropped by a good bit and that is welcome. We have to bring the factor of Covid into that, including the regulations that were brought in during Covid such as the ban on evictions. The ban on evictions had a huge impact on the number of families that were experiencing homelessness. I have no doubt that child homelessness will rise again because the ban on evictions is not there any more. This is not aimed at the Minister but I was listening to some of his Government colleagues and crocodile tears came into my eyes because the policies the Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil Governments over the years have brought in have led to this housing situation whereby we are putting children after developers and investors. That is no way to run a modern society.

The report states that family hubs are only meant to be there on a short-term and emergency basis. I know families that have been in these family hubs for a couple of years at this stage. That has an impact on children as they cannot bring their friends over for sleepovers and there are curfews for the older children so that they cannot stay out beyond a certain time at night. The older children may have to turn off the lights in the bedroom they all share because the younger sibling is going to bed. Some hubs do not provide residents with the capacity to cook their own food so they are relying on the food that is on offer. This all has long-term effects on children.

On food poverty, in my area of north Clondalkin, in Quarryvale, there is a fairly successful food bank operated by Quarryvale Family Resource Centre and managed by Karin Jonsson called the Clondalkin Cares Food Bank. I spoke on the phone to Karin before this meeting and learned there were 40 households depending on food from the food bank in September 2020. In September 2021, there are 110 households depending on food from the food bank. That shows the number of families that are in food poverty. If one does not have the basic needs of food in one's stomach or a secure roof over one's head, it is very difficult for any child to go to school and to be able to learn and progress.

Unless radical changes are brought about, I do not want to be here next year talking about the same things again without solutions coming in. It is incumbent on the Minister as the Minister with responsibility on this to get his Cabinet colleagues and start working on a cross-departmental approach to child poverty. That is the way forward.

Photo of Verona MurphyVerona Murphy (Wexford, Independent)
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Child poverty and homelessness are concerning issues. Regardless of the number of children who fall into those categories, the aim should always be for zero cases. Zero cases may be almost impossible to achieve because of a wide variety of factors but it should still be the aim. The press release of the Ombudsman for Children, which I welcome, provides food for thought. We can clearly see the link with the general housing problems that exist at present. There is a lack of Government action, the buck is passed and increased barriers to supply are among the main factors preventing the building of both public and private housing. Every time county councillors vote to stop a housing development or every time a law passes here that makes it more difficult to build houses, the problem is made worse.

There is one point contained within the ombudsman's document which needs addressing. On the right to housing he states: "Ireland must enshrine in our Constitution the Right to Housing for everyone in Ireland." Calling for this is a major red herring. If the Government of the day wants to ensure a right to housing then it can do this through policy and action. We do not need to involve the Constitution. Perhaps the problem with such sentiment being contained in the Constitution is a different debate but suffice to say that the goal of eradicating homelessness can be achieved without changing our Constitution and spending millions of euro on a referendum.

Those millions would be better spent on building houses and on effective, not ideological, planning policy. I have been very clear on that point a number of times. The ombudsman also calls for the targeting of services, something for which I regularly call. Often, the provision of certain services is limited. The statement mentions free school meals and supports for everyday expenses to help parents with the costs of rearing their children. I would add that supports such as re-training for parents' education and lifelong skills, and employability training, could be also targeted to help alleviate child poverty. In other words, not just a hand-out but a hand-up. Both are important but, perhaps, the hand-up is more important when it comes to trying to break the cycle or to solve the problem on a long-term basis.

How best can this be done? The problems and challenges need to be identified. How often are services evaluated based on feedback from service recipients? It seems to me most State services are designed or amended based on instructions from the Government, often with little or no regard for the end user. Many months ago, I tabled a Topical Issue for the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, about family carers being re-designated and removed from their clients, which was causing those with acute needs much hardship and anxiety. Thankfully, the Minister of State responded and acted on the problem, but that issue served as an example of how a major policy change in service provision did not take into account the perspective of the end user or recipient.

From a business point of view, we must look at customer needs and what the customer wants. Thankfully, in modern times childhood poverty levels have reduced, as have general poverty levels. I am sure we have all heard our older family members tell stories of walking miles to school in bare feet, having to share a small bedroom with lots of other siblings or a whole variety of other things. However, the general improvement in overall poverty levels in the past century should make us even more keen to continue to help improve the best we can the situations of many of those who are worst off.

2:55 pm

Photo of Peadar TóibínPeadar Tóibín (Meath West, Aontú)
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I have listened to many of the speakers. There are a lot of good ideas and conversations happening on this issue but what is required is action from the Government. I will give a couple of examples of where the Government is seriously breaking down and where the weight is being left in this crisis. A couple of years ago, the Meath Food Bank was without a home. I offered those who run it the use of my constituency office. Since then, one of their main activists, Aisling Lowe, has fed countless children and parents from my constituency office in Trim, many of whom are desperately seeking food on a daily basis. The level of child poverty throughout the country is harrowing. I think of Brother Kevin Crowley in the Capuchin Day Centre in Dublin. Again, we regularly see images of mothers with babies in buggies queueing on the roadside for nappies, baby food, etc. It would break your heart.

As a pro-life activist, I find the neglect of these young women and their children by the Government shocking. It has been left to charities to pick up the weight in respect of this issue. We are a nation with a big heart and we like to help. Many people get involved with charities, etc., but it should not be left to the charity sector to deal with this crisis on a daily basis. It should not be reliant on the generosity of the Irish people to pick up this weight. I am hearing about the lack of Departments working together. I know of a homeless student who was refused the Student Universal Support Ireland, SUSI, grant last year. He is homeless and yet was still refused a SUSI grant. Another student who was a primary carer for his or her father was refused the grant. Many people in these situations are slipping through the cracks. I cannot understand why the Department of Health, the HSE, the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth or Tusla do not work together, for example, with the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science on these issues. If it was the other way around and a student was receiving the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, grant, for example, there is no doubt in my mind that Departments would work seamlessly together with the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science to make sure that student was refused a SUSI grant in that situation.

The Minister is talking about ending direct provision, but last year my office received a phone call from a man living in direct provision accommodation who was on hunger strike. I asked that man why and what he wanted; he said he wanted money to be able to buy baby food for his daughter. How can a Government that dresses itself up in progressive political clothes tolerate a situation that is so cruel to so many people in Irish society? Another situation with regard to direct provision is that many people who have been granted asylum and international protection after a long and tedious process still find themselves stuck in these centres because the State is not offering the financial means for them to build a life for their families from scratch. I have asked this question of the Minister through Written Questions and he informed me 1,185 people in this State are in that situation. When I asked members of the Government what they are doing about it, they stated they were talking to the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and the Peter McVerry Trust to sort it out. Again, this is another example of the Government outsourcing responsibilities to other organisations to do the work it should be doing. It is an absolute disgrace.

Where is the comprehensive 360° plan to get rid of poverty in Irish society? Does one exist? Everywhere I look for that kind of comprehensive focus on ridding this country of child poverty, it is nowhere to be seen. What we have is a Government dressing up itself in a language that sounds good but is not delivering on the action and is offloading the responsibility to community groups and charities to do the heavy lifting. That needs to stop.

Photo of Carol NolanCarol Nolan (Laois-Offaly, Independent)
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Tá áthas orm labhairt ar an ábhar fíorthábhachtach seo inniu. Child poverty is not only an affront to the human dignity of the children who are impacted by it but to all of us in this State. It is also something we have been talking about for a long time in this House. Indeed, as I was researching this issue I came across statements made by the former Minister for Education, Seamus Brennan, in 1992 on the publication of the Green Paper on education, Education for a Changing World. This Green Paper included statements on equipping children with sufficient rates of education so they could avoid the poverty traps of deprivation and generational unemployment, which is a key indicator of child poverty rates.

Some 30 years later, we are still talking about the role of education in helping children find routes out of poverty. While the situation of a cycle of disadvantage and education has a very important role to play, it certainly should not lie with the education system to sort out all these problems. That is where the Government must step up to the mark and stop trying to ship the problem to another sector or pass it to another charity. There must be meaningful actions from the Government. It should not take constant reports, which are very informative, from the Ombudsman for Children, Dr. Niall Muldoon. The Government should be more proactive, see for itself and anticipate what needs to be done in advance and allow, and plan, for all of that.

While we have achieved some progress, clearly some of the policies in the intervening decades have been failures because children in this State still go to bed at night hungry. I accept the school meals programme is a success. I know from information provided to me from the former Minister, Senator Regina Doherty, that funding towards the provision of food to some 1,580 schools and organisations benefited 250,000 children in 2019 at a total cost of €54 million. The objective of this scheme is to provide regular, nutritious food to children who are unable, due to the lack of good quality food, to take full advantage of the education provided to them.

Unfortunately, the provision of this service to vulnerable children was massively disrupted by the Covid-19 emergency. This does not mean that brilliant and heroic efforts were not made by individual schools, the Catholic Church and charitable organisations, including the GAA and many others. I also spoke recently about helping our children to avoid the pitfalls of geographical disparities in terms of broadband access and the resource inequalities that thousands of students endure. Those students are doing their utmost to try to break the cycle of disadvantage in which they have been trapped and yet they are then faced with more barriers. We have seen that time and time again from the Higher Education Authority, HEA, which has shown us the reports. The HEA has more or less confirmed what we all knew, that is, the students from the most affluent areas will progress and stay in third level education. There are problems with students from disadvantaged areas progressing. Drop-out rates are higher in those areas because students cannot contend with the barriers they face each day.

While we are discussing this issue, I will mention the fact that students from disadvantaged areas who go to college, work part time and do everything right are faced with an accommodation crisis and do not have accommodation. Those issues need to be sorted out if we are truly hopeful and willing to eradicate child poverty and disadvantage in this State. As a former educator and principal, I feel this issue needs to be addressed robustly. It is an issue close to my own heart because I have taught in disadvantaged areas. It is also one of my main policy priorities. That is why back in the pre-Covid world of October 2019, I raised the issue of the re-establishment of the education disadvantage committee. I feel the re-establishment of the education disadvantage committee needs to happen and would be a worthwhile action.

Of course, there will be always variation in the quality of education but what we have now is something entirely different. We have a system that actively maintains educational discrimination and a closing down of opportunities for capable, interested and bright students. On the issues of broadband and access to technology, we are continuing to send our children to the equivalent of the digital poorhouse, a term drawn from Virginia Eubanks's book Automating Inequality. That appears to be exactly what we are doing. We are auto-enrolling students into a system of diminished expectations and, unfortunately, diminished outcomes. The same applies to housing and the potential for families to own their own homes. It is not about doing more, it is about getting it right. Ten effective poverty-reducing policy measures are better than 10,000 ineffective policies that go nowhere and do not bear fruits. We need to learn that lesson quickly and act accordingly.

3:05 pm

Photo of Joan CollinsJoan Collins (Dublin South Central, Independents 4 Change)
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Like many other Deputies who have spoken, I absolutely endorse the Ombudsman for Children's report, A Better Normal. I want to hear how the Government is going to implement the report. The Minister made a fair point in his introduction that other issues and plans have been put in place but this report goes deeply into the situation faced by children in poverty as we come out of the pandemic.

Like many Ombudsman reports, the report in question sees a problem, investigates in great detail where the problem is and what the needs are, and puts forward solutions based on human rights obligations, needs and demands to which the Government must be committed to solve the issues. The report particularly underlines the opportunity at hand to eradicate the long-standing issues of child poverty and family homelessness which impact on every aspect of children's lives. A Better Normal is an initiative designed to ensure that children are considered and prioritised, as opposed to the powerful industries and sectors that all need support. The report states we cannot leave children behind.

For some children, the consequences of Covid-19 will be long lasting. The Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, report, Child Poverty in Ireland and the Pandemic Recession, explores the probable impact of the pandemic on child poverty and concludes that "even with a partial economic recovery, child poverty rates could increase to 19%, up from 16% in 2018". The report goes on to state that, "This is not surprising as 'previous recessions have exacerbated levels of child poverty, with long-lasting consequences for children's health, wellbeing and learning outcomes'."

The report goes on to state that, "In a report to the UN Human Rights Council in 2018, the UN's special rapporteur on the right to adequate housing highlighted the status of homelessness as a violation of human rights and States' corresponding and immediate obligation to address homelessness." The report then quotes from the special rapporteur's report, stating, "The lived experience of homelessness and inadequate housing challenges the very core of what it means to be human, assaulting dignity and threatening life itself." That is a profound statement and I agree with it.

The main point in the report in question is that we must achieve an adequate standard of living. Adjusting social welfare supports by €5 or €10, depending on economic boom or bust, does not serve children and families well. As was pointed out earlier, the minimum essential standard of living, MESL, data provide a better, evidence-based advocacy benchmark. The report calls for a right to housing for everyone in Ireland to be enshrined in our Constitution and I agree with that. It calls on us to end child homelessness and stresses the need to target services, which is very important. The report does not really touch on the mental health of children. Barnardos has done a good report in that regard and in relation to parents with autistic children. They have been left behind during the pandemic and need to be prioritised. I agree that a committee should be set up, once it is a committee with teeth that will actually do something.

Photo of Thomas PringleThomas Pringle (Donegal, Independent)
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The past 18 months have been incredibly difficult for children. Their schools have been closed and their extracurricular activities stopped. Their rites of passage, freedoms and social lives were taken from them. The Ombudsman for Children's A Better Normal initiative raised issues of grave importance and I am thankful for the opportunity to speak on this matter today and to highlight the issues raised in the report, particularly as they relate to child poverty and child homelessness.

The issues addressed are not exhaustive. Indeed, all children have suffered during the pandemic. However, those who already experienced low income and underprivileged social engagement have undoubtedly felt the effects in a different way. The points raised in this report require acute attention and there needs to be a solid commitment from Government to address them and to prioritise children in their plan for post-Covid life. It is important to note that the Ombudsman for Children does not have a statutory footing. That could be addressed.

The report poses the interesting question as to whether we actually want a return to normal for these children. Was normality good enough? Can we do better? As the report states, this is a once in a generation opportunity to change the course of history and provide a better future for some of the most disadvantaged children. We have an opportunity now to make a real difference and effective change. I believe we can do much better for the children of this country.

Poverty affects all aspects of a child’s life. The ESRI report Child Poverty in Ireland and the Pandemic Recession states there could be an increase in child poverty from 16% in 2018 to 19% now. That is shocking. How can we seriously say we live in a modern country with a fair and equal society with numbers like that? This needs to be addressed urgently and in order to do this we need to look at, as Professor Aoife Nolan says, pre-existing long-term structural inequalities and social vulnerabilities.

The latest figures have shown a significant drop in children living in emergency accommodation. There is no doubt this is due to the banning of evictions which was introduced due to the pandemic. I hope the Government will seriously consider who they are affecting when they are looking at lifting the ban on evictions because the ban has had a significant impact.

To address child homelessness, the report recommends that Ireland must enshrine in its Constitution the right to housing for everyone in Ireland. I attempted to introduce this constitutional right in my economic, social and cultural rights Bill which I submitted in 2015, 2017 and in January of this year. If the Government really wanted to address this issue, they could do so through that Bill but when I submitted it at the start of the year, it was delayed yet again and proposed that the Bill be deemed to be read a Second Time in 18 months' time. That shows Government commitment to address these issues is not there. This issue is not something that can be left for 18 months. Action is needed now and that legislation could help.

Children in the direct provision system, a group of our society that are already too often overlooked and neglected, have also suffered unique distress throughout the pandemic. The loneliness, isolation and poverty that the children within the direct provision suffer show no sign of abating, despite the best intentions of the White Paper. It has been nearly eight months since the White Paper was published and it has already stalled and fallen behind in its promises. We have asked much of our children over the last 18 months, it is now our turn now to give back to them, to ensure that they are prioritised and to make sure that they are not left behind. That is what we need to do.

3:15 pm

Photo of Roderic O'GormanRoderic O'Gorman (Dublin West, Green Party)
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I thank the Deputies for their contributions to the statements this afternoon. I look forward to my engagement with Dr. Muldoon when we meet in the coming weeks to discuss his proposals in the A Better Normal document in greater detail. The child guarantee I spoke about earlier will help Ireland to sharpen its response and frameworks towards the goal of all children growing up with the same opportunities and access to quality support services that will allow them to thrive in society in a post-pandemic world. The Government is taking steps to prepare for this process. My Department has just established a new EU and international unit that will play a key role in the co-ordination of the necessary actions emerging from the EU child guarantee. The effective implementation of the EU child guarantee will involve the active input of all key Government Departments and agencies. The experience of my Department in the implementation of Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures will inform the design and implementation of the child guarantee to ensure it is collaborative, integrated and impactful. EU funds are available to support measures addressing child poverty, social exclusion and, by extension, the implementation of the child guarantee. The Commission's proposals emphasise that a child guarantee will only be effective if it triggers national investments and, as was just mentioned, a supportive and enabling policy framework.

The design of any national action plan for its implementation will be crucial to its success. Therefore, a new national policy framework for children and young people for Ireland, or Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures 2, will be an essential future component, working in parallel with our implementation of the EU child guarantee. Of course, given its experience and insight, the National Advisory Council for Children and Young People has already been invited to give input and to collaborate with Government on the implementation of the EU child guarantee. It goes without saying that the implementation of the child guarantee will also necessitate close engagement with and input from key Departments and agencies across Government. My own Department has recently appointed an attaché in Brussels who will underpin critical EU and international work, not least with regard to the child guarantee. This attaché will be a key conduit in managing international matters as part of the EU and international unit. All of this will build on the previous work advanced under the Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures whole-of-government approach to addressing child poverty and will align with existing international instruments to which Ireland is a party, for example, the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as future proposed developments such as Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures 2 and existing frameworks such as the roadmap for social inclusion.

Any increases to core social welfare rates are considered in an overall budgetary and policy context and, as part of the annual budgetary process, the Department takes an evidence-based approach in order to ensure that available resources are efficiently allocated to deliver the best impact for social welfare recipients. For example, the minimum essential standards of living, MESL, research, which was mentioned by Deputies, has consistently shown that households with children, and particularly older children, face higher costs than those without. Since 2019, the increase for a qualified child, IQC, rate in respect of children aged under 12 has been increased by €4 per week, while the rate for children aged 12 and over was increased by €8 per week, bringing the current rates to €38 and €45 respectively. In addition, the Department of Social Protection undertakes social impact assessments using the SWITCH and tax welfare microstimulation models developed by the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI. This allows the Department to model the impact of specified proposed budgetary changes such as increases to the qualified child rate, changes to weekly income disregards for the working family payment or changes in weekly rates.

Many Deputies raised the issue of homelessness, and child homelessness in particular. As causal factors and family circumstances vary considerably, so too must the responses. Eradicating homelessness by 2030 is an ambitious goal which necessitates the co-ordinated actions of a wide variety of agencies and stakeholders. Housing for All confirms a housing-led approach to tackling homelessness for all groups. This approach acknowledges that the most effective way to address homelessness is to provide more homes. Under Housing for All, there are specific and costed plans to increase supply across all tenure types, including very significant commitments to social and affordable housing, with over 90,000 social homes, 36,000 affordable homes and 18,000 cost-rental homes, cost rental being a brand new type of tenure that is being introduced, all to be delivered by 2030. Some €4 billion in capital is being invested in social and affordable housing annually. This is the biggest programme of this kind in the history of our State.

Housing for All includes 18 distinct actions tailored to eradicate homelessness. It recognises that suitable housing conditions are a key social determinant of health. Collaborative delivery of housing and health supports will ensure that no person is excluded from either housing or health support and that health support will be an integral component of settlement and a person's return to independent living. The Government has committed to maintaining and consolidating the enhanced health service supports for homeless persons put in place for 2020 and 2021 in response to the pandemic. As part of the public health response to Covid-19, access to health services for people who are homeless was significantly enhanced, initially in the HSE's winter plan, and was subsequently extended to cover all of 2021, with an additional expenditure of €11 million.

Housing for All will build on the co-operation and co-ordination actions already in place and developed in minimising the impact of Covid-19 on homeless persons. As we know, many homeless families have found themselves trapped in long-term homelessness. Housing for All commits the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage to working with local authorities and NGOs to identify families experiencing long-term homelessness who have complex support needs. Those who do will be provided with enhanced tenancy sustainment supports to help them exit homelessness and maintain their homes. Additional supports are to be provided to families by Tusla.

Irrespective of their background, all children have a right to education to enable them to live a full life as a child and to realise their potential as unique individuals. There are considerable supports available to children who are homeless both within schools and within the wider system to ensure that homelessness does not impact on school participation and attendance. National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS, psychologists can provide advice and guidance to principals and teachers in respect of the needs of individual students and in the development of a whole-school approach to support inclusion, participation and integration. In addition, NEPS supports schools to implement early intervention and resilience building programmes.

DEIS is the main policy initiative of the Department of Education to tackle educational disadvantage at school level. In the 2021-22 academic year, there are 884 schools in the DEIS programme serving more than 186,000 pupils and comprising 687 schools at primary level and 197 at post-primary level. The Department of Education is providing €150 million in 2021 for the suite of supports available to schools participating in DEIS programmes. Supports include additional teaching posts in DEIS band 1 schools, 415 home-school community liaison co-ordinators, DEIS grants, enhanced book grants and some €26 million towards the school completion programme. The rationale for providing supports to DEIS schools is that empirical evidence suggests that students attending schools with a concentration of students from disadvantaged backgrounds have poorer academic outcomes. Where children experiencing homelessness are not attending DEIS schools, they still have access to a range of supports available from my Department, the Department of Social Protection and Tusla educational welfare officers.

The Tusla education support service, TESS, seeks to maximise attendance, participation and retention in school to try to ensure that the education placement does not break down and to ensure that the protective factors of maintaining school engagement are capitalised on. TESS's response to children and families experiencing homelessness, or who are at risk of homelessness, is to identify supports that assist with the educational welfare of children and families who are experiencing homelessness. These include breakfast clubs and homework clubs operated via the school completion programme.

My Department recently announced the Covid learning and support scheme, CLASS, which has been put in place for the 2021 school year to help schools mitigate the adverse impacts of Covid-19 on pupil and student supports, learning loss and well-being issues arising from the periods of school closure in 2020 and 2021. Under that programme, a block of additional teaching hours is being provided to each recognised school from which it can provide additional teaching support for the pupils who have experienced difficulties in settling back into school and engaging with learning. I know from schools I have visited in my constituency in recent weeks that these additional supports are welcomed.

I thank Deputies for their contributions to the debate this afternoon. I have outlined a number of actions the Government is taking to address child poverty and children in homelessness. I have also set out clearly our engagement with the EU child guarantee, which we will see as a major focal point in tackling child poverty and linking that with the Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures, BOBF, successor strategy.

I look forward to my engagement in the next two weeks with the Ombudsman for Children to discuss in greater detail his A Better Normal initiative and to engaging with Deputies in terms of how we respond to that as a House.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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We will move on but we are a few minutes ahead of schedule so I do not want to take Members by surprise. The first Topical Issue is in the name of Deputy Stanley. It is in the name of Deputy Cowen as well, who is not here. We are a little bit ahead of time so I will take a few minutes.

Sitting suspended at 4.02 p.m. and resumed at 4.07 p.m.