[Sinn Fein]

26th February 2003

Failure to address child poverty a scandal

Sinn Fein spokesperson on Social and Community Affairs Seán Crowe TD speaking on the Social Welfare Bill 2003 hit out at the government for their failure to address child poverty. He said `no amount of platitudes can hide the unpalatable truth that this government chose to ignore its commitment to deliver on Child Poverty. Their disgraceful u-turn means children without proper clothes or food, children going to school hungry and deprived of certain essentials of life. He went on to say `It is true that children were targeted in the last Budget, they were targeted for cutbacks in the form of broken promises on Child Benefit and access to medical cards.' Deputy Crowe said:

There is little that is new in the Social Welfare Bill 2003 it merely serves to put in legislation some of the changes already announced in the Budget last December. Almost three months on, this piece of legislation simply reminds us again of the theme of this government s first year in office, broken promises. A lot have been broken, but I have no doubt they will find more to break.

It was this government s decision to ignore child poverty in the last Budget, and in real terms that is certainly what they did, that is perhaps the most striking example of stroke politics at its worst

In the Programme for Government they promised: a programme of multi-annual increases in Child Benefit to ensure that the combined value of child support is increased in line with its commitment under the National Anti-Poverty Strategy.

The Four Year Progress Report also stated: One of the key priorities...is to bring forward a program to effectively address child poverty... We are committed to exceeding this [PPF target] by dramatically increasing Child Benefit over the 3 years of the programme...

In 2003, the last year of this promised programme, should have seen an increase of ¤31.80 per month (¤38.10 for the higher rate) in Child Benefit. An allowance which many see as the fairest and most effective way of supporting low-income families caught in the poverty trap. It would also have been an ideal opportunity to remove an another OEanomaly by making the new rates applicable from January 2003, in line with the welfare and tax year.

But when we turn to this Social Welfare Bill before us, the pledge to seriously tackle child poverty seems to have got lost. This government is increasing Child Benefit by what amounts in real terms to 54 cents a week.

The truth is that this government chose to ignore its commitment to deliver on Child Poverty.

We see the result every single day. This morning throughout this state, children went to school hungry, some of them cold and poorly dressed. 90,000 Irish children are living in consistent poverty and almost a quarter of a million children in relative poverty. And this is still supposed to be one of the wealthiest countries in the world. There is a tendency in this Government to ignore Relative Poverty while focusing exclusively on Consistent Poverty.

I remember a Fianna Fáil backbencher challenging the figures of an Opposition spokesperson during the Budget Debate on the grounds that the figures being used referred to Relative Poverty. Let me be clear, Relative Poverty means children without proper clothes, or food, children who are going to school hungry and are deprived of certain essentials of life. We should ignore this artificial distinction between Relative and Consistent poverty, which is a distinction almost unique to this state. Poverty, is poverty, is poverty, and whatever name you want to give it, this Government will ignore it just the same.

It is true that children were targeted in the last Budget, they were targeted for cutbacks in the form of broken promises made in terms of Child Benefit and greater access to medical cards.

I welcome the move in this legislation to broaden the scope of the Child Dependent Allowance but it has remained at this level since 1994. According to St Vincent de Paul, the absence of an increase in this allowance effectively means a 6% cut in income for the poorest families, amounting to 400,000 children.

According to Focus Ireland there are 1,100 homeless children in Dublin alone, 600 of them under the age of five. They are among the thousands of children forced to beg on the streets for money or rely on charity simply for a decent breakfast and I would like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to those charity workers and St Vincent de Paul in particular who fill the gap left by the failure of the State to provide accessible, quality public services.

On Monday, St Vincent de Paul launched a report which highlighted the educational disadvantage many of these children are experiencing. Low-income families are unable to afford the basics education expenses such as schoolbooks and other classroom materials. The society makes the point, one made by others many times, including Sinn Fein, that until the unequal and unfair distribution in wealth in this state is tackled, educational disadvantage will continue.

The extent of the failure of Budget 2003 and consequently the legislation we have before us was clearly shown in a report obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. An internal Department memo accepted that the increases in social welfare in the Budget fell far below what was required for the Government to live up to the pledges it made in the Programme for Government and the National Anti-Poverty Strategy. The Anti-Poverty strategy is another objective to be piled on the mountain of this Government s broken promises.

Lets put this bill in context. There have been substantial increases in the cost of living over the last few months.

Price increases have hit households which depend on social welfare payments to get by the most and in recent times we have seen increases in public transport fares, increases in the cost of private rented accommodation, a 22% increase in the monthly drug payment scheme, 26% in the cost of Casualty Department fees and an incredible 21% increase in the cost of electricity between 2001 and now. On Monday night we heard the news that gas prices are to rise by 9%.

On top of all this we have the regressive stealth taxes introduced by Minister McCreevy on ATM and credit cards.

Alongside this, the government has yet to find a CE scheme it couldn t cut, with 5,000 places gone, to be joined by 5,000 public sector jobs cut by the Minister in the last budget. These decisions are going to fall the hardest on the low paid and those people on social welfare. These are the people who have benefited the most from CE schemes and now find these schemes abandoned by the government and the people involved in them treated with absolute contempt despite the incredible work they do in their communities. These people will be forced to rely more and more on a public sector which not only is experiencing cutbacks but is now set to have 5,000 workers thrown on the dust heap.

From tax cuts in the top rates, to cuts in Corporation tax and Capital Gains Tax, over the last five budgets the richest 10% of the population received 25% of the benefits and the poorest 20%, a mere 5%

While Sinn Fein acknowledges the economy is not as strong as it was even 12 months ago, this state is still a comparatively wealthy one. The Government should have made the choice to redistribute the wealth of this state, to look after those who have been abandoned by the rising economic tide, which lifted far less boats than the government admits. The gap between rich and poor has widened. Poverty is on the increase. We are now one of the most unequal states in the First World.

The government will claim there is not enough money to do all that we propose. The truth is the money is there, the financing is there, the real question is does this government have the political will to deliver? Does it have the will to put the needs of the most vulnerable, the needs of the poor, the hungry and the sick before the desires of the better off in Irish society? The answer, so clear from the legislation necessary to enforce the decisions of Minister McCreevy is that it does not.''

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