8 October 2010
Good morning everyone, and thank you Minister for the invitation to present here today.
I am Maria Corbett, Policy Director at the Children’s Rights Alliance. The Alliance is a coalition of over 90 NGOs working to secure the rights and needs of children in Ireland, by campaigning for the full implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Children have already been negatively affected by the recession and the Government’s response to it. The cuts made – to education, health and welfare – add up, and they have a cumulative affect on the same child. It is the same child that moves between a home where money is desperately short to a school without resources. The same child must wait for speech and language therapy, has lost his special needs class, and whose parents’ social welfare payment has been cut.
There is no denying that the country is in economic turmoil. But no matter how difficult our circumstances, protecting and supporting children must remain a priority. Children, don’t work, they must rely on their families and the State to provide for them.
We recognize that the current financial crisis provides us with an opportunity for reform. It is no longer possible to rely on more public money to ‘fix’ problems; instead better and more creative uses of public money are how problems will be solved.
The Children’s Rights Alliance is working with the UCD Geary Institute on proposals that reflect this new approach. We are in the initial phases of this project; the working title of which is Smart Budgeting for Children’s Futures. We look forward to sharing this work with you and your departmental officials as it progresses. Smart budgeting means taking policy decisions that are efficient in their use of resources and effective in their ability to improve outcomes for children. Crucial to this is a focus on social mobility – working across the life cycle to ensure that there are better jobs for each successive generation and that there are fairer chances, so that everyone has the opportunity to access those jobs in line with their potential.
Today, the Alliance has three messages for the Minister which we would like to see underpin Budget 2011:
Be responsive: by building flexibility into the social welfare system so that it can support families to cope with their changing financial circumstances.
Be responsible: by making budgetary decisions with a long-term perspective.
Be resourceful: make sure that all budgetary and policy decisions for 2011 are efficient in their use of resources and effective in their ability to improve children’s outcomes.
You have asked each of us today to focus on our three key priorities. The three we have chosen focus on child income supports. As a member of the End Child Poverty Coalition, we are scheduled to meet with your department officials early next week in relation to the Department’s Review of Child Income Supports. We very much look forward to continuing to engage with the Department on this issue.
The Alliance’s three issues are:
The Child Benefit Payment
Supporting families at work on low pay - FIS
Supporting children in the poorest families – QCI
1). First, child benefit.
The decision by the UK Government earlier this week in relation to child benefit has brought the issue back onto the agenda here. Last year, the Alliance was heavily involved in a campaign to protect the Child Benefit payment from cuts, taxation or means-testing. We were clear that taxing or means-testing were unfeasible options, given the current nature of our tax and welfare systems. This situation has not changed. The Alliance produced a detailed paper last summer outlining our position in relation to Child Benefit, and met with – and had a good engagement with – your ministerial predecessor and departmental representatives on this issue.
We are all aware of the pressure on the Government to raise money. But the Alliance’s position is that Government already has a mechanism to raise money from the rich through the tax system. Tampering with Child Benefit takes money away from children and their families – we believe that we can not afford, not to invest in children.
We believe the child benefit payment is too valuable to be up for grabs. It is a regular, reliable and easy to access payment to which almost every family is entitled. Families have already been hit hard by this crisis; cutting child benefit further would be a step too far.
Indeed, already the UK position is unraveling. Under the proposal, and given the UK taxation system, a family with a single income of over £44,000 would be denied Child Benefit but a family with two earners and a combined income of say £86,000 would receive the payment. This makes no sense at all. In addition, the proposal would treat a family with one child the same as a family with five children, this obviously fails to take into consideration the very real costs of raising children. And importantly, we must acknowledge that comparing Ireland and the UK is not comparing like with like. In the UK, children get free school books, free health care and subsidised school meals. In Ireland parents must pay for these.
2) Second, support for families at work on low pay
For children, growing up in a family where a parent is in work makes a real difference to that child’s outcomes.
According to the ESRI, consistent poverty among children in jobless households stands at 30% compared to 3% of children in households where at least one of the adult members is in employment. The figures speak for themselves – so if the Government wants to end poverty, it should plough its energies into keeping parents in work. And that is what the Family Income Supplement (FIS) does. It is designed to incentivise parents into employment; and to reward work for those on very low incomes.
We are all familiar with the difficulties associated with FIS over the years. But in the current climate these difficulties must be overcome. FIS must be available, accessible and responsive to the needs of working families.
For that to happen, three design changes are needed.
It needs to become more flexible – so that it can respond to changing employment patterns and to unpredictable working hours.
It needs to do better for small families – they are the majority of claimants, yet they benefit least from FIS
It needs to become more accessible – for example by introducing a self assessment claim form, or using ‘sign-off’ from the Live Register as a trigger for FIS.
To sum up, FIS keeps people in work, the alternative is even more people on the Live Register. At a time when jobs are so critical to the country we urge you to strengthen FIS in Budget 2011.
3) Third, income support for our poorest children
The Qualified Child Increase (or QCI) is the key payment to target and support the poorest children in Ireland: those children that are living in families totally dependent on social welfare.
Government decisions – like the rate of the QCI, the rate of adult social welfare payments, and the quality of public services – shape the lives of these children’s. The Government must do everything it can to protect children in the poorest families from falling even deeper into poverty.
To do that, two things must happen:
Budget 2011 must maintain the real value of the Qualified Child Increase, this may include adjusting it to compensate for any changes to other social welfare payments.
It must also recognise that children are not poor on their own; they live in poor families. And to protect children in those families, adult social welfare payments must be maintained at their current rate.
To conclude, we believe that Budget 2011 is a chance for this Government to show that, even in hard times, it can hold onto the principle of protecting the most vulnerable.
So, Minister, this year we urge you to respect the needs and rights of the one million children in Ireland and their families when drafting Budget 2011.
Many thanks for your attention.