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Senator Bacik speaking on Child Poverty: Motion February 2009

11 February 2009

Senator Ivana Bacik: I welcome the opportunity to speak on this motion which tackles the very important issue of child poverty. I agree with Senator Boyle entirely that one should measure a Government by its commitment to social justice and by its ability to do the most with the least resources. However, I am disturbed to hear him speak about the need for readjustment. Given that the Minister for Education and Science today announced what amounts to a severe cutback in the allocation for children with special educational needs, we must question the Government's commitment to social justice.

We need to ask ourselves what readjustment really means. Clearly, the Government is proposing readjusting those who are most vulnerable in our system. In answer to my proposed amendment to the Order of Business calling for the Minister for Education and Science to come to the House to explain why he had made this cutback, the Leader said it was not a cutback and proceeded to explain that it was a change in the numbers qualifying for special needs teachers. I am sorry, but it is a cutback by any other name. The upshot will be that more than 100 teachers will lose their jobs and it has been reported at least 900 children will lose the learning support they require. We need to question the Government's commitment to social justice and its commitment to ending child poverty.

The motion mentioned some very disturbing figures. Some 76,000 children still live in poverty in this country and 20% of children live in households with incomes so low that they are at risk of poverty. I recognise the Government's commitments stated in its amendment to “reduce the number of those experiencing consistent poverty... with the aim of eliminating consistent poverty by 2016”. Clearly that is an important and laudable goal. However, I take issue with the Government amendment when it notes “the significant progress made on the implementation of DEIS (Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools), the action plan for educational inclusion, which represents an integrated, strategic approach to addressing the educational needs of children and young people from disadvantaged communities”. Members on the Government side should try telling that to the parents and children affected by today's mean-minded announcement by the Minister for Education and Science.

The previous budget also targeted children and young people from disadvantaged communities despite the Government's stated commitment to improving the quality of services for them. I have spoken on this matter before. The implementation of the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act and the Disability Act has been deferred to beyond 2010. Class sizes have been increased despite a stated commitment in the programme for Government to reduce them. Even before today's announcement there have been severe cutbacks impacting, for example, on Traveller children whose special supports will be cut. Class sizes are set to rocket beyond the OECD average despite the commitment in the programme for Government. It is really an empty rhetoric that is addressed at helping and supporting children and it is an empty rhetoric exposed by the reality of this recession and the prioritising by the Government of baling out bankers at the expense of children in need.

I am grateful to the End Child Poverty Coalition, which is a coalition of seven NGOs, including Barnardos and Focus Ireland the Children's Rights Alliance, all of whom have come together to make six key recommendations to Government with the aim of ending child poverty. These are very important recommendations. I call into question the Government's commitment to these recommendations. The very simple recommendations made by the coalition are, first, to increase basic social welfare payments for families; second, to provide access to quality, affordable and flexible early childhood care and education; third, to tackle educational disadvantage; and fourth, medical card eligibility, homes and support for families in low paid work while enhancing family income supplements. These are important and very sensible recommendations.

Again we are seeing a lack of commitment by the Government to implement these recommendations. In particular, I draw the Minister of State's attention to the second recommendation related to early childhood care and education. This has been spoken about in this House and I and many others spoke on the need to support early childhood care and education places. There is a stated commitment in the Government's amendment to the motion and in the Government's policies to date to provide such care and education, although these are two separate things, childhood care and education and pre-school. What we have seen has been a failure to sign up to the stated commitment; a lack of implementation of the impressive rhetoric. As the End Child Poverty Coalition points out, the current lack of affordable, flexible and quality early childhood care and education and after-school care restricts parental employment options and keeps families locked into a cycle of poverty.

At a time when the cutbacks and the measures proposed by Government are really going to impact on people in employment and when they will reduce people's chances of employment and ensure we will see more families locked into poverty, this is the time when we need to see the Government committing to providing universal free quality pre-school places for all children. It makes sense in terms of saving money for the Government from a very practical point of view because we have seen all the research that says if quality early childhood support is provided, such as pre-school places and early childhood care and education, there will be long-term savings because children will require fewer supports at school and they will be less likely to engage in anti-social behaviour and young adults are less likely to engage in behaviour that brings them into the criminal justice system. There is a significant practical saving from a financial point of view and a significant benefit to the community and to society from a social point of view if we look at providing quality pre-school education and care for children. At this time it is one of the important measures the Government could take.

I draw an analogy with the welcome Government proposals for conservation projects by giving householders grants to insulate their homes. This is very important because it will have a lot of knock-on benefits such as employing people in the construction sector who are in difficulties and it will have the benefit of reducing carbon emissions and will contribute to Ireland being a better place from an environmental perspective. However, it will cost money, but that money is being spent with an important and practical and ultimately a money-saving objective. We can draw the same analogy with early childhood care and education.

I refer to a very interesting model in Australia where a government came to power promising early childhood care and education and free pre-school places. I have heard the relevant Australian Minister speak about the policy. It became so popular that it was one programme that could not be dismantled even by subsequent governments which did not have the same ideological commitment to it.

The Labour Party motion is very significant because it expresses very clearly all the different recommendations which the Government should adopt to address child poverty. I will single out perhaps the two recommendations, that the Government should ensure access to quality, affordable and flexible early childhood education and care because this has been immensely popular when rolled out in other countries and has had immense social and economic benefits. I also ask the Minister of State to consider implementing the fourth recommendation, tackling educational disadvantage by fully resourcing and implementing the DEIS strategy. Unfortunately, that has been severely undermined by today's announcement and I question the commitment of the Government to ending childhood poverty, given what we have seen in recent announcements and in the recent budget.

I ask the Minister of State to answer why this announcement has been made today. It is a good day to bury bad news, given the announcements about the banks. Why was this announcement made today when the Minister was in this House last night? I read what he said last night and he did not refer to this change which was introduced today and which targets so severely children with special needs. I welcome the opportunity to make this contribution.