8. Deputy Thomas P. Broughan asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection if she will report on the National Action Plan for Social Inclusion 2018-2021; if she will report on the achievements of the National Action Plan for Social Inclusion 2015-2017; the areas which require further resources and improvements in the context of poverty proofing budget 2019; and if she will make a statement on the matter. (Question 18666/18 asked on 03 May 2018)

Deputy Thomas P. Broughan: Last year was the 20th anniversary of our first national poverty strategy, introduced by the Minister’s predecessor, Proinsias de Rossa, when he was Minister for Social Welfare. The Minister has had a consultation on the new plan for 2018 to 2021. How does she evaluate the updated National Action Plan for Social Inclusion 2015-2017, and what does she expect to feature in the new plan, given that 750,000 people are still living in consistent poverty?

Deputy Regina Doherty: It is fair to say that tackling poverty remains a fundamental aspiration of all of us, regardless of the Department we serve in. The programme for Government includes a firm commitment to develop a new integrated framework for social inclusion to tackle inequality and poverty. This will be a successor to the National Action Plan for Social Inclusion the Deputy has referred to, which ran from 2007 to 2016, and its 2015 to 2017 update, which was included in this year’s analysis.

The Deputy is right to say that my Department has started preparations for the new four-year plan for the period from 2018 to 2021. Like its predecessor, the plan will have a whole-of-Government approach that aims to improve outcomes for the vulnerable and marginalised in Irish society, while recognising a shared responsibility across Government to implement actions to achieve the overall aims. The theme of the new plan is one of active inclusion, which will enable every citizen, notably the most disadvantaged, to fully participate in society, which includes having a job if that is what they want. The primary focus will be the reduction of the rate of consistent poverty, which in 2016 was 8.3%. This will be achieved through a three-pronged approach; by supporting incomes through as high a level of employment as possible and encouraging and assisting people to enter the workforce; by setting targets for the level of relevant welfare payments designed to reduce relative poverty among those who cannot work or cannot find work; and by improving access to quality services such as health, education, childcare, training, housing, community supports and all of the other activities that wrap around a person to enable them to have as good a quality of life as they can, in order to minimise deprivation for all groups, particularly those who are on relatively low incomes.

My Department reports on the progress of actions under the National Action Plan for Social Inclusion through our annual progress reports and the annual social inclusion monitor. The progress report for 2015-2016 is scheduled for publication before the summer, with the 2017 progress report due to be published by the end of this year. I will get it Deputy Broughan as soon as I can. I want to get the 2017 data as quickly as I can, because there is no point in talking about 2015 or 2016 when the economy and the environment in Irish society have changed. I want to see what benefit that has provided to the most vulnerable in society so that I know what we collectively have to do to provide for a better quality of life in the 2019 budget.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

The 2016 social inclusion monitor will be finalised by the end of May and will report on progress against a range of poverty targets based on data from the most recent EU survey on income and living conditions.

As part of the preparation for the annual budget process, the Department of Finance publishes the ex-ante social impact assessment of illustrative budgetary measures, including income tax, universal social charge, USC, and social welfare, prepared for the tax strategy group. In the run-up to the budget, my Department undertakes social impact assessments of the main proposed welfare and direct tax budgetary policies in order to estimate the likely distributive effects of these policies on household income. Shortly after the budget is agreed, my Department publishes the social impact assessment of the main welfare and tax measures which have been agreed.

In addition, in the months preceding the budget and immediately afterwards, there is extensive engagement at ministerial and departmental level with community and voluntary groups. This includes the pre-budget forum and post-budget briefing. This represents an important consultative dimension to the social impact assessment, which helps our understanding of the qualitative impact of policy.

Deputy Thomas P. Broughan: The bottom line is that we are definitely not experiencing an inclusive recovery in the economy after the decade of austerity. The statistics are still pretty frightening. The poverty focus 2018 report tells us that over 100,000 working people are at risk of poverty, which is an astonishing statistic, as Social Justice Ireland points out. Moreover, 16.5% of the population, roughly one in six, is surviving on an income below the poverty line. Some 780,000 people are living in poverty, and 26% of those are children. Deputy Doherty is now the Minister responsible. We still have the sixth highest rate of jobless households in the EU. The Minister mentioned the 8.3% target, but I note that we did have a target of reducing the rate of consistent poverty down to 4% by 2016, and then 2% by 2020. Now the Minister has seemingly changed that, and the target has been doubled to 4%. There is much work to be done there. A significant cohort of our fellow citizens are struggling and have very difficult lives.

Deputy Regina Doherty: The Deputy is dead right that there is no denying the facts. There is no dressing them up or hiding them. There are far too many people in this country who do not have a decent standard of living. The role of the Department is twofold. The first is to support people through the working family payment and the changes that I can and have already made to that scheme to help people to have a minimum standard of living. I hope to be able to improve that further when money allows.

More importantly, we all recognise that the real method to address poverty in this country is to provide people with employment. We have a national strategy to address jobless households. There is another strategy that will specifically address a cohort of people in households who are not working and are not seeking a job, and it will work with those people on a voluntary basis to allow them to have access to the services of the State. We must ensure that people who want to work are availing of the opportunities in the State, whatever difficulties they have or barriers they face, to enable them to get a job, and not just any job. I do not stand over a system that puts a hairdresser in a job picking apples. I want to get people jobs, better jobs and careers. The national strategy will determine how we will do that.

The jobless households strategy is under way. The specific pilot schemes we have for those under 25 and those over 55 are directly targeting those stubborn groups and parts of society where we have not been achieving the targets we would like to achieve. There is so much more to do and there is a long way to go before we get to where the Deputy and I will be satisfied that we have done the job.

Deputy Thomas P. Broughan: There is a geographical aspect to it as well. The midlands, Border counties, south east and south west are particularly badly affected, and perhaps strategies are required in the new four-year plan for those areas in particular. The social protection payment rates are also critical. Social Justice Ireland has evaluated that the minimum rate per person should be approximately €249 per week. One of my constituents believes that the basic contributory pension for pensioners who have worked hard throughout their lives should be €400 per week so they can live reasonably fulfilling lives in their final years. There is much work to be done in that regard.

I wish to raise a final point. The Committee on Budgetary Oversight evaluated the public service performance report for the Minister’s Department. I noticed that while the report mentions all the payments the Department makes, there is no connection between that and what the Department is trying to achieve, for example, in the national inclusion strategy. Is it possible that the metrics for this report could be changed so we can know what we trying to achieve?

Deputy Regina Doherty: I accept the broader point. I will ask my officials to look at the report to see if we can make it more meaningful. What we must do is show the Irish people from a transparency perspective what we are doing with the €20 billion that is entrusted to my Department. Most importantly, however, the people we are trying to help need to see the effects and benefits of it.

I acknowledge where the Deputy is coming from with regard to the increase in payment rates, but I doubt that I would ever be lucky enough to get the amount of money that would be required to provide those types of rates. In essence, the Department does not provide fully for somebody’s outgoings. I recognise that the moneys we give are not sufficient, especially from an old age pension perspective, to provide people with the quality of life they would have had when they were working. That is the reason I am introducing the automatic pension enrolment so we do not have another generation of people who are short of money in their retirement and to ensure people start planning for their retirement now. I also wish to ensure that, instead of just giving more money in schemes, we enhance the services people get and reduce the cost of living in respect of those services, be they in child care, education or health. It is not just down to our Department to continually change that €20 billion into €25 billion and €30 billion. It is up to the whole of Government to examine all the services we provide for people to ensure they have a decent quality and standard of life and enough money in their back pockets to be able to enjoy themselves.

Acting Chairman (Deputy Eugene Murphy): If we get everybody’s co-operation we could possibly get through four more questions before 12 noon. I ask everybody to adhere to the time constraints.

Deputy Regina Doherty: I am sorry, Chairman.

Acting Chairman (Deputy Eugene Murphy): You are fine. I am trying to accommodate the Members who are waiting to have their questions answered.