1. Deputy Willie O’Dea asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection her views on the latest survey of income and living conditions, SILC, data which show that approximately 11% of children are living in consistent poverty, that 19% are at risk of poverty and that 25% are experiencing deprivation; and if she will make a statement on the matter. (Question 2134/18 asked on 17 Jan 2018)

Deputy Willie O’Dea: I raise this question to reflect my concern that the substantial rates of economic growth we have been experiencing in recent years have not translated into a substantial reduction in the level of child poverty.

Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection (Deputy Regina Doherty): I wish the Deputy and Deputy John Brady a very happy new year. I hope we will have a productive year. I also wish the Leas-Cheann Comhairle a happy new year.

I welcome the CSO survey of income and living conditions results for 2016 because they show improvements in living conditions and tackling poverty. In 2016 incomes rose by 3.1%, mainly due to rising employment, while the deprivation rate fell for the second year running. We have now lifted 7,000 more children out of what we call consistent poverty.

By 2016, each of the rates quoted in the question was down substantially from its peak in 2012-13. I am very grateful for this. The number of children living in consistent poverty was down from 12.8% to 11%; the number of children at risk of poverty was down from 20.3% to 19%, while the number of children experiencing deprivation was down from 37% to 25%. While I welcome these figures, they are still not good enough and will not be good enough until they are down significantly.

Excluding pensions, the social welfare system continued to perform strongly in 2016, with the at-risk-of-poverty rate being reduced from 33.6% before social transfers to 16.5% after social transfers. This equates to a poverty reduction effect of 51%, ensuring Ireland remains one of the best performing countries in the European Union in reducing the incidence of poverty through the social transfers system.

The entire impact of the recovery is not fully reflected in the most recent data which relate to incomes in the period from 2015 to 2016. Macroeconomic and labour market indicators have shown continued economic and employment growth since. The unemployment rate fell from 9.4% in mid-2015 to 6.1% towards the end of 2017. The number in receipt of working age income and employment supports has also continued to fall. In addition, budget 2018 introduced increases in a range of supports, including an increase of €5 per week in the maximum weekly rate for people of working age and young jobseekers and pensioners, with proportionate increases for adult dependants and an increase of €2 per week in the qualified child dependant allowance which had not been increased in the previous eight years. We all have to agree that these increases are aimed at assisting those individuals and families most in need.

The Government’s strategy for tackling poverty and social exclusion is set out in the national action plan for social inclusion. The plan identifies a wide range of targeted actions and interventions to achieve the overall objective of reducing the level of consistent poverty. My Department is reviewing the plan in consultation with all relevant stakeholders.

Deputy Willie O’Dea: Lest people think I was being churlish. I also wish everybody a happy new year.

I acknowledge what was done in the budget and the previous one. I also acknowledge that there has been a reduction in the rate for those experiencing deprivation. Nevertheless, the figure for the number of children living in consistent poverty in 2014 was 12.7%, which figure was reduced to 11.5% in 2015 and 11.1% in 2016. If one does the figures, they show that 97% of the children who were living in consistent poverty in 2015 were also living in consistent poverty in 2016. In the same three-year period the at-risk-of-poverty rate fell from 20.3% to 19.5% and then to 19.3%. They show that 99% of the children who were at risk of poverty in 2015 were still at risk of poverty in 2016. Does the Minister agree that the substantial economic growth which we acknowledge has happened in recent years and the substantial reductions in the rate of unemployment are not yet being properly reflected in the statistics for children? Is she aware that approximately 70,000 more children are living in poverty than in 2008? Does the Government have specific proposals to ensure improvements in the economy will be translated into a substantial reduction in the incidence of child poverty?

Deputy Regina Doherty: I agree with the Deputy that the numbers I have just given do not reflect the economic progress we are seeing because they are the figures to the end of 2015 and the beginning of 2016. Thankfully, in 2018 there are 320,000 more people working than when the Deputy’s party left government in 2011. Ensuring someone has a job is the single greatest thing any economy or government can do to try to take adults and children out of poverty. There are some specific measures in the action plan. The latest CSO survey of income and living conditions shows that the number of children living in consistent poverty fell to 11.1% in 2016. Given the continued economic recovery this and the last Government have seen, it is reasonable to expect that future figures to show further improvements. I will continue to work with my Government colleagues to ensure the economic recovery is experienced by every person and in every county. A key driver in preventing children from experiencing poverty has been social transfers, as indicated in the reduced averages, as well as child dependant payments and child benefit. EUROSTAT data show that we reduce the at-risk-of-poverty rate before social transfers from just over 40% to just under 19% after social transfers. We know that social transfers work. We also know that the Government can only aid economic recovery, but when we have resources and the fruits of economic recovery, we can make sure they are targeted at the most vulnerable through the Social Welfare Bill. That is my job and what I intend to do.

Deputy Willie O’Dea: I note the Minister said future figures will show the differences. We have heard that before. Before the latest figures were produced, we were assured that, because of the accompanying economic growth, they would show a substantial reduction, but that has not transpired to be the case. The 2020 child poverty target that was agreed by the Government would require it to lift 102,000 children out of consistent poverty between 2015 and 2020. Will the Minister say if this target is still realistic?

Deputy Regina Doherty: I believe that if we do not set ambitious targets then we are never going to achieve them. It is an ambitious target. I have said a number of times on the record that the target under the action plan Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures is to take 90,000 children out of poverty in that period. I do not know which 30,000 children we will pick to leave behind. It is my ambition to make sure that everybody in the section of society that is currently either long-term or short-term unemployed, and who wants to work, will have a job. For those people who have difficulties in accessing the jobs market we need to make sure there are activation measures in place to assist when people find barriers or difficulties in their way. We will assist them to get in to employment and make sure that the fruits of the economy that are given back to people through social transfers are given to those who are most vulnerable, in my opinion those children and their parents who are living in consistent poverty.