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Ireland – committed to promote child welfare

 

In Ireland, child welfare is the responsibility of various ministerial bodies and subject to various strategies, action plans and programmes. One of the government’s main priorities is to focus on strengthening social protection for families with children and reducing child poverty. Financial support for families and children represents 3.4% of GDP compared to an EU average of 2.2% in 2011. However, child poverty remains relatively high (the at-risk-of-poverty rate of people under 18 years was 34.1% in 2011), especially for children living in single-parent households. The government is tackling the problem with a range of universal and targeted benefits.

Children being defined as one of the target groups

Ireland’s commitment to promote child welfare is demonstrated by defining child specific goals and actions related to children in national strategies, programmes and action plans. For instance, The Developmental Welfare State states that social policy operates according to a lifecycle approach in Ireland, and children are defined as one of the lifecycle groups. In addition, the National Action Plan for Social Inclusion 2007-2016 (NAPinclusion) takes a lifecycle approach and includes four high level goals relating to children as well as a number of other actions.

Child welfare as a responsibility of several ministries

Child welfare falls under the remit of various ministries in Ireland. They include:

  • Department for Children and Youth Affairs (DCYA) – the DCYA was established in 2011 with the responsibility to coordinate policies and drive key commitments relating to children and families and especially to promote child-centred service integration and delivery.
  • Department of Social Protection – responsible for child and family income support. DSP also has the lead role in coordinating and monitoring progress on the National Action Plan for Social Inclusion 2007-2016 (NAPinclusion) and on the national social target for poverty reduction. DSP operates the School Meals Programme which provides funding towards provision of food services for disadvantaged school children.
  • The Department of Education and Skills runs the DEIS programme for disadvantaged schools.
  • The Department of Health’s Healthy Ireland framework contains commitment to tackle health inequalities, although these are not specifically child/family specific.

Focusing on child poverty as one of the policy goals

Child poverty is one of the official poverty measures. In Ireland, as in most of Europe, children are at a higher risk of poverty than adults. a higher child poverty rate is a reflection of a higher poverty rate in households with children. Children influence a household’s poverty risk directly (the additional costs associated with children) and indirectly (impact on parents’ earning potential). Specific risk factors associated with child poverty include: older children, having a parent who is ill or disabled, jobless households, low education level of parents, lone parent families and larger families. Overall, 34.1% of children less than 18 years old were at-risk-of-poverty in Ireland in 2011, a slightly higher proportion than in the EU (27.3%). This is despite the fact that Ireland allocated 3.4% of its GDP on social protection benefits for children and families, one of the highest percentages in Europe, compared with the 2.2% average in the EU in 2011.

Strengthening access to affordable quality services

Access to affordable quality services has a particular relevance to the prevention of child poverty, especially in the formative years of a child’s life.

Budget 2013 provided new funding of €20 million to improve services for children, covering three discrete measures:

  • An area-based approach to child poverty initiatives to extend prevention and early intervention programmes. The approach will also seek to mainstream the lessons from successful early intervention programmes into existing services for children and families.
  • An extension of the school food programme, to provide regular nutritious food to pre-school and in-school children who are unable to take full advantage of the education provided.
  • An initiative to increase provision of after-school childcare places by 6,000. These places will be targeted towards low-income families with children at primary school, where parents are availing of employment opportunities.

These measures support and complement policies to tackle early school leaving described under the education social target, as well as active labour market programmes to help parents, men and women, return to work.

This is supported by initiatives to increase formal childcare provision. In 2011, only 21% of Irish children aged 0-3 were in formal childcare institutions, compared to 30% in the EU. However, the proportion of older children (aged 3 to compulsory school age) in formal childcare settings was very similar to the EU average of 83% (82% in Ireland).

Community-based initiatives have a vital role to play in supporting social participation and enabling access to services, in particular the local and community development programme and the family resource centres programme. Housing and health services are also important in the fight against poverty, especially for marginalised groups, as detailed in the National Action Plan for Social Inclusion.

National targets to reduce joblessness

The key relationship between parental employment status and child well-being is well established and is more acute when one or both parents are out of work. Overall, the employment rate for female and male in Ireland was lower than the EU average in 2012, with 55.1% of Irish women in full-time employment compared to 58.5% in the EU, and 62.7% of Irish males in full-time employment compared to 69.6% in the EU. Women in Ireland, however, are slightly more likely to work part-time, with 35.5% in part-time employment in 2012, compared to 32.5% in the EU respectively. Nevertheless, employment rate of women and men with children under the age of 6 is slightly lower than the EU average in 2012, with 56.2% of Irish women and 76.6% of Irish males with young children working compared to 59.1% and 86% in the EU respectively.

The Government, in agreeing the new national social target for poverty reduction also agreed to set a sub-target to reduce the share of jobless households in consistent poverty. The key to ensuring that the target will be addressed is an active labour market policy. Given that children make up a significant proportion of jobless households, addressing this sub-target will contribute to addressing the sub-target for child poverty reduction.

A Programme for Government priority for 2013 is to make sure that economic recovery does not bypass jobless households, by enhancing the Pathways to Work strategy to ensure new jobs go to people on the Live Register. The Government is implementing a number of actions which will have a positive impact on jobless households including (i) the new integrated employment and support service (Intreo); (ii) streamlining and restructuring of working age supports; (iii) improving labour market measures to assist those furthest from the labour market, in particular the long-term unemployed; and (iv) an area-based response to child poverty. The Irish Government’s Pathways to Workpdf sets out an action plan for improving the employment prospects of the long-term unemployed.

Supporting access to adequate resources

Supporting parents is one of the broad objectives of child and family income support programmes. The focus on:

  • providing assistance to all households with children in recognition of the higher costs incurred in raising a child and child care in a way that gives parents a choice in how this is undertaken, and 
  • providing targeted assistance to no or low-income households with children in a way which minimises labour market disincentives or positively contributes to labour market incentives in order to reduce poverty in households with children.

The evolution of policy has also seen a number of secondary objectives emerge over time with varying significance. These include:

  • the reduction of financial disincentives for parents to take up work;
  • financial assistance with specific costs such as the cost of paid childcare; and
  • the provision of an independent income source for women in the home.

Families with children are supported by a number of payments. There Department of Social Protection payments include:

  • Child Benefit (CB),
  • Qualified Child Allowance (to primary social welfare payments) (QCAs),
  • Family Income Supplement (FIS),
  • Back to School Clothing and Footwear Allowance (BtSCFA).

Child Benefit is a monthly payment made to families with children in respect of all qualified children. It is a “universal” payment (that does not rely on a means test or a social insurance contribution), paid in respect of qualified children up to the age of 16 years. The payment continues to be paid in respect of children up until their 18th birthday who are in full-time education, or who have a physical or mental disability. Child Benefit is normally paid directly to mothers although it may be paid to fathers in certain circumstances.

Most weekly social welfare payments include an additional payment in respect of each qualified child up to age 18, which is extended to include older school/college going children to age 22 under certain circumstances. These are referred to as qualified child allowance.

The Family Income Supplement (FIS) scheme provides income support to low income families with children. The payment effectively preserves the incentive to take up or remain in employment in circumstances where the employee might only be marginally better off than if s/he were claiming weekly social welfare payments. As these thresholds are linked with the number of dependent children in a household, FIS provides an important policy instrument in reducing child poverty in working households as well as improving incentives to work. To qualify for FIS, a family must have a combined total of at least 19 hours employment per week (or 38 hours per fortnight) and have earnings below a specified income limit, which is adjusted by family size. FIS is payable at a rate of 60% of the difference between the weekly income (net of tax, PRSI and USC) and the relevant income limit for that family size.

The Back to School Clothing and Footwear Allowance is a means tested payment designed to provide assistance in respect of school-going children (aged 4-22).

Conclusions

The on-going developments in child and family policy in Ireland support the EC Recommendation as they focus on tackling child poverty and putting emphasis on support for families. Several measures have been implemented over recent years aiming to strengthen the ability of families and welfare of children.

The information in the country profile was last updated in February 2014.

Additional information

The Irish  Programme for Government includes series of commitments:

  • Holding of a Referendum in relation to the rights of children under the Constitution,
  • The establishment of a Child and Family Support Agency on a statutory basis in order to fundamentally reform the delivery of child protection services and remove responsibility of these from the Health Services Executive.
    • Implementing the recommendations of the Ryan Report, including putting the Children First: National Guidance on a statutory footing and legislating for the use of ‘soft information’.
    • Maintaining the free pre-school year and improving its quality as resources allow. Enacting legislation to consolidate and reform the law on adoption.
    • Investing in a targeted early childhood education programme for disadvantaged children, building on existing targeted pre-school supports for families most in need of assistance, such as the ‘youngballymun’ project;
    • Breaking the cycle of child poverty where it is most deeply entrenched by adopting a new area based approach to child poverty, which draws on best international practice and existing services to tackle every aspect of child poverty.