European Commissioner responsible for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion
Tackling child poverty
7th European Forum on the Rights of the Child /
Brussels, 13 November 2012
Ladies and gentlemen,
First of all I would like to thank you for giving me the opportunity to join this opening session, and for addressing today's debate also through the angle of child poverty.
As you are well aware, addressing the link between child poverty and child protection is a difficult and challenging exercise. Yet it is more than ever necessary, as children's living conditions have deteriorated in a number of Member States.
I also hope that today's discussion will be an opportunity to promote a more preventive approach to child protection, an approach where poverty is never the only reason for removing a child from his or her family.
Child poverty on the rise
Growing up in poverty is too often synonymous of broken dreams and wasted opportunities. It is also one of the most fundamental denials of children's rights.
Yet after some encouraging steps in the last decade, child poverty is on the rise again in many Member States.
More than 27% of children are now at risk of poverty or social exclusion in the EU, that is much more than the overall population. Among them, more than 20% are facing severe material deprivation.
The situation is particularly acute for specific groups, such as children within single parent families or large families, children within migrant families or with a disability.
And as the need for intervention is increasing, key services and policies supporting children and families have started to be affected by budget cuts, through tighter eligibility criteria, cuts or freezes in the level of benefits.
Yet even in a context of budget consolidation, we must and we can find ways to keep investing in Europe's children and give them the best possible start in life.
Stepping up prevention through support to families
The first step to child protection should always be to provide the right support to children and to their families, to help them cope better with difficult situations.
This implies setting the best conditions for parents to access employment, and in particular providing quality and affordable childcare, that will help them get back to work and know that their children are in safe hands. This holds particularly true also for parents of children with a disability, who have specific and often unmet care needs.
Social policy instruments, such as child benefits, and housing policy also play an essential role. They help giving children adequate living conditions and an environment where they can not only live and study, but also play, which is so important for their development.
But beyond this, I think we can do better to support and empower parents in their role as carers and educators, by acting before it is too late.
All over Europe, parenting support services are now in place to inform, train or provide counselling to parents and help them develop better bonds with their children.
These services can have a positive impact on children's well-being and help parents better cope with the stress arising from a difficult financial situation. By relieving pressure on families, they can also help prevent violence.
Yet, parenting support has not developed in a systematic way. It very much remains an emerging, fragmented policy field, too often left to the initiative or good will of community organisations.
This question is at the heart of our debate today, and I hope we can come to new proposals in this direction during this Forum.
For quality, alternative care
Clearly, a preventive approach which tries to keep children in their family should always be preferred. Yet, if this is not possible nor in the child's best interest, it is essential that children are placed in a supportive environment.
By this I mean an environment that is as close as possible to a family setting, where children can receive individual support and have access to quality, mainstream services.
It is also an environment where children are considered as persons in their own right and are given a voice the main decisions that affect them.
It has now become clear that community based care can provide better results than institutional care both for children and their families.
Yet moving from the existing residential facilities towards family friendly services, and fostering individualised support for the transition into and out of alternative care is a major challenge. More coordinated support in the areas of education, employment, housing, legal services, health and social assistance is still needed.
The EU's role
Ladies and gentlemen,
Many of the policies I have mentioned are above all in the hands of Member States, or regional or local authorities.
Yet the EU has an important contribution to make, by supporting Member States' efforts and help them better learn from each other.
For this reason, addressing child poverty has been a priority in the EU Social Agenda for more than 12 years, with some positive developments.
We have come to a better understanding of the causes of child poverty and of policy approaches that work well.
EU cooperation has helped keeping the issue high on the political agenda. This was confirmed by the Council Conclusions on Child Poverty and Child Well-Being adopted last month.
I also believe that EU funding instruments have been a positive lever to improve the lives of children in alternative care.
Priorities for the months to come
In this critical moment, the coming months will be an opportunity to strengthen our action and support better investment in children.
The Commission will soon adopt a Recommendation on Child Poverty which will be part of a wider Social Investment Package, planned for the beginning of 2013.
The Recommendation will propose common principles and monitoring instruments in essential areas, such as parents' access to the labour market, adequate income support, early childhood education and care, health, housing, social services and children's participation.
It will support Member States' efforts to develop better policies. It will also send a clear signal that investing in children and families is essential not only for the dignity of our societies now, but also for Europe’s economic and social future.
However, as important as the text itself will be how we will, collectively, implement it through concrete actions and keep the issue high on our agenda.
This implies first making the best out of our financial instruments.
The Commission has already taken an important step in this direction last month, when we proposed a new Fund for European Aid to the most Deprived, for a total budget of €2.5 billion, which also addresses children's food and material deprivation. According to our proposal, the Fund would for instance allow the provision of goods such as clothing, or food that meets children's specific needs. The ball in now in the hands of the Council and the European Parliament, which I hope will support it.
In addition, the European Social Fund can contribute to combating child poverty by e.g. enhancing access to social services, including community based services for disabled children or foster care to orphans. It can also support early childhood education and childcare, proven determinants of successful educational outcomes.
I also very much hope that Member States will grasp the opportunities offered by the Commission's proposals for future cohesion policy.
However funding is just a necessary condition. We also need good policies and effective implementation.
We will continue support reforms to improve the conditions of children growing up out their family environment. To do this, we are working closely with the European Expert Group on transition from institutional to community–based care in the preparation of guidelines on de-institutionalisation reforms and will support their dissemination in the Member States.
More generally, we have already starting preparing the next European semester, and will publish at the end of this month the Annual Growth Survey 2013, which will point to policy priorities for the next European Semester.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Investment in children and support to their families is one of the most fair and efficient investments Europe could do in these difficult times. It will not only enhance children's well-being and right to a life in dignity, but also help our societies prepare for a better long-term future.
As the background paper to the Forum indicates, a more global approach to child protection and children's rights is necessary, an approach that brings together key players in the justice, education, health and social areas.
I am thus looking forward to working with you in this direction in the months to come to strengthen our cooperation on the challenging issues on our programme today, and wish you a fruitful discussion.