Wednesday, 24 September 2008
Dáil Eireann Debate
Deputy Róisín Shortall: I asked for this Adjournment debate because of continuing press reports that the abolition of the Combat Poverty Agency is imminent. A review steering committee has, since June 2007, been examining the workings, value and role of the agency and in recent weeks has made recommendations to the Government. Various reports suggest the agency may be merged with either the office for social inclusion or the National Economic and Social Development office or may simply be abolished altogether.
The Labour Party strongly believes that undermining the independence of the Combat Poverty Agency would be a retrograde step. It would completely destroy the objectivity of the only statutory organisation with a specific and all-encompassing role in the eradication of poverty. It would represent nothing less than the silencing of criticism of the Government, however objective and constructive that criticism may be. The Combat Poverty Agency was established in 1986 with a specific remit to help the Government to eradicate poverty. It now appears the Government is about to tell us that while poverty always will be with us, the Combat Poverty Agency may not.
Of all Government agencies, it is incredible that this is the one which the Government targets first. Poverty and social exclusion are still alive and well in Ireland. One in nine children under 14 has substandard living conditions and the number signing on the live register has increased by 93,000 since the Government took office. This week, for example, the Dublin Simon Community claimed it had been obliged to hand out three times as many sleeping bags in the first six months of this year than in the same period last year. Unless one understands such problems, one has no hope of fixing them and understanding poverty constitutes precisely the value of the Combat Poverty Agency.
The Combat Poverty Agency has played a vital role in the past 22 years. Without the agency, we would not have the facts about the chronic rate of poverty among children of low income families and the extent of poverty among lone parent households. Without the agency, increases for old age pensioners may never have been secured because the hard data on the extent of pensioner poverty would not have been available. It also was the Combat Poverty Agency that first proposed the establishment of the money advice and budgeting service, which has proved to be so successful. It promoted, secured and developed the first national anti-poverty strategy and pioneered community development programmes throughout the country.
One wonders what exactly the Government is trying to achieve. The Exchequer grant to the agency this year is €4.6 million. In a Department that will spend €17 billion this year, for the service provided, the sum of €4.6 million is relatively small. The same Department recently wrote off €82 million in overpaid benefits and last year handed back €64 million in unspent funding. Why is the Minister targeting the Combat Poverty Agency when clearly, there are savings to be made elsewhere?
It is my understanding that the review offers no figure for overall savings in costs or staff numbers, identifies no value for money issues and pinpoints very few areas in which the work of the Combat Poverty Agency is duplicated in another organisation or Department. It appears that the only saving the Government is seeking to make is the embarrassment of an independent body telling it that it has 300,000 people living in consistent poverty after ten years of bulging Government coffers. The point is that if this proposal is not being driven by savings, it must simply be by politics.
For more than 20 years, the Combat Poverty Agency has provided an important service by identifying and analysing the causes of poverty and by providing a framework in which to address such problems. It also has offered an important independent critique of the record of successive Governments. Subsuming the agency into the Department of Social and Family Affairs would completely neuter the agency and rob it of its independence. Rather than providing an independent assessment of Government policy on poverty, it simply would become another mouthpiece for the Minister. The most vulnerable in our society deserve much more than that. The Minister must reject these recommendations and give this House an assurance that the independence of the Combat Poverty Agency will be preserved. I look forward to such an assurance this evening.
The Government decided in June 2007 that a review of the Combat Poverty Agency should be undertaken by the Department of Social and Family Affairs in association with other relevant Departments. The review forms part of the Department’s value for money and policy review initiative programme for 2006-08. The review, which commenced in December 2007, was overseen by a steering committee which was chaired by Mr. Niall Callan, former Secretary General of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and comprised senior officials from relevant Departments and the Combat Poverty Agency.
The review’s terms of reference were threefold. First, it was to examine the role of the agency in the light of the emergence since 1986 of comprehensive strategies and programmes for social inclusion and extensive new institutional developments in support of social inclusion. Second, it was to consider the operations of the agency in the context of efficiency and value for money. Third, it was to identify the extent to which newer developments or arrangements may duplicate, overlap or complement the agency’s role, report on the ongoing validity of its remit, bring forward proposals as appropriate for enhancement or rationalisation, or both, and make recommendations to the Minister for Social and Family Affairs.
The review was presented to the Minister on 12 September 2008. The Minister, Deputy Hanafin, is considering its findings and recommendations and intends to bring forward proposals to the Government on the future of the agency in the near future. The Combat Poverty Agency has forwarded its views to the Minister and she will take them into account while formulating her proposals.
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