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It’s time to honour a 100-year-old pledge

“It shall be the first duty of the Government of the Republic to make provision for the physical, mental and spiritual well-being of the children, to secure that no child shall suffer hunger or cold from lack of food, clothing, or shelter, but that all shall be provided with the means and facilities requisite for their proper education and training.”

These words were contained in the Democratic Programme, proclaimed in the very first Dáil.  A powerful statement that the first duty of the Government would be to provide for the children of Ireland.  That provision would be made for their well-being; that they would be guaranteed the basic necessities of food, clothes and somewhere to call home; and that they would have the means and facilities to access education and training.  One hundred years later and this pledge has still not been fulfilled. 

Child Health

The Growing Up in Ireland study, which tracked a large cohort of Irish children from birth, highlights a widening health and social gap by the time children are just 5 years old. Children from the highest social class (professional/managerial) are more likely than those from the lowest socio-economic group to be considered very healthy and have no problems.  Children’s wellbeing is still largely shaped by parental circumstances and social position, resulting in persistent inequalities despite improvements in health, education and other areas in Ireland over time.  In 2017, 32.3 per cent  of households where at least one person had a medical examination or treatment in the last 12 months reported that the costs were a financial burden. For households with children, the corresponding rate was even higher (at 35.3 per cent). 

There is a need to focus on health and social care provision for children and families in tandem with the development of primary care networks and a universal approach to access to healthcare. In 2016 the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child voiced concerns about children’s physical and mental health in Ireland.  While the introduction of free GP care for the under-6s was a very welcome step, there are concerns that children from vulnerable groups (including Traveller, Roma, migrant and undocumented children) may experience barriers in accessing their entitlement to free GP care, and the roll-out of GP care to the under 12s, announced as part of Budget 2016, appears to have been forgotten.  Social Justice Ireland urges Government to focus on ensuring that those most in need of this universal service can access it.

Child Poverty

According to the latest SILC data (released on the 17th December 2018), there were 230,000 children living in poverty in Ireland in 2017.  While this represents a decrease on the previous year, it is still almost one quarter of a million children who are living in households whose income is barely covering the basics.  Children depend on adults for their upbringing and support.  Irrespective of how policy interventions are structured, it is through adults that any attempts to reduce the number of children in poverty must be directed.  109,000 people who live in poverty have a job.  It is not good enough to say that Ireland is nearing ‘full employment’ without ensuring that that employment provides the basic means to support a family.

Child Homelessness

Figures released for November 2018 show almost 4,000 children living in emergency homeless accommodation.  This represents an increase of over 320 per cent since 2014 and does not include the children of the ‘hidden homeless’ – those who are staying with relatives and friends.  With almost 73,000 mortgages (bank and local authority) in arrears, and investment funds taking an increasing stake in the market, the rise in child and family homelessness seems likely to continue.

Educational Disadvantage

While advances have been made to address inequality in our education system, and the DEIS programme is proving to have a positive effect, children from lower socio-economic backgrounds continue to underperform in literacy, numeracy and science. Overall performance in DEIS schools remains lower than the national average.  Decisions regarding numeracy and literacy policy, investment, and the allocation of resources within the education system must be focussed on reversing this negative trend.

Continued support for DEIS schools must be a policy priority and the positive policy measures which are seeing reductions in the achievement gap must be used as a stepping stone to further improvements.  Literacy and numeracy trends in DEIS schools will not be resolved by 2020 so it is important that ambitious targets are set to 2025. It is vital that sufficient ongoing resourcing is available to support the targets in the current DEIS plan.

Getting with the Democratic Programme

It is now time to reflect on the policies and political ideologies that have moved this country so far away from the values underpinning the Democratic Programme.  With 100 years of broken promises, the time to act is now.  Policymakers must start tackling the causes of the social issues and disadvantage.  To this end, Social Justice Ireland makes a series of policy recommendations:

  • Increase the availability and quality of Primary Care and Social Care services.
  • Ensure equality of access to the free GP care for under-6s, particularly for those from disadvantaged areas and minority groups.
  • Adopt targets aimed at reducing poverty among particular vulnerable groups such as children, lone parents, jobless households and those in social rented housing.
  • Ensure the construction of more social and affordable housing, including affordable rented accommodation.
  • Make the improvement of educational outcomes for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds and disadvantaged communities a policy priority.