Child Poverty: Targets
Office of the first Minister and deputy First Minister
2. asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister whether they remain confident that the 2020 target for the eradication of child poverty can be met, given the recent scepticism articulated by UNICEF on the ability to achieve this target at a time of ongoing government cuts. (AQO 2165/11-15)
Peter Robinson (DUP)
As a matter of fact, the recent statistics released at the end of last week by the Department for Social Development show a significant drop in poverty levels in Northern Ireland. The largest reduction was in relation to our relative child poverty levels. We now have the lowest child poverty levels since Northern Ireland started measuring child poverty here some 10 years ago.
Some had projected that poverty would increase during the global economic downturn. However, it is clear from the latest figures that, in relative terms, those families with lowest incomes have been less detrimentally impacted than other income groups. The report referenced in the question sets out the latest international comparison data for 35 countries on child poverty measured separately through rates of child deprivation and relative income poverty.
We have always acknowledged that the statutory targets set in the United Kingdom are ambitious and will be challenging to achieve. However, as an Executive, we are committed to continuing to strive towards the elimination of poverty by 2020.
The Executive have introduced a wide range of measures designed to maximise incomes and reduce living costs for families. We have developed a new structure in OFMDFM — Delivering Social Change — to drive forward an innovative and collaborative approach across government to tackle poverty-related issues. We have also introduced the new social investment fund to encourage strategic outcome-focused and joined-up interventions. However, it should be noted that the statutory, relative and absolute measurements across the United Kingdom are income-based only, and that we are measured against the UK median income.
I thank the First Minister for his response. Given the major concerns across Northern Ireland over the implementation of welfare reform, is the First Minister confident in maintaining those levels of child poverty? Has the Department set individual targets to ensure that they do not rise?
Peter Robinson (DUP)
We are, of course, bound by the targets that are set in law. Those are the targets that we will attempt to achieve.
I approach the issue of child poverty measurement with some caution. For instance, if the euro zone were to crash, child poverty levels in Northern Ireland, believe it or not, would greatly improve, as they are based on relative terms. There has been a significant improvement in child poverty levels over the past year, but I suspect that, in the real lives of most people, things have not got significantly better. Child poverty levels are based on how Northern Ireland relates to the United Kingdom median level, so the statistics show that we are getting better. However, in another way, those at the top have got worse, and, as a result, the median level has come down. We therefore need to be very cautious in looking at the figures. If we look at the issue in absolute terms and the figures are income-based, we end up with much the same result.
The UNICEF document to which the Member referred indicates levels of deprivation and lists 14 measures against which we should judge whether there is poverty. As I looked through the measures, I felt that I must have been brought up in abject poverty. I did not have the kind of features that are contained in that document.
The figures improve year on year, and they are probably more of an indicator of equality than of poverty.
Caitriona Ruane (Sinn Féin)
Go raibh maith agat HSIRI. I thank the First Minister for his answers to date. My question is on his last comment. Large-scale unemployment has reduced the median targets, so is it not the case that many families and children are not better off? Indeed, given the levels of poverty in the North of Ireland, is it not the case that many are worse off?
Peter Robinson (DUP)
That is my argument and why I do not think that we should rely on the statistics that show that, in relative terms, things have got better. You cannot freeze child benefit and cut other child allowances and expect people’s real lives to improve. We need to look at the statistics with some caution. I am not saying that we should do away with them, because they are a useful guide for us. However, I do not think that we need to rely on them.
From the point of view of government, it is absolutely essential that we address child poverty. In the early and formative years of a child’s life, education, health and housing are of the upmost importance, as they will shape the rest of his or her life. That is why the focus needs to be on the area of child poverty and why we need to give the best possible assistance that we can to the poorest in our society.
Peter Robinson (DUP)
I do not think that people on low incomes have been less affected, but, statistically, their position has improved. That is largely because those at the higher levels have come down. People have taken cuts in wages and, in some cases, have moved to three- or four-day weeks. That has reduced the level of income, and, as a consequence, the median level has moved down.
Statistically, it has shown up in that fashion. We have always had misgivings about the ways in which statistics are prepared and whether there can be any meaningful statistics on child poverty. When I arrived in Mumbai, I saw barefoot children begging on the streets, and 50% of the population was without formal housing. I am told that, in relative terms, poverty levels in India are the same as those in Northern Ireland. In absolute terms, that cannot possibly be the case because there is real poverty across the whole society. However, in relative terms — that is, relating to other people in that society — poverty levels in India equate to those in Northern Ireland.