The third ministerial meeting of the British-Irish Council (BIC) social inclusion group was hosted by the Welsh Assembly Government in the Senedd, Cardiff on 20 May 2008. The meeting focused on the challenges presented by child poverty — particularly the issue of lone parents — in the eight member Administrations.
The British-Irish Council was established under the agreement that was reached in the multi-party negotiations in Belfast in 1998, and it provides a forum for its members to exchange information, discuss, consult and use best endeavours to reach agreement on co-operation on matters of mutual interest, within the competence of relevant member Administrations.
The meeting was chaired by Dr Brian Gibbons AM, the Welsh Assembly Government’s Minister for Social Justice and Local Government. The British Government were represented by the Rt Hon Stephen Timms, the Minister of State for Employment and Welfare Reform; the Irish Government were represented by Mr Gerry Mangan, the director of the Office for Social Inclusion; and the Scottish Government were represented by Mr Stewart Maxwell MSP, Minister for Communities and Sport. Minister Murphy and I attended on behalf of the Northern Ireland Executive; the Isle of Man was represented by Mr Dudley Butt MLC, the political member for the social services division of the DHSS; Jersey was represented by Senator Paul Routier, the Minister for Social Security; and Guernsey was represented by Mr Al Brouard, the deputy Minister of the Social Security Department.
We discussed the recent developments on social inclusion in the Administrations and focused, particularly, on issues relating to child poverty. The group had an interesting discussion on the projects that were contributing most to progress in that area, and it reviewed the successful work that is being carried out by the BIC’s social inclusion group on child poverty — with a focus on lone parents, since that theme was chosen in 2006.
The Ministers noted the range of definitions that are used in that field and the comparison of statistics across the BIC region. We also acknowledged the findings of the literature; a review of the existing evidence based on tackling child poverty, particularly among lone-parent households; and the key challenges met by member Administrations. Furthermore, we commended the examples of good practice in tackling such challenges.
We considered the merits of each of the four potential new areas of interest to be taken forward by the BIC social inclusion group: older people in long-term care; homelessness and affordable housing; the voluntary and community sector; and migrant workers. We agreed that the work over the coming year will focus on the contribution of the voluntary and community sector in promoting social inclusion.
The work carried out by the officials will continue to seek to strengthen and consolidate the ongoing co-operation and exchange of information experienced in best practice between member Administrations. The National Assembly for Wales presented a paper on child poverty. The Ministers welcomed and noted that the next ministerial meeting will take place in Scotland; and further details are to be confirmed.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Cuirim fáilte roimh an ráiteas seo agus gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as.
My question emanates more from my involvement in the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister than it does my chairmanship of the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure. As part of the OFMDFM Committee’s inquiry into child poverty, the Committee has been examining the relevant issues.
OFMDFM furnished us a copy of the report last week. Will the Minister say what action the Executive plan to take to ensure that the report leads to improvements in policies and actions to tackle child poverty, including, for example, joint initiatives with other Administrations? We welcome the report and statement, but where is the action plan for the Executive?
The Executive remain committed to dealing with, and tackling, the issues. We will continue to work with other Administrations in the British Isles. The Department for Social Development (DSD) will take the lead in developing our plans for tackling poverty.
The Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) also has a key role to play. It has a unit that is dedicated full-time to the issue of child poverty. Therefore, the Executive will make the case to the Assembly for adequate support, funding and recognition, and they will do so through the Department for Social Development and OFMDFM.
At its launch in November 2006, ‘Lifetime Opportunities: Government’s Anti-Poverty and Social Inclusion Strategy for Northern Ireland’ set a target of halving child poverty by 2010-11, and its complete eradication by 2020. Will the Minister state whether those targets are being met and remain achievable?
Those targets remain achievable across the UK. I am interested in a proposal that the UK Government are considering. That proposal is to guarantee that anyone who is coming off benefits and going into employment receive at least £50 a week more than they did while on benefits. That would assist a considerable number of people living on benefits.
I thank the Minister for his statement, and for its focus on the eradication of child poverty. The statement said that the voluntary and community sector would be looking to eradicate poverty and promote social inclusion. Given budgetary constraints, and how other funding is being diverted towards meeting the challenge of the Olympics, how does the Minister intend to support the voluntary and community sector?
I deplore Mrs Kelly’s attempt to introduce a matter that has no relevance to the issue under discussion. The Member’s behaviour demonstrates how little interest she has in social inclusion, child poverty and the voluntary sector.
Other regions in the United Kingdom, the Republic of Ireland, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man look to Northern Ireland for its voluntary-sector expertise, which has been built up over many years, mainly through European funding. Reduced financial support from Europe means that the voluntary sector faces challenges. The Government will try to help where we can, but many projects must become self-sustainable or face being discontinued, because the funding just does not exist.
I welcome the Minister’s statement. Older people and their long-term care are among various issues on the work programme. Bearing in mind that the Executive have failed by totally excluding free personal care from the Programme for Government, will the Minister, through the BIC — and particularly the Scottish Executive — get free personal care for older people in Northern Ireland back on to the agenda?
The Member will be glad to know that I raised the issue of elderly people, especially the difficulties that they currently face, given their static budgets and the rising costs of living — in particular, the rising cost of home heating and food. It was agreed that, as part of the review that is being conducted on the voluntary and community sector, we will consider how that sector can contribute to the well-being of older people.
I thank the Minister for his statement. I am delighted to note the four new areas that the Council will consider in the future. Given that my colleague Kieran McCarthy has just asked about the Council’s role in its deliberations on older people, I want to raise the growing problem in Northern Ireland — and right across the United Kingdom and these islands —regarding migrant workers — that is, the role of migrant workers, the conditions under which they work and their housing problems. Will the Minister specify whether the issue of migrant workers, and the problems that assail those persons, will be considered by the Council in the future?
The issue of migrant workers is one of the topics that was considered for the next discussion group. Unfortunately, only one topic could be chosen, and, on this occasion, the voluntary and community sector was selected. We recognise that migrant workers in Northern Ireland and Great Britain comprise a significant population. That brings its own problems, which we need to deal with and be aware of to ensure that immigrants can expect a reasonable quality of life and standard of living.
I also thank the Minister for his statement, and I realise that he is speaking in his capacity as a member of the Executive and respresenting the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister. Will the Minister state what information has been exchanged among representatives of the United Kingdom Government, the Scottish Government and the National Assembly for Wales that we could beneficially use given that the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister is currently conducting an inquiry into child poverty? Next week, the Committee will present a report on that inquiry to the House, and any available information would be very handy.
During the Minister’s statement, he mentioned the fact that the National Assembly for Wales presented a paper on child poverty in its Administration. Will the Minister indicate what targets that Assembly has set, whether they are rigid and, if so, whether they are achievable?
The Minister referred to the future work programme and help for those of a certain age, as well as the issues of homelessness and affordable housing. Will he state when those issues will be presented to the Assembly and to the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, through the British-Irish Council?
There are common problems and challenges in all Administrations. We must explore such issues, and, in order to align policy and delivery, we share information and report on issues such as access to affordable childcare, in-work poverty, partnership and joint working with local government and other stakeholders. Study visits and good practice have been valuable to officials, and there are some successful, innovative interventions that OFMDFM, as well as other Departments, can examine more closely and possibly implement.
Other Administrations have also been learning from us. For example, initiatives such as the work being conducted on benefit uptake by the Department for Social Development are being shared with the Scottish Government. An anti-poverty strategy is currently being reviewed by Ministers before it is circulated to the Executive. In the development of that strategy, Northern Ireland Departments can examine successful projects from other jurisdictions and consider what may be appropriate for us to implement. When we are determining the way forward, we will, of course, take account of the recommendations in the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister’s report.