Child Poverty

Private Members' Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 3:30 pm on 15 April 2024.

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Debate resumed on motion:

That this Assembly expresses profound regret at the findings of the recent NI Audit Office report on child poverty, including the shocking finding that one in five children in Northern Ireland is living in relative poverty and nearly 10% of households are unable to afford basic goods; calls on the Minister for Communities to lay before the Assembly, no later than September 2024, a comprehensive child poverty strategy that includes specific and measurable targets to reduce child poverty by the end of this mandate; and further calls on the Minister to work with the Minister of Finance to agree an ambitious ring-fenced budget to deliver on the aforementioned child poverty reduction targets by the end of this mandate.

Photo of Sian Mulholland Sian Mulholland Alliance

I thank the Member who moved the motion. We know that the issue strikes at the very core of our society. There will not be a single MLA in the Chamber today who has not, in their constituency office, dealt with the ramifications of poverty.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

Ms Mulholland, will you take your seat for a moment? You need to move the amendment first.

Photo of Sian Mulholland Sian Mulholland Alliance

Apologies. I beg to move the following amendment:

Leave out all after "before the Assembly," and insert: "an integrated and comprehensive anti-poverty strategy underpinning a future Programme for Government, as agreed in previous mandates, to include specific and measurable targets to reduce child poverty with targeted prevention strategies, as well as robust monitoring mechanisms to measure outcomes and to enable data to be collated and analysed; and further calls on the Minister for Communities to work with the Minister of Finance to agree the necessary funding package to deliver on child poverty reduction targets by the end of this mandate."

Apologies; I thought that we did that already. I thank the Member who moved the motion. Child poverty strikes at the very core of our society. There will not be a single MLA in the Chamber who has not, in their constituency office, dealt with the ramifications of poverty. We know that those who are most vulnerable to the effects and impacts of poverty are the children who are growing up in homes that experience poverty.

The revelations in the recent Northern Ireland Audit Office report are stomach-turning: one in every five children is living in relative poverty. For the benefit of the Member who asked about this, relative poverty is classed as being below 60% of the median of a year, with absolute being 60% of a baseline, which, I think, was 2010-11. However, I imagine that the Member is aware of that.

(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Blair] in the Chair)

The Northern Ireland poverty and income inequality report that the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) released two weeks ago paints an even bleaker picture. It states that the percentage of children who are in relative poverty before housing costs are included has risen to 24%. That is approximately 109,000 children, which is a significant increase from 18% the year before. The number of children who are living in absolute poverty, according to that NISRA report, has increased to 19%, which is approximately 86,000 children. That is up from 15% the year before. The simple fact is that the number of children who are growing up in poverty here is rising. We are bombarded with statistics in the Chamber, but I had to stop for a moment to let that one sink in. Children whose basic needs are not being met are going to school hungry and to bed hungry. Their parents have to make heartbreaking decisions that no parent should ever have to make. I am thankful that, because of my privilege, I do not have to make those decisions. It is a distressing fact that, in 2024, that is the reality for more than 100,000 young people in our communities.

The void of governance that was created when the Assembly was down has only exacerbated an already inexcusable situation. We have talked about many priorities since the Assembly's restoration. Lifting families out of poverty should be at the top of that list. A rising tide lifts all boats, and there can be none more in need of lifting from a life of poverty than the more than 100,000 children. As I said, we can be so desensitized to those statistics because we hear them so often, but behind each of those statistics lies a child whose potential is stifled by the chains of the poverty that they live in. Colleagues and I have not been silent about the need for the Minister for Communities to take decisive action. That has to be effective action that will impact families most quickly and in the most useful way. We want to see tackling poverty and deprivation underpinned in any future Programme for Government. We want the implementation of an integrated and cross-departmental poverty strategy to be presented to the Assembly without delay. We will continue to put pressure on the Minister to do that. There is a statutory obligation, which all parties signed up to previously, that just is not being met.

We tabled the amendment, which removes the reference to a specific child poverty strategy, because, as we have heard from campaigners, we need to have a holistic approach that addresses poverty comprehensively, including by considering the multifaceted factors that contribute to the measures of poverty. That includes addressing issues such as unemployment and support for work-limited parents; housing affordability; healthcare access; and education. Those all impact families and children. Children do not exist in silos, and, as such, we should not address such an interconnected issue with a singular frame of reference. Poverty often has a multigenerational element, so by tackling poverty across all demographics, we will ensure that our interventions are comprehensive and will break the cycle of poverty more effectively. A broader anti-poverty strategy can provide support to entire families. That approach recognises that improving the economic stability of parents can positively impact on children's well-being. By combining efforts to combat poverty across various demographics, we can push for a joined-up approach to have policy coherence and, hopefully, mitigate the fragmentation and siloism that we so often see.

I hope that budgetary elements, too, will allow for a better coordination of resources and services, maximising their impact on reducing poverty, thereby ultimately improving outcomes for children. That is why we are calling for specific and measurable targets to be established within an anti-poverty strategy: targets that translate into tangible outcomes for children; actions that employ cross-departmental intervention; and prevention strategies that work collaboratively to break the cycle of poverty and forge a future where every child has the opportunity to thrive.

Just as crucially, we need rigorous monitoring mechanisms to track the progress of any anti-poverty strategy. It cannot be another document to languish on a shelf. Regular data collection, reporting and analysis across all impacted Departments and services will enable us to identify areas of success and areas where we need to improve. However, we know that merely setting targets is not enough. We must also ensure that adequate resources are allocated to them. I am acutely aware of the financial burden on the Executive. I know that all Departments have urgent priorities, but, right now, the question that we will continue to ask the Minister is not how much this will cost but how much it would cost not to do. The long-term economic and social costs of allowing rates of child poverty to continue to rise are stark. They are estimated to be between £825 million and £1 billion a year.

I urge the Minister to collaborate closely with the Minister of Finance to secure an ambitious budget dedicated solely to achieving the poverty reduction targets. We cannot compromise any longer on the eradication of poverty. A strategy must also address an immediate and pressing issue that will have significant implications for families, so we need to talk about the benefit cap mitigations cliff edge. It all plays a part. The significance of the mitigations must not be understated. They were put in place to offer essential support for absolute necessities such as housing, food or utilities. The adverse effects of the Tory benefit cap policy have been recognised, and steps have been taken, but we absolutely need to have something in place for the cliff edge next year.

Recent statistics from NISRA on the benefit cap reports in Northern Ireland break down the number of children living in households receiving benefit cap mitigations. Whilst we cannot provide exact figures, on the basis of those categories, Advice NI estimates that at least 2,240 children will be immediately impacted if we do not extend the current mitigation regulations. Furthermore, some of those families do not even know that they are in receipt of mitigations and are therefore not prepared at all for the impending cliff edge.

I call on the Minister for Communities, along with Executive colleagues, as we look towards budgets for the next year — hopefully, multi-year budgets after that — to act immediately to avert the looming cliff edge in the welfare mitigation schemes, particularly that benefit cap mitigation. In saying that, we recognise that those mitigations are not a cure-all. They are a temporary solution to a systemic problem that needs a more comprehensive approach. Whilst they provide crucial support to families in need, they do not address the root causes of poverty. They are just one way of easing an imminent threat.

That is why we understand that poverty cannot be tackled by addressing just one facet. We have to push for that cross-departmental commitment to eradicating poverty; addressing a social security system that is simply not fit for purpose; developing affordable and social housing solutions; investing in education and skills development and in early years and child care; ensuring timely and universal access to healthcare services; extending access to nutritious meals in schools; and investing in our community and voluntary sector, which is already on the ground dealing with families, and its support services.

It would be as a result of working on each piece of that interconnected jigsaw puzzle of services and policies that we could build a brighter future for all children. There will not be a Member in the Chamber who will disagree that any investment in children's long-term future can only benefit us all as a society, but it needs to be done in a holistic and cross-departmental manner.

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

Thank you for moving the amendment. Members who are called will have five minutes in which to speak.

Photo of Colm Gildernew Colm Gildernew Sinn Féin

I thank the proposer of the motion for giving us the opportunity to speak on this issue. I also thank the proposers of the amendment, which we will support.

With growing levels of child poverty across the North, and with the findings contained within the Audit Office report, it is vital that the Assembly embraces a renewed sense of collective purpose on this issue. We must send a clear message that we are united in our commitment to addressing inequality in all its forms and to improving the prosperity and opportunities of all citizens, especially our children and young people. The cost of not doing so is simply too high, both for children whose life experiences are impacted personally and for public services in the long term. It is therefore crucial that the Minister for Communities, as the lead Department, makes an anti-poverty strategy a key priority, and I hope that he will outline his intention to do so and his anticipated timeline in his response to the motion. That is not, however, to place the onus entirely on the Minister for Communities. If this strategy is to be effective and sustainable in the long term, it must have buy-in from all Ministers in policy development, joined-up approach and resources. We are all acutely aware of the current budgetary constraints, the reasons for them and the challenges that they present to all Departments but, until this strategy is brought to the Executive table, it is essentially stalled.

I acknowledge the Minister's predecessor, my party colleague Deirdre Hargey, for the progress that she made in advancing the strategy during her time in post and her commitment to a co-design approach. The voices and input of those who have lived experience and those who work at the coalface are absolutely crucial to finding meaningful solutions. I also acknowledge the substantial body of work carried out by independent panels on the welfare mitigations and the discretionary support fund, and by the expert panel, which has provided us with valuable insights and recommendations that must be taken account of.

I implore the Minister to ensure that the strategy is ambitious and that it seeks not only to lift people over the poverty line — although that is clearly the priority — but that it offers economic opportunities to prosper, break the cycle of intergenerational poverty and provide our children and young people with the chance to fulfil their true potential. I believe that this can be achieved by addressing regional imbalances, investing in underserved areas and providing the skills and suitable employment opportunities that pay a living wage for those who are able to work and that provide greater support for people with barriers to employment, such as the cost and availability of childcare, disability, health conditions and caring responsibilities, to name but a few.

It is also important that the strategy ensures access to affordable credit and debt support, as well as to the independent advice sector. Crucially, it must address the clear gap between people's income and what is needed to meet their basic needs, a gap that has been widened by the cost-of-living crisis but also by years of successive cuts and freezes to social security entitlements by Westminster, deliberate policy decisions such as the five-week wait for first payment of universal credit and the two-child rule which, I have no doubt, has contributed to the increased number of children growing up in poverty.

Collectively, we need to challenge these policies at source. The British Government continuously deepen poverty by cutting support to children and their families and simultaneously underfund this institution via the block grant, and they need to be called out at every opportunity. The welfare mitigations have gone some way to protecting people against some aspects of Tory cuts and are often cited as the reason poverty levels here have remained lower than in Britain. It is important that they continue and are extended to enhance support in line with the available budget. I want to mention in particular the benefit cap mitigation which is due to end next March, which impacts predominantly on families with children. It is vital that this continues, and I ask the Minister for his commitment to do so in his response.

I echo the amendment and the recommendations contained within the Audit Office report. I concur that the strategy must have clearly defined targets which must be specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time bound, alongside robust monitoring mechanisms. That is by no means, a chairde

[Translation: friends]

, an easy task, but with the political will and necessary funding it is achievable.

Photo of Brian Kingston Brian Kingston DUP 3:45, 15 April 2024

The DUP is fully committed to an anti-poverty strategy that makes a tangible difference to the life of children across Northern Ireland. It will be crucial to stopping the recent rise in the number of children and adults living in relative poverty. Furthermore, we believe that it is not possible to deliver better outcomes for children from lower-income households without taking a whole-system approach to tackling the causes of disadvantage in our society. We submitted an amendment to the motion that made that point, but it was not selected for debate. We welcome the Alliance Party's amendment, however, in particular its focus on an integrated anti-poverty strategy.

We need an anti-poverty strategy that is deliverable and that will not simply gather dust. That means focusing on interventions that yield the greatest results.

The recent Northern Ireland Audit Office report expressed concern that having a:

"very broad focus may negatively impact the assessment of the effectiveness of specific interventions and the Department's ability to co-ordinate the approach to a new Executive anti-poverty strategy."

The Northern Ireland Executive continue to be hamstrung by the absence of a fiscal floor that is baselined back to the point from which Treasury funding for Northern Ireland public services dropped below assessed need, in April 2022. Looking forward, it is vital that we be afforded the same protections that Wales enjoys to prevent its funding falling below need. We require the uplift in funding and a proper fiscal floor. Without addressing that chronic underfunding, the prospect of ring-fencing funding for tackling child poverty, or poverty more generally, is deeply challenging amid competing pressures. We feel that the Alliance amendment injects a sense of realism in that regard.

There are many drivers of poverty. It is misguided to think that outcomes for children from low-income backgrounds will be transformed without our taking a holistic approach to the factors that, in many cases, led previous generations into the same situation. We also, however, recognise the need for targeted interventions to address child poverty. Evidence suggests that adults who grew up in poverty tend to earn less, have a higher risk of unemployment and pay less tax over their lifetime, so the earlier that support is provided, the better.

Dealing with low incomes cannot be singularly addressed by providing financial support to those affected, although it is essential that the most vulnerable be protected in that way. We need to address the root causes of poverty, which are multifaceted, rather than simply tackle the symptom. Creating opportunity for children from disadvantaged backgrounds, be it through greater educational attainment, training, apprenticeships or employment, will be crucial to breaking the cycle of poverty for many. That requires buy-in from a number of Departments, not least Education, Economy and Communities. Child poverty is an Executive responsibility. Its significance in the context of devolution is enshrined in the Northern Ireland Act 1998. Building on the Audit Office findings, there must be strong levels of accountability for individual Departments. Departments need to be able to monitor and report on progress against specific actions.

Poor health and well-being remains a key barrier to tackling poverty. A focus on prevention, early intervention and better management of chronic conditions can help unlock opportunities in the labour market for those children who find themselves trapped in poverty. It is also the case that the longer that children are in poverty, the larger that the attainment and health gap between them and their peers is. That highlights the urgency of interventions. More affordable childcare will also enable more parents to return to work, thus raising household incomes.

It is important to recognise the work that the Department for Communities is actively doing to address poverty and to support the most disadvantaged. The Make the Call service assisted over 11,500 people in 2022-23, ensuring that tens of millions of pounds in additional benefits were accessed by those —

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

Will the Member draw his remarks to a close?

Photo of Brian Kingston Brian Kingston DUP

— who were entitled to them but who previously did not avail themselves of that vital service.

I have one more point to make, Mr Deputy Speaker. The Department also provides £6·6 million to support the independent advice sector every year, helping thousands more.

Photo of Robbie Butler Robbie Butler UUP

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. Was there a bit of favouritism there? You will tell me off.

I support the motion, and I hope that, collectively, we can agree to confront the harsh reality that plagues our society, and that is the scourge of child poverty in Northern Ireland. Child poverty is not unique to Northern Ireland, but our children are. It is a topic that strikes at the very heart of our collective conscience and challenges us to confront the systemic inequalities and failures that perpetuate its existence.

The report from the Audit Office states that the estimated annual cost of child poverty in Northern Ireland is quite staggering; it is somewhere in the region of £825 million to £1 billion. The financial burden not only impacts the lives of individual children but, indeed, impacts their families and undermines the economic prosperity of our society as a whole. Equally troubling is the correlation between poverty and adverse health outcomes. Children who experience poverty are four times more likely to develop mental health problems by the age of 11. That sobering statistic highlights the devastating toll that poverty can take on the well-being of our youngest citizens. Furthermore, educational attainment remains a significant challenge for children living in poverty. There is a 24% GCSE attainment gap for children who receive free school meals, which highlights the profound impact of socio-economic disparities on educational outcomes.

Additionally, profound health inequalities persist across our region. There is an 11- to 15-year gap in healthy life expectancy between the most and least deprived areas in Northern Ireland, and that underscores the need for targeted interventions to address those disparities. Moreover, the implementation of policy, such as the two-child limit, further exacerbates the challenges faced by families already struggling to make ends meet. Shockingly, one in 10 children in Northern Ireland live in households affected by that limit, amounting to over 45,000 children across the region.

In the following moments, I aim to address this pressing issue through a structured approach that focuses on four key points. First and foremost, let us acknowledge together that child poverty is not a matter of individual choice or personal responsibility.

Photo of Robbie Butler Robbie Butler UUP

I will be a Minister for a minute, absolutely. Yes.

[Laughter.]

Photo of Sinéad McLaughlin Sinéad McLaughlin Social Democratic and Labour Party

The Member is very passionate about the particular issue, and he has talked about the regional inequalities. I come from a constituency where the child poverty rate sits at 23% — one of the highest in the UK. We have talked about the regional balance of our economy, but surely we need interventions in areas most affected by poverty.

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

The Member has an extra minute.

Photo of Robbie Butler Robbie Butler UUP

Thank you for the elevation. I agree with the Member's points. To better illustrate that, my name is Butler. The Butler family comes from West Belfast. I live in Lagan Valley, which sits at the bottom of the table of poverty prevalence, but West Belfast sits near the top, and I share the family name. I cannot get my head around why we would accept the imbalance that we are talking about in 2024.

First and foremost, child poverty is a reflection of wider societal inequalities and systemic failures that have left many families struggling to make ends meet. It is a stain on our collective conscience and one that we must acknowledge with unwavering determination. We cannot simply stand by and accept the status quo. Instead, we must commit ourselves to eradicating child poverty through concerted action and solidarity.

Secondly, to effectively tackle child poverty, we must adopt a multi-faceted approach that addresses its root causes whilst providing immediate relief to those in need. That requires significant investment in key areas, such as education, healthcare, housing and, indeed, social services, as we have already heard. We must ensure that no child slips through the cracks of our safety net and provide them with the support and opportunities that they need to thrive. By addressing the underlying structural issues that contribute to poverty, we can create a more equitable society where every child has the chance to fulfil their potential.

Thirdly, it is essential to empower families and communities to break the cycle of poverty and build a brighter future for their children. That means providing parents with the support and resources they need to provide for their families, such as affordable childcare, living wages and stable employment. By investing in initiatives that strengthen the family unit and promote economic stability, we can create a more inclusive society where every child has the opportunity to succeed.

Finally, we must hold ourselves accountable for the well-being of our children, and we cannot measure our success solely in economic terms. Instead, we must consider the health, happiness and overall quality of life of our youngest citizens. By prioritising the needs of children and investing in their future, we can create a more prosperous and equitable society for all.

The issue of child poverty in Northern Ireland demands our urgent attention and unwavering commitment. By acknowledging systemic inequalities, recognising that periods of non-functioning Government perpetuate the existence of child poverty, adopting a multifaceted approach to tackling its root cause, empowering families and communities, and holding ourselves, particularly in this Chamber, accountable for the well-being of our children, we can create a brighter future for generations to come. I challenge all of us to stand together in solidarity and strive to eradicate child poverty in Northern Ireland once and for all.

Photo of Ciara Ferguson Ciara Ferguson Sinn Féin

I very much welcome the opportunity to speak. I thank those who proposed the motion and the amendment. No child should live in poverty: that is the bottom line for me and, I am sure, for most of us in the Assembly. We must make sure that every child gets a good start in life. That is not only the right thing to do but the smartest thing to do when it comes to investing for the future.

As a colleague on my left mentioned, in my constituency in Derry, more than 9,000 children live in poverty, which is over 23%. What does that mean? It means our young people living in cold homes. Some go to bed hungry, go to school hungry in the morning and miss out on everyday essentials. That is totally unacceptable and shocking, and it should be shocking for every Member of the Assembly.

Poverty impacts on every aspect of a child's life. It denies children chances to try new things and develop their interests and talents. For many children, poverty also means growing up too quickly, as they have to deal with their parents' worries and anxieties. As we well know, it is harmful to their future and their childhood. Some have very little, if any, experience of a positive childhood. The consequences of child poverty are clear. It has a severe, sustained and lifelong negative impact on our children's health, their social and emotional well-being, their education and their life chances.

A lot of stats have been given today, but I will mention just a few. As Robbie mentioned, children in poverty are more likely to have poorer mental health and are at a higher risk of psychological distress. They are four times more likely to have poor mental health by the age of 11. That should not be happening here today. Children growing up in poverty, on average, do less well in education. The gaps open up very early, even before children start school. As someone who worked for 20-plus years in the community and voluntary sector, I know that the importance of early intervention in our communities cannot be overestimated. The likes of our Sure Start programmes, preschool programmes and family support early intervention programmes are absolutely critical. You may not see the poverty in our communities, physically, but, when you go behind closed doors, you can see the poverty that some of our families are facing. The resilience of our families and children is remarkable.

Poverty is much greater in certain households — not all households are the same. For families with dependent children at home, household needs are greater and expenditure rises. Some 36% of lone parents live in poverty, and 93% of those are females. Lone parents tend to work fewer hours due to childcare needs and have a lower hourly wage, reflecting the gender pay gap. As my colleague Colm Gildernew mentioned, 29% of families with someone in the household who has a disability live in poverty, compared to 17% of families who do not have someone with a disability in the home. Between 32% and 46% of children in families with three or more children live in poverty. As mentioned, the two-child limit for universal credit is just not common sense. For the UK Government to do that just does not make sense.

A really important fact is that, as we all know, households with working parents are increasingly moving into poverty. Thousands of families work night and day just to get by, working two or sometimes three jobs, juggling childcare and ending up with hardly anything to show for it.

Finally, I will mention disadvantaged areas and neighbourhoods. We probably all have in our constituencies neighbourhoods such as the 36 neighbourhood renewal areas across the North that require ongoing investment and support. The programme in those areas plays a vital role as the glue that brings all the services and agencies together to work to deliver for children and young people and make life better.

I strongly agree that the Minister must prioritise the anti-poverty strategy to ensure its effectiveness and take the learning from the Audit Office report. There is a range —.

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance 4:00, 15 April 2024

Will the Member bring her remarks to a close?

Photo of Ciara Ferguson Ciara Ferguson Sinn Féin

Yes. I would just go forward with the range of recommendations that are there, such as increasing family incomes, providing accessible and affordable childcare, addressing the gender pay gap and building social and affordable homes. We know what we need to do —

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

OK. The Member's time is up.

Photo of Ciara Ferguson Ciara Ferguson Sinn Féin

— we just need to drive forward.

Photo of Alan Robinson Alan Robinson DUP

It is important to base a strategy and action plan on reliable research and informed studies. The Northern Ireland Audit Office recently published its report on child poverty in Northern Ireland. I will highlight some of the findings. The Audit Office report concluded that about one fifth of children in Northern Ireland live in relative poverty, before housing costs are factored in. The report found that there has been "little sustained improvement" in reducing child poverty levels since the Executive published their previous child poverty strategy in 2016. The report found that the previous strategy's outcomes:

"were not clearly supported by specific actions and interventions".

Accountability arrangements were not understood by all, and a lack of joined-up working "hampered the effectiveness" of the strategy.

The report also found that there are:

"limitations with data and measures used to assess and monitor child poverty".

It states:

"The costs of dealing with the effects of child poverty are significant".

I will highlight some of the key recommendations of the Audit Office report, the first of which is:

"An integrated, cross-departmental anti-poverty strategy is urgently needed. As co-ordinating department in this area, when the Department presents a draft strategy to the Executive, it should include an action plan containing clearly defined indicators and targets aimed at quantifying and reducing poverty, including measures of persistent poverty and the poverty gap."

Second, the report recommends:

"In developing the action plan for presentation to the Executive, as co-ordinating department, the Department should work with contributing departments to ensure that the focus is on a number of properly defined and more specific actions, including early intervention and prevention, and that they can demonstrate clear links between actions and reducing the scale and impact of poverty."

The third recommendation is:

"Collective ownership and accountability arrangements for the new anti-poverty strategy should be clearly outlined and agreed at the outset. The Department should provide the Executive with recommendations regarding an independent monitoring mechanism, which includes key stakeholders, to provide regular independent scrutiny and review of anti-poverty strategic outcomes as well as to identify and address gaps in understanding of the accountability process."

The fourth recommendation is:

"In leading on a new anti-poverty strategy the Department should work with other contributing departments to identify opportunities where delivering interventions in a genuinely cross-departmental way (including the role to be played by non-governmental organisations) would be appropriate and effective, and present these proposals to the Executive for consideration."

The fifth recommendation is:

"When the new anti-poverty strategy and action plan is prepared, the Department should work with contributing departments to ensure that, as far as possible, actions included are properly costed to allow the Executive to make decisions on the budget allocations required. To enhance transparency and allow an assessment of the value delivered by publicly funded services, direct spending on new actions within the strategy should be monitored and reported."

The sixth recommendation is:

"The Department should present proposals to the Executive for monitoring mechanisms to measure the new anti-poverty strategy's objectives and outcomes and to enable data to be collated and reported in a timely fashion."

The seventh recommendation is:

"The Department should continue to work closely with DWP on their work on developing a new poverty metric to enable it to determine whether a more nuanced poverty measure should be developed and implemented for Northern Ireland."

My party welcomes the Audit Office report and the informed analysis and recommendations that it provided for taking this important matter forward.

Photo of Nick Mathison Nick Mathison Alliance

I support the amendment, and I also thank the Members who tabled the motion. I hope, however, that the amendment will receive support. I feel that it draws out not only the need for the strategy to be appropriately resourced but the necessity to provide a prevention strategy that is at the heart of any anti-poverty interventions. The amendment also highlights the need for child poverty interventions to be embedded in the Executive's anti-poverty strategy, which should have measurable outcomes at its heart.

This is a statistic that many Members referenced, but the 'Northern Ireland Poverty and Income Inequality Report' has shown us that the percentage of children who are living in relative poverty in Northern Ireland has risen from 18% in 2021-22 to 24% in 2022-23. That equates to approximately 109,000 children. It is important that we just take stock of the sheer numbers of children whom that is impacting. It is not acceptable, and we cannot continue on that upward trajectory. It is high time that the commitments that were made in previous mandates to tackle poverty are now delivered on.

The Audit Office report made it plain that any new anti-poverty strategy should include an action plan containing clearly defined indicators and targets that are aimed at quantifying and reducing poverty and that those should detail early intervention and prevention, with a clear demonstration of the links between the actions that we are going to carry out and how they will reduce the scale and impact of poverty. Thinking about early intervention, I will focus some of my remarks on the role of education in that space. Much has been said about the cross-departmental aspect to the matter and how we cannot say that it is just for the Department for Communities to deliver. We know that children who grow up in poverty are more likely to have lower levels of educational attainment, and it is incredibly worrying, therefore, that, for more and more families simply accessing education, the cost of just getting children to school is becoming a huge financial burden. Any anti-poverty strategy needs to tackle that.

With that in mind, since the restoration of devolution, all parties have supported motions to tackle school uniform costs, reinstate holiday hunger payments and review the criteria for free school meals, so I urge the Minister of Education once again to pursue that work as quickly as possible but in conjunction with the Executive colleagues as part of the wider anti-poverty strategy. I would welcome it if the Minister for Communities today could clarify what some of the work that has been done with the Department of Education has been on the development of an anti-poverty strategy.

The expert panel that produced the report 'A Fair Start' highlighted that addressing educational underachievement that has been brought about as a consequence of social disadvantage extends beyond the Education Department alone. It said that if we are serious about wanting to see fundamental change for the benefit of our most disadvantaged children, an anti-poverty strategy must prioritise education and learning as a clear route out of poverty.

I cannot talk about issues on education and how it connects to an anti-poverty strategy without mentioning the other strategy that we have talked much of in the Chamber: the development of the early learning and childcare strategy. Childcare is an incredibly important anti-poverty and early intervention tool, and it is vital that an anti-poverty strategy captures that properly. Working families are struggling with the crippling impacts of extortionate childcare costs in Northern Ireland, but, sadly, we still see progress going very slowly from the Department of Education, and I ask that that work be continued at pace.

An anti-poverty strategy that is genuinely cross-departmental and concerned with early intervention and prevention rather than expensive late interventions, which other Members mentioned, must have early education and childcare as key elements, and all Departments with a role in this space — yes, that means Education, but also Communities, Health and Economy — must work together in the interests of children in Northern Ireland.

Any child who is living in poverty is one too many, so, as the amendment clearly outlines, we must ensure that we have in any strategy specific measurable targets alongside monitoring mechanisms that will measure outcomes and allow us to learn not only about what we are doing well but about what needs to be improved. We must not return to the Chamber in a few years' time to debate the issue again and to bemoan the delay in the delivery of an anti-poverty strategy. How many other children will suffer if we allow that to be the case? We must —.

Photo of Matthew O'Toole Matthew O'Toole Social Democratic and Labour Party

I agree with much of what he said. He talked about the importance of urgency, but would he agree that that is why it is important to put a specific date and timeline on the Minister's coming back, which is why our original motion contains the date of September 2024?

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

The Member has an extra minute.

Photo of Nick Mathison Nick Mathison Alliance

I thank the Member for his intervention. We would certainly advocate for urgency on this. The key for us is that the child poverty strategy needs to sit within the wider anti-poverty strategy, and a timeline distracts from that.

We must act collectively, collaboratively and comprehensively to deliver for some of our most vulnerable children and families. I commend the amendment to the House on that basis and hope that it receives support.

Photo of Danny Baker Danny Baker Sinn Féin

Working together, we can help to give every child the best start to life. It is clear that there is work to be done. Many children across the North live in poverty, and the impact that that has on our children has already been stated. Ensuring that children reach their full potential must be a top priority for all of us. Recently, the House passed a motion to make school uniforms more affordable, and we have prioritised tackling holiday hunger and called for the holiday hunger payments to be reinstated. We can make a difference to children and families when we work together across the Chamber.

Savage Tory cuts have attacked our must vulnerable. They have stripped key services from our schools and hospitals, affecting hard-pressed children and young people. Poverty affects children's health and education and every aspect of their lives. We must remove barriers. That is why we must work together — Department across Department and party across party. We must put our shoulders to the wheel and stamp out child poverty. Much work is still to be done, and lessons must be learned. I call on the Communities Minister, as the Minister of the lead Department, to make this a top priority. I urge him to bring forward a timeline for an anti-poverty strategy. We must remain focused on addressing inequality in all its forms and on improving the prosperity and opportunities of all citizens, especially our children. That is our duty: to cherish every child equally and guarantee equal opportunities for all. That is the least that they deserve.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party

Creating a society where every child has a fair chance to thrive should be not an ideal but a basic tenet of any democracy. If Governments are judged on how they treat their most vulnerable citizens, surely the fact that one in five children lives in relative poverty — rising to one in four in more deprived areas — is a damning indictment on leadership here. Food bank usage and the number of homeless young families are at a record high. How has that been allowed to happen? Poverty is a lived reality for a growing number of families in Northern Ireland because leadership parties here put short-term political popularity over doing what is right for the people whom they purport to represent.

Figures that I requested from Minister Lyons show an 18% increase in the number of children living in relative poverty, before housing costs, in just one year. As of 2023, 109,000 children were deprived of the basic necessities. To those who held these institutions to ransom for five of the past seven years and prevented action, I say this: you should be ashamed of the Dickensian conditions that you have helped the Tories to create.

Poverty is a complex issue, but understanding why child poverty is so pronounced here is not that difficult an equation to solve. The child poverty strategy ended in 2022 in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis and an economy reeling in a post-pandemic landscape. While there was plenty to criticise about that strategy, now we have none — nothing. Furthermore, where is the anti-poverty strategy? The previous Communities Minister gave assurances that it would be implemented in the previous mandate. Minister Lyons says that he is considering the next steps, but where is the sense of urgency? The lackadaisical approach to date adds insult to injury. We welcome an amendment that recognises the need for the anti-poverty strategy to be brought forward, and we will support any effort to do that, except where it removes any sense of urgency to do so. I fear that the amendment does remove urgency. We were considering opposing it for that reason, but the fact that the DUP and Sinn Féin are supporting it confirms to me that it lets them off the hook and allows them to kick the can even further down the road.

Children growing up in poverty here have worse outcomes in mental health and education. In deprived regions like Derry, today's weans have a life expectancy that is 11 to 15 years less than those in more affluent areas. That is harrowing, and it underlines the need for concerted efforts, as others have said, across all Departments to tackle regional imbalance.

Photo of Daniel McCrossan Daniel McCrossan Social Democratic and Labour Party

Does the Member agree that constituencies that are mainly west of the Bann have suffered discrimination for countless years and that our children, in particular, have suffered decades of neglect from this place and have paid a heavy price as a result of a lack of leadership?

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

The Member has an extra minute.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for his intervention. It will come as no surprise to him that I do agree. It is refreshing and heartening to hear the right noises being made by Ministers. The proof of the pudding will be in the eating. We need to see action as well as hear words.

Poverty is a vicious cycle. It entraps families and is nigh on impossible to escape from. We need to foster the conditions to create jobs and equip people here to do them. Tackling child poverty requires, as, I think, everyone has said, a multifaceted approach. I think that "multifaceted" is the word of the day. Economic challenges, such as low wages and colossal childcare costs, place immense strain on families who are already struggling to make ends meet. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that a significant number of children living in poverty had at least one working parent, whereas lone parents had the highest level of in-work poverty. I have serious concerns that the universal credit migration will exacerbate that situation. For example, under that system, the threshold criteria for free school meals and uniform grants will drop from £16,000 to £14,000. At a time when welfare eligibility thresholds should consider inflationary increases, welfare reform, which my party campaigned against vociferously, will see thousands of low-income households stripped of support. Even those who are eligible for free school meals face a cruel summer as we await Executive action on holiday hunger. Families here are no longer just about managing. Under callous Tory policy, compounded by Executive absence and apathy, they are teetering on the brink.

The Tory assault on the poor and the political malaise here have left families falling through widening gaps in a social security net that has been allowed to wear thin. Systemic barriers that are entrenched in our polices and institutions will perpetuate cycles of poverty across generations. We need to stem that trend now, or society will pay dearly in the future. Anywhere that fails to invest in its children undermines its own future prosperity.

Photo of Gerry Carroll Gerry Carroll People Before Profit Alliance

I start by saying that it is deplorable in the extreme that at least one in five children here live in poverty. I say "at least" because I am sure that that is a conservative figure. The figure is around 30% in my constituency. It is not just a stat; it refers to children who go cold and hungry, children who are denied opportunities to socialise, and children whose very development is stunted by the crushing economic policies of the Tories and their abettors in this Assembly.

In the debate, we have heard fine words from seemingly fine people who say that they want to end child poverty. Those are fine words because they are abstract, and they are abstract because they are hypothetical in their aims. They are far removed from the nasty policies of the current and previous Executives. "We despise child poverty", say the parties around me who have spent a decade and more impoverishing children in working-class communities like mine. "Let us reduce child poverty", say some who voted for welfare reforms like the punishing two-child tax limit. "We need a strategy to end child poverty", say parties and politicians who, last week, voted for a new round of budget cuts, including restrictions on workers' pay.

Child poverty is a deliberate policy that is pursued by the Stormont Executive. It can only be a deliberate policy that has seen Stormont's Executive parties refuse to bring forward an anti-poverty strategy in the past two decades. It can only be a deliberate policy to follow the lead of a Tory Administration that has overseen the worst drop in living standards since records began. A few years ago, I saw a devastating and heartbreaking report that found that Tory austerity had caused over 333,000 excess deaths. That is an unbelievable figure. Why have the Stormont Executive followed their policy once again? Why are the new Executive doing what previous ones did? In my view, it is because the Executive have no alternative. They have accepted child poverty as an inevitable feature of our society, in spite of the obscene wealth that is concentrated in fewer and fewer private hands.

I am sure that we have all seen — it has been referred to already — the stat that 62·7% of children living in poverty are from working families. Those are children whose parents and family members staff this very Building, as well as our hospitals, schools, public transport, restaurants, factories, shops and so on. They are the working poor who keep our society afloat and create the ever-growing profits of a wealthy few. It is not the millionaires or the corporations that keep our society afloat and functioning.

The working poor need to see a strategy to end child poverty come forward urgently. It does not, however, take a rocket scientist to figure out where to start, and, Minister, you can stick these proposals in the strategy. We need to start by providing free school meals to all children. We need to stop cutting their parents' pay. We need to fund the services on which they rely. We need to regulate and challenge the corporate profiteers — the energy companies and supermarkets, among others — who profit while children lie cold and go hungry.

We can stop hiking people's rates and rents. We can build public homes for children and their families and begin to address the crisis that has been created. We can repeal the two-child tax limit. We can back off from the cuts and revenue-raising measures that people are planning, which, we know, will force more and more into poverty.

It is all well and good strategising to end child poverty, but if the actions take you in the opposite direction, you may as well just tell the public the truth, which is that most people in the Chamber accept the existence of child poverty as an unfortunate reality. They accept it because you, the parties, refuse to see beyond the horizon where the wealth of a minority is sacrosanct. They accept it because they believe that the Government's job is to mitigate and manage everyone else's expectation, including that of a child living in abject poverty.

If you want to end child poverty, you need to challenge wealth inequality, invest in our communities and invest in our children. If you do not, you can table all the motions and create all the strategies that you like, but, unless parties and the Executive are prepared to act, they will not make a single bit of difference.

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

All Members who indicated that they wished to speak have done so. I therefore call the Minister for Communities to respond to the debate, and he has up to 15 minutes.

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP

May I say to Mr O'Toole and the SDLP that I am grateful for the opportunity to debate the motion and, indeed, the other motions that they will be bringing to the Chamber tomorrow? I am flattered that they want to spend so much time with me today and tomorrow.

[Laughter.]

I hope that we can have useful debates on those issues, which impact on some of the youngest and most vulnerable members of our society.

I want to be very clear: addressing poverty, in all its forms, is a key priority for me. Many statistics have been mentioned in the debate, many from the Northern Ireland Audit Office report. I know that it is a cliché, but we should never lose sight of the fact that there are individual families and children behind each of those statistics, and they are impacted on by child poverty. The Government have a role to play in helping to deal with that.

I believe that child poverty is a blight on our society. It creates hardship and limits opportunity, and it stifles the potential of our children and young people. I am ambitious for this place and for our people and am therefore committed to working with Executive colleagues to address fundamentally the causes and impacts of child poverty.

Today's debate allows us to discuss how best to —.

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP

I will give way to the Member.

Photo of Justin McNulty Justin McNulty Social Democratic and Labour Party

One in five children living in poverty is a shocking statistic. Minister, do you agree that words of comfort are not enough? We are told that it is time for real change. When is that change coming? Cold houses and empty bellies have a ripple effect through a child's life, affecting their educational achievement, their employment prospects and their health outcomes. It is a cycle of poverty for those children, and it means that their children will have cold homes, experience educational underachievement and have poor health outcomes. What action will be taken now?

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP

That is exactly what I was coming to because I agree. This is not just about warm words anymore — we need action. In fact, I have listened to all of the contributions across the Chamber today, and I have spoken in many debates in this place over the past 10 years, and I do not think that there has ever been a debate in which there seems to be such commonality. There has been a lack of interventions of substance because, I think, Members are all on the same page. We all understand that action needs to be taken, and that is what I want to outline today.

I am reluctant to use the word again, but, yes, it is a complex and multifaceted issue. I think that that highlights the fact that this is not for just one Department to solve. We genuinely need to see a cross-party and cross-Executive approach to this strategy. As has also been said during the debate, I do not want to produce a strategy that is just going to sit on a shelf, and I do not want us to get any credit for simply developing a strategy; I want us to actually deliver on it. My focus will be on working with Executive colleagues to deliver a strategy that prioritises the outcomes that actually make a tangible difference to people's lives.

Over the past few years, no one can be in any doubt that Northern Ireland, alongside the rest of the UK, has faced a range of challenges that have impacted on us all. In particular, those challenges have impacted the most vulnerable. The most recent statistics published by my Department show a significant rise in the number of children and working-age adults living in poverty. That is of real concern as it appears that poverty in Northern Ireland is returning to the levels that it was at before the pandemic.

While I note that levels of children in poverty after housing costs in Northern Ireland are returning, those levels are still lower than the averages across the rest of the UK. That is no reason for us to be complacent. We need to work with Executive colleagues to drive poverty as low as we possibly can, and a key aspect of work will be ensuring that children who have been affected by poverty can achieve in education and have healthy and productive lives in a thriving society.

Dealing with poverty means not only dealing with low incomes, as others have alluded to this afternoon, it will also involve us tackling issues such as educational attainment and health inequalities. While we address these issues, it is also essential that we ensure that our society and economy provide opportunities for the future. Ensuring that there are high-skilled and meaningful jobs available for everyone will be key to dealing with the issue of poverty in a sustainable manner.

As we have said, this is absolutely not something that one Department can deliver by itself, although I look forward to taking the lead on this issue on behalf of the Executive. As we all know, this will impact on the Departments of Health, Education, Finance and the Economy. Indeed, it will impact on all Departments in the Executive. As I have already stated, it is essential that we work together to support individuals and families as they work to escape poverty. This means schools supporting disadvantaged children to achieve the best results they can. It means health services supporting those with long-term and chronic conditions to be able to live fulfilling lives. It means strengthening our economy so that high-skilled jobs are available to all. It means creating a partnership between our broader society and individuals and families who are trying to lift themselves out of disadvantage.

It is also essential that we acknowledge that tackling child poverty means addressing wider issues of disadvantage in our society. Child poverty does not exist in a vacuum. We simply cannot lift children out of poverty without also addressing the issues that affect their parents, grandparents, carers and all the people who support children throughout their life. If children in poverty are to truly see their lives changed in the long term, it will require an approach to tackling poverty that is broad enough to address the issues that prevent children and their families from fully engaging in society. This will not only benefit children but will allow us to build a more inclusive country and a brighter future for all.

It is clear from the comments made by colleagues in the Assembly today that we do agree on the urgency of this work. It is equally essential that we take our time to ensure that the responses are effective. An anti-poverty strategy that will also address child poverty is likely to have a lifespan of 10 years. Given that this will impact upon a generation of our population, we need to make sure that it includes the right priorities, the right actions and the right interventions.

Given the many competing priorities that we face, it is essential that we focus our efforts and resources on the areas that will yield the greatest benefits.

I have been considering how best to take the work forward at pace. I will shortly bring a paper to my Executive colleagues, setting out how we will develop the anti-poverty strategy and a timetable for that. Once the Executive agree the approach, I will be in a position to share it more widely. I note that much work was undertaken previously on an anti-poverty strategy. However, given the time that has passed since that initial work was undertaken, the changing economic circumstances and a changing budgetary environment, it will be necessary to revisit and build on that work, reflecting the changing pressures and priorities that we face today and will face in the years to come.

It is important to say that, even in the absence of an agreed strategy, we are not sitting on our hands. Work is being taken forward today to support the most vulnerable in our society. There are many different ways in which that is being done in the Department, such as the work on universal credit and the different benefits that are available, and my Department's Make the Call wraparound service.

Importantly, my Department promotes the value of work and the positive impact that it can have on poverty, health and well-being, social inclusion and our economy. Our labour market policy supports good jobs as a route out of poverty, supporting individuals and families.

We also provide significant funding — in the region of £6·6 million — to the independent advice sector, to provide local and regional advice on a range of issues including social security, immigration appeals and tribunal representation, as well as regulated debt advice. Other ministerial colleagues will be able to show the work that they are doing in their Departments to help those who are impacted by poverty.

Photo of Daniel McCrossan Daniel McCrossan Social Democratic and Labour Party 4:30, 15 April 2024

I thank the Minister for giving way, and I welcome his comments. Does he agree with me that one of the biggest obstacles that he will face in ensuring that the strategy is effective is ensuring that there is a cross-departmental approach and consensus on eradicating child poverty? He will agree with me that that has been an issue in the past, when Departments worked in silos. Will he give an assurance that this Executive will do better by our children?

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP

I certainly give the assurance that I will do all in my power to highlight the importance of the issue and to ask for cross-departmental collaboration. When I was in the Chamber earlier, I highlighted some of the sensible working collaboration that we are already doing. I hope that that continues. I say that because we have shared objectives in the Executive. If we can tackle poverty — particularly if we can tackle its core, child poverty — we can make such a difference to all the other things that we are trying to do. I have often said that the Department for Communities can make a really positive impact early on. If we make an early intervention, it makes a difference, which takes the pressure off the education system, the justice system and the health system later. I do not believe that I will have a difficult time in getting support from Executive colleagues for what we are trying to do.

Of course, budget could be another issue. The motion calls for a ring-fenced budget to be provided for the strategy. Given the range of anti-poverty interventions that are already being taken forward and the multiple factors behind the issue, that might be a difficult task. Ultimately, consideration of a specific ring-fenced budget, alongside how we measure and monitor progress, will be a matter for the Executive to consider in the context of developing the strategy. I want to make sure that we put in place a process to ensure that this later work is taken forward at pace and with a collaborative and holistic approach, so that we can make a real difference to those who are impacted by poverty. It is not just about financial resources; it is about opportunities, concrete outcomes and ensuring that we live in vibrant communities that are safe and welcoming for all.

These are important issues. I want to highlight some of the comments made today, and I will begin with the proposer of the amendment. I am in agreement with so much of what she said. Her amendment is a sensible approach to addressing some of the issues. Mr Gildernew, who is the Chair of the Committee, talked about a timeline. I do not have a timeline for the Member today, but I am sincere in saying that I want to make sure that this issue progresses as quickly as possible. Some of that is out of my hands, but I believe that, with the support of the Executive and the Assembly, we will ensure that that is progressed.

I will pick up on a point that Brian Kingston made. We are taking a little bit of time to get the strategy right, although we have been waiting for it for a long time. We want to make sure that it is effective and deliverable. I have heard time and again that we do not want a strategy that sits on a shelf; we want to make sure that it has targeted interventions. As he said, it is not just about the immediate support that we can provide but getting to the root of the problem. Mr Butler summarised well the issues that we are facing. He is right: it is about not just the money in people's pockets but the quality of life that people enjoy. The Deputy Chair of the Committee, Ms Ferguson, very well outlined the real impact that poverty has. We should never lose sight of that. That is why this issue is so important. We have children who are going to bed cold or going to school hungry. That has a huge impact on them, not just in the immediate term but on their potential. Poverty robs people of their potential, and of opportunity. That is one of the reasons why this issue needs to be tackled.

Mr Robinson is absolutely right: the strategy should be based on evidence. We need to make sure that we have collaboration between Departments. I was particularly interested in what Mr Mathison said, because the work that the Department of Education does will be absolutely key. If we are really interested in making sure that we have a longer-term impact, education is absolutely key to dealing with these issues. He is right to highlight that.

I am running out of time, but I hope that Members are aware that I understand how grave the problem is. I hope that they understand my determination to deliver a strategy that is deliverable, effective and makes a difference for the people whom we represent. We are here to help to improve their lives. I will not be found wanting in my contribution to getting there.

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

I call Kellie Armstrong to wind on the amendment. The Member has up to five minutes.

Photo of Kellie Armstrong Kellie Armstrong Alliance

The cost of poverty impacts the whole of the Executive. It impacts society from birth to grave. The Northern Ireland poverty and income inequality report for 2022-23, which was released on 27 March, confirms that one in four children is living in relative poverty in Northern Ireland. That is something that I am ashamed of. I think that everyone in the House agrees that it is shameful.

Poverty and child poverty will only get worse in Northern Ireland unless we take deliberate actions to address the issue. As my colleague Sian Mulholland stated, poverty is multigenerational and cross-community. We need a holistic approach that looks at unemployment, housing, education and all of the areas in which we can make improvements to the cost of living for people in Northern Ireland. We need to break the cycle of poverty by having an anti-poverty strategy. That, of course, must include child poverty actions.

There is a direct link between working-age adults who are in poverty and the number of children in Northern Ireland who are in poverty. Action for Children, which, very kindly, met me last week, outlined that over 58% of children in poverty are living in work-constrained families and that 12,000 children in poverty are living in families in which both parents are working. That says something about this place. It is not just about families who are unemployed or families who are on benefits; this is an issue that cuts across all Departments in Northern Ireland. There are multiple barriers, of course, to people getting to work. The Department for the Economy needs to deliver access to skills. The Department of Education needs to deliver early years and childcare. The Department for Infrastructure needs to provide affordable access to services. An anti-poverty strategy is an opportunity to bring all of that together. That may take a little bit of time. We tabled the amendment in the way that we did for a reason, and Mr O'Toole asked why we did not go for the target of September. To be honest, I worked in the community and voluntary sector for a long time before I came to the House, and I know that somebody who does not want to know what you have to say puts a consultation out over the summer months. September is too quick for this. We need to have co-production and co-design in order to bring forward an effective anti-poverty strategy that can be monitored and responded to and that will bring forward actions that will make a change.

Photo of Kellie Armstrong Kellie Armstrong Alliance

I have only five minutes, so I will not give way.

I believe in co-production and co-design, and there are a wealth of organisations that can help the Minister and the Executive to bring forward a clear and precise anti-poverty strategy that has measurable targets that we can achieve before the end of the mandate.

The Northern Ireland Office confirms that some of the many reasons for child poverty are linked to low wages, worklessness and the rising cost of living. If you talk to any Department, you will find that those issues impact on all of them. The Northern Ireland Audit Office, on page10 of the 'Child Poverty in Northern Ireland' report by the Comptroller and Auditor General, states:

"It is proposed that child poverty will be included within a new, over-arching anti-poverty strategy."

The Minister mentioned that he might bring that forward.

We also need to learn from what has happened before, because we need specific actions and interventions, not need a strategy that is going to sit on a shelf somewhere.

The cliff edge on mitigations that is coming next year was brought up before today. An anti-poverty strategy that is developed now can, hopefully, bring forward measures that will influence what we will do with mitigations in 2025. Therefore, we need to take forward clear actions to deliver those anti-poverty measures so that we no longer have people falling off that cliff edge.

Children do not apply for benefits, but they suffer when their family is unable to access support. We need to have one particular thing — this was suggested to me by the British Association of Social Workers — and that is an audit of poverty. An audit of poverty will look once and for all at Northern Ireland to see exactly what the issues are with poverty across all society.

Anything that affects adults, affects children; anything that affects children, affects adults. We need to see what that looks like. The Minister is right: poverty is a blight on society. It limits opportunity. There is an opportunity today for the House to support the amendment. We agree with the original proposers' indications, but we just think that they need to go further. Let us not limit this to just children; let us get rid of poverty in Northern Ireland for everyone.

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

Thank you. I call Cara Hunter to make a winding-up speech on the motion. The Member has up to 10 minutes.

Photo of Cara Hunter Cara Hunter Social Democratic and Labour Party

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I welcome the opportunity to talk about an issue that is as important as tackling child poverty. We in the SDLP want to deliver motions on the issues that matter most and that are impacting on the most vulnerable, and who is more vulnerable than the children who are experiencing poverty?

Under years of brutal Tory austerity, we have continued to witness how the most vulnerable struggle and suffer the most. While canvassing over the years and meeting people in our constituency offices, I know that I am not alone when I say that I hear time and time again first-hand the common theme, specifically in the past one or two years, which is the inability to afford the basics — to afford breakfast, lunch and dinner, and keep the lights on, and afford hygiene products, and afford car insurance, and pay electric bills. The list goes on. We know that children feel that too.

Parents are struggling, including parents who are working and parents who are on benefits. The awful thing about child poverty is that it is not always obvious. It happens quietly when a child turns up to school with an empty stomach, and, if you are not looking hard enough, you just might miss it. Maybe they cannot afford to go on a school trip or a trip to the cinema. They are wearing school uniforms or shoes that are too small because this month the budget just could not stretch far enough. Parents are doing all that they can, but they cannot make budgets stretch. The cost of living, married with low wages, is a complete disaster. It is too much and is putting pressure on the shoulders of so many parents.

Those small moments of humiliation in a child's life due to poverty can be so difficult for our young people. It is not their fault but is the consequence of a cruel, callous Tory Government that do not prioritise the health and well-being of our young people. We know that poverty impacts the whole family, and research has shown that poverty has a profound negative impact and affects specifically maternal depression, stress and anxiety. I welcome the fact that that was echoed around the House today.

Photo of Daniel McCrossan Daniel McCrossan Social Democratic and Labour Party 4:45, 15 April 2024

I thank the Member for giving way. She is right to point out that Tory austerity has had a crippling impact and been detrimental to the development of children here. Does she also agree that this House, when it sat, was also detrimental, in that it implemented severe welfare cuts from the Tory Government? They were implemented in this House by various parties. Also, in the absence of these institutions, the situation has worsened, and children are now worse off than they have ever been.

Photo of Cara Hunter Cara Hunter Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for his intervention. He is right: welfare reform has crippled families here. Sadly, that has had a trickle-down effect on our young people, and it continues to worsen the crisis here. In addition to that, the instability of this institution has prolonged the suffering of children and families in our communities. It is important to raise that.

I return to my initial point. Early intervention is absolutely key, and a number of studies point to improvement in children's educational, social and emotional outcomes as family incomes increase. As we see family incomes increase, we also see betterment in the development of our young people, but, without that support, children living in poverty are less likely to receive A to C grades when it comes to GCSEs and are, on average, six months less ready for school than those who do not experience poverty. That can trickle into higher rates of unemployment and increased uptake of welfare later in life.

That is important, and that is why we are here today. Now is the time to tackle this head-on. That is why decisions made in this Building are so important. We need to meet needs in early years and create a comprehensive child poverty strategy with measurable targets to reduce child poverty and increase the quality of life for all our young people, regardless of their background or belief.

There is a shared consensus across the House to get this over the line: to create a time-bound strategy with ring-fenced funding that seeks to support our children in these key early years of development. When children develop their sense of self, that is the time when poverty can, sadly, craft and shape their experience in this world, and it often makes them feel unequal to their peers. If we look across these islands, we see that Scotland, specifically, has done a remarkable job in showing us just what can be done to support children and young people and just how beneficial investment in our young people and tackling child poverty can be. This issue matters, and, if we invest in our young people today, we will have a much better, healthier generation tomorrow.

That is why, today and tomorrow, my party's motions are focused on tackling poverty head-on. Studies have shown that child payments will transform the lives of young people who have endured poverty. Scotland has gone from being one of the most unequal places in Europe to live in to being one of the most equal. In short, we have seen strategies across these islands that can help to tackle child poverty. I really welcome the hunger of the Minister and his Department to move forward on child poverty.

Photo of Gerry Carroll Gerry Carroll People Before Profit Alliance

I thank the Member for giving way. Does she share my concern that parties have had decades to implement anti-poverty strategies and have failed to do so? Does she also share my concern that when parties have the Communities Ministry, they do not implement anti-poverty strategies and then, when another party has that Ministry, from across the Chamber, they urge that party to implement such strategies? Is she concerned about that?

Photo of Cara Hunter Cara Hunter Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for his intervention. Absolutely, the emphasis is on each and every one of us, while our parties have Ministries, to do what we can to tackle child poverty, especially as children are so vulnerable and cannot speak for themselves. The duty is on us, as elected representatives, to utilise our positions, whether holding Ministries or not, to speak up for them and use our voices to ensure that they get the best support and investment as early in life as possible.

I really feel that it matters to meet the needs of early years, and that is why, over the next few days, my party will talk about tackling poverty. We know that child poverty, specifically, is an issue of dignity. It not only affects the immediate well-being of children but shapes their future prospects and opportunities. Growing up in poverty can have long-lasting effects on children's physical, emotional and cognitive development, perpetuating cycles of disadvantage and limiting their potential.

Often, children living in poverty may experience stigma, as has been mentioned in the House. That is important as well, as living in poverty can often create a sense of social exclusion at school, as those children may be unable to participate in activities or access resources that their peers can afford. A prime example of that is in extracurricular school activities or sports. Some sports are more expensive to take part in than others, so poverty limits opportunities and equality, and that is not right. <BR/>Addressing poverty with dignity for children means prioritising their unique needs and rights, ensuring that they have access to quality education, which was mentioned, healthcare, and opportunities for play and social interaction. We must recognise the inherent worth and potential of every child, regardless of their socio-economic background. It is essential for breaking the cycle of intergenerational poverty and creating a more equitable society.

Before I move to Members' points, it is important to mention that child and youth poverty is on the increase. Sadly, we are now moving towards that statistic of one in four experiencing child poverty. There are a number of pathways out of that. We should be looking at economic investment in youth work and the youth sector and supporting pathways to sustained employment. It is important to raise that today.

I will just mention a few Members' points. Sian Mulholland touched on the importance of early years and of access to nutritious meals in those years, which has an effect later in life. Colm Gildernew said that the cost-of-living crisis is only worsening, with which I wholeheartedly agree. We all see that every day in our constituency offices. Mr Butler touched on the fact that child poverty is linked to poor health outcomes, which, sadly, can be worsened by adverse childhood experiences. We are seeing that impact later in life with mental health challenges. He made another point about the stability of this place and the link between that and young people's sense of hopelessness. When this place is up and running and this institution is creating laws and having conversations, as we are today, our young people feel heard and feel part of the democratic process. That is so important, specifically when we are talking about the poverty that they experience and endure.

My colleague Sinéad McLaughlin touched on the importance of regional balance. Being based in the north-west also, I know that the area has seen decades of underinvestment. That has materialised into a lack of jobs, with people fleeing our part of the North to go elsewhere. Given the impact of that, it is time to invest in those areas. Ciara Ferguson touched on the key point of why we are here today: no child should live in poverty. That is the be-all and end-all. We all share that view. That is why it is so important that we get the strategy delivered. Mr Robinson touched on the importance of dealing with these issues with urgency. Mr Carroll emphasised the impact of Tory austerity, essentially robbing children of their childhoods due to the ongoing pressure of poverty in the home. Lastly, the Chair of the Education Committee touched on the important role of education in tackling child poverty.

In closing, I thank Members for their comments. I welcome the fact that we are on the same page in terms of aspiration, but we are not all on the same page with regard to delivery. We want specific targets and dates. Our motion states we want to see this done by September 2024. Parents everywhere want to see action and action now. That time-bound element is crucial.

Photo of Matthew O'Toole Matthew O'Toole Social Democratic and Labour Party

Does the Member agree with me that the reason having for the time-bound element in the motion is that the consultation can happen afterwards? There are multiple different routes for doing this, so we do not accept that a timeline should not be in the motion.

Photo of Cara Hunter Cara Hunter Social Democratic and Labour Party

Absolutely. I do not believe that we can support the amendment. It removes the urgency that we have all talked about. I thank everyone for their contributions. Hopefully, we can get the motion over the line.

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

Thank you for concluding the debate.

Question put, That the amendment be made. The Assembly divided:

<SPAN STYLE="font-style:italic;"> Ayes 57; Noes 10

AYES

Mr Allister, Dr Archibald, Ms Armstrong, Mr Baker, Mr Beattie, Ms Bradshaw, Mr Brett, Miss Brogan, Mr Brooks, Ms Brownlee, Mr Brown, Mr K Buchanan, Mr Buckley, Mr Butler, Mrs Cameron, Mr Clarke, Mr Delargy, Mr Dickson, Mrs Dillon, Mrs Dodds, Mr Donnelly, Mr Dunne, Mr Easton, Ms Eastwood, Ms Egan, Mr Elliott, Ms Ennis, Mrs Erskine, Ms Ferguson, Ms Flynn, Mr Frew, Mr Gildernew, Miss Hargey, Mr Harvey, Mr Honeyford, Ms Kimmins, Mr Kingston, Mrs Little-Pengelly, Mr Lyons, Mr McAleer, Miss McAllister, Mr McGuigan, Miss McIlveen, Mr McReynolds, Mrs Mason, Mr Mathison, Mr Middleton, Mr Muir, Ms Mulholland, Ms Á Murphy, Mr Nesbitt, Mr O'Dowd, Mrs O'Neill, Mr Robinson, Mr Sheehan, Ms Sheerin, Mr Tennyson

Tellers for the Ayes: Ms Armstrong, Mr Mathison

NOES

Mr Carroll, Mr Durkan, Ms Hunter, Mr McCrossan, Mr McGlone, Mr McGrath, Ms McLaughlin, Mr McNulty, Mr O'Toole, Ms Sugden

Tellers for the Noes: Ms Hunter, Mr McGlone

Question accordingly agreed to.

Main Question, as amended, accordingly agreed to. Resolved:

That this Assembly expresses profound regret at the findings of the recent NI Audit Office report on child poverty, including the shocking finding that one in five children in Northern Ireland is living in relative poverty and nearly 10% of households are unable to afford basic goods; calls on the Minister for Communities to lay before the Assembly an integrated and comprehensive anti-poverty strategy underpinning a future Programme for Government, as agreed in previous mandates, to include specific and measurable targets to reduce child poverty with targeted prevention strategies, as well as robust monitoring mechanisms to measure outcomes and to enable data to be collated and analysed; and further calls on the Minister for Communities to work with the Minister of Finance to agree the necessary funding package to deliver on child poverty reduction targets by the end of this mandate.

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

Members, take your ease for a moment while we make a change at the top Table. Thank you.

(Mr Speaker in the Chair)