Belfast Telegraph

It is action and not words that will save our children

The Child Poverty Strategy must prioritise affordable childcare, says Fergus Cooper

One of the problems with the fag-end of any government is that, in the rush to push through policies and legislation, opportunities for scrutiny and real debate end up in the ashtray of good intentions. Just such a scenario occurred when the Northern Ireland Child Poverty Strategy was laid before the committee for OFMDFM.

The facts themselves are stark. One-in-four children in Northern Ireland is living in poverty. One-in-five has experienced three or more years of poverty and this level of persistent poverty is more than twice the level in Britain.

Children from poorer families will experience material deprivation and real hardship. Almost half will live in fuel-poor households where families will struggle to meet rising heating costs and utility bills. Debt is an ever-present problem.

Children from the poorest families are two-and-a-half-times more prone to respiratory diseases. One-in-four will experience a mental health problem before the age of 16. They will do less well at school and fewer than 29% will achieve five good GCSEs against the peer average of 67%.

But what of the Child Poverty Strategy itself? The strategy is long on lists of departmental good intentions, but short on practical actions, measures and objectives.

Indeed, there were no targets set in the draft strategy if one leaves aside targets reproduced from the UK legislation to end child poverty by 2020. It's hard, then, to see how the Executive can measure and report on progress made by March 2012 and each year thereafter.

It's not that the strategy lacks ambition, but that it lacks political resolve. I quote from the draft strategy: "While the Executive has fully endorsed and is committed to this strategy, we all appreciate the uncertainties in respect of budgets and future spend.

"Therefore, we must recognise that the content of this high-level strategy is based on current priorities and commitments and that there may be other means of delivery not currently envisaged due to the uncertain financial situation."

Sorry, but I believe commitment means establishing clear government priorities - then finding the funds to implement them.

Scotland and Wales were also compelled to produce child poverty strategies. They, too, produced theirs within the same financial straitjacket of the Comprehensive Spending Review. Yet, arguably, the draft Northern Ireland Child Poverty Strategy is the weakest of the devolved administrations. It is also the only one not to set interim targets, or to state an action to be taken now to mitigate the worst effects of the reductions in benefits, tax credits and rising inflation.

In Northern Ireland, 42% of children in poverty live in workless households; 20% live in a household where all adults work and 38% in a household where at least one adult works.

This presents at least two distinct problems. One, removing barriers to employment for adults who want to work and, two, the challenge to make work pay.

Save The Children would like to see the Executive pilot a programme to increase the amount of income unemployed people can earn before losing benefits.

This would have the twin effects of incentivising work while raising income in the poorest households.

For this to work, it would also need to ensure adequate provision of affordable childcare - perhaps the single biggest barrier to employment for many parents.

I'm hoping for much in the finally-agreed Northern Ireland Child Poverty Strategy, but I fear I may not even get a cigarette butt to stick behind my ear.

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