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Speech by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, Inaugural meeting of the Cross-Government Network on Child Poverty and Well-being

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Good morning/ Welcome

When I became Taoiseach again last December, I outlined my desire to make Ireland the best country in which to be a child and to reduce child poverty and improve wellbeing and opportunity for children.

This will take a sustained effort, and no one part of government can do it alone. Every day, everyone in this room contributes to that ambition.

As you all know, poverty during childhood is linked to poorer outcomes for kids and the adults they become.

This is particularly true in the case of persistent exposure to poverty, but even transient experiences of poverty have negative longer-term consequences and prevent children from realising their full potential.

Reducing child poverty helps others too. Their families, their communities, and wider society.

It is my firm belief that child poverty is a barrier that is in our power to remove. Over the past decade, we have demonstrated that this can be the case, that it is not inevitable, and it is not something we have to live with or work around.

Ireland has made significant progress. Almost 50,000 fewer children are living in consistent poverty than was the case ten years ago, notwithstanding a rising population.

After years of progress, however, last year, poverty rates increased for the first time in a long time, due to the sharp increase in the cost of living.

So, our objective in Budget 2024 was to restore the purchasing power of people’s incomes and push poverty rates back in the right direction.

Our tax and social transfer system is very effective at reducing poverty.

The ESRI research shows that 2024budgetary package is progressive and will result in reductions in the at-risk-of-poverty rate of most groups. Our independent analysis, Beyond GDP, shows that houses headed by lone parents gained most from the Budget.

As well as the increase in weekly social welfare payments, and increases in the qualified child payment. Low income families right across the country will receive:

  • a double month of the child benefit,
  • a €100 lump sum increase for a qualified child on top of that,
  • a €400 lump sum for families in receipt of the working family payment,
  • a €100 increase in the home carer and single-person child carer tax credit and
  • a €200 increase in the incapacitated child tax credit.

So for a lone parent and 2 kids will receive:

  • €480 before Christmas
  • Double payment in January
  • €20 a week more permanently

Broader services also provide a critical safety net, and by focusing resources on early years, we can empower people to make the most of that start through education, equal opportunities and good jobs to work towards a better future.

In this regard, we are building on progress made in recent years.

We have provided free schoolbooks for children in primary school and are now committed to free schoolbooks for children in secondary school up to the junior cycle. This will amount to savings of around €100 per primary student, and over €200 for every secondary school pupil.

We have put in place free GP care for all children under 8 and for households on low to medium incomes. Saving parents about €50 on each trip to the GP.

We are already providing hot school meals to many of the most vulnerable children and next year will expand it to 900 more schools, most directed to children that don’t attend DEIS schools. We are committed to introducing free hot school meals in all primary schools. This costs over €500 per child per school year, and results in a much greater saving to parents.

We have also invested heavily in early learning and childcare, benefitting children, helping parents into work, and reducing costs.

These are practical actions that are and will make a difference every day. Budget 2024 was an important first step in consolidating and building on these important measures.

Thank you for your hard work in bringing about these changes. I also want to encourage you to continue to engage with our ambition to improve the lives of children living in Ireland.

The Programme Office

In August, the Child Poverty and Well-being Programme Office published its work programme for the next two and a half years. It was approved by Government.

This initial Programme for the Child Poverty and Well-being Programme Office focuses on six areas that will have the greatest effect on the lives of children experiencing poverty.

These six areas are:

1) Income supports and joblessness

2) Early learning and childcare

3) Reducing the cost of education

4) Family homelessness

5) Consolidating and integrating family and parental support, health and well-being

6) Enhancing participation in culture, arts and sport for children and young people affected by poverty.

These six areas are not the only ones that are important, there may be other issues that the Programme Office will need to focus on in the future - we can adapt and evolve the Plan as the work develops.

But, when I was working on the establishment of the Office I met with and visited several community groups and NGOs. These are the groups that many of you meet day to day.

I remember clearly one person saying to me, don’t try and do everything, do the ‘difference that will make a difference’. And that is the balance we are trying to achieve.

In doing so, we want to build up the cross-government mechanisms that can accelerate implementation.

We know from recent experience, whether that’s the response to Covid or the Ukraine crisis, that the role that the Department of the Taoiseach can play is an important one.

It brings focus, attention, prioritisation, coordination and energy. It also brings intensified accountability which can be uncomfortable at times! But this Department is here to help, so that we can achieve our shared ambition for children.

Cross-government child poverty network

That is where this network comes in!

The purpose of this Cross-Government Network on Child Poverty and Well-beingwill be to provide an opportunity to share thinking and learning as well as generate greater visibility and collaboration in the work you are all doing.

It may not always be obvious, the ways in which your work is connected, but it is. I believe that by capturing that shared sense of purpose and mission we can help each other to achieve more for children and families.

By establishing the Network, we will seek to underpin and lead a whole-of-government response. This is why you have been invited here today.

I want you to identify how your work contributes to our ambition, and to be able to learn from and collaborate with colleagues that perhaps you do not have the chance to meet in your busy day jobs.

Of course, we are not alone in our ambition to end child poverty. We are part of a much bigger picture which includes children themselves, their families and friends, their communities, researchers, businesses, and NGOs.

But I believe it is important that as a public sector we take the time to learn from each other and identify ways of improving and accelerating what we do.

They say “it takes a village” to raise a child. Let’s be part of the village for each and every one of the 1 million children living in Ireland.

Thank you, and good luck!