Poverty in Ireland has a child’s face – how we use the European Semester process to help change that.
Ireland experienced a devastating economic recession from 2008 to 2013. In 2010, the State entered a three-year European Union (EU) /International Monetary Fund /European Central Bank Troika economic adjustment programme, which provided a bailout loan to the tune of €70 billion. Having emerged from the programme at the end of 2013, Ireland is now the fastest growing economy in the EU. While the economy recovers for some, through my role at the Children’s Rights Alliance, I see that children of poor families continue to bear the brunt of decisions made by those who have the power to protect them. The child poverty rate nearly doubled during the recession and in 2016, one child in every nine lives in consistent poverty with disproportionally high rates among one-parent families.
Due to Ireland’s participation in the Troika programme, 2014 was the first year that Ireland received Country-Specific Recommendations (CSRs) from the European Commission. The significant influence of the EU on national affairs as part of the Troika programme in particular, has brought into sharp focus, the importance of the EU as a medium for advocating for children’s rights. Because the bulk of our work is at the national level, navigating the complexities of the European Semester was not an easy task and the team at Eurochild provided us with critical support. During the Irish Presidency of the European Union in April 2013, we had the opportunity to work directly with Eurochild, UNICEF and EAPN in hosting a conference on child poverty and well-being in Dublin. This provided us with the opportunity to learn from representatives of the European Commission and our European peers and it to upskill our member organisations on the Semester.
Through our role as the only children’s organisation on the Community and Voluntary Pillar of Social Partnership (a process used to negotiate with government and achieve consensus on a range of social and economic issues) we analysed and made submissions on the European Semester and the National Reform Programme. We also raised the CSRs in meetings with departmental officials and ministers at the national level. Eurochild facilitated us in meeting key officials from the European Commission in Brussels to share updated information and advocate for a stronger children’s rights and child-centred focus to the CSRs.
We faced two key challenges in our advocacy work on the CSRs back home. In 2014 and again in 2015, where they related to children the CSRs focused on increasing work-intensity of households and addressing the risk of child poverty by tapering the withdrawal of benefits and supplementary payments upon return to employment and through better access to affordable full-time childcare. We found that officials tended to focus more on the labour market activation part of the CSR rather than on the child poverty part. We also found that there was a lack of ownership in government of the issue of child poverty and it was falling between government departments. We decided that our vehicle to address these issues was through a national child poverty target, set as part of a new national policy framework for children and young people in 2014 and we are currently working with government departments to ensure that this target is reached by 2020. In terms of their influence, there can be no doubt that the CSRs were a key driver in decision-making in recent budgets, particularly through a new initiative on tapered payments in Budget 2015 (the Back to Work Family Dividend) and most significantly in a new childcare package announced in Budget 2016.
Eurochild’s Semester Report has been an excellent tool for us to take stock of our own activities on the European Semester and to learn from other countries, who have been engaged in the process for a longer period of time. Combatting child poverty and improving childcare are at the heart of our advocacy work with election candidates in our general election later this month. We hope that in our input to the next Semester Report, we will be able to tell you that these issues are at the heart of the work of the new government also.
Edel Quinn is the Senior Legal and Policy Officer at the Children’s Rights Alliance in Ireland.
The Children’s Rights Alliance unites over 100 members working together to make Ireland one of the best places in the world to be a child. We change the lives of all children in Ireland by making sure that their rights are respected and protected in our laws, policies and services.