Dáil Éireann - Volume 587 - 15 June, 2004

Written Answers. - Social Welfare Code.

  108. Mr. Neville asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the efforts she has made to reduce the risk of poverty faced by lone parents, persons with disabilities and the elderly, particularly elderly women; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [17654/04]

  Mary Coughlan: The most recent figures on poverty levels in Ireland are based on the analysis by the Economic and Social Research Institute of the results of the 2001 Living in Ireland survey. This analysis indicates that the highest risk of experi[376] encing consistent poverty is faced by lone parents, families with four or more children, people with disabilities and the unemployed.

The consistent poverty measure identifies the numbers who are experiencing income poverty and basic deprivation in terms of being consistently deprived of goods and services regarded as essential for living in Ireland today. The level of consistent poverty has fallen steadily from 15% in 1994 to 5.2% in 2001. We have set a target in the national anti-poverty strategy of reducing consistent poverty to below 2% by 2007 and, ideally, eliminating it altogether.

The analysis also indicates that the at risk of poverty rate, that is, the number of people with incomes below 60% of equivalised median income, has increased overall from 19.8% in 1998 to 21.9% in 2001. It also indicates that the risk of falling below that income threshold is highest for the elderly, lone parents, the larger families, the ill or disabled, persons on home duties and the unemployed.

There are a number of factors which contribute to the relatively high at risk of poverty rate. During periods of high economic growth, increases in household income can outstrip even substantial increases in the incomes of households with relatively low earnings or on social welfare. This is what happened in Ireland in recent years. There were particular circumstances in the period from the mid-1990s when a combination of increased female participation in the workforce, reduced unemployment generally, tax reform and, crucially, high earnings growth caused very large increases in household income. These increases in household incomes were substantially higher than increases both in individual earnings and social welfare incomes over this period, despite virtually unprecedented improvements in employment and social provision across the board in this period.

The policies pursued by the Government over recent years with regard to income supports have brought about significant improvements in the situation of people in receipt of such supports. In the period from 1998 to 2003, for example, the value of the lowest social welfare payments increased by more than 50% in nominal terms and by 19% in real terms. In the case of pensioners, the increases awarded have been higher again with the old age contributory pension increasing by almost 26% in real terms and the old age non-contributory pension increasing by 33% in real terms over the same period. With regard to persons with disabilities, the weekly personal rate of disability allowance has increased by more than 57% or a real increase in excess of 26% since 1997. The 2004 budget continued this progression, as it included a social welfare package of €630 million and the effect of this increase is that the total social welfare spend in 2004 will be almost double that of 1997. As a result, my Department now has an annual budget of more than €11 billion to support those who are vulnerable, less well off or disadvantaged in our society.

[377] The Government’s determination to continue to improve the position of the most vulnerable in our society is reflected in the revised national anti-poverty strategy, NAPS, and in the national action plan against poverty and social exclusion which contain ambitious targets across a number of areas, including that of increasing the minimum social welfare rate to €150 per week, in 2002 terms, by 2007. The challenge now is to sustain and build on the progress we have made to date so that we can achieve our overarching objective of building a more inclusive society.