Fintan O’Toole: Did the Irish Times ‘No Child 2020’ project work?

There was some progress on child poverty in 2019, but many of the problems grew worse

Consider some news stories in Ireland during a single week in December 2019...

1. More than 140,000 children are living in homes that are cold and damp, according to analysis done by the Society of St Vincent de Paul. The study finds that 12.3 per cent of Irish children are living in fuel poverty and that more than 10 per cent of one-parent households could not afford to heat their home adequately. It further reveals that one in five one-parent families was living in substandard accommodation and 11 per cent of households with children were in arrears on utility bills.

2. The owners of four childcare facilities ordered to close by the end of the month say they plan to do "everything in our power to continue" to operate. Hyde and Seek had been ordered by Tusla to close four creches in Dublin by December 31st, on foot of "consistent and serious breaches" of childcare regulations.

3. There is no prospect of free dental care for children under age six being introduced next September as promised by the Government. The Irish Dental Association says that the Government's new national oral health policy for children is "unworkable".

4. There have been 104 incidents of children absconding from secure care facilities over the previous 12 months, an average of more than six escapes per child.

5. A 15-year-old girl with complex needs had been waiting three months to be seen by mental health professionals at the time she died by suicide, according to a report into her death. An Oireachtas committee had previously heard that just over half of the staff recommended for child and adolescent mental health services are actually in their posts, with more than 2,500 children on waiting lists.

6. A woman who was six months pregnant was forced to leave her private rental accommodation because her landlord did not want other tenants disturbed by a crying child. The housing charity Threshold reports that this was not an isolated incident.

7. There are 3,826 children living in emergency accommodation because their families are homeless. Speaking at Leinster House after being presented with the Oireachtas Human Dignity Award, the addiction treatment activist Sr Consilio Fitzgerald pleaded with politicians to think of the long-term effects: "I have been saying it, we've been saying it, what is going to happen to the children that are going through [homelessness] now? It's just opening up a whole cesspool for people. It's opening up a whole new feeling for them of being less of a person. It's so important that people have their dignity, their value and their uniqueness."

8. Almost 215,000 children are on waiting lists for health care services. There are 90,000 children waiting for community healthcare services, including 19,000 children waiting for speech and language therapy, according to figures released to the Fianna Fáil health spokesperson Stephen Donnelly. Waiting lists in North Dublin are the highest in the country, with 2,400 children awaiting speech and language therapy. This compares to just 10 children on a waiting list for speech and language therapy in Dún Laoghaire and none in Dublin South East. There are 117,000 children on hospital waiting lists, which brings the total number of children waiting for public health care to 214,737.

This is just one week’s crop of stories in a society that thinks of itself as warmly child-friendly. None of these stories is about the best things that children might and should have. Each of them is about the basics of existence: shelter, warmth, safety, healthcare.

Stark failure

These are all things that Ireland, as one of the richest societies in the world, can provide for every child. The stark failure to do so has a particular irony in 2019, the centenary of the First Dáil. That parliament, which could reasonably claim to be the first democratic national assembly elected in Ireland, set down on its very first day the standard by which the Irish republic it had called into existence should be judged: “It shall be the first duty of the Government of the Republic to make provision for the physical, mental and spiritual well-being of the children, to secure that no child shall suffer hunger or cold from lack of food, clothing, or shelter, but that all shall be provided with the means and facilities requisite for their proper education and training as Citizens of a Free and Gaelic Ireland.”

We know what works. But in Ireland we choose not to do it

It is all too obvious, a hundred years on, that the republic is failing in its first duty. By far the most serious and consistent abuse of human rights in Ireland now is the toleration, by both government and society, of child poverty.

There is overwhelming evidence that deprivation in the early years severely limits a child’s chances of going on to live a healthy, productive and contented life. There is a large body of work internationally that shows that modest investment in early childhood yields, even in monetary terms, enormous dividends for society: vast amounts are saved later on healthcare and criminal justice and earned from the taxes of people who can go on to work productively. And there are well-established models for successful intervention – we know what works. But in Ireland we choose not to do it.

No Child 2020

The yawning gulf between the promises of 1919 and the realities for hundreds of thousands of children in 2019 prompted the Irish Times to launch the No Child 2020 project in January of this year.

Run in conjunction with the Children’s Rights Alliance, it had two closely interrelated aims. One was to raise public awareness of the basic issues – not just of the problems but of how they might begin to be solved. The other, more specific, aim, was to invite a political response from the Government in Budget 2020.

From the first Dáil’s statement of intent in 1919 we extracted five basic promises: that no child should be hungry; that no child should be homeless; that no child should be without timely, affordable healthcare; that no child should be blocked from having an education; and that no child should be excluded from participation in cultural and sporting activities.

These five promises in turn gave us five policy changes that could be implemented in the Budget. These were deliberately chosen to be starting points, not complete solutions. They are steps – practical and affordable measures that could both have an immediate impact and be a statement of intent to implement more thoroughgoing change.

In relation to hunger, the proposal was to begin a scheme of small grants for schools, childcare facilities and youth centres to have kitchens on site so that, over time, every child can be guaranteed a hot, nutritious meal every day.

On health, it was to roll out medical cards for all children living in consistent poverty.

On homelessness, it was to enshrine in law the right of children to have their needs taken into account in overall responses to the housing crisis.

On education, it was to make schoolbooks free.

On the right to participate in culture, the proposal was for a Culture Card to be issued to every child with €30 on it, to be used for access to an arts or cultural event.

The overall cost of these measures would be €296 million.


Did the initiative work? If measured in terms of the budget, it was a modest success. Unusually for an Irish minister for finance, Paschal Donohoe made direct reference to child poverty in his budget speech.

The biggest potential success is in relation to hunger: the budget committed to a pilot scheme providing free hot meals in 36 primary schools this academic year and to extending the scheme to another 35,000 children from September 2020. If the stated aim of making this a universal scheme across all primary schools is maintained, this will be a big win for children.

The other success was on was on free schoolbooks. Just over €1 million has been allocated for a pilot free-books scheme.

In healthcare, small steps towards universal, free services were taken: free GP care is to be expanded to children under the age of eight.

Not much progress could be claimed either on homelessness or on access to culture.

No Child 2020 was ultimately a battle against hopelessness and indifference

What have we learned? That a concentrated and sustained focus on children’s rights does make a difference. No Child 2020 has undoubtedly changed the national conversation and helped to make child poverty a political issue.

But we have also learned that small incremental measures will not be enough. The scale of the many of the problems – child homelessness and waiting lists for basic health services – still got worse during 2019. To return to the direction indicated by the founders of the republic, we need to create a child-centred state, one that truly has the welfare of the young as its “first duty”.

This won’t happen unless citizens decide that it must. No Child 2020 was ultimately a battle against hopelessness and indifference. Its long-term success will depend on whether the shameful news stories continue to drift by on the fringes of consciousness or break through into anger, shame and a collective determination to end child poverty.

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