Callous lone parent cuts should be reviewed as economy picks up

UN committee has called Government out on decision-making not based on evidence

Lone parent Michelle McFarland from Kildare and her 14 year old daughter - she says she faces cuts of up to €140 a week. Photograph: Alan Betson / The Irish Times

Lone parent Michelle McFarland from Kildare and her 14 year old daughter - she says she faces cuts of up to €140 a week. Photograph: Alan Betson / The Irish Times

 

This week, lone parents were subject to the last of a series of cuts to welfare payments that supplemented their part-time, low-paid employment. Introduced by the Minister for Social Protection since Budget 2012, the policy of switching off One-Parent Family Payment for lone parents with children aged seven was originally decided on mid-crisis and in the context of a wider policy approach that prescribed austerity as a means of redressing Ireland’s economic woes.

More recently, the Government has proclaimed a tentative recovery, calling into question the need for cuts that have already had a detrimental effect on lone-parent families. Poverty in these households has increased since the adoption of these particular measures, with 63 per cent living in deprivation and many at risk of homelessness or in emergency accommodation, given the cumulative pressures of rent supplement limits.

The picture for lone-parent households is thus grim. Despite research consistently showing them to be the poorest of our society, and capturing record levels of poverty, the Government has persisted in pursuing cuts that exacerbate the situation.

A strong moral argument can therefore now be made for abandoning the position adopted during the economic crisis and for establishing a more appropriate response to lone parent “activation” that reflects the economic and social realities of today.

Objective

Such an argument could draw on the Government’s vision as outlined in the Programme for Government, where it adopts the elimination of poverty as an objective, and commits to “protecting the vulnerable and to burden-sharing on an equitable basis”. Sadly, data and research in recent years reflects the fact that equitable burden-sharing has not taken place, and “the vulnerable” have often borne the brunt of austerity measures.

This much was borne out again, ironically, just this week, by a report published by the UN Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, which noted that austerity measures had a particularly adverse effect on “disadvantaged and marginalised individuals and groups”, that such measures were “adopted without proper assessments of their impact on economic, social, and cultural rights”, and that “no review has been carried out of such measures in a comprehensive and human rights-based manner”.

In other words, despite the Government’s aim to protect “the vulnerable”, it has not undertaken the necessary impact assessments and policy review to actually ensure the protection of same, resulting in the disproportionate and adverse effects which research from a variety of bodies, including Tasc and the ESRI, has long shown.

Informed decisions

For human rights organisations and advocacy groups in Ireland, particularly for the equality budgeting campaign, the committee’s report merely corroborates what they have been arguing for years: the policy-making process in Ireland must involve impact assessments and equality-proofing, especially of the budget, to allow policymakers to arrive at properly informed decisions.

What the UN committee has called the Government out on is an approach to political decision-making that is not based on evidence; that does not involve maximising information and at least trying to predict likely consequences, particularly for marginalised groups; and that therefore – unsurprisingly – results in the inequitable treatment of such groups.

While other countries routinely use impact assessments and equality-proofing as part of the policy process and, importantly, before decisions are made, Ireland lags behind by refusing to introduce such measures – measures that would give teeth to empty promises of protecting “the vulnerable”.

The most recent cuts to lone parents highlight the fact it is now time for the introduction of equality-proofing and impact assessments, as the Government’s current approach does not work. Not only is the present stance on lone parents morally problematic, but it is having the opposite effect to that intended.

Although the cuts were ostensibly introduced to increase lone parents’ participation in the labour market, there are now fewer lone parents working than in 2012. This clearly is a policy failure, which can be traced directly to structural problems with the way in which policy is made in Ireland. With that said, it is still not too late for Government to reconsider, to undertake a review and to amend its stance accordingly.

More generally, Irish policy-makers who are serious about ensuring the equitable treatment of members of our society should heed the UN committee’s recommendation to introduce impact assessments as a matter of urgency.

Dr Clara Fischer is a Newton International Fellow at the LSE Gender Institute

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