Combat Poverty Agency

 

THE COMBAT Poverty Agency has been a stone in the shoe of successive governments because of its work in raising public awareness about the extent of poverty. It came close to abolition on one previous occasion because it insisted on drawing attention to conditions of poverty the government of the day did not wish to acknowledge. Now, as the economy falters and Ministers prepare for more difficult times, it would appear that its days as an independent, statutory agency are numbered. That would be a retrograde development.

Combat Poverty has been a doughty champion for the poor and the marginalised during its 22 years of existence. Its statutory powers gave it a freedom to criticise government policy where necessary and to shine a light into forgotten corners of deprivation. Ministers consistently objected to the methodology it used in defining poverty and, without fail, it persisted in doing what was right. Its function was to provide research and advice to government, State agencies and local authorities that would help to eliminate poverty and social exclusion while promoting a just and inclusive society. It helped to shape national policy through local experience. It made necessary connections at many different levels of administration in order to co-ordinate change.

Its latest report warns that Government plans to eliminate long-term homelessness by 2016 will be much more difficult to achieve because of the economic downturn. And it says it would be a great mistake to suspend necessary long-term funding because of short-term considerations. In the same vein, it predicts that levels of poverty will rise in the community, because of rapid increases in food and fuel prices, unless generous welfare payments are provided. And it identifies single parents and their children as those most threatened by consistent poverty.

These are uncomfortable truths for a Government that appears to be shell-shocked by the depth and rapidity of the economic downturn. They are also something of an embarrassment because they prioritise social needs and run counter to the crude, across-the-board cuts being implemented by the Health Service Executive and other State agencies.

Minister for Social and Family Affairs Mary Hanafin has suggested the Combat Poverty Agency might not be abolished, but could be merged with other units within her department. That is political flannel. Once the agency loses its statutory functions and independence, its authority will be compromised. And its role, as a champion of the downtrodden, will be smothered.