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FG need to change direction on ensuring each child has a fair start

6 February 2019

Speech by Brendan Howlin TD
Party Leader and Spokesperson on Foreign Affairs and Northern Ireland

Decency, Justice and Equality are Labour’s core values.

Today we are talking about what these values mean when it comes to children and young people.

When Labour’s leader, Tom Johnson, wrote the 1919 Democratic Programme of the First Dáil, he stressed that “the first duty” of Government was towards the education, development and welfare of children.

In Labour’s 2019 New Democratic Programme, we restated this pledge, as follows:

“The first duty of Government is to provide for the wellbeing, education and development of the children, regardless of origins, and to give them all an equal chance to fulfil their potential.”

 

Statements of principle are important.

They give people a clear signal of what we stand for.

And, in fairness, if Labour’s motion just asked the Dáil to support giving all children an equal chance to fulfil their potential, I’m sure that nearly everyone in this chamber would vote to support the motion.

But Labour’s motion is not about “fine words”.

We have set out in our motion, in real terms, the measures that are needed for Government to fulfil its duty towards all children in this country.

The Government must end homelessness for families with children,

Legal changes are needed to grant citizenship to all children born and raised in Ireland,

Legislation is needed to give information about birth parents to adopted children,

Legislation is needed to ensure completely equal parenting rights for same-sex couples,

Public spending is needed to make affordable quality childcare available to all who need it,

Public spending is needed to ensure prompt assessment of any special needs (such as autism) and the provision of support services to address every child’s basic support needs,

Public spending is needed to provide genuinely free-of-charge primary education.

 

I could point out the inequalities and injustice that continues to occur in each of these areas.

And I know my colleagues will address some of these areas in more detail.

But I want to just make two points.

 

First of all, there is a reason we talk about childhood as a person’s formative years.

It’s said that experience is the best teacher.

But experience can be the worst teacher too.

If a child’s experience of family life is a cramped B&B or hotel room or emergency homeless accommodation…

If a child’s experience of family life is stressed parents…

It will be no surprise if that child does not do as well at school.

It will be no surprise if that child has other problems in life.

 

When we fail in our duty towards a child, we don’t just leave that person worst off, but we as a society are all the poorer.

We lose the contribution that the person could have made, if they had been helped to fulfil their potential.

And, of course, some children come through the most harrowing and difficult of backgrounds, and they go on to achieve great things.

But we know that many other children are held back by their early formative experiences, and it can be so hard – if not impossible – for schools and support services to reverse the harm done to some of our citizens in early children.

So it is incumbent on us to redouble our efforts and redouble our commitment to our youngest citizens.

 

That brings me to the second point.

Citizenship.

If a child is born and reared in Ireland,

And if he or she has never lived elsewhere, and has no deep connection to another country,

He or she should be entitled to Irish citizenship.

 

The issue is about the residency status of parents.

In the United States, the children of illegal migrants are known as ‘dreamers’.

There is a generation of ‘dreamers’ in Ireland too.

Children and young adults whose parents perhaps overstayed their work visa or came in as a tourist and took up work.

Just as generations of Irish have done in the United States.

 

We do have to enforce our migration law.

But we do not have to blame innocent children for mistakes made by their parents.

That’s why it is so important that we do not leave any of Ireland’s children in legal limbo.

It is not good enough that some children get a special deal because a Minister lives in their constituency, but unknown others are deported or are living restricted lives because they do not have their citizenship papers in order.

Labour’s motion is about a fair start for every child in Ireland!

 

Labour has participated in eight governments since the foundation of the State, and in every government we have delivered better quality public services.

This Fine Gael Government, and Independent Minister for Children Katherine Zappone, have not delivered on their promises to children.

 

Labour’s motion specifically calls on Government to deliver on its own commitments.

—ensure no children remain in homelessness;

—implement the Affordable Childcare Scheme announced in Budget 2019;

—implement the commitment to free-of-charge GP care for under-18s; and

—implement the commitment to lift at least 70,000 children out of consistent poverty by next year.

 

You have said in the programme for government you would achieve these things.

We have survived the economic crash and money is now available.

The Government has the money and has the opportunity to make the necessary investments to deliver on its promises to our children.

Instead, the Taoiseach repeatedly offers tax cuts to higher earners rather than investing in all our children.

 

And that is the heart of the question.

Labour wants to use the State to invest public money in all of our children.

It is not about cash payments.

It is about investment in a national system of affordable childcare, investment in Special Needs services and investment in primary schools.

It is about legislation to address injustices.

And it is about preparing and implementing a comprehensive strategy to eliminate consistent child poverty and material deprivation.

 

The Government’s proposed amendment to Labour’s motion does show some progress.

I don’t deny that there has been some progress.

But the Government is falling short of its own commitments.

The Government’s counter-motion distracts from the core failings of its own policies.

If the Government continues with its current policies, it will not eliminate child homelessness.

The Affordable Childcare Scheme will not be implemented.

Parents will still pay for GP visits for children aged 7 to 18.

And far too many children will remain in a situation of poverty.

 

This is Labour’s wake up call to the Government. If you are sincere about your commitments to Ireland’s children, you need to change direction.

In our Centenary Year, let us as a National Parliament, across this House, give that commitment to all of Ireland’s children.