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Policy review: national action plans for combating poverty and social exclusion – from 1997 to the present

Cynthia Martin*


Against an historic social deficit and deep seated inequalities, Ireland adopted its first National Anti-Poverty Strategy in 1997 which held out the prospect of a comprehensive, structural response to poverty and social exclusion. Subsequent plans followed, and this review overviews these developments, placing the Irish strategy within the context of the EU social inclusion strategy. Progress is evaluated by examining key reports emanating from the EU and anti-poverty networks, and methodological questions are raised about the way government measures progress. Analysis suggests that selective priority actions within a context that defers to economic interests are unlikely to resolve deep seated structural features of society that reproduce inequalities. In addition, austerity measures are likely to mean that social progress will stagnate, unless there is a sea change in culture, politics, economy and society based on political values that embody social justice.

Setting the context: the emergence of Irish anti-poverty plansToC

The context of Ireland’s response to poverty was formed within the historical backdrop of Ireland’s welfare system. This has focused on ‘basic’ service provision with a low proportion of resources devoted to social spending, a weak commitment to reducing inequalities (NESC, 2005), a long standing persistence of significant social injustice, and a fatalistic attitude towards poverty. The ideological legacy of Catholicism and liberalism, along with powerful interests and conservative attitudes, stymied welfare development, and poverty was constructed as an individual moral problem (Fanning, 2004a). These features of Irish society, along with a populist and non-ideological political culture (Kirby, 2004) and corporatist social partnership, which articulated a neo-liberal hegemony, provided the context for a dramatic surge in economic prosperity during the 1990s, characterised as development with inequality (Allen, 2003). Characteristically, national social partnership agreements have never been put to the Oireachtas for debate or approval, and the Oireachtas has not had a role in setting the agenda for talks (Wall, 2007). As such, Irish social policy development cannot be said to reflect a democratic welfare state, existing as a socio-political system designed to fulfil nationally defined needs. In addition, an ideological emphasis on ‘subsidiarity’ has persisted (Fanning, 2004b) expressed by the idea that voluntary effort and community empowerment requires minimal state intervention. Findings on attitudes to welfare have highlighted an institutionalised acceptance of processes that sustain inequalities in Ireland (McCashin and Payne, 2005). Early responses to poverty during the 1970s came in the form of EU funded pilot schemes under the EEC poverty programme and these raised the profile of poverty issues in Ireland which subsequently became the first EU country to adopt a ten year National Anti-Poverty Strategy (NAPS) in 1997 with the aim of reducing or ideally eliminating poverty by 2007. The NAPS (Government of Ireland, 1997: 3): adopted the following definition of poverty:

People are living in poverty if their income and resources (material, cultural and social) are so inadequate as to preclude them from having a standard of living that is regarded as acceptable by Irish society generally. As a result of inadequate income and resources people may be excluded and marginalised from participating in activities that are considered the norm for other people in society.

The shortcomings of social policy infrastructure had become apparent during the 1980s, and the NAPS came on the back of increased rights based community activism which highlighted the structural dimensions of poverty and the state’s failure to respond to social disadvantage in a structured, systematic fashion. An earlier national campaign for welfare reform had failed as it did not garner political support (Powell and Geoghegan, 2004). The poverty plan was accompanied by the introduction of ‘poverty proofing’, a process intended to ensure that all major policies and programmes are reviewed at design stage to ensure they contribute to reducing poverty, or at least, do not serve to increase poverty. The localised element of NAPS carried the expectation of building upon the Community Development Programme (CDP), established in 1990. A revision of the NAPS (Goodbody Economic Consultants, 2001) led to its reshaping (Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs, 2002). The potential role of local authorities to address poverty at local level was recognised in the review, and Partnership 2000 saw the inclusion of the community and voluntary (C&V) sector in national partnership agreements to ostensibly represent ‘the interests of the vulnerable’ (Corrigan, 2007). Their role became identified with an area based focus with an assumption that poverty was a problem of poor people in poor places and an ‘enabling’ state would harness the potential of civil society participation to encourage community ownership of local anti-poverty initiatives (Powell and Geoghegan, 2004).

The revised NAPS stated a commitment to a ‘comprehensive’ approach. It assumed that a competitive economy would ensure growth and generate resources to sustain the plan via more equitable tax and social protection policies and investment in public services, so that ‘the whole population’ would enjoy adequate incomes and access to necessary support services (Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs, 2002:7). Unemployment was linked to poverty and it was assumed that participation in employment would achieve policy goals and reduce poverty and social exclusion. The area based dimension identified 45 disadvantaged areas and communities under the RAPID programme, a co-ordinating mechanism around which a variety of issues, including unemployment, were to be addressed, enabling different groups to compete for funding for their own particular project priorities from a variety of sources. The plan claimed to be informed by a citizenship rights perspective, stating that further social inclusion policy development would be informed by a human rights perspective. It was assumed that ‘social’ rights were adequately provided for in the Constitution, and that the Equality Authority, Comhairle and the Human Rights Commission would enhance these rights. However, in practice the citizenship rights perspective found expression in standards of access to social service measured via performance indicators (Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs, 2002). In addition, the revised NAPS created new institutional structures at Cabinet level, a National Office for Social Inclusion (OSI), with the promise of rolling out Social Inclusion Units at local authority level. A Consultative Group and Forum were initiated and the Combat Poverty Agency (CPA) was cast in a supporting role.

A special edition of the CPA’s Poverty Today (CPA, 1997) took an optimistic tone and argued that without strong national support the plan could be vulnerable at implementation stage, but this soon turned into disenchantment. The revised plan was seen as lacking coherence with poor analysis of problems and there was little sign that investment would be made in service provision, rural and urban deprivation or social care infrastructure. Moreover difficulties had arisen with implementation (O’Donnell and Moss, 2003), the influence of the C&V sector was deemed to be weak, and the ad hoc framework was regarded as a poor substitute for overall social planning (Ó Cinnéide, 2000). Disenchantment continued as shortly after the NAPS revision, a new national social partnership programme was negotiated and government were reluctant to make the required spending commitments to a programme which identified eight ‘social problem’ initiatives. This was seen by the C&V sector as a weakening of previous commitments and doubts grew in some quarters as to whether the NAPS could in fact be progressed as commitments had been thinned down to a few thematic issues. As a result, some C&V groups refused to sign the agreement (O’Donnell and Moss, 2003). Events were to take a new turn when Ireland aligned itself to EU co-ordinating processes which saw the NAPS being subsumed into the EU social inclusion strategy, and an Irish commitment to orient key policies toward the European Lisbon Strategy. The next section places Irish social inclusion plans within the European Social Inclusion Framework.

The European social inclusion frameworkToC

EU priorities for fighting poverty and social exclusion were part of the Lisbon Goals set at European Councils in Lisbon and Feira in 2000 which aimed to make the EU by 2010 ‘the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world, capable of sustainable economic growth with more and better jobs and greater social cohesion’ (European Parliament, 2000). EU employment and social inclusion strategies were seen as building blocks for the Lisbon Strategy and critical for national competitiveness. A Social Agenda agreed at the Nice European Council in 2000 laid out the EU’s poverty and social exclusion priorities:

This framework placed emphasis on rights to a full range of public services, preventive measures in relation to exclusion, a focus on vulnerable people in deprived areas, political mobilisation of all sectors of society, and participatory inclusion of anti-poverty groups along with people experiencing poverty and social exclusion. The European Commission adopted the term ‘social exclusion’ in the late 1980s to accommodate resistance of some Member States to use the word ‘poverty’. Philosophically, the concept draws from two European traditions – social Catholicism and social democracy (Byrne, 2005; Chamberlayne, 1997; Silver, 1994). Definitions of social exclusion illuminate aspects of poverty, focusing on relational and actor driven causal processes (Saraceno, n.d.), but the meaning is not settled and varies between and within countries (e.g. Cousins, 1998; Levitas, 1998). An influential approach assumes a more horizontal understanding to characterise the socially excluded as being marginalised from mainstream social life and prosperity. This is characteristic of the Irish approach and contrasts with perspectives that focus on hierarchical forms of economic inequality. The unsettled meaning of social exclusion lends itself to political expediency over analytical clarity. EU discourse has oscillated between different philosophical paradigms (Levitas, 1998), with some documents emphasising social rights, but above all, employment is emphasised as the main route out of poverty and social exclusion, with those on the margins expected to engage in collective projects oriented towards participation in the mainstream. This orientation reflects a European Third Way welfare reforming discourse that emphasises social innovation and uncritical pro-active adaptation to competitive global capitalism and the development of human capital, so that welfare states become active and dynamic, and individuals adapt to changing social and global economic conditions (Martin, 2006). Social policy is seen as serving economic development (Jepsen and Serrano Pascual, 2005) and as such, the EU social inclusion strategy is consistent with policies designed to advance the market and as ‘flanking’ measures to ensure ‘solidarity’ with those at the margins of society (Scharpf, 2002; Schulte, 2002). The cornerstone of the social inclusion approach emphasises paid employment, employability and training as the key to overcoming poverty and social exclusion, targeting those furthest from the labour market. This requires tax benefit system reforms to enhance employability to ‘make work pay’, often described as a shift from ‘welfare’ to ‘work’ (van Berkel and Moller, 2002). Skills deficits and discrimination are seen as obstacles to equal opportunities (Schulte, 2002; Levitas, 1998). The ‘community’ side centres around urban regeneration, employment creation, and support for projects to enhance employment prospects. Taken as a whole, the EU orientation contributes to an EU vision that attempts to re-shape social policy models of Member States to overcome perceived structural problems of welfare states and enable them to develop a flexible model better able to respond to the new competitive realities of economic globalisation. The next section explains how the plans engage with EU co-ordinating processes.

Merging the NAPS with the EU Social Inclusion StrategyToC

Ireland fully committed itself to furthering the EU Lisbon Goals, and EU economic and social priorities served as an organising framework for Irish economic and social inclusion policy. The EU has little competence regarding national social policy, and so the Open Method of Coordination (OMC) holds together Member States’ social inclusion strategies within an EU framework of common guidelines. This process shapes cognitive understandings, establishes indicators, targets and benchmarks, and encourages cross-national learning and comparison, and engagement with EU reporting and peer review processes. The process has been the subject of criticism in that it tends to reduce the ‘social’ to sets of indicators and technocratic processes with limited evidence of the envisaged cross national and bottom up learning (e.g. Carmel, 2003). The language and concepts in EU social policy have permeated throughout Irish social institutions and Ireland also became subject to a wide range of EU obligations in relation to the economy (Langford, 1999). Arguably, Ireland’s adaptation to the EU framework helped strengthen and give direction to Irish social policy development.

Engagement with the OMC saw Ireland submitting two stand alone National Action Plans against poverty and social exclusion (NAPsExcl) for 2001-3 and 2003-5/6, the latter incorporating the revised NAPS and further policy commitments contained in Sustaining Progress. The plans adopted the broad Nice Social Agenda framework, and a third plan for 2006-8 was submitted as part of a new post-Lisbon streamlined OMC process that included social inclusion with pensions and healthcare elements, and this heralded the end of stand alone plans. Joint Reports on Social Inclusion which synthesised progress were replaced by Social Protection and Social Inclusion reports and associated peer review. This followed a re-launch of the failed Lisbon Strategy accompanied by a revised Social Agenda 2005-10 which saw the social inclusion objectives simplified and reduced to three (SPCEPC, 2006). Priorities shifted towards a ‘jobs and growth’ agenda, in particular to promote more effective mutual interaction with the Lisbon objectives of greater economic growth. Employment objectives became more directly related to a cohesion agenda, with an emphasis on equal opportunities, better governance and the continued involvement of stakeholders in design, implementation and policy monitoring. Irish policy was re-oriented to serve these new objectives and involved Ireland submitting biennial National Reform Programmes (NRPs) to the European Commission which demonstrate progression towards EU Integrated Guidelines for Growth and Jobs.

European NGOs were furious and believed these changes signalled the downgrading of social exclusion issues and the abandonment of the previous broad ‘social pillar’. Shierup et al (2006) saw the new social agenda as reflecting neo-liberal orientations, estranging the focus on social rights and redistribution from citizenship rights. Social exclusion became more narrowly applied to the most marginalised, with the term ‘inclusion’ replacing ‘exclusion’, the disappearance of the original objective of ‘prevention’, and a loss of focus on political mobilisation in favour of an OMC process that placed more emphasis on policy formation rather than implementation (Daly, 2006a). The new innovation was the demand to horizontally synergise EU priority issues across key national policy domains which aligned them with the new Lisbon growth and jobs strategy, the NRP serving as the vehicle for this. Linkages with cohesion policy are demonstrated in the Irish National Report on Social Protection and Social Inclusion 2008-2010, which states that ‘access to quality employment opportunities, is regarded as the best route out of poverty and social exclusion’ (OSI, 2008: 9). The NAPsIncl 2007-2016 confirms this and contains further social policy linkages, claiming comprehensiveness in its programme to address poverty and social exclusion, but which in reality comprises a limited number of priorities. Together with social inclusion commitments in Towards 2016 which adopt a ‘life cycle’ framework, and the social inclusion commitments in the National Development Plan (NDP) 2007-2013 (Government of Ireland, 2007a), this constitutes Ireland’s strategic process for addressing social inclusion. The NDP and NRP state that progress depends on continued economic growth for realisation. At the same time, the NRP states that Ireland ‘will continue to have one of the lowest tax wedges within the OECD’ (Department of the Taoiseach, 2009: 58), and this is in a climate of cuts and the imposition of health and income levies introduced in Budget 2009. The economic strategy outlined in Building Irelands Smart Economy: a Framework for Sustainable Economic Renewal, aims to promote ‘social cohesion’, the social component stated as ‘investing in critical public infrastructure’, and ‘ providing efficient and effective public services and smart regulation’ (Department of the Taoiseach, 2008: 9).

The current National Action Plan for Inclusion (NAPsIncl 2007-16) ToC

The current NAPsIncl (Government of Ireland, 2007b) replaces previous national plans, its overriding aims being to reduce ‘consistent’ poverty to between 2 and 4 per cent by 2012, with a view to its elimination by 2016, and to build a ‘more inclusive society’. The foreword claims that strong and sustained economic growth has enabled an improvement of living standards for all groups in society, and increased resources for social services and disadvantaged communities. A small number of high level goals are identified, accompanied by selective intervention programmes in priority areas and the idea that employment is the main route out of poverty and social exclusion is re-asserted. Social NGOs criticised the plan for its lack of ambition. The ‘life cycle’ approach is adopted which includes some measures in relation to children, an emphasis on employment measures for people of working age and those with disabilities, and a few commitments for social supports for the elderly. It aspires to increase social capital, and build viable and sustainable communities via a range of community based programmes including CLÁR, RAPID, the Rural Development Programme, the CD Programme, Community Services Programme, the Local Development Social Inclusion Programme and the Family Support Service. These programmes are intended to improve the lives of those in disadvantaged areas, to strengthen ‘social capital’ with ‘activist’ measures defined as ‘social inclusion’, within strengthened local partnership structures that focus on area based strategies with the C&V sector initiating novel projects. The plan states this will address long standing ‘social deficits’. The social inclusion chapter of the NDP states that €49.6 billion will be made available, broken down under ‘people’ programmes, with local and community development allocated one of the lowest amounts - €1.862 million. The NAPsIncl contains only a few health commitments, but claims that improved health outcomes can result by greater participation in education and the labour market. No additional resources were envisaged beyond those negotiated in Towards 2016. Before attempting to assess progress to date, drawing on analysis emerging from EU reports, peer reviews and anti-poverty network analysis, the next section engages with methodological issues in relation to how progress is measured.

Measuring progress – problems arising ToC

The socially ‘inclusive’ society has become a benchmark for government against which a variety of social problems are assessed, based on an assumption that the Celtic Tiger ‘left behind’ an excluded rump that were excluded from prosperity (Fischer, 2008), subjected to measurement by poverty rates. The elite frame of reference begins from a notion of a ‘successful’ or ‘inclusive society’, rather than a society with significant poverty and long standing deep seated inequalities (Daly, 2006b), and the effectiveness of plans has overwhelmingly been judged according to poverty rates, measured by a variety of indicators. The latest NAPSIncl annual report (Department of Social and Family Affairs, 2009a) is largely taken up with re-stating aims, listing policy inputs, outputs, and actions that are currently underway. For anti-poverty groups, this is an exercise in reporting priority actions in relation to particular government departments or units for the benefit of EU institutions rather than a reflection of wider strategic planning (EAPN, 2003; EAPN Ireland, 2005). Such reportage undermines stakeholder interest in the process (EAPN 2008c). It offers no analysis or accountability as to why measures have not been progressed and above all, says nothing about the effectiveness of plans. This raises questions about the approach to measuring progress.

The experience of prolonged recession and the decline of real incomes in the mid-1980s informed the development of a ‘consistent’ poverty indicators which have subsequently become a fixation and inhibited a more expansive range of indicators evidenced in other countries including the UK (Walker, 2009). Descriptive capacities of social exclusion have been taken as poverty measurement (Moran, 2006) suggesting poverty is conflated with social exclusion so that the focus on statistical measures works against decision making that would embrace notions of justice and broader structural issues that relate to poverty and social exclusion. The primacy of the consistent poverty measure has sidelined the recognition of poverty as being more multi faceted and complex in nature which no single indicator can capture (Maître et al, 2006) and cannot accommodate understandings of multiple discrimination, gender inequality, and discrimination in access to rights, resources and services (EAPN Ireland/CWC, 2006). Daly (2006b: 5) suggests that additional deprivation measures added to the consistent poverty measure show a ‘desire to characterise and study deprivation as a less extreme condition’ and argues that poverty measurement results can be attributed to methodological issues rather than any radical change in the prevalence of poverty. Poverty indicators tend to measure ‘personal’ situations detached from structural social relations and provide a limited understanding of poverty (Leisering and Leibfried, 1999).

The current NAPsIncl claims that some 250,000 people have been lifted out of consistent poverty (see European Commission (2009) for detailed breakdown across indicators and the OSI site for indicators used in Ireland). Minister Hanafin in a recent press release claimed that consistent poverty in 2008 was 4.2 per cent, down from 5.1 per cent in 2007 based on the Survey on Income and Living Conditions in Ireland 2008, rather than EU-SILC data which proved problematic for Irish methodology. Minister Hanafin asserted that this decrease was the result of increases in social welfare payments in 2007 and 2008. Professor Hugh Frazer, speaking at a recent seminar acknowledged that ‘at risk’ poverty levels had improved but claimed that rates of material deprivation had risen from 11 to 15 per cent of the population (O’Halloran, 2010). However, statistics on poverty and social exclusion fail to cover some of the most exposed groups facing poverty risks, e.g. the homeless, ethnic minorities, people with disabilities, those leaving institutional care, victims of people trafficking and subsistence farmers (European Commission, 2005). Limited progress has been made with the original idea of poverty proofing, evidenced by the fact that some policies and priorities actually deepen poverty (EAPN Ireland, 2008). Back in 2003, EAPN argued that poverty indicators excluded the experiential knowledge of people living in poverty and that indicator formation should be collaborative, as those in poverty do not have the same priorities as experts. EU common indicators did not address issues such as access to health and housing, and argued that to avoid the misinterpretation of statistics, qualitative approaches to measurement were essential (EAPN, 2003), but such approaches remain to be reflected in relative poverty measurement (EAPN, 2008b).

Whilst the social exclusion concept has had a formative influence on Irish social policy and use of the term signifies a broad range of social and political issues, these have not been problematised or challenged within Irish public, political or social policy discourse (Moran, 2006). The Social Inclusion Division Strategic Plan 2009- 2011 (Department of Social and Family Affairs, 2009b) reproduces two EU definitions of poverty and social exclusion which allude to causal factors of poverty, barriers associated with exclusion, and refer to access to ‘fundamental rights’ and powerlessness. The Department of Social and Family Affairs view that the Irish definition, which has remained unchanged from the original NAPS, ‘is on the same lines’ as EU understandings, the only difference being that EU definitions contain ‘more detail’ (ibid.,: 29). This simplistic understanding reflects a lack of conceptual development and an overwhelming state preference to eschew critical and theoretical grounded inquiry in relation to social policy (Fanning, 2004a). It facilitates a preference for numerical statistical measurement (Government of Ireland, 2003) and the construction of indicators, which can be drawn up without clarifying underlying definitions and causal relationships (Fischer, 2008; Levitas, 1999). An understanding of the experience of poverty and social exclusion demands an account of causal linkages that reflect the interaction of distributional and relational aspects of human relations and associated relationships with wider society or subsections of it (Lister, 2006). Clearly the rich literature that demonstrates the multifaceted understandings of poverty and social exclusion has been bypassed in problem formation and approaches to measuring progress, limited by the emphasis on poverty statistics and reporting of policy inputs and outputs. The result is that social inclusion outcomes can be seen as reproducing the status quo via a process of inclusion into existing structures, aligned with ‘pragmatic liberalism’ and a version of ‘liberal egalitarianism’ (Moran, 2006). Taken together, these factors contribute to the failure to develop a rights based approach to developing anti-poverty and social inclusion policy claimed in the first NAPsExcl, and consistently advocated for by anti-poverty groups ever since the emergence of the first plan.

Social exclusion and poverty indicators, developed at EU level have been oriented towards material and labour market deprivation, but many advances have been made to give social, political and cultural dimensions more attention (Walker, 2009). The EU has encouraged Member States to exploit these advances in developing their own indicators but progress by the Office for Social Inclusion appears to be limited. Both the Community Workers Co-op (2007) and EAPN Ireland (2010) raise questions about indicators that accompany plans as experiential feedback urges measures to be developed for ‘non-tangible’ qualitative outcomes for community type programmes. Attempts to ‘measure’ the ‘life cycle’ approach could face similar methodological difficulties, the idea falling within an individualist focus that fails to consider risk in terms of the cross cutting nature of class, ethnicity, gender, and disability which fundamentally impact on income trajectories. Moreover, the life cycle idea bypasses the link between poverty and inequality, and ignores cumulative disadvantage across the life course, suggesting more consideration has to be given to how risk is shaped and influenced by broader welfare strategies and to how social class and the life cycle interact (Whelan and Maître, 2008). The report by Hugh Frazer on Irish child poverty (TARKI, 2010) conducted in the context of an EU social inclusion comparative study on child poverty points to weaknesses in the application of the life cycle concept. Also, the report highlights serious shortcomings in the current NAPSIncl, in particular the lack of strategic focus and the paucity of the programme in the light of the seriousness of child poverty and inequality in Ireland, the causal factors of which are comprehensively discussed in the report. The NAPSIncl assumes children are a homogenous group, whereas TARKI highlights policy deficits in relation to Traveller children, immigrant children, children living in or leaving care, disabled and homeless children, all of whom experience severe levels of poverty. Fragmented and targeted measures towards the most vulnerable in designated disadvantaged areas risks falling into an ‘ecological fallacy’ trap that associates poor people with poor places (see Spicker, 2001), taking away from features of society that deliver profound inequalities across the board and chronic deprivation for a substantial minority. Experience in the UK suggests that area based policies based on this assumption tend to overlook causal connections that lie beyond neighbourhoods, and it is not clear this is sufficiently demonstrated in Irish policy goals and programmes. For children and their families, this has profound relevance, as the experience of poverty and social exclusion in neighbourhoods is shaped by a whole range of factors, including the physical and social nature of public and private infrastructure and services (see also Harford, this issue).

A brief critical overview of progress to dateToC

Studies drawn together in the CPA’s twentieth anniversary volume reviewing past policy (Cousins, 2007), suggest that public policy has still not adopted and implemented a coherent anti-poverty approach, and instead has tended to paste ad hoc measures onto a system that is structured in a way to guarantee unequal outcomes. In addition, ‘governance mechanisms within which NAPs now sits accord a stronger legitimacy to voices advocating particular economic policies and largely marginalise those seeking to question the impact of these policies on the generation of inequality’ (Adshead and Millar, 2008: 67). Ireland’s progress has been uneven with the EU repeatedly stressing that success largely depends on ‘sustained investment in service provision’, yet repeated reference is made to failures in relation to resolving infrastructural and social provision deficits along with income inequality and the high risk of poverty (European Commission, 2004, 2005, 2007, 2009; EAPN, 2008a). Gross social protection expenditure remains substantially below the EU average (European Commission, 2007) and Ireland still compares badly in many respects with its European counterparts (EAPN Ireland, 2009). The growing complexity of institutional structures and associated implementation problems has raised questions about partnership proliferation, the special programmatic and short term nature of initiatives, and the lack of local input and influence (Ó Riordáin, 2006). The identification of priority areas has meant that other issues equally worth attention were diminished in importance. The social policy implications of new developments in competition policy at EU and national level which facilitate privatisation were being ignored (EAPN, 2006); the significance of this for social policy remaining hidden. A key message emerging from consultation processes centred on the need to address implementation gaps and the lack of any real strategic or forward planning (ibid.). Anti-poverty networks see themselves as lacking the resources for meaningful engagement despite recommendations by the EU that their role should be developed (European Commission, 2006).

In terms of the extent to which a social inclusion focus has been synergised with the new Lisbon growth and jobs strategy, the key element lies in targeted group orientation programmes, but these are weakened without any accompanying emphasis on quality services and adequate income (Daly, 2008). A range of priority areas fail to demonstrate social inclusion content, e.g. knowledge and innovation, small and medium enterprise, energy policy, the internet and financial inclusion, and there are no targets in relation to literacy and employment for youth and early school leaving. Daly (ibid.) concludes that a supply side policy logic prevails which assumes a ‘trickle down’ effect if those furthest from the labour market are ‘assisted’ back to work. Issues in relation to reconciling work and family life receive little attention, and childcare is understood in terms of increasing parental employment rather than as an anti-poverty measure. The NDP devotes little explicit attention to economic security and the risk of falling into poverty and social exclusion in the current insecure climate and little progress has been made in terms of mainstreaming gender equality (ibid.). This is a point echoed by EAPN Ireland (2008) who view that gender issues are not understood in relation to structural inequality, suggesting that integration of the National Women’s Strategy 2007-2016 has been limited. Whilst the NRP and other programmes are linked into agreements flowing from national social partnership, these do not always translate into coherence in terms of provision, and notably little consultation occurred outside social partnership (Daly, 2008; EAPN Ireland, 2008). In addition, cuts in education, public sector pay cuts, and the impact of income levies on poorer groups are causing concern. People on the ground doubt that ‘activation’ measures actually address the real barriers to employment faced by many, and it was perceived that the position of those on social welfare was likely to worsen, increasing fears about access to health care and other public services. NRPs contain punitive actions which produce and increase poverty (EAPN, 2008c; see also Murphy, this issue). Poverty impact assessments were viewed as not being fully taken up and monitoring remains an opaque process which does not involve people experiencing poverty and organisations that represent them (EAPN Ireland, 2008). Aspirations to ‘mainstream’ local initiatives are severely hampered by this environment, as are cross-cutting impact assessments in all policy fields (EAPN, 2008a).

Within the context of the development of a model of diverse service programmes that reproduce the structural status quo, it is difficult to see how the C&V sectors can make any real impact on inequalities in access to public services (Daly, 2006b), or access to private services which require economic resources. Moreover, studies suggest that achieving change in private industrial investment or public spending on health and social care is not a solution open to local agents, regardless of how capable and active they become (Alcock, 2006). Fragmented, multifarious social and employment programmes, along with parochial partnerships targeted at inclusion into employment are far removed from a ‘socially grounded’ democratic conception of citizenship that embodies a wider democratic social dimension (Shierup et al, 2006). Notions that unmet need will be delivered by C&V, public and private organisations at local level, with active labour market policies and local partnerships seen as building blocks for the future (NESC, 2005) suggests a ‘thin’ social vision which reflects the political context, and at the same time, poorly reflects the empirical bank of studies produced over twenty years by the CPA and other NGOs from a rights based perspective.

As things stand, a vast amount of attention has been given to institutional issues, in building vertical and horizontal synergies in relation to administrative structures with a view to strengthening the Irish OMC institutional framework. However, horizontal synergies across key policy domains are failing to be achieved (Daly, 2008), and the integration of decades of bottom up learning built up by the CPA and other NGOs into this structure seems remote, reflecting the limited influence of these organisations at national level. Anti-poverty networks find it impossible to access the pensions, health and long term care processes at national level (EAPN, 2007). Current institutional structures, power differentials and organisational cultures of defensiveness have militated against learning and the facilitating of new ways of doing things, raising concerns that future initiatives will just end up as a recycling of old experiences (Carroll, 2009; Gaffney, 2010). Progress to date must suggest that Irish social policy in its present form cannot address long standing and deep seated inequalities. Many special interventions can be seen as little more than ‘cosmetic’ exercises which have neglected the structural causes of poverty reinforcing the argument that the search for local solutions to what are essentially structural problems is bound to fail. This is exemplified in the TARKI (2010) report which points to a range of unresolved structural features of social policy relating to housing and environment, education, training, health care, child protection and participation in leisure. A limited number of high level goals, some of which are not accompanied by specific objectives and targets appears to ignore substantial evidence linking poverty to inequality, and as ENAR (2009:1) argue, ‘policy strategies and instruments aiming to achieve social inclusion will only be successful if they are coherent with societal realities – growing inequalities, structural discrimination, [and the] erosion of fundamental rights’. Unless anti-poverty and social inclusion policy formulation begins from this reality, it is hard to see how the current NAPsIncl can advance an anti-poverty and social inclusion agenda in any meaningful way.

What future for social inclusion commitments and poverty reduction in conditions of near economic collapse?ToC

In 2006, Irish country reports to the EU on social inclusion expressed grave concern about the economic down turn. Alarm bells rang at the heavy dependency on the building industry for growth and employment and the continuing escalation in house prices (Daly, 2006b). The real and potential impact of economic decline was under emphasised and little attention was focused on the reality of increasing numbers facing unemployment, indebtedness, insecurity, extortionate lending practices and continuing discriminatory access to services (EAPN, 2008a). Allocations for social infrastructural development and social inclusion measures have consistently been predicated on the completion of NDPs which reflect a liberalisation agenda, part of which includes an EU mandate that restricts public expenditure and a Fianna Fáil dominated government committed to the commodification of essential services. The bank bailout has mortgaged the futures of Irish people for years to come, placing intolerable pressure on public spending. The long period of austerity ahead makes it difficult to envisage that the latest NAPsIncl commitments, let alone the broad aspirational commitments made in Towards 2016 to address inequality and social injustice can be fulfilled. Progress in relation to the social infrastructural deficit is increasingly being directed towards market solutions. Budget 2009 already instituted cuts in public finances, even while claiming to maintain capital expenditure on critical infrastructure, and promises to protect the most vulnerable have been broken. Cuts have been made across areas of health and education, and further deep public expenditure cuts are likely along with increasing job insecurity and declining wages, which have already started to bite (European Commission, 2009). The McCarthy (2009) report which advised deep spending cuts, failed to consider the social side of the crisis and if fully implemented will ‘decimate public services and the social infrastructure and impose a wholly disproportionate share of the burden of adjustment on poor and vulnerable people’ (The Wheel, 2009: 1). It seems highly likely that social progress will stagnate and reinforce individual and community self help for years to come as government revenue is directed towards dealing with an astronomical fiscal deficit.

Publicly funded health and social services constitute the ‘social infrastructure’ of society, and crucially for Ireland, that includes around 19,000 C&V organisations, many of which provide health and social services and engage in social inclusion projects. Swingeing budget cuts for CD programmes and other community based projects of €44 million annually have been announced along with a further €10 million euro annual cut in other supports proposed by the McCarthy report (ibid.). Disability organisations and services have also been affected (Priestley and Roulstone, 2009). Many grassroots organisations that work at close quarters with ‘the country’s silent unequals’ have already been closed down (McMinn, 2010: 3; CWC, 2009). According to the Community Workers Co-op, programmatic redesign planned for community development is occurring without formal submissions by stakeholders (CWC, n.d.). Taken together with the closing down of the CPA and the National Consultative Committee on Racism and Interculturalism, budgets cuts for the Equality Authority and the Irish Human Rights Commission, and the absorption of the NESF into the NESC, critical voices are effectively being strangled and consultation processes weakened, all highlighted by the new Equality & Rights Alliance (2009) who view that the C&V pillar has concentrated too much on talking to elites rather than those ‘on the streets’. Fierce resistance has accompanied the events mentioned above, and this may serve to politicise social policy and generate democratic debate about its direction.

Attention has been drawn to institutional failure and the inequities of current structures and a wider range of the population are likely to face poverty related problems. This strengthens the view that poverty is an economic risk that can affect everyone and social policy should not be about targeting programmes on ‘poor’ groups in poor areas, but rather about ensuring there is a general framework of resources, services and opportunities that can be used by everyone (Spicker, 2002). Another important point to consider is that the EU is reaching the end of the last cycle of the revised Lisbon Strategy and associated forms of planning and reportage and as EU objectives have provided the cognitive framework for developing Irish economic policy and employment and social inclusion policy, the question arises as to whether political elites can reassert a truly national social agenda that can fulfil national needs. As Daly (2006b) opines, the content of policy is one thing, but what really matters is what purpose policy serves, how that fits into an overall framework and philosophy that can be politically applied, and what kind of political vision underpins social and economic development. In their recent speeches about economic recovery and improving economic times ahead, neither the Taoiseach nor the Minister for Finance have even mentioned where the ‘social’ fits in with economic recovery. Clearly, the experience of poverty and social exclusion goes beyond dependence on selective priority actions and is crucially dependent on a concrete political vision for the ‘social’, and above all, whether the naturalisation of economic relations is challenged, and whether political elites choose to return to ‘neo-liberal normality’ (Callinicos, 2010). O’Toole’s (2009) analysis suggests that change is unlikely without a fundamental change to culture, politics, the economy and society and engagement with political values that embody a sense of justice. In the absence of such change, it is difficult to see how dominant economic interests and the disinclination to address issues of inequality can be reversed.

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