Official Report (Hansard)

Session: 2011/2012

Date: Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:

Mr Danny Kennedy (Chairperson)
Mrs Naomi Long (Deputy Chairperson)
Mrs Dolores Kelly
Mr Ian McCrea
Mr Barry McElduff
Mr Jim Shannon
Mr Jimmy Spratt

Witnesses:

Ms Frances Dowds (Northern Ireland Anti-Poverty Network)

The Chairperson (Mr Kennedy):

Good afternoon Ms Dowds; thank you for attending. You are here to make a presentation on European issues. We have received your written submission. The session will be recorded by Hansard for inclusion in the Committee’s final report. I invite you to make an opening statement and leave yourself available for questions. I anticipate that the session will last approximately 30 minutes.

Ms Frances Dowds (Northern Ireland Anti-Poverty Network)

I have brought a copy our response to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) on the Government’s draft national programme for 2010 — European year for combating poverty and social exclusion. That response should be useful to the Committee. I have also brought copies of the European anti-poverty magazine that focuses on the European elections and European Year 2010 (EY2010).

I want to talk about three issues that will help to inform the Committee’s review of EU issues. I will talk about the Northern Ireland Anti-Poverty Network (NIAPN) and the work that we do; I will bring you up to date on how we have engaged, and do engage, with the European Commission and other European partners; and I want to provide you with a more detailed understanding of the European year for combating poverty and social exclusion.

The Northern Ireland Anti-Poverty Network was established in 1990 as part of an EU-wide move to address poverty and social exclusion, and we were constituted in 1991. Our purpose is to relieve and improve the position of people who live in poverty and to advance education and conduct research into the effects and causes of poverty for the benefit of the community. In particular, we monitor the impact that the policies of the European Union have in Northern Ireland. We also develop and facilitate anti-poverty campaigns and lobbying activities at Northern Ireland, UK and EU levels, and we represent Northern Ireland in the general assembly of the European Anti-Poverty Network (EAPN).

Along with the anti-poverty networks in Scotland, England and Wales, we make up the European Anti-Poverty Network UK (EAPN UK). That group holds one membership of the European Anti-Poverty Network. We are represented at EAPN level with a place on an executive committee, which is usually taken on for a three-year period. As director of the Northern Ireland Anti-Poverty Network, I will be taking on that role for the next three years — June 2009 to 2012.

At UK level, we are involved in a number of other alliances with agencies such as the UK Coalition Against Poverty. The key alliance that we are involved with on European issues is the social policy task force, which has a working group that meets bimonthly with the Department for Work and Pensions. We focus on the national action plans on social inclusion and social protection, which is a key anti-poverty policy that incorporates all aspects of anti-poverty activities in Northern Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales. The Northern Ireland representative on that group is a member of the anti-poverty unit in the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister (OFMDFM). The social policy task force is a joint working group between two coalitions of anti-poverty organisations — EAPN UK and the UK Coalition Against Poverty — which brings together between 50 and 60 groups that are directly involved in anti-poverty activities and work with all types of groups, such as single parents, children, older people, people of working age, and so on.

NIAPN has delivered on a number of UK-wide projects through EU and DWP funding, such as the Get Heard project, which was referenced in our anti-poverty strategy. That project involved people experiencing poverty in a participatory process, which enabled them to talk directly about what works, what does not work, and what policy developments are required to address different aspects of poverty. Across the European Union, it was the first time that a report in the national action plan included an annex that was made up of what people who had experienced poverty had to say. That work was conducted in Northern Ireland.

NIAPN is engaged with its sister agency, EAPN Ireland, and five other partners on an all-Ireland project that is funded through the PROGRESS programme. Its objectives are to enhance understanding of poverty in Ireland and to promote a joint debate on the implications of national and European policy. It also raises awareness on the added value of the European response and promotes innovative strategies for how the European Union, through the open method of co-ordination (OMC), can contribute to ending poverty in Ireland.

As a result of that project, we are focusing on other activities, such as the European election and the European year 2010. We are also working to build the capacity of the wider sector to understand how Europe works, and we are developing a training programme, which will introduce people to the institutions, their roles and responsibilities and how non-governmental organisations (NGOs) can engage with them.

I am sure that you are all aware of the European Union’s importance on the development of social policy to address poverty and social exclusion. We are now in the third programme that has been developed to address poverty as a result of EU engagement. As part of that, the current process that anti-poverty NGOs engage in is the OMC. That method is very effective, we are happy with it, and we want to keep it. It was introduced atLisbon in 2000, and it is what is called a soft process. It is intended to make a decisive impact on poverty. Using that method, nation states have to supply information on national strategies every two to three years through a national action plan (NAP). The most recent plans were published in 2008; however, a joint report has just been made available. The European Commission uses the report to examine the information to decide what areas should be focused on for the next couple of years.

The reports have three distinct parts: health and social care; pensions and social inclusion; and EAPN work on the social inclusion aspect of the national action plan. Under the OMC, there have been three rounds of NAP. In the UK, the Department for Work and Pensions is the lead Government Department. The Northern Ireland representative on the Department for Work and Pensions group is Michael Mulholland from OFMDFM.

As I said, 2010 is the EU year for combating poverty and social exclusion. That was lobbied for by all 27 European anti-poverty networks, led by the EAPN. I have provided members with a series of slides that explain the mechanics behind its implementation. The key to the operation of EY2010 is the national implementation body (NIB). In Northern Ireland, the representative on that group is Michael Pollock, from OFMDFM’s anti-poverty unit. Through that, a budget of £1·2 million will be made available for activities in a range of awareness-raising activities, such as public events, art projects, campaigns and local workshops. Such activities are intended to involve people who experience poverty.

As we understand it, that will also take the form of small grants. Moneys will be available, possibly through the Department for Work and Pensions. However, as yet, it is unclear how that is going to work, whether there will be a way to access that funding through the Assembly, or whether it will be directly through the Department for Work and Pensions. Basically, there is a budget of £1·2 million, and we are hoping that the advisory body that has been set up to advise the national implementation body, which includes representatives from EAPN UK, will be able to establish what is best practice and how to make the funding as accessible as possible.

The European Anti-Poverty Network has been a key advocate in lobbying for the European year 2010. EAPN plans to co-ordinate the responses and contributions from the non-governmental organisations. We want to ensure that EY2010 leaves a legacy, and we want to help inform the EU plans for post-2010. As I am sure you are aware, theLisbon strategy is coming to an end. It runs from 2000 to 2010, therefore 2010 will be a key point in time for influencing the European Commission on what comes next.

I have tried to demonstrate how we have engaged in European matters through other constituencies. It has been difficult to do that in Northern Ireland. We found it most effective to work through the Department for Work and Pensions and the social policy task force as an alliance. We want that same mechanism to be established in Northern Ireland. We also want local mechanisms that give people who experience poverty access to those in Northern Ireland who have an anti-poverty remit and an EU remit. I hope that you will take on board the fact that people experiencing poverty need to be involved in talking with the Government and in providing an input to what does and does not work. If you want to develop effective policy, it is important to talk to the people that the policies are affecting now. We are the agency that can help you to do that.

There is more information in our submission. I have tried to be succinct, because European matters tend to be complicated. Nevertheless, I am happy to take questions.

The Chairperson:

That was very helpful; thank you for the additional information.

You said that you want local networks to be developed. Will you outline how that might happen?

Ms Dowds:

European year 2010 offers a fantastic opportunity to investigate how that might happen and to meet people to ask what we should do. The ministerial forum is supposed to be coming back, so that will be one mechanism with which to engage. However, that will not necessarily give people who are experiencing poverty a chance to be heard, although it will give their representatives a chance.

We want an annual event to be held at which people could meet decision-makers. As part of the UK-wide Get Heard project that I talked about, we held a workshop for disadvantaged groups. We asked them three questions, they gave us their feedback, and we wrote that up and submitted it. We also provided support for those people to come to a regional event, at which people such as yourselves listened to them and joined in with discussions. The feedback was fantastic. They thought that the event was brilliant and wanted more. Those people want a mechanism that does not limit conversations, which should have themes, such as homelessness or the barriers to returning to work.

If you really wish to address poverty, such conversations must take account of the holistic nature of the problem. People cannot get back to work unless they have the potential to earn a decent income, and, to have that potential, they must have training. There are also other aspects to addressing the problem. I want the Assembly to commit itself to establishing mechanisms that enable people to converse with their political leaders. Furthermore, the Assembly must assist agencies such as ours to connect people who are experiencing poverty with existing policies. Opportunities will arise, and our engagement at the European level means that we will be in a position to offer advice.

Mr Shannon:

You have good contacts in Europe, and, through this inquiry, we are keen to ascertain how we might better drawdown European moneys. Do you feel that we could do anything that we are not doing, or is there something that we could do better to ensure that we get the most money possible from Europe? I am hesitant to use this terminology, although it has been used many times, particularly by my party’s former leader, but we should be milking the European cow. How can we ensure that we take advantage of all the financial opportunities?

Ms Dowds:

It is interesting that you said that, because I returned from a meeting in Brussels just last week, at which my counterparts from other European countries talked about that matter. We discussed the gap between funding for anti-poverty activities at European level and the lack of funding at national and regional level.

I already described our agency’s core objectives. However, in order to continue to exist, our agency must create projects, which, in turn, create additional work. Our core work is never resourced, which creates a massive gap for us and similar agencies. We must be able to develop and make use of European connections to develop transnational projects. We would be able to do that were we to receive core funding.

We are not alone. For example, you will see from the information that I provided that EAPN Belgium gets €300,000 a year from its Government, which enables it to develop transnational projects, at which it has been very successful. There is a gap between the provision of European opportunity funding and support for agencies such as ours to make those connections. We have the relationships, but we require the capacity to use them to drawdown European funds, hold international conferences and create more jobs locally.

Last week, I talked to OFMDFM officials about European year 2010 and the reality of the funding gap. Unfortunately, OFMDFM does not have statutory authority to fund anti-poverty work. It can fund work on inequality, but not anti-poverty work. The gap needs to be addressed if the Assembly is serious about addressing poverty and building the capacity for agencies that have European connections to enable them to strengthen and create more local employment.

Mr I McCrea:

You are very welcome. As well as in Northern Ireland, there is no doubt that poverty is an issue across Europe. Do you have any meetings with our three MEPs? If so, are they successful?

Ms Dowds:

We meet them occasionally, but it is not easy to get access to them. We try to organise an event during hustings week. Unfortunately, at times, that seems to be the only time when we can get access to them.

I want the review to create a formal mechanism that enables us to make use of their contacts and expertise. That is another area in which there is a gap in Northern Ireland: there is no mechanism that allows us to meet them and have regular conversations with them. I did, though, meet recently with all the candidates and the existing MEPs. We offered them support at the European level through the knowledge that we have on poverty issues. We have offered to provide briefings and to support them to be more effective in addressing social inclusion. I would love to be able to come to hear the MEPs updating the Assembly on involvement at the European level. That would be a fantastic opportunity for us, and we would definitely take it up so that we could engage in that really useful exchange of information. However, that does not happen because the mechanism does not exist.

Mr McElduff:

The Executive has an office in Brussels. Has your organisation found that to be helpful? Are you on its radar?

Ms Dowds:

To answer that question, I must return to the way in which we are resourced and operate as a part of a UK-wide network. One person represents the EAPN UK for three years. The previous representative was Peter Kelly, and I do not think he had any contact with the office in Brussels. However, that is not to say that the director of the European Anti-Poverty Network did not do so. I do not know for sure. I will have to check it out, but I doubt it.

The European Commission officials tend to be our key contacts on anti-poverty issues. Challenges exist at a European level to be a bit more strategic. However, we have offered the opportunity of a briefing to successful MEP candidates who will be entering the European Parliament. Had we the resources to do so, I would like to establish a regular relationship of information exchange with the Office of the Northern Ireland Executive in Brussels.

Mr McElduff:

You said that you see your role as making presentations to groups that feel alienated from Europe or do not understand how it works. How successful has, for example, the European Commission Office inBelfast been in doing that work? That is your role, but do they not do that?

Ms Dowds:

Our role is to support particularly disadvantaged groups and to provide a way of working that enables them to get to grips with what is often complex information. At the hustings event on Friday, we have a pre-briefing meeting for our members and for people experiencing poverty to introduce them to the mechanisms of the European Union. Before they develop questions to ask the candidates, they will be given enough information to make a decision about what the right type of question is. That is not the European Commission’s role, as far as I am aware. Our role is to support socially excluded groups and to build in capacity to use the opportunities that we can present to them. We do that thorough, for example, hustings events, which enable people to talk directly to MEPs and ask them what they are doing about poverty at a European level, how they can work with them, what type of information they can provide for them and how they can take the debate forward. The roles are different.

Mrs D Kelly:

Thank you for your presentation.

Do all the anti-poverty networks in Europe work to a common definition of poverty?

Ms Dowds:

Yes. I do not have the details with me; however, I can email you the information.

Some 79 million people in Europe have been identified as experiencing poverty. Poverty can either be relative or persistent. We have identified lots of common issues that tend to be Europe-wide, such as the lack of decently paid employment and lack of access to affordable housing.

Some of the European data on poverty is interesting, because it gives a good overview of the situation. The Gini coefficient shows the percentage of income inequality experienced by people who live in EU countries. Income inequality in the UK is at 36%, which is really bad. That figure is close to those of Lithuania and Latvia with approximately 35% and 38% respectively. From that perspective, the UK’s percentage is quite shocking. I will email that information to you when I get back to the office.

The Chairperson:

Thank you for your presentation and your answers. We are happy to receive any additional information that you wish to provide. We may seek further clarification on some of the issues that were raised today.

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