Maman Poulet | Clucking away crookedly through media, politics and life

Fine Gael and the vulnerable, in fairness

April 2nd, 2012 · 2 Comments · Irish Politics, Social Policy

The Fine Gael Ard Fheis was low key enough given the state of the country and the ‘need to hit the right note’. Apart that is from the large crowd outside who those inside were not allowed to see for fear we (media/delegates) would antagonise them.

There were 4,000 (depending on who you were reading) present from all over the country and it was the first time they had gathered since the election and they were given the school report by ministers. Most party conferences have long given up on the notion of actual policy debate unless it’s an internal party organisational matter. Ministers and TD’s spent time on stages in uncomfortable armchairs while party members presented motions which are edited and specially chosen and there is a fairly uncontentious vote.

So one looks to ministerial speeches for some notion of policy development or announcement or kite flying for inspiration or explanation for why you might spend the day there at all. And mostly yesterday there was very little if any of that. Again and again ministers set out what they had done, listing the achievements, mentioning their partners in government frequently and from time to time acknowledging the state we are in and ‘we have to remember those who are suffering.’ It was largely humility central, with not a lot of Phil Hogan.

All this combined with the huge convention centre and its comfortable seats and austere setting led to a slow news day.

However I wanted to pick up on a theme that I heard repeated on several occasions which is rare enough at a Fine Gael conference. The mentions of the vulnerable. Mainly these mentions were from Michael Noonan who made specific reference to Older people and how they should be protected from cuts and how society judges people on how they treat the old. He later included children in his thoughts. Of course as it was Fine Gael there were frequent mentions of fairness which is a far far different concept to equality which I didn’t hear mentioned much unless it pertains to gender in politics.

There is no doubt that older people have been largely protected from a lot of the cutting in recent years including during the first year in this new government. However the same cannot be said for children.

Forthcoming legislation which will see children raised in lone parent households (the majority of who were in work or education) put at risk of poverty surely will test this notion of protecting ‘the vulnerable’. The strong speech by Frances Fitzgerald on children’s rights on Friday night cited many problems in the previous administration and their legacy in terms of the amount of work that has to be done to protect the rights of children at risk of all kinds of abuse. However how many of the policies across the health, education, social protection and children’s affairs departments are poverty and rights proofed?

While the work on introducing Children First and reforming child welfare services is onerous, the removal of parental supports to lone parent families is going to leave this group of children at risk, not only in terms of poverty but also educational opportunities, health and other indicators.  Professor Nicholson from CUH Temple St  in his guest speech to the Ard Fheis placed great emphasis on the links between child poverty and health. The minister has also been silent on the area of childcare for this group – if their parents and other low income parents have no supports to arrange childcare who is responsible for it and how will parents be able to work?  I will return to the area of cuts to lone parents later in the week as it is a story of Budget 2012 that remains untold.

Simon Harris TD made a speech during a session hosted by Young Fine Gael on Human Rights where he talked about Disability in a way which I’ve rarely seen in a political setting. He mentioned rights, citizenship and most noticeably, for me anyway, the cost of disability and its impact on the lives of people with disabilities.

I want to make very clear that throwing money at the disability sector – as was done in Celtic Tiger Ireland – is not in itself a solution. It does not solve all the challenges faced by those with disabilities – be they physical, intellectual or psychological. Yes, funding and financial assistance is important but nothing is more important than recognising the rights of people with disabilities –rights that are the same as every other citizen in this country – and, importantly, beyond that, pditing in place the supports and the structures that they require to reach their potential, to make their contribution to society and to live their life as they wish.

… And let’s be frank with each other – even with reforming supports, evaluating systems in place and listening to the wishes of those with disabilities, there will always be some with a disability who will not be in a position to work or to take up education places. These individuals – full Irish citizens – are dependent on us – the general population and those of us in political life – to be their voice, to protect their rights and to ensure they are treated with dignity and respect. Our record as a nation in this area is shameful.

Responses to the lack of new policies and slowness of introduction of reform in social and equality areas frequently point to the lack of money or the Troika won’t let us do it.  How long can we as a society continue to restrict rights until people turn on each other or restrict people based on a pecking order of who is most deserving (or vulnerable)?

Much of the policy reform in the area of ‘the vulnerable’ does not need more money thrown at it.  It requires different ways of spending the money so that more people are helped and are given respect and dignity and full rights to participation in society.

I was thinking about Phil Hogan a lot over the weekend, absence making the brain grow… anyway. Whilst we have heard much about the propertied in the past few months between the household charge and those in negative equity, those who have nowhere to live or are receiving state subvention to rent could be supported to have more permanent housing.  If funds were allocated to renovate the many boarded up council houses, huge savings in rent supplement could be then made and jobs given to those with construction skills. It sounds a simple idea and one which many vested interests would no doubt rip assunder.

The focus on ‘the vulnerable’ has to be about more than pitying speeches and cliches whilst there is an increase in numbers of those on low incomes who are unfairly impacted by austerity measures and the recession.  Policy reform has to be inter departmental and Fine Gael Ministers for Justice and Equality, Health, Children et al need to review and proof each other’s policies (and those of their partners in government) and speak up in terms of rights rather than the continual adding ‘the half-pence to the pence and prayer to shivering prayer’ for the vulnerable.



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