One in five children in Northern Ireland living in poverty - report

Comptroller and Auditor General for Northern Ireland calls for the creation of an integrated, cross-department anti-poverty strategy

About one in five children in Northern Ireland are living in relative poverty before housing costs, a new Audit Office report has found.

Comptroller and Auditor General Dorinnia Carville also said there had been little sustained reduction in child poverty levels in the region over the last eight years.

Her report considered the effectiveness of Stormont’s 2016-22 child poverty strategy.

It said that while tackling poverty was a cross-departmental Executive strategy, departments often had not worked together to deliver interventions.


The report said: “Siloed working can lead to siloed interventions and, ultimately, to poorer outcomes.”

The report set out a lack of significant progress on the main child poverty indicators, with about 20 per cent of children in Northern Ireland living in relative poverty before housing costs, and between 7 per cent and 9 per cent living in low-income households that cannot afford basic goods and essential activities.

It said children who grow up in poverty are more likely to experience health inequalities, have lower levels of educational attainment and are more likely to experience poverty as adults.

The report highlighted that children in deprived areas are expected to live 11 to 15 fewer years in good health than their more well-off peers, and that children receiving free school meals are twice as likely to leave school with no GCSEs.

It said: “Evidence shows that the gap in attainment between children growing up in poverty and their peers starts early and lasts throughout school.

“By the time they reach primary school, children from low-income families are already up to a year behind middle-income children in terms of cognitive skills.

“The relationship between health and income levels is also well established. Research has shown that childhood poverty is linked to higher levels of infant mortality and death in early adulthood, as well as poorer mental health, obesity and chronic illness.”

It also said the absence of affordable childcare is a “barrier to allowing parents to work and therefore providing households with more income”.

The report stated: “Northern Ireland does not currently have a childcare strategy and provides considerably less government support for childcare costs than in England, Scotland and Wales.”

The report found that the 2016-2022 child poverty strategy set no clear targets for poverty reduction, nor was there any ring-fenced budget attached to it.

It also noted a “lack of focus on early intervention and preventive actions”.

The report highlighted gaps in Stormont departments’ understanding of accountability arrangements and a lack of joined-up working between them in the delivery of the strategy.

Ms Carville said: “Northern Ireland has not had a strategy to deal with child poverty for almost two years, during a cost-of-living crisis.

“A failure to tackle child poverty early and effectively risks lifelong impacts to children’s health, education and general development.

“There is also a considerable cost to the public purse, with previous estimates indicating costs of child poverty to be between £825 million and £1 billion annually.”

She added: “The Executive has committed to producing a new anti-poverty strategy. Today’s report offers a valuable opportunity to learn lessons for the development of this new strategy.

“These lessons include the need to focus on specific, long-term and preventive targets to save public money in the future.

“Early intervention, which reduces the number of children in poverty who become adults in poverty, could reduce future economic and social costs significantly.

“It is also important that the delivery of these actions is supported with clear accountability arrangements and a move away from silo working towards a truly collaborative cross-departmental approach to tackling this challenging but vitally important issue.”

The report has made a number of recommendations, including the urgent need for an integrated, cross-department anti-poverty strategy to be created. – PA

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