The Malta Independent 10 December 2022, Saturday
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A commitment to equity – the child guarantee

Sunday, 20 November 2022, 08:44 Last update: about 20 days ago

Michael Falzon

Both poverty and social exclusion can have a profound effect on children, as often, poverty in particular, precludes them from good nutrition, healthcare, education and quality housing. Children also suffer poverty differently from adults and they can have life-long lasting consequences from it.  Malnutrition, for example, effects children’s physical, social and emotional development from an early stage. The loss of learning can, in turn, result in children falling behind in schooling. Lack of access to healthcare and timely treatment, can likewise arrest their health and render them more vulnerable.

This, in its own turn, often creates a cycle of disadvantage that spans across generations. The European Child Guarantee specifically aims to break this vicious cycle. It provides guidance and the means for member states to support children in need, that is, all persons under the age of 18, being at risk of poverty or social exclusion. In this regard, all member states have been further requested to develop a National Action Plan to make this happen.

The overarching measures of this strategy, are to provide:

1.      Effective and free access to high quality early childhood education and care, education and school-based activities, at least one healthy meal each school day and healthcare, as well as,

2.      Effective access to healthy nutrition and adequate housing.

Despite the fact that our government did not need to be prompted to prioritise the reduction of child poverty, it immediately gave this guarantee the green light and a plan of action was devised and launched. It was relatively easy for us to do, given that since 2013 this government has systematically been introducing measures to reduce poverty levels, generally and child poverty in particular. The results achieved clearly show that the numbers have been steadily decreasing. Notwithstanding this, however, there is a lot yet to be done, even if the challenge has been toughened due to Covid19 and the current hikes in energy costs and food shortages on a global level.

Our National Action Plan for a Child Guarantee encompasses a wide spectrum of policy areas, where responsibility and interests fall under different policy domains. As a Ministry, we started by holding a series of consultation meetings with the other relevant ministries, aimed to contribute towards the plan.  But, most of all, we consulted those who would be affected most by the measures and who shall also be the prime users of the services to be provided, namely the children themselves. No policy regarding children should be designed without their voices being heard and taken heed of. Thanks to the efforts of schools and voluntary organisations, our national plan benefitted from the input of a significant number of children. 

In the years 2022-2027, apart from the €195m committed to the existing measures for children, government will be investing a further €145m to this aim. Moreover, we shall also embark on an outreach programme aimed to ensure easy access and take-up by those eligible.

€40m per year are to be allocated for children-aimed social benefits including children’s allowance, disability child allowance, foster care allowance, adoption services, community services and the social work services aimed at children, provided by government social work agencies. A further €75m per year shall be invested in free education, free transport to and from school and measures to prevent and reduce early school-leaving. Similarly, in the provision of learning support to children with learning difficulties, educational and technological material and services, free healthy meals and school trips, as well as sports, leisure and cultural activities.

The healthcare, specifically aimed at children, shall commit government investment of a further €15m per year, this including free healthcare services for all children, together with the prevention, early intervention and follow-up programmes. Particular attention shall also be given to children with disability and this in order to ensure their needed habilitation and rehabilitation within the community and the educational environment.

In addition, there shall further be a series of other measures, that are meant to bring about a culture change. In an effort to attract more children to participate in sports, cultural and artistic activities, those parents who enroll their children in such activities, shall benefit of a tax reduction of up to €300 per year. The free childcare service shall also be extended to all children, irrespective of whether their parents are in employment or not. Indeed, our objective is for all children to benefit from an early start of the socialisation process.

Quality housing is another very important factor to fight poverty and avoid social exclusion. Children need security and a stable home, where they can develop and thrive. Once again, as we have already done in recent years, the needs of children with disabilities shall here be prioritised, including the setting up of community homes to house children requiring alternative care in the community.

In order to ensure that all children have equal access to knowledge and learning on the internet, all primary and secondary school students, whose parents do not earn more than €14,300 per year, shall benefit from one free basic internet service. In addition, the one tablet per child initiative shall be extended and a new laptop shall be distributed to every student in their seventh year. A set of books shall also be distributed free of charge to all primary school children.

The so-called Scheme 9 initiative, which lists a number of services that eligible children can choose from, has already been extended, so that children now do not have to choose from the services offered, but will be able to benefit from all. Free eyeglasses to children who need them will also be added to the list, under Scheme 9.

Apart from benefits in kind, the children’s allowance shall be increased further together with the in-work benefit paid to parents in employment of children under 23 years.

There shall also be the introduction of a fostering allowance tapering system, in the case of foster parents who choose to adopt, so that the foster care benefit does not cease abruptly, but gradually decreases as they begin to receive the children’s allowance.

Our commitment to invest in children, is a key policy objective of this government. Our ultimate aim is to facilitate social mobility and to offer real opportunities for all children to pursue their life’s dream, irrespective of their social status. This government does not only believe in and speak about social mobility and social justice, but it also has the will and the competence to move from concept to action. True to our socialist beliefs we shall not rest until child poverty is erased from this country.

With our Child Guarantee we aim not only for the value of justice, but for the higher value of equity.

 

Michael Falzon is Minister for Social Policy and Children’s Rights

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