AROUND one in five children in Northern Ireland are living in relative poverty, before housing costs.

A report published by Northern Ireland’s Comptroller and Auditor General, Dorinnia Carville, on 12 March also highlighted the fact that eight per cent of children in Northern Ireland are living in persistent poverty (three of the last four years), and that children in poverty are four times more likely to develop a mental health problem by the age of 11.

The report considers the effectiveness of the 2016-22 Child Poverty Strategy and its impact on outcomes for children. It sets out a lack of significant progress on the main child poverty indicators, with around eight per cent of children living in low-income households that cannot afford basic goods and essential activities.

Research provides compelling evidence of the significant impact of growing up in poverty on a range of outcomes. 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. For example, the report highlights 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.

Despite these serious impacts, the report finds that the Child Poverty Strategy set no clear targets for poverty reduction, nor was there any ring-fenced budget attached to it. It also notes a lack of focus on early intervention and preventative actions.

In addition, the report highlights a lack of joined-up working between departments and a lack of timely data and monitoring of outcomes, with many actions reported to have had low levels of participation or lacking a clear link to child poverty reduction.

Commenting on the report, Dorinnia 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.

“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 Royal College of Paediatrics Child Health Officer for Ireland, Dr Ray Nethercott, said: “The lack of progress we are making when it comes to child poverty is frankly unacceptable. It is wreaking havoc on our young people’s childhoods, limiting their potential, worsening their mental health, and draining the public purse.

“The last child poverty strategy had serious flaws, which we highlighted at the time of publication, such as a lack of targets, accountability, co-ordination and funding. A new anti-poverty strategy is needed, but we have to ensure that lessons are learned from our past failings.

“We are once again calling for robust outcomes, targets and measures for children within the broader Anti-poverty Strategy and call on the Northern Ireland Executive and the Minister for Communities to expedite publication of this much needed strategy.”

* Read Child Poverty in Northern Ireland here.

* Sources: Northern Ireland Audit Office and Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health