Thank you Rick for your kind words of welcome. I am delighted to be here this afternoon.
It is appropriate that this event is taking place here in Clifton House – one of Belfast’s most historic buildings, which was used as a base by the Belfast Charitable Society in its aim of addressing hardship and working with the poor and those in need. It is a sad reality that today there are still many who continue to experience disadvantage and poverty on a daily basis.
We are committed to the principle that the best way out of poverty is a job with a reasonable wage.
The biggest factor influencing child poverty is the income levels of the parents. We must provide new and increased opportunities to gain employment and remove the barriers to re-entering the work force. That is why the aim of “growing the economy” was placed at the very centre of our Programme for Government.
When the Executive set this as our key objective, we could not have foreseen the global economic downturn. However, this aim is even more relevant today than it was 3 years ago. Only through economic stability, increased opportunities and encouraging greater investment will we build a better, brighter and shared Northern Ireland.
As a result of political stability, we have brought jobs and significant investment from abroad. Our visits to the US have delivered substantial inward investment. And there’s more to come.
However, employment alone is not sufficient to prevent poverty. Badly paid and part time employment can still leave families on the poverty line.
In addition, many people experiencing poverty struggle with financial management. Often this makes their problems much worse, taking what little resources are available and using them in an ineffective way.
Learning the lessons of good financial management is critical for those on the poverty line where a little must go further.
It would be wrong to underestimate the destructive influence of poverty on the lives of individuals, families and communities. It destroys opportunities and limits potential - creating worse outcomes in terms of health, happiness, education and lifetime opportunities. So, tackling poverty has been and continues to be a key priority for the Executive.
Everyone must feel the benefits of devolution and no section of our community should be left behind.
Through a number of potential initiatives, we are looking to find tangible solutions to address poverty and disadvantage. We recognise that it is simply not enough to address the symptoms - we need to resolve the root causes. OFMDFM will be driving forward this agenda, in collaboration with other departments, statutory and other agencies and working closely with the community. We will look to see what interventions have achieved results and had the necessary impact and see how we can build on this in the future.
Over the last three years the Executive has had to respond to developing economic challenges.
We have worked to protect local business and people from the adverse impacts of the economic downturn. The introduction of free transport for over 60s; freezing the regional rate; deferring water charges; reductions of rates for older people; free prescription charges - these are just some of the measures the Executive has implemented.
Working along side organisations such as the Consumer Council is vital to our work. The Council plays an important role in looking across Government at the effect of our policies and programmes and how they impact on the lives of our citizens.
We welcome your advice on where we should target our efforts and how well we perform as we address the issues that concern us both.
In seeking to tackle poverty we recognise that being in work not only contributes to independent financial stability, but on a much wider scale, can contribute to healthier living and the development of social networks.
All of us, in Government, in voluntary and private sectors and elsewhere, have to work together to break the cycle of deprivation and tackle inter-generational poverty.
As an Executive we will continue to seek to open doors to employment that are currently closed and look to improve the economy of Northern Ireland and the prospects for children, young people and families.
We want to make sure that no child should ever suffer deprivation or grow up with their life-chances limited or constrained because of poverty or social exclusion. Working together in a committed and united way, I am confident that we can and we will build a better, brighter and shared future for Northern Ireland.
We look forward to hearing today’s discussions and to receiving a report in the New Year. I know that together we can tackle these issues and together we will do so. With collective effort we will meet our obligations to the people who rely on us to address their needs.