‘Silencing Dissent’ by Hugh Frazer, former director of Combat Poverty Agency

Published with permission of the Irish Examiner

By Hugh Frazer

WEDNESDAY, July 1, 2009, marked the abolition of the Combat Poverty Agency as an independent state agency, even though poverty continues to be one of the major challenges facing our society.  After 23 years of considerable achievement, during which the agency has moved poverty to the centre of political debate, the agency has been “merged” with the Department of Social and Family Affairs’ Office for Social Inclusion to form a new division in that department.

The question is whether this is a genuine effort to strengthen the
institutional framework for tackling poverty — or the silencing of an
important independent voice on issues of poverty.  Encouragingly, the minister has stressed that her intention is to create “a new strengthened division” which will “provide a stronger voice for those affected by poverty and social inclusion issues”. However, in reality it is hard not to be more pessimistic.  The agency appears to have been the victim of two things. First, there have always been some elements within the political and administrative system who have been uncomfortable with the agency’s independent role and wanted to control it. Secondly, the agency has been caught up in a wider systematic political effort to silence or marginalise independent and critical voices on issues of human rights, racism, poverty and inequality.

From my experience as the agency’s director from 1987 to 2001 I know there were several times in the past when the agency’s independent role was under attack from conservative and cautious elements within the political and administrative system. They have regularly tried to limit its freedom to provide an alternative source of policy advice and, when necessary, to challenge existing policy frameworks. Happily, successive ministers for social welfare demonstrated the political maturity and self-confidence to value alternative sources of advice, even if that advice was not always comfortable or convenient.  They understood that healthy democracies encourage open and informed public debate on issues of
social justice. 

So why did this change? In retrospect there were a number of warning signs. In 2006 the department blocked the preparation and publication of a book to mark the agency’s 20th anniversary which would have drawn lessons from the previous 20 years about how best to tackle poverty. Such a book would have highlighted its many policy successes and helped to set a new direction for the future.  Then in 2007 the department blocked the appointment of a new director when the former director moved on to a new job, thus weakening its leadership and ability to resist abolition.

Thirdly, the department instituted a review of the agency which was
essentially an internal civil service review with very limited external consultation and in which agency representation and input was carefully regulated and controlled. The outcome is no surprise.  Of course there is an argument that the existing institutional arrangements for mainstreaming anti-poverty work within the policy system did need to be reformed. The department’s office for social inclusion had largely failed to have the impact within the administrative system that many of us hoped for. Its contribution to coordinating and driving forward efforts to tackle poverty across the whole civil service have been quite limited. Equally, the agency was not being listened to as closely as it might have been and had become somewhat marginalised within the policy-making system.   Undoubtedly the influx of experienced CPA staff into the department will greatly increase the expertise, commitment and energy within the system to address issues of poverty and social exclusion.

In certain circumstances — and if there is really dynamic political leadership — this could result in a more thorough and strategic approach to tackling poverty and social exclusion than is currently evident.  However, the initial signs are not encouraging. The creation of the new division has been a very closed process.   My own experience is that there has been a reluctance to meet with concerned and interested outside experts and stakeholders to hear their views on what is needed. Furthermore, the merger of CPA and OSI seems to have been driven by the department’s agenda, with agency staff being frozen out from the two senior posts in the new division. My own contacts with many Agency staff in recent months have revealed very widespread unhappiness with how the merger has been handled.

Although legally the merger has now happened, it is still not clear exactly what the new division’s role will be or how it will operate. Thus there is still a possibility that the minister’s and secretary general of the department’s assurances that the new division will have some real substance could be fulfilled. If this it to be the case, certain things things in particular are essential:

*The new division must maintain an explicit focus on poverty and keep the word poverty in its title.
*It must support the effective implementation of existing policies and strategies on poverty.
*It should have a forward-looking remit aimed at identifying new
challenges and proposing new policies and strategies.
*It should publish its research and policy recommendations.
*It should be publicly accountable and report annually on the
implementation of its strategic plan, including to the Oireachtas
Committee on Social and Family Affairs.
*An advisory committee of stakeholders and experts active in the area of poverty and social inclusion (and including people experiencing poverty) should be established to oversee the work of the division and advise the minister on its role.
*It should have the power to systematically monitor and report on the performance of all Government departments and agencies in tackling and preventing poverty and social exclusion and to critique existing policies (economic, environmental, employment, and immigration as well as social policies) from an anti-poverty perspective.
*It should have the ability to recruit staff with appropriate expertise on
issues of poverty and social exclusion from outside the civil service when required.
*It should maintain and develop the Combat Poverty Agency’s leading role in the development of EU policies to tackle poverty and social exclusion.

In the end the new division will be judged by what it does. Thus we will begin to know whether the assurances about giving a stronger voice to poverty issues have any substance if the new division:

*Publishes a rigorous assessment of the distributional impact of the
impending cutbacks and their impact on people living in poverty.
*Puts the issue of inequality at the heart of all its work on poverty and emphasises the need to address the continuing structural inequalities in Irish society and opposes efforts to blame people for their poverty and to differentiate between the deserving and undeserving poor.
*Recommends more ambitious goals for the elimination of child poverty and develops a much more comprehensive strategy than currently exists;.
*Regularly monitors and reports on the extent to which economic and taxation policies are reducing or adding to poverty and social exclusion.
*Provides rigorous analysis and makes clear recommendations on how to ensure that social inclusion and environmental/green policies are
mutually reinforcing.

Even if the merger of CPA and OSI does lead to more effective and
dynamic leadership and coordination on poverty issues within the administrative system it will be at a high price.  It is extremely unlikely that the agency’s key role in stimulating and informing a widespread public debate on these issues will be maintained now that it is firmly situated within Ireland’s rather cautious and conservative administrative system.
Also, it is hard to imagine it being encouraged to step outside the
accepted policy-making frameworks and, when necessary, to make
considered criticisms of the status quo.  Indeed there is now much evidence of a systematic effort to close down, control or emasculate and control authoritative and independent voices on issues of social justice and thus to marginalise dissent. 

For instance, the Equality Authority has been so systematically undermined and its budget so severely cut that its outstanding chief executive, Niall Crowley, resigned.   The Irish Human Rights
Commission has had its budget slashed. The National Consultative Committee on Racism and Interculturalism has, like the CPA, been “merged” into its parent department.  Community groups receiving
Government funding have been instructed not to network with other community groups and thus build up a collective voice on issues.
Cutting funding to organisations who cause embarrassment or who challenge the status quo — and including clauses in funding contracts, or employment contracts, which prevent organisations or individuals from speaking out is on the increase.

The Charities Act won’t allow new organisations which state that one of their aims is to advocate in relation to human rights to be registered as a charity. All in all there is a consistent effort to suppress the voices of those who advocate on behalf of the marginalised. Thus it is hard not to interpret the silencing of the CPA as part of this wider effort at political control.
However, in spite of this, the agency’s voice will not be silenced. Too many people have contributed to and have been empowered by the agency’s work over the past 23 years for this to happen. The recent launch by Is Féidir Linn, of A Vision for an Inclusive, Equal, Sustainable Ireland to an enthusiastic response at a conference in conjunction with the Community Platform demonstrates the real desire for change that is emerging in civil society.  Thus the spirit and ethos of the agency will be carried on into the
future by everyone who wants to build a more equal and sustainable
Ireland free of poverty and social exclusion.
Hugh Frazer is a former director of the Combat Poverty Agency (1987-2001) and is currently adjunct Professor at NUI Maynooth and
Coordinator of the EU’s Network of Independent Experts on Social Inclusion.

3 thoughts on “‘Silencing Dissent’ by Hugh Frazer, former director of Combat Poverty Agency

  1. The CPA always has been a point of reference for myself and my research centre. We visited them, in the company of members of the Flemish administration, because we thought the CPA would be a ‘good’ and even ‘best’ practice. It clearly isn’t for the Irish government.

    Feeling guilty – we didn’t contribute to its disappearance? 😦

  2. I thought this was an excellent summation of the situation we have in this country. Any group who has any criticism of the government, or poses any threat to its ‘market’ driven agenda, has been silenced. The threat of closure hangs over all community development projects, and family resource centres – we are being warned to put up and shut up.
    Some democracy this is!

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