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EACEA National Policies Platform


4. Social Inclusion

4.1 General context

Last update: 22 January 2021

LAST MODIFIED ON: 13/08/2020 - 13:42

On this page
  1. Main challenges to social inclusion
  2. Main concepts

Main challenges to social inclusion

Around 350,000 (19%) people in Northern Ireland live in relative income poverty (before housing costs) including approximately 107,000 (24%) children. An individual is considered to be in absolute poverty if they are living in a household with an equivalised income below 60 per cent of the (inflation adjusted) UK median income in 2010/11.

In the 2011 Census, 20.7 percent (374,646) of the Northern Ireland population reported that their day to day activities were limited because of a long standing health problem or disability. The next census is due in 2021. The Family Resources Survey for 2017/18 found that of the entire Northern Ireland population, approximately one fifth had a disability.  The Department for Communities survey of Households Below Average Income (for 2017/18; published in 2019) shows that the percentage of individuals living in low income households has fallen to the lowest levels in at least a decade.

A 2018 report, Poverty in Northern Ireland, published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, outlines the following as some of the main challenges to social inclusion in Northern Ireland:

  • working-age adults without children are at higher risk of poverty than ten years ago;
  • it has higher worklessness and lower employment than elsewhere which contributes towards to the rates of poverty;
  • the educational attainment gap between richer and poorer children remains large;
  • there are more people with no qualifications and fewer people with higher-level qualifications in Northern Ireland than in the rest of the UK.

In addition to high levels of poverty, there are high levels of unemployment in Northern Ireland. For details of this and how it impacts on young people, see the article on 'Integration of Young People in the Labour Market' in the chapter on 'Employment and Entrepreneurship'. 

A further challenge is presented by young people with low levels of academic achievement: one in three (34 per cent) Northern Ireland school leavers do not achieve 5 GCSEs or equivalent (including English and Maths) at grades A*-C. Over half (59 per cent) of school leavers who are entitled to free school meals do not secure this level of achievement compared with only 26 per cent of school leavers who are not entitled to free school meals. 

The Children and Young People's Strategy 2017-2027 outlines the work that has taken place to build on the previous Ten Year Strategy for Children and Young People 2006-2016. The strategy has been designed to create a framework for policy actions to improve the well-being of children and young people generally, and it contains specific recommendations and headline actions, to achieve stated anticipated outputs. 


Main concepts

In this chapter, 'social inclusion' refers to a process that ensures that those at risk of poverty and social exclusion gain the opportunities and resources necessary to participate fully in economic, social and cultural life and to enjoy a standard of living and well-being that is considered normal in the society in which they live. It ensures that they participate in decision making which affects their lives and have access to their fundamental rights. The extent to which an individual is socially included or not can therefore be measured through a combination of different elements, including income and living standards; education and employment opportunities; access to social protection systems; housing; access to health and other services; and active participation in citizenship.

The terms used to describe policies, initiatives and actions relating to social inclusion have changed over time. To illustrate how they evolved into the concepts and definitions used currently, this section provides a brief policy overview.

The Northern Ireland Executive published Lifetime Opportunities: the Government’s Anti-Poverty and Social Inclusion Strategy in 2006. Lifetime Opportunities is structured around a number of priorities:

  • eliminating poverty
  • eliminating social exclusion
  • tackling area based deprivation
  • eliminating poverty from rural areas
  • shared future - shared challenges
  • tackling inequality in the labour market
  • tackling health inequalities
  • tackling cycles of deprivation.

It recognises that children who are born into poverty are at greater risk of underachieving, growing into adults living on low incomes and becoming parents of children born into poverty. It also highlights the link between poverty and educational underperformance. Consultation on the development of an anti-poverty strategy as far back as 2004 demonstrated a broad consensus about the need to prioritise child poverty and to maintain a focus on promoting social inclusion. It recognised that neither poverty nor social exclusion are one-dimensional problems. Indeed, the definition of social inclusion was noted as "[describing] what can happen to people who are subject to the most severe problems."

The strategy included the following explanation of the term social exclusion:

Some individuals and families suffer from multiple social problems. They may, for example, be poorly skilled, unemployed, living on a low income and coping with difficult home circumstances. They might live in poor housing and in areas blighted by crime. Those living in rural areas may have difficulties in accessing the types of services that other people take for granted.

Sometimes people’s problems are so numerous and the effects are so severe that it is impossible for them to lead what most people in Northern Ireland would consider to be normal everyday lives.

Government uses the term “social exclusion” to describe what can happen to people who are subject to the most severe problems. Social exclusion has to do with poverty and joblessness – but it is more than that. It is about being cut off from the social and economic life of our community. (page 13-14)

The implementation of the strategy includes regular monitoring.  The most recent Lifetime Opportunities Monitoring Framework Report was published in October 2015.  The report comprises published data which illustrate the  direction of travel in terms of key poverty-based indicators for Northern Ireland. One of the main findings was that overall relative income poverty rates in NI have remained relatively stable over the period 2002/03 to 2013/14. However there have been differences in the trends among the different lifecycle groups. The working age adult rate has increased from 16% in 2002/03 to 20% in 2013/14 but has remained at lower levels throughout the period compared to children and pensioners.

Child poverty

Under the Child Poverty Act 2010, (also cited as the Life Chances Act 2010), the Northern Ireland Executive was required to produce its own child poverty strategy which set out strategies and measures to ensure that as far as possible children in Northern Ireland do not experience socio-economic disadvantage. Within this context, the Executive’s first child poverty strategy, Improving Children’s Life Chances, was published in March 2011. This strategy set out the key areas considered crucial to address the causes and consequences of child poverty. The Strategy focused on the priority policy areas of education, early years, childcare, health and social care, family support, housing, neighbourhoods, financial support and parental employment and skills. 

A number of initiatives were launched following the strategy's publication, including the 'Youth Works' programme, aimed at young people not in education, employment or training (NEET); the Youth Employment Scheme, which helped 18-24 year-olds into employment opportunities; and the Extended Schools Programme, which supported schools based in areas of greatest social disadvantage, enabling them to provide additional learning opportunities outside of the normal school day.

The Child Poverty Outcomes Framework followed in 2013, which aimed to support each of the Northern Ireland government departments to better understand their role in reducing child poverty and established an outcomes-based approach to tackling child poverty. This Framework set out a proposed outcomes-based approach, including outcomes and potential indicators.

The second child poverty strategy, published in 2016 and currently in operation, was informed by a series of consultations entitled Delivering Social Change for Children and Young People. It focuses on reducing the number of children in poverty and reducing the impact of poverty on children, reiterating its commitment to eradicating child poverty by 2020, in line with its predecessor.

Since May 2016, the Department for Communities has held policy responsibility for poverty.

UK context

Devolution has given the Northern Ireland Assembly legislative control of 'transferred matters', mostly in social and economic fields (see the article entitled 'Political, Social and Economic Background and Trends' in the Eurydice's Network education system description for Northern Ireland). However, the ambitions set out in the Westminster government's policies relating to social inclusion may have an impact across the United Kingdom. They are described in the equivalent England article.