Social welfare systems should not be demonised and taken for granted but considered part of Europe's proud heritage and kept strong, a poverty campaigner has insisted.

European Anti Poverty Network director Fintan Farrell, who once required social assistance himself, said Europe was losing sight of the importance of the social in society. It was forgetting what the world would be like without protection systems because everyone was so used to them.

"It is important to consider social protection as an investment - not a handout," Mr Farrell said.

It also served to keep people active in society and provide economic stabilisers in times of crisis to everyone's benefit.

The EAPN is an independent network of NGOs involved in the fight against poverty and social exclusion in the EU.

Referring to the abuse of social protection systems, Mr Farrell maintained they did put strong demands on welfare recipients to look for jobs and try to improve their situations.

"The reality is that abuse exists across the whole spectrum - even at the wealthy end of society, which has created its own mess. Abuse is not just confined to the poor."

The impact of breaking down these social protection systems on the basis of abuse would be "huge". In the end, creating greater levels of inequality would bring about other societal problems.

Mr Farrell was in Malta recently to address an international seminar gathering former female students of Sacred Heart schools worldwide.

He said Malta had developed greater levels of equality than many European countries and therefore had lower levels of poverty and greater levels of trust in institutions.

"It is important to acknowledge that this is an achievement and to try and protect it. But on the other hand, there is also the reality that some Maltese do have to face poverty and social exclusion in daily life."

Mr Farrell insisted on the importance of having a "relative" understanding of poverty in rich societies.

"It is not just about meeting basic needs but about creating a society in which everyone can have access to a decent, dignified life," he stressed.

"Extreme levels of wealth have detrimental effects even on the wealthy. More equal societies mean less health problems and teenage pregnancies in their communities. They are not just good for the poor."

Many European countries have also built strong social systems but they were starting to lose sight of their importance, Mr Farrell said.

A neoliberal way of thinking was putting the responsibility back on to the individuals to solve their own situations but Mr Farrell said societal responsibilities could not be ignored.

"The EU has started to think economic growth automatically trickles down to create a fairer society. But that has never been the case in history and if you do not constantly look at redistribution systems and how to prevent poverty, you are going to have growing gaps in society.

"We are not trying to go for uniformity across Europe, but more cooperation between member states is still possible to protect high-level social standards," he said.

The 2010 European Year for Combating Poverty and Social Exclusion could help raise consciousness and cooperation between member states to protect these social standards.

It has been designated because the EU is currently designing its next 10-year strategy, and the EAPN wants the reduction of poverty and social exclusion to be one of the five key targets it commits to. "Having a target in itself does not change reality; it is just a figure that should bring political attention to the debate. It is only one year and what matters is what happens in the following."

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