Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 14 December 2016
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality
General Scheme of the Equality/Disability (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill: Discussion
Apologies have been received from Senator Black. I welcome Senator Dolan, who is substituting for her. I also welcome Senator Kelleher, who joined us in previous sessions, and other members.
First on our agenda is the general scheme of the equality/disability (miscellaneous provisions) Bill.
I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Justice and Equality, Deputy Finian McGrath, and his officials. They are attending to discuss the general scheme of the Bill, which was referred to the committee for consideration by the Minister for Justice and Equality. The format of the meeting is that I will invite the Minister of State to make his opening remarks and I will then invite members to ask questions. I ask the Minister of State to deliver his opening address.
I thank the committee for the kind invitation. I thank all my colleagues for attending for the early meeting. It is a great honour and privilege for me to take over as Minister of State with responsibility for disability. I have a long-term vision centred on the rights of persons with disabilities and on focusing on what they want. That will be the theme of my term as Minister of State with responsibility in this area.
This debate is linked to that relating to the delay in the ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, CRPD. Ireland is one of the few EU member states that has yet to ratify it. While Ireland's not having ratified the CRPD is a recurring point of criticism by the United Nations, in addition to many domestic national governmental organisations, it should be noted that Ireland is in many respects more advanced than many other European Union member states in terms of the quality of service and the position of people with disabilities. In the past six months, in particular, we have been introducing services to ensure people with disabilities have services. We are planning in respect of signing the convention.
We sign conventions as a declaration of our commitment to seek to apply the convention concerned in Ireland. We ratify when we can guarantee to our international partners that we are meeting our commitments. Under the Constitution, while the conduct of international affairs, including ratification of treaties, is the responsibility of the Government, the sole prerogative of legislation for the State is vested in the Oireachtas. Article 29.6 states: "No international agreement shall be part of the domestic law the State save as may be determined by the Oireachtas." That should always be the case as far as I am concerned. Ratifying a convention before we have amended domestic legislation that contradicts it makes no sense and does nothing to ensure compliance and to protect the people for whose benefit the convention exists. We are committed to ratification as quickly as possible, taking into account the need to ensure that all necessary legislative and administrative requirements under the convention are met. I am very serious about that.
On 21 October 2015, the Government published a roadmap for Ireland's ratification of the CRPD. It outlines legislative changes to be undertaken to enable Ireland to ratify the convention along with the estimated timeframe involved. The roadmap for ratification, with a deadline at the end of 2016, shows there is a substantial legislative agenda to be completed across a number of Departments. It also sets out the considerable work currently under way to deal with outstanding barriers to Ireland's ratification.
On 26 March last, the Government approved the general scheme of the equality/disability (miscellaneous provisions) Bill, which we are focusing on today. The Bill will overcome most of the legislative barriers to Ireland's ratification of the CRPD. The Government also approved the priority drafting of the Bill within six months in order to allow for its enactment before the end of the year. The general scheme of the Bill was submitted to this committee as part of the pre-legislative scrutiny process. It is published on the website of the Department of Justice and Equality and addresses issues such as the convention's requirements regarding reasonable accommodation and the deprivation of liberty, in addition to removing the archaic references in existing legislation relating to mental health. The Bill will also establish the independent monitoring and implementation framework in accordance with Article 33 of the convention.
It is intended that Ireland will sign and ratify the optional protocol to the convention at the same time as the convention is ratified. The optional protocol provides for individual complaints to be submitted directly to the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities by individuals and groups of individuals, or by a third party on behalf of individuals and groups of individuals, alleging their rights have been violated under the convention. It is important that the convention does not establish new rights and that issues concerning expenditure are not a barrier to ratification. These are matters for progressive realisation. Issues concerning the allocation of resources will always be subject to debate. I am currently dealing with this in respect of the HSE service plan, which will be announced later today. It is a matter for the individual Departments involved. As already stated, service standards and funding are subject to what the convention describes as "progressive realisation" and to the budgetary decisions of the Government of the day.
The Bill is in the final stages of drafting. There has been a delay and I am very disappointed about it. The Office of the Attorney General is naturally striving to ensure the Bill will be perfect when published. Some of the legal issues have apparently presented more complexity than expected and hence one of the major reasons for the delay in ratification. I made the mistake previously of stating I would have this done by the end of 2016. I am not in a position today to give an exact date. I expect the Bill to be published very shortly so as to facilitate early ratification of the convention.
With regard to what goes on in different countries and the relevant legislation, it is important when discussing this issue that we understand that different countries take different approaches to ratification of international conventions. We take our international conventions very seriously. We do not ratify until we can guarantee compliance. The actual position of people with disabilities in Ireland today is in many respects more advanced than in other European states. I acknowledge we have had a number of years of austerity but part of my brief since taking over as Minister of State has been to try to achieve reform and to invest in services. We are actually ahead of other countries in regard to providing services for people with disabilities.
From my perspective, three key issues have arisen. Section 5 of the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 1993 needed to be replaced. This is being addressed in the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Bill 2015, which has been passed in the Seanad and is now scheduled for Committee Stage in the Dáil. The second issue concerns the Assisted Decision-Making (Capacity) Act, enacted in 2015. It needs to be commenced. The third issue concerns the equality/disability (miscellaneous provisions) Bill, which is to address all the remaining issues. As stated, drafting is almost complete. The Department of Justice and Equality is currently working closely with the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel and the Office of the Attorney General. We hope to publish the Bill very shortly. We aim to submit it to the Government as quickly as possible.
The Bill will address issues such as the convention's requirements on reasonable accommodation and the deprivation of liberty. This will be achieved by way of Committee Stage amendment. I am reluctant to give a date for publication but we are really moving on it. I have been working very hard on pushing this issue over the past couple of weeks.
I am very disappointed personally that I have not yet reached my target in respect of the UN convention. With a bit of luck, we might hit it sooner than expected. While I am disappointed personally, I realise that there were complexities and blockages within the system. In the meantime, I wish to give a commitment to colleagues right across all the various Departments to work very hard to invest in services to ensure all people with a physical or intellectual disability will be respected.
The best way to do so is to ensure that there is quality and proper access to services. Hopefully, we can then ratify the UN Convention.
I did not expect to be the lead speaker. I take the Minister of State at face value and believe he is genuinely committed to this issue. It is a pity that he did not meet his target. I ask him to elaborate further on the reasons for the delay. He mentioned the Attorney General and having to deal with complex legal issues. I am perplexed by what he meant by the term "complex legal issues" and I ask him to develop the matter further. The several hundred thousand people in this country with disabilities, NGOs and others expect ratification and would be perplexed by his comments. There is an onus on him to explain the matter further.
There are complex legal issues involved and I am not allowed to go into them in more detail. There were delays in both the Department of Justice and Equality and the Department of Health, and in recent weeks in respect of certain aspects of the legislation. People want to be very sure. Recently, I visited Galway where I met people from the Galway Centre for Independent Living and Marion Maloney. Ms Maloney asked me to ratify the UN convention but warned me to be careful to ensure that the legislation was well thought out, planned and unhurried. When I came back to Dublin, I talked to my officials in my Department and the Office of the Attorney General who expressed the same view that we must get this matter right. Two of the issues are reasonable accommodation and the deprivation of liberty. There are also issues with the Supreme Court that I am reluctant to discuss. I give the Senator a commitment that I will get back to him with a direct answer to his question.
The Minister of State may feel he made a mistake by expressing the optimistic view, when he took up his portfolio, that ratification would take place by the end of 2016. There is a legitimate expectation of a timeframe. I am worried that the Minister of State is not prepared to commit to a timeframe now. When he took up office, he was happy to stipulate the end of 2016. We have reached the end of 2016 but he is reluctant to give a timeframe. People share my concern about the matter. I notify the Chairman that I wish to ask a follow-up question after the Minister of State answers.
I am reluctant and I do not want to tie myself to a date. I will not hang around and I give the Senator a commitment that I will do this as soon as possible. I hope this will take place early in the new year. I am still optimistic that I will get some work done on it before Christmas. Honestly, I have learned since coming into this job that when one adopts dates and deadlines but does not achieve them, one is left feeling bad and that one has let people down. Six months ago, when I took over as Minister of State, I genuinely felt that we would get this work done by the end of December. I believe that we will probably go a couple of weeks over that deadline. I want to ensure that the legislation is put in place and is done properly and professionally.
I thank the Minister of State for his sincere comments. He has a new portfolio and it is the first time that disability has been represented at Cabinet. Has he met his expectations? Today we are debating one specific issue but in terms of the overall service provision for people with disabilities and what he hoped to achieve under the programme for partnership Government and so forth, does he feel that he has got co-operation? Has he made the inroads that he expected to make on taking up his position as Minister of State?
I am honoured and privileged to be appointed to this job and to be the first person at the Cabinet table to speak on behalf of people with disabilities. It is up to the members to decide if there has been progress. I believe I have made major progress because I have invested in services and I am transforming them. I have discovered many examples of bad practice and services, but I am trying to change and reform them. Conversely, I have discovered many examples of good practice. My focus is on investment and reform. I have received 100% support from the Cabinet and I am delighted to have received support from most of the Opposition parties. I urge members to judge me by my actions.
Today's announcement of the HSE's service plan will see a major footprint of disabilities all over it because we have managed to secure improvements in services, particularly for people with intellectual disabilities, but also for people with broader disabilities. I love my job every single day. Over the past six months, I have met over 4,000 people, comprising service providers, people with disabilities and people involved in the whole area, and I will continue with this work. By the end of December I will have hit my target of meeting everyone who works in the services.
I thank my colleague, Senator Frances Black, for allowing me to take her slot at this meeting. I am delighted that Senator Colette Kelleher and other colleagues from the Seanad are here this morning.
I will put this issue in context. The Minister of State has honourably opened this debate by saying that promised ratification will not take place by the end of this year. We have received strong and worthy submissions from a number of bodies this morning. The Human Rights Commission, GLEN and the Centre for Disability Law and Policy have gone to a lot of trouble to scrutinise elements of the heads of the Bill.
I have asked myself now and again whether ratification of the convention is a pie in the sky endeavour and something unconnected to the day-to-day lives of people with disabilities. I quickly reached the conclusion that it is quite the opposite. As the Minister of State has said, the convention was adopted in 2006 and was quickly accepted by the Irish State. Non-ratification is simply no longer justifiable. I believe there has been an ongoing dragging of feet, which is a disgrace, although I accept that the Minister of State is committed to this area.
There are three hallmarks to disability and mental health and the first two are poverty and exclusion. They bring a loss of hope for a real life and that is still a fact of life for people. Austerity still stalks the lives of people with disabilities and their families. When they see what has not happened after repeated commitments have been given, they do not have a reasonable hope that things will change. It would be helpful this morning if the Minister of State levelled with the 600,000 people with disabilities, their families and carers.
It would also be useful and appreciated if he would share his best estimate, his gut feeling, as to why the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities has not been ratified given that the timing of its ratification has been repeatedly, and very recently, set out on behalf of the Government. The Minister of State said that he made the mistake of putting a date on it. It is not only him who spoke of this; the former Government spoke of this and the current Government has said over the past year that this would be done and dusted. There are many other elements involved in this aside from the Minister of Sate.
There are three important aspects to the Minister of State's role in this matter. The first is that he participates in Cabinet. My organisation, the Disability Federation of Ireland, has for many years campaigned for a Minister at Cabinet to throw an eye over what is happening across the whole gamut of government. The Minister of State was involved in the programme for Government negotiations and he engages with the Taoiseach and Ministers on a regular basis. Given those three aspects, people with disabilities deserve, if nothing else, some straight talking at this stage. We have gone beyond hearing the giving of further commitments. In fact, the Minister of Sate is understandably shy about making a further commitment this morning on the timeline. These commitments are now debased as a currency. It is important the political reasons as to why this has not happened are set out for people with disabilities. Talk of technical hitches in this Department and that office do not cut it any more.
In putting my question to the Minister of State, I will offer a multiple choice because these are the type of concerns people have raised and are bothered about. There are four points. Is the reason the convention has not been ratified down to the fact that there simply are not enough votes in this issue? Is disability too much of a drag on our scarce resources? Are there powerful and influential competing interests, or are there more important and urgent issues? Those are the core concerns and questions people with disabilities and their families have regarding this matter.
I will support my question, which is underpinned by assertions about which I will be clear, by reference to two areas of evidence. One I would describe as coming from the mouth of Government and the other one comes from other reputable and independent sources. The roadmap to ratification document in October 2015 states: "Further Consultations in 2016. Legislative provisions to be included as necessary in the... Bill, for enactment in 2016." A Programme for A Partnership Government states: "The drafting of legislation to address a range of legislative barriers to ratification is underway with a view to putting it before the Oireachtas before the end of 2016." On 10 May 2016, an article in The Irish Times stated:
The Government and Minister for Justice have promised the... Convention... will be ratified "within six months", according to the new Minister for the area.
Finian McGrath, an independent TD and newly appointed Minister of State with responsibility... said he got the ratification into the programme for Government and got "a commitment from Frances Fitzgerald and from that the Government that will be ratified within six months".
Six months from that date was 9 November 2016 to be a little fussy about it.
On 22 June 2016, the Minister of State replied to a Commencement matter I tabled on this matter in the Seanad and he stated: "When we ratify the convention by the end of this year, we will be making a solemn commitment to the international community that our body of domestic legislation is fully in line with the convention and fully meets the standards required [of the convention]..." The Minister of State spoke of making a solemn commitment to the international community but what is more important to me is the making of a solemn commitment to the people of Ireland to the 600,000 disabled people, 200,000 carers and their families. That is the nub of the issue.
On 16 November 2016, the Minister, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, stated:
The General Scheme of the Equality/Disability... Bill is available on the Department's website. The Bill is at the final stages of drafting and while I am not in a position to give an exact date, I expect to publish the Bill very shortly so as to facilitate ratification of the Convention by end-2016.
On 1 December 2016, the Minister of Sate in response to a Deputy's question stated:
...I set myself the objective of ratifying the convention by the end of 2016. I knew there were blockages to that and I am now getting the feeling that I might not meet my target. That said, it might be possible to meet it only a number of weeks later. It will be done shortly. There are blockages within the legislative process and problems which must be resolved, which is why I have not signed it yet. I hope to see it done as quickly as possible - in a matter of weeks, in fact.
That is an outline of the litany of what we have heard.
I will now briefly set out the facts and figures. We know there are 600,000 people with disabilities and about their carers and families. Those with disabilities account for 13% of our population. Three out of every five people over the age of 60 have a chronic condition or disability. There are high levels of consistent poverty among those with disabilities, 13% compared to 2% among those at work. A total of 51% of people are not at work due to illness or disability suffer enforced deprivation, which represents an increase of over 40% since 2008. Enforced deprivation is not being able to have a bit of meat or fish with one's dinner now and again. It is not having sufficient heating and other such items. A total of 30% of people with disabilities are active in the labour force. That is a participation rate of less than 50% of that of the overall population. People with disabilities are way more likely to be unemployed.
Housing is a topical issue currently and particularly yesterday and today. The Rebuilding Ireland action plan did not even reference the Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government's figures of just under 4,000 people with disabilities on the social housing waiting list, never mind make any commitment to do something about it in the next four years. A third of people with disabilities have been found to leave education before they intended. We may be ahead of some countries in this area but we need to be where we have committed to be, not just better than other countries.
I repeat that the hallmarks of life with a disability are poverty, exclusion and a loss of hope to be a real participant in this country. Austerity is still stalking the day to day lives of people with disabilities and mental health issues. They have no reasonable hope based on what has been happening with commitment after commitment having been given but this still not being done. Can the Minister of State level with us and give us some reasonable explanation at a political level as to why this convention has not been ratified by Government a decade after Ireland signed it?
I totally disagree with many of the arguments the Senator put forward. I am well aware of the issues in the disability sector, as the Senator well knows. I have been involved in disability rights for the past 25 years. I know about the poverty and the exclusion. I know the details. I have spent the past six months meeting all the families again. I have a strong record in that area. This is not pie in the sky. I do not accept that, and I do not accept that I or any politicians in government are dragging their feet on this issue. I totally disagree with that argument. As far as I am concerned, I am getting great support at Government and Cabinet levels. At backbench level and across the Dáil, including from members in this room, I am getting great support to push for the delivery of services for people with disabilities.
As to why this has not been done, I do not believe there is any hidden political reason for it. Changing a system and implementing change takes time. The Senator will see those changes shortly. I will not accept responsibility for the inactions of previous Governments.
I have been Minister of State for only six months. I accept I was naive to have set a target of six months in respect of the ratification of the convention but I ask that members judge me in time. This is provided for in the programme for Government and I am determined that it will be done. It is a top priority for me.
In the meantime - this is where I disagree profoundly with Senator Dolan - I am doing my best to ensure that people with disabilities get the services. Yesterday was a historic day in Cabinet in terms of the €10 million secured in the 2017 budget to enable all children who qualify for the domiciliary care allowance to be given medical cards. Three months into my tenure I secured an additional €31 million for emergency residential supports. Within four months, I had established a task force, which is working very hard. We have managed to secure €20 million per annum from the HSE to take people out of congregated settings, thereby ending the type of exclusion about which Senator Dolan has spoken. This is being done with the agreement and support of families.
I am also working hard on other issues. Approximately €2 million has been secured for pre-activation supports for people with disabilities and social protection benefits, such as carer's allowance, disability allowance, blind person's allowance, widow's allowance, lone-parent allowance and jobseeker's benefit, are to increase by €5 per week. I went into the talks looking for more but, ultimately, I was happy to I walk away with something rather than nothing in my pocket. I accept that there is much work to be done regarding children and adult disability services. That work has commenced. As I said earlier, people should judge me on the basis of the number of policies I have managed to implement during my first few months in office. I accept that Senator Dolan is disappointed. However, as I said earlier, ratification of the convention is a political priority for me. There are no political reasons that this has been held up. The delay is due to complex legislative issues. We will do our best to ensure that this legislation is top-class and implemented.
I have already allowed Senator Dolan a lengthy uninterrupted opening contribution. As other members have indicated a desire to contribute and we have only limited time remaining, I can only allow him a brief supplementary at this point.
I agree with the Minister of State that the inaction of previous Governments is not his responsibility. I was speaking about the measures which he confidently said he had managed to secure in the context of the negotiations on the current programme for Government. The Tánaiste, Deputy Fitzgerald, is on record on this issue. I have quoted the position of Government. The Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, graciously accepted that the mistake was on his part but in my view it was a mistake by the entire Government and not just him. My evidence is based on what Ministers have said. The facts, in terms of people's lives, are based on data provided by the CSO, ESRI and other reputable third-party sources.
In regard to the Minister of State's reference to congregated settings, even if we meet the target of removing 180 people each year from such settings, it will take 15 years to complete the process. I mentioned earlier that there are 4,000 people on the social housing waiting list. These people will not even rise above water level in the context of Rebuilding Ireland. There are serious issues to be addressed not only by the Minister of State, but also by the entire Government, if we are to make progress in this area. That is the thrust of what I was saying.
I take on board Senator Dolan's points on housing. I have raised these issues with the Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, Deputy Coveney. I accept we need to do more in terms of housing, particularly social housing for people with disabilities, and I am pushing for that.
I thank the Minister of State for attending. I accept that the intention is to legislate to progressively ratify the convention. From a cross-departmental perspective, how many officials are involved in the interdepartmental committee? It is important that, as part of the disability aspect, there is a range of intergovernmental and interdepartmental officials involved. What interaction has taken place across Departments on issues such as housing, local government, transport and so on? This legislation, when enacted, will do little unless there is a cross-departmental action plan in place. Is such a plan being developed?
The Minister of State referred to the additional funding provided for medical cards for children in receipt of the domiciliary care allowance. Legislation to give effect to that funding position is expected to be brought forward early next year. What is the timeline in that regard? Is it expected that the legislation will be brought forward as planned? We appear to be at a legislative road-block on a number of issues. I accept that the legislative process can be slow but people in this sector have too often been left waiting too long. It is important that the Minister of State works hard to ensure that some of the targets in this area are achieved despite legislative road-blocks and so on. There must be a timeline in terms of progress such that people can anticipate better prospects for them into the future. The cross-departmental aspect is very important. Without a cross-departmental action plan, it will be difficult to give meaningful effect to this legislation. I would welcome a response from the Minister of State in that regard.
I thank Deputy Jack Chambers for his question. A range of officials is involved, including those from the Departments of Justice and Equality, Social Protection and Health, and Children and Youth Affairs which are my line Departments. All Departments are represented on the new interdepartmental committee. On most days of the week I interact with between ten and 15 people across the Departments. I also have a special disability adviser, Mr. Gerry Maguire, who advises me specifically on disability issues. I am confident that the work of the interdepartmental committee will lead to quicker ratification of the UN convention. As I said earlier, I accept that I may have set too high a target on this issue. When I took up office, I set 100-day targets regarding many issues. I like to set short-term targets in the context of achieving things. I am confident that the convention can be ratified.
On the Deputy's question regarding medical card provision, the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, brought a memo on this matter before Cabinet yesterday. This is a priority issue for the Minister and the Government. I take on board Deputy Jack Chambers' point regarding the legislative process. The Deputy can be assured that legislation providing for medical cards for those in receipt of the domiciliary care allowance is a priority for the Minister and the Government and it will be brought forward soon. I will raise the issue of the timeline for the introduction of the legislation with the Minister for Health, following which I will come back to the Deputy with more details.
I thank the Minister of State for being here and I wish him all the best in his role. In fairness to him, the convention was signed in 2007 and so I do not blame him for it not having been ratified yet. That said, this committee is anxious that it be ratified soon. As the Minister of State is the person in the hot-seat, the committee would like him to become an irritant within Government and, if told that the matter is before the Attorney General's office, to harass the civil servants to ensure it is ratified. We are reliant on the Minister of State, who I know is committed to this issue, ensuring this gets through Government.
On the Bill, head 3 deals with the deprivation of liberty. This is a difficult area. It is important that people at risk of self-harm are recognised in the legislation. I am slightly concerned by the Minister of State's statement that it is proposed to introduce sections on deprivation of liberty on Committee Stage. It is important that the Oireachtas would have ample time to consider such provisions.
I welcome the fact the Electoral Act 1992 will be amended to ensure that no longer will people of unsound mind be precluded from election to Dáil Éireann. I do not know how that was previously tested. One area we need to examine in the Electoral Act is the need to improve the capacity and ability for people with disabilities to vote. During election times, we meet people in wheelchairs or nursing homes who have to go through a process to ensure they get on the electoral register or receive a postal vote. We need to make it much easier for people with disabilities to vote in elections.
Obviously, there is also the issue with juries. People with disabilities have to be facilitated to serve on juries. While it might be provided for already in legislation, there are practical matters such as gaining physical access to a jury box which is difficult for people with disabilities. Has the Minister of State any proposals in respect of making it easier for people with disabilities to vote?
I thank Deputy Jim O'Callaghan for his comments. I assure him I am trying to become an irritant in the different Departments. In the recent debate about Irish Sign Language he made the point about the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. While I will be the advocate for this in the Cabinet, this issue is important for all members of the Government.
The heads of the Bill dealing with the deprivation of liberty safeguards will be published and there will be a broad discussion on that. I will raise with the Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, Deputy Coveney, the issue of ensuring easier access to elections for people with disabilities. Over recent weeks, I have been working on a comprehensive employment strategy for people with disabilities. Difficulties with transport and accessibility to the workplace are an issue. I will be bringing this to the attention of the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross. We must ensure everyone with a physical and intellectual disability can vote like the rest of us and there are no barriers in their way.
Last Friday, I attended the Spina Bifida Hydrocephalus Ireland resource centre in Clonshaugh. It raised the issue that loos in public offices are not often designed for people with a physical disability. We must also ensure legislation is implemented. There is no point in passing legislation if public offices are not accessible to people with disabilities. There is a broader issue that if we are serious about an inclusive and just society, we must ensure all people with disabilities are treated like everyone else. They are not looking for anything more but the equality and their rights as citizens.
Having worked with a disability organisation, I put myself forward for the working group on personalised budgets. I am still waiting to hear about a date for a meeting.
The ordinary rights of citizens are not realised if one has a disability. I was at a meeting in Cork on Monday about a massive shortfall in access to education in spite of legislation which was introduced. Deputy Micheál Martin raised it yesterday in the Dáil. In Cork, a child with autism moving into second level education has a poor chance of getting the place he or she needs. There are 81 classes for children with autism in primary schools, but only 41 at secondary school level in Cork. Children with autism experience significant anxieties with transitions and this significant change from primary to secondary creates problems not just in Cork, but throughout the country.
That is why the UN convention needs to be signed in order that pressure can be put on all the agencies, including the schools which choose not to set up autism classes because it is within their rights not to do so. I would like if the Minister of State would put on his lobbying hat. There is an Education (Admission to Schools) Bill coming through which could strengthen the powers of the National Council for Special Education to instruct schools to offer places with proper settings to children with educational special needs. A place without a decent setting for a child with autism is not a place at all. Sinn Féin, the AAA-PBP and the Labour Party supported an amendment to the Bill which would strengthen the powers of the National Council for Special Education to ensure every child with autism could get a place in a class and take that dreadful anxiety out of the situation. A child with autism has the right to education, a job, a house and a decent life. We need the UN convention to be ratified.
I am concerned at the snail’s pace in the progress in dealing with congregated settings. There are people living in institutions throughout the country. I was responsible for some. They are not the right setting for people. People are not exercising ordinary rights. People have to go to bed at 6 o’clock and 7 o’clock because of shift patterns. That is not good enough and we should not accept it. The UN convention is really important for realising those rights for people living in institutions, children with autism and a whole range of others. I understand there have been some blockages but there is a huge urgency on this for people throughout the country.
I thank Senator Colette Kelleher for raising the problem of children with autism transferring from primary to second level education. Every school in Ireland, regardless of where one is geographically located, should be inclusive. I have been in many schools which have opened up and become inclusive for people with disabilities. There are some schools with appalling records where they blatantly discriminate against children with disabilities, only taking high achievers. They often tell parents to send their children to the school down the road because it is good for children with disabilities while they tend to be more academic and are interested in points for college. My vision is for inclusive schools and that every school, where possible, should have an autism department and some section dealing specifically with disabilities.
I will look at the amendment to the education admissions Bill. What parties were supporting it?
On the night we had a meeting in Cork, we had Deputy Micheál Martin, Kathleen Lynch on behalf of the Labour Party, Deputy Mick Barry on behalf of AAA-PBP, and Sinn Féin all agreeing. We had a great turnout of parents who were angry and upset. The Minister of State has an opportunity to ensure those schools which cherry-pick do not get the chance to do so anymore.
This committee can be powerful in the current politics in bringing forward issues such as the admissions Bill and getting broad cross-party support. I will get more detail on this.
On the final comment, I am delighted that it was noted that we need to up our game to deal with congregated settings because we have managed to get €100 million over five years, which is €20 million a year. I feel we need to do a hell of a lot more. We have bought 50 houses in the past seven or eight months to bring people into smaller residential settings but I have also had colleagues in the House give out to me for taking people out of congregated settings and implying we are forcing them out of places and services. That is not true. Everything is being done in consultation with the person with the disability and the family. There are people in institutions at the moment who should not be there. I was with Deputy Ó Caoláin in Monaghan recently where there are absolutely no congregated settings. Every person with an intellectual disability there lives in a small community house which houses three or four people attended by staff. There are examples of good practice also and that is the direction in which we should go. I thank the Chairman for this morning. I appreciate his work.
I have one last question in reference to the school admissions Bill. If the Minister of State is researching that, he might also look at this Chairman's contribution on Second Stage in the Dáil because Senator Kelleher has reflected all the points I made on that. She is absolutely right. Across the board, we believe in the establishment of special class provision in relation to autism. What we need now is the power of compellability. That is absolutely required.
On the equality/disability (miscellaneous provisions) Bill, does the Minister of State know and does he have the detail with him on the number of Acts which will be directly impacted by amendment through the passage of this legislation? My own count is 11 Acts, but I am curious to know if I have missed out on any having gone through it quite carefully. I am anxious to know about the promotion, protection and monitoring framework. According to the heads of the Bill, the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission will establish an advisory committee the members of which shall have "the lived experience of disability". It does not indicate the numbers who might be in the make-up of the committee. Will the Minister of State advise whether numbers have been determined, how soon we can have that monitoring committee up and running and, in terms of the lived experience of disability, if that formula of words accepts the reality of carers and those who have provided supports to people with varying degrees of disability challenge in their lives? I am interested to know how all-encompassing that phrase is of the numbers to which Senator Dolan has referred of 400,000 and 600,000. It is not only specific to those who have the personal reality of disability, but to the wider involvement and support, both familial and external. All these have a unique and particular contribution to make, in the Chair's opinion. I am curious to know if there has been any fine-tuning of that expectation.
The Chairman's figure of "11" is pretty accurate on the first question. On the issue of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, it is very difficult to micromanage it. When we refer to the lived experience of disability, we are talking about getting as many people involved as possible. It includes people with disabilities as well as carers. I cannot micromanage that and tell the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission about some of its proposals, but the Chairman can take it that since I have taken over, it is about as many people as possible with lived experience of people with disabilities. In respect of the personalised budget issue, for example, I have many people on that committee who have a physical disability as well as many carers. For me, "lived experience of disability" refers to carers as well as people with disabilities themselves.
I would like people to note that and I thank the Minister of State for his response. Before concluding and with no other hands showing, I ask if it is agreed that the Clerk should write to the Tánaiste informing her that the committee has considered the general scheme of the equality/disability (miscellaneous provisions) Bill 2016 and is of the view that it is extremely important that the legislation be enacted without further delay in order that the United Nations Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities can be ratified at the earliest possible date in 2017. Is that agreed? Agreed. We will so write to the Tánaiste. We would appreciate if in tandem the Minister of State continued his efforts with his senior Minister in the Department of Justice and Equality to ensure the legislation is enacted at the earliest possible date.
I thank the Oireachtas Library and Research Service for the significant work it has put into preparing for pre-legislative scrutiny. The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission is also to be thanked for its substantial work and effort, as is the combination of groups including the Transgender Equality Network Ireland, GLEN and BeLonG on their respective interests and focus. All these bodies have provided invaluable information to inform the committee. That concludes this section of our public session today. I thank the Minister of State and take the opportunity on behalf of the committee to wish him well for the Christmas season.