Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 19 January 2023
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Disability Matters
UNCRPD and the Optional Protocol (Resumed): Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth
We have received apologies from Senators Mary Seery Kearney and Erin McGreehan. The purpose of today's meeting is to discuss the implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, UNCRPD, and the optional protocol. We have the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy Roderic O'Gorman, Mr. Colm Ó Conaill, assistant secretary general, Mr. Niall Brunell, principal officer for disability policy in the Department, and Ms Tara Smith and Mr. John Gilbane, assistant principal officers in the Department.
The Minister may call on the officials to speak briefly for clarification of specific or technical points during the meeting. The officials can clarify issues for the committee. Any follow-up questions should be put to the Minister because he is the accountable person before the committee. I am aware of the wide range of issues that will be the subject of today's discussions. If necessary, further and more detailed information of certain issues raised can be sent to the clerk for circulation to members.
Before we begin, witnesses are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person in such a way as to make him or her identifiable, or otherwise engage in speech that might be regarded as damaging to the good name of a person or entity. Therefore, if statements are potentially defamatory in relation to an identifiable person or entity, witnesses may be directed to discontinue their remarks. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice that we should not comment on, criticise or make charges against any persons outside of the House. On a constitutional issue, members are required to be within the confines of the Leinster House complex to participate in today's public meeting.
I call the Minister to make his opening statement.
I thank the committee members for the invitation to speak to and discuss this with them today. I acknowledge the significant cross-party work this committee does to vindicate the rights of persons with disabilities, particularly to advance that under the wider rubric of the UNCRPD. Once the transfer of functions to my Department is completed, I look forward to more and deeper engagement with the committee on these issues. I am happy to cover, in my opening remarks and in a wider discussion, the matters highlighted by the committee in its invitation to me, including the development of a successor strategy to the national disability inclusion strategy, NDIS, the ratification of the optional protocol to the UNCRPD and the Assisted Decision-Making (Capacity) Act.
To date, the national disability inclusion strategy has been the national framework for co-ordinating policy and action on disability issues. The NDIS covered a period from 2017 to 2022 and, as such, it ended in December this year. Following the conclusion of the NDIS, the focus of my Department is on the development of an ambitious successor strategy. Development of a new strategy is timely. Along with the need to create a successor to the NDIS, the programme for Government sets out a commitment to developing an implementation plan to co-ordinate the implementation of Ireland's commitments under the UNCRPD. I intend the new national strategy to satisfy this commitment. The development of the NDIS successor strategy is under way. Before the end of the NDIS framework, meetings of the national steering group facilitated presentations from my Department and the National Disability Authority on possible structures for the new framework and plans for meaningful, inclusive consultations. It is intended that the disability stakeholder group, which provided independent and expert monitoring of the implementation of the NDIS, will play an important role in the development of the successor strategy.
Work is focusing on capturing learning from the NDIS process and preparing for broad and targeted consultations for people with disabilities and organisations of persons with disabilities. I am conscious of the need to ensure all voices are heard and included in those consultations. My Department is working to design an inclusive process that will be cognisant of intersectional issues and capture the input of lived experience, disabled persons' organisations and the input of persons whose impairments may make participation in the usual consultation structures more difficult, such as those who may need communication assistance.
Based on feedback to date on the successes and challenges of the NDIS, the new strategy is expected to be more explicitly focused on outcomes. It will also necessarily concentrate on a tighter, more targeted number of ambitious actions that will deliver the most significant changes in progress. It will focus on those actions which will make the most difference in the day-to-day lives of persons with disabilities. Importantly, the strategy will require mature collaboration and sectoral leadership from across government and the wider public service. The convention envisions a societal shift as much as it requires action from a specific Government Department. As such, the new strategy will explicitly champion a mainstreaming first agenda, which I view as crucial for the meaningful integration of persons with disabilities into wider society.
From its own work, this committee will be aware of the necessity for a mainstream first approach and of the cross-cutting, whole-of-government and multilateral challenges this approach will generate. I would greatly appreciate the assistance of this committee and its views in championing and advancing this mainstream approach. Failure to advance a mainstream agenda and to cement the genuine sectoral responsibility and leadership people with disabilities need would be a fundamental failure of a new strategy and a missed opportunity to insert genuine cognisance of disability issues into the way in which we function as a society. That, more than anything else, is the aspiration and spirit of the convention. It is a transformation bigger than any single Department and it will require cross-sectoral support.
I want the new strategy to be a blueprint for genuine advancement. It therefore needs sufficient time at development stage if it is to deliver on our ambition and on the expectations of people with disabilities. I look forward to working with this committee and my colleagues across government in delivering this strategy.
Ratification of the optional protocol following the State's first review period before the UN committee is a commitment in the programme for Government. As committee members will be aware, Ireland submitted its first state report to the UNCRPD committee in November 2021. Due to delays at UN level, Ireland's appearance before the UN committee has been delayed. Due to this delay, the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, and I have indicated we are open to the earlier ratification of the optional protocol. Any decision to ratify an international agreement is subject to a long-standing policy on how the State enters into binding international treaties and is ultimately a decision taken by Cabinet as a whole.
My Department is currently working to scope out the requirements for early ratification of the protocol as recommended in consultation with the Department's legal advisers. This scoping work is required due to the long-standing position of the State with regard to its ability to honour international agreements. Its essence is an exercise in due diligence. As a matter of foreign policy, Ireland does not enter into binding international treaties until the State is confident the obligations set out in it can be complied with. It is also necessary as a matter of prudence and procedure to scope out any potential conflict with the proposed international treaty and the domestic legal system. It is thus appropriate we scope out the implications of ratifying the optional protocol.
My Department knows from the development of the Assisted Decision-Making (Capacity) (Amendment) Act that commencement of the 2015 Act would be required for the ratification of the protocol. However, we need to scope fully the implications of ratification to guard against any other emerging issues or potential conflicts between legal procedures. This scoping exercise remains ongoing. I have instructed my officials to progress it as a priority over the coming weeks. At the moment, it is intended for that scoping process to be concluded by Easter. The outcome of the scoping process will determine how quickly it will be possible to ratify the protocol depending on what emerges from that analysis and what steps, if any, may need to be taken next.
There has already been engagement between officials in my Department, internal legal advisers, the Office of the Attorney General and the Department of Foreign Affairs on the protocol. This engagement will intensify as work progresses and especially as we make our way through the scoping exercise. I stress to Deputies and Senators that the purpose of the scoping exercise is a normal process of due diligence to ensure we can rule out any blocks to ratification. If we identify any barriers to ratification, we can look at how we can address and remove those barriers.
As members know, we always recognised that the continued existence of wardship was such a barrier, which is why, since I have come into this Department, my key focus has been the passing of the Assisted Decision-Making (Capacity) (Amendment) Act 2022, which has now passed. To be very clear, speaking on my behalf and on behalf of the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, we are in favour of ratification of the protocol. We see the scoping work as necessary so that we can bring a properly analysed and robust proposal for ratifying the protocol to my Cabinet colleagues. While I cannot give an exact date for ratification today, I reiterate that it is a priority for Government to ensure the optional protocol is ratified rapidly as possible.
The Assisted Decision-Making (Capacity) (Amendment) Act 2022 represents seismic legal reform in the State and was the focus of priority work within my Department for much of the last year. Thanks to the efforts of all who worked on it, and with the assistance of Deputies and Senators across the Houses, the Act was signed into law by the President on 17 December last year. This will allow me to amend the 2015 Act so that the amended provisions of the 2015 Act can be commenced. This final step will abolish wardship and facilitate the full operationalisation of the decision support service, DSS. The DSS will be responsible for the operation of the new decision support system.
With the passage of the amendment Act over the coming weeks, I will have lawful authority to bring forward a number of statutory instruments under the 2022 and 2015 Acts that will pave the way for full commencement later this year. The passage of the amendment Act provides the lawful basis for certain procedures that will be necessary to finalise preparations for the abolition of wardship. This includes giving statutory approval for certain forms and processes that will be part of the new system, and for the making of necessary regulations which will be relied on within the new system. It is operationally necessary to do these final steps before full commencement, and these matters could not be progressed without the provisions of the amendment Act in place. I expect to be in a position to commence the assisted decision-making Acts fully early this year. My officials are consulting colleagues across government and the wider public service on operational preparedness, and I will shortly make an announcement publicising the date on which wardship will be abolished and the new system will take full effect.
I am pleased to be here this for morning's session and to be in a position to update the committee on the extensive work that took place over 2022 and the ambitious programme of work ahead of us for 2023. I look forward to working with the committee over the course of the year ahead in delivering on what I know is our shared objective, which is further advancing the rights and interests of disabled people in this country.
I thank the Minister and his officials for the presentation. The delay in progressing the implementation of the rights of people with disabilities has led to the perception of Ireland as one of the worst places in western Europe for a person who is disabled and it does question the State's commitment to the realisation of these rights. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, UNCRPD, was ratified in 2018. It is now five years later and the optional protocol has still not been ratified and we still have no date. Will the Minister discuss his insight into the overall delay as regards the rights of people with disabilities in Ireland and the main reasons for the delay? Will he also discuss the timeline for full commencement of the Assisted Decision-Making (Capacity) (Amendment) Act 2022? Will the Minister also elaborate whether the NDIS has been extended for another year, given that it expired at the end of 2022? With no UNCRPD implementation plan in place, will the Minister highlight what provisions are in place for people with disabilities? There is a gap there if he could tell the committee how it is currently being filled? Will the Minister also give the committee some insight into the potential conflicts and legal problems? It is not good enough that we do not have a date or a picture of when we will have full ratification. My read of this is that it will drag on for a number of years. I hope I am wrong but perhaps the Minister will elaborate on that.
As Deputy Ellis will know, Ireland's approach to the implementation of the UNCRPD is one of progressive realisation. It is gradual, extending the rights and improving the systems, and I believe the change we are about to see from 1 March in terms of bringing disability under one Department is part of that progressive realisation. That is a process that has gone far too slowly, and no doubt Deputy Tully will have words to say about that, as she has in the past. It has gone too slowly but it will happen from 1 March.
In terms of the barriers towards the ratification of the optional protocol, we have always identified the continued existence of wardship and the fact assisted decision-making was not implemented. As the Deputy will know and I think he was probably in the Oireachtas at that time in 2015, an assisted decision-making Act was created but never fully implemented. My focus in the disability area has been to address that through the amendment Act that has finally been passed. Again, that took a long time. We were able to strengthen the amendment Act and issues came up, particularly issues that were raised by disabled persons' organisations, DPOs, and mental health organisations during the process. I had hoped, as I think the Deputy will recall, to get it passed by June of last year but some important issues were raised by DPOs about its content, so we took the summer and strengthened it. I know issues remain with it, especially around the availability of advanced healthcare directives, but we were able to broaden their accessibility and that is something positive. We also got strong commitments from the Department of Health in terms of the work it is doing.
That legislation is now in place and we are now setting out a set of regulations because the system is - I will not say complex - is a detailed system. We are creating a whole new decision support service and that needs regulations because we are dealing with people who have a vulnerability and often some limitations on their cognitive ability. Therefore we must make sure there are protections in place, and those protections will be set out in secondary legislation. We are working on a plan and there are five sets of regulations that need to come out and are being worked on at present. We will write to the Chair when we have a better idea of when they are going to apply, when the full DSS is up and running, and when we have the final date for wardship. Once we have that fully worked out, which we are working on right now, we will write to the committee and let it know.
That was the key obstacle to the ratification of the optional protocol and that has now been removed. What we want and we think is right, because we are making a commitment at an international level, and it is important we feel confident as a country that we can make that commitment in terms of giving people the right to bring Ireland to the UN committee in terms of an individual complaint, something I want to see people do, is that we as a country feel we have all the other elements right, so that is why we are doing this scoping exercise. I do not know in detail what it will give rise to but we hope that scoping exercise will be completed by Easter. I might be in a position to talk to the committee again at that point in terms of what it has indicated and, if there are other barriers, which it is to be hoped there will not be, how we propose to address them.
Not in terms of the fact we have not ratified the optional protocol. The decision to ratify the UNCRPD itself and the optional protocol are both decisions that the independent Government of Ireland makes or does not make, and there is no consequence for not signing up. Once we sign up and we do not adhere to rights, there are then very real consequences. That is good and what we want, but it is why we are undertaking the due diligence piece to ensure we can, in going in, feel we meet the requirements of both the treaty and the optional protocol.
I will follow up on the optional protocol also because it comes up in the committee regularly and is an issue of concern for it. The Minister mentioned the phrase "[until] the obligations set out in it can be complied with". Are we ever going to be in a position where we will be fully compliant with the UNCRPD?
The UNCRPD is an international agreement into which we entered, but we are not meeting its terms as yet. I know work is ongoing but we are seen as something of a laggard in Europe in respect of how we treat people with disabilities. The first stage report of the UNCRPD committee was produced in November 2021. I know there are delays at UN level. Have we any indication as to when Ireland will be before the committee? It is now a year and three months since the production of that report. What mechanisms are available for disabled people? Does the Minister think there are actions disabled people can take if their needs are not being met within Ireland? Are people aware of the procedures? Some of them can be quite complex.
The Minister mentioned the transfer of powers. I know a date has been given in that respect, which I welcome. That is definitely going ahead on 6 March and I presume a significant budget will be transferring to the Department from the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage. That is probably going to be awkward, but I presume it is being worked out.
The Minister has responsibility for children. Child services regularly arise as an issue. There are delays in assessments of need and the provision of services. Many parents feel they have no recourse but to take a case to the courts if an assessment of need is not carried out within the timeframe. However, there is no statutory obligation to provide services to a child once an assessment has been carried out. Children are regressing in many cases because they are not getting the services they desire. Bearing in mind his responsibilities in respect of children and disability, has the Minister a plan to address these very urgent matters? There are some long-term steps that need to be taken around planning for the workforce and retention issues. Is there a plan to deal with children who are currently in the system and are not having their needs met?
The Minister said he is working on a successor to the national disability inclusion strategy, which ran out at the end of 2022. Consequently, we are working in a vacuum. I presume there is no strategy there. How soon will a strategy be put in place? Should that not have been worked on so that it would be ready to seamlessly flow from the end of 2022?
We have no indication as to when we will have our hearing before the UN committee. It is delayed significantly at UN level. I had assumed it would take place this year but it could well not happen before 2024. As Minister, I would have found it useful to have gone through that process. I have done it for the human rights committee and next week, I will be doing it for the Committee on the Rights of the Child. I will go to Geneva to go through that process and hear from the experts. I will be defending the State on some matters but will hear the committee's views as to how the State could do more. It would have been helpful to have that report on the UNCRPD but it is out of our hands.
The Deputy made the point that the option of an individual complaint is not open to disabled persons. She talked about remedies that are available through the courts and said that is not the preference. It is not good practice that so many individuals have felt the need to go to the courts to secure remedies for those rights or particularly for the rights of a child with a disability. I fully recognise that. We also have the equality Acts, which provide remedies for persons with disabilities. As the Deputy knows, my Department is reviewing the equality Acts at the moment.
The Deputy also asked about children's disability services. Until 1 March, I will not be fully responsible for those services so while I am not speaking in a vacuum, I am not the Minister in charge at the moment. The Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, and I are looking forward to that responsibility coming over to my Department. We are cognisant of the real pressure that the lack of services is placing on children and their parents all over the country. The challenges are worse in some parts of the country than others but they are all over the country. As the Deputy stated, there are significant issues with workforce planning and a lack of availability of therapists. The HSE is currently working on the progressing disability services, PDS, roadmap, which is a document setting out immediate and longer term actions that the HSE is seeking to undertake to support the community disability network teams to ensure we can increase the number of staff involved and retain the staff who are currently there. The PDS roadmap will also look more to the long term to ensure we are training more occupational therapists, speech and language therapists and psychologists. The Deputy is probably well aware of the strategy review, which stretches to 2032. That review makes clear that the need for specialists and therapists to deal with children's disability services is going to grow in the coming years. We are not training enough specialists in this area at present. We need to do more. We need to be putting in place university and college courses now. We need to be considering conversion courses and the like. We need to do everything we can to broaden the pool of therapists available to the community disability network teams across the country. There is a range of other issues that will be set out within the roadmap. By the time of the transfer, I will only remain Minister with responsibility for disabilities for a maximum of 18 to 20 months before the next general election. However, getting people back into community disability network teams is going to be a priority. That is the way we can make the most immediate impact on the lives of children and their parents.
Significant work has taken place over the past year to enable the new strategy to come in. That work took place with the steering group of the existing strategy. They were a number of presentations and consultations in respect of the new strategy. Significant consultation will take place in quarter one of this year. My Department and the National Disability Authority will co-host a consultation exercise on 31 January. During quarters one and two of this year, there will be extensive engagement with DPOs, service users and civil society on the new strategy. Perhaps at some point we will talk about the committee's views on what the new strategy should look like. The most recent strategy contained a significant number of action points. I chair the Traveller and Roma integration strategy, the women and girls strategy, the migrant integration strategy and the LGBTQI+ strategy. I feel that fewer actions and more deliverables are preferable. When a strategy includes 120 or 130 actions, Departments can cherry-pick. Sometimes focus on the core is lost. That would be my approach but that is my view from my own experience from some of the other strategies. The goal is that the new strategy will be ready by the end of this year and ready to apply from the start of 2024.
I thank everyone for coming before the committee. Ratification of the optional protocol is obviously incredibly important. It is a matter that is raised continually by DPOs, disabled people and their advocates. This committee has asserted over and over again the need for immediate ratification. Frankly, I do not think the rationale that the Minister has given for the ongoing delay is acceptable. The goalposts keep shifting. The Minister said in his opening statement that, "Ireland does not enter into binding international treaties until the State is confident that the obligations set out in it can be complied with". That is demonstrably untrue. Every week at this committee, we hear about how the State is failing to meet its UNCRPD obligations. Individuals' rights are being violated all the time.
Ireland has signed and ratified the convention, even though there are glaring examples of non-compliance. That reason is completely invalid. We enter into those agreements without being able to meet the obligations. We do it every day.
We have heard repeatedly from legal experts that there is no impediment to ratifying the protocol. The only barrier seems to be the Government. For a time, the excuse we were given was that until the Assisted Decision-Making (Capacity) (Amendment) Act was dealt with, we simply could not ratify it. The legislation has been dealt with, but the Minister has given the excuse that we do not enter into such agreements until we comply with them in full. That is also not true. We do enter into such agreements when we cannot comply. What is the reason for delaying this further? That is my first question. I will have more.
On the failure to implement the Assisted Decision-Making (Capacity) Act 2015, the fact that we had wardship in place was a clear violation of Article 12 of the convention. In order to undertake ratification of the optional protocol and in order to be in a position where we could reasonably say to the United Nations that we are compliant, we had to take the measures to address the fact that wardship was still in place. That was done through the Assisted Decision-Making (Capacity) (Amendment) Act 2022.
We are undertaking a scoping exercise to identify if there are any other clear violations of the treaty in terms of existing elements of Irish law so that we can look to remove those violations and address them, whether by legislation or otherwise, to make sure that when we sign up to the optional protocol and provide that route for people to make their individual complaints, there is not an example of a clearly identified existing violation of the UNCRPD.
The point I was trying to make is that there are loads of violations of the UNCRPD without the optional protocol. The Assisted Decision-Making (Capacity) Act was the excuse that was used for a long time. The Minister does not even know what the next excuse will be, but there is a scoping exercise in train to figure out what form it will take. At that point, we will again fail to ratify. I am merely trying to outline what is happening. It is nearly three years since the general election, and it took that long to bring the Assisted Decision-Making (Capacity) (Amendment) Act 2022 into force. Now we are looking to see what else we might need to deal with before we proceed. I presume it will take that long again to move to ratification.
In terms of the reservations, the Assisted Decision-Making (Capacity) (Amendment) Act 2022 violates the UNCRPD by allowing for substitute decision-making. The Minister has previously attempted to dispute that. In that context, he was publicly corrected by the vice chair of the UNCRPD committee. The legal reason that the Minister can breach this right is because of Ireland's reservation to the UNCRPD regarding Article 12. That reservation means that the State does not have to recognise legal capacity as an absolute right. This is not something that is publicly known. I was not fully aware of it. Am I right in thinking that the State party report the Minister has submitted to the UNCRPD outlined that this reservation will be maintained and that the committee will probably recommend its withdrawal because it has done so in the cases of Canada, Kuwait and Singapore? Why is the Government committed to that reservation and its limitation of decision-making rights? How will the Minister or, presumably, his successor explain to the UNCRPD committee that we want to keep that reservation?
To begin with, as the Deputy will be aware from our discussions on the Assisted Decision-Making (Capacity) (Amendment) Act 2022, I believe the measures we have taken in that Act are compliant with the UNCRPD. That is the position of the Government in terms of the principles that are woven into 2015 and 2022 Acts. The fact that the support for a person's will and preference is reiterated throughout in terms of how that Act is interpreted and applied leaves the Government confident that this protects and is compliant with Article 12. I recognise that the Deputy does not agree with that. When Ireland goes before the UNCRPD committee, the position there will be adjudicated on or discussed by the committee. Whoever is in my position at that point will make the case in terms of our compliance.
A number of international treaties that we have signed up to have made reservations on certain articles. I was not in this role or, indeed, in the Oireachtas when we signed up to the UNCRPD. I do not have an overall sense of the arguments made at the time but the central element that we are seeking to secure is respect for an individual's will and preference. We believe that is secured through both the 2015 and 2022 Acts. When we have the opportunity for that hearing before the UNCRPD committee, this is an issue that can be teased out further.
Even though we can probably predict what will happen because it was recommended that the reservation be removed in the case of Canada, Kuwait and Singapore, the Government's position is that it disagrees with the UNCRPD committee and we will probably stand our ground anyway as a result. That is what I take from what the Minister said. If we hang on to that reservation, which, as the Minister stated, I do not agree with, under the Assisted Decision-Making (Capacity) (Amendment) Act, the appointment of decision-making representatives occurs by means of application to the Circuit Court. This form of substitute decision-making is significant because it involves compromising an individual's legal capacity and his or her rights under the UNCRPD. While I have to accept that the Minister and the Decision Support Service are happy with this situation, I am concerned that it occurs through the Circuit Court because the judgments are not recorded there, which is another aspect that I was not aware of until recently. I am not stating that they should be, but that creates circumstances whereby there can be inconsistent rulings because it is not as though there is a precedent whereby the decision is recorded and some norm or practice is established. There could be different standards in different district courts around crucial human rights issues. At the very least, this is irresponsible. Is the Department looking at putting in place mechanisms to ensure that there will be some consistency in terms of judgments? I know that they are not normally monitored in the courts in question. In this instance, however, could they perhaps be monitored to ensure that there is a level of consistency rather than a complete lottery in the context of something so important to people?
The Deputy might recall that during the discussions on the matter, Deputy Sherlock raised the issue of allowing journalists enter the court and record proceedings, and also allowing in court reporters. We made a change in the Seanad. We brought forward amendments that would allow a reporting system somewhat like the family law court reporting system that operates now. The reports are anonymised but allow an understanding of the issues the Deputy is flagging up in terms of different circuits throughout the country. We amended the legislation to allow for that to happen.
It is not journalists, but an academic study. Probably the best similarity, or what certainly I had in mind when we made the amendment, is an approach such as that relating to the reporting system which operates in the family law courts and which provides annual or biannual reports on 40 or 50 anonymised cases. Those involved observe proceedings in these cases and are able to give information about sentencing trends in terms of rulings and the like.
Would it be possible for the Department to re-examine the matter - perhaps annually, every half-year or whatever - in order that in the early stages, it will be done a little sooner in order to see what is happening. In such circumstances, a standard would be established, but maybe a year later, and we would still lack any kind of standard being applied for the first while? I do not have the solution. I am wondering if the Department could look at that to see what could be done. Perhaps the committee could do so as well. It is a concern if someone is going to go into the courts and there is a geographical lottery as to whether a right such as that to which I refer is taken away from him or her.
I will take the Deputy's point on board. I would say we will be looking.
The Act also provides for three new Circuit Court judges to be appointed, because there is pressure on the docket of the Circuit Court. The judges who will work on this legislation will have specific training in implementing the specific provisions but I take the point. It is important there is consistency. This is a judicial decision and there cannot be interference from the Oireachtas or the Government. However, we have amended the legislation to make sure there is at least some element of transparency in the outcomes of these decisions.
I apologise. I was next door at the Select Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage and I missed the Minister's opening remarks. I thank him for being here and giving us the update on 2022. I recognise the considerable body of work that was involved in the legislative programme for last year, not just when it comes to the matters pertaining to this committee, but all of the work the Minister's Department has done through challenging times in the past 12 months in particular.
The new national disability strategy and the optional protocol, which we are sick of talking about at this committee and really wish to see it happen, and the Assisted Decision-Making (Capacity) (Amendment) Act have all been key objectives of the Minister's Department and this Government. That is right because we wish to make sure we support people with disabilities in whatever way possible. We hear all the time in this committee about the lived experience of people who need the State's support but who, in an awful lot of circumstances, feel they cannot rely on it. That is a failing by us as a Government and a State.
We wish to make sure the legislation is there in order that every decision, appeal and service is underpinned by legislation that puts people to the forefront. On top of that we need to make sure the legislation is fit for purpose. An awful lot of work went in to the legislative programme last year and I acknowledge considerable further work will be involved this year.
I thank the Minister for his statement, which I read, but missed in person. I wish to hear from him about the 2023 priorities and agendas and how his Department can work with this committee. We are an unusual committee in that most of the committees I sit on are synced to a Department and a Minister. This committee straddles all Departments because, ultimately, what we need is a whole-of-government approach to make sure we are putting all disability matters to the forefront of the legislative agenda. It is not just about putting disability matters to the forefront in legislation but to enact it throughout Departments, because that is how we have a genuine impact on people's lives.
Will the Minister give us an indication as to what lies ahead for 2023? Deputy Cairns focused on the protocol as well. We at this committee talk about it ad nauseam. We are frustrated about it and wish to see further progress.
I share the Deputy's and the committee's desire to see the optional protocol signed and fully ratified. That is why we place the focus on getting the Assisted Decision-Making (Capacity) (Amendment) Act passed. It look longer than I wished but the final product is better. The Deputy made the point that legislation has to be there, but it has to be fit for purpose. The delay over the summer in particular, when we looked at certain sections again and went back to engage further with the Department of Health, led to stronger legislation coming forward.
With regard to the broad priorities for the Department on the disability front this year, the first is to fully implement that Act. A number of regulations and provisions have to be commenced both under the Assisted Decision-Making (Capacity) Act 2015 and the 2022 Act, as well as the regulations and statutory instruments that allow for the Decision Support Service to be fully up and running.
The second is bedding down the transfer of functions. That is a considerable change. A budget of €2.5 billion will move from the Department of Health to my Department's budget line. There will be a brand new reporting relationship between the HSE and my Department. That is a major change which, will take time to bed down. We have to be very honest about that. It will not be perfect from day one. I am happy Mr. Bernard Gloster is taking on the role of CEO of the HSE. I worked closely with him as CEO of Tusla over the past two and a half years and I know his commitment, strength and ability as a public servant. I look forward to continuing to build that relationship, especially as I will be engaging with him and Tusla with a very strong disability focus. We all know the HSE has a massive workload but I will continuously come down to tell it to focus on disability and ask what it is doing on disability. That is the whole idea behind the change that the Tánaiste drove. There was a feeling that within the considerable work the HSE has to do, disability was just not getting the level of attention it needed.
With regard to when that transfer takes place, I spoke earlier on about my deep concern about children's disability services and the lack of availability of therapists in many parts of the country. The HSE will produce the roadmap on progressing disability services but my Department will have a key input. We hope to set out short-, medium- and long-term measures to get more therapists into CDNTs and improve relationships between the HSE and parents. Those relationships have become fraught in many areas. That will be a process. Staffing levels in some of the CDNTs are very low and it will take time to build that up. We also have to work on retention and holding what we have.
Another key element is the disability action plan. It is particularly important with regard to responding to the capacity review. The capacity review has laid out what we believe we will need for all sorts of disabilities from adult and day services to residential and children's services up to 2032. We will do an action plan to respond to the first four years of that regarding the steps that need to be taken.
The new national disability strategy will be drafted during this year. We hope to integrate a clear mechanism in to that for monitoring the continued realisation of the UNCRPD. There are many other bits but those are key priorities this year.
It is encouraging that the Minister referred to recruitment and retention, because we all know and we all feel it from our constituents. We all know the massive impact the lack of resources is having on children's lives and those of their parents, brothers and sisters. That improving the relationship between the HSE and parents is one of the Minister's key priorities has to be massively welcomed.
We all know recruitment and retention is a considerable issue. There does not seem to be a silver bullet to resolve it and that is the reality. I would be very much interested to hear about the plans. It may be too early with regard to the transfer of powers but what plans are in place to ramp up recruitment and encourage retention? They go hand in hand because the bigger the team is, the less pressure there is on the individual. Unfortunately, therapists are burnt out because of a lack of resourcing.
I welcome the new strategy and reiterate the point that the strategy is only as good as the activity on the ground in agencies and Departments and the result that has on families' lives and experiences. I wish the Minister the very best of luck. The transfer of the €2.5 billion budget is a huge project. Much resourcing and many issues, plans, strategies and responsibilities come with that. We can clearly see we have an advocate in the Minister of disability and families will be encouraged by that; I certainly am. I am excited to see where we will be in a year after the transfer has happened and some of the action plans are put in place. I hope by then we will be in a different space with regard to the optional protocol.
I have some views on the issues of retention and recruitment. There are forums for engagement with parents, often just out canvassing and such, meeting parents or indeed therapists who are working in the system, of whom I have met many.
I might hold off until the transfer comes before going into that in real detail because I am not the line Minister right now. I caution that there is a big change happening but this will take time. The committee knows me; I am a cautious person by nature. This will take time but myself and the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, see children's disability services as an absolute priority. We see the need to address the challenges there and begin that process of improving accessibility to services. I cannot claim that by the end of this Government the issue will be fully solved but I hope to see us on an improved track and seeing higher levels of staffing across CDNTs with lower waiting lists across the country.
The Minister and his officials are welcome. One of my colleagues commented earlier that Ireland can be seen as a laggard in how we are living up to the UNCRPD but it is not just a perception. We are a laggard and that needs to be addressed. The Minister's opening statement and his response to Deputy Higgins give me hope about where we are going. I appreciate that we are in limbo at the moment before the transfer of functions so 1 March is an important date. I accept that the Minister has inherited a difficult situation and is doing his best to deal with it. When we look back, at the centre of all this is why we have the convention, which is about promoting, protecting and ensuring the rights of those with disabilities and trying to promote respect and ensure an inclusive society. It is incredibly important to every facet of government that we do that. The fact that it took ten years to ratify after signing the convention and that we were the last European country to do so is a shame on us. Here we are, five years later, still grappling and still bouncing around the optional protocol. I accept what the Minister is saying about the steps that are being taken in this regard because while the Government or legislation will not be able to solve all the problems, it is important that we shine a light to show the way and show people with disabilities that they are valued and that their equality and their rights are valued by the Government and by the State. We have to show example in that. We know that both the ratification and what will come down the line in the optional protocol will not stop discrimination and we have to fight with every fibre of our being to make sure that we do because in all the evidence the committee has received, particularly from those with lived experience, shows that people with disabilities are left so far behind in education and work opportunities. Our focus is to try to ensure that is changed.
The fact that no policy is in place at this point is very regrettable and very wrong but I am pleased that consultation is ongoing and that, in his opening remarks, the Minister said that the new strategy will be focused on outcomes. That will be hugely important. Time after time, we get explanations. We are told about budgets and how much money is being poured into something but being focused on outcomes is the way to go.
I have a few key questions for the Minister. With the optional protocol not accepted here, individuals cannot seek redress if their rights are not being vindicated. Are sufficient procedures in place to enable people with disabilities to vindicate their rights and seek redress? He discussed the timeline for the full commencement of the Assisted Decision-Making (Capacity) Acts, which is important. I thank him for that. How will the actions in the implementation plan be monitored and reported? Can the NDA report against each action so that we can have meaningful oversight of progress? Finally, I raise collaboration between the Department and local authorities. The NDA has highlighted that no updates have been included on the national disability inclusion strategy actions for which local authorities are responsible. The key to success in supporting people with disabilities is that we have that practical collaboration between local authorities and the Department.
As I have said in reply to other members, I want the optional protocol ratified and to see that route towards the vindication of rights if those rights have not been fulfilled in Ireland or I want at least the opportunity to highlight them that the individual complaints mechanism provides. We do have sets of remedies here. The core one is through the courts, which is difficult and can be expensive and time consuming. As I said earlier, unfortunately, too many parents have felt that they had to go through the courts to secure services or advancements for their children. We have seen the courts address issues raised by parents. They have made changes and forced Governments and agencies to make changes as a result of court decisions. There is a mechanism there but I do not underestimate the challenges in accessing that mechanism. There is also equality legislation under which people can take actions. I do not know if the Senator heard "Morning Ireland" earlier where a gentleman spoke about how he had been discriminated against when he was not allowed to bring his guide dog into a restaurant. There are mechanisms there for people to use the Equality Acts and there are provisions under the Disability Act as well specifically for people with disabilities in terms of access. We have a range of remedies at domestic level but that is not to take away from the importance of having that individual complaint mechanism open to us.
It is the intention that the new disability strategy, like the existing one, will have a new oversight committee that will probably meet on a quarterly basis and will examine the progress that Departments and agencies are making in their outcomes. That works reasonably well as a system. The benefit of the current disability strategy, and hopefully of the next one, is the external evaluation by the NDA. That is something that we do not have in some of the other equality strategies. The oversight group monitors it but we also have external monitoring as well. I want that to continue as well because it gives a belt-and-braces approach in terms of the outcomes.
I take the point about collaboration of local authorities. One provision we introduced in the Assisted Decision-Making (Capacity) (Amendment) Act was to increase the public service employment obligation. It is 3% at the moment and it will increase to 6% by 2025. That will put pressure on all State agencies, authorities and Departments to increase the number of people with disabilities that they employ. That is important. It will also apply to local authorities. The requirement currently is 3%. I brought the report for 2021 to the Cabinet some weeks ago. We were achieving 3.5% so there is still a jump to be made.
For a number of years this figure had being going down and we were getting closer to 3%. In 2021 we saw this figure go up to 3.6%, which was a 0.5% increase. This was a small step in the right direction but there will be a challenge on everybody to get us up to 6% by the end of 2025.
I bid good morning to the Minister and to all present and I thank the Minister for attending.
I am here as a member of this committee but there is also a provision of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, UNCRPD, for parents and carers to advocate and speak to their lived experience. This is specifically catered for within the UN convention.
I am compelled, therefore, to give a little context to some of the issues raised by the Minister in order to ask the question. We are outliers in this country in Europe and are the only jurisdiction in the European Union where there is no legal obligation on the State to provide services, supports, therapies or assistance to people with disabilities; the only one.
We are the only jurisdiction in the European Union where there is no obligation on the State to provide carers, carers’ support hours, or respite. As a consequence, Ireland is the worst place in the European Union to have a disability. For shame, that is the starting point. That is where we are. We are outliers and it is shameful.
I have a young German woman, Evelyne Cynk, who is making representations to me about getting supports to attend a postgraduate course here. When she visits me in Leinster House she flies Ryanair with two personal assistants. When she was 18 she was provided with a fully accessible home and a wraparound package so that she can live an autonomous, independent and fulfilled life. When she visits me here, a team of her assistants come and stay in a hotel with her. That is what empowerment looks like. We have nothing like that here.
I have an adult son and part of the reason why I am late here this morning is because his minimal supports have failed, even though I am a Member of Oireachtas Éireann.
My colleague, Deputy Tully, spoke about regression with regard to the Progressing Disability Services for Children and Young People programme. It is not regression. Children are not being treated. There are tens of thousands of children on waiting lists for therapies because there is no legal obligation here to provide them. We have recently had an obligation to provide an assessment of need and there are even issues trying to fulfil that commitment or obligation. Once you get your assessment of need, however, your piece of paper, you may as well use it as insulation because you will not get any therapies or support here.
Deputy Ellis asked was there a danger of penalties for us not fulfilling our obligations under the UNCRPD. I will tell the committee what these penalties are. They are tens of thousands of children who are regressing, who are not being treated and as a consequence it has life-altering and life-limiting impacts on them. That is a legacy that we are going to have to come to terms with at some point in the future.
The only way we can compel the State and its agents to provide these services and supports at the moment is full ratification of the UNCRPD. My first question to the Minister is when this is going to happen. It is in the programme for Government. I heard, I believe, in “What It Says In The Papers” this morning on “Morning Ireland” that at the parliamentary party meeting, the Taoiseach apparently said that he favours an election in autumn 2024. That gives us approximately one year and six months before the summer recess to ratify the protocol fully. So I ask the Minister if it is going to happen this year or in the first six months of next year, because if it does not happen in either of those two timeslots, it is not going to happen. I ask that the Minister might answer that question when I finish speaking.
The other observation I have is on the rhetoric here about scoping and ensuring that we are in full compliance with all of the provisions of this international treaty. Really, that is nonsense because we are already in breach of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We do not provide people, for example, with shelter, which is a basic human right. Disabled citizens here are disproportionately impacted by that. There is a very high number of people sleeping in doorways on streets, who are homeless, who are disabled in this State. Perfection is the enemy of the good and I say that this argument that we must satisfy all of the legal obligations is moral legalism. It is unethical. Full ratification, in fact, would accelerate our compliance because it would oblige and make compellable the requirement for the State to upgrade its legislation. That means not waiting around, Minister. It means moral courage and leadership.
Would the Minister be prepared to speak to his Cabinet colleagues and to insist upon full ratification, irrespective of whether or not, as set out in the Minister’s opening remarks, we are in full compliance with our domestic legislation? That is a red herring. We must proceed with this and act with utmost haste because of the completely appalling conditions in which people with disabilities in this Republic live. It is completely shameful.
On the Progressing Disability Services for Children and Young People programme, we had an admission from Paul Reid, the former chief executive of the HSE, in the past year before this committee that this programme has failed. It is a failure. That was corroborated on the record here by Matt McLoughlin, the person in the HSE who, I believe, is responsible for rolling out this programme. It has failed so we have to have the same intellectual honesty which we had with the financial crash where we had the Troika coming in. We have failed.
If the Minister is going to succeed, the first thing he has to do is to address the recruitment and retention issue. We have almost 1,000 hospital consultant posts here unfilled. Our physiotherapists, occupational therapists, OTs, and speech and language therapists are going to Australia, Canada and the UK: to anywhere but here. Does the Minister know why? It is because the HSE, as has been demonstrated in research, is an environment which is not equality-friendly or a good workplace for clinicians to work in. We had a recent professor of innovation who has just resigned from the HSE who cited bullying and an unwillingness of management to allow clinicians to have the necessary change take place. It is a system which undermines medical and clinical leadership and that is why these people are leaving.
To that end I ask whose idea it is to impose the consultant contract on consultants without any further negotiation. Is it the idea of the Secretary General of the Department of Health or is it the Minister’s idea? Is that a good idea? The signal that sends to all of our young clinicians is to take it or leave it. Are we trying to attract people into the health service because that is one of the reasons why we have no therapies and supports? I ask the Minister to go back to his Cabinet colleagues to ask is this wise. Is Robert Watt going to go to Australia with this contract which he is going to impose on consultants, and ask all of our young doctors to come back? What kind of a signal is that? Does that demonstrate a genuine and sincere commitment to address the problems of bullying and the appalling working conditions?
I have a family member who is a hospital consultant and I can tell the committee of that day-to-day experience. Consultants are in on the shop floor 365 days a year, 24-7, because I have often gone up at 3 o’clock in the morning to make the consultant in our house a cup of tea when they are dealing with and heading into the hospital to be on the shop floor.
There was an absolutely disgraceful attempt over the Christmas period to seek to blame hospital consultants for the experiences which the general population are now having and that people with disabilities have been experiencing for decades.
My final question for the Minister on disabled services is that my son is there and there are no services. He has no social life and is completely isolated. When a person is pregnant and a person goes to the National Maternity Hospital, Holles Street, or the Coombe Women and Infant University Hospital, they say "congratulations" because that person is pregnant. Do they say that they have an appointment for that person in five years time? In the meantime, do they give the pregnant person a little video about childbirth, perhaps asking if there might be somebody in that person’s family circle who can cut the umbilical cord, wishing that person the "the best of luck", and that the service will see them in ten years’ time? That is what people with disabilities face. There are no services, no therapies and no treatments.
My son was so delayed in getting surgery for scoliosis that he was an anaesthetic risk. He was right down to 20% lung function. His heart was pushed into a part of his chest cavity where it should not have been. That is absolutely foreseeable, preventable and avoidable. We would not tolerate that for people on the basis of ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation or gender identity but we accept it for people on the basis of disability. The key to unlocking the beginning of this is to ratify fully the optional protocol. I urge the Minister to get this done. I want to hear from him whether it is going to be done this year or in the first six months of next year. I ask him to listen to the DPOs and the lived experience. We are in an absolute crisis. I cannot come in here in good conscience and not repeat this over and over again.
My final question was whether the Minister would consider it acceptable in maternity services that on becoming pregnant, somebody would have to wait two or three years before they got their first appointment and would be left to their own devices. If the Minister believes that is not acceptable then the situation that confronts people with disabilities is equally unacceptable. It is completely and utterly unacceptable; it is intolerable. The Minister is a person of the utmost integrity and is absolutely motivated to seek and drive the necessary change required and the same is true of the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte. In highlighting these issues, I do not intend for a moment for any of it to reflect on her or the Minister personally, because they are both persons of the utmost integrity who have a desire to see the necessary change. I wish the Minister the very best of luck with the portfolio and especially with progressing disability services for children. We are failing children. We know about the mother and baby homes and all that has passed before in this State with how we treat women and children - it is happening right now and we need to intervene.
I thank the Senator for his contribution and for speaking so clearly to the reality for so many parents and children and adults with disabilities. The Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, and I absolutely recognise delays and the failure to provide services in a timely manner are having a massive impact on lives and on the ability of both children and adults to live the full lives they could enjoy. The Senator has spoken to the supports in place in other European countries that enable that to happen. I take it back to the reason we are embarking upon splitting disability out from the Department of Health and bringing it to my Department, which is that we are also the Department with responsibility for equality and for children and we have that rights-focused approach. By having it in my Department we can have a more rights-focused approach to the issue of disability and ensure we are not just seeing it through a health lens. That change is not going to happen overnight but it is an important first step towards a structural change in how we approach the issue. On the tangible change that is going to deliver for people, I always try to be as honest as I can because the scale of the challenge here is so big. Again, that is not going to happen overnight. Even if we just focus on children's disability services, there is a very significant issue with retention and recruitment. I have been familiarising myself with this and once it fully falls within my remit I will be able to come out more clearly on the changes I will make and work with the HSE to deliver.
The Senator spoke about the probable timelines of this Government. I am not someone who is going to promise there will be huge change by the end of the lifetime of this Government but I want us on a pathway towards change with waiting times coming down and the gaps in CDNTs beginning to be filled and more of them having the requisite number of therapists.
The Senator asked a very specific question about the consultant contract and the Department of Health. I am reluctant to go there because I am not the line Minister and cannot speak with the degree of precision that would be required. I will come back to the point later on about leadership and new approaches but I am very happy to see Bernard Gloster in the HSE because I know his commitment. Before I became Minister there was much criticism of Tusla as an organisation, and I have seen it transform over the last two and a half years. There is a lot of work still to go but it has transformed as an organisation and much of that has been led by Bernard. I have confidence in him taking on the role. As great as the scale of the job of CEO of the HSE is, I will be there saying to him that he needs to be looking at disability and that will be our job in the Department.
I cannot give the Senator an answer to the specific question on when there will be ratification. I want it within the lifetime of this Government and that is what I seek to achieve and what I am working to achieve. It is what all of us within Government want. The Senator put forward his critique of what we say in terms of the scoping exercise and I hear it. That will take place and I hope, when that comes in at Easter, to have a clearer sense of when we will be able to ratify. The Senator may be critical of the outcome of that when the time comes but from our engagement with the Attorney General and the Department of Foreign Affairs, we feel that process needs to take place. I am happy to come back to the committee once that is done and we can talk about that in more general terms.
To come back to the Senator's final question on the delays in service, I recognise they are not acceptable. I am aware from meeting constituents and talking to mams and dads of the impact they see on their kids and also on the whole family. The strain of trying to support a child with a disability has a wider impact. It is having a major impact on families all over the country. There are many issues in disability but the core goal myself and the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, have in the time we have is that focus on services for young people and looking to enhance the delivery of those.
I welcome the Minister. It has been mentioned a little but I am wondering if we can go back to the assisted decision-making and perhaps have a bit more detail about where we are with it. We might start with a bit more detail on timelines.
Yes, absolutely. I thank the Deputy. As she knows, the amendment Act was singed by the President on 17 December. The passing of the Act allows me as Minister to start with the commencement of sections of both it and the original 2015 Act we were amending. We are engaging with the decision support service, DSS, as the body that will actually operate the legislation. There are five pieces of secondary legislation we are working to put in place and that I will commence in a sequential fashion.
One final element is that, as the Deputy knows, the legislation allowed us get three additional Circuit Court judges, which is important because they will be doing much of the work on the applications. That was approved as well.
With a roll-out or amendment in the context of an issue like this, I am very much aware that it requires everybody involved in the process to be well versed in what the parameters are. What level are we at in terms of educating staff around what is possible under new parameters?
A significant amount of work on this took place last year, particularly perhaps in banks and financial institutions that will be impacted. As the Deputy is aware, we had hoped to have it operational from June 2022, but we made the decision to take a bit longer with the legislation to improve elements of it. Work has been undertaken, therefore, in terms of training around it. The DSS will continue to engage in that as well and it has been very active in engaging with relevant stakeholders who will need to be aware of the new provisions coming in under this legislation.
My next two questions are relatively boring but important. I sit on the health committee and there is a major issue around IT systems and the provision of data. I noticed that in the new set-up under assisted decision-making there is a new registration system for enduring powers of attorney. Is that correct?
That will not only require the literal compilation of a registration system but also all the supports around it and everybody having access to it. I wonder where we are with this endeavour, if it has sufficient funding, if it has been rolled out and if this registration system is relatively up and running.
Mr. Niall Brunell:
I thank the Deputy for the question. An interdepartmental steering group has been working for quite some time now to advance a range of operational measures. The DSS has been in close consultation with the Data Protection Commissioner on issues around access to registers. There are several registers. These will be required not just around the context of the enduring power of attorney, EPA, but also as required by the 2015 Act, as amended. They are all being well progressed at this stage. The DSS has been working on a huge ICT project and we are confident that the public-facing elements of all the registers, all the forms and all the access requirements will be in place for when we go live.
Has the Data Protection Commissioner voiced any issues? I liken this aspect to some of the listing in the context of housing lists. Often, there are priority lists based on very personal information and there is a correlation in this regard concerning who has access to it. In my constituency, I have certainly come across people's information being shared with the wrong body. It is being done in good faith by NGOs or Government bodies trying to make the right decisions. It can, though, get quite difficult. Has the Data Protection Commissioner raised any particular concerns in this regard?
Mr. Niall Brunell:
Not to my knowledge. It would have been the DSS and the Data Protection Commissioner who would have engaged directly on this point. As I said, however, there is the interdepartmental group, IDG, structure and representatives of the Department also sit on a project board for the DSS specifically.
If we could have it, that would be very useful. If I could be provided with more information about the registration system, concerning both the ICT and access elements, including what bodies would have access to this information, that would be very helpful.
I thank the Minister. I am sure many of my questions have already been asked. One of my biggest concerns is that we were one of the last countries to ratify the convention and the optional protocol. I refer to the rate of poverty and social inclusion levels for people with disabilities as well. We are one of the highest levels in this regard in Europe, at 38.1%. The EU figures also show Ireland to be the country with the lowest employment rate for people with disabilities, at 32.3%. This is unacceptable. It is so unfair on the families and on the people with disabilities. How are we going to ensure that we are not in this position again?
I deal with families every day. I see children or adults with disabilities and the great challenges concerning their dignity and privacy. I am sure others have spoken about waiting times concerning occupational therapy or other services. People come into my clinic every day, including families and parents. As the Minister knows, timing is absolutely crucial when trying to get a child assessed at a very young age but this is just not happening. I am constantly contacting officials in CHO 05, and they can tell the Minister this, to ask if I can please get a child assessed, to inquire about what is happening in this regard and where we stand with the process. Those officials are telling me that part of the problem is recruitment and staffing issues. It is crucial to get a child assessed really quickly and to get the recommendations and therapies in place. I think we are actually going backwards instead of forwards with this. What does the Minister see happening here going forward? How are we going to get over these challenges? How are we going to help these children or elderly people? The previous speaker spoke about housing and working with the local authority and the Department and getting information. I do think everybody is doing their best, but there is no joined-up thinking and this is becoming a major issue.
In the past six months, I have dealt with at least three families where a mother has come into me and her child would be in an excellent school. We have excellent schools in Carlow, including the Holy Angels day care centre, St. Laserian's school and the Delta centre. We are privileged in this regard. We have the best of services and I can only compliment them all. I will refer to one mother, but there are also others I am dealing with. She had to give up her job to mind her child. Her husband was working. This meant she was €10 over the limit and so she was refused carer's allowance. This is just unacceptable. This should not even be a case of needing to apply. Her child is very severely affected and that woman, who gave up her job - a really good job by the way, and others have given up jobs too - cannot get the carer's allowance. The care of the child is a full-time job. The mother is delighted to do that and the child is treasured. That is not the issue here. I am sure, however, that everyone here comes across this issue. I am just saying to the Minister that there does not seem to be joined-up thinking between the different Departments, including the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, the Department of Social Protection or the Minister's own Department.
Can we try to put some sort of a plan or strategy in place? This is where a start must be made. It must be at the beginning where families are being dealt with regularly. I refer to families impacted that need to get what they are looking for, the services and the money. It is not even the fact of the money, but these families have other outgoings, such as a large mortgage and car payments and they are also driving their children to school. These families are under great pressure because the Department will not give them the money because the payment is means tested. I am asking about this aspect in the context of the Minister's programme going forward, with the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte. I know how dedicated the Minister and the Minister of State are, but I just feel we are letting people, families and children down.
I brought up the other area I am concerned with in my first statement, namely the employment rate. Our employment rate for people with disabilities is very low. I ask the Minister to work on this issue and try to get some sort of programme together in this regard. I ask this because I know many people with disabilities who are in workplaces and very happy there. It is like a social outlet for them. They meet people, but many are not being given these opportunities anymore. I wonder, therefore, whether the Minister will also look at this aspect.
One of my other questions related to the implementation of the Assisted Decision-Making (Capacity) (Amendment) Act 2022 and why it was delayed. Can we get a commitment from the Minister in this regard? It is crucial that we get some commitment on the timescale involved. I know many issues need to be sorted out. We have to get all the details are right, but could the Minister in the next few months, or hopefully sooner than that, come back to us with a timeframe for when he thinks this will be done? Many people are asking about this. I know this is a new Department.
The Minister and Minister of State Deputy Rabbitte will work very well together. I am expecting great things from both of them. I ask that they listen to us. The Minister probably hears about this at his clinics. There is great anger among people who are trying so hard to work in the system they have but it is failing them. At the end of the day the only people we are failing are the children and the people with disabilities. I ask the Minister to come back to me on this.
With regard to assisted decision making we are putting in place some of the regulations. I will write to the Chair in the coming weeks to set out a clear timeline. We are almost there. The legislation has passed, we are in a positive space and that is very good.
I absolutely agree with everything Deputy Murnane O'Connor has said on the issue of employment. Just before Christmas I had the opportunity to visit some young people attending a day service in Mulhuddart who are all in their late teens and early 20s. They gave me a presentation on their key desires and the key issue was employment. A number of them have jobs for one or two days a week and the others are extremely jealous of this fact. They see it as giving a real sense of status. They spoke about the barriers with regard to submitting CVs and interviews. This is why we have the comprehensive employment strategy that will run until the end of 2025. The Minister of State Deputy Rabbitte and I met its chair last year. Subsequently I met the Minister Deputy Humphreys and I will have another meeting with her in the new year specifically on supporting employment for persons with disabilities. It is something that is very important to us.
The Deputy is right that our unemployment rate among persons with disabilities is far too high. As we set out earlier, one step the Government is taking is to require the public service to hire more persons with disabilities. The requirement in the public service at present is 3%. By the end of 2025 this will double to 6%. The total at present is 3.6%. This will take work by public authorities and everyone will have to make a sustained effort.
In terms of children's disability services, which has been a key theme of our discussion today, once the transfer takes place I will work with the HSE on the publication of a road map for progressing disability services. This will set out how we will address the very real issues that are taking place with regard to progressing disability services throughout the country, particularly the challenges the community disability network teams are facing. One of these central challenges is retention and recruitment. We will be introducing measures, some of which will be short term. As Deputy Murnane O'Connor knows, the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte fought hard to get many therapies added to the critical skills list and this is a positive point.
There will not be a quick solution but there is a range of solutions we can put in place so we can continue to reduce the number of gaps on the community disability network teams throughout the country and reduce the waiting times that children and young people face. This is a big job of work and will take time but it is a core commitment. Just like Deputy Murnane O'Connor I meet many parents and young people who are impacted by the failure to get an assessment or, after an assessment is received, the failure to receive therapies or the necessary quantum of therapies. This is a major issue.
We are speaking about children and assessments. When they are assessed is very important. An issue that has arisen recently in my clinic is where children are looking for a sensory room. It has been recommended that they have a sensory room but when I go to the local authority or look for a grant to get the sensory room I am told there is nothing in legislation or nothing to help with a grant. It can be on the assessment but there is no funding. I am aware of quite a lot of these cases. Will the Minister take this on board and work with the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage? When children need a sensory room it is so important that they get it. Some people are not in a position to pay for it but there does not seem to be any funding for it. I ask the Minister to look at this.
I thank committee members, the Minister and the officials for their engagement this morning. We look forward to 1 March with great excitement. It has taken the long time of almost two and a half years to get this far. It is an important milestone for people with disabilities. The word "equality" appears in the title of the Department and it is very important that it is included.
Members have raised a wide range of issues. Fundamental is the sense that right now the services the State provides for people with disabilities are totally and absolutely inadequate. This is the bottom line. A case was brought to my attention yesterday by a parent who has been dealing with the HSE for a long time with regard to services. There was a fraught relationship between the family and the HSE and the HSE has put a solicitor between it and the parent. The parent can only communicate through a solicitor. This is the attitude that is there. As Chair of the committee I must say the attitude of the State has to change. Fundamental to this is ratification of the UNCRPD.
I have vented my frustration and that of the committee at various meetings with regard to the UNCRPD not being ratified. There have been many questions and Topical Issue debates in the Dáil and questions in the committee. We were readily told that 2022 would see ratification of the optional protocol of the UNCRPD. We are now into 2023. The Minister has outlined there will be a scoping report at Easter. We will look at it in depth and will possibly ask for the Minister to come before us again to discuss it. We need urgency on this. It is not just about having the optional protocol. It is about having a bond so that people can see there is an overarching UN regulation to ensure Ireland complies with everything for people with disabilities. We meet here every Thursday morning and we will continue to highlight the many issues that exist. I thank the Minister for his commitment and his genuineness regarding how he would like to see things change. There is not one member of the committee that would not want to see it changed. We will continue to bang the drum on it.
To use a sporting analogy, we are in the first ten minutes of the second half of the Government and we need to have the optional protocol in place. It will be very important to tackle every issue that is there and the inequalities that people with disabilities, their families and communities face. In the time to come we will have a Taoiseach apologising for how people with disabilities have been treated. I said this when I took over as Chair of the committee and I have continued to say it as we have heard the evidence that has come before us. Given the Minister's sincerity and the sincerity of the Minister of State Deputy Rabbitte we look forward to the transfer of functions. We also ask for a sense of urgency in ensuring the optional protocol is put in place. I thank the Minister and I thank everyone for their contributions this morning. I thank the background team who did so much work over the recess to compile reports. I also thank our members.