Dáil debates

Tuesday, 24 October 2006

Citizens Information Bill 2006: Second Stage


5:00 pm

Photo of Séamus BrennanSéamus Brennan (Minister, Department of Social and Family Affairs; Dublin South, Fianna Fail)
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I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

The Citizens Information Bill 2006 is a key element of the Government's national disability strategy and is designed to ensure that people with disabilities are supported to enable them, as far as possible, to lead full and independent lives, reach their full potential as individuals and participate fully in society.

This Bill, together with the Disability Act 2005, the accompanying sectoral plans and the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004, demonstrates clearly the intention to have an effective combination of legislation, policies, institutions and services in place to ensure equal access to services and full participation in everyday life for people with disabilities.

The primary purpose of the Bill is to amend the Comhairle Act 2000 to enhance the functions of the statutory body in supporting the development of advocacy services, in particular for people with disabilities. Most important, the Bill provides for the introduction of a personal advocacy service for certain people with disabilities who would otherwise have difficulty obtaining access to the services in place to assist them.

The substance of the Bill provides for matters such as the qualifying conditions for eligibility for the assignment of a personal advocate, how the service is to be organised, the responsibility of the personal advocates, the application process, an independent appeals system and related matters to ensure that the new service is placed on a sound footing.

The Citizens Information Bill further provides for a number of important changes to the Comhairle Act 2000 to sanction the functions of the statutory body. Some of these changes include the provision to change the name of Comhairle to the Citizens Information Board or, in the Irish language, An Bord um Fhaisnéis do Shaoránaigh. My objective is to better reflect how the statutory body carries out its functions in the provision of information on social services to the public. The name change is to secure a country-wide branded image associated with citizens information.

In section 2, I want to include a definition of "social services" to include a broad range of social and civil services provided to the public and to expand the definition of "voluntary body" to include citizens information centres. I want to include number of amendments to section 7 of the Comhairle Act to strengthen the board's role in supporting and developing the provision of information on social services and the work of the citizens information centres and other voluntary bodies throughout the country.

I propose amendments to section 9 of the Comhairle Act to change the size and the term of office of the board to provide for improved operational efficiency and to allow for greater continuity in the leadership of the organisation. This will be to the benefit of the local services that rely on its support.

Before I outline the full provisions of the Citizens Information Bill 2006, I would like to acknowledge the significant increase in funding for disability support services that has been provided in recent years. Almost €3 billion was spent on addressing disability issues in 2005. That figure does not include the almost €2 billion that was spent last year by the Department of Social and Family Affairs on income supports and entitlements for people with disabilities or illnesses and their carers. Such significant increases in social welfare rates over recent years further underline the Department's position at the forefront in providing for the income support and other needs of people with disabilities. It is in the context of this comprehensive and strategic programme of support for people with disabilities that I am bringing this Bill to the House.

This Bill relates to the provision of services. It will streamline the citizens information structure by bringing some branding to it in a way that will mean the citizens information brand is national as well as local. It will also introduce an advocacy service, which will be equally important. There is an important link between the provision of information and advocacy. Accessing information and enjoying a range of options on foot of that information are two key aspects of empowerment and citizenship. That is particularly relevant to the functions of the newly named citizens information board, which will offer enhanced services to people with disabilities.

The Citizens Information Bill 2006 envisages that advocacy services will support people with disabilities in identifying and understanding their needs and options and securing their entitlements to social services. In its broad sense, advocacy is quite a traditional concept. It is linked to the notion of the citizen taking responsibility not only for himself or herself but also for his or her neighbour. It should not be confused with the giving of information or the offering of advice per se, although they are aspects of the advocate's role.

Advocacy is something many people do for others on a daily basis. Parents advocate for their children every day, relatives and friends speak on behalf of vulnerable people and public representatives often act as good and strong advocates. To put it simply, advocacy is the act of supporting or speaking up for someone. To put it more formally, it is a dynamic process of negotiation that is conducted by or on behalf of an individual who is marginalised in some way. The proposed service, as outlined in the Bill, will provide for the assignment of a personal advocate to assist, support and represent a person with a disability in applying for and obtaining social services and in pursuing any right of review or appeal in connection with those services. It is envisaged that the arrangements for the new personal advocacy service will be completed without delay when the legislation is in place.

The board of Comhairle has undertaken a significant amount of work in preparation for the introduction of the personal advocacy service. Two important studies which have informed this work provide the basis for the legislative provisions in this Bill. The first of these, known as the jigsaw of advocacy, was published in 2003. A second study, which relates to the development of an advocacy service for people with disabilities, also informed the legislation. In October 2005, Comhairle published guidelines to inform and guide the development of advocacy services by community and voluntary organisations. In tandem with the guidelines, I launched a programme of funding amounting to some €2 million for advocacy projects in that sector. Some 31 projects will be in place throughout the country by the end of 2006. Each project employs an advocate to work with people with disabilities in accessing a range of different services to help them to achieve their personal objectives.

In the current phase of the programme, there is an emphasis on representative advocacy because it will provide Comhairle with the most relevant experience in developing its advocacy service when the new legislation is in place. It is aimed to ensure that advocacy services are of the highest standard and that they are underpinned with strong values and principles. Above all, there is an objective of keeping the person with the disability at the centre of the service. Other work undertaken in preparation for the introduction of the advocacy service on a statutory basis includes producing a resource pack for the new advocacy projects, organising training and networking days and supporting the higher certificate course in advocacy studies, which is accredited through Sligo Institute of Technology.

I would like to outline the contents of the Bill. Sections 1 and 2 provide for the usual definitions of the terms used in the Bill. The definition of "disability" is that used in the Disability Act 2005. Section 2 amends the definition of a voluntary body in the Comhairle Act to include citizens information services and citizens information centres. I am proposing to provide statutory recognition for the citizens information centres which comprise the primary channel through which the citizens information board provides information to the public. This section also includes the definition of a "social service", which will underpin the board's work in the provision of information about entitlements and public services. Social services are broadly defined in the section as including health, social welfare, education, family support, housing, taxation, citizenship, employment and training, equality, asylum and immigration.

Section 3 provides for a change of name from Comhairle to the Citizens Information Board, or An Bord um Fhaisnéis do Shaoránaigh. My objective here is to ensure the citizens information board and the voluntary bodies which provide information services, particularly the citizen information centres, will be readily identifiable by the public as a single brand as part of a single overall coherent approach to the provision of State-funded information services in matters of civil rights and entitlements.

Section 4 amends section 7 of the Comhairle Act. It provides for a number of changes to the functions of the statutory body, in particular to provide greater support for people with disabilities. A function of the board will be to support the provision of advocacy services in the community and voluntary sector for people with disabilities. The citizens information board will introduce a personal advocacy service for people with disabilities who meet the criteria of qualifying persons for the service. The board will be charged with supporting and developing greater accessibility and public awareness of the social services which are available to people. Part of its remit will be to promote the provision of integrated information about those services by voluntary and statutory bodies. The provisions state that the board, in offering the personal advocacy service to a person with a disability, will have regard to the financial resources available to it and to whether such services are available to the person in the community or elsewhere.

Section 4 inserts in section 7 of the Comhairle Act a number of new provisions which will enable the Citizens Information Board to set the terms and conditions for voluntary bodies which seek funding and to promote the development of high quality standards in the provision of information to the public. The effect of these provisions is that voluntary bodies which seek funding may be asked to demonstrate how they will pursue quality service objectives. Funding may be refused if the body concerned fails to supply the board with the information requested, or fails to convince the board that it is necessary in any case.

Section 5 provides for the details of the personal advocacy service. It inserts a number of new provisions in section 7 of the Comhairle Act, to be contained in the new sections 7A to 7E. The proposed new section 7A provides for the designation of persons as personal advocates by the chief executive officer of the citizens information board; the appointment by the board of a director of the personal advocacy service, who will manage that side of the organisation; and the qualifying criteria to be satisfied by a person if he or she is to have a personal advocate assigned to him or her.

The legislation provides that a qualifying person, in the case of a person 18 years of age or older, is a person who in the opinion of the director is unable to obtain or has difficulty in obtaining a social service without the support of a personal advocate because of his or her disability. The director must also consider whether there are reasonable grounds for believing there is a risk to the person's health, welfare or safety if he or she is not given the social service in question. A person under the age of 18 may qualify for a personal advocate if his or her sole parent or guardian is a qualifying person, or if he or she has a disability and in the circumstances of the case it would be unreasonable to expect a parent or guardian to act on his or her behalf to obtain the social service without the assistance of such an advocate.

The new section 7A(3) provides that a person will not be disqualified from the assignment of a personal advocate if he or she is already getting a social service. Section 7A(4) sets out how the board will prioritise the assignment of personal advocates to people who qualify for the service. The process will take account of factors such as the needs of the person to have a personal advocate assigned to him or her, the benefits likely to accrue to him or her by the assignment of the advocate, and any risk of harm to health or well-being that may arise if he or she cannot obtain the services which are sought. The section also provides that the Minister may make regulations for incidental or supplementary matters that may arise, to give effect to these provisions.

The new section 7B of the Comhairle Act details the arrangements for making an application to the personal advocacy service for the assignment of a personal advocate and for the decision process in respect of applications. It states an applicant may appeal against a decision of the director of the personal advocacy service if he or she is not satisfied with the decision about qualification for the service. It also provides for a reversal of a decision to refuse the assignment of an advocate in the light of new evidence or if a mistake is made about the facts. The new section 7C of the Comhairle Act sets out the arrangements for a person to make an appeal against a decision that he or she is not qualified for the assignment of a personal advocate.

The section provides, in effect, that the social welfare appeals rules and procedures which are detailed in the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005 will apply, in a modified form, to appeals regarding the personal advocacy service.

It is my intention to appoint the chief appeals officer of the social welfare appeals office to determine appeals in the personal advocacy service. My objective is to ensure that people who are unhappy with the decision on their qualification for the assignment of a personal advocate have access to an impartial and independent appeals system. The social welfare appeals office has a proven record in this regard. It has an established reputation in providing a speedy and highly accessible service for people and is ideally positioned to meet the needs of people who seek the assistance of an advocate.

The new section 7D sets out the duties and responsibilities of the personal advocate, including assisting, supporting and representing the qualified person in applying for and obtaining a social service, including an application for an assessment of need or a service specified in a service statement under the Disability Act 2005. The personal advocate will also pursue any right of review or appeal on behalf of the qualified person and provide support and training to the qualified person, any member of his or her family, a carer or any other person who represents the interests of the person with a disability.

This section empowers the personal advocate, acting on behalf of the person with a disability, to enter any place that provides day care, residential care or training for him or her and to represent his or her interests. It also provides that the personal advocate may, subject to data protection legislation, access information and attend meetings or consultations on behalf of the person concerned.

Section 7D(4) imposes an obligation on statutory or voluntary bodies to co-operate with a personal advocate in the performance of his or her functions on behalf of the person with a disability. Subsections (5), (6) and (7) of section 7D set out provision for offences to apply to persons who obstruct or hinder a personal advocate in that context.

The new section 7E of the Comhairle Act 2000 provides that the citizens information board may arrange for the functions of personal advocates to be performed by persons other than members of the staff of the board, as it considers appropriate. Such a move by the board would be subject to the approval of the Minister for Social and Family Affairs.

Sections 6 and 7 of the Citizens Information Bill provide for changes to the term of office and membership of the citizens information board. The changes are considered necessary in light of operational experience since the board was first constituted in June 2000.

Section 6 amends section 9 of the Comhairle Act 2000 so the term of office of members of the board will be extended from three to five years and so the number of members of the citizens information board will be reduced from 20 to 15. The approach is in keeping with a general trend towards smaller, more efficient boards in respect of State agencies. For example, in the case of other agencies under my Department's aegis, the Pensions Board and the Combat Poverty Agency have 16 members on their boards while the Family Support Agency has a 12-member board. This section provides for a consequential adjustment to be made to the board arising from the reduction to 15 members. The number of members representing people with disabilities is changing and, having regard to Government mainstreaming policy, the nominating role of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform in regard to those members is being altered.

Section 7 amends section 11 of the Comhairle Act 2000. It provides for a revised quorum for board meetings as a result of the reduction from 20 to 15 members. The quorum is being reduced from 11 members to a number between eight and five as may be considered appropriate by the board from time to time.

Section 8 provides for the insertion of a new section 24A in the Comhairle Act. It provides that the Minister for Social and Family Affairs may issue policy directions to the citizens information board, including directions to directly undertake information campaigns on specific social services.

Section 9 sets out the standard provisions relating to Short Title and collective citation. It also provides for the commencement arrangements for the implementation of the Bill's provisions with different commencement dates applying to different sections of the Bill.

The introduction of the personal advocacy service by the citizens information board is an important priority in my Department's programme of work to enhance the services available to people with disabilities. Much progress has been made since 2001 when the prospect of such a service was mooted. The views and the experience of people with disabilities and of those who work with them have made a significant contribution to the development of the programme already under way and to the development of the proposals in this legislation. Officials of my Department will continue to consult disability interest groups throughout the legislative process.

Advocacy is in many respects a new and emerging profession in Ireland. Even as this legislation is being progressed, new models of best practice are being developed and indeed new emerging needs are being brought to my attention. I advise the House that in this context it is my intention to bring forward a number of Committee Stage amendments to address some of these issues. I am considering the inclusion in the Bill of a broad definition of the qualifications required to be a personal advocate in the personal advocacy service. Such a provision is contained in section 26 of the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004. I am also considering the inclusion of a new provision framed in terms of the citizens information board proactively following up cases of people who are particularly vulnerable and who may be in need of a personal advocate where cases are brought to the attention of the citizens information board.

A further proposal for a Committee Stage amendment relates to public accounting requirements to ensure clarity in legislation regarding the accountability of the chief executive officer of a statutory body to the Committee of Public Accounts in line with certain recommendations of the Mullarkey report.

The issue of resources is, of course, central to the successful implementation of any new service introduced by the Government. I assure the House that the resources necessary to introduce the new personal advocacy service will be provided by way of an additional allocation to the citizens information board which will be negotiated in the annual Estimates and budgetary processes for my Department. In 2005, an additional €1.15 million was provided to Comhairle for the development of the voluntary and community advocacy programme in preparation for the introduction of the personal advocacy service. A further €2 million will be spent on the continued development of the advocacy programme in 2006 with an additional €250,000 set aside specifically for the early stage development of the personal advocacy service which is provided for in this Bill.

This legislation, which I recommend to the House, represents two major steps forward. We are establishing the personal advocacy service and establishing a fresher structure for the citizens information boards by creating a national organisation called the citizens information board. This will be achieved by giving new powers and focus to that board and will ensure it is focused on the provision of information, increasingly to immigrants, throughout the country. People coming to our shores will now see more clearly that the provision of information is their entitlement.

All our people will receive more succinct information and independent, impartial and confidential advice. This relates not only to social welfare but to a range of issues across the public service and will be achieved through the network of offices, websites, dedicated phone lines and highly professional staff and volunteers throughout the country.

This Bill provides for a new, well funded advocacy service and the restructuring of the way the State gives information to immigrants and citizens alike through a new citizens information board structure.

Photo of David StantonDavid Stanton (Cork East, Fine Gael)
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I welcome publication of this Bill and hope it is enacted by the Oireachtas as soon as possible. We will do everything we can to facilitate this as we have waited over two years for it to come before the House and it is badly needed. I thank the Minister for Social and Family Affairs and his officials for the briefing we received today which was, as usual, welcome, useful and positive.

The Citizens Information Bill 2006 is one of the major strands of the national disability strategy. It will establish a personal advocacy service operated by the citizens information board. The establishment of a personal advocacy service to assist people with disabilities in accessing health and personal social services and supports has been urgently sought by numerous disability groups, in particular the National Disability Authority, NDA, and Inclusion Ireland. The service aims to ensure equal access to services and supports for people with disabilities. The Minister stated that he expects the service to be fully operational by 2008.

It is clear that advocacy services for people with disabilities are underdeveloped in Ireland. The 2004 report, Developing an Advocacy Service for People with Disabilities, stated that service providers and the community and voluntary sectors are increasingly aware of the need for these services. The report stated that unlike many other countries, Ireland still has a significant population of people with disabilities resident in institutions. Perhaps this Bill does not focus on this aspect enough. It is something we should consider. The report also stated: "As these people are particularly vulnerable, it is essential that advocacy services are designed to reach out to this group." We have seen various reports over the years condemning the practices carried out in many institutions. This is something we need to discuss further on Committee Stage.

The first Comhairle (Amendment) Bill was published in September 2004. It was intended to establish on a statutory basis a personal advocacy service for people with disabilities. However, this Bill was withdrawn to be replaced by the Citizens Information Bill. I welcome the idea of a one-stop shop. Some colleagues did not know of the existence of the Oasis website — they simply did not know what it was. I was amazed to discover that and I compliment those who developed this fantastic website. It contains useful information laid out in an easily accessible way and I use it all the time. Now that we are to have a one-stop shop, not only will Members know of the existence of the service, but the public will too. However, I am a little concerned about its name. While it is easy to type the word "Oasis" into an Internet search engine, the term "citizen information" is a bit longer and may be more challenging for people.

An independent advocacy service is essential if people with disabilities are to be fully included in the process of service provision. We discussed personal advocates during the debate on the Disability Act. This will give many people with disabilities, who may be unable to seek services for themselves, the opportunity to put forward their requests and views on the range of services they receive. I welcome the definition of social service outlined in the Bill. However, while it is broad, it does not include transport and access. While section 2 lists a variety of such services and states the definition of social services is not limited to these items, it should explicitly refer to transport and access.

What will be the geographic remit of the personal advocacy service? Where will the personal advocates be based? Will they be based in Dublin only, or around the country? Has the citizens information board worked out how many advocates there will be, what kind of office supports they will have and where they will be located? Perhaps the Minister will refer to this when he responds.

It is worthwhile reminding ourselves what advocacy means. A comprehensive and often quoted definition was provided by ProfessorWolfensberger in the 1960s. It is the "functioning — speaking, acting, writing — with minimum conflict of interest on behalf of the sincerely perceived interests of a person or a group in order to promote, protect and defend the welfare of, and justice for, either individuals or groups in a fashion which strives to be emphatic and vigorous".

One of the main issues is the establishment of the personal advocacy service. I examined how a person can qualify for this service. Individuals need to apply for this service in writing. In one of its submissions, the Disability Federation of Ireland, DFI, pointed out that the service seems to be passive; a person must make an application to it. The Minister seemed to row back from this at the conclusion of his speech. Perhaps we can tease this out further. Individuals may not know where or to whom they must apply, whether he or she is entitled to the service, or even know of its existence. After all, we are talking about the most marginalised and vulnerable in society.

Section 5 of the Bill states that a person must be at "risk of harm to his or her health, welfare or safety if he or she is not provided with the social service or services that he or she is seeking to obtain". These seem very negative grounds for availing of a service. There should be something to indicate that a person could avail of the service if he or she would benefit from it. As it stands, individuals will only qualify if harm would otherwise come to them should he or she not get the service. We should turn that around and state that a person qualifies if they would derive benefit from the service. This is a much better way of putting it. In order to qualify for a personal advocate, the person must prove that he or she will come to harm if they do not get the service. How does one do this? The Minister should re-examine this aspect.

The issue of prioritising also arises. Section 5 states "The board shall have regard to the following to determine the order of priority to be accorded to different qualifying persons in the assignment of personal advocates to such persons...". It goes on to list five different grounds for qualifying. How this will work is not made clear. It appears that only the most complex services will be dealt with by the personal advocacy service. This needs to be teased out further. Otherwise, the service could tie itself up in knots.

Comhairle has already been providing an advocacy service involving the voluntary and community sector. The DFI suggests that we should be pulling these advocacy services together under a single director. This Bill provides for the establishment of a director of personal advocacy. I am not sure whether this person will be an advocate — perhaps the Minister could let me know. The director of personal advocacy does not seem to have a role in the wider advocacy remit of Comhairle, or the new citizens information board. The role of director would not be particularly onerous, especially at the beginning. It may be useful to examine the overall advocacy of Comhairle and bring it together under the director of advocacy. DFI has recommended that the changes proposed in the Bill should include mechanisms to link the personal advocacy service with the existing advocacy and support functions in Comhairle, and with organisations with a history of acting as advocates or providing advocacy through Comhairle, for those most vulnerable. It is certainly worth examining.

The DFI is also concerned with the complicated nature of the application process and the qualifying criteria outlined in the Comhairle (Amendment) Bill. In order for the personal advocacy services proposals to succeed in supporting those most at risk, the DFI says that the service must respond directly to the needs of people with disabilities. As well as demanding a clear understanding of the isolated and vulnerable position of many people with disabilities, this requires that the service operators are harmonised and are an integrated part of a programme on advocacy. The DFI maintains that there is a passive nature to the proposed service and that many people with disabilities will either have difficulties in self-identifying or being identified through the system, while many others may not be deemed eligible to benefit from it. DFI considers this restrictive.

Many people with disabilities are found not only in day and residential care and training places, but also in hospitals and places of detention. Under section 7C, the personal advocate can enter premises to attend and represent the person at any meeting, consultation or discussion but would he or she be able to enter a hospital or place of detention? DFI maintains that the powers of the personal advocate must extend to any place where people with disabilities reside.

Many of those who will qualify for the personal advocacy service will not have the capacity to apply or have someone to apply on their behalf. If someone has an intellectual disability, under the Bill it appears that he or she may apply in writing under section 7B, or such other forms as specified by the Minister, to the director for the assignment of a personal advocate to him or her and he or she shall specify in the application the social service or services he or she is seeking to obtain. Are are we talking about an application form? We must make the application process as simple as possible with the service being proactive instead or reactive. It should reach out to the marginalised people who need this help.

What happens if a personal advocate giving advice, information and acting for a person with a disability makes a mistake? Is there a review process? The advocates appear to work on their own; in other cases, there would be a team effort. Will the advocate work as part of a team? If the advocate gives incorrect advice, what recourse does the person have?

It is important that the service is independent, particularly of service providers. That should be written into the legislation — we can work out the wording on Committee Stage. We must also avoid the establishment of a cartel between advocates and service providers; there should always be a distance between the two. An advocate should be fighting on behalf of a person with a disability. Advocates must also avoid downplaying the expectations of the person with the disability.

The advocate can attend and represent the person at any meeting, consultation or discussion but who decides when the meetings take place? If the person is not qualified, the meeting may not take place at all. Who notifies them of the meetings? Are they entitled to such notification?

The advocate can enter at any reasonable time any place where day care or residential care and training is provided for the person. That avoids mention of places of detention and hospitals. Who defines reasonable time? Is it the service provider? Must an appointment be made and notice given and when the advocate attends, what can he or she do? These questions were put to me by an advocate.

A statutory body or voluntary body that provides social services shall co-operate with the personal advocate in the performance of his or her duties. A person who by act or omission obstructs or hinders a personal advocate in the performance of his or her function shall be guilty of an offence and will be liable on summary conviction to punishment. Can a statutory or voluntary body be guilty of an offence? In the rest of the Bill, it states statutory bodies shall co-operate but here it mentions a "person" who obstructs or hinders an advocate. Who lays that charge?

In similar legislation, an advocate or inspector who enters a premises needs identification and is required by law to produce it. Otherwise, anyone could claim to be acting as a personal advocate for someone. It is important that it is a requirement where, if a person demands entry to a premises, he or she must have such means of identification. That provision should be added to the Bill.

Proceedings for an offence under this section may be brought and prosecuted by the Minister. What is the process for bringing the information to the Minister?

These questions must be teased out as we go through the Bill line by line. This is a short Bill but there is a great deal of detail in it. We are establishing an entirely new service that works with vulnerable people. We must take extra care. We must ensure we give these people a voice and that the service is proactive. The advocates must be trained and qualified to carry out their work and there should be ongoing review of their work. There is a pressing need for a comprehensive advocacy service and this Bill will provide it.

National standards of service for people with disabilities are long overdue. The delay in bringing such standards forward is inexcusable. We need them as soon as possible. There has been a long delay in putting the nursing home inspection regime on a statutory footing, an issue we have consistently highlighted on this side of the House. This breach is exceeded only by the delay in applying statutory national standards of service for those with disabilities. There is no excuse for further hesitation. It would be good to bring those standards into play now while we are establishing a personal advocacy service. The Government must be held accountable for its negligence in this area and the Minister must introduce these standards as a matter of urgency.

Did the Minister consider any other title when Comhairle's name was changed? The new title, the citizens information board, may be a little long, especially when one considers that it will deal with people who are marginalised or have intellectual or learning disabilities. I am sure if the many intelligent, ingenuous officials working in the Department put their minds to it, they will find a short, snappy, instantly recognisable title.

Branding is important and it is a good idea to bring together citizens information centres, Comhairle and Oasis. When will recruitment begin for the new body and how many staff will be appointed?

It is estimated that 400,000 people have some form of disability. How much research has been conducted into demand for personal advocacy services? Does the Department plan to expand the 18 advocacy projects operated by Comhairle?

As I indicated, a person with an intellectual disability seeking a personal advocacy must submit a written application. It is crucial that application forms, if they are required, are easy to understand. We need to avoid circumstances in which those applying for a personal advocate need an advocate to make their application or indicate the social services he or she requires. The applicant may not be aware that he or she is a qualifying person.

I welcome the provision giving a role to the social welfare appeals office. Is it possible to provide that the Ombudsman will act as a further avenue of appeal? I am not certain whether the Ombudsman's legislation covers this area or whether it would be possible to take this step, but the Ombudsman has examined and overturned decisions made by the social welfare appeals office in other areas.

Section 4 amends section 7 of the principal Act by proposing to insert a new paragraph (bb)(i), which states that the board must take account of its financial resources when deciding to provide advocacy services. It is essential that the advocacy service is adequately resourced to ensure no one is denied personal advocacy because the board cannot afford to provide it. I accept the Minister indicated that funding will not be an issue.

The sign language interpretation service for deaf people was covered by the original legislation, the Comhairle Act 2000, but it is not included in the Bill and the Minister did not refer to it. What are his intentions regarding this service? If it is not intended to establish it on a statutory basis, will it operate as another of the Department's administrative schemes? The sign language interpretation service is essential for deaf people, many of whom cannot lip-read and suffer high levels of social exclusion that are intensified by poor literacy levels caused by a lack of communication with education providers and teachers. There is a major shortage of Irish sign language interpreters for deaf people. I understand only 50 freelance interpreters serve approximately 5,000 deaf sign language users and many of these are based in the greater Dublin area. How many additional interpreters will be provided? Where will they be trained and how will they be distributed?

The Bill does not include a facility for the director of the personal advocacy service to appear before an Oireachtas committee, except in the case of accounting for funds. While an Oireachtas committee may be able to call the director before it, similar legislation on other bodies makes explicit provision for directors to appear before committees of the Houses at regular intervals.

I welcome the publication of the Bill and look forward to the Committee Stage debate. I ask the Minister to respond to the points I have raised.

6:00 pm

Photo of Willie PenroseWillie Penrose (Westmeath, Labour)
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I am glad to have an opportunity to contribute to this debate and espouse the view of the Labour Party on this important, welcome and long awaited legislation. My party will make every effort to facilitate the speedy passage of the Bill, an integral part of the national disability strategy.

The Comhairle (Amendment) Bill 2004 set out to introduce a personal advocacy service for people with disabilities. The content of that legislation has been incorporated, with significant amendment, into the broader Bill before us. The Disability Federation of Ireland has been in contact with a number of Members, including me, seeking to ensure that various aspects of the legislation are improved and the Labour Party intends to propose such amendments. I note the Minister indicated that suggestions made by the legislative consultative forum will be considered prior to Committee Stage. It is important that all sides show openness to ensure that the best interests of the 400,000 people who have one form of disability or another are addressed in the Statute Book. The Legislature is the forum in which Members act as advocates for those whom they represent and are given an opportunity to suggest improvements to legislation on their behalf.

The Bill replaces the Comhairle (Amendment) Bill 2004. Comhairle was the successor agency to the National Services Board. The Bill changes the focus of the new agency replacing Comhairle, the citizens information service, and the services it will provide. I note also that the new body will be decentralised to Drogheda. As a statutory agency, the citizens information service will come within the remit of the Department of Social and Family Affairs. The original remit of the body was to support the provision of information, advice and advocacy on social services and ensure access to these services. The new body will support the provision of information to the public through three information channels, or "strands" as they were described by the Minister, namely, the Oasis website, the citizens information phone service, CIPS, and a nationwide network of 235 to 240 offices of the citizens information service, CIS. One of these channels, the Oasis website, is administered directly by the organisation, while the CIS and CIPS are delivered by independent voluntary bodies.

Deputy Stanton, who is more technologically minded than me, found the various statistics useful. The Oasis website, for example, counted 2.5 million individual users, while the citizens information phone service received 88,000 calls and the citizen information centres logged 734,000 queries. Between 2003 and 2005, use of the Oasis website and CIPS, both comparatively new services, increased by 144% and 113%, respectively. In the same period, use of the citizens information service centres increased by 30%.

Essentially as an add-on, the agency was subsequently given a statutory commitment to assist and support people with disabilities in identifying and understanding their needs and options and accessing their entitlements to social and civil services. The original intention was that the Comhairle (Amendment) Bill 2004 would further strengthen the role of Comhairle in providing personal advocacy services to adults and children with disabilities as they seek to access disability specific and mainstream services. It appears an alternative route has been taken in that the original citizens advice remit is being strengthened while disability is being relegated to an add-on status. We must continue to focus on the disability sector and ensure the necessary services are provided.

At best, the Minister is trying to ride two horses because the Citizens Information Bill has two central themes — on the one hand, the development and expansion of an advocacy service for people with a disability and, on the other, a name change that will give public expression to the link between the national body and citizens information services nationwide. I hope he does not fall between the two.

Comhairle admits that the remit in respect of advocacy services for people with disabilities, as set out in the Citizens Information Bill, will "be rolled out as resources permit". That is the first warning. There are important issues here. One is the independence of the service; it must not be subject to external interference. I always worry when I see that the hand of the Minister of the day will be the overlay. It is important that the service is not impinged upon or subject to interference so as to diminish its independence. However, the phrase "as resources permit" is the huge financial constraint placed upon the ability of the service to be provided in a wholesome, proper way. That concerns me.

There will be a cost, and I raised this last April. Why must we go to all the bother of rebranding? There will be financial costs in terms of working hours associated with the national rebranding campaign for a service that already exists. It is being strengthened but the main service already exists. Will it cost €500,000, €1 million or €1.5 million? Nobody knew last April. Has any research been conducted in the meantime? There is a new logo to replace the clasped hands, the current emblem of the citizens information service. Have we reached that point? Obviously an agency will be or has been appointed to deal with the rebranding. I am concerned about this, given the profligacy of this Government in spending money without examining the cost benefit.

This money would be better spent on additional services rather than inserting some qualifying condition or prohibition clause in the Bill whereby everything is subject to resources and the say of the Minister. Last April, the Government did not have a clue how much money would be involved in this exercise. The money should be spent on the advocacy service and ensuring that the maximum number of services will be provided for the maximum number of people.

Not everybody in Comhairle was happy that there would have to be a name change. Whose idea was it? The Minister will say it is widening the service and making it more accessible and identifiable for immigrants and people with different languages. That is a point and I will not be churlish or petulant about it. However, I wonder at the penchant for spending significant amounts on money on matters such as logos and the like, which are not a major necessity.

Comhairle has been doing tremendous work. It is an important body. With regard to the personal advocacy service, I must refer to the carers. I have long espoused and articulated their cause; nobody can deny that I have always been a strong and forceful advocate of their cause. The application form for carer's allowance is mind boggling. There is no need to ask people, in effect, how many spoons of sugar they have in their tea. I detest that type of detail.

I listened yesterday to Derek Mooney's radio show on RTE 1 between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. I must pay tribute to him. For the first time I heard a public broadcaster say — he obviously did not know that the Labour Party has always advocated the universality of carer's allowance — that the means test should be abolished. He advocated it strongly. The person to whom he was speaking was obviously in the citizens information centre and could not express a view on policy, only implement it. Derek Mooney is a radio presenter of note and has a major time slot on the airwaves but he did not know that the Labour Party had advocated this move. That is probably a failure on our part but it is also a failure of the general media to ensure that people are aware of these things.

It would cost €180 million to pay the other 100,000 people who provide necessary care, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks of the year. They did get some help from the Minister, and it would be churlish not to acknowledge it, in terms of respite care. Unfortunately, people must wait for considerable periods to avail of respite care, something to which they should be entitled. There should be a free flowing and streamlined system in place. People need this to survive. Sometimes they end up with more severe health difficulties than the people for whom they are caring.

We should not be putting blockages and hurdles in their way. In that context, there must be simplicity in anything that will be dealt with under this legislation. It should not become a morass of form filling. Access to the personal advocacy service must be free flowing and not become a morass of hurdles, as often happens. It is time to simplify the application form for carer's allowance. It is difficult enough being a carer.

Everybody subscribes to the importance of people being allowed to remain in their homes. I strongly advocate it. People are more content there. The cost of nursing homes is so prohibitive that we cannot turn a blind eye to it. There is already a cost with subventions. The €180, or €200 if the person is over a certain age, is a small cost to the Exchequer and the taxpayer for providing a service that is so important to so many people and which gives people comfort in their home environment, where they feel most content. Simplicity will be most important in this area.

When somebody feels aggrieved by the decision made, it is important that there is an appeals mechanism. I subscribe to Deputy Stanton's view that the Ombudsman should have a role in this area. It would be no harm to give the Ombudsman this remit. The social welfare appeals office works extremely hard to deal with a huge number of appeals. The independence of the office is acknowledged and is essential in ensuring that people get a fair deal under the social welfare system. If they feel aggrieved, they can access an independent appeals office.

However, sometimes one is obliged to wait three months or more for an appeal to be heard. If there will be more appeals as more people have their applications for the intervention of a personal advocate turned down, what steps will the Minister take to ensure there will be more independent appeals officers under the chairman of the chief appeals office? There must be an increase in the number of appeals officers. Otherwise, the system will become bogged down. I am glad that the chief appeals officers will have a role. It gives one greater confidence in the system if there is an independent appeals process but it is important that the appeals are heard quickly, so justice can be administered swiftly. People can then be confident that if they are entitled to something, the decision will be made quickly. That is most important.

A number of months ago, the Disability Federation of Ireland, DFI, responded to the Comhairle (Amendment) Bill 2004 by way of presentation to the Joint Committee on Social and Family Affairs. The DFI raised a number of issues it wanted to be addressed. The first of these was the provision of a review mechanism in respect of the operation of the legislation and the second was the establishment of a comprehensive advocacy remit for a director of advocacy within Comhairle. There is a significant difference between what the Minister for Social and Family Affairs has included in the Citizens Information Bill and what was requested by the DFI, namely, the appointment of a director of advocacy within Comhairle whose remit would extend to cover the overall advocacy function within that organisation. The third issue highlighted by the DFI was the need for access to and participation in the personal advocacy service among people with disabilities.

The Minister has introduced the Citizens Information Bill, which was to have been brought forward before the summer recess. One can understand why that did not happen, however, because significant legislative and policy developments took place during the summer months. Only last month, for example, the provisions of the Disability Act 2005 finally came into play. In addition, the social partnership programme, Towards 2016, was brought forward in recent months. The latter includes mechanisms to progress Government commitments under the national disability strategy. One of those commitments was to establish an advocacy service for people with disabilities. In particular, Towards 2016 states that legislative provision for the introduction of the new personal advocacy service will provide for the assignment of a personal advocate to a person with a disability who is unable to obtain or who has difficulty in obtaining a social service without the assistance or support of the personal advocate. It states that this will complement, in a balanced way, the other advocacy and support functions of Comhairle in relation to people with disabilities.

In fairness, this is a first step and it was easy for the Government to include it in this legislation, which was formerly the Comhairle (Amendment) Bill 2004. It is well recognised that officials of the Minister's Department worked hard during the summer and engaged with the disability legislation consultative group. As a result of that work, the Minister made a commitment that some legislative provision would be framed on Committee Stage and that the citizens information board would follow up, in a proactive way, the cases of people who are particularly vulnerable and who may need personal advocates in circumstances where such cases are brought to its attention. That is extremely important, particularly in light of people's tendency to throw up their hands and state that a matter cannot be progressed further. If, however, a Member of these Houses brought a case to the attention of the citizens information board, it is important that it should be in a position to follow up on his or her concerns in order that people's rights and entitlements will be protected and pursued. The board must operate as an active participant to ensure that such rights are vindicated.

The Minister received a great deal of assistance over the years in respect of the development of the advocacy service. The report of the Commission on the Status of People with Disabilities, which was published in 1996, and the disability legislation consultative group's document, Equal Citizens, which was published in 2003, clearly outlined the need to develop an independent advocacy agency. Towards 2016 underlines the glaring need for such a service. What must come next is a legislative framework that will offer people with disabilities the right to a full range of independent advocacy services that will assist people to access public services. Equal Citizens, the report of the disability legislation consultative group, indicates that there is a need for advocacy services to provide training for people with disabilities in advocacy, as well as supports for parents and families regarding their role as advocates. This recommendation is essential.

The three documents to which I refer, including Towards 2016, clearly outline the requirements of a holistic and successful advocacy service which will underpin any framework for advocacy proposed through legislation. That is what we must try to achieve and it is the objective on which we must focus as we commence our deliberations.

Deputy Stanton stated that the DFI and others have indicated that they have some concerns regarding the introduction of the personal advocacy service as set out in the Bill. It would be foolish and somewhat ostrich-like of us to ignore such concerns because they have been raised by people who operate at the coalface. The DFI set out its concerns in a previous submission on the Comhairle (Amendment) Bill, particularly in respect of the need to introduce timely review mechanisms. It is important that every three, four or five years a review mechanism should be triggered. Section 6 of the Disability Act 2005 provides a review mechanism and it is important that the Bill before us, particularly because it relates to people with disabilities, should also make such provision. It would be prudent, wise and useful to build in a review mechanism that would be triggered after a reasonable period, be it two, three, four or five years. It is important that there is some evaluation or assessment that will indicate the level of progress that has been made and highlight whether there is a glaring need for a change to be made in respect of any aspect of the advocacy service we are about to put in place on a statutory basis. Such a mechanism is important because it will provide the only means by which the service will be successful.

The DFI indicated that the personal advocacy service proposed in the Bill will fall significantly short of people's expectations and that the establishment of the service will not, in itself, secure the development of a comprehensive programme of advocacy for people with disabilities. It also highlighted the importance of Comhairle's existing work on advocacy, in respect of which provision is made in section 7(1) of the Comhairle Act, which states:

(1) The functions of the Board shall be——

(a) to support the provision of or, where the Board considers it appropriate, to provide directly, independent information, advice and advocacy services so as to ensure that individuals have access to accurate, comprehensive and clear information relating to social services and are referred to the relevant services, In other words, the DFI is saying that the critical and important advocacy work carried out by Comhairle under section 7(1) of the Comhairle Act must complement that of the personal advocacy service. Together, these services must provide an integrated and comprehensive system of advocacy for people with disabilities.

Section 4 of the Citizens Information Bill proposes to introduce changes to section 7(1)(b) of the Comhairle Act and to add several subsections to the section. It would be foolish of the Minister to miss the opportunity afforded him in the Bill to put in place a holistic advocacy programme which will link all Comhairle's work in the area of advocacy and of which the new personal advocacy service will be a new, exciting, important and integral part.

We should give some consideration to the proposal that a director of advocacy be appointed to give effect to all of the advocacy and support functions in Comhairle as they relate to people with disabilities. Will the proposed director of personal advocacy services, included in section 7A(6) and (8), be sufficient? Will he or she have the opportunity to oversee the various advocacy and support functions of Comhairle? We should look at this and if the Minister does not support it, he should explain why not on Committee Stage.

Any changes that are made in this Bill should be clear and transparent. How will a personal advocacy service enhance existing programmes through Comhairle and the community and voluntary sector? How will they interact and integrate? It is important that Comhairle continues its work and that there is an integrated delivery of these advocacy services and programmes can be supported.

The power of entry is outlined in section 7D(2) of the Bill. It states:

A personal advocate assigned to a qualifying person under this Act may, for the purpose of performing his or her functions, at any reasonable time enter any place where day care, residential care or training is provided for the person and make such inquiries in such place in relation to the person as he or she considers appropriate. That appears to be a fairly comprehensive definition of a personal advocate's power of entry. I believe that we should welcome the extension of that power because it enables personal advocates to link with service settings that are currently providing a service to a qualifying person. However, we should examine the places in which people with disabilities are found. They are not just found in day care, residential care or training locations. They are also found in places of detention, such as hospitals. We must ensure that power of entry afforded to personal advocates extends to any place in which people with disabilities reside. It is extremely important that it is not curtailed in any way. Wherever a person with a disability resides, a personal advocate should have the power of entry to deal with that person and advocate his or case having obtained the relevant information.

The Minister is being skimpy with the resources provided under the Bill. I concur with Deputy Stanton's point about the sign language service. The current sign language services should be extended on a nationwide basis. The mechanism used to implement the services, be it through technology or training, should also be extended nationwide.

I support the broad thrust of the Bill and I look forward to debating it on Committee Stage.

Photo of Catherine MurphyCatherine Murphy (Kildare North, Independent)
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This Bill is to be welcomed in principle. However, I wish to raise issues relating to its practical application. If someone arrives into my constituency office who is a suitable candidate for referral to an advocacy worker, I want to be sure that the resources exist to deal adequately with the issues. My local citizens information centre in Maynooth covers a very large area. In fact, the three north Kildare towns have a population in excess of the city of Waterford. The CIC does excellent work and is developing all the time. However, the service seems to develop in a manner which puts the egg before the chicken, as the centres are encouraged to seek additional clients, offer outreach services and generate additional workloads, but only at that point do they seek resources to deal with that increase. A need must be established before it can be satisfied. An additional amount of work will be placed on the CICs, even though I am sure they will be up to the challenge. Much of what they do is supported by people on CE schemes.

The advocacy workers currently employed by the CIC are employed on a shared basis, often between different geographical areas or between different CICs. My understanding is that the current advocacy workers are support workers for the information officers in the CICs, rather than working directly with the client. The problem created by having a shared worker between two CICs on Dublin's southside is significantly different from that created by having a shared worker in two CICs in Kildare and Wicklow, or Cork and Kerry. We can end up with a disproportionate service and location can be important from that point of view.

The advocacy officer described in the Bill is dedicated to disability as it relates to social services. That is quite limited and members of the Disability Federation of Ireland probably feel the same way. How will it work in practice? I question the number of advocacy workers to be employed. Will the employment be shared? Who will estimate the case load? Will there be an average case load? There are different levels of population in different parts of the country. How will the location of the advocacy worker be determined? People must have access to the service.

Many citizens information centres have limited physical space. They have been very frugal and have tended to be very good at finding a central location, but space is often very limited and one of their biggest problems can be in accommodating additional community employment employees.

The accommodation will need to be accessible if a drop-in service is to be provided. These are practical issues in providing a service. Is it intended to be a call-in service or will the advocacy workers do most of their work on an outreach basis? For someone in a wheelchair and with limited means, the geography is important. How will they get to the centre if it is to be a drop-in service?

With regard to the estimation of needs, it is difficult to judge the needs in the first year of operation and a better estimation may be possible once the centre is up and running. People will take some time to become familiar with the service and to know that it is available. It will take time to build up a client list. There will be a need to advertise or get in contact with individuals who need the service.

Will the advocacy employee assist groups of people with disabilities? For example, St. John of God's service in St. Raphael's in Celbridge carries out ongoing advocacy work with its clients which is very impressive. I have been involved in a few sessions. During the local elections, I and other candidates were grilled by the clients who had been working on this over several months. They knew exactly the issues they wanted to raise, which were mainly access issues such as dishing footpaths, pedestrian crossings or even moving an ESB pole to allow for the movement of wheelchairs. They made a presentation which included photographs. They put a lot of effort into it. I noted they were more interested in issues than the people I met on the doorsteps who did not have a disability. Many of them live in traditional housing estates with support staff from St. Raphael's. If I as a candidate did not call to their houses during an election, it would be noted and I would be hauled over the coals. The advocacy work certainly worked in the case of those people. It gave them confidence and they were most impressive in a group situation. Will the advocacy worker operate in a group situation?

I have been involved with the network of people with disabilities in Kildare who try to link up the various agencies and organisations for individuals with disabilities in order to address the issues in a comprehensive way by advocating for services and facilities. A group can achieve a greater result than an individual and I recommend that this aspect be developed.

I talked to a number of people who have an association with citizens information centres and who attended a course on the subject of this Bill which was held in Sligo. They were concerned that aspects of their future work seemed vague in the Bill. They work at the coalface and when a person walks in their door, they cannot give an academic response, but rather must provide practical advice because this is what is sought. The existing citizens information centres are being encouraged to expand their workload by providing outreach services. I am concerned that they will be asked to take on much more work without the back-up services being provided and resources will be a key issue.

My contribution is to do with practical issues because the Bill is of no value if the practical side is not addressed and if the Bill does not deliver in practice. Building communities is more than just bricks and mortar. A citizens information centre and an advocacy centre for people who require it are crucially important.

The role of citizens information centres is changing. Many of the people who attend now are immigrants and there may be a language barrier. This was not the case ten years ago. The citizens information centre in Maynooth employs 1.5 information officers and its catchment area has the same population as Waterford city. A small number of staff deal with a very large area, with the support of community employment staff. While the community employment staff receive excellent training, they are often moved on when fully trained and at their best. This service will require continuity and I am concerned it may not exist in this kind of environment.

I welcome section 4 of the Bill as it is a useful mechanism. It is encouraging that voluntary bodies realise they must address this issue of access if they are to be grant aided or receive national lottery funding.

Photo of Dan BoyleDan Boyle (Cork South Central, Green Party)
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This Bill was announced with great fanfare a number of years ago as the third leg of a stool which the Government intended introducing to fill in many of the gaps that existed and which I would argue still exist in the policy on people with disabilities. Since that time, the Education of Persons with Disabilities Act and the Disability Act have been passed. This Bill is the second incarnation of the Citizens Information Bill, as the Comhairle (Amendment) Bill 2004 has already been laid before the House. I have yet to hear the reason that Bill, which is still on the Order Paper, was not the vehicle chosen to proceed with completing this Government initiative which was announced with such great fanfare. The only issue between that Bill and this was a concern that seemed to exist about the name of the organisation. If this was the central issue, then it should be explained in the debate.

I wish to declare an interest. A number of years ago I worked on a six-month contract with what was then the National Rehabilitation Board. I still remain confused as to the reason that body disappeared into the mist. It became part of the new Comhairle organisation. It seems that someone decided the delivery of public information and services to people with disabilities was an even knit in some way. It is a compatibility which did not exist then and does not exist now to a certain extent. I agree there is a need for the introduction of a personal advocacy service, but I cannot understand the reason for a marriage of convenience and the maintenance of a very uneven alliance for the delivery of very distinct and separate services. I hope this anomaly can be addressed in the future.

I hope the chosen name will be a matter of debate on Committee Stage and that consideration will be given to renaming the Bill and the organisation which the Bill is to establish. From where has the demand to change the name of Comhairle come? Will the Minister reveal whether he received particular representations in this regard? Is it his personal opinion which has informed this change of legislation?

Could it be that the lack of proper consultation within the organisation which is currently delivering these services has failed to bring about a proper focus as to what that organisation is and should be about? While this Bill is necessary, it is flawed in many respects and much attention will have to be paid to it on Committee Stage if we are to repair what should be much needed services. That said, the provision of personal advocacy was an essential element in the aborted disability Bill 2001, section 5 of which came in for much critical comment at what is known as the infamous Mansion House meeting which drove the Government to withdraw that Bill.

The concerns of people who live with disability, those who live with people with disability and organisations who represent their interests is that the introduction of personal advocacy in this way, with much uncertainty as to how it is to be resourced and what it can achieve, may end up as nothing more than a fancier form of consultation with no guarantee of adequate resources being provided or delivery of services which those with disability so badly need. At the heart of this has been the Government's refusal, despite this being the third in a series of Bills, to recognise the need for rights-based legislation for people with disabilities. Until that is ceded by the Government as a central principle or is acted on, debates on people with disabilities will be informed by this debate.

Outside of that, there are a number of other flaws that need to be debated. Even though I speak in a negative sense, I hope the Minister will be open to accepting some amendments on Committee Stage. The decision to entitle it the citizens information board will cause untold confusion. The introduction of a statutory board when there already exist 42 independent citizen information boards that are non-statutory and deliver face to face services, which will interact with a statutory board which will not deliver face to face services, does nothing to clear the confusion that exists in this area. If the Minister wants to talk about what this organisation would do, he can either maintain or come up with a different version of Comhairle as a name or put into the title its more wide embracing remit which is to be an advocacy and information service because it certainly is more than a citizens information board. The work being done under that title is done in a different and more effective way. That is a particular confusion that needs to be sorted out.

The appointment of a director of personal advocacy services is welcome. My concern is whether the person to be appointed under the provisions of the Bill will have sufficient independence. It is important that independence is given and can be acted on. There are too many references in the Bill to the office of that person having to refer to or possibly be influenced by the Minister in any given time. If we are talking about asserting the rights of people with disabilities, there has to be a necessary distance and independence in this office to allow it to be effective.

On a slightly more technical aspect, the establishment of a new office should be restricted to the same type of restrictions as for other office holders in the State. The idea of a State appointment being limited to a seven-year term and only extended under certain circumstances, with the advice of the chief executive of the organisation, is missing from the Bill. If we want to appoint the right person and have renewal of ideas and energies in that office, such a provision should be included in the Bill.

The other area where the Minister is proposing to make changes is in the composition of the board. Some are welcome changes while others are in need of further consideration. I was surprised that during the past year the Comhairle organisation appointed a new chair, yet there was no public announcement of that appointment. The person appointed is excellent. He is a well respected former member of the press gallery here. I wonder whether that information was withheld not because of any modesty on the part of the person appointed, but because it was decided not to name the composition and chair of the board until a new name and remit of the organisation was put in place. Perhaps I can have clarity from the Minister on that issue.

I agree with the reduction in board members. A membership of 20 is too large, while 15 will make it more effective. The terms of office which are to be extended from three to five years have a logic, although the Minister and I will disagree about the manner of public appointments. My preference and that of my party would be for an independent public appointments commission rather than that such appointments should be in the remit of an individual Minister, but we can argue about that in another forum. The proposal to reduce the number representing people with disabilities from five to three needs to be looked at again because it is not a proportionate reduction. What had been a 25% representation on the board of 20 becomes a 20% representation on a board of 15 members. There are issues about whether the representation is of people with disability or people representing people with disabilities. It would be a retrograde step if in a smaller board the voice of people with disability was smaller on the new board. The Minister should at least increase the number to four. If he is open to such amendment, it would be a big improvement on the Bill.

The only other governance issue he wants to talk about is the quorum for board meetings. There is a certain logic in that because it is hard to get a quorum for meetings at the best of times. I would suggest on Committee Stage that to ensure there is a voice of people with disability, at least one member of that quota at all times should be one of the representatives who are appointed in that way. I welcome the fact that those people will no longer be appointed by the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform if only for the fact that I am always happy to see less decisions being made by the current Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform.

While I have strong reservations about the Bill, I recognise the need to implement it and I am willing to co-operate with the Minister to ensure much of the Bill comes into being. I hope he is forthcoming and accepts a number of amendments on Committee Stage.

Photo of Seán CroweSeán Crowe (Dublin South West, Sinn Fein)
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I thank the Minister's staff for the briefing earlier today which was helpful and much appreciated.

I listened carefully to what the Minister said on the Bill, particularly on the important changes to the Comhairle Act which, he said, would strengthen the functions of the statutory body in the provision of high quality information, advice, awareness and advocacy as part of the delivery of a new seamless and customer friendly national information service under one easily accessible and highly visible brand, citizen information. None of us could have any problem with that.

He went on to speak about accompanying sectoral plans and the Education for People with Special Needs Act. This demonstrates the direction in which legislation is going. Unfortunately, when we look at the Education for People with Special Needs Act, we are all aware of the difficulties of roll-out.

Parents of special needs children have problems in accessing school places, speech therapists and so on. Much of the problem is the lack of resources. I listened to what the Minister had to say about resources but it is vague. The issue is whether this Bill will be resourced sufficiently. One speaker mentioned Irish sign language and the problem that it is centred in the Dublin area. Similarly, if one looks at the issue of children with special needs, the national educational psychology scheme is around the Dublin area and the east coast generally, so there are problems of roll-out in that regard.

The Education Welfare Board was established as a statutory organisation and everybody agreed that it was a great idea, but the necessary resources were not provided. Even though that board is statutorily responsible for children attending school, the resources are clearly not there. If this Bill is to work, it comes down to the provision of resources.

The Minister did not mention in the Bill the fact that if one has a disability in Ireland, one is more likely to be poor, unemployed and on welfare. Therefore, the difficulties facing such people are compounded. The ESRI estimates that fewer than one in three potentially eligible claimants had made a claim and been awarded a family income supplement payment. This ties in with the question of advocacy and highlights the fact that people in need of services are not getting them. Advocates for the disability sector say how society impairs people with disabilities. The lack of roll-out of information hampers such people's access to the services they require.

The introduction of a personal advocacy service specifically aimed at clients with disability is particularly welcome. If the required support is there for them, things are clearly going in the right direction. Personal advocates can be invaluable for marginalised and vulnerable people who are seeking their entitlements and understand the criteria applying to them. While I am worried about the roll-out of those personal advocate services, today's briefing has clarified the matter to some extent.

As was mentioned earlier, the Disability Federation of Ireland has called for the establishment of a director of advocacy who would not merely implement and supervise the personal advocacy service, but would also be responsible for linking and delivering a comprehensive system of advocacy, including a personal advocacy service which would play a vital part. It is essential that the new personal advocacy service should complement the other advocacy functions of Comhairle for persons with disability. The Minister can ensure this by extending the functions of the proposed director of the advocacy service, as other speakers said.

Concerns have been expressed about changing the name Comhairle but I do not have a problem with the branding of the organisation. If people wish to change the name, I have no problem with it. I am more concerned about the roll-out of the services provided.

The purpose of the legislation is to improve access to services by vulnerable groups but the ongoing transfer of community welfare officers from the HSE to the Department of Social and Family Affairs is causing concern in many communities. Details on community welfare officers are vague, which is a worry because these are the people who will be rolling out such services. There is a fear that people with disabilities will lose out if such services are no longer provided in their locality. This could result in longer travelling times to access services.

The accountability of the citizens information boards to the House is another question that arises in the context of quangos. Who will respond to parliamentary questions in this regard? Will the Minister, Deputy Brennan, reply to them or will they be passed elsewhere?

Vulnerable people, such as those with disabilities, should be facilitated in participating fully and equally in society. In this regard, the procedures used to apply for the assignment of a personal advocate must be user-friendly. The powers of personal advocates need to be extended to include all places in which people with disabilities reside. The success of this Bill will be judged on the roll-out of services it achieves but it will take time to assess.

I do not have a major problem with the Bill, which represents a positive step forward. We hope to improve it on Committee Stage but I do not think anyone could have a problem with the broad thrust of the legislation. If it improves services for people with disabilities and is rights-based, it will be a positive achievement. Facilities for such people are thin on the ground and at local level we are still dealing with simple matters such as the provision of suitable footpaths and access to housing. Even though legislation has improved, small things can have a big impact on the quality of people's lives, yet we are still trying to catch up, which is a pity.

Photo of Charlie O'ConnorCharlie O'Connor (Dublin South West, Fianna Fail)
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I will keep the thrust of what I want to say until tomorrow's debate when I wish to contribute again. I echo what other colleagues have said in complimenting the Minister, Deputy Brennan, and his staff for looking after Members' needs and keeping us fully informed. I am glad that so many prominent Members of the Opposition were here to hear my brief contribution. I particularly wish to single out Deputies Penrose and Stanton as we work well together on the Joint Committee on Social and Family Affairs. I hope Deputy Penrose will not get into trouble because I said that. He runs the meetings of that joint committee very well. On all the occasions that he has attended the joint committee, the Minister will be aware that we work well together.

I am happy to work with the Minister as secretary of the policy group in our party, Fianna Fáil. The Minister listens to what Members say and the Bill reflects some of the matters raised at the joint committee, as well as matters he has heard about from Members generally. As the Minister said when introducing this Bill, we should always deliver customer-friendly services to the public. Deputy Catherine Murphy spoke about every street in Kildare and in tomorrow's debate I will talk about Tallaght. I am proud of the citizens information service there. I was invited to be a member of that particular board but when I became a public representative, I was no longer eligible. While I do not have a gripe about it, I sometimes wonder how public representation on various boards is addressed. While I am not referring to the Minister personally in this respect, I feel it is important to make that point.

In tomorrow's debate I will support what other colleagues have said with regard to the various disability groups that have spoken to us at length over the years. While we all acknowledge that there has been much progress, we must continue to listen to what they are saying, without patronising them. They are the people on the ground and, as such, they understand the issues involved. Like Deputy Crowe, I receive calls every day about disability matters. Earlier today, somebody contacted me about access in and around his estate to the local community centre and other local services. Everybody has a role to play in various bodies, including their local authority, which in my constituency is South Dublin County Council.

Debate adjourned.