Dáil debates

Thursday, 2 November 2006

Citizens Information Bill 2006: Second Stage (Resumed)


Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

3:00 pm

John Dennehy (Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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I reiterate the congratulations I already extended to the Minister for Social and Family Affairs when I previously spoke on this Bill. At the time, I referred to the concept behind the Bill and outlined a few reasons why it should be implemented. Since then, I have listened to radio advertisements relating to it in particular. It has taken off to a considerable degree. As I previously stated, I agree with the change of Title. This is not because I objected to the title of Comhairle as such but because the people most affected, namely, applicants, would identify more easily with the new title of the service. Hearing the new advertisements for citizens information, it appears so logical to have this type of title that one wonders why it was not the original title for the service. It is certainly hitting all the right buttons and I wish the service well with its efforts. It has become a highly visible brand after a very short time.

I also compliment the Minister on his appointment of Chris Glennon as the new chairman of Comhairle. Mr. Glennon covered all aspects of Dáil debate for many years and I am sure he will have heard at first hand the cases put by Members of all sides of the House and issues in which he has an interest dealt with. I know he has had a lifelong commitment to those most in need and I am sure he will do an excellent job. I wish him well in his new post.

As others noted, including Deputy Hayes, the service must be fully provided for and properly resourced. I am sure this will be done because, whatever else we may say about the Minister, anything he has tackled has turned out to be a significant success against the judgment of many people at the outset. I wish him well in this endeavour.

I previously made the point that the people towards whom this service is geared are often unfamiliar with modern methods of communication, such as text messages or e-mail, and it is essential that we bear this in mind. Like others, I wonder how such a person with a case will become aware of and acquire an advocate. I am sure the Minister has already considered this. Many questions arise. Can an advocate act on behalf of a group or is it strictly one-to-one? If it is solely one-to-one, the question arises as to where we will obtain the staff to carry out this kind of work.

Reference has been made to people in institutions and elsewhere. One Deputy argued that these people were isolated from their families and friends but I wish to put on record that this is not always true. We have all heard of cases where people have been left isolated but, by and large, families, friends and voluntary groups do a marvellous job in catering for and looking after such people. That was an inaccurate description. I believe people will wish to avail of the service and there must be a way of communicating with such people. We must consider how we can inform the potential applicants at whom the service is aimed.

I am sure the Minister will pick up on the many issues raised, especially on Committee Stage. For instance, one of the EU directives on health and consumer affairs is aimed at disabled air travellers. A strict regime is now in place and if embarkation is refused a person must be offered alternatives and facilities. Will an advocate such as we are describing be in a position to act for people in such situations, especially if they have to be taken outside the State, as may be required if a case is heard in another European location?

Very often the individuals in question cannot take the case themselves as they are incapable of doing so. At times we would all benefit from having an advocate to assist us in dealing with many of the companies involved in business today. People with special needs require the assistance of someone acting on their behalf in certain situations. There was an instance of a particular airline taking advantage of people with wheelchairs. There is a need for one-to-one assistance in such cases.

The existing information services function reasonably well. Everybody is doing a particular job, for example, the citizens information centres, and they work successfully and fill a need in many areas. One of the difficulties currently is that these groups tend to work in isolation and there is a need to combine their efforts and to provide a back-up service. Under the new structure, the whole may be better than the sum of the parts.

We are all aware of how complex are rights and entitlement issues. People often struggle to find a way through the red tape and bureaucracy simply to get their entitlements. I am aware of public representatives who act as advocates. Groups such as Citizens Information sometimes give out the message that there is no need for public representatives to act in that capacity. However, there is a need for us all to act in that capacity. We all have experience of situations where people do not get their entitlements. I am not concerned about who achieves the objective of getting those entitlements. There is no conflict between us. We should work in tandem with each other. In many such cases it is a benefit to have people coming together from different angles to achieve the same end. I welcome any move towards making this process easier.

The new brand of Citizens Information will help to make people even more aware of the existing services. Many of us are illiterate when it comes to certain aspects of new technology. People take it for granted that young people will access the services for them. However, the people who need the service may be illiterate, not because they do not have the brains to learn something but because they did not have the opportunity. We must cater for them. This legislation will be a key aspect of dealing with this issue. We are all aware of how the social fabric has changed to include a multitude of difference. This has led to a significant demand for information and the need for a flexible response. A multiplicity of responses is required to include an on-line service, a phone service and a personal face-to-face service.

I am aware of a certain inflexibility in the past in the area of social welfare. Rules were interpreted strictly and this resulted in people with legitimate cases being penalised. While Ministers sometimes admitted that cases were deserving they could do nothing because the regulations left no room for leeway. I appeal to the Minister to write this legislation in such a way as to provide flexibility and discretion on the part of the director of services to make a reasoned judgment and not for him or her to be constrained by red tape. All Members will be familiar with situations which were never intended when the legislation was being drawn up. Because of the context of the Bill and who it is aimed at, the maximum amount of discretion must be available to the director.

The national disability strategy must be built around the same kind of thinking. Too often in the case of disabled drivers, or people entitled to benefits, the focus was on the letter of the law. We must ensure the legislation is as flexible as possible. I welcome the fact that so many areas in the public and social services are opening up in this integrated fashion. I also welcome the extensive funding this area has received. Despite the criticism that is collectively aimed at this side of the House, a significant amount of money has been invested in the area of special needs. I encourage others not to be critical of this approach. In 1997, less than 300 people were involved in special needs education but this figure has increased to almost 8,000 people. Because improvements have been geared towards the special needs area, especially in the primary sector in the past ten years, other educational sectors have voiced some criticism because they have not received the same benefits. While I accept other needs do exist, it is important to realise that at times one must discriminate in favour of certain groups of people.

The name change is one aspect of the legislation but its main thrust is the new personal advocacy service for people with disabilities. This gives rise to questions on the availability of staff, access to services and whether an advocate can act for more than one client. I am sure these items will be teased out. Like other Members, I have served on and chaired a health board. I accept that, in the main, the voice of these people was not heard for generations. I welcome the change which has come about through the efforts of disabled people themselves and their advocacy groups. The efforts of Oireachtas Members who have been made aware of the need must also be acknowledged. We have become much more educated in that area. At one time there was a cliché about people suffering from mental health to the effect that they did not vote or did not have a vote. That was a nasty way to consider matters. It was an extremely cynical approach and I never believed it was true. However, many people had a lack of knowledge or education on the needs that existed. That is changing rapidly. It is a good departure from the old days and long may it continue.

The Oasis website and the citizen's information service phone service function well. However, according to the figures given by the Minister, in 2005 the services were used by 3 million people. That phenomenal number shows the clear need for the service. Unfortunately, some of the services were provided in a fragmented fashion. I hope the new Bill will change that. I wish all involved well, particularly the director, the new chairman of Comhairle, Chris Glennon, and the Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Brennan.

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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I am glad to have an opportunity to speak on this legislation. I am somewhat confused because only a couple of years ago I participated in the debate on the forerunner to this Bill, when the name of the agency was changed to Comhairle. I remember querying the purpose of that exercise. I could not understand why the name had to be changed nor could I see a benefit to anyone. The purpose of the agency was to dispense information to the widest possible audience in the shortest possible time with a guarantee on the accuracy of the information.

This Bill smacks of being a product of a Government or Fianna Fáil think tank. Having spent too much time in the tank with a build-up of condensation and pressure a need arose to act in the approach to the general election. It was considered that changing the name might be nice and would result in appealing to the public and people with disabilities and give the impression of being about to act.

It is utter hypocrisy for a Government at the eleventh hour to suggest an advocacy service for people with disabilities. The Government has had ample time to take the obvious step and make direct provision for people with disabilities.

Photo of Michael D HigginsMichael D Higgins (Galway West, Labour)
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On a rights basis.

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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Absolutely. That Government should back-up that provision and cut out the nonsense about people not knowing their entitlements. They know their entitlements. However, when they seek them, they meet so many blockades, hurdles, obstacles and obstructions they never receive them. They become exhausted trying to pursue their entitlements and rights.

I will raise a related matter on the Adjournment Debate today and I do not want to undermine it now. It is a classic case of a young person with a severe disability who, despite countless reminders and inquiries on entitlement to payment, waited ten years for that payment to be granted. When it was granted it was obvious arrears were due. When the great and giving Department reconsidered the situation it was decided to remove the payment completely. It felt it would have to cough up after being wrong in the first place. I will speak more on that later.

This House has seen countless meetings, debates and discussions on people with disabilities. We put down countless Dáil questions to the Minister for Education and Science on children, the Minister for Social and Family Affairs on adults and the Minister for Health and Children on back-up services provided by that Department. We always get the same bland replies containing the same old tripe we were told ten or 15 years ago. The world has moved on since then. It is important to provide support, advocacy and back-up services and to enable people to identify precisely what they should get. It is a different kettle of fish to give it to them and that is what we should now consider.

We hear from various people on the other side of the House about the large amount of resources now available to Government and we know it full well. If the Government coffers overflow to that extent, instead of supplying the visuals, why not supply the service? Why not supply occupational therapy or speech and language therapy?

I examined a series of files a few minutes ago. Speech and language therapy does not exist in my constituency. It is finished. What will an advocacy service provide for people seeking such therapy? Will it tell them we will have the service? When will it be? One can be sure it will be after the general election — about three years after it.

It annoys me intensely to see a Bill such as this, well-meaning though it might be. Unfortunately it avoids the real issue, which is to what degree it is intended to enhance the services which should be available to people with disabilities. To what extent will carer services be extended? To what extent will wheelchair access be provided to all buildings, public and private, throughout the country? To what extent is it intended to enhance quality of life and enable and encourage people with disabilities to become involved in the great national economy we all talk about? To what extent is any of that proposed under this Bill? Are we merely involved in optics once again?

A similar Bill came through the House two years ago. We had the same old carry-on and discussed the same nonsense. What happened in the meantime? I do not address my remarks to the Minister of State sitting across from me. I know him to be a decent and sincere man. I know in his heart he agrees with me. We all know we have been here and done that. The longer we stay and listen to it, the more cynical we are about the contents of this Bill.

Photo of Michael D HigginsMichael D Higgins (Galway West, Labour)
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The old National Social Service Board spoke too much about rights. That is why it was abolished.

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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Absolutely. That is exactly why it was abolished.

Photo of Michael D HigginsMichael D Higgins (Galway West, Labour)
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It gave too much information.

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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Exactly. Too much information was made available and people became too well-informed about their entitlements. As a result a change had to be made. Now, it looks as if another change must be made.

I congratulate my constituent, Mr. Chris Glennon, on his appointment to the board. I have no doubt he will be extremely helpful and knowledgeable in that area. I am sad to see he is the latest victim to be sucked into Government propaganda in the approach to the next general election. I wish him well and hope he does well. I know he will because he is deeply committed. Apart from that, both he and the organisation appear to have become victims of a greater and grander plan.

I will speak about the definition of entitlements, particularly regarding the Departments of Social and Family Affairs, Health and Children and Education and Science. One technique to be employed at all times on determination of social welfare entitlements is that the definition of an entitlement must be received from the right person. That does not always happen, even if one puts down a parliamentary question with the best intentions. Incidentally, one is supposed to receive an absolutely accurate reply to a parliamentary question. A reply in the House must be capable of standing up in court at any time. We do not always obtain such information. In certain cases, one must go back down the line and remind people what is the law.

The issues raised are how to get information, where to access it and what information to pass on as a result. How many times have we as public representatives dealt with cases where people were given wrong information, acted on it and deprived themselves of an entitlement? Why do we always have catch-22 situations whereby some little trick exists in the calculation of entitlements based on contributions? A thorn or barb pops up along the line to suddenly deprive a most deserving case for a simple payment. We should address that now and not wait until after the next general election.

I will consider schools and the entitlement of children with special needs. Long before I came to this House it considered the needs of children, who in most cases attend mainstream education, where there are constant requests for extra services, such as speech and language therapy services, which are important in formative years, or other special needs services. These services are necessary but what do we get? We get a bland reply which tells us the Government has spent so much money on these services in recent years and now spends more than ever. We did not expect that it would spend less. It would seem odd if it was only spending what was spent ten years ago. The Government should give itself no plaudits for coming up with the grand notion it is spending more. Of course it is spending more, but it is not spending enough and is not addressing the issue, which is that countless parents are trying to cope while waiting for assistance to which they know they are entitled but which they will not get.

Let me turn to the issues of advocacy and information. Information is power. The more information at one's disposal, the greater the chances not necessarily of achieving one's entitlements, but of at least knowing whom to go to in order to get them. With regard to health matters, on which legislation is currently before the House, how often have we dealt with situations involving an elderly person in hospital? As an example, such an elderly person may have two or three family members and other commitments. He or she may own a house, which, if it is an average council house, may be worth €200,000 to €300,000 — such a house would be valued at €250,000 to €320,000 in my constituency, due to the Government's much vaunted high wage policy which makes it difficult for people to buy houses, although it is fine if one is selling.

The applicant must go through a strenuous examination of his or her circumstances to determine whether a subvention will be paid. This situation has continued for some time and, while I accept that legislation must cover this area, the regulations are very restrictive. If any way can be found to achieve it, the family will be forced to contribute or sell the house. At the end of the day, a subvention will be paid when all the resources the unfortunate person has worked and paid taxes to accumulate throughout his or her life have been dissipated. If that person does not sell the house and becomes destitute, he or she will not get attention. What a cruel, harsh society we have become — the so-called caring society of the Celtic tiger. I am annoyed when I see this kind of situation.

Let us assume that information is power. Is it not then ironic that immediately after the last general election, one of the first things the Government did was to prevent information being made available under the Freedom of Information Act? This was an extraordinary decision given that it is supposed to be an open system and the whole purpose of the exercise allegedly is to provide people with more information. Nonetheless, the Government introduced amendments to the Act to prevent information being made available to the public through the media and the Opposition. It was an appalling backward step. This Bill, which we are proposing to bring through the House, will allegedly help citizens with disabilities. That will be fun if it happens.

I remember a time when an Opposition Member could ask a question in the House on any subject and it was then a matter for the Taoiseach or Minister to reply. If they were not capable of replying, it was embarrassing. It was alleged this was not provided for in Standing Orders but that was not sufficient for the Opposition Members of the time, who wanted more. They did not want an answer to a question; they wanted a debate every morning, as my colleague, Deputy Michael D. Higgins, will remember, on every subject, at their choosing. It was then that Standing Orders were changed. Now, we have a very much set piece, with very select admission of information and a narrow interpretation of what information should be made available to Members of the Opposition. It is a long way from the situation of a few short years ago.

Information is beneficial and the right to it should be guarded. The right of the individual to give or access information in so far as his or her entitlements are concerned should be strongly defended and guarded. I do not accept we are making any proposal, through this legislation or otherwise, to improve the flow of information to the public or, in this case, to people with disabilities.

The citizens information services have done a good job. They were often the meat in the sandwich and had to strive for information and to confirm its accuracy, as the rest of us had to do. Sometimes they got that information and sometimes they did not but at least they tried, and they provided a service to the people in their home localities. They gave the process a flavour of authenticity which even Departments had to recognise and respect. I do not know if the Bill will benefit the people or whether it will empower citizens or people with disabilities, and I do not know whether it will inform them as to their entitlements. It is new and has all the trappings of preparations for a general election. I hope it is capable of lasting somewhat longer than some of the general election promises that have come and gone in the past.

Many volunteers were involved at the beginning of the citizens information service. One of the things we are now statutorily replacing throughout the country is volunteering. The concept of volunteering will go eventually and we will have to build a huge bureaucracy to replace it because it is very difficult to replace a volunteer. The volunteering service went right across the social spectrum, from the health services to local social services, housing, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and other groups too numerous to mention, all driven with a commitment that was local, based on local knowledge and born out of a willingness and an anxiety to help. That concept needs to be guarded in the future. If we discourage, by any means, that concept of volunteering, the country will be much the poorer.

I hope the Minister when replying will address some of the issues I have raised. I hope there will be a greater emphasis not on giving the information to which people are entitled, but on giving them what they are entitled to and removing some of the barriers which prevent them from getting them.

Debate adjourned.