Tuesday, 7 November 2006
Citizens Information Bill 2006: Second Stage (Resumed)
I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak on this legislation. While the Bill is relatively short, it performs the important task of amending the functions of Comhairle, which will now be actively involved in helping people with disabilities.
During the past few years, this Government has worked hard to improve the range of services and supports available to those who suffer from physical and intellectual disabilities. That is only right and proper because the disability sector has for too long been forgotten in Irish society. In the past, it was often the case that lip-service was paid to the provision of disability services but no real supports, whether in terms of money or personnel, were provided. For all of us who worked in health care, the lack of supports in the disability sector was an indictment of health and social welfare services. Such simple matters as the provision of disabled access to public buildings, not to mention the necessity of providing medical and social services, were simply overlooked. Thankfully, with the recent passage of the Disability Act 2005 and the commitment of the Government to the sectoral plans, disability is now centre stage. That is where it must remain.
As anybody who has had occasion to come in contact with people who suffer from disability will be aware, the strength of will and remarkable personal courage of disability sufferers have to be admired and respected. A society can be judged in many ways but most important is the way in which it treats its most unfortunate members. Misfortune can be a matter of financial hardship or it can arise from physical or intellectual disabilities. Life is not easy for a person with a disability. He or she has to fight constantly from the moment the disability appears, be that at birth or later in life. The society to which we all aspire must go out of its way to address the inequalities and injustices which are often the lot of disability sufferers.
Over the past several years, substantial strides have been made towards setting the balance in favour of disability. The additional funds made available by the Minister of Finance, Deputy Cowen, in recent budgets are testimony to his personal commitment to easing the burden borne by disability sufferers. That commitment was apparent during his time as Minister for Health and Children, when his interest in disability was greatly appreciated by all those involved in the sector. That is why I warmly welcome this Bill. A key issue for which the Bill provides is the establishment of an advocacy service for people with disability. This new service represents a huge step forward for this most vulnerable group in society. In effect it means that each person with a disability can have a personal advocate assigned to him or her so that he or she can be assisted in overcoming barriers to full participation in society. In addition a person will be appointed as director of the personal advocacy service and will have responsibility for the overall management and control of the service.
I also welcome the arrangements for an independent appeals process that will come into play allowing the personal advocate of an applicant, who is dissatisfied with a decision regarding his or her eligibility for any service, to become actively involved on behalf of the applicant. The role of the personal advocate is clearly set out in section 5, pages 6 to 12. In essence the role is to act on behalf of the disabled person so that he or she can more easily access any services to which he or she is entitled.
I particularly note section 5.7D(2), which enables a personal advocate in pursuance of his or her functions on behalf of the disabled person to enter any place where day care, residential care or training is provided for the person and to make inquiries on behalf of the person as is deemed appropriate by the advocate. In this way the personal advocate will be more fully informed about the person he or she is representing and will by extension be more able to represent that person in pursuance of a social service. While disabled people have become much more aware of their rights and entitlements, because of their disablement they are not always able to represent themselves fully when seeking services to which they are entitled. It will be the role of the personal advocate to represent the disabled person when seeking what is justly his or hers under social services.
I welcome the Title, which is clear and unambiguous. Changing the name of Comhairle to Citizens Information will make what is being offered much more obvious to all — namely information on all social services. We will now have the delivery of an integrated and seamless supply of high quality and independent information to the entire population and in particular to those who are most vulnerable and in need of support. The provision of information on the social services available can only improve the lives of all our citizens. From Department of Social and Family Affairs figures I understand that more than 1.5 million men, women and children benefited directly or indirectly each week from payments by the Department. This figure is staggering and makes it understandable why information should be readily available on any queries on the provision of social services by members of the public.
There are many other issues, such as housing, education, consumer rights, health services and employment, where members of the public have questions and need clear and unambiguous answers. The passage of the Bill will enable the citizens information board to deliver this much-needed information. I welcome the Bill, which will support citizens with disability to access their rights under the social welfare code more readily. I commend the Bill to the House.
I welcome the opportunity to make a contribution on this Bill, which is a valuable incremental contribution to the making information available to citizens about their rights and entitlements. I wish to get one matter off my chest before I start, about which the Minister will know. Deputy Devins talked about the Title. While I have no difficulty with the English version, Citizens Information Bill, I am baffled by the Irish Title, An Bille um Fhaisnéis do Shaoránaigh 2006. To me faisnéis is about forecasting, for example faisnéis na haimsire. Surely the Minister could consider simplifying the Title and inserting eolas instead. We sometimes crucify the Irish language when we try to shoehorn Irish versions to comply with the requirements of a particular dictionary, whose name I shall not mention to which we all resorted in our time in order to do so. While the Minister is bamboozled by that proposal I will mention other matters.
I welcome the great advances in making information available to citizens over the years. I recall people like the late Tomás Rosengrave from Muintir na Tíre, and the organisation itself many years ago pioneering making information available. My first engagement with citizens' information was as quite a young teenager when the local Muintir na Tíre facilitated farmers in completing applications for various grants. In those days the forms were quite obscure. We have developed considerably.
I have a concern and I do not know whether it is a case of me being sentimental or being an old fuddy-duddy. Huge progress was made by volunteers in providing community information. They did so to contribute to their community. I know at times the extent of the information was inadequate. At a time when I was not involved in politics my local Finglas Council for Social Services used to provide three times a week information on a range of services to people in the area. The information was about rents to the council, the cost of cable television or social welfare entitlements in the days when people from Finglas were required to go into Gardiner Street to sign on as Finglas did not have an office.
We need to try to get the balance right between the numbers of people who provide service on a voluntary basis and the increasing rush to employ professionals. Some services can only be provided by professionals, which is why I am not that critical of the Bill. In the area of disability we need adequately trained and very skilled advocates to help people with disabilities to develop their individual care plan requirements. However, the country is the poorer for our increasing reliance on the delivery of services by paid full-time professionals all the time, in well-staffed and well equipped offices. I pay tribute to the quality of the accommodation now available to Comhairle and MABS, and the way people are received in social welfare offices, which is considerably better than it used to be.
However, times have changed. I am well aware that 700,000 queries were processed by citizen information centres in 2000, which is a reflection on people who draft and design forms. The application for refund of nursing home charges is very complicated. When I first saw it, I thought I should refer the person, who brought it to me, to a solicitor. Do forms really need to be so complicated? Medical card forms have become very complicated. I raised this matter at another forum and while I have the floor I will outline my gripe again. I cannot understand why long-term medical card holders need to be assessed annually when it is patently obvious that their circumstances have not changed. If anything, their medical condition has deteriorated. Why is a great deal of money being spent on overtime for HSE officials to trawl through eligibility levels and people's income circumstances when a quick cross-reference would suffice in establishing a person's entitlement? That is something that must be examined.
The fact that 34% of queries received were about social welfare issues, 15% concerned employment queries and 13% concerned health service payments raises questions. The Department of Social and Family Affairs is pioneering in much of what it does in providing information but many people appear to be afraid to approach social welfare officials. They need not be fearful but there is still some reluctance in that regard. I do not know what the Minister and his Department can do to make the offices of his Department more customer friendly. In many cases there is no longer a hatch. Perhaps they could become more like modern walk-in banks, for example, where one can sit down in a reasonably private area and have one's circumstances discussed. That might be tried on a pilot basis, if it is not being done already. Many of the people who come to us, and we are nearly the port of last resort in many cases, have not had a positive experience with somebody linked with the Department of Social and Family Affairs. It may be the case that somebody has not been willing to provide full information to an assessment inspector who has called but it is an area that could usefully be examined.
I referred briefly to the development of the advocacy service, which is important. However, we should make haste slowly. Talking to an advocate in the employment area today I wondered if sometimes they conjure up problems to compile a stronger case to present so that they do not appear to be redundant. They must have very good facilitation and listening skills. They need to empathise with people but that does not mean they should not ask the difficult questions. However, some sensitivity must be borne in mind when delivering a high quality, customer focused, integrated information service.
I urge Comhairle to proceed more slowly than some other organisations in advertising their services. There is little point in providing an e-mail address for people who want to contact that organisation when half the people in the country are not computer literate and much of the other half does not have access to a computer, except through a public library, to get this type of information. There is a great deal to be said for simple, old-fashioned, clearly written and clearly understood information that people can access. That was the case in the past when one could leaf through a handbook and find out one's entitlements, the requirements and so on. We should not always have to depend on the electronic form of processing the information.
Undoubtedly, additional funding for the development and facilitating of the advocacy service will be necessary. I commend the fact that each year the Minister, Deputy Brennan, and his predecessors, were able to give additional funding to Comhairle and to the money advice and budgeting service. The people in MABS do a great job and I have great time for them. I have seen the way they were able to steady people who were lurching towards greater indebtedness. The link with the local organisations including the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, the local credit union, officials from the Minister's Department and officials from local authorities has made a major difference. I do not want to mention any names but there are a number of people in the Finglas and Ballymun MABS offices that I have seen over the years blaze a trail in the area of advocacy and provide clear information.
Much good work is being done by MABS in dealing with the recipients of awards from the Residential Institutions Redress Board. A number of cases spring to mind where, were it not for the intervention of MABS, the money would have been frittered away unwisely. The people in MABS were able to advise those people, most of whom never had a bank account. They might have had a post office account but they were not involved in savings schemes and so on.
Deputy McGrath will be aware of people like that also from his teaching experience. I commend the work of MABS and I hope the Minister can find ways of continuing to support its expansion. We are not talking about making people dependent. I have discovered that the opposite is the case. MABS people are very good listeners and organisers but they are also very good at explaining to people that if they buy a flat screen television, they will land themselves deeper into debt. They tell it as it is and that is as it should be but for that they need a great deal of training.
It is important that all of us are able to advise the public of the importance of this new service. To make it available and understandable, I suggest that the Minister and his officials produce a leaflet outlining what is available under this service and make it widely available through constituency offices, citizens information offices, public libraries and so on. I commend the Bill to the House.
We are all conscious that this Bill must be put through the House as quickly as possible. It has been delayed long enough. There are people depending on it and waiting for it to come into force. Not everyone will benefit from it but what is new?
The Citizens Information Bill 2006 replaces the Comhairle (Amendment) Bill 2004. The Citizens Information Bill, like the Comhairle (Amendment) Bill it replaces, provides primarily for the introduction of a personal advocacy service for people with disability. The introduction of a personal advocacy service is a key element in improving services for people with disabilities.
People with a disability face barriers that are often impossible to surmount without help and too often those barriers are erected by people in institutions whose principal disability is selfishness. It is easier to blame the person with a disability rather than take down the barrier, blame the size of the wheelchair rather than the narrowness of the aisle and blame the person rather than remove the obstacle.
In truth, it is people with disabilities who have forced us to change our perception. I continually hear people talk about how we have changed our approach to people with disabilities. We would have the same approach and would treat them the very same way if they did not come out and insist we change our view of them and their view of the world. That is important.
The time has passed when people with disabilities could be forced to be content with whatever label we chose to pin on them, whatever pigeonhole we chose to slot them into and whatever method of charity we chose to employ to help them eke out a limited and constrained life.
For years, people with disabilities have rejected what is known as the medical model but this Government has once again reverted to it in the Disability Bill. The medical model of disability is the description that says all the disadvantages that go hand in hand with disability are caused by the disability itself. People with disabilities have been demanding instead that we accept a social model that describes disability much more according to the barriers that confront them. When one talks about this, everyone agrees, yet the medical model continues to feature in the legislation. Increasingly people with disabilities have been demanding one simple right, that is, the right to be treated as equal citizens in a republic. This is not a lot to ask for in a republic.
There are concerns over the proposed Comhairle (Amendment) Bill, published in September 2004. These relate to ensuring the most vulnerable people with disabilities can be automatically referred to a personal advocacy service without them or their families having to initiate such contact themselves; ensuring the personal advocacy service can address quality and safety issues for individuals in respect of services currently provided; expanding the application of the service to cover those who are already availing of services — for instance, it might be in the best interest of an individual to have an alternative service; and ensuring the qualifications of the personal advocate are specified in the Bill. The Minister is stating such qualifications will eventually be described, which is to be welcomed. However, when will this happen? The provision of advocacy services for individuals is very important and it is therefore important that the Title of the Bill include the word "advocacy". Why does it not? After all, the Bill addresses the issue of advocacy.
Some of these issues are addressed in the Citizens Information Bill 2006 but there are still concerns surrounding a number of elements. Advocacy, as a profession, is just developing in this country and as it develops new needs and best practices will emerge. It would therefore be sensible to provide for a review process that could commence after a reasonable period. It would usually be commenced after three to five years.
There needs to be a broad definition of the qualifications required to be a personal advocate. While such a definition is not contained in the Bill, I welcome the fact the Minister will consider it for inclusion on a future date. In this regard we also need more details regarding the number of advocates that will be appointed. Where will they be based and how many will there be? People with disabilities not only live in Dublin but also in all sorts of small places throughout the country. I accept fully that there cannot be an advocate "for everyone in the audience". This would not be necessary but advocates need to be available when required.
We must also receive assurances on the independence of the advocacy service. A very thin line exists between the service provider and client, especially where the needs of those with disabilities are concerned. Considering that service provision has heretofore been carried out by charitable institutions, the line is even more blurred in the case of people with disabilities. It is very important that there be a gap between the service provider and the client. If I have a problem with a service, I need to know the person pursuing my case on my behalf is not linked to the provider. There should be daylight between the two.
The development of advocacy services in this country is in its early stages and we need to be very careful it does not occur such that no standards apply. Standards are a major issue in the provision of services for people with disabilities. We have clearly not yet reached a sufficient standard, which always astonishes me. Given the State is the financial provider, I cannot understand why we do not demand service and standards.
A disproportionate number of people with disabilities in Ireland live in institutions as compared to those in other countries. It is important that these individuals be attended to. We need to ensure they do not have to be proactive in seeking a service and that they are attended to first. Let us determine how they feel about their living conditions. They may be extremely happy to live in institutions but, if not, we should know about it.
The power of personal advocates must be extended to all residential institutions. Section 5 states that, in order to qualify for a personal advocate, the person must prove he or she would come to some harm if he or she did not receive the service. Surely one should get the service if one needs it and can benefit from it, rather than the other way around. This should be the criterion above all others.
Deputy Carey referred to the fact that one must make an application for service in writing. If one is capable of stating in writing why one needs the service and why one would come to harm if one did not receive it, why would one need an advocate? In such circumstances, one is clearly capable of arguing one's own case. This provision is such that the service will not be as helpful as it could be. Any service of this kind should reach out rather than wait passively to be accessed. It should be very proactive.
The legislation provides that where a person with a disability is dissatisfied with a decision on his eligibility for the personal advocacy service, he will be able to avail of the services of the appeals office of the Department of Social and Family Affairs to determine his appeal. The legislation outlines the procedures to be in put in place in this regard. The Minister knows I deal frequently with the appeals section of his Department. I cannot praise it highly enough. It is incredible and independent and it takes its independence very seriously. I am glad it is involved with this Bill because I know that, on receiving cases, it will adjudicate in a very fair and practical manner. The difficulty I have is that there is now a backlog. Will more staff be employed if appeals cases arise? Such cases will probably be a little more difficult than the standard social welfare cases. Will more resources be put in place to ensure the backlog is reduced and that further difficulties will not be created for the section and the Department as a whole when the additional responsibility is taken on?
I was supposed to speak on this Bill last week but did not get an opportunity to do so because its progress through the House has been patchy. However, on hearing the Taoiseach's speech at the weekend, in which I was most interested, I was very glad I did not speak on the legislation last week, although I believe it should be dealt with as quickly as possible. The Taoiseach did not say much and made exactly the same promises he made in 2002, namely, to recruit more gardaí, solve the accident and emergency crisis etc. Given he did not deliver on those promises then, why should we believe him now? The one key point he made was on the rights of children. I find this interesting because during the debate on the Disability Bill, which is now the Disability Act 2005, Deputy Stanton and I pleaded not only with the Minister responsible, but also with the Taoiseach on the Order of Business to give rights to people with disabilities. The amazing thing is that many children have disabilities.
I was present when the Irish Human Rights Commission addressed the joint committee, which is chaired by Deputy Ardagh. When I asked why people with disabilities do not have the same rights as me, Deputy Stanton or the Minister, Deputy Brennan, I was told that such people are not considered to be equal citizens. Will the Taoiseach have the same concern for children with disabilities as he has for able-bodied children? Will they be catered for in the new referendum on the rights of children? I do not just refer to this Government when I say we are all guilty. Will children with disabilities be considered separately? Why was the Government unable to give rights to such children in the Disability Act 2005? It has suddenly decided, as we approach a general election, that it wants to protect the rights of all children. I am sure people with disabilities will not hold their breath in that regard. The Taoiseach's comments at the weekend were hypocritical when one considers he was unable to help the most vulnerable people in society, who genuinely needed such assistance.
The establishment of the personal advocacy service is welcome, but I am not sure how effective the service will be if the foundation of the edifice is not based on rights. This Bill will not oblige the Government to create any additional positions in the areas of speech therapy, occupational therapy or psychology. There will not be any extra needs assistants, care workers, teachers, doctors or nurses as a result of it. Those who access the service will immediately be affected by issues of practicability and affordability. There may be a gap between what they need and what the State is willing to give them. They need rights, but the State is not prepared to offer them those rights.
It would be remiss of me not to use this occasion to remind the Government parties of their commitment in this regard in the 2002 programme for Government. I could refer to commitments in areas like Garda resources and accident and emergency services, but we are talking about the Citizens Information Bill 2006. The Government promised in 2002 to introduce legislation based on a commitment to rights for a group of Irish citizens who have been receiving charity for most of their lives. I remind the House of the commitment in the programme for Government to "complete consultations on the Disabilities Bill" and "bring the amended Bill through the Oireachtas and include provisions for rights of assessment, appeals, provision and enforcement". That is another example of the use of the word "rights". In 2002, the Minister, Deputy Brennan, knew that people in the disability community were insisting on rights-based legislation. They did not get it, however, and we have returned to this old issue in 2006. The Government has promised to provide for rights, but I do not believe it. The commitment that was made in 2002 was not honoured, unfortunately. The legislation that was put in place did not aim to provide rights or end inequality. It perpetuates a culture of dependence and charity, in the midst of our great prosperity.
There is a substantial level of demand for the services of Comhairle and other information providers. In 2005, there were 2.5 million individual users of the Oasis website, 88,000 people called the citizens information telephone services and 734,000 queries were made to the citizens information services. We need to offer a state-of-the-art service that allows people to access information about their rights and entitlements. I have been concerned for some time about the fact, as outlined in responses to parliamentary questions, that 60,000 families are entitled to the family income supplement, but just 18,500 of them are receiving it. Some €100 million is not being claimed. I received a very good response to a comprehensive leaflet drop about this matter that I did in my constituency. If able-bodied working people in the community are in daily contact with all sorts of services, but do not know they are entitled to claim money from the State, how are people with disabilities supposed to access services? While some people with disabilities are helped by the organisations which operate on their behalf, many of them are isolated. This Bill should ensure the advocates of people with disabilities go out and speak to them, rather than sit in an office and wait for people with disabilities to come to them.
While this is a good and worthwhile Bill, the main thrust of it is wrong. The service being established cannot be passive — it must be proactive and easily accessed. No further barriers should be put in the way of people with disabilities.
I welcome the opportunity to speak about the Citizens Information Bill 2006. Essentially, the purpose of the legislation is to provide for the establishment of a personal advocacy service, especially for people with disabilities. I congratulate the Minister, Deputy Brennan, on his good and inspired decision some time ago to appoint Mr. Chris Glennon as the chairman of Comhairle. It is good to offer such positions to people who have been active in the fields of journalism, current affairs and developments over many years. Such people can have a great deal of experience of what is good, what works and what does not work. It is suitable to choose people like that to fill jobs of this nature. I am reminded that Mr. Michael Mills, who was the first Ombudsman, was a former political journalist. He brought great dignity and courage to that office. That position is now held by Ms Emily O'Reilly, who is also a former journalist. It seems a trend is developing in the approach of Governments to such positions over the years. The people who have worked in such roles have distinguished themselves. They may have been nice or severe to the Governments of the day on various occasions. Journalists who have experienced the rough and tumble of various jobs tend to be somewhat fearless when they are chairing boards, as Mr. Glennon is doing in the case of Comhairle. They are aware of the old dictum "publish and be damned". I am sure Mr. Glennon will act in a fearless manner on behalf of the people whose rights he is trying to improve.
The services of Comhairle are provided at 235 centres throughout the country. This legislation provides for the establishment of the position of director of personal advocacy services. People can use a number of existing information channels to get information from Comhairle. This Bill will bring the various channels together into a single service. In 2005, the Oasis website reached almost 2.5 million people, which is a large number. While 2.5 million different contacts were made, some people may have contacted the site on multiple occasions. Nevertheless, it is an important site. I use it intermittently since I became aware of it recently. The citizens information service, which dealt with 734,000 queries in 2005, provides face-to-face services at 235 locations, in permanent offices as well as in outreach offices where it may be available one morning a week, for example. It is great that such an outreach facility is available. The citizens information telephone service dealt with 88,000 queries last year. I do not know how many times I have heard the advertisement for that service, but I cannot remember the relevant telephone number. I know that a great effort is made in the advertisement to help people to remember the number. The services in question are competing with other channels which are providing information. The entire process will be easier and more user-friendly for the general public when all three services are brought together under the single and easily identifiable title of the citizens information service.
When I have encountered the service provided by the citizens information service at local level, I have been impressed by how up-to-date is the information given by its staff.
They travel with their laptops and have software, which will be the envy of every Deputy. People meet with the representative who can key in the particulars and give good quality direction immediately. This is to be welcomed. I recently came across a firm offering a similar facility to Deputies for use in clinics. While there is space for such a service, I do not know how many Deputies have taken up the offer. The nature of our work is such that it is often difficult to provide information on the spot.
While I am a fan of citizens information services, I know that historically other Deputies were not. My first contact with citizens information services came when I was selected as a Dáil candidate in 1997. I had not been involved in local government and did not have much experience of making representations on behalf of people. I called into my local office in Portlaoise where the staff provided me with the information and assistance I required. I was trying to increase my well of knowledge and found that office to be an outstanding facility.
However, I recall reading speeches at the time from Deputies who were giving out about citizens information centres. They felt it would put an end to the function of a local representative and his clinics and that the centres were subverting the work Deputies were doing. I certainly hope this attitude is dead and buried. There are probably a few Deputies who would like people to be dependent on them and not be in a position to get the information on their own. I believe that people should have access to all the information to which they are entitled. They should not have to depend on meeting a Deputy in a clinic.
After I was elected to this House, I had a good working relationship with the citizens information centres in Portlaoise and throughout County Laois. Occasionally, the staff would come across anomalies which they would informally bring to my attention so that we could raise it with the policy unit in the Department of Social and Family Affairs. There is a good exchange of information between the centres and elected representatives.
I had a number of clinics around the county that I would hold on Fridays or Saturdays. After a couple of years, I noticed that the citizens information service was going to almost all my venues on other days. They had obviously seen where my clinics were held and I felt that imitation was the best form of flattery. They felt that I had sussed out the outlying towns and villages where people needed assistance. It was good that the public should have such a choice.
However, I do not know how well the service is briefed on housing issues. I am not referring to housing for people with disabilities or disabled persons grants. Sometimes one has to advocate on behalf of constituents with the relevant local authority. While the brief of the service has been to provide information, I do not think it has been able to advocate with housing departments on their clients' behalf. Sometimes constituents will be referred to me by the citizens information centres. I am sure they give the names of other Deputies as well; there is no question of them operating on a partial basis for one Deputy only. It impresses me that they knew the limits of their powers but could refer their clients to someone who could help further.
Similar circumstances arise with social welfare queries. I do not know if the service has the authority to contact the Department of Social and Family Affairs on behalf of a client. It is normally up to the client to contact the Department directly. As elected representatives, we are fortunate that we can do this on behalf of constituents. If this facility is not open to the service, perhaps it could be further examined, subject to it being used judiciously. A dedicated information line could be set up for citizens information services so that they can determine to what office certain files have been dispatched and who is the deciding officer.
Deputies today received an extensive booklet from the Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Brennan, on the various social welfare schemes. It contains a wealth of information and it is only when one sees the extent of the schemes that one realises the need for citizens information services. I do not think any Deputy could be fully conversant with all the details of social welfare schemes. Booklets could also be issued for farming and other sectors of society. There is much information to be assembled, and the service does a good job in helping collate it. It has excellent software that helps staff in the course of their work.
A number of Deputies have referred to the Title of the legislation, namely, the Citizens Information Bill 2006. A Deputy queried the cumbersome Irish language version of it. While I am not an expert on the language, I accept the point that has been made. Another Deputy asked that the advocacy nature of the service be reflected in the Title. That may or may not be a valid point. My main issue with the Title is that members of the international community living among us who are not Irish citizens may feel that this is not for them. I feel it is a genuine mistake and an amendment must be made to the Long and Short Titles of the Bill. This legislation gives the impression that this information is only available to citizens.
Ireland has long passed the time when only Irish citizens lived here. People from the EU or elsewhere who would rely on these services could be forgiven for thinking that it was not for them. There is only one appropriate response open to the Minister and that is to take this point on board. This problem struck me when I first studied the Bill and while other Deputies had views on the Title, I felt this was the most basic problem with it. I hope it can be examined in due course.
Section 2 provides a good definition of the social services that can be provided by a statutory body or voluntary organisation. I wish to make a general point that is not specific to this Bill. I consider almost every Bill that comes before the House to be badly drafted. Definitions should be contained in the first few sections. This Bill has definitions in sections 5, 7, 7A and elsewhere. The dispersal of these definitions makes legislation cumbersome. Perhaps it is because of old habits in the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel where they tend to define a particular aspect of the legislation only when they come to it. All the definitions should be outlined at the beginning. I do not think the Minister will change it in this Bill because it would require significant redrafting. However, I suggest that it be done in future. The Acts are referred to in this legislation, whose purpose is to amend the Comhairle Act 2000 and replace the Comhairle (Amendment) Bill 2004. It also refers to the Disability Act 2005 and the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004. At least four Acts or Bills are referred to in this legislation. We should opt for immediate consolidating legislation to bring it all together.
We are creating administrative work for the citizens' information centres and all those involved if they need four Bills or Acts at their fingertips to discover what a given section lays down. Legislation should be simple, and if it is a matter of providing information, it should all be in consolidated legislation rather than in four or five different Acts. Providing information is not easy when one has all that, and perhaps the Minister might address it. In the Department of Social and Family Affairs, there is an excellent practice of regularly producing consolidating legislation. Although this is a short Bill, there is a need for consolidation somewhere down the road. That should not be too complicated, since no issues of principle or policy are involved; it is merely a matter of tidying it up and facilitating people to use the legislation.
The Social Welfare Appeals Office has always intrigued me. I am pleased to say as a Deputy that I have referred several cases to it and that my attendances at oral hearings have been successful. I do not have the figures to hand, but the success rate in the appeals office is 40% or 50%. The real question relates to how so many wrong decisions were made by deciding officers in the first place. I would have hoped that they might have got many more of those decisions right initially. What does that say about the original decisions and the deciding officers? What have they done to those members of the public who came for their disability allowance, were turned down after three months' delay, dealt with the appeals office for months on end, perhaps going in and out to the community welfare officer, only to find that they had been entitled to a payment from day one? There should be some internal mechanism regarding how decisions are being overturned. We assume that the final decision is correct; we certainly hope so.
I know the answer to some of that. Officers are too lazy to write for information such as a copy of a bank statement and it is easier to get the file off their desks and refuse the allowance on the basis of insufficient information provided. However, the appeals officer or someone else at that level has to do the work to get to the bottom of the case. There is too much trying to get rid of a case and closing it off, even if it means refusal.
For that reason, one of the few reports that I read every year is the case studies of the appeals office. I have gone back through some cases that mirrored those initially refused by deciding officers. Given what the appeals office has said regarding the case studies that it prints in its annual report, I have now taken cases back to the appeals office. I may achieve satisfaction on behalf of the clients. There must be a lack of quality control if so many decisions are being overturned. I know that it is not specific to this legislation, but it is very relevant to the general topic being discussed. I also know that the Minister likes changing the names of schemes, but people still refer to the children's allowance. We can change them all we like, but old habits die hard. People like familiarity, since it is part of human nature.
I agree with the idea voiced a few moments ago that family income supplement payments are routinely under-claimed. There is a substantial need. The Department should be helped through its own devices, and those with an income below a certain level should be known from the tax office. Some of them do not even reach the threshold for the 20% tax rate. It would not hurt to send them all a leaflet stating that they should check their entitlements. One would know by definition if they were on low incomes. Perhaps not all work long enough hours to qualify for family income supplement, FIS, but many will. When we pass legislation, there is an onus on the Government to help citizens make claims. Mechanisms might involve links with the Revenue Commissioners if the social welfare staff lacks details of all those on relatively low incomes; it is possible to get them.
In this evening's debate and previously, the rights of children in a referendum were mentioned. It goes without saying that we support that. One may agree or disagree with the need for a referendum, but all fair-minded people will be happy that the principle of children's rights will be enshrined in our Constitution in due course once there has been a proper, full and public debate. I heard Deputies from the Labour Party say last night that there was no need for such a debate, since the issue was closed. However, the debate has hardly started, and we need an informed discussion.
The term "dependent relative" is demeaning and belittling and it tends to be directed towards women. I hate this phrase. I would like to see that changed under the social welfare heading if the Minister has not already changed it in his recent alterations to titles. When men receive the old-age pension, their wives are normally described as receiving the dependent relatives' allowance, which is not the full amount. They are demeaned in two ways.
The concept of dependency must be re-examined. People come to me about it, and not only the title is wrong, since in this day and age, they believe that spouses are entitled to an equal old-age pension payment. I know that there have been tremendous improvements in raising dependent relatives' payments closer to the full amount for a single person, and I urge that in the next budget the Minister identify the funding necessary to equalise it. The people in question are the mothers who raised us all. They see younger women enjoying chances outside the home that they did not have, and they now feel entitled to some of the benefits and recognition. I ask that the Minister take that into account as part of the current budget and social welfare legislation. It would very much be appreciated by all dependent relatives, the majority of whom happen to be women.
Tá áthas orm deis a fháil labhairt ar an mBille seo, ar a dtugtar anois the Citizens Information Bill 2006, an Bille um Fhaisnéis do Shaoránaigh 2006. Is fada an bóthar nach bhfuil aon chasadh ann, agus seo sampla de Bhille a bhfuil a lán athruithe déanta air ó cuireadh an síol. Táimid anseo anois ag plé Bille atá tar éis teacht i ndiaidh Billí eile, na ceithre cinn atá luaite cheana féin ar a laghad, the Comhairle Bill 2000, the Comhairle (Amendment) Bill 2004 to name but two. It is also interesting to see, because the legislation is so interlinked with the needs of those with disabilities, that the Disability Federation of Ireland newsletter of August 2006 gave a very interesting overview of the federation's work and aspirations in that regard. It stated that it had met senior officials of the Department of Social and Family Affairs to reach agreement on several key issues.
I will not go through all those listed, but they include ensuring that the most vulnerable people with disabilities can automatically be referred to a personal advocacy service without their or their families' having to initiate such contact themselves and ensuring that the personal advocacy service can address quality and safety issues for individuals in respect of services currently provided. Also listed are expanding the application of the service to include those already in services, for example, where an individual's interests might be better served by alternative services and ensuring that the qualifications of personal advocates are specified in the Bill, and that its Title includes the word "advocacy", as the substantive issue concerns the advocacy service.
That is one disappointment to begin with because the Bill — unless the Minister intends to propose amendments — does not make provision in that regard. I refer here to use of the titles "Comhairle", "the citizens advocacy services support agency" or whatever. Perhaps the Minister is using the tabloid version of the Title rather than its longer counterpart. However, he must come to terms with the fact there was an understanding that the word "advocacy" would be included in the Title. I will be interested in his reply in that regard.
In June the Taoiseach indicated to the House that what has been published as the Citizens Information Bill 2006 is the Comhairle (Amendment) Bill 2004, plus a few minor amendments. The Comhairle (Amendment) Bill 2004 was, in turn, presented as being section 5 of the Disability Bill 2001, hived off as distinct legislation. The most obvious of the Government's material amendments to what was proposed in 2004 is the proposal to rename, as the citizens information board, the State agency Comhairle, which was established as recently as June 2000. The new agency is to be invested with responsibility to directly deliver to members of the public a personal advocacy service and to retain and further develop Comhairle's existing responsibility to fund and support the national network of independent non-statutory citizens information boards.
If implemented, the Citizens Information Bill 2006 will create a national statutory agency called the citizens information board, with a network of 12 offices located in Dublin and throughout the country. This board and these offices will explicitly not provide information and advice services to the public. They will instead provide funding and support, including management level support, to the network of local independent non-statutory citizens information boards including — I am particularly proud of this — the award winning Fingal (North County) Citizens Information Service, which provides services in Balbriggan, Skerries, Swords and Malahide. I know many of the people involved with the latter and am aware that they take their work seriously and do an excellent job.
The issues that arise in respect of the Bill are causing public confusion by imposing an unnecessary and unwanted change of name on a recognised and successful public agency and writing off the considerable investment during the past six years in building up the national brand name of Comhairle. One must recall that Aer Lingus previously spent many millions on tilting its shamrock. I wonder whether making changes of this nature are considered good value for money, particularly when a brand is already in existence. Perhaps most importantly, however, there is the issue of a State agency moving in and colonising the citizens information brand that has been built up by non-governmental efforts over a period of decades.
Informing these matters is a profound and fundamental issue that goes to the heart of pluralism in our democracy. Since the first community-based citizen information centres were opened, without any State support, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, they have derived their mandate from the communities they developed to serve, rather than from the apparatus of State. The individual mandates of the different citizens information services throughout the country are plural, not singular. They are citizens information services primarily because they are citizen initiated, citizen run, citizen directed and, in the main and largely through voluntary effort, citizen delivered. They have been supported in recent years by professional management and structured, formal and broadly representative voluntary boards of management.
The citizens information movement finally won a measure of State recognition, without financial support, in July 1975. It has developed steadily in the three decades since on the back of sustained voluntary effort at local community level. Citizens information services are practical and admirable examples of participative citizenship in action — self-help and assistance provided to people in their dealings with the sometimes bewildering requirements of the State in its multifaceted role as a facilitator and provider of social services.
The Minister — I hope he takes this as a compliment because that is how it is meant — as one of the canniest and most experienced members of the Cabinet seems to have made a fundamental mistake in his approach to this legislation in that he appears to have interpreted the term "citizens information" as meaning citizen-directed information provision, rather than what it actually represents. This misunderstanding appears to lie at the root of the misjudged initiative to bring into being a State agency that will be a creature of the Oireachtas, overseen by ministerial appointees, and called the citizens information board.
The State, regardless of who is in government, has a close relationship with the public, including its citizens, but it is not that public. The notice placed — this is an example, albeit it in another context, which serves to illustrate that to which I am referring — at the entrance to the memorial gardens in Inchicore read "Closed to the public, State function in progress". For many people who work for citizens information boards, that emphasises that there is a fundamental misunderstanding with regard to what we are trying to achieve.
The bulk of inquiries encountered by the personnel of citizens information centres, CICs, the vast majority of whom work on a voluntary basis, refer to services provided by the State but which do not depend on citizenship. Access to most publicly provided services depends generally on ordinary or habitual residence only. The type of queries to which I refer relate to access to health services, housing, liability for income tax and PRSI, entitlements to social welfare payments and access to regulatory protection for consumers or employees. These are the main areas of activity of the CICs and none of them are citizen specific.
A matter of increasing concern to citizens information centres during the past decade has been the provision of services by the State in the areas of asylum seeking and immigration. Again, these are citizen-provided, State-supported information advocacy, support and referral services available to people new to Ireland. By definition, these are services provided to citizens of countries other than Ireland and to stateless persons. The Minister's ill-considered citizens information board initiative runs the risk of making such services appear to have exclusively citizen access only. In that context, what is being done is slightly sinister and potentially dangerous. I do not perceive that the Minister is attempting to proceed in that way, although such an interpretation can be applied to what he is proposing.
Another slightly sinister aspect of the Bill is that it is presented by a Minister who, as Government Chief Whip to the late Mr. Haughey — we all remember Mr. Haughey, God rest him — was involved in the disgraceful attempt in 1987 to dismantle the network of citizens information centres and the rudimentary structures that existed to support them at that time. The Minister can explain the background to these events in due course but the account that has been reported indicates that what occurred in 1987 led to the defeat of the then Government on an Opposition motion, while volunteer personnel of the CICs picketed outside the Kildare Street gate on another cold November afternoon.
This Bill was published in the absence of any specific consultation with the bodies that will be immediately affected by it, namely, the 40 independent local non-statutory citizen information boards that have, with support from the old National Social Services Board and later Comhairle, been in operation in the period since the first of them formally incorporated as a limited liability, for charitable purposes, non-profit company in 1995. Did the Minister consult the existing citizens information boards or the national organisation that represents them? Has the board of Comhairle approved the proposed name change to citizens information board, with all that it entails?
The Minister for Social and Family Affairs appears to be proceeding to appropriate to the State the largely voluntary efforts of an established network of specifically non-governmental organisations to be effected through the utterly inappropriate renaming of an existing State agency as the citizens information board. Rather than proceed any further with the Bill which is, in subtle and profound ways, challenging some of the most basic tenets of democracy, it would be more appropriate to refer the Bill to a committee of the Oireachtas which might then, on an all-party basis, take appropriate time to hear the views of those who have accumulated decades of experience in the management and delivery of these crucial services, which are supplied to citizens and non-citizens alike without prejudice or discrimination.
It is remarkable that, as far as I have been able to ascertain, no director of Comhairle or of its predecessor organisations, the National Social Services Board and the National Social Service Council, has in the period since 1974 been invited to appear before a committee of the Oireachtas and neither has any chairperson or chief executive of a citizen information service, notwithstanding the direct front-line exposure such persons necessarily have to the cutting edge of social policy in its variety of expressions. It is an appropriate time to make good that remarkable oversight by successive Oireachtas committee chairpersons and what better place to start than with a discussion on the merits and difficulties contained in the Citizen Information Bill 2006? It is important the people who have given so much service, time and voluntary effort are included in whatever development takes place. Nobody is saying we can stand still. Nobody is saying we should not implement all the recommendations, for example, those supported by the Disability Federation of Ireland and others, in the legislation but it is important not to lose what was a precious and important part of the services provided to date.
Tá sé tábhachtach nach ndéanaimid neamhaird den ainm a bhí ann ach oiread, mar tá an t-ainm sin luachmhar. Táimid tar éis litir a fháil ó Chomhdháil Náisiúnta na Gaeilge a chuireann fáilte roimh an Bhille sa mhéid is go bhfuil sé i gceist aidhmeanna Comhairle a leathnú agus a fheabhsú. Aontaíonn an chomhdháil go mbeadh eolas ar fáil gan dua do shaoránaigh na tíre seo agus, go deimhin, do gach duine atá lonnaithe sa tír, faoina gcearta sóisialta agus na seirbhísí atá dlite dóibh.
Tá imní ar Chomhdháil Náisiúnta na Gaeilge, áfach, faoin athrú atá i gceist a dhéanamh ar theideal an chomhlachta phoiblí seo, a thagann faoi scáth Acht na dTeangacha Oifigiúla 2003. Ní thuigeann an chomhdháil cén chúis go mbeadh gá an teideal Comhairle a fhágáil ar lár. De bharr go bhfuil eolas ag an bpobal i gcoitinne ar Chomhairle, agus ar a haidhmeanna, feictear don chomhdháil gur ag cruthú deacrachtaí a bheadh an t-athrú atá i gceist. Feictear di freisin gur chéim síos don Ghaeilge a bheadh i gceist an teideal a athrú. Gan aon dabht, tá athrú mór tagtha ar an dtír le tamall anuas, le líon na n-imirceach méadaithe, ach ní aon leithscéal é sin chun an teideal a athrú.
Tá mé tar éis labhairt le go leor inimirceach atá ina gcónaí i mo bhaile féin, Baile Brigín, agus atá an-tábhachtach i saol an phobail. Is féidir a bheith cinnte nach dteastaíonn ó inimircigh tríd is tríd go mbeadh ísliú ar stádas theanga na hÉireann agus ar ár gcultúr chun iad a shásamh. Tagann an t-athrú sin salach ar an stádas nua atá faighte ag an Rialtas don Ghaeilge san Aontas Eorpach. Codarsnacht iomlán atá ann sin.
Iarrann Comhdháil Náisiúnta na Gaeilge go bhfagfaí an teideal mar atá nó, má cheaptar gur gá soiléiriú breise a dhéanamh, go mbeadh an t-ainm ar a laghad mar Chomhairle, an Bord um Fhaisnéis do Shaoránaigh, nó Comhairle, Citizens Information Board. Tá sé fíorthábhachtach go mbeadh cosaint ag an Ghaeilge i mbealach nach mbeadh conspóideach. Tá an t-ainm Comhairle ann, agus más gá soiléiriú a dhéanamh air, is cinnte gur féidir é sin a phlé. Tá mé sásta éisteacht leis an Aire, mar tá mé tar éis é seo a phlé leis taobh amuigh den Teach in aice linn anseo. Ar a laghad, is ceart gan neamhaird a dhéanamh den ainm gan cúis mhaith a bheith ann. Níl an chúis láidir go leor, agus beimid ag cruthú an íomhá go bhfuilimid ar aon dul le Bristol, Birmingham, Londain, nó aon chathair eile i Sasana má leanaimid ar aghaidh mar atáimid gan an focal Comhairle a bheith mar chuid de.
Tríd is tríd, tá sé tábhachtach go mbeidh an tAire ag plé le feabhas a chur ar sheirbhísí, ach san am céanna, tá sé tábhachtach nach gcailleofaí an chuid luachmhar den duine deonach agus an t-ainm a thugann le fios gur tír faoi leith atá ionann le teanga faoi leith. Cuireann inimircigh fáilte roimhe sin.
I also welcome an opportunity to speak on this Bill. I welcome the Bill and commend the Minister for bringing it into the House. It is badly needed. We, as a society, really need to focus on the requirements of people with disabilities and we have done this, in particular, over the past number of years.
We have moved people with disabilities centre stage. This has been done largely because of the significant work of disabled people themselves. They have made successful representations to us all in this House over the years and helped us recognise the need to give them equality and equal access to services that the rest of us enjoy.
In recent years a considerable improvement has come about for people with a disability, through the Disability Act 2005 and the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004, and also with this Bill.
It is definitely a policy objective of everybody of this House that there would be equal access to services for people with disabilities. We want to improve the services to people with disabilities right across the board. Comhairle, over the past number of years, has provided customer-friendly high quality independent information and advice throughout this country on social services to all members of the public. I have experience of this, even in my home town of Castlebar where an excellent service is provided through the citizens information service across a range of areas such as health, social welfare, education, family support, housing, taxation, citizenship issues, employment and training, and information for asylum seekers and immigrants. They also provide support for information providers, both voluntary and statutory.
This Bill is a new welcome development. While there are many voluntary organisations that have provided advocacy services for people with disabilities, it is important this would be provided through a State-funded service.
I welcome the development that the Minister will be providing a personal advocate for certain people with disabilities who meet the qualifying criteria. The qualifying criteria is a matter which obviously needs to be explored. A person will be assessed on the basis of need, the benefit he or she will derive from the service and the risk to his or her health or well-being if this service were not to be provided.
This Bill is an overhaul of the current service. It is a modernisation of the service in light of the changing society. It is important to recognise the significant number of immigrants, both from the new EU member states and from countries outside the EU, who are living in Ireland. The change of name, under section 1, is a welcome development. I note, even through the operation of the service in my home town, that many people, particularly from outside of the State, know exactly where to go when they want to get independent information. In that regard, the change of name is helpful in making accessible and readily identifiable to everybody where State-funded information services can be obtained.
This service is essential because it offers opportunities to all. It breaks down barriers that exist currently for people with disabilities and it helps the most vulnerable people in society to improve their lives. That must be acted on immediately. A number of Members stated the Minister should take it slowly, wait a little longer and engage in more consultation. The resources allocated to a service such as this will always be an issue but it is important to proceed with it immediately to provide equal access, which is badly needed by many people.
The Comhairle website is an excellent facility. Previous speakers have stated everybody has not embraced the electronic age. Significant numbers of young people are more proficient with technology than older people in society and many of them access the service. What is the breakdown of the age profile of people accessing the service throughout the State? Deputy Carey stated 200,000 queries were received in 2000. How many use the service? How many hits has the website received? I have used it many times in my role as a public representative and it is an important facility, which provides excellent information.
Sections 1 and 2 cover definitions of the social services, which include health, social welfare, education, family support, housing, taxation and so on. Section 3 provides for a name change from Comhairle to the citizens information board, which is welcome. The notion of a personal advocate for a disabled person to enable him or her to access all services and who can speak out on his or her behalf is also welcome. The Bill aims to improve the lot of people with disabilities by providing this service to qualifying people.
Under section 4 the Minister sets out the functions of the board to support the provision of advocacy services and the introduction of a personal advocacy service for people with disabilities who meet the criteria of qualifying persons. It also provides that the board should support and develop greater accessibility and public awareness of social services. However, I do not like the provision, which also came in to play in the Disability Bill 2004, that the board must have regard to the financial resources available. The Minister has provided €2 million this year and an additional €250,000 will be provided to get the service up and running when the Bill is passed. What is the Minister's estimate of the take-up of the personal advocacy service? What is best practice in this regard in other countries? Such information would give us an indication as to whether the service being provided will be adequate.
The qualifying criteria address people who are unable, without the assistance or support of a personal advocate, to access the service and where there are reasonable grounds for believing there is a risk to that person's health, welfare or safety if he or she is not provided with the service. Unfortunately, the legislation provides that people will be prioritised on the basis of greatest need. If it is determined that a person faces a risk to his or her health or welfare and he or she is, therefore, a qualifying person, and the board cannot provide the service he or she requires because of finite resources, it leaves us in a difficult situation. Such people will be identified as being in need but nothing will be done for them. The issue of resources is critical to the legislation. Unless it is adequately resourced, the Minister has no business pretending to offer a service. There is nothing worse than pretending to offer a service to people and, at the end of the day, not having the finance in place to provide it.
For example, last year, home care packages were announced as one of the solutions to the accident and emergency department problem. County Mayo has a population of 110,000 and five people received such a package. How can a service be offered to everybody when only five people will receive it? Failure to resource the service would be a significant backward step, in light of everything that has been done for people with disabilities. We are moving forward and putting them centre stage by providing a badly needed service but the question is whether sufficient money will be in place to provide it.
Reference was made to the current requirement that all applications for a personal advocate must be made in writing but section 7B states, "may apply in writing or such other form as may be specified by the Minister to the Director". What are the other forms of application? People with certain disabilities may not be able to make an application in writing. However, I am sure the Minister, given that people with disabilities are centre stage, has foreseen that scenario and he has another recommendation in place to get around that.
I also welcome section 5, which gives rights to a personal advocate to enter any place that provides day care, residential care or training for the qualifying person to represent his or her interests. The Minister has provided for a penalty in section 7D of a summary conviction or a fine not exceeding €2,000 where a person obstructs or hinders a personal advocate in the performance of his or her duties. That is welcome because such clout is needed for a personal advocate to be successful and to truly benefit the disabled person. A significant penalty is needed if advocates are obstructed in their work.
Section 5 contains the meat of the legislation. The issue of qualifications has been raised by many Members. A number of people engaged by the citizens information service work in a voluntary capacity beside many trained professionals. The Bill provides that people other than staff of the information service can operate as personal advocates and, therefore, the issue of qualifications and skills is critical. What training will be offered to aspiring personal advocates? What qualifications will be necessary to take up that line of work? Personal advocates will play a significant role in the lives of people with disabilities and great responsibility will be placed on them, as the Bill provides that they can access information on behalf of the person with a disability, enter any place in which he or she is receiving day care and attend meetings and consultations on his or her behalf. It is clear that significant qualifications and appropriate listening and negotiating skills and so on will be required. What is best practice in this regard in other states? What qualifications are required to take up such a role in other countries?
Generally, I welcome the legislation, which is urgently needed and should not be delayed. However, the issue of resources is key to making it a success. Everybody knows the Minister does not have an open chequebook and he must make decisions on and attach priorities to how money is spent. Over the years, people with disabilities have been neglected and it is critical that does not happen under this legislation.
Deputy Fleming referred to an issue regarding the adult dependant allowance, which I have raised repeatedly for a considerable time. I welcome the changes made in this regard by the Minister on 29 September. While the allowance has been increased, the Minister did not increase it to 100% of the spouse's payment, which is a commitment in the programme for Government. However, I read an interview with the Minister in The Irish Times, in which he stated he is committed to making the payment directly to all adult dependants. He has done this for pensions but not for social welfare payments. Approximately 95% of adult dependants are women. Every woman in the State is entitled to an income of her own and she is entitled to have it paid directly to her. The adult dependant is entitled to 100% of what her spouse is paid. Hopefully, the Minister will address this in the forthcoming budget.