Wednesday, 29 September 2004
Disability Services: Motion.
That Seanad Éireann:
—recognises the ongoing commitment of the Government to put a programme of action in place to support and reinforce equal participation in society by people with disabilities;
—congratulates the Government for bringing forward a Disability Bill honouring the pledge in the programme for Government;
—fully supports the recently announced national disability strategy and notes that there are a number of key elements including:
—the Disability Bill 2004;
—the Comhairle (Amendment) Bill 2004;
—six outline sectoral plans; and
—a commitment to a multi-annual investment programme for disability support services;
—commends the Government for the strong equality framework already in place that the strategy will build on including:
—the Employment Equality Act 1998;
—the Equal Status Act 2000;
—the Equality Act 2004;
—the progress that has been made in mainstreaming services for people with disabilities, and
—the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004;
—urges the Government to continue to give priority to its overall objective of putting in place the most effective combination of legislation, policies, institutional arrangements and services to support and reinforce equal participation for people with disabilities.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I am both happy and sad that we are not welcoming the former Minister of State, Deputy O'Dea. I would like to have had the opportunity to congratulate him on bringing the Disability Bill to fruition after much consultation. On the other hand, I am glad he is not here for the reasons he is not present.
The Disability Bill and its associated strategies are a fine piece of work. The Bill is a significant milestone in the area of disability. It shows the Government's intention not only to put a Disability Bill in place, but to establish a programme of measures to support and reinforce equal opportunities for people with disabilities. It also honours the commitment given in the programme for Government to introduce a Disability Bill. Many other promises have also been delivered.
In the past seven years this and the previous Government have done more in this area than any Government in the past 40 or 50 years. People may say this is because the Government has more money. That may be true but why has the Government more money? It is because the economy is being run more efficiently and more money is being generated to allow such things to be done. It was unique to see the Taoiseach, with so many of his Ministers, launching the Bill. I have never before seen seven or eight Ministers at the launching of a Bill. This confirms the Government's commitment in this regard.
The publication of the report of the Commission on the Status of People with Disabilities was a watershed. It was then that a focus was first brought to this area. The report dealt comprehensively with issues which were being faced by families, carers, parents and those with disabilities. For the first time disability was put at the top of a Government's agenda and it has remained there. Any fair-minded person must say that much work has been done in this regard. We came from a long way back and there is a long way to go, but a great deal of work has been done.
It is unfortunate that the needs of families, carers and people with disabilities were ignored for so long by successive Governments while other issues were being pursued which were felt to be more important. It is no wonder that people with disabilities and their families felt so frustrated and distressed about the issue and had to resort to other means to solve their dilemmas.
The challenge that faced the Government which came into office in 1997 was formidable. Major improvements were needed across the spectrum. Some areas needed major expansion and in others there was no service whatsoever. I have worked on the fringes of disability services for much of my life and I am heartened by the Disability Bill. I have no doubt it will receive negative comment. Two years ago a Disability Bill was thrown to the wolves for political reasons. It was beaten to death by certain parties in the Houses. If that Bill had been allowed to proceed I wonder if we would be standing here today putting amendments to it and if a benefit would have been gained from all the good that was in that Bill.
For the first time, people with disabilities and their families can see a way forward. Equal participation will be a reality rather than fiction. The Government has made its commitment and there is no going back on it. The Government is committed to an effective combination of legislation, policies and institutional arrangements for services and support to reinforce the equal participation of people with disabilities in society. For a number of years, they have been wrongly treated. Those responsible for policy and for its delivery and administration seemed to have a notion that people with disabilities did not deserve equal opportunity to face the normal challenges of modern life.
We will now have public policy for the future based on an understanding of disability. The real needs of people with disabilities were not understood. The new strategy is a move away from the medical model to the social model. People with disabilities and their advocates have always been exasperated by the notion that they were medically impaired when most of their problems were social and environmental, as well as medical in some instances.
I welcome the fact that future policy will bring about the enforcement of laws which will protect people with disabilities against discrimination, ensuring the provision of services and support to make inclusion a reality. It will also ensure that people with disabilities are not excluded from education, employment or social activities by virtue of attitudes or procedures which are no longer acceptable.
Independence and self-reliance will be achievable. With the onset of technology people can achieve goals which would once have been frowned on or even laughed at. Expectations and the ability to meet those expectations have changed because of technology. There have been major advances in technological infrastructure and our awareness of what technology can do has also improved dramatically. Communication links have improved, making it possible to assess an individual, almost from his or her home. This eliminates travel and the tiredness and trauma which go with it.
There is greater awareness of disability at national and European level in the mainstreaming of design products. In the design of products the needs of people with disabilities as well as able-bodied people are taken into account. It is now referred to as "design for all". That, too, is a tremendous improvement. I read recently that research carried out on the use of subtitles in television news programmes showed that people in pubs use the subtitles almost as much as people with disabilities. If there is a din in the pub, one cannot hear the news so one uses the subtitles. That is an example of something working in the reverse direction.
I am satisfied that the Government, with this Bill and strategy, is totally focused on and committed to removing the many obstacles that exist for people with disabilities and to giving them a higher and more meaningful quality of life. There has already been significant investment by the Government in provision for disability. Approximately €2.5 billion is now being spent. When one considers that €10 billion is collected in all taxes, including VAT and PAYE, it means that 25% of taxes collected are devoted to disability. That is 7% of gross current public expenditure, a massive amount of money. Whether it is being spent wisely and well is something we must focus on as we move the strategy forward. I believe it is but there is always room for improvement.
Much fine legislation has gone through this House in the past seven years, such as the Employment Equality Act 1998, the Equal Status Act 2000 and the Equality Act 2004, which amended those two Acts, as well as the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act. They were fine measures but we must ensure they are implemented and that, as a result, people benefit from them. There is no doubt that the key to arresting some of the problems encountered by people with disabilities is solving the problem of unemployment. We need a combination of laws outlawing discrimination to alleviate that problem. I am hopeful that the sectoral plans that will be debated over the next year will refer to this and do what needs to be done. We have shown decent progress in the area of training and in the range of support schemes available through FÁS and so forth. The Disability Bill puts the 3% employment rate on a statutory footing. I welcome that although it is fair to point out that most Departments had achieved or almost achieved that target in recent times. That is welcome. We need to focus on employment and disability. There is still approximately 80% unemployment among the disabled.
In 1997, there were only 100 special resource teachers for children with special needs. Today there are 2,300 in the primary sector alone. The number of special needs assistants, and I have first hand knowledge of this, has increased from approximately 300 to 5,500. The number of special classes has increased from 350 to 500 since 1998 and €8 million is being provided this year for the establishment of a special education council, which will employ 80 special needs organisers. That is badly needed. The special school of whose board of management I am a member had, in 1997, 113 pupils and 12 teachers. Today there are 19. It had no bus escorts and today it has 17 while it had three special needs assistants then and today has 18. That is an example of what is happening. I am referring to just one school but I could refer to many others with which I have been associated or in contact. They can tell a similar story.
The strategy we are discussing today is a tremendous boost for people working in the area of disability. Under the Comhairle (Amendment) Bill there will be an advocacy system in place for the disabled. They have been well able to conduct their own advocacy in recent years because they got their act together in an effective manner and a number of people with disabilities are good advocates. However, the fact that there will be a statutory mechanism in place will ensure that people who are not so articulate will have a system for such advocacy. I look forward to teasing out the provisions of the Disability Bill with the Minister when it comes before the House and I congratulate the Minister of State, Deputy O'Dea, and the other Ministers associated with it. Having spoken to a number of people involved in this sector, I am aware that they are looking forward with relish to the legislation.
I second the motion. Like Senator Kett, I pay tribute to the former Minister of State, Deputy Mary Wallace. She produced a Bill before the last general election but, due to various negative and mischievous comments, it was compromised before it reached the Houses of the Oireachtas and had to be withdrawn. If that Bill had been brought before the Houses, the collective wisdom of Members would have amended it appropriately and adequately to meet the needs on which this strategy is focused.
The essence of good planning is proper consultation. It never goes astray and is usually extremely helpful, positive and enabling. The Disability Bill, the Comhairle (Amendment) Bill and the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act are built solidly on that process. Equally, the national disability strategy gets its legitimacy by being grounded on that principle. I commend the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste. I particularly commend the Minister of State, Deputy O'Dea. I am aware of the significant amount of time and energy he invested in the process prior to bringing this strategy forward. I also commend the Government, the DLCG and other groups and individuals who participated so tirelessly in the consultation process.
The product of their collective endeavours constitutes a defining moment in the progress towards fully integrating the disabled into the economic, social and cultural life of the country. The motion before the House encapsulates a comprehensive and broadly based strategic approach by Government to empower people with disabilities to play a fully integrated role in society. That is at the heart of the strategy. The aim of previous Acts and the provision of services, personnel and so forth is to empower people with disabilities to play an integrated role in society and to mainstream all services, facilities and activities for the disabled. The launch of this strategy last week was an important milestone on the road to such empowerment. That is the Government's clearly stated objective, as outlined by the Taoiseach in 2000.
This disability strategy is not the start of the equality framework. Many elements are already in place. Senator Kett referred to them. If I get the opportunity, I will refer in detail to the education aspects. This strategy builds upon the pillars and blocks that already exist in terms of resources, services and professional teams. It also builds a framework of new supports and establishes new rights for people with disabilities. These include rights to independent assessment of needs and delivery of services across a wide range of areas, including employment, health and education as well as physical accessibility to all public services and buildings.
One of the Bill's key effects is that it puts the policy of mainstreaming public service provision for people with disabilities on a statutory basis. That is very important for people with disabilities. The central element of the strategy is the Disability Bill. Senator Kett referred to that Bill and I will do so too because the elements of the Bill are vital. The Bill might have been a long time in gestation but the wait has been worthwhile. Of the many rights enshrined in the Bill, the most fundamental include the right to an independent assessment of needs without regard to costs or the capacity to supply the services. There is also the right to a service statement which sets out the services that can be provided to meet the applicant's needs. This will immediately highlight gaps where they exist in the services.
There is provision for an independent complaints and appeals procedure if the applicant's assessed entitlements are not being met. The right to redress to the Circuit Court is most important if the system and its procedures ultimately fail people. It is vitally important that those seeking services have an input into the assessment process. I welcome the decision to appoint special liaison officers to help individuals communicate with the relevant public bodies. Senator Kett who has much professional experience in this area accepts that many of those with disabilities are well able to advocate for themselves. However, as he will be aware, there are individuals who slip through the net and who do not have the ability to advocate for themselves. In such circumstances, special liaison officers have a vital role to play.
The issue of rights is important but for a right to be real, it must be attainable. We can all propose rights in Bills. If a person is to be given an attainable right to a service there must be ease of access. Providing an advocacy service in the accompanying Comhairle Bill will enhance significantly accessibility for the disabled. This new service fulfils a commitment made by the Government during the debate on the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act. I welcome its introduction. Many people with disabilities are vulnerable and find it difficult for various reasons to access the service. The personal advocate will assist, support and represent the person with a disability through the different stages of seeking access.
The decision to place an obligation on six Departments to prepare sectoral plans represents a significant step forward towards full integration of service for the disabled into the mainstream service. This is a vital cog. Disability has to be given due priority in service planning and provision. The consultation process that has continued ensures that those with disabilities are involved in the planning. Access for people with disabilities is becoming an integral part of planning and service provision.
With a strategy such as this with a wide range of new rights and provisions, people rightly ask where is the money. The Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and the Minister of State at the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy O'Dea, dealt with that issue directly and unequivocally last week at the launch. They committed the Government to a multi-annual capital and current investment programme in the forthcoming Estimates and budget that clearly demonstrates the commitment to deliver the programme comprehensively.
I move amendment No. 1:
To delete all words after "Seanad Éireann" and substitute the following:
—recognises the frantic efforts of the Government to put a programme of action in place to support and reinforce equal participation in society by people with disabilities after a term of seven years in office,
—welcomes the eventual publication of the Disability Bill,
—notes the failure of the Government to make a commitment of a defined level of resources for implementing the national disability strategy and notes the failure to set a fixed timeframe for its implementation;
—condemns the Government for its abject failure to date to give priority to its overall objective of putting in place the most effective combination of legislation, policies, institutional arrangements and services to support and reinforce equal participation for people with disabilities.
The Government's motion is totally inappropriate and is another example of the Government clapping itself on the back. In this regard it is premature in congratulating itself. I would be happy to congratulate the Government if the Bill had ensured that those with disabilities would get all the rights and services they deserve to enable them participate fully in society. The delay in publishing the Bill is something of which the Government should be ashamed. The previous Bill was withdrawn in May 2002. I object strongly to Senator Kett stating the previous Bill was withdrawn because of comments made by the Opposition at the time and that these negative comments damaged the Bill to such an extent that it had to be withdrawn. That Bill was withdrawn because it was unacceptable to people with disabilities and their families. In speaking about its faults we endeavoured to ensure we would get a Bill that would deliver the services that are essential to those with disabilities.
While the Government is congratulating itself on the Bill's publication, it is only the beginning. There is much work to be done to improve its provisions. I and my party will do everything we can to ensure, by means of amendments we will table, that we get the best legislation possible to deliver the services which are essential for those with disabilities to enable them participate fully in society.
I congratulate the disability consultation group and the disability advocacy groups on their effective campaigning and lobbying in an effort to bring about legislation which we hope will guarantee rights to people with disabilities. I am upset the process has taken so long and I can give a litany of the promises, false starts and stops that took place between May 2002 and the publication of the Bill last week. The timeframe for publication of the Bill is unacceptable. Nevertheless I welcome the fact that we have a Bill which we can amend to try to achieve the best legislation for those with disabilities.
I wish to highlight some of the grey areas in the Bill, the most important of which is contained in Part 1 of the explanatory memorandum which states:
Section 5 establishes the basis upon which each Minister will make financial resources available in each year, for the provision of services under the Act. In deciding on the allocation, each Minister will make available such amount as he or she considers appropriate, taking account of the need also to provide an appropriate amount for the performance of his or her other functions in that year. Having made such a considered allocation, nothing in the legislation will require him or her, or any public body to which this funding has been allocated, to provide a service which cannot be met out of that allocation.
This is the kernel and where the Bill could fall if it is not amended. There is a large element of political choice inherent in the funding provision. The Minister of the day may decide he does not have sufficient funding to deliver the services which are necessary. The Bill entitles an individual to an assessment and a statement of need, but it does not entitle him or her to the delivery and provision of the services outlined in the statement. That is the essential part of the legislation. The Taoiseach said the legislation would be rights based. We want nothing less than rights-based legislation. The legislation is not rights based if the funding is not in place. If an individual requires certain services and the funding is not available to provide it, the legislation is not rights based. Will people have to go to the courts once again while there is a provision in the legislation to entitle them to appeal a decision? More people will have to go to the courts to demand the rights to which they are entitled.
I accept previous Governments have long neglected people with disabilities. We live in an age where people with disabilities deserve the rights that all of us expect in our daily lives. By not giving them those rights we are sidelining them and that is not acceptable. Some 60% of households headed by a person with a disability live below the poverty line. Unemployment levels among people with disabilities are more than tenfold that in the general population.
Far too many elderly parents worry about who will look after their adult child with a disability in the event of their death. Too many parents know their child has special needs whether for speech therapy, physiotherapy or occupational therapy but does not receive those services. I doubt this Bill will deliver the services. I hope the Minister of State can tell me how he will address that. How will he deliver the many speech therapists, physiotherapists and occupational therapists needed? How long must we wait for the services to be delivered? We want to know that sufficient multi-annual funding will be provided for the services for people with disabilities and that they will be able to lead independent lives, will have access to work and training and receive the personal assistance, aids and appliances necessary for that.
I welcome the fact that all public buildings must be made accessible for people with disabilities but why is that limited to public buildings? Anybody using a wheelchair should be able to access any building. The requirement should be broadened. When people with disabilities and their families know they are equal and cherished citizens through the implementation of a rights-based Bill and the necessary funding to deliver its provisions I will be the first to congratulate the Government.
I second the amendment moved by Senator Terry. I also welcome the Minister of State to the House. He is working extremely hard on this issue. However, this Government has an unenviable record for producing major plans with much fanfare and aplomb only to shelve them gradually. That is why we demand more short-term urgent and political priorities. People with disabilities are always playing catch-up. The cost of living is higher if one has a disability or if a member of one's family has a disability. To its credit the Government has spent large sums of money but unfortunately this has not solved the serious problems for people in this area. Times have been good and from all one hears will continue to improve but that is of little account to those with disabilities. As Senator Terry explained, 60% of households headed by people with disabilities live below the poverty line and unemployment levels among people with disabilities are more than tenfold the level in the general population. The ESRI reports that the economy is growing and will continue to do so. According to the Government there are shortages but no Exchequer surpluses and there must be cutbacks. The State cannot afford to provide these people with accessible housing, respite or residential care. Elderly parents must pray that their disabled children may die before they can trust the State to care for them. Senator Terry said that people with disabilities must know that they are equal and cherished citizens of the State, and the State must prove this.
In summer 2003 we witnessed the opening of the Special Olympics here which was a wonderful occasion. It confirmed that people care and affirmed the "will do and can do" mentality and the supports that exist for those with disabilities. There was great wonderment at the resurrection of the spirit of black pride embodied by Mohammed Ali and Nelson Mandela. It was good to see nostalgia for the ideal of a caring society in Ireland but alas the Special Olympics also embodied tears of anger and frustration that the caring ideal has not been realised. We have a long way to go to achieve that.
At the core of the Special Olympics is a recognition and celebration of people with intellectual disabilities as full members of society but we have not reached that point. While the people clearly want to make a statement on this, the Government does not perfectly represent them. The outrageous Disability Bill and the abandonment of Irish support for a UN charter on the rights of people with disabilities, added to the continuing failure to provide for these people's basic needs, shows up the hypocrisy of disability Bills and of the care the Government says it wishes to provide.
It was a scandal that over two years ago, 677 people with intellectual disabilities were in psychiatric hospitals when there was nothing to suggest that most of them suffered from any mental illness or psychiatric condition. They were dumped in those hospitals because there was nowhere else to go. Research also showed that 10% of intellectually disabled persons, approximately 2,500, receive no State services and, of these, 515 are on waiting lists for day or residential services. That is bad enough especially for the 170 or more people whose disability is moderate, severe or profound but it is even more alarming that 2,265 not only have no services but have no identified requirement for services within the five year period 2002-06.
The Special Olympics flame burned very brightly and instilled a sense of care in the community, and the Minister of State does care. However, the Government has not done enough and people were left out in the cold when that flame was extinguished which was wrong. Spending money on needs is nothing to boast about. We must give these people something fulfilling and real, and I am delighted to endorse and second Senator Terry's amendment.
I welcome the Minister of State and congratulate the efforts of Deputy Mary Wallace when she dealt with this matter and brought it so far although for some reason it went no further. I also compliment the Minister of State at the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy O'Dea, for launching the national disability strategy last week.
Having listened to the previous speakers, I must question why Fine Gael tabled its amendment. The amendment states that Fine Gael welcomes a programme of action. The question of delays could have been brought up as part of a general discussion and need not have been the subject of an amendment that also welcomes the eventual publication of the Disability Bill and states that the party is concerned about whether adequate resources will be in place to aid its implementation. It was stated that the Minister must budget effectively to respond to the financial demands arising from this Bill. Multi-annual funding will be set out in the Estimates and the budget process. This is the first occasion on which the Government has adopted this approach
The legislation is already in place. The equality framework relating to equal employment has been in existence since 1998, while people also have access to the Equal Status Act 2000 and the Equality Act 2004. A couple of months ago we put in place the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act. We are carrying out the preparation and it took a great deal of time to progress matters this far. I would have preferred this to be the case rather than our having rushed something through in the knowledge that we might not be able to implement it. I am sure, however, that we will be able to implement every aspect of this strategy.
I look forward to being part of that strategy, about which I have much knowledge. I am delighted that we have already put in motion an educational plan for dealing with assessments for those with special needs. That is an important part of the process and it is from this point we must start. One of the key rights is that people will have access to the assessment procedure to be put in place and there will also be an entitlement to the services necessary for dealing with the outcome of an assessment. Consideration will be given to the gaps in existing services. If there are any doubts about particular aspects, people will have access to a complaints procedure. I am delighted that these rights have been put in writing in order that families with children who suffer from disabilities will be aware of the various stages of the process. That is a welcome development.
The Bill reaches international standards. Comparatively speaking, Ireland is way ahead of the rest of Europe. I welcome everything that has been done to date in respect of this matter. I accept that we must ensure that the services are put in place and that financial support will be provided. There will be a cross-departmental annual analysis of what will be required. That is the key to this entire matter. I do not doubt that the Minister of State will acknowledge that point during his contribution. If we get that right, the entire process — most of the mechanisms are already in place — will run smoothly.
I ask the Minister of State to ensure that the relevant professionals are in place to allow the assessment stage to proceed. This is my one concern. I would like to think that at the stage of assessment there will be no slippage in terms of the co-ordination and co-operation between the Departments concerned regarding the various support services, be they related to the environment, public buildings or the need to have in place proper psychological support services. That is the one area in which delays could occur. Once the problem has been identified — either by the Department of Health and Children through the assessment process or the Department of Education and Science — and a plan has been put in place, I have no doubt that resources will be made available immediately in order to ensure that everyone will be given an equal opportunity to participate in mainstream education and employment.
We must get the assessment process right from the outset. From that point, we will have no difficulty with any aspect of the legislation. The Bill is a fine start and will form another part of the disability strategy. All that remains are the support services to help us deal with the implementation. The Bill is fine legislation and I have no doubt it will be a great success. It has been welcomed by all those who lobbied on behalf of or represented people with disabilities. I know that it will be a success.
I am not sure the Bill has been welcomed in such unequivocal terms by many groups which work with people with disabilities. Like anyone with sense, they have recognised that it represents progress but I am not sure they believe they are anywhere near the top of the mythological mountain. Being able to see the top of the mountain is not the same as reaching it.
We have a major problem in this country, in terms of what passes for political discourse and debate among economists, regarding the concept of universal rights, particularly those of a social and economic nature. Two reviews of the Constitution have come down vigorously against the idea of any social and economic rights. Quite an ominous consensus — into which it is difficult to break with a sliver of reality — has taken over our country to the effect that there is something wrong about the idea of any universal social or economic rights.
We have one such right, namely, the right to primary education which is written into the Constitution. It is becoming increasingly clear that a good section of what passes for the intellectual class in this country, namely, those who are wheeled out to write articles for the Sunday Independent with alarming regularity and those who write in the business pages of even the most liberal of our newspapers, The Irish Times, takes for granted that any service must be limited and based on some means. There is also a universal belief that resources are limited and finite. The latter is not code for saying that we can only do 90% of what we want; it is actually a code for saying that we will only do 10% of it if the country is going through rough times.
The remarkable achievement of free universal primary education has been, first, to make primary education universal and, second, to make it essentially comprehensive in the sense that there is no selection, social or otherwise, other than that generated by geography. It has also made education, because it is for everybody, a very appealing career, with the result that we get extremely good primary teachers. Due to the fact that they are extremely good and organised, they are well paid by the standards of the rest of Europe. The consequence of this is that we have a very good primary education system, even though we spend proportionately less on it than any other country in Europe. The latter is connected with the universality of provision of primary education because parents from a variety of backgrounds share the same schools when their children are attending them.
Primary education, at least in the basic provision of good teaching, is one of the country's great achievements. A succession of international measures of achievement have demonstrated that in the topics covered by the curriculum, children coming out of our primary schools are in the top 10% or 15% internationally.
The universal guarantee of rights of access to service is a reality here and has worked extremely well. Anybody in politics ought to have a heart and a head, both of which ought to be functioning — although this is often questionable. Anybody with both will recognise that many elements of the Disability Bill will make a positive difference. However, it is not just carping politics to point out that the Government has taken the best part of seven years to draft this legislation. It is a commentary on priorities and what mattered most.
It is easy to say this was due to the need for extensive consultation. The need for extensive consultation only became a real issue after the public outrage that arose from the previous attempt to deprive people with disabilities of the right the rest of us to have our rights vindicated in the courts, which was quite extraordinary. It is always presented as an attempt to protect people from rapacious lawyers. On an entirely different matter another Minister once said here that he was attempting to prevent people from going to court to prevent them being ripped off by rapacious lawyers. It is the least convincing excuse.
The tragedy is that while in many cases administratively and organisationally we still seem not to learn from our mistakes, it is quite clear the Department of Finance learns from decisions of the courts and continues its campaign against universal provision. When all the dressing is removed, section 5, as written in plain English in the explanatory memorandum, essentially states that while a Minister should do his or her best — of course Ministers will do their best — he or she must not make more money available to meet the needs of people with disability than is possible while meeting his or her other responsibilities. This could mean no money being made available.
The capacity of people in some parts of the State sector to put the most perverse interpretations on legislation is one of a number of the more disturbing aspects of Irish life. I remember the experience of quadriplegics whose family members had cars adapted to be able to drive them. The Finance Act gave tax exemptions for car adaptations to people who lacked the capacity to use their arms or legs. The Revenue Commissioners maintained that people who lacked the capacity to use their arms and legs were not covered by the legislation and sustained a refusal to allow certain people the exemptions that were allowed to others. This is why the Houses of the Oireachtas need to be vigilant about legislation. While it is a mystery why they do so, some people are capable of putting the most peculiar interpretations on some matters.
I did not decide to speak here to carp. We all want to see progress. However, that progress has been slow and tedious and has not guaranteed resources. It has guaranteed that people will be told the Government knows of their needs but may not be able to do anything. While I support the amendment, I take issue with the first paragraph which states, "That Seanad Éireann recognises the frantic efforts of the Government to put a programme of action in place". I did not see anything frantic in taking seven years to make provision for people when we have been arguing about the need for it for approximately 20 years. I support the amendment notwithstanding my reservation on this matter.
I thank the Members who have spoken already. I understand more speakers will contribute to the debate. I congratulate my constituency colleague in Limerick, Deputy O'Dea, on two counts; on the painstaking work he has done in introducing this legislation and on his elevation this afternoon, which explains his absence from the House for this debate.
I welcome the recognition in the motion of the Government's ongoing commitment to put in place a suite of measures to underpin the position of people with disabilities in Irish society. This long-standing commitment can be seen in the policy of mainstreaming the provision of public services to people with disabilities, a policy launched by the Taoiseach four years ago on an administrative basis, and which is now being given statutory effect. In terms of legislation the Government's commitment to equality and social inclusion is clearly demonstrated in the strong corpus of equality provisions, which are also acknowledged in the motion before the House.
In honouring its pledge in An Agreed Programme for Government to bring forward a Disability Bill, the Government has also realised a similar commitment made in Sustaining Progress. The drafting of the Disability Bill has required an extensive consultation process due to the cross-cutting and complex nature of the issues involved. This process has been overseen by the Cabinet Committee on Social Inclusion and had the close involvement of many Departments and representatives from the disability sector. The result of this is the national disability strategy which was recently launched by the Taoiseach.
This important strategy is dedicated to furthering the participation in our community of people with disabilities. It builds on the existing legislative framework for equality and establishes clear rights to assessment, related services and redress measures in the health and education sectors. The Government is committed not just to enacting the Disability Bill but to a sustained and concerted focus on advancing practical measures for people with disabilities. Therefore the Cabinet Committee on Social Inclusion will continue to be involved, as the various elements of the strategy are put in place.
I am grateful for the explicit support for the Government's strategy contained in the motion and I would like to say a few words about the four main elements of the national disability strategy which are as follows: the Disability Bill 2004; the Comhairle (Amendment) Bill 2004; six outline sectoral plans; and a commitment to a multi-annual investment programme for disability support services.
Once enacted, the Disability Bill will become a powerful catalyst for change. It recognises the considerable barriers which people with disabilities face on a daily basis and puts on a statutory footing a wide variety of positive action measures to improve fundamentally their position in Irish society. The Bill has been introduced because equal access for people with disabilities is not only about changing attitudes and behaviour but is also a question of providing ongoing support services into the future. The most important parts of the Bill deal with individual health, education and personal social services, infrastructural barriers to access to public services, genetic testing, public service employment and universal design.
Assessments and services are at the heart of the Bill from the perspective of many people with disabilities, their families and carers. Having listened attentively to the views of interest groups, the Government has included in the Bill a right to an independent assessment of need. The assessment process will be administered by assessment officers in the health boards who will have independent statutory functions. Assessments will be undertaken in accordance with standards and without regard to cost or the capacity to provide the services.
Outside of the assessment process, the Bill requires that the decisions of service providers about the delivery of services will be subject to a number of considerations, including eligibility criteria and resource constraints. When the decisions have been taken, the right to the services will be contained in an individual service statement. There will also be a statute-based right of redress if entitlements are not delivered. This includes, ultimately, the enforcement of decisions by the Circuit Court.
Part 3 of the Bill requires public bodies to ensure, over time, that public buildings and services are accessible to people with disabilities. It obliges them to integrate disability service provision with mainstream service provision, as much as possible. The Bill also requires the preparation of sectoral plans in six key sectors. The plans have been published in outline form to enable everyone to see what the total package might entail and to allow for consultation. The partnership approach to developing the plans was discussed in advance with representatives of the disability sector. There are also provisions for complaints procedures and a review by the Ombudsman, in cases in which the level of access required by the legislation or a sectoral plan is not delivered.
The Bill introduces safeguards for the use of genetic data. The safeguards will facilitate access to employment, insurance and mortgages for people who may be affected by genetic conditions. Provision for regulations governing the use of family history information for insurance purposes is also included in the legislation.
The Bill gives a statutory basis for positive action measures in respect of the employment of people with disabilities in the public service. It allows Ministers to specify targets for the employment of people with disabilities in their sector. The existing 3% employment target will apply until Ministers set new targets.
The Bill establishes a centre for excellence in universal design which will be based in the National Disability Authority. Universal design is an important aspect of the new strategy because the centre will foster the design of buildings, products and electronic systems so they can be accessed by everyone, to the greatest extent possible.
The second key element in the strategy is the Comhairle (Amendment) Bill 2004, which was published as part of the strategy by the Minister for Social and Family Affairs. The Bill has a particular focus on supporting vulnerable adults as they access mainstream social services. It expands the functions of Comhairle to establish a personal advocacy service. The personal advocate will assist, support and represent vulnerable persons in applying for and obtaining social services. The advocate will also help the person to pursue any right of appeal or review in connection with the service.
Sectoral planning is the third major component of the strategy. Six outline sectoral plans were published by the Ministers for Health and Children, Social and Family Affairs, Transport, the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Communications, Marine and Natural Resources and Enterprise, Trade and Employment. The plans cover service provision for people with disabilities, measures to facilitate access and planned improvements. As I have already outlined, the Disability Bill 2004 provides a statutory basis for the plans. It provides that Ministers must finalise their plans following consultation and lay them before the Dáil for approval within a year of the commencement of the Act.
I would like to mention some of the detail of two of the sectoral plans, to illustrate how they will impact on service planning and delivery. The health sectoral plan will facilitate the necessary preparatory work to support the implementation of the new assessment and service delivery provisions in the Disability Bill. This includes a strategic review of disability services and measures to maximise access to existing services. It will establish arrangements for co-ordination with the Departments of Enterprise, Trade and Employment and Social and Family Affairs to ensure the effective and efficient delivery of services.
Access to transport is essential if people with disabilities are to participate in everyday activities. The transport sectoral plan deals with bus, rail and airport services and how and when the considerable progress made to date in this area will be carried forward. It outlines proposed reforms relating to private transport operators, which will be required to comply with accessibility standards. Funding for public transport projects will be given only to those who ensure their services are accessible. All the sectoral plans include complaints mechanisms, as well as arrangements for monitoring and review, which will be key to ensuring their effective implementation.
The emphasis in the strategy and the Disability Bill is to develop services and to put in place the requisite infrastructure in a systematic way. The fourth element of the strategy — a commitment to a multi-annual investment programme for disability support services — will provide the resources to help to achieve our goals. There is already a significant level of investment in disability specific services through a number of Departments. As Senator Kett said, some €2.5 billion is spent each year on services specifically for people with disabilities. The figure does not take account of income support and other services provided through the Department of Social and Family Affairs, or the fact that many people with a disability use or benefit from mainstream public service programmes and services.
In launching the strategy, the Taoiseach gave a commitment to a multi-annual investment programme for disability. In outlining this commitment, he said:
A multi-annual capital investment programme for disability-specific services will be developed within the overall system of five-year, multi-annual capital envelopes that was introduced in budget 2004 ..... These envelopes are to be reviewed and rolled forward by the Minister for Finance in the forthcoming Estimates and budget. Decisions in relation to the investment programme for disability-specific services will be announced as part of that process.
The Taoiseach went on to announce a groundbreaking initiative in service funding. He stated:
At present, current funding to run all Government services is allocated on a year-to-year basis, taking into account existing commitments and expected revenue. The Government has now decided on a new approach to current funding in the case of disability support services. A multi-annual funding package for current expenditure on high priority disability support services will be settled within the Estimates and budget process, which is now getting under way. This is the first time that Government has adopted this approach in the case of current spending on services.
I am delighted that this approach has been adopted for the first time in the case of disabilities. As well as echoing what the Taoiseach said, I add that the commitment to such a unique funding arrangement is a particular mark of the Government's ongoing commitment to people with disabilities.
A central influence in the preparation of the national disability strategy has been the outcome of the consultation process undertaken with interested parties, especially the disability legislation consultation group. In April 2002, the Government established an expert consultation team, which included legal, economic and social policy expertise, to oversee a national consultation process. The team examined proposals from disability groups and met 40 key stakeholders including the consultation group, ICTU, IBEC, the community and voluntary sector and relevant Departments and State agencies.
The consultation group was brought together by the National Disability Authority to facilitate dialogue at national level, within the broader disability sector and with the consultation team. The group engaged in wide-ranging consultations in 2002 and early 2003, after which it presented a document, Equal Citizens — Proposals for Core Elements of Disability Legislation. There are considerable commonalities between the approach taken by the Government and the range of issues proposed in the consultation group's document. Any fair assessment of the Government's strategy would conclude that it forms a serious and comprehensive response to the critical issues identified by the consultation group and others. I am grateful the motion commends the Government's work in putting in place an equality infrastructure that has placed this country not just on a par with our European neighbours, but ahead of many of them.
There has been sustained legislative achievement in this area over the past six or seven years. The Government's clear and consistent commitment to the principle of equality has been shown in the introduction of the Employment Equality Act 1998, the Equal Status Act 2000 and, more recently, the Equality Act 2004. Those three Acts have played an important part in breaking down barriers to social inclusion in Irish society. In July, the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004 marked a major step forward in developing the infrastructure for disability-related service provision and that approach is being broadened and strengthened in the Disability Bill. The approach of the Government has been not only to outlaw discrimination, but to continue to enhance the range of positive support structures which facilitate social inclusion for people with disabilities.
I regard the launch of the national disability strategy as a landmark achievement for people with disabilities in Ireland. The developments which I have outlined clearly demonstrate the priority which the Government is giving to ensuring that we achieve the best possible combination of legislation, policies, institutional arrangements and services. I believe that the strategy will set this country on a new path in quality service provision, equality of access and positive outcomes for people with disabilities.
Senator Terry referred to the problems regarding paramedical specialists and I acknowledge the lack of occupational and speech therapists, physiotherapists and psychologists. However, work is already in train in several universities to increase the output of such specialists. Obviously, it will take three or four years for them to come through the institutions, but the first-years are already there in many of the colleges and much more work is being done on this following the Bacon report. I look forward to many more. The Senator is right that there has been a lack of such experts required to provide services for people with disabilities, but the Government has acknowledged that by providing the places in many of our universities and educational establishments and I look forward to their emerging from the educational sphere in the next few years.
The House can be assured that the Government will continue to give priority to putting in place an effective framework of measures to underpin the participation of people with disabilities in mainstream Irish society. I am confident the motion will be carried. I thank all the speakers once again for their very positive contributions.
I had intended to raise many of the points the Minister of State made in my own presentation and I will refer to them. The Disability Bill 2004 is a defining moment in the struggle for the equal participation of people with disabilities in this country. I refer to Senator Kett, who spent many years working for the disabled, and commend him on everything he has done over the years in the Central Remedial Clinic, which is a tremendous organisation. We are lucky to have his expertise and sensitivity to the issue in the Seanad. The Minister said that the Bill recognised the very considerable barriers that people with disabilities face daily and would put on a statutory footing a wide variety of positive action measures to improve their position in Irish society fundamentally.
I view this as being akin to women's rights. I had to give up my job in the public sector when I got married in 1969. When we joined the EU in 1973, I was able to re-enter it. I see the rights of the disabled as being like women's rights. For a long time, society did not see the need for women to have the same rights as men and I draw the analogy with disabled people. Society was not aware and it was thought of as a cross that women had to carry. We have only now, through education and information, recognised that disabled people have the same right as the able-bodied to reach their potential. That is a fundamental part of this Bill.
The Minister made another important point, namely, that one of the Bill's major elements was the introduction of the right to an individual, independent assessment of needs and the right to redress and appeal. He said that the introduction of that right was at the heart of the Bill. Those rights are critically important and throw up some surprises regarding the established perception of need, as well as exposing deficiencies and strengths in the existing system. He also drew our attention to advocacy, which is fundamentally important, since people with disabilities may not be the best advocates for themselves. Making special provision for advocacy in the Bill will give them the opportunity to develop their rights. Those are the fundamental achievements of the Bill, which is the result of years of discussion with people involved in the disability lobby. The Minister of State, Deputy Mary Wallace, put her heart and soul into this and should take credit for what she did. A revolution has taken place. There was a time when developing women's full potential was not important, but now we all realise that every woman has the same right as a man to do so. Putting it bluntly, we have come from a position of ignorance.
I have raised in this House before the commitment to increasing the numbers of people in the public service who are disabled. The Departments should try to implement the 3% target. It is not being delivered in the public service and the various Ministers should make a valiant effort to achieve it. The accessibility of buildings and services should also be advanced. They are very unfriendly and I find them so personally. Sometimes on the street I see a lady who is fairly badly disabled, who goes into the bank in the morning on St. Stephen's Green. My spirits are lifted when I see the efforts to which she will go to do her work, cross the road and get into the lift down into the office. That inspires me.
I am very interested in the area of child care. Senator Terry raised the matter in the House. When a child is born disabled, parents feel isolated and lonely. They are on their own, whereas everyone expresses their appreciation of babies that have everything going for them. As part of future child care policy, when we are considering the development of more crèches, if mothers of children with disabilities wish to go to work, there should be special arrangements. A friend of mine who has a crèche leases part of it to St. Michael's House and children with disabilities come to the normal crèche that the other children attend so that the parents can chat among themselves and the child is not isolated. That is wonderful and should be commended. We should consider the children who are disadvantaged or born with disabilities so that they can be part of what we are talking about for the other groups.
I warn that I am very sceptical about one aspect. There are now six Departments involved in the delivery of this strategy and it is up to the Taoiseach to bang heads together and get them to co-operate. By their very nature, Departments protect their own turf. This matter must be driven politically by the Taoiseach who must take responsibility and deliver it with his Cabinet; it will not happen in the Department.
I was in the Oireachtas Library putting my thoughts together and listening to people making different points. The money aspect is critical. Regarding the education Bill which we discussed earlier in this House, one can have the finest Bill in the world, but if the money is not there the Bill is useless. I have spoken in this regard to the Minister of State on behalf of spina bifida sufferers. The money must go to the coalface in a transparent manner. The people who need the money must get it. I wish the Minister of State the best of luck; our hearts are with him in this. The Bill concerns human rights and is a very positive step for Ireland. I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak on this Bill today.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House. The debate on disability is welcome in the House and among the media.
Over the past two weeks I have had a lot of sympathy for disability groups trying to find their way through this quite opaque legislation. This legislation depends on goodwill. The point is not that it should be politically driven, but that it is, so that it will be dealt with in the way most convenient to Government.
It would be a little unfair for me to have a go at the Chair when I can answer the Senator's interruptions elsewhere.
I will give a couple of examples, one of which is current, of why I have doubts about this legislation. The first relates to the right to an independent assessment. I have been observing this matter carefully. It has been under consideration for five years and discussed at all sorts of levels. When I was involved in the Irish National Teachers Organisation I demanded this type of assessment in educational terms. It is an issue I have regularly raised.
Deputy Paul McGrath and I were recently discussing some of the difficulties in this area with a group of parents. Deputy McGrath became aware of one case which we examined closely. It involved a child on the positive side of the autism spectrum, in the Asperger's syndrome area. That child was seeking an assessment and not getting it, which is not unusual, as all in this House know. Not unusually either, the parents and the school decided to pay for an assessment and got it from a duly qualified person. They then got a second assessment. Both assessments indicated the child's needs. I will not go into detail, but this demonstrates where the problem lies, where there is lack of trust and a breach of confidence. The child's needs were quite clear. They presented the details to the Department of Education and Science, which told them to get lost. The Department did not seek to have the child assessed, nor did it say the assessment was wrong. It simply said "No" and refused to deal with the matter.
Deputy Paul McGrath advised the parents to seek recourse to the law and advised the Department that the case was going to court. It was an open and shut case. The Minister of State understands this as well as I do. The case is brought to court. The needs of the child are demonstrated. The previous judgments are looked at and those taking the case are given what they have been seeking. As soon as the Department of Education and Science took note of the case, after political intervention by Deputy McGrath, it conceded. It is unacceptable that parents must take such a course of action.
We are currently looking at a similar case of a child with speech therapy needs. The same process has taken place, with two assessments, and the Department of Education and Science is saying "No". The child is not to have the services of a special needs assistant or whatever is required. This is why I have a difficulty.
I will keep my comments to practical matters. There is a shortage of every kind of therapist imaginable, including occupational therapists, physiotherapists and all others. I do not care whose fault it is, but I could address the situation in a week. I would tell the universities I want a course up and running next September or 12 months from next September. I would have done this three years ago. I believe passionately in this. If the universities refused, I would then take in and give full recognition to people who qualified in the UK, the US or elsewhere. This must be done very quickly as otherwise it will not work.
Four or five years ago, when the educational psychological service was being established for schools in Ireland, there was a major shortage of educational psychologists on this island. I made representations at that stage to both Ministers in the South and in the North. The Minister in the South listened and said that things would move on, which they did to some extent. We have the beginnings of a service but we are still well behind. The people involved are doing nothing but assessing all the time. The real support of educational psychologists at school level involves them sitting down with teachers and planning a programme once they have identified the difficulties and how they might be resolved. That is hardly happening because the NEPS psychologists are being run off their feet.
In Northern Ireland, Martin McGuinness was the Minister for Education. I made him the same proposal as I made to the Minister in the South and he put it in place. There are two ways of creating educational psychologists. One can deal with qualified teachers with a degree in educational psychology or else with qualified psychologists with a degree in education. One of those groups is chosen and the members then study for a master's degree in educational psychology. It is a very long course but one would be taking on people who are already two thirds of the way there. The Northern Minister, Martin McGuinness, continued to pay those people. If they were teachers they continued to be paid while they were concluding their college courses as long as they were to return to the service. The same was done for the psychologists. That is how matters can be handled but we refuse to do that here.
That is why I have grievous doubts. In this legislation, instead of "enough" or "adequate" resources, the word all over the legislation is "appropriate" resources. The health board officers and the Minister are to provide "appropriate" resources. This Bill boils down to one section, section 5(3). I know we are not discussing the Bill, so that is not what we are voting on tonight. I am as good at English as the next person, yet I read this 20 times in an effort to understand it. The following is all one sentence and comprises 133 words:
An allocation under subsection (2) in a financial year shall be such that in the opinion of the Minister concerned, having had regard to the extent of his or her obligations in that year in relation to the allocation of the moneys available to him or her as aforesaid for different purposes in the performance in that year of the functions conferred on him or her other than by this Act, the amount remaining after the allocation that is available to the Minister as aforesaid for that year is not less than the amount that is appropriate for the purposes of the performance by the Minister of his or her functions in that year.
People are supposed to understand this and we are trying to make legislation accessible. My reference was to section 5(3) of the Bill. Section 5(2), which is very cleverly drafted, requires the Minister to make a certain amount of money available for the particular provisions of this Bill. The Minister is required to attend to that first, but in such a way as not to leave too little for the other responsibilities of the Minister under all other legislation. Having considered all those other responsibilities, the Minister must ensure there is an "appropriate" amount, whatever that means, left over.
These are the sorts of difficulties involved in the legislation. Sentences of the opaque type I quoted are very difficult. This Bill will come before the House. Before we take section 2 of the Bill I plead with the House to organise consultations with the disability groups. The Minister referred to consulting with these groups in drawing up the Bill and I applaud that consultation, which was well done. However, I would have preferred if the groups had also been given the right to consider the Bill before it was published, but that did not happen. We should get their views on how the Bill meets their needs because no Member of the House is an expert on disability. While we will do our best in dealing with the Bill, before we take section 2 we should sit down with the disability groups to consider the legislation and find out what it means to all of us.
As with all other issues concerning disability, the legislation can work if the resources are made available. However, it is stitched up in a triple lock. It is impossible to get the money if the Department of Finance decides not enough is to be provided. The Department of Finance gives the money to the Department of Health and Children which must ensure money is available for everything else. It must prioritise putting money into this area but cannot give it a higher priority than other areas. It is a classic Department of Finance trick. It would take a genius to work out the ins and outs of the 133 word sentence to which I referred. This is where the doubt is and why I have grave reservations about the working of the Bill and whether people with disabilities will have rights. They have the right to an independent assessment but they will not necessarily have the right to get what they are looking for out of this.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Tim O'Malley, to the House to discuss this important Bill but I note the absence of Progressive Democrats speakers on this important Government motion. It is amusing and rather pathetic that Fianna Fáil is starting this term, as I assume it means to go on, in a self-congratulatory manner. Spin, waffle, noise and lies are all calculated to deceive the general public and, given the performance of the Taoiseach in the other House, are obviously to be the order for the coming months and the remaining two years of this Government, if it lasts its term. While the Bill is welcome, the same cannot be said for the Government's propensity for praising itself prematurely. The Bill is the start of a long road and while an initial footprint has been put down, there are many miles to go.
After two years of lobbying by interested and in many cases desperate parties, the Government unveiled the national disability strategy and published the Disability Bill. This was the start of the process and the work is only beginning. We were all disappointed by the failure some years ago of the previous Bill, introduced by the then Minister of State at the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy Mary Wallace. It is disappointing that it took so long for the Government to get its act together and bring forward the Bill just published.
When it is finalised, it will be the time for handing out the plaudits. There is an onus and responsibility on all of us, as elected public representatives, to continue to work to ensure the best possible outcome for people with special needs and disabilities.
Congratulations are due to the Disability Legislation Consultation Group and other disability and caring groups which have spent so long campaigning and lobbying for comprehensive legislation to ensure the rights of the disabled. It is essential the Bill is seen as one element in an overall national disability strategy, along with the Comhairle (Amendment) Bill 2004 and sectoral plans, which must comprise essential legislation, services, detailed implementation plans, specific targets and adequate financial resources.
We were told funding would be ring-fenced but were not told how much. We will soon know how serious the Government is about delivering this programme and the promised annual financial package with the publication of the Estimates and budget 2005. Intent can also be shown by visible capacity building to meet changes, through increases in college places for physiotherapy, speech therapy, occupational therapy, etc., which were dealt with in great detail by my colleague, Senator Terry, and through the implementation of national standards in disability services to ensure real improvements in services to the disabled.
We know that early intervention is critical in many cases of disability. How does the Government intend to provide for this need, particularly in the area of speech therapy, alluded to by Senators Terry, O'Toole and others, where there is currently such a shortage of trained personnel? As a health board member for close to seven years, I know countless reports and studies have been undertaken around the country. The major problem is obtaining funding to implement the findings of such studies and reports. I hope we will see an increase in funding for this important initiative.
We have been let down so often in the past it is hard to trust the Government. I was delighted to hear Senator White warn the Taoiseach with regard to funding for the implementation of this programme. I hope she follows this through not alone with the Taoiseach but with the various Ministers she referred to in her presentation to the House.
For many this Bill will not be the long-awaited end to their problems and those of their families but at least it is tabled and the process has begun. Perhaps the most worrying aspect of the legislation, returning to the publication of the Estimates and the budget, is that there appears to be a large element of political choice inherent in the funding essential to its implementation. I referred to the shortage of funding for the various health boards, etc. Funding will deliver a proper service but it must be guaranteed. It is talked about as ring-fenced but no guarantees are given by the Government.
People are cautious about accepting guarantees. In another area of the health service, 200,000 extra medical cards were promised but not delivered. Other promises were made in regard to crime but there has been no change of ministerial personnel in the relevant Department to deliver a crime-free State. Some 2,000 extra gardaí were promised but have not been delivered. This has left the public sceptical of anything suggested by the Fianna Fáil-PD Government.
As those with disabilities know only too well, disability is a significant cost. Some 60% of households headed by a person with a disability live below the poverty line, which is acknowledged and needs to be addressed. What do they get from the Government? They are told that the Government cannot afford to provide them with accessible housing. They live in a country where their elderly parents must pray that their disabled children will die before they do because they are concerned for their offspring and cannot trust the Government to look after them. They get promises from the Government that things will get better but it never happens. One need only consider the cuts to the carer's allowance and other cuts to understand the situation.
It is time the Government accepted that the disabled are entitled to the same benefits as others and that it created a situation where they can avail of all this country has to offer its citizens. They can no longer accept second best. The time has come for them to take their rightful place. One of the key elements of this Bill, which is incredibly important, is the right to an individual independent assessment of need. This will grant people the right to have their needs assessed independent of resources. These assessments should identify service gaps, deficiencies and strengths in the existing system. At the very minimum, this Bill should see standards of services improve. People with disabilities should have a right of access to the highest standard of service. They are entitled to the financial means to purchase the services they require and the right of choice. Consultation, to which Senator O'Toole referred earlier, is vital, and the disability sector must play a pivotal role in the completion of all proposals.
We are at a defining moment for people with disabilities in the Ireland of today with an obligation to ensure they get all the rights that are taken for granted by the majority of our citizens. While welcoming the Bill, I sincerely hope the Government will guarantee funding for its implementation. That is vital. People need to be given a guarantee. It is important that figures are ring-fenced in the budget for the implementation of these proposals.
I too welcome the Minister of State to the House and do not doubt his personal commitment in this area. As public representatives, many Members of this and the other House regularly meet people who have ongoing difficulty negotiating their way around the system. As disabled people or as members of families with a disabled person, they are struggling and continue to struggle to get what they need.
In terms of this very congratulatory motion, the first paragraph refers to the ongoing commitment of the Government to put a programme of action in place to support and reinforce equal participation in society by people with disabilities. What first came to mind when I read that was the physically disabled person's grant. Only a year ago when I was a member of North Tipperary County Council, as it was then, the county council was forced to suspend the operation of the disabled person's grant because of inability to fund it. This also happened to many other county councils. The reason was that the one third share which the council was to put towards the grant amounted to such a large amount of money that funds simply did not exist to meet the commitment. The county council was, therefore, forced to suspend the grant until such time as the outstanding €1 million which had been allocated was found. The pleas of the county manager to the Department fell on deaf ears and this happened all over the country.
The people who suffered were people with disabilities who needed, for example, to have a downstairs bathroom installed, or who needed to have their bathroom adapted following an accident or as a result of having a person with a disability or an elderly person who had become incapacitated in their home. Those are the people who suffered at a time when, as we were constantly told, we were experiencing great economic prosperity. In light of the failure of this Government to provide the necessary funding, despite the pleas of county councils, I fundamentally disagree with the first paragraph of this motion, and I have previously raised this issue in this House. What was required amounted to a couple of million euro, and the difference it would have made to people is extraordinary. That represents an absence of commitment to equality, an absence of commitment to people with a disability. This was not about rights, it was about a service and a promise made in the context of the grant scheme that should have been properly structured. That promise was broken. I am glad the scheme is back in action in the county council but I know, from speaking to my colleagues around the country, that problems still exist.
Another example is the one Senator O'Toole gave regarding people having to obtain independent assessments of their children who have autism, which are not accepted by the Department. I know of a number of such cases. The final example I will give relates to a case with which I have been dealing for months. It is the situation of a young adult with severe disability who is in an institution in which people have taken very good care of him. He needs are such that he requires quite a high level of care. The institution is unable to provide this because it does not get the necessary funding. The health board provides funding to the school in question on a three-monthly basis because it must beg from the Department which gives funding for three months. The cycle continues and at the end of every three months I get the inevitable call, as do many other public representatives, from the parents who have been told by the school that their 22 year old son must come home. It would not be physically possible for that family to cope with that person. He needs two staff with him all day so one can imagine what is required. Furthermore, his mother is a widow with other children. That is what is happening. This has been occurring only in the past 18 months and is the result of the effective cutbacks after the 2002 general election. This is yet another example of a failure to keep promises and to ensure equal participation in society by people with disabilities.
There is no question but that this Bill is welcome. I have read the Bill only once and cannot say I understand it. It is very dense and difficult to understand, and the devil is in the detail. I look forward to the debate on the Bill in this House. There is no doubt that it represents a turning point.
When I worked with the 1992-97 Government, the former Minister for Equality and Law Reform, Mr. Mervyn Taylor, had a very strong commitment to people with disabilities. He was the Minister who first ensured that the issue of rights was put on the agenda. Prior to that we as a society, and we must all take responsibility for this, did not see people with disabilities as having rights. They were seen as charitable cases. If we had the money they got it. However, up to the early 1990s we did not have the money and they got nothing. They were at the bottom of the heap, silent behind closed doors, often in institutions or in families that were simply unable to fight for them and all of whose energy was going into coping. That changed because of the decision by the lobby groups, which must be commended, to ensure that their issues were put on the agenda. They are very effective lobby groups and must be congratulated.
Conditions have changed in the past number of years. However, I would not be surprised that anybody should hesitate to believe the promises of this or any Government but particularly this one, given its recent history of broken promises, when it states this Bill is the be all and end all of the situation. If I were in that position, I would say let us wait and see exactly what this Bill amounts to.
It is very substantial and welcome legislation but the key issue, as others have pointed out, is resources. A framework can be in place which is aspirational, but nothing can happen unless resources are committed to it. The Taoiseach and other Ministers delivered fine words at the launch of the Bill the other day. The Minister referred to the whole new framework in terms of funding. That is very welcome, but we will wait and see. I look forward to debating the Bill in the House. Progress has been made but we have a long way to go to reach a position where, in the words of the Government motion, there is real, equal participation in society by people with disabilities.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House and I welcome the Bill. However, the motion before the House is farcical in the extreme. The motion states that Seanad Éireann, "recognises the ongoing commitment of the Government", and, "congratulates the Government for bringing forward a disability Bill honouring its pledge". How can this be reconciled with the Bill's memorandum that unequivocally states, "... that the Minister will make financial resources available in each year, for the provision of services under the Act. In deciding on the allocation, each Minister will make available such amount as he or she considers appropriate"? The memorandum continues:
Having made such a considered allocation, nothing in the legislation will require him or her, or any public body to which this funding has been allocated, to provide a service which cannot be met out of that allocation.
This is the kernel of the Government's commitment to the Disability Bill. However, it is a repetition of the special educational needs Bill in which all provisions were qualified by funding. If we are dependent on a political decision from the Government, then based on its record of past commitments, the fight is not over for all those groups that have spent year in year out protesting outside the gates of Leinster House.
This Bill is nothing more than a regurgitation of the special educational needs Bill. There are three references in section 6 to the health boards and their respective chief executives. Was there any realisation when drafting the Bill that another Minister has disbanded the health boards, making the work of the chief executives obsolete? Although the boards will remain until the end of December, according to the Minister of State's presentation, there will be no commitment or action on this Bill. The delivery of services will remain inadequate.
It is fine to put promises on paper. However, the acid test will be how these services can be delivered. The Minister of State admitted that there will be a further three to four year wait for trained physiotherapists, speech and occupational therapists, while the waiting lists for their services stand at over 2,000. No matter how efficient the throughput of the universities and other institutions, how can this issue be addressed? All commentators in this area state that time is of the essence in disability care and that early intervention is crucial. How can the Minister of State stand over this motion and the contents of the Disability Bill when there is no indication of any timeframe within which the needs of the public can be met?
While I welcome the Disability Bill, I am fearful that the same lobby groups will have to come back again to drag commitments from the Government. Recently, with much fanfare, the Government pretended all was well as we happily march on. Nothing could be further from the truth. Nothing in this Bill indicates that anything will happen. I hope that whatever promises are made and, to use the Minister of State's own terms, whatever is deemed appropriate will be delivered. However, nothing in the past indicates that will happen. The ring-fencing of funds means nothing to those people in need. Hopefully, there will be an opportunity at a later date to go through the Bill's specific provisions.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Tim O'Malley, to the House. I too welcome the publication of the Disability Bill but have reservations about its key areas. Regarding the ring-fencing of moneys over a five-year period, the question arises as to how much money will be involved and what will happen in five years time. While the legislation states that assessments will remain independent, who will carry them out? Officials from the soon-to-be dissolved health boards or Government officials? How independent will reviews of assessments be?
From speaking to representative groups and people with disabilities, there is much discontent with the current building regulations regarding physical access compliance. I understand that it comes under a different Department but much more can be done in this area. Who will police physical access compliance? Will there be more amendments to the building regulations?
Stipulations exist requiring 3% of local authority workforces to be made up of people with physical or other disabilities. However, this rule is not adhered to and a recent survey of local authorities put Monaghan County Council bottom of the list. I will not admonish other councils as Donegal County Council has nothing to be proud of either. For years, I have been flying the flag for compliance with the 3% stipulation.
Approximately 1,400 citizens with physical disabilities in County Donegal are fighting hard for rights-based legislation. These people are not looking for hand-outs, pity or to be treated differently. While a large percentage of them voted in the last election, this group will be more sceptical than others. It is important that their expectations are not raised with false promises in budgeting over five years. There must be a more concrete delivery of a programme of works in which these people can have full confidence. Consultation has been referred to but it must be ongoing as the Bill goes through the Houses.
Another key factor is administration. It is important that this legislation does not involve layer upon layer of bureaucratic appointments. The issue is service provision, not the creation of mountains of bureaucracy. There are too many provisos in the Disability Bill. It needs to be more concrete with better clarification. Will the Minister of State inform the House of the timeframe for the passage of the Bill?
I thank all the speakers who contributed to the debate. I am sure it has been as illuminating for the Minister of State as it has been for me. While we are all debating the same issue and while we might engage in political argument about how we mean to go about it, one thing that is certain is that we are all on the same wavelength in terms of what we want to do. We want to improve the lot of people with disabilities. We might have different ways and means of going about it and different views on how we are going about it on this occasion.
We always knew the rights-based issue would again raise its head, as it did the last time. Senator Fitzgerald asked when is a right a right. Is it a right if it is attainable? If it is not attainable, it is not a right. It is more honest to say that this is, to a degree, resourced-based but that certain moneys will be ring-fenced, moneys which had the ability to seep away from the Department of Health and Children, in particular, into mainstream health. That cannot happen now. In addition, a multi-annual allocation will be given over the next five years. Those two elements show a commitment, in financial terms at least, that we mean what we say in regard to providing funds.
No Minister or Department can say in any given year that they have the resources to do A, B and C and stand over it. When running a country, resources are based on what one can and cannot get in or how one's finances or reviews work out in any given year. It is more honest to say what will be done will be based on resources, ring-fencing of moneys and a multi-annual approach.
It is not a fact that, at all times, resources can determine whether a right is attainable. Three years ago, one could not find physiotherapists, speech therapists or occupational therapists in this country. If someone presented themselves under this package with an assessment and came, for example, to the Central Remedial Clinic with it, if one did not have speech therapists, occupational therapists or physiotherapists, one could not give them what was stated in that package. That would have had nothing to do with resources but with the fact that they could not be found. As a consequence of that, over the past three years, there are 19 nationalities working in those three disciplines in the Central Remedial Clinic in Clontarf. They have come from as far away as New Zealand, South Africa and Australia. Three years ago, one could not have delivered a right to someone not because of a lack resources, because the resources were there, but because the people were not. To a point, we must wait until people finish in the universities but there are still people presenting from other countries who are highly trained and very professional and who can still be taken on and used to deliver what the strategy states can be delivered.
While this is not the be-all and end-all for people with disability, there is no doubt in my mind — I have spoken to a few of the lobby groups to which Senator McHugh referred — that they are excited about the proposition this presents going forward. Having worked in the area, I have no doubt this presents a new era for people with disability. I am satisfied that sufficient resources will be made available within the next five years to set this in motion. If the economy continues as is, I am absolutely confident that everything the Minister of State said will be achievable.
The Dail Divided:
For the motion: 14 (James Bannon, Paul Bradford, Ulick Burke, Paul Coghlan, Noel Coonan, Maurice Cummins, Frank Feighan, Michael Finucane, Brian Hayes, Michael McCarthy, Joe McHugh, Kathleen O'Meara, Joe O'Toole, Sheila Terry)
Against the motion: 25 (Eddie Bohan, Cyprian Brady, Michael Brennan, Peter Callanan, Brendan Daly, John Dardis, Timmy Dooley, Liam Fitzgerald, Camillus Glynn, Brendan Kenneally, Tony Kett, Marc MacSharry, John Minihan, Paschal Mooney, Tom Morrissey, Pat Moylan, Francis O'Brien, Labhrás Ó Murchú, Ann Ormonde, Mary O'Rourke, Kieran Phelan, Eamon Scanlon, Kate Walsh, Mary White, Diarmuid Wilson)
Tellers: Tá, Senators U. Burke and Terry; Níl, Senators Minihan and Moylan.