Wednesday, 22 June 2016
UN Conventions Ratification
I am delighted to join the Cathaoirleach in welcoming the Minister of State. I am particularly pleased that for the first time we have a Minister of State at the Cabinet table looking at the issue of inclusion for people with disabilities, which is a whole-of-government issue. It is a unique role and, in a sense, the Minister of State has in some way become the conscience of the Cabinet on this issue to ensure effective implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which is the linchpin. Ireland signed the convention in March 2007, which means that we have had almost ten years to prepare for its ratification and introduce the legislative measures required. At the recent European disability forum conference the Minister of State stated - it has been said over and over - that Ireland's approach had always been not to ratify international treaties until it was ready to implement them. My simple and logical response, therefore, is that once the convention is ratified, everything has to move and all the buttons must be green. However, the legislation still needs to be put in place. The other practical measures to be included in the upcoming budget and resources also need to be put in place.
I present the Minister of State with an opportunity to confirm that work is under way in Departments and public services to ensure implementation, that ratification will take place before the end of 2016 and that budget 2017 will include resources to progress implementation. On the legislative side, I mentioned the roadmap, which has been published. In conjunction with that, however, practical measures must now be put in place with regard to the upcoming budget. There is a raft of such measures in terms of health, housing, personal assistants, the cost of disability services, transport and many more.
People with disabilities can characterise the recession years in two key ways. First, there were repeated commitments that their services and supports would be protected and prioritised. Second, as time went on, there was a gross understatement or under-acknowledgement of the depth and scope of the cuts that continue to impact upon people with disabilities and their families in terms of participation in everyday life in this country. If a credible start is not made at this stage, people with disabilities can well draw the conclusion that they were hoodwinked during the past decade. The Oireachtas has not kept faith with them. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities, UNCRPD, is simply a methodology to give effect to the emancipation of 600,000 people.
I have no doubt whatsoever that Ireland can implement the convention well in the time ahead. We have the resolve, ambition and confidence to do so. It will be the right and proper thing to do for people with disabilities and, equally, for the economic, moral and social development of our country.
I thank Senator John Dolan for his best wishes and I congratulate him on being elected to the Seanad. I have known John for many years and I am aware of the magnificent work he has done with the Disability Federation of Ireland. It is very important that people with disabilities have a voice in the Seanad. I wish the Senator well in the future.
I thank Senator Dolan for raising this very important topic, which is also very important to me. I am delighted to have the opportunity to address the issue of Ireland's ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities and to provide an update on the work under way to meet our ratification targets.
The Roadmap to Ratification published by the previous Government last October detailed all the remaining legislative barriers to ratification and the work that would be undertaken to overcome them. It also set out a clear timeframe, and I can confirm that we are on track to achieve our target of ratification of both the convention and its optional protocol by the end of this year. That is something I am working very hard to achieve.
Much has been achieved already in terms of overcoming the obstacles to ratification outlined in the roadmap, with the enactment of the Assisted Decision-Making (Capacity) Act 2015 and the amendments to the Mental Health Act 2001, which removed the authority to administer electroconvulsive therapy or medicine, after a three-month period, to an involuntary patient with capacity who is unwilling to consent to the treatment.
The Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Bill 2015 was passed by the Seanad on 26 January this year. When enacted, the Bill will reform section 5 of the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 1993 to facilitate the full participation in family life of persons with intellectual disabilities and the full expression of their human rights. Achieving the necessary balance between those rights and ensuring appropriate protection is crucial.
Work is also under way on drawing up a disability/equality (miscellaneous provisions) Bill to progress the outstanding miscellaneous legislative amendments necessary to proceed to ratification. The Bill will address issues such as the convention's requirements regarding reasonable accommodation and deprivation of liberty, as well as removing archaic references in existing legislation relating to mental health. We recently presented the general scheme of the Bill to the Oireachtas for pre-legislative scrutiny.
To address Senator Dolan's point about resources for implementation, let me be clear: we need more resources for disability as disability services have taken a hit in the past seven or eight years. The Government and I will do our best to deliver on that. My priorities are clear. Underlining this Government's commitment to the disability sector, I announced last week the provision of an additional €31 million for disability services in 2016. This includes €3 million for new initiatives, including an additional provision for services to meet the needs of school leavers with disabilities and the anticipated cost of a number of emergency residential placements arising this year. These are the issues I found when I took office. These were the priority issues that had to be dealt with immediately. However, ratification of the convention is a separate issue that is not contingent on resources and does not require additional funding. When we ratify the convention by the end of this year, we will be making a solemn commitment to the international community that our body of domestic legislation is fully in line with the convention and fully meets the standards required under the convention.
Issues around the allocation of resources will always be subject to debate and are a matter for the individual Departments involved. Service standards and funding are subject to what the convention describes as "progressive realisation" and to the budgetary decisions of the Government of the day. It is my job to push for those budgetary decisions and those services.
The programme for Government sets out a range of commitments to improve the lives of people with disabilities. The Government supports - and I will be monitoring the position with regard to the 2017 Estimates, on which I have already started work - an increase in disability benefit and disability allowance, carer's benefit and carer's allowance and the blind person's pension. I am committed to implementing those policies. Legislation is being drafted to introduce a new mobility scheme, which I will have ready in the next couple of weeks, and the Government supports further increases in the housing adaption grants.
Work will continue on moving people with disabilities who are living in congregated settings to appropriate accommodation where they can live independently. I take this opportunity to announce that additional funding of €20 million will be made available to facilitate the removal of people from congregated settings. I will supply a list of the institutions that will benefit from that €20 million later. The money in question will enable people with intellectual or physical disabilities who are living in institutions to move to appropriate accommodation. In other words, we will take them out of institutions and put them in smaller community homes with a maximum of four people and with the necessary support staff and services. That €20 million will be spent in the coming weeks.
I thank Senator Dolan for raising this issue. I would like to change the mindset in that when we talk about people with disabilities we are talking about our daughters, brothers, sisters or neighbours. We are talking about citizens of this State and protecting their rights. I am determined that this UN convention will be ratified by Christmas.
I am relieved and delighted that work is under way, not just in the Department of Justice and Equality in particular but also in other Departments, on the legal aspects and that ratification will take place by the end of this year. The Minister of State also mentioned extra funding relating to congregated settings. That is important and should be noted, but I did not hear a response to the third question I asked about an assurance to the effect that resources will be made available in the coming budget to start next year. The reply is shy in terms of referencing the coming year. It is critical that once we get over the hurdle of ratifying the convention that there is not another delay that would mean we would have to start thinking about resourcing. That must be done now.
In regard to ratification, I do not accept the Minister of State's point that there are no implications for resourcing. A huge job must be done to improve the ordinary lives of people with disabilities. Getting them out of institutions is one thing but making sure the community is fit for them to live good lives and participate in is another matter.
I take Senator Dolan's point in respect of waiting for ten years. During the talks on the programme for Government this was something I inserted in the document. We must act on that. Hanging around for ten years on this issue is not acceptable. Let us try to do it now.
Reference was made to assurances for the forthcoming budget. I am giving assurances to Senator Dolan this morning in the House that we have to have done it and we have to have the resources to fund the new services. Moreover, my position is that we have to have the resources to catch up on the damage that was done in the past nine or ten years. I accept that point and I am giving a commitment.
I sat down with my staff already and in the coming two or three weeks I will be demanding extra resources to implement many of the issues Senator Dolan raised. The answer to Senator Dolan's question is "Yes" but I am not going to make any big false promises in the House. However, I can give a strong commitment that I will do my best to ensure the provision of and focus on all services for people with disabilities.
I put it to my colleagues that it is not only a question of the Minister of State, Deputy McGrath, being the person who deals with disabilities. I am keen to broaden this debate. Every Minister should have a role in dealing with the issue and supporting the rights of people with disabilities to access services. For example, I have set myself a target. The target for employment is 3% but I have set myself a target of 6% in the next three years in respect of people with disabilities. There are thousands of young people with a physical or intellectual disability. I met a group of them yesterday at the Irish Wheelchair Association. I met another group three weeks ago in the Central Remedial Clinic. These are brilliant talented young people with physical disabilities and they are looking for a job - I am referring to a real job. I am putting it to every Minister that it is not simply a question of Finian McGrath being the person dealing with disabilities. We all have a responsibility. I would appreciate the support of my Seanad colleagues for that vision. We need to change that mindset in Irish society as well.