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Dáil Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 25 May 1999

Vol. 505 No. 3

Private Members' Business. - Services for People with Disabilities: Motion.

I move:

That Dáil Éireann:

–conscious that there is a serious shortfall in the practical provision of support and services to the many thousands of people with intellectual, physical and sensory disability, their advocates and carers;

–noting that the annual funding targets identified as essential in the report 'Towards an Independent Future' have not been reached;

–aware that despite two grants of capital allowances totalling £9.325 million, there are still considerable waiting lists for aids and appliances;

–noting that there is a regional imbalance in the provision of services;

–taking account of the unprecedented Exchequer returns and conscious of the serious moral obligation that the Franklin Delano Roosevelt International Disability Award places on us to continue the momentum for change, particularly before the start of the new millennium;

calls on the Government to provide the funds needed to enable:

–the making up in 1999 of the shortfall in funding identified as essential in the report ‘Towards an Independent Future';

–a substantial reduction of the waiting list for respite and residential care;

–the expansion of personal assistance services;

–the enabling of more resource centres countrywide for persons with physical and sensory disability;

–the provision of education in an appropriate setting with the needed support services for each child with a special need;

and demands that the Government produce before 30 June 1999 a fully costed programme to achieve the objectives of the Report of the Commission on the Status of People with Disabilities, ‘A Strategy for Equality', within a new specified timeframe.

Since this House last debated a Private Members' motion on the needs of people with intellectual, physical or sensory disability, Ireland received the Franklin Delano Roosevelt International Disability Award. The Secretary General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, presented the award to President McAleese earlier this month. It would be useful to remind Members of what the UN Secretary General said at that time about Ireland and our attitudes to people with disabilities. He stated:

Central to the UN World Programme of Action concerning Disabled Persons is the goal of full and equal participation by persons with disabilities in all aspects of life, regardless of the level of development of their country. Today, we honour Ireland and its people for reaching farther and doing more in the pursuit of that goal.

Ireland has been setting the pace in the cause of the disabled in many ways: by creating a Minister of State position with responsibility for disability and inequality; by enacting an Employment Equality Act which outlaws discrimination in employment against a number of groups, including people with disabilities. Just as importantly, Ireland has led the cause of the disabled on the international level, particularly in the European Union where it has promoted new and expanded measures to ensure Europe-wide equality for the disabled.

We are well aware of how deserving you are of this reward. It is my hope that other nations will look to you and learn of the great promise that exists for every society in empowering the disabled among their people and enabling them to make the most of their lives. I am confident that you, too, will inspire other nations to recognise that the cause of the disabled is a cause that nobody can afford to ignore.

Since the UN Secretary General made that speech, two other significant items of legislation were enacted or introduced in this House. They are the Equal Status Bill, Second Stage of which we debated here last week, and the National Disability Authority Bill, which completed Report and Final Stages recently. This seems to be an impressive record.

It appears that the legislative equality agenda, which seeks to empower and enable people with disabilities to achieve and exercise their economic, social, political and civil rights, is all but complete. If that is the case, however, why is there need for a Private Members' motion in the House this evening which notes the shortfalls, the waiting lists and the regional imbalances in the provision of services? If Ireland has reached farther and done more, if Ireland is setting the pace and is an inspiration to others in the cause of people with disabilities, why do we need to debate these issues here? We need to debate these issues because we need to remind ourselves, and particularly the Government which is charged with responsibility for managing the economic well-being of the country, that legislation, while vital and welcome, does not have a world-changing effect on the lives of people with disabilities unless their basic needs are first satisfied. The motion tonight is about basic needs.

People with physical, sensory or learning disabilities, their families, advocates and carers, for far too long have heard words like "mainstream", "integration", "empowering" and "enabling", but what have they experienced and what do they continue to experience? They experience marginalisation, exclusion and powerlessness.

It appears from the Government's amendment to this motion that there is, sadly, no will to provide these basic needs. The Government's amendment is mean-minded and self-congratulatory in tone. It does not take account of the fact that this Government, more than any other in recent years, has at its disposal resources which could, with political will, shorten the timeframe set out in the report, Towards an Independent Future, and the strategy for equality. These could make an enormous difference to the lives of people with disabilities.

It does not take account of the fact that on Tuesday last, the Transport for All Group organised a demonstration to the Dáil to highlight that, in the words of its own press release, "a form of apartheid currently exists in this country". The Government's amendment does not take account of the fact that people are still prisoners in their own homes because there is no accessible transport available to them. It does not take account of the fact that the Government's programme, An Action Programme for the Millennium, in the preamble to its section on people with disabilities, states:

Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats in Government are committed to radical change to ensure that the needs and the aspirations of people with disabilities, their families, carers and advocates, are comprehensively addressed. We are committed to ensuring that disability is placed where it belongs, on the agenda of every Government Department and public body. Our policy is based on the core principles of promoting empowerment through appropriate, accessible and responsive services.

They were fine words with which we could all agree. In the same chapter under the heading "Key Priorities" the Government promises the introduction of a co-ordinated and comprehensive approach to promoting access by people with disabilities to the use of public spaces and facilities and to the range of public transport.

Two years into the lifetime of the Government we are being asked, in the words of the Government amendment, to approve "The Government's commitment to put in place an enhanced level of service provision [as it now calls it] outlined in the programme for Government". How can the House approve the Minister's amendment when the Government's track record speaks for itself? How can we approve of the Government's commitment when the Exchequer funded 150 buses, none of which are accessible to wheelchair users?

The enactment of the Equal Status Bill would have made it impossible for the Minister for Public Enterprise to order new buses which are not accessible to wheelchair users. Unfortunately, the introduction of the Bill came too late for those already excluded. Even if we had fully accessible public transport some people would still be trapped in their own homes. Even if we had enacted the Equal Status Bill they would be excluded from full participation in many aspects of life. Despite the Employment Equality Act, these people, sadly, will not be competing for jobs or taking advantage of the booming economy.

The Irish Wheelchair Association recently estimated that 2,667 of its members do not benefit from day activity or development. Of these people, 1,248 are totally physically isolated, in short, they are prisoners in their own homes; 1,153 still require aids and appliances and 1,375 require personal assistance with basic needs such as dressing and feeding. How can legislation help people to participate fully when they cannot even get out of bed without a hoist which they may not have? How can legislation protect the rights of these people to be considered for a job when they cannot get dressed without an assistant which, in many cases, they do not have? How can we justify the fact that, despite Ireland's legislative record and the booming economy, there has been little or no investment in personal assistance schemes for people with disabilities? How many more thousands of people, who are not members of the IWA, require services which are not provided? How many more members require such services but are not on a database?

This motion was designed to unite, not divide, the House. Two motions in the past seven or eight months have called on the Government to provide additional resources for the provision of services to persons with intellectual, physical or sensory disabilities. On each occasion the Minister and the Government did nothing but congratulate themselves on having provided a few resources. We accept that they can point to improved levels of services in some areas. However, the consensus in the House must be that we should do more and do it now.

Ireland received a prestigious international award and has been cited as having set the pace for change. Why can we not agree to speed up that pace? Why do we continue to take things slowly when the need for change and the reasons for making such change are self evident?

The motion asks the Government to take stock; to provide additional money; to accelerate the rate of change in tangible and practical ways; to make changes which will allow people to take advantage of educational and employment opportunities and to improve the quality of life for people with disabilities in real and practical ways. We need a new timetable for change. We need legislative change but, most importantly, we need practical change.

Some of the changes may be small, such as more personal assistance services, more aids and appliances, more residential and respite care and more day resource centres and services. This is the policy at a macro level and we are making progress at legislative level. However, at a micro level people are still living lives of desperation and despair because of a lack of basic services.

A sentence from the report "Towards an Independent Future" will assist in setting the scene for this debate. Dr. Ruth Barrington wrote on behalf of the review group that: "The main thrust of our report is the development of services to enable people with a physical or sensory disability to live as independently as possible in the community". Key issues in the submission to the review group highlight deficiencies in the system, which should be designed to achieve the objectives outlined above – enabling those with disabilities and giving them independence.

The submission to the review group highlighted a lack of comprehensive data on the numbers and the services needed; inadequate access to information on service provision; disparities in eligibility criteria between and within health boards; inadequate statutory funding for individuals; uncertain funding of voluntary organisations; shortfalls in services relating to therapy, day care, counselling and home support; uneven geographic distribution of services; inadequate transport services; inadequate co-ordination of services and poor consumer choice. Would the Minister not agree that this is a litany of disaster?

However, the situation is not hopeless. By producing a fully costed programme to achieve the objectives of "A Strategy for Equality" in a new, specified timeframe, the Government could make a real difference to the lives of those with disabilities.

Every day the parents of children with an intellectual disability face the painful reality that their children's quality of life will always be decided by others. Far from being the beneficiaries of a comprehensive and seamless service, parents and families may face a lifetime of struggle and delay. One of the submissions to the Commission on the Status of People with Disabilities, quoted in the report of that body, "A Strategy for Equality", graphically illustrates this point. A parent states: "It appears to us that the parents of a disabled child face a lifetime of fighting each and every agency and Department for their rights and those of their child."

The Department of Health and Children's document "Services to People with a Mental Handicap/Intellectual Disability – An Assessment of Need 1997-2001" added a new dimension to the development and planning of comprehensive services for people with a mental handicap. It comprehensively describes the essential needs of those with mental handicap. The intellectual disability database identifies 26,694 people with a mental handicap or intellectual disability. Of those, 604 people receive no service from the State and 22,804 receive some service. Of the 26,694 men, women and children, 1,439 – one person in every 20 – are waiting for residential and respite care and 1,036 are waiting for the provision of day care. It is constant waiting. Analysis of the data shows that, due to medical advances, the adult population in the database has increased by 31 per cent since 1974. Of the 26,694 people on the database, 61 per cent or 16,453 are aged 20 or over and, of those, 8,283 are aged 35 or over and 2,203 are aged over 55. The Department of Health and Children states that the average age of those requiring residential placement is 31.6 years and those requiring day places is 35.9 years.

If we do not provide those essential residential and day places, who is doing the work? The principal carers of persons with mental handicap are their parents. The age profile of those identified as requiring a service has a significant implication. Elderly parents are caring for their middle aged and older sons or daughters. Parents in their 70s and 80s are looking after their adult mentally handicapped sons or daughters. For all of them, apart from the daily physical and emotional demands made on them, there is the fear of what will happen to their child if they die or become incapacitated. We claim to value our elderly people. The Minister for Finance said he had concentrated resources in this year's budget on pensioners, but where are they?

Based on the figures above, it is clear that over 8,000 old age pensioners care for a dependent mentally handicapped son or daughter and give everything they have left every day to care for their handicapped child because there are no day centres and no respite care. What has the Minister done for them? Will the welcome increase in their old age pensions relieve the pressure of caring? Will it provide the residential, day or respite care they desperately need for their children and themselves? Will it end the sleepless nights and provide peace of mind? We know the answers to those questions are in the negative.

While it is true the Government has allocated some resources to assist with the scandal of the waiting list for respite and residential care for those with an intellectual disability, much more needs to be done. In a letter to my colleague, Deputy Shatter, the Carmona Parents' and Friends' Association summed up what it sees as a crisis in the provision of services for people with learning disabilities in south-east Dublin and east Wicklow. The letter explains the association requested £7 million to deal with waiting lists for residential, day, crisis and respite care. The Minister for Health and Children allocated it £252,500. It pointed out that this will provide five residential places and six day places in 1999 but that its waiting list is much longer. It needed 92 residential places, 180 respite places, 25 crisis places and 17 day service places. Surely that should have been taken into account. Unfortunately, bad as that experience is, it is not unique. A new, real and meaningful timetable for funding with an accelerated pace would reassure those people that practical help is on the way.

The House will debate the Bill on the Statute of Limitations tomorrow. We have recently concentrated on the abuse of children in the care of the State in industrial schools and orphanages. We are rightly outraged by the pain and suffering people have undergone. We would also be outraged if we thought large numbers of people were still suffering abuse and neglect. We should be outraged. There are large numbers of people suffering neglect by the State. They are people with disabilities and we are still abusing their rights. We continue to do so when we do not provide the necessary resources to allow them to avail of day care, respite care, special education, personal assistance and aids and appliances.

I remind the Government what President McAleese said when she accepted the Roosevelt International Disability Award on behalf of the people of Ireland:

While we feel privileged and pleased to be the recipient country, we know that this award carries with it a serious moral obligation to ensure that we maintain and accelerate the momentum for change in disability related policy and service provision.

It places a moral obligation on us if we are to be worthy recipients of that award to provide the necessary additional resources. Later in her address the President said:

We have failed our people with disabilities and, in the process, seriously damaged our society. How much talent has been wasted because people with disabilities have not been given the opportunities and means to develop their gifts? How much genius has been lost forever to our world because of this? That loss has not only been a personal tragedy. . . it has also immeasurably impoverished our society.

I commend the motion to the House. The Government should help enrich society, not just by introducing legislation but through real and practical service provision and it should be done sooner rather than later.

I support the motion. The Government's programme states that it recognises disability as one of the most important social issues facing Ireland. I agree with that. I am glad the Government recognises such a fact and I hope that, in a time of unprecedented Exchequer returns, we would see fit as a State to financially support those who, through no fault of their own, are born with, or through illness or accident have acquired, a disability, be it intellectual, physical or sensory. We should not forget that a Government should govern society and not a financial institution. It should be a society which ensures full participation and integration of its citizens and one which gives them an opportunity to gain equality of access and mobility so that their disabilities become sidelined and they can reach their full potential as human beings. When one reads the report of the Commission on the Status of People with Disabilities, "A Strategy for Equality", and becomes familiar with the discussions it held throughout the country with people with disabilities and their families on practical issues, one of the single greatest matters of concern which emerged was the question of access and transport. It emerged that people felt marginalised and trapped in their homes because of public policy in respect of transport, a policy which forgot to take account of the rights of people with disabilities.

It is disgraceful that the 150 additional buses being provided in Dublin will be inaccessible to wheelchair users. Where will such thinking lead? Have we learned nothing from the reports produced on the subject of equality? These buses are paid for by taxpayers' money but the rights of the citizens of this country have not been taken into consideration. It was a scandal that people in wheelchairs were obliged to take to the streets recently to demonstrate against the fact that they cannot gain access to public transport.

Disabled persons have the same entitlement to public transport as anyone else and yet their needs are ignored. It should be the standard that all forms of public transport are accessible to wheelchair users. No single element of a public transport system should be inaccessible to wheelchairs. That is what equality means. I accept this will require investment but if we do not take action now, in the so-called "good times", what chance is there that such investment will be made in the event of an economic downturn?

The service provided to wheelchair users in Dublin by taxis which were licensed for that purpose seems to be falling short of what was envisaged. The streets are full of these taxis but people in wheelchairs do not seem to be able to avail of the service. Drivers are too busy picking up fares elsewhere and it seems they are not willing to spend the extra time needed to load a wheelchair on board, secure the passenger and then help them disembark when they reach their destination.

In my view it was a mistake to grant taxi licences to drivers on the condition that their vehicles are wheelchair accessible – it has been described by many as a taxi licence obtained by the back door. There is no check on the number of wheelchair fares taken by individual taxis. Taxi drivers are commercially driven and will not provide a service that is less viable than any other. What is needed is some form of service dedicated to the disabled. State funding should be provided to support such a service because commercial interests will not facilitate it.

There was a great deal of controversy in Cork city during the past month. Many public meetings were held and public representatives were contacted about the fact that a firm which was offering a transport service for the disabled has ceased trading. A number of years ago, Able Cabs was persuaded to operate a taxi service for the disabled. With two suitable vehicles, the company provided a lifeline for the disabled. The company provided a dedicated service to wheelchair users and their families but, unfortunately, the business was not viable. However, it was very successful in its aim to provide an essential social service which was not being provided by the State. This service could be used as a model of how to serve the disabled but financial intervention is required.

If a taxi service is totally dedicated to the disabled, should it not be exempt from VAT and VRT charges as is the case with disabled drivers? The difference is that the passengers, not the driver, will be disabled. What is the position regarding exemption from VAT on petrol and diesel? Does it make sense to levy these charges on disabled people? Exemption would be a step towards facilitating a disabled transport service. I realise that these proposals would not offset the additional cost of providing special vehicles and, therefore, additional assistance in respect of running costs should also be provided. A subsidy based on the mileage covered by taxis to defray these costs could also be considered.

The situation in Cork is now drastic. The only transport service for the disabled was withdrawn two weeks ago and there are now no wheelchair accessible taxis available in the city. The corporation issued five new licences for wheelchair accessible taxis in the past month but these are unlikely to come on stream until September if not later. Based on what I have seen in Dublin, I have grave reservations about their ability to provide a service for the disabled.

Many disabled people in Cork face the prospect of increased isolation and further marginalisation. How can they do their shopping, collect children from school and attend medical appointments and physiotherapy clinics without access to transport? They are effectively stranded and left dependent on the support of others. There is only one wheelchair accessible bus in Cork, a token gesture which has had little or no impact.

I wish to read to the House a letter which was published in many national newspapers. It was written by a young woman of my acquaintance in Cork and it expresses the views of disabled people in the city regarding the lack of access to public transport. The letter states:

Dear Editor

I would like to bring up the topic of "Public Transport for the Disabled". How generous the State is to provide me with a free travel pass. I had to have my personal assistant drive me to the bus depot to have my photograph taken for this wonderful free travel pass. When I was there I inquired how many buses in Cork city could take wheelchairs. I was told one. Is this not discrimination? Shame on the State.

For the past two years I have been lucky enough to be able to use the services of Able Cabs but this service is to cease on 21 April as it was not financially viable. I feel violated that the State did not feel it its duty to make a contribution to this wonderful service. Might I also add that in the '80s it was the "year of the disabled". Here we are in 1999, heading into the new millennium, and the State has not yet provided any service and yet it tries to create the illusion by encouraging private business to make a few taxis accessible without proper guidelines on how to achieve this. Surely the existing service could have been encouraged to continue as they genuinely provided an excellent service for the disabled in this city.

That letter was written by a person who now finds herself further marginalised and stranded in her home.

Last week I spoke to a young mother in Cork whose young son of almost four years of age, is described as being mildly mentally retarded. Since he was born the mother has been engaged in a constant battle to gain State services for him. Last week, after a two year struggle, it was confirmed that the Southern Health Board will provide the services of a speech therapist. However, the speech therapist will only be available for approximately six weeks. After that, the mother will face a further battle. She has ensured that her son will have schooling for the next 12 months but when he reaches five years of age she will face a further fight when he is installed in his new school.

The toll a person with a mental disability imposes on his or her family members cannot be underestimated. Providing care for these people is a full-time job, 24 hours a day, seven days a week and family members cannot even travel to the local shop without first ensuring that they are secure. These families need access to respite care which will provide them with the opportunity to recharge their batteries. Children with autism will also benefit enormously from special schooling and the opportunity to communicate with the assistance of speech therapists. Spouses and family members of those who suffer from Alzheimer's disease need society's support through the provision of respite care and day-care centres.

Numerous reports have been produced since the mid-1990s to highlight the gaps in the services provided. What is now required on the part of everyone in the House is a commitment to the children and adults to whom I refer to give them the necessary financial support to enable them to live their lives to their full potential. I support the motion.

I move amendment No. 1:

To delete all words after "That" and substitute the following:

Dáil Éireann recognises the need for the further development of services to people with intellectual, physical and sensory disabilities and approves both the Government's commitment to put in place an enhanced level of service provision in line with the commitments outlined in the Programme for Government and Partnership 2000 and the actions taken by the Government to date in meeting these commitments, which include the provision of additional funding of £91.662 million and the putting in place of arrangements to meet the educational needs of children with special needs.

The disability sector, people suffering from disabilities, their parents and families, often look with a jaundiced eye at the timing of debates such as this in the midst of election campaigns when many commitments and promises are given, usually far more generous from the Opposition side than the Government side. It does not add much to the debate. Part of Deputy Ahearn's speech was untypically constructive.

Given that these issues are ongoing, the concern of successive Governments and that people need to make decisions as to who is more likely to deal with these issues on the basis of need, I am prepared to have the Government's record put side by side with the record of the previous Government for the previous three years. That is the basis on which people should decide. We can make rhetorical speeches, point to the problems in the service and say a particular Government would do better, but the Opposition parties were also in Government.

The idea has come about that it is only now we can do something for the disability sector. I remind Deputies that when the leader of the Labour Party was Minister for Finance and Deputy Jim Higgins was Chief Whip, three budgets were passed totalling public expenditure of over £45 billion. Is it suggested there was no money at that time? Is it suggested no opportunities were available to the rainbow coalition to show its commitment, apart from all its politically correct speeches? I am not interested in that type of politics. I am interested in coming into office and getting an opportunity to improve the situation, to bring in orderly, planned improvements year on year. I will not say to the disability sector that all their problems can be solved overnight because they cannot and will not be solved overnight. We should have more respect for people about whom we claim we are concerned. We must be honest and state what we intend to do, outline the strategy, how we will work in partnership with voluntary bodies, parents and friends' associations of the mentally handicapped, the Irish Wheelchair Association, the Cystic Fibrosis Association and many other voluntary bodies which are trying to maintain or improve a service or obtain a service where none exists.

Nobody is more acutely aware of those issues than an incumbent Minister for Health and Children who takes his or her job seriously. I am not prepared to say that a wand can be waved which will solve the problems but I am prepared to state my record. This amendment is not self-congratulatory. It points out there is a need for further development of services to people with intellec tual, sensory and physical disabilities. I am not suggesting the problems are solved. That is not the real world. The reality is that the Government is providing more services, resources and opportunities to ensure the disability sector has improved services. That was the case with all previous administrations.

It is also the case that 46 residential places for intellectual disability were provided in 1996 when the Deputies opposite supported an administration on this side. This resulted in a huge problem in the delivery of emergency cases which came onstream and for which there was not even a contingency fund, not to mention the need to improve and increase the level of residential, respite or day care for mental handicap. It is only now we are dealing with that situation to ensure we get back on the path of producing an increased number of places as a result of increased allocations, which put to shame the allocations of the previous administrations in terms of development moneys in this sector. I will not use those facts as a means to say everything is honky dorey. I am committed to continuing as Minister for Health and Children, using my influence in Government with the agreement of my colleagues to provide further development moneys to deal with the issues. The Opposition should stop stating rhetorical platitudes. That impresses nobody because people are fed up listening to it and I will not engage in it.

Members will recall we had two debates late last year on services for people with disabilities, in early November on services for people with intellectual disability and in early December on services for people with physical and sensory disabilities. However, I am pleased to have this further opportunity to reiterate the Government's commitment to the development of these services and to outline the progress which has been made since the Government took office.

The Government fully supports the principle that people with disabilities are entitled to all the rights and privileges which go with citizenship and that all obstacles to the enjoyment of these rights and privileges should be removed. These obstacles have been identified by the Commission on the Status of People with Disabilities in its report, A Strategy for Equality. That report adopted three guiding principles: equality, maximising participation and enabling independence and choice. Bearing in mind these principles, the overall thrust of health policy for people with disabilities is to provide the supports necessary to enable each individual to live in the community with the maximum possible degree of independence.

What is involved in ensuring equality, participation and independence for people with disabilities is a lot more than health services appropriate to their needs. People with disabilities have called for a departure from "the health model of disability". They wish to be treated the same as their fellow citizens by having services delivered to them by the "mainstream" agencies, that is, the same agency that provides the particular service to the rest of the community. This is one of the objectives set out by the commission in A Strategy for Equality. My colleague, the Minister of State at the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy Mary Wallace, has special responsibility for disability issues and is co-ordinating the Government's action in implementing A Strategy for Equality across the range of Departments involved.

A progress report on the implementation of the recommendations of the commission is nearing completion and will be submitted to Government at an early date. Since the commission's report was published, significant milestones have been achieved in promoting equal opportunities for people with disabilities. These include: the establishment of an interim Irish Council of People with Disabilities, the enactment of the Employment Equality Act, 1998, the publication on 19 April 1999 of the Equal Status Bill and the establishment of an interim National Disability Authority board.

In addition, steps are being taken to establish a new national disability authority on a statutory basis to establish a new body to fulfil, among other things, the role of the disability support service recommended by the commission and the transfer of responsibility for vocational training and employment from my Department to the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment.

A specific commitment is given in the Programme for Government to the implementation of A Strategy for Equality. The programme states "key priorities will include implementation of the report of the Commission on the Status of People with Disabilities". The practical steps needed to develop services in my area of responsibility are set out in the report of the review group on health and personal social services for people with physical and sensory disabilities, Towards an Independent Future, and in Services to People with a Mental Handicap – An Assessment of Need 1997-2001. A commitment to implement the recommendations of Towards an Independent Future is given in Partnership 2000 and in my Department's Strategy Statement 1998-2001, which states "resources will be allocated within overall expenditure parameters for the development of services to persons with disabilities in line with the report of the review group".

A commitment is also given in both documents to pursue the development of services for persons with a mental handicap in line with the needs identified by the national intellectual disability database. That database is now providing information on services currently being provided and on current and future needs. The number of people on the database in 1996 was 26,804. The data reveals an ageing population in the more severe range of disability. The higher numbers of young adults and increased life expectancy will mean that the pressure currently being experi enced by adult day services will increase as this group ages and requires residential services.

At present there are no definitive statistics in relation to the number of people in this country with physical and sensory disabilities. Based on population trends in other countries, it has been estimated that the number in Ireland could be as high as 200,000. However, not every person with a physical or sensory disability needs a health service. The report, "Towards an Independent Future", highlighted the lack of reliable information on the number and service needs of people with physical and sensory disabilities and recommended the establishment by the Department of Health and Children, health boards and voluntary bodies of a database on the health service needs of persons with physical and sensory disabilities.

As a first step the review group recommended the establishment by my Department of a database development committee to prepare detailed proposals for the development of the database. This committee was established in December last and hopes to complete its work by the end of this year. This will pave the way for the putting in place of the database next year. Once it has been established, the database will provide the factual information necessary for the orderly planning of service developments at national, regional and sub-regional level, including prioritising service needs and assisting in decisions on the allocation of resources. The report, "Towards an Independent Future", which was published in December 1996, set out the requirements for the development of the services over a five year period. I have already stated on a number of occasions that I am committed to the implementation of the report.

The important role of the voluntary sector was fully recognised by the review group in looking at the organisation of services. The group recommended the structured involvement of the voluntary agencies in the planning and co-ordinating of the services and in the fixing of priorities for the allocation of funding for the development of the services. One recommendation of the review group was that the chief executive officer of each health board should establish a regional co-ordinating committee for services for people with physical and sensory disabilities. Membership of the committee should comprise officers of the health board, voluntary sector service providers, representatives of service users, that is, people with disabilities, and the National Rehabilitation Board.

I am pleased to say that these committees have now been established in every health board. My Department is currently pursuing a review of the operation of the committees in consultation with the health boards and the voluntary organisations concerned. The purpose of the review is to identify best practice, encourage a cross-fertilisation of ideas across the regions, come up with solutions to any teething problems which may have arisen and to contribute to the development of overall national policy. A major element of the review process is a seminar which was held in Portlaoise last week. This seminar brought together all the participating parties to discuss progress to date and ways in which the operation of the committees could be made more effective.

Regarding carers, people with disabilities living at home require assistance with the tasks of daily living and often responsibility for the care rests with one person principally. The review group report acknowledges the need to expand and develop different levels of home support services for people with disabilities and their carers. The crucial role of the carer is taken into account in the planning of services with, for example, the strong emphasis placed on the development of respite care services which benefit the person with a disability and the carer. The provision of this and other support services with the object of enabling the person with a disability to remain in the home serve the dual purpose of promoting independent living for the person with a disability and taking as much pressure as possible off the carer.

A substantial package of improvements in the carers allowance was provided in the 1999 budget. All 11,500 existing carers will benefit from these measures while an additional 3,300 new carers will now qualify for the allowance. The total package for carers amounts to over £18 million annually. This is a large additional increase on the existing £45 million spent on carers in 1998 and indicates the Government's commitment to carers and the appreciation it has for their valuable role in our society.

There have been calls from the Centre for Independent Living for a personal assistance service funded by an independent living fund. A personal assistant provides assistance at the discretion and direction of a person with a disability with everyday tasks, such as personal care, household tasks, etc., which the person is unable to do himself or herself. A full personal assistance service is defined by the Centre for Independent Living as a need for at least 20 hours service a week. The independent living fund is no more than a particular model for funding a personal assistance service. The important point is that the service is provided to those who need it; the precise manner of funding is a detail.

The personal assistance service is one of a range of support services designed to enable people with disabilities to live in the community with the maximum degree of independence. The range includes home helps, home care attendants, respite care, day care, etc., and the objective of policy is to develop the range of services as a whole. The amount of funding to be devoted to the development of this service will be decided in each health board area in accordance with locally perceived priorities.

As I have already indicated, health boards decide on priorities for the allocation of development funding in consultation with the regional co-ordinating committees for physical and sensory disability services. In addition, the Centre for Independent Living is represented on most of the co-ordinating committees. From a total of £3 million provided for development of services in 1998, personal assistance services were among those to which the boards allocated funds.

Deputies will be aware that my colleague, the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Martin, recently announced a major new initiative in the special education area under which all children in the primary system assessed as having special needs arising from a disability will be entitled to an automatic response to those needs. The Minister for Education and Science considers that this initiative represents a major advance in the education of all children with special educational needs and demonstrates the Government's commitment to the need to provide suitable education to children with special needs.

The level and nature of the response in each case will depend on the assessed needs of the child or group of children involved. The response may take the form of a full or part-time resource teacher or child care support, depending on the number of children involved and the nature of their needs. A total of £8 million has been allocated over the next two years for teacher and special needs assistant support. Under that initiative, an additional 46 full-time and 26 part-time resource teachers have been allocated along with an additional 247 special needs assistant posts to assist school authorities cater for children with special needs.

The Minister for Education and Science also recently reduced the pupil/teacher ratio in all special schools and special classes catering for children with mild learning disabilities, moderate learning disabilities, emotional disturbance and children with a physical disability. These reductions will bring the pupil/teacher ratios in all special schools and special classes down to the level recommended by the special education review committee and represents the full implementation of one of the key recommendations of that committee.

In addition, £3.4 million has been allocated over the next two years to facilitate the introduction of escorts on all special school transport services and the provision of safety harnesses on such services when required. This measure will come into effect next September. A further £800,000 has been allocated over the next two years for the purchase of special equipment for children with disabilities. The Minister for Education and Science is also extending the remedial teaching service to ensure that all schools which currently do not have a remedial service will have access to this service with effect from next September.

I am sure Deputies will agree that these measures provide concrete evidence of the Government's commitment to ensuring that all children with special needs receive the support they require to enable them gain maximum benefit from the education system. I assure the House that it is the intention of the Minister for Education and Science to continue to build on the very significant progress which has already been achieved in this area with the full support of his Government colleagues.

Regarding housing, under the disabled persons grants scheme, local authorities may pay a grant for the provision of additional accommodation or necessary works of adaptation to a house to meet the needs of a member of the household with a disability. In the last budget, this grant was increased from a maximum of £8,000 to a maximum of £12,000.

Another initiative designed to promote the interests of people with disabilities was the announcement in December 1997 by my colleague, the Minister for the Environment and Local Government, Deputy Dempsey, that he proposed by mid-1999 to amend the technical guidance documents on access for people with disabilities in order to make new dwellings commencing on or after 1 January 2000 socially accessible to them. The Minister has also signalled his willingness to review any other aspects of the technical guidance document on Part M in the light of representations made by people with disabilities. This is a golden opportunity for those affected by Part M to have an input into shaping its content.

The arrival on our streets of buses which are accessible to wheelchairs is a major breakthrough in the pursuit of universal access. The Minister for Public Enterprise stated in reply to a parliamentary question on 31 March, for those who heard or saw it, that she is committed to making public transport facilities fully accessible to all at the earliest possible date. The CIE companies have been made fully aware of her policy in that regard and she is satisfied they will do all in their power to achieve that goal.

The accessible buses, currently being operated by Dublin Bus on the No. 3 route, are also being piloted in Cork city by Bus Éireann, but Deputy Clune did not mention that. At the request of the Minister for Public Enterprise Dublin Bus is preparing a broad programme of trials for low floor buses. Depending on the result of these tests Dublin Bus should be in a position to order accessible double decker buses from 2000. In Cork, Bus Éireann currently has one low floor, single deck bus operating on the Bishopstown route and a wheelchair accessible school bus in the city. A further ten low floor vehicles are currently on order; Bus Éireann has stated that they are due for delivery in early summer and will be put into service on the company's Cork city and Limerick city routes.

One difficulty in developing services for people with physical and sensory disabilities is the wide range and variety of disabilities included in that category. This makes the development of the services complex. From time to time a certain group will mount a campaign for the development of a particular service, for example, respite care and personal assistance. While these and other services are of vital importance and are among the priority areas for development they cannot be treated in isolation. What is involved is a wide range of interlocking and complementary services, designed to provide the person with a disability with a flexible range of services. Many individuals with disabilities may require a combination of several services to meet their needs.

Many services for people with disabilities are provided by agencies in the voluntary sector, often in response to demand from their own members. Some of these could be funded from fund raising income, but not all. The position developed over a period of years that services were not fully funded by the State. In recent years, with falling income from fund raising, most agencies have run services at a loss, thereby accumulating debts. A basic recommendation of the review group was that existing services be put on a firm financial footing in order to provide a sound basis for future development. Within months of coming into office this Government provided, by way of Supplementary Estimate, £5 million to eliminate the accumulated deficits of these agencies. To help eliminate the ongoing underfunding of the services, £2.4 million revenue was provided in 1998 and £6.4 million this year. Those are not insignificant amounts.

One area singled out by people with disabilities and their advocates is aids and appliances for people with physical and sensory disabilities. Deputy Ahearn mentioned a waiting list of 1,100 people. Shortly after taking office this Government took the earliest possible opportunity to alleviate this problem by making £4.325 million available and it is estimated that more than 10,000 people with disabilities benefited from this Government's initiative. That opportunity was available to the previous Government for three years but it would not listen.

A further £1 million capital funding was made available to health boards in 1998 for aids and appliances. Notwithstanding this funding, it was brought to my attention towards the end of 1998 that there were still substantial waiting lists in health boards for aids and appliances. I therefore allocated a further £4 million to eliminate these waiting lists. This Government cannot be accused of inaction. Despite these substantial injections of funding, health boards are still experiencing difficulty in keeping up with demand for aids and appliances – that is acknowledged. I do not have at my disposal at this point but I will consider making further funding available to boards for this purpose at the first available opportunity in Estimates discussions for the coming year.

In 1997, in addition to the £9.325 million made available for aids and appliances and to eliminate the accumulated deficits of voluntary sector ser vice providers, capital grants totalling £675,000 were given to voluntary sector service providers for the provision of additional respite and long-term residential care places. That is an indication of the practical steps taken by the Government to deal with basic issues. I agree with the Deputy that replacement wheelchairs or hearing aids are basic matters but the Rainbow Administration said "no" to 10,000 people for three years. Those people told me about it and we responded.

In 1998 a total of £8.4 million was allocated to the maintenance and development of services for people with physical and sensory disabilities. Of this, £2.4 million was devoted to eliminating core underfunding of existing services and nine of the main voluntary agencies in the sector received grants for this purpose. A further £3 million was for capital projects, of which, as I mentioned, £1 million was invested in aids and appliances. The balance of £3 million was allocated to health boards for the further development of the services. Almost half this funding was used to create 50 new posts in health boards, such as speech and language therapists, physiotherapists, occupational therapists, social workers and public health nurses.

This year, a total of £13.4 million, rising to £16.4 million in the year 2000, has been allocated to the maintenance and development of services for people with physical and sensory disabilities. Compare these figures to those of the Rainbow Administration. Of this £13.4 million, £6.4 million is for the elimination of underfunding of existing services, deficits built up during the previous Government; £3 million, which increases to a full year cost of £6 million in 2000, is for development; and £4 million is for capital developments. A further £2 million capital has been committed this year to a major building project by one of the main voluntary sector service providers.

Since my appointment as Minister for Health and Children, I have consistently identified the ongoing development of services to persons with an intellectual disability and their families as one of my priorities. In addition to allocating significant levels of additional funding to develop new services and to meet identified needs in existing services, I have taken a number of measures to ensure that the services are developed in a planned and orderly manner in line with identified priority needs and with a secure financial basis for the future. That is the only way we can improve these services, there has been too much ad hoc provision in the past. The motion mentioned regional imbalances. These exist because there was no planned and orderly development of any service. It depended on whether one knew the Minister.

While the additional services which have been put in place have made a significant difference, their impact on the waiting lists has been reduced because of the numbers of emergency admissions which have been and continue to be made to the residential services, as a result of the cuts made in 1996 by the Rainbow Administration. The figures are there to prove it.

Before this Administration there was never a national capital programme for mental handicap services. The social progressives who were in power for three years did not bother to introduce this. I listened to speeches from those people, now in Opposition, for a long time. When they got the chance they did not want to know.

Between 1997 and 2001 we will provide £30 million, which is facilitating the planning of the infrastructure necessary to support new services and to up-grade existing facilities, and more will be needed after that. The importance of having such a programme available to the services has already been demonstrated in that, in addition to the capital allocated to support new developments, I was also in a position in 1998 to approve a development plan for the services to persons with a mental handicap in St. lta's, Portrane. Nothing was done about that in the previous three years either. This major capital investment, funded jointly by my Department and the Eastern Health Board, will bring the facilities both on and off the hospital campus up to the highest modern standards. When I visited St. Ita's I did not bring a group of media people with me. I was pleased to be in a position to allocate additional revenue funding of £12 million in 1999, with a full year cost of £18 million in 2000, for mental handicap services.

In my area the Department's commitment to develop services for people with disabilities has been demonstrated by the investment of more than £91 million in the past two years and, again, more needs to be done. This has been mirrored by developments in a broad range of areas such as education, public transport and housing. As I also outlined, many positive developments are in the pipeline in a number of areas of concern for people with disabilities. It fair to say that a degree of optimism for the future by people with disabilities could be justified on the basis of present trends under this Administration, particularly on the basis of our demonstrable commitment to taking all positive steps to enhance the quality of life of people with disabilities. When the parties in Opposition were in power they did not take the opportunity.

I wish to share my time with Deputies O'Shea and O'Sullivan. Deputy O'Sullivan will speak tomorrow night.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

It is a great pity the Minister cannot whip up the same enthusiasm for dealing with the problems of people with disability as he does for the invective he clearly enjoys inflicting on the Opposition when he is in Government.

The Deputy is a past master at that himself.

I support the motion and I congratulate Deputy Theresa Ahearn and her colleagues for putting it before the House. My colleague, Deputy O'Sullivan, the Labour Party spokesperson on equality, will speak in greater detail on the party's position on this subject. However, the House will be aware from previous debates of the Labour Party's commitment to providing the necessary resources for support and services for people with intellectual, physical and sensory disability and for their advocates and carers.

To underline that commitment, I refer to the speech of the Labour Party Leader, Deputy Quinn, at the party's recent conference in Tralee. He said:

The absence of support services is a continuing source of stress for families whose love and hard work saves the State millions of pounds each year. It is time we made enough respite places available to support parents and carers. It is time we provided enough residential places so that carers are assured that when they can care no longer, their sons or daughters will be able to live full lives. Is it too much to ask of the Celtic tiger? I don't think so. If this Government cannot find the £60 million necessary from a budget surplus heading for £1,500 million, the Labour Party will.

This issue is about priorities. Ireland is now a rich country. We no longer need the excuses we used in the past. The approach which characterised Government responses to people with disabilities was to lavish them with sympathy and send them away with the poor mouth excuse that the country could not afford supports. The country can afford to deal with this problem now. There are huge budget surpluses. The £65 million that is necessary to deal with this problem is available but I do not believe it will be provided or that there will be adequate provision to deal with this issue in the incremental method which appears to be favoured by the Government.

A positive political decision by the Government is required to provide the resources now and to provide the services that are needed by people with disabilities and their families. The Minister made much of the extra resources already provided. He said an additional £12 million has been provided this year. We need to get away from the figures for "this year" and for "a full year". They can be misleading and do not amount to much when they are reflected in the services. The £12 million quoted by the Minister resulted in an allocation of £3.635 million for the Eastern Health Board. What does that mean for the south eastern region of Dublin, an area which stretches from Ringsend to Bray and across to Stillorgan? It has a population of approximately 300,000. It is one of the fastest growing areas in the country as a result of physical and residential development.

The St. John of God Carmona Services, which is the main service provider for people with mental handicap in the south east region of Dublin, currently provides services to 303 people – 244 on a daily basis and 59 in residential care. That service is facing a major crisis as it is unable to meet the huge demands being placed on it, particularly for residential care. There is an unacceptably long waiting list and the waiting period can be as much as ten years.

The current numbers on the waiting list are as follows: 97 for residential places, 180 for respite care, 25 for crisis places and 22 for day services. This service received £250,000 out of the Minister's millions. That will provide five residential places, from a waiting list of 97, and five day places from a waiting list of 22. Incidentally, those waiting lists might be understating the real demand since many people who are aware of them and are aware of the length of waiting time to get a residential place, give up in despair and do not apply.

I recently attended a meeting in Dunmore House in Glenageary regarding the funding allocation. I had previously attended a similar meeting with other public representatives before the budget at which there was great expectation that the Government would deliver on its pre-election promises and its programme for Government. At the second meeting it was most disappointing to see the staff and the parents and carers of people with disability absolutely devastated.

The staff and parents in that service are worn out by the burden of care and the drudgery of fund raising. It leaves them with little energy for the type of lobbying that appears to be necessary to get the Government's ear. What energy they have left is rapidly converting to anger. They wonder what they must do to get the type of attention on-course betting, major sports organisations and other, more powerful and active lobbies received in the budget.

The £65 million which is sought to deal with this problem is not an enormous sum. It can be provided. In my area the requirement is £7 million for the services which are necessary and approximately £2 million additional funding on an ongoing basis. It should be possible to meet that need out of the huge and unprecedented level of resources available to the Government. It is most disappointing that it is not happening.

There is no point in the Minister listing a litany of incremental measures. What is required is a firm decision on the part of Government to provide the necessary resources and to do so without equivocation. It must be done now to ensure that the necessary construction and the provision of equipment, services etc. can be done without delay. It would provide some hope—

The Deputy's parties made these decisions in Government.

Deputy Gilmore without interruption.

That Government equivocated.

This Government inherited an economy and a set of public accounts which were unprecedentedly good.

They were not bad in the previous Government's term and it would not give out any money.

The Government ought to be able, from the surpluses which are now being generated, to provide the necessary resources in this case. That is not happening and it is most regrettable. It is frustrating for the carers of people with disabilities to see other, more powerful interest groups in society, which are in a position to make the necessary amount of noise to get the attention of the Government, doing so well while they are forgotten and neglected. The Government should change its position on that and provide the money necessary to facilitate the provision of the services required. This is a priority.

Gura maith agat. Ar an gcéad dul síos ba mhaith liom an Teachta Theresa Ahearn agus Fine Gael a mholadh as ucht an rún seo a chur síos. Tá sé in am ceart agus ba chóir don Rialtas aird níos mó a thabhairt dó seachas leasrún a chur síos. Níl an leasrún seo ag brú ar chor ar bith ar na nithe atá sa rún a chuir Fine Gael síos.

I compliment the Fine Gael Party and Deputy Theresa Ahearn on tabling this timely and welcome motion, but I am disappointed with the Government's response to it. The Government's amendment ignores the critical issues raised. The Government should give us a detailed breakdown of what is involved in two points in its amendment. Its amendment refers to the provision of additional funding of £91.6 million. When was that funding put in place and to which period and exact services does it relate? Its amendment also refers to arrangements being put in place to meet the educational needs of children with special needs. I find that reference extraordinary because I spoke about this issue during the passage of the education Bill through this House. For our education system to be available in an integrated way for all people with disabilities, it is vital to ensure teacher training includes a component on disability, which it does not include currently. It is ludicrous that teachers who want to avail of such courses have to pay for them out of their own pockets.

I also asked the Minister for Education and Science at that time to ensure all members of the inspectorate have a minimum knowledge and expertise in areas that relate to the disabled and to children with special needs in education. I am not sure to what the amendment refers, but it does not reflect the real position. It is ludicrous that some remedial teachers have to provide a service for five or six schools in some rural areas. Teacher training at primary or secondary level does not have a component which would prepare teachers to deal with children with special needs whether they be physical, intellectual or whatever. This amendment rings very hollow to me. It does not describe a situation that will improve substantially in the short or medium term.

There is very little knowledge about learning disorders, such as dyslexia, dyspraxia, ADD and ADHD, in the education system. I am sure every Member is aware of the distress suffered by the parents of these children and their feeling of alienation and abandonment by the education system because these issues are not being addressed. The section of the amendment, which gives the impression that substantial arrangements are being put in place for the education needs of children with special needs, is misleading and rings hollow.

In their programme for Government, Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats gave an explicit commitment to fund the necessary services called for in the Report of the Review Group on Mental Handicap Services – A Policy for the Intellectually Disabled and the report, Towards an Independent Future. As my colleague, Deputy Gilmore said, the Labour Party is committed to the full implementation of the recommendations of these critical reports, but the evidence of a wide range of groups and non-governmental organisations suggests the Government has failed to honour many of its commitments. One has only to read the newspapers or listen to the radio to know at first hand how far away the Government is from putting its commitments into practice.

The report of the Commission on the Status of People with Disabilities was launched in November 1996. An interdepartmental committee to oversee the implementation of its recommendations was put in place to bring forward a report to a monitoring committee, which was immediately established. This monitoring committee was established but it has not met for almost 18 months as it is awaiting the report of the interdepartmental committee and the costing of the commission's report.

The committee hired to cost the commission's recommendations began work in late 1997. In March 1998 it met the Irish Council for People with Disabilities as part of the consultation process it was undertaking. Nothing has been heard since despite its meeting with the Irish Council for People with Disabilities.

The Government amendment refers to £91.9 million, but I would like to know where that money has been allocated. Ireland has never had it so good. The Minister for Finance is taking in a record amount of tax receipts and people with disabilities ask that they and their carers should be given no more than a fair share of the surplus available to the Government. This year the current budget surplus will be £1.3 billion. It is necessary to use a proportion of that money to provide a basic level of service for those who have been ignored.

There will be a deficit of people with the necessary qualifications and expertise to provide the required caring services unless the Government decides to address this problem by providing the necessary training, whether it be, training in nursing or training for carers or for providers of support services at whatever level. If we do not have the necessary trained people, it will not matter what funds, capital or buildings are available. Unless we have people qualified to deliver the necessary quality services we will not achieve the objective of this motion. The Government must give a commitment that it will ensure a flow of qualified people will be available to enable services to be provided to cater for those who are in need.

As the parent of an intellectually disabled child, I know that people with an intellectual or physical disability can have a relatively dignified and independent existence in a home setting, but what happens to those children when their parents are no longer there? What does the future hold for them? My colleague, Deputy Gilmore, quoted figures on this. The parents of these children are growing old and many of them are in a state of torment wondering what the future will hold for their children when they depart this life. The issue of training and the expansion of personal assistance services for people with physical disabilities needs to be addressed.

Debate adjourned.