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Dáil Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 10 Jun 2003

Vol. 568 No. 1

Leaders' Questions.

Today a number of groups representing the rights of those with an intellectual disability took the opportunity to protest outside the gates of Leinster House to highlight the horrendous impact this Government has had on people with a disability. Many of those who would have liked to protest here today were unable to travel because they cannot get respite hours. These people are demanding only their basic rights – a right to adequate health care, a right to access to necessary facilities, a right to educational facilities and, above all, a right to equality of treatment. The Government has equivocated on this matter for too long. Last year it withdrew the disabilities Bill. It promised there would be two Bills in the House debated together and now the disabilities Bill has been put on the long finger.

The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform has turned his back on the proposed UN convention on the rights of the disabled. Is it not time, in this the European Year of the Disabled and with the Special Olympics almost upon us when the eyes of the world will be on Ireland, the Taoiseach spelled out what the Government intends to do in respect of rights for the disabled? Will the Taoiseach avail of this opportunity or will he tell the House and all those interested in this sector, who have been so discriminated against, that he will enshrine in law rights for persons with disabilities and that he will do so at the earliest opportunity?

It is the intention to try to pass two legislative measures this year – the disabilit ies Bill and the education for persons with disabilities Bill. The education for persons with disabilities Bill is almost ready. As soon as that Bill is completed, we hope to move on to the disabilities Bill. During the past 12 months consultation has taken place with many of the bodies and organisations and the Bills have been substantially amended and improved. Work on the disabilities Bill is not finished but the work on the education for persons with disabilities Bill is finished and it is being drafted. It is hoped that will come before the House.

On the issue of funding, this is a difficult year. During the past five or six years there has been an unprecedented level of investment in the health funded services for people with disabilities. I have said many times that is as it should be. Unfortunately, it was an area—

It has stopped.

No. We maintained the high level we had reached. Additional funding amounting to €555 million has been invested in these services during the past few years. This has provided approximately 1,700 additional residential places which are based mainly in the community. During the past three years, approximately 465 extra dedicated respite places have been provided.

Is the Taoiseach saying there is no problem?

In addition, almost 3,000 new day care places have been provided. I have also listened to what the people with disabilities have stated. We are not saying there is no problem. We are saying that in the past few years we have brought the services and the expenditure on an ongoing basis up to the levels I have just mentioned from a very low base. We have to try to continue to improve those services as resources permit. Additional resources have been provided this year. The number of persons with intellectual disability or autism resident in hospitals at the end of last year was almost 500. That number is down on previous figures. Obviously, the improvement is having an impact.

They were sent home.

Preliminary information in the report of the national intellectual disability database, which is being finalised, indicates a substantial increase in those accessing services, particularly residential and respite services. That is a good thing. To answer Deputy Kenny, the Government has increased the level of funding—

There has been a 40% cut in residential places. That is the real world.

Deputy McGrath is not the leader of the Fine Gael Party.

—by an enormous amount this year and we will try to move it on again.

I am not sure that the Taoiseach understands the vehemence of the message from those outside this House in this regard. People want the legal ability to vindicate their rights because they have no confidence in the Government to deliver services for them. Will the statement of rights be hedged around qualifications about funding and will the adequacy of funding be allowed to be questioned in court? Why is it that so many cases now have to go to court at great cost to vindicate people's rights when a judge has said this is a wasteful use of good money? How does the Taoiseach react to a letter received by a parent of an 18 year old with a mental age of six months who was told this week "there will not be a day service for your daughter in September"? What kind of conscience has a Government that can send out such a letter to any parent who has given day and night, over many years, to deal with this issue? Some 400 individuals with severe learning disabilities are placed in unsuitable long-stay facilities.

The Deputy's time has concluded.

These people see a Government pulling €42 million out of the drawer to save a Minister last week, a Government that proposes to spend huge amounts of money on a jet—

—and a Government that is dealing with the fund for dormant accounts where €165 million has been lodged, which moneys could be diverted to deal with this issue. Does the Government intend to enshrine in law rights for disabled people and will the adequacy of funding for that be hedged with qualifications?

The Deputy has gone well over his time.

This kind of letter is absolutely appalling in this day and age when this country has come through the best financial years it has ever enjoyed. It is an appalling disgrace.

We want straight answers now.

The Deputy has asked three questions, the first of which was on legislation. I hope we will have both the education for persons with disabilities Bill and the disabilities Bill, two Bills which have been well discussed and debated with all those involved in disabilities. An enormous number of people put in a huge effort in the past 12 months to make these good legislative measures. When passed by this House, I have no doubt there will be a huge improvement.

Will the Bills be rights-based?

I hope we can also get away from a position where we are talking about legal action. The people I meet with disabilities up and down the country want the service improved—

Will the Bills be rights-based?

Deputy Mitchell is not the leader of the Fine Gael Party.

—and resources and staff provided. That is the main issue.

No rights.

Deputy Kenny correctly stated that there are still persons with intellectual disability or autism resident in psychiatric hospitals. Last October the number was 450 which is down from 1,000 in 1996. We are making substantial improvements in that area and it is the Government's intention to continue to do that. The Government, under both the former and the present Ministers for Health and Children, Deputies Cowen and Martin, has in a dedicated way continued to reduce the figure from the high figure of 1996 and earlier to the present level.

In spite of all the difficulties faced, the Government has continued to put substantial resources into this area and is committed to continuing this. Deputy Kenny mentioned a particular case. I, too, have seen letters like this one. The Government is not trying to take away existing positions for those who are trying to access the educational system in September.

That is what it is doing.

That matter has been under negotiation between the Minister for Health and Children, the Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children and the agencies and I am sure they can resolve that issue.

In about 11 days' time the Taoiseach will share the stage at Croke Park with world figures like Nelson Mandela, the President of Ireland, a number of leading celebrities and leading sportsmen such as Mohammed Ali. The message the Taoiseach will send out as he prominently shares in this company is that Ireland is a fit place to grow and develop as a person with disability. The image that will go to the world outside is that everything is all right in Ireland, that we celebrate and honour our people with disabilities. How can the Taoiseach reconcile that message and say that everything is all right in Ireland when almost 30 members of the Special Olympics team have received letters pointing out that they may not be assured of services after the games?

It is unbelievable.

It is scandalous.

How can the Taoiseach present that image to the world in circumstances where the database for people with intellectual disabilities for 2001, the most recent figures, are with the printers for the past three weeks and the Department of Health and Children will not permit their publication? How can he present that image when the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform has not yet prepared the heads of the disabilities Bill?

What exactly is the Taoiseach saying in response to Deputy Kenny's question? The Taoiseach says the House will enact two Bills relating to disability, but he did not tell Deputy Kenny when the major disabilities Bill would be enacted nor did he say if the legislation will be rights-based. The Taoiseach did not tell Deputy Kenny if he was prepared to introduce an emergency Estimate to deal with the crisis in day and residential care services. The Taoiseach failed to answer Deputy Kenny's question in regard to moneys accumulated from the dormant funds and the proposal of the DIRT inquiry. The purposes here envisaged are perfectly consistent with that proposal which was accepted by the Minister for Finance. Why cannot the €165 million in the dormant accounts fund be used to alleviate the stress suffered by many families who cannot be assured that day or residential care provision will be made for their children in the coming year?

I thought I had been clear with regard to the two legislative measures. The education for persons with disabilities Bill is almost finalised. Discussions have been completed and the Bill will come before Cabinet this month before being circulated and taken in this House. The legislation has been negotiated extensively with many of the organisations involved, although I cannot say it has been discussed with every interested organisation in the country. It will be seen to be a fine Bill which has had the input of many people. The heads of the disabilities Bill have long been completed and the legislation was almost completed one year ago. Many disabilities groups argued that there should be more extensive discussions and I attended a conference a year ago at which they asked us not to proceed with the Bill to allow dialogue to continue.

The Minister of State at the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy O'Dea, has had extensive discussions over the last year and has reported on them to Cabinet on many occasions. It is our intention to ensure that we produce a good Bill. Hopefully, that Bill will be passed later this year, but it will not be available before the summer recess. The education for persons with disabilities Bill will be available.

The Bill was rejected.

The Taoiseach is in trouble now.

As I have already stated, this Government has made additional funding of €550 million available over the past five years. We have provided an additional 1,700 residential places which are based mainly in the community. The 2001 report of the national intellectual disabilities database, which as Deputy Rabbitte said is its most recent, is being finalised. Preliminary information in the database indicates substantial increases in the numbers of people accessing services, particularly in the residential and respite areas. The figures reflect the impact of the development programme which indicates that over the last few years there has been a 10% increase in the number of persons availing of full-time residential places. The increase in the area of respite services has been more than 200%. The numbers in receipt of multi-disciplinary services increased by more than 300% while the number of children accessing early intervention services has risen by 200%.

The service is being closed over the next two weeks.

I do not argue here that every case of disability on this island is fixed, but we have brought resources to a certain level and we continue to endeavour to do that in more difficult areas in a more difficult year. The Minister for Health and Children and his Minister of State have been endeavouring to resolve the issue of the September figures and the letters which have been sent out. I realise that people have issued letters, but it would have been better if they had waited to complete the discussions which were ongoing before getting to that position. I have every reason to believe the Ministers will resolve that particular issue.

The Dáil will be closed then.

I ask the Taoiseach not to confuse the two Bills. He was asked about the disabilities Bill which collapsed in a shambles during the last Dáil. The Taoiseach sacked the Minister subsequently even though it was the Cabinet, not the Minister, who approved the Bill. Will that Bill be enacted this year? If the heads of the Bill are available, why is the Taoiseach not making them available to this side of the House to allow us to consult with the organisations involved? The Taoiseach is doing that wherever it suits his purpose. When the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government wishes to reintroduce rates, he ensures that Deputies Gilmore and Allen are right beside him and he involves them all along the way. He learned that from the Taoiseach. If this approach is good for bringing back rates, why is it not good for dealing with people with disabilities?

Will the Bill include a legally enforceable right to an assessment as demanded by interested people and organisations? What is the position with regard to the €165 million in the dormant accounts? Will some of this money be directed to the immediate alleviation of stress among the most vulnerable people in our society? That is the question. The Taoiseach's answer will read in such a way that nobody will be able to make a distinction between the two Bills. He has them mixed up. The record will not say one thing or the other. Will the Bill be introduced or will it not? I am not interested in any Bill but the disabilities Bill which collapsed during the last Dáil.

The trouble with Deputy Rabbitte is that he is not interested at all, he wishes to rant on.

He asked the wrong question.

Mr. Cosmetics.

People with disabilities are very interested in the education for persons with disabilities Bill and have lobbied me extensively. Many of the organisations have asked me directly to approve the Bill.


The Taoiseach should answer the question.

The Deputy should be ashamed.

Allow the Taoiseach to continue without interruption.

The education for persons with disabilities Bill is very important for people with disabilities.

What about the disabilities Bill?

That is the first Bill and the disabilities Bill is the second. As soon as the education for persons with disabilities Bill has been passed, we will move on to the next Bill.

The summer holidays are coming.

The education for persons with disabilities Bill will be cleared next week. I am glad to hear that Deputy Rabbitte is concerned about this issue. It was not a Minister who dropped the Bill last year.

The Taoiseach fired the Minister.

I was asked by the groups represented in the Visitors Gallery today to with draw the Bill to allow more extensive discussion and that is why I did it.

It was withdrawn because it was a lousy Bill.


Mr. Smith

The Opposition does not want to listen.

The Taoiseach should be allowed to speak without interruption.

I have looked at the figures and at what happened over the last few years and I must say to Deputy Rabbitte that, unfortunately, when he sat at the Cabinet table there was very little money put into the area of disabilities.

The Taoiseach was in charge of the Department of Finance at that time.


We are now committed to putting in money and we are very concerned with every family experiencing disability. We will continue to deliver to them as we have done for the past number of years.

Does the Taoiseach agree that his promise of substantial improvements in services for people with intellectual disability rings hollow with the many hundreds of parents who experience, as we speak, actual cuts in those services? Far from being improved, the services are being cut. The Taoiseach spoke during the last session of the hundreds and thousands of euro which will be provided to his communications unit. He does not need a communications unit to tell him that in St. Vincent's in his own constituency there has been a 40% reduction in respite care and that there will be no weekend service from the month of June. What does the Taoiseach say to those families from St. Vincent's to Beaufort in Kerry who have been sent letters to tell them that there is nowhere for their profoundly handicapped children aged 17 and 18 to go next year when they leave the current service? How does the Taoiseach react to that?

It is not a matter of more resources, rather the Government has made a political decision to shift resources which could go to address intellectual handicap to privileged sectors of our community. In the 2002 budget, the Minister for Finance provided €329 million in corporation tax cuts and provided a further €305 million in cuts to the corporate sector in the budget for 2003. The Taoiseach has made a political decision to put on the back burner the vulnerable people who suffer from intellectual disabilities and their long-suffering parents and families while the corporate sector, the millionaires and the bankers are looked after by the Government. The National Association for the Mentally Handicapped of Ireland stated today that only €35 million would be needed to prevent cuts in services across the board and to meet the minimum requirements for the remainder of the year. Will the Taoiseach now make emergency provisions for 2003 to ensure that none of those cuts take place and to go forward to provide comprehensive services?

Deputy Rabbitte asked me about the dormant accounts fund. The board of the dormant accounts fund is to report shortly on the allocation of that money. It has not reported yet but is due to do so. Criteria are set out and the board will report.

I do not want to repeat what I have already stated to Deputy Joe Higgins, but I have already stated a number of times that the letters have been sent out to individuals and groups, many of whom I have talked to, and the Minister for Health and Children and the Minister of State in the Department of Health and Children are both dealing with that issue—

What does that mean?

It is not the intention that people will not get places. The Minister and the Minister of State have to deal with the issue and that is what they are endeavouring to do—

The Minister of State had nothing to say—

It is Deputy Joe Higgins's question.

We are in the sixth month of the year and it is a pity that people do not finish the discussions before criticising, but the Minister for Health and Children will deal with that in his own time.

As Deputy Higgins would know, the Daughters of Charity on the Navan Road are in receipt of a budget of almost €40 million this year from the Eastern Regional Health Authority. Negotiations have continued between the Eastern Regional Health Authority and the Daughters of Charity regarding the level of services that would be delivered in the current year, and the two organisations, as I understand it, are endeavouring to ensure that the same level of residential services would be provided this year as last year. However, there is a difficulty about respite and weekend respite services which has not been resolved.

Why does the Taoiseach fly in the face of the facts? Up and down this country, service providers are writing to families and stating in black and white that they cannot continue the level of service that existed up to now. They are providing for actual cuts. Why does the Taoiseach stand up and point blank deny the fact when this is happening?

If the Taoiseach knows something that the service providers do not or that the families and parents do not know, would he please tell us now? Is what he said a guarantee that the funding will be made available to service providers and that families need not worry about respite care and about the fact there is no place for their children to go after leaving their current care services at 16 or 17 years of age? Is the Taoiseach giving a guarantee that the extra funding needed for those services will be provided?

The dormant accounts fund is all very well, and those funds could be invested here, but the Taoiseach did not answer the point I made at the beginning, and I ask him to answer it now. Why did he decide this year, for example, that millionaire stud farm owners on the plains of Kildare or elsewhere would be protected from any taxation, which could bring in tens of millions to provide services like this and prevent the intellectually disadvantaged from having to face this situation? Finally, I refer to the Special Olympics. If this issue is not resolved, if there is not a cast iron guarantee that the necessary funding will be made available immediately and the families assured, would the Taoiseach agree that it is utter hypocrisy for him and members of the Government to swan around opening events at the Special Olympics as if they were the champions of the disadvantaged and the disabled, when in fact the opposite is the case?

What I stated was that the Minister for Health and Children and the Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children are well aware of the current problem and are dealing with it. They will make their own announcements and it is not for me to make those announcements or deal with the issue.

I have also talked about where the level of funding has been brought up to, and nobody can deny that. I can go back through the figures if Deputies wish but I do not think that is necessary. The simplistic idea that if one creates a tax it will yield hundreds of millions of euro is utter nonsense. It would not even yield tens of millions. We would just wipe out another area of activity in this country by doing some of the things the Deputy suggests. The Government has put an additional €500 million into the whole area of disability and we will continue to put in substantial funding. We have made it a priority for the last number of years. We have provided additional places and services and large numbers of staff. The Government is committed to maintaining expenditure at the level we have got it up to, and hopefully we can build upon this as resources permit. Of course there are some current difficulties which the Minister and the Minister of State have to deal with, and I have already said that we will deal with the legislative base.