I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
As Minister of State at the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, I am pleased to bring before the Dáil this important legislation. The Disability Bill, once enacted, will significantly advance the position of people with disabilities and will be instrumental in sustaining progress into the longer term.
Deputies will be aware that the Bill is one element of the national disability strategy which was launched by the Taoiseach in September. The strategy has three other elements: the Comhairle (Amendment) Bill 2004, six outline sectoral plans and a commitment to a multi-annual investment programme for disability support services.
The strategy represents a commitment by Government to drive forward a significant evolution in policy and provision for people with disabilities, which has gathered momentum in recent years. Among the established building blocks are the strong anti-discrimination framework of employment equality and equal status legislation, the policy of mainstreaming services for people with disabilities and the significant increase in investment in disability services in recent years. These notable milestones set the context for the national disability strategy and the Bill.
Over the past six years, priority has been given to the development, enactment and implementation of a comprehensive framework of equality legislation. Our equality code is among the most comprehensive in Europe. Three Acts are in place, the Employment Equality Act 1998, the Equal Status Act 2000 and the Equality Act 2004. The infrastructure to underpin a modern anti-discrimination environment was established five years ago. The Equality Authority and the Equality Tribunal are active today in vindicating the rights of people who may have been discriminated against on any of nine grounds, including disability.
An important aspect of equal access is education and the support of children with disabilities to fulfil their potential through education. The Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004 has put in place a strong framework for the transformation of special needs education policy. Enacted last July, the Bill creates rights to an educational assessment for children with special educational needs, the development of an individual education plan and the delivery of educational services on foot of that plan.
In June 2000, the Taoiseach launched the mainstreaming initiative which required public bodies to integrate their services for people with disabilities with those for other citizens. The goal is to ensure integration in the mainstream wherever possible and minimum segregation, only where necessary. The initiative superseded structures and regulations which underpinned segregated disability service provision and which were 40 years old at the time. Launching the initiative, the Taoiseach said that "moving disability into the mainstream of official action is one of the vital building blocks for a future of equality and opportunity for people with disabilities".
The Disability Bill will give a statutory basis to the policy of mainstreaming public service delivery. In addition, the Bill establishes an innovative system for sectoral planning which will ensure that key mainstream sectors, such as environment, transport and employment and training, will have clear goals for delivering mainstream services to people with disabilities and plan to implement these goals in a transparent way.
Two support agencies — the National Disability Authority under the aegis of my Department and Comhairle under the aegis of the Minister for Social and Family Affairs — were established to support mainstreaming in a special way. The National Disability Authority Act 1999 supports a new environment for disability service provision. Even in the four short years of its existence, there is ample evidence today of the positive influence of the NDA's work.
In today's society, access to information is crucial to participation. The Comhairle Act 2000 established Comhairle as a mainstream information provider with a special role as the essential link between individuals and families and the services and supports they need. The Comhairle (Amendment) Bill 2004 further strengthens the role of Comhairle in providing personal advocacy services to vulnerable adults and children, as they seek to access both disability-specific and mainstream services.
Side by side with equality and mainstream policy development, there has been a significant increase in spending on disability specific services. This year, some €2.5 billion, representing almost 7% of gross current public expenditure on services, will be spent in this way. This figure does not take account of income support and other services provided through the Department of Social and Family Affairs. Nor does it take account of the fact that many people with a disability participate in, or benefit from, mainstream public service programmes and services. The figure for the current year of €2.5 billion compares with expenditure of just under €0.8 billion in 1997, a three-fold increase in seven years.
In the period 2000-02, the Government put in place a three year investment programme, which has become known as the Cowen package, for people with intellectual disabilities and autism. This resulted in the provision of additional revenue and capital funding of over €220 million over the period of the programme to target key support services.
Building on this successful experience, the Government has given a clear commitment to a five year multi-annual investment programme that will give the same level of assurance in the case of both capital and current funding. The programme will have a multi-annual capital element for disability-specific services which will be developed within the overall system of five-year multi-annual capital envelopes.
The programme will also have a multi-annual element which is an unprecedented initiative where current spending on services is concerned. Generally, current funding to run all Government services is allocated on a year-to-year basis, taking into account existing commitments and expected revenue. The new approach will apply to current funding in the case of certain high priority disability support services. The level of funding will be settled within the Estimates and budget process, which is now under way.
Having described the setting in which the Bill will operate, I now turn to the Bill itself and the way it was prepared. The Bill is fairly unique among the legislation that comes before this House. It seeks to make provision for services that come within the ambit of a wide variety of Departments and State agencies. Knowing the cross-departmental nature of the work envisaged, the Government decided at an early stage to refer the process of overseeing the preparation of the Bill and the national disability strategy to the Cabinet Committee on Social Inclusion. The committee, which comprised 11 Ministers as well as concerned Ministers of State, met regularly for this purpose and has been supported in its work by a cross-departmental group of senior officials. In the course of its deliberations, the committee oversaw development of the scope and framework for the Bill and took decisions on the way forward on key policy issues.
The Bill has been the subject of extensive consultations with interest groups. Following a request from my Department in April 2002, the National Disability Authority brought together a group representative of people with disabilities, their families and carers and service providers in the sector. The group, which is called the Disability Legislation Consultation Group, has provided meaningful dialogue at national level, both within the sector and with Government. There has been regular contact by senior officials and Ministers with the DLCG over the past two and a half years. These meetings, together with the DLCG document, Equal Citizens, have allowed the committee and the senior officials working with them obtain a detailed understanding of the issues of concern to the DLCG in relation to the legislation.
The Bill was drafted to take account of proposals in Equal Citizens such as a right to an independent assessment of need, transparency as to related services, a right of redress, mainstream service provision and the 3% target for the employment of people with disabilities. An outline of the Bill was presented by senior officials to the DLCG earlier this year. The shape of the Bill, as initiated, and the national disability strategy reflect a number of important elements sought by the DLCG and agreed by the committee.
The Bill contains no clause specifically to protect the State against litigation for the breach of statutory duty — the much discussed section 47 in the Disability Bill 2001 which was unacceptable to disability groups. The absence of such provision represents a fundamental shift in Government policy and was taken to accommodate widely held concerns.
Another major concern of the disability legislation consultation group has been that the Bill would be supported by a multi-annual funding package for disability services. The Government's commitment to an unprecedented multi-annual investment programme shows the special concern of Government for disability issues and is evidence of its strong, positive response to the DLCG proposal.
The Bill implements the DLCG proposal that a sixth sectoral plan dealing with training and employment issues be prepared. It also provides for regulations to ensure that liaison officers undertake a periodic review of each individual's service statement to ensure its contents are being satisfactorily implemented.
A main issue for some disability groups has been the question of social rights. There are divergent views about how these kinds of rights may be framed and vindicated. One view is that ultimate redress in the courts is fundamental to the concept of social rights. Others recognise that social service provision for any one group must be balanced with the valid and competing needs of other service users. The statute-based rights and redress mechanisms in the Bill find their basis in this reality. The Bill provides a right to an independent assessment of need, a right to a service statement——