Disability Bill 2004: Second Stage (Resumed).

Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

While we are now discussing the Disability Bill 2004, the Government's overall strategy is to put in place the most effective combination of policies, legislation and services so that people with disabilities will be able to participate in society fully and equally. This Bill is that strategy's central element and follows broad discussion with the disability sector, particularly the disability legislation consultation group. The Taoiseach has clearly stated that the funding issue, in many ways a central component of any legislation, will be dealt with through a multi-annual funding programme to be announced as part of the Estimates later today and the budget later this month. We can spend as long as we wish debating legislation in the House, but unless the funding is in place to underpin and resource it, such legislation is simply a waste of time.

In the past, spending on disability was on a year-to-year basis, something that naturally gave rise to uncertainty. Adoption of a multi-annual approach to funding is a very welcome step forward. This is the first time such an approach has been adopted by any Government, and it underlines the proactive and positive approach the Minister of State at the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy Fahey, and the Government are taking in dealing with this complex problem.

Fianna Fáil has had a long tradition of looking after the more vulnerable people in society, and this Bill is another positive and very welcome step in that direction. I will now comment on some of the more specific points, which will allow the disabled to participate fully and equally in society. The Bill guarantees each person with a disability the right to an independent assessment of health and educational needs. That assessment will be undertaken without regard to cost or the relevant agency's ability or capacity to supply the service. It will be given to the applicant in the form of a service statement.

I am delighted that persons with disabilities will have the right to get the service statement themselves. In my experience of dealing with health and educational agencies, this is the first time that the person in question has had that right enshrined in legislation. I consider it a very important step forward that will be of great use and benefit to disabled people as they try to access the service or help they require. The assessment report will clearly state whether the person has a disability and, if so, its nature and extent. It will also state what educational and health needs arise from it. It will point out the services that must be provided to the disabled person so that his or her needs may be met and, most importantly, a timescale within which those services must be delivered. Finally, it will show when a review of the assessment should be undertaken.

That is a very important point, as it will allow the disabled person the right to have his or her assessment changed as necessary. Sometimes what is required to help people cope with a disability at a certain age is different from what is needed some years later. Unfortunately, disability is not a static condition or state. As disabled people grow, their needs change. The ability of the assessment statement to reflect the real needs of the disabled person at any point is a key component of the Bill. I also welcome the fact that a relative, guardian or personal advocate may apply for the assessment on behalf of the person with a disability.

Unfortunately, a number of disabilities preclude a disabled person from making an application for his or her assessment on his or her own. The right to the assessment must not be lost as a result. Following the assessment, the service statement will issue and it will become an important component of a disabled person's life.

Sections 13 and 14 deal with the complaints of a disabled person regarding the statement. They will be heard by complaints officers, who although appointed by the health authority, will be independent in carrying out their investigations. Their job will be to resolve the complaint informally and, where this is not possible, make a written recommendation to the chief executive officer of the health or educational service provider, which must be implemented by him or her. If he or she cannot provide the service, he or she must give a written opinion to that effect, which must be sent to the disabled person. I welcome this transparent and traceable record. If the disabled person is not satisfied that his or her needs are being met, an appeals mechanism is provided under sections 15 to 19, inclusive, to pursue his or her case.

The availability of the written statements will make it easier for people with disabilities to achieve their entitlements and it is welcome that the Bill outlines the steps to doing so. An appeal can be lodged against the recommendation of the complaints officer or the written recommendation of the chief executive officer of the health authority or the head of the educational service provider. Appeals will be heard by an independent officer appointed by the Minister for Health and Children. He or she will have statutory powers to summon witnesses, enter premises and obtain information. It will be an independent office with its own budget and staff.

While I hope this mechanism will be seldom used, one must be realistic and expect that a number of people with disabilities will need to have recourse to the appeals officer to obtain the service they justly deserve. The appeals officer's role under the legislation is strong and the rights of the people with disabilities will be protected as a result. If the appeals officer's recommendations are not implemented, the disabled person or the officer, on his or her behalf, can apply to the courts for an enforcement order. The court can then order the supply of the health or educational service to the disabled person as per his or her service statement.

This is one of the most important Bills to come before the House since I became a Member. We are finally recognising the large number of people who have not been able to participate in society to the same extent as able members. People with disabilities have the same rights as the rest of the population and, for too long, they have had to battle hard to achieve their just entitlements. The legislation will give them that to which they are justly entitled, no more or no less. It is a new dawn and I wish that people with disabilities will take their rightful place in our society. I congratulate the Ministers involved and I commend the Bill to the House.

Debate adjourned.