Disability Bill 2004: Second Stage (Resumed).

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

The previous Disability Bill was withdrawn because every organisation representing people with disabilities opposed its provisions. There was a public outcry that the Government of one of the richest countries in the world had failed to provide entitlements as a matter of right to people with disabilities. Having failed to understand or recognise their needs and the mood of the electorate who wanted a Bill more acceptable to the various organisations, the Government retreated into the consultative process. This was considered a victory for the disabled because the Government was expected to engage in a long and detailed consultation process with various representative organisations before publishing a new Bill. The Government was true to its word and a long and detailed process followed. Organisations and voluntary workers spent long hours negotiating with Government officials in the hope that their members would finally be given the recognition and resources they needed to live a life in which equality, independence and choice came as naturally to them as they did to everybody else.

However, there was a long wait prior to the publication of the legislation. The Bill was expected to be an improvement because the Government had finally recognised that the people, by their nature, wanted to do the right thing. The long consultative process should have produced an acceptable Bill but, on its publication, it became apparent that the consultative process was only a smokescreen and a delaying tactic to get over the general, local and European elections. The leopard had not changed its spots. The legislation contained different wording and a number of improvements in procedures but, on closer examination, no improvement had been made on the substantive issue — right of entitlement.

The Government consulted representative organisations but then chose to ignore the vast majority of their recommendations. The Bill is more restrictive than its predecessor. It is cuter and couched in better language but, in the final analysis, its main objective is to indemnify the State against an obligation to treat people with disabilities equally. Everything is contingent on the availability of resources, and the process of assessment and service statement could make their position worse. The assessment will establish the need of every disabled person without a direct or binding link to the service statement. All the statement may do is raise expectations because people with disabilities may find resources are not available.

Nobody, including people with disabilities and their representative organisations, expects that everything can be achieved overnight but the Bill should force Departments and health boards to provide services within a reasonable timeframe. The Bill is designed to prevent people from using the courts to obtain their rights. This would be fair given that politicians, not judges, should make decisions in this regard but, in these circumstances, the Bill should guarantee basic services as a right.

The Bill is confined to health and educational services, which is a narrow perspective. Many other services such as housing, employment and transport need to be included. The Bill fails to ensure the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government is compelled to consider the accommodation needs of people with disabilities. While the legislation addresses the 3% quota for employment in the public sector, it fails to make provision regarding the private sector. The Government constantly tells us how well business and the economy is doing, yet there is no compulsion on, nor encouragement given to, the private sector to make a contribution to the employment needs of people with disabilities. No reference was made to increasing the 3% quota for public bodies, even though if it were proportionate to the entire population, it should be closer to 10%. The Government does not seem to realise that public bodies are taking the easy option, even at 3%. The people on their employment panels have, in some cases, the mildest physical disability. There is no obligation on them to employ people with a sensory, learning or mental disability. The process needs review. It is almost impossible for a deaf person to get on one of the panels. However, it is only large organisations, like the public service, that have the volume and type of work available needed to employ people with this type of disability.

In the short term the disabled employment requirement for public bodies should be raised to a minimum 5%. A proportion of that percentage should be people with sensory, learning and mental disabilities. The private sector should be asked, if not compelled, to participate in providing suitable employment on the same basis as public bodies. The Government is well capable of providing tax incentives in other areas. It should use some of that enthusiasm for tax breaks that would ensure the private sector fully participates in the employment of disabled people.

Transport is a major problem, especially for disabled people in rural areas. The failure to underpin transport in the Bill will only serve to widen the urban-rural divide for people with disabilities. There is serious concern among organisations representing disabled people, young and old and those with progressive disabilities. The definition of disability, the assessment process and the service statement do not appear to be designed to cater for these sectors. The system is based on the assessment of need at a particular time and does not provide for continuing assessment of growing needs. This may exclude people, especially young people whose condition may deteriorate over time if they are not given services at an early age.

This also applies to older people. By the nature of their disabilities they will get worse each year and in many instances rapid deterioration may occur. If elderly people are only entitled to services based on the service statement and initial assessment, they may find themselves in a worse situation than they were prior to this legislation.

We are all familiar with how rules and regulations can be used by officialdom to deny or delay a service, particularly when resources are scarce. Resources are scarce and bound to remain so as the legislation does not provide for ring fencing of funds. Money will be made available for disability services depending on how much money remains when the other services have been catered for. We all know that even in this time of plenty when the economy is booming, existing resources, especially for health and education, are scarce and unable to cater for the current services, not to mind provide for new services.

A greater proportion of our population than ever is getting older and living longer. Inevitably, we will have a greater proportion of people with disabilities. Elderly people who develop a disability late in life are entitled to the same equality, independence and dignity as the general population.

During the presentations made by the many disability organisations to the Joint Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights it became painfully obvious that the majority of the organisations wanted this legislation scrapped. Despite the significant number of pre-discussions, the Government did not listen. Many organisations tried desperately to discover some procedural improvements in this Bill on the previous one before concluding the Bill was fundamentally flawed.

The Aware submission stated:

The draft Bill is not convincing of a commitment to bring about equality. The scope of the legislation is not sufficiently broad. Independence is lacking in the Bill. Everything is restricted by financial or geographic concerns.

The association for deaf blind had problems with the Title of the Bill and employment targets. While broadly welcoming the Bill, the Genetic and Inherited Disorders Organisation wanted employment and insurance included in the Bill. The Irish Association for Spina Bifida and Hydrocephalus spoke of a mother who asked whether the introduction of the Bill would provide an occupational therapist or speech therapist for her son or whether it would provide a coach to take her son to a special school. The answer to all her questions was "No" unless substantial changes were made to the Bill.

The Not for Profit Business Association said many issues needed to be addressed, including the definition of disability, independent assessment, the complexity of the complaints system, the complexity of the appeals system and the lack of ring fencing. It also conceded there were fundamental flaws in the Bill as drafted.

The Institute for Design and Disability said the Bill was fundamentally flawed. It has recommended a change to every section of the Bill. The National Parents and Siblings Alliance said the definition of disability in the Bill was an example of failing to address the needs of people with disabilities and that it was a narrow Bill aimed at excluding a large number of people from even being assessed. They said that the phrases used repeatedly in the Bill, for example, "where resources allow" and "where practicable" make it utterly irrelevant.

Children in Hospital Ireland concluded its assessment of the Bill by saying: "There will be no second chance to make it right." The association urged the committee to make its best effort to ensure the Disability Bill was amended so that the needs and rights of vulnerable children with disabilities and their families and carers would be met.

As this is a second attempt at a disability Bill, most organisations are hoping that through the many amendments they have suggested, the Bill will become acceptable in some way. I urge the Government to heed these genuine concerns. I hope the Minister will table sufficient amendments to make the Bill acceptable.

Disabled people, the organisations representing them and the public should realise that Fine Gael and any other Opposition party or Deputy cannot introduce worthwhile amendments because procedural rules in the Dáil prevent the acceptance of Opposition amendments if there is a cost on the Exchequer. The only way to improve this Bill is for the Government, even at this stage, to recognise its mistakes and introduce significant amendments.

Despite that this nation has become materialistic over recent years, I am convinced there is more than enough humanity in the people to demand these changes be made. They will expect them to be implemented in their name by a Government that up to now has promoted Ireland as an economy rather than a society.

I am glad of the opportunity to speak on this Bill. I welcome it and am glad that after many difficulties it is before the House. I am aware that many groups came before the Joint Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights to make suggestions and submissions.

The Bill is a significant step in the right direction. CoAction West Cork is one of the organisations close to my heart. The funding it received in 2003 was five times what it received in 1997. This increased input in an organisation dealing with intellectual and other disabilities is an important step. Many improvements have been made in recent years. Groups and parents dealing with people with intellectual or physical disabilities deserve more. One will never have a Utopian situation where people will get everything they want but the Bill is a major step in the right direction.

The Minister should reflect on the definition of disability. Reference is made in the Bill to "significant disabilities" and a distinction is drawn between mild and severe disability. The terms "substantial" and "enduring" are also used. Does that in any way exclude those with a mild or less severe physical or educational disadvantage? Will the Minister please clarify the matter?

For the first time since the foundation of the State the Bill provides health and educational assessments for people with disabilities. This is a positive and necessary step. In fairness, most interested parties recognise this as an important feature of the Bill. However, such assessments will raise the expectations of service providers and the parents or guardians of those dealing with people with disabilities. We must ensure adequate resources will be provided to implement the recommendations of the assessments in the areas of education, housing and so on.

One of the major gripes that has been brought to my attention by service providers and parents is that up to now there has been no long-term provision for the needs of people with disabilities. I welcome the announcement today regarding the Book of Estimates that the Minister for Finance, Deputy Cowen, is to provide significant multi-annual funding for disability groups. I am delighted this is the case. Service providers and parents need the reassurance that funding will be in place for a minimum of five, seven or even ten years. Ring-fenced funding in this area will commence in 2005. That is the first time this has been done, although I acknowledge the significant funding in this area provided by the former Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Martin, who invested the considerable sum of £80 million in a three year programme. However, that is in the past and we must look forward. Such an amount would in no way satisfy the current needs that exist. Consistency in funding is crucial for parents and service providers.

The question arises as to who will carry out the assessments. Health boards, as we know them, have been abolished. I was never a member of a health board but I have had a positive experience of them in carrying out assessments and dealing with groups such as CoAction West Cork, the COPE Foundation and the Brothers of Charity in Kerry. Parents must have the utmost confidence that the assessment and appeals process is foolproof. If they do not have that confidence we will have a major problem. I hope this issue can be addressed.

The right of advocacy was raised by a disability group. In this context we often think of solicitors and barristers in courts. The right of advocacy should be available to clients and their families from the commencement of the assessment process through to the appeals stage. I discussed this matter with parents and a chief executive of a service provider. Lawyers are not always necessary in this context. A family friend or another parent with first-hand experience of the matter can do as good a job in terms of advocacy. Unlike paid professionals many people often work in this area in a voluntary capacity out of the goodness of their heart. It is a critical mainstay of the legislation that the assessment and appeals process, including advocacy, is transparent and is equally available in west Cork or west Mayo as in Dublin.

An attempt was made in the Bill initiated in 2000 to do away with the right of people to go to the courts as a last resort. I welcome the fact that an individual retains the right to seek redress in the courts. However, this should always be used as a last resort. We have seen from the Kathy Sinnott and other cases the inordinate length of time the cases took to come before the courts. Such cases were difficult for families and sometimes went to an appeals stage. These cases cost the State a great deal of money. On a number of occasions in parliamentary party meetings I made the point that we should put more money into every sphere of disability rather than give funding the Department of Health and Children or the Department of Education and Science to defend cases. Some of our solicitor and barrister colleagues get relatively fat fees for defending cases which in some respects are indefensible. The money would be better used in the provision of resources for people with disabilities.

Most cases which have gone to court relate to the educational needs of people with disabilities. Health boards have been dragged in to that scenario but, in essence, cases were taken because people with either a physical or intellectual disadvantage were not in a position to avail of education and had to pursue their cases through the courts. An interdepartmental group involving 11 ministries has been set up. It is critical that the Department of Education and Science should play a more central role than the Department of Health and Children or any other Department.

CoAction West Cork was set up as a voluntary group 30 years ago in my local townland.

It has close to 300 clients. It has excellent facilities in Bantry, Castletownbere and Dunmanway, and the President, Mrs. McAleese, opened new premises last year in Skibbereen. The group is doing extremely good work. The year before last, CoAction went out to set up bus services to try to transport people the 100 or 110 miles from the remote peninsulas in west cork to the COPE Foundation and other institutions in Cork city, as it had previously been physically impossible because of lack of a train service and a bad bus service. While telling people on one of the peninsulas about its facilities, training schools and educational and therapeutic services, CoAction discovered 12 or 14 people who came out of the woodwork. Some of them were in my age group and had been hidden away or had not previously been recognised on any register. All of a sudden, CoAction realised that instead of there being 20 people with disabilities living on the peninsula, there were actually 32 or 34. We may live in the 21st century and think we have advanced greatly but we are still reaching out to people who have been neglected, although I hope this is the exception rather than the rule.

I am chairman of the All-Party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution, on which the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Lenihan, is my predecessor. At one stage, the committee made a commitment to examine the issue of disability in the context of the Constitution. Article 45 of the Constitution recognises many socio-economic rights and commends them as guides to the Houses of the Oireachtas but removes them from the judgments of the courts and so on. When the Constitution was framed, it was decided that socio-economic rights such as the right to housing, which the committee considered in its recent property report, should be left to the Executive.

We hear regularly from disability groups that legislation should be rights based. However, that was not provided for by the Constitution. I would dearly like the committee to examine this issue in more detail but the fact is that the Constitution leaves such provisions to the Executive. This is because the Executive is responsible for spending the money in the various Departments and, if one provided a rights-based approach, it would mean that the Judiciary would decide who gets what. I am not sure that is the appropriate way to proceed.

I visited New Zealand and Australia to examine the position of people with disabilities and children's rights there in comparison to other countries in Europe. Australia has gone through an evolution in the whole area of intellectual and physical disability. For example, authorities in New South Wales have commissioned studies on the issue and have completed a great deal of work and the conclusions of those studies are parallel to the Government's in facing up to these problems.

The All-Party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution committed to examine these issues but it was felt that if we were to have a parallel examination of disability this year, which would probably take 12 months or more, the committee might obstruct, delay or impede the work of this Bill. We felt that would be inappropriate and inexcusable. However, at some stage, the committee will examine the issues and we could commence our work sometime next year or early the following year.

We must acknowledge that this Bill is a major piece of work, which has not just been dreamed up. The first attempt to introduce the legislation two or three years ago faltered and much work has been invested since by the 11 Departments, which were involved in the strategy group. This year, some €2.5 billion will be spent on the disability sector across the Departments. This figure does not include social welfare payments which could push the figure well over €3 billion, which is not small money.

The plan spearheaded by the Taoiseach, with the Minister for Finance, who holds the purse strings, will hugely increase the amount of money allocated at present and will maintain consistency in funding over the next five or six years. This is a major milestone and is a recognition by the Government, not before time, that it must tackle the issue head on. The issues pertaining to disabilities are changing. We may think primarily of children and adults with special educational needs disabilities and so on, but there is also a generation of people with, for example, Down's syndrome who are in their early 1950s who were neglected for many years and may be developing other problems. To be fair, successive Governments in the 1970s and 1980s neglected disability issues.

I do not wish to be parochial but the catalyst for the formation of CoAction in west Cork was a small voluntary group of parents of children with physical or educational disadvantage. I am not sure how the COPE Foundation in Cork city evolved but there is a similar group to CoAction in Charleville in north Cork, as well as others around the country, which evolved on a voluntary charity basis by selling tickets, knocking on doors and getting a few bob. It took many years before any Government recognised it had any duties in this regard. We have come a long way in the past 20 or 25 years but we still have many miles to go. However, at least this Bill is a step in the right direction.

It might be necessary to table amendments on Committee Stage which, if they can improve the Bill, should be examined seriously even if they are tabled by the Opposition. I am not sure how much time has been allocated for the Bill's passage but I cannot see it being exacted before Christmas because it is such a major piece of legislation. Nevertheless, it is important to make the Bill as right as is possible. Otherwise it would be unfair to the huge number of people with disabilities; the service providers like the COPE Foundation, CoAction and the Brothers of Charity; the parents; and, most importantly, the clients who, through no fault of their own, have been born with physical or intellectual disabilities. We owe it to those people to get this Bill as near to perfect as is possible. We will probably never get it inch-accurate but there is a huge duty on us to listen to the various groups.

The Joint Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights, chaired by Deputy Ardagh, heard points of view from 35 or 37 groups from across the spectrum. I am worried some of them felt that since the Bill was not rights-based, it should be scrapped and we should start again. We have spent seven years working to get this far and I appeal to such people not to allow us lose what ground has been gained. There is room in which to move forward but the notion of scrapping the Bill is out. If changes are to be made, we will welcome them. One group mentioned that the title of the Bill is inappropriate and that it should be entitled a Bill for people with disadvantages. I am open to such suggestions. I am glad to have had an opportunity to speak on this Bill but a great deal more can be said. It is important to get this Bill right because we owe it to the people who suffer from disadvantage to look after their educational, financial, health and other needs. That is not before time.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill. I will begin with the definition in the Bill, which has been referred to by previous speakers. There should be consistency in the definition used in any Bills dealing with disability. The definition of disability in all legislation should be the same in so far as that is possible. It should also be the best possible definition. There are legitimate concerns that the definition in this Bill might be limiting and might actually exclude people, particularly those with lower level disability.

The Bill is imperfect legislation and there is room for improvement. Last year the House discussed what was then called the Education for Persons with Disabilities Bill with the then Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Noel Dempsey. While I will reserve judgment on how that Bill will work given that there is a five-year timespan for its implementation, it must be acknowledged that the Minister was open during the debate on the Bill and accepted a number of amendments. He put forward amendments to deal with points the Opposition made when we were unable to do so due to the constraints of the regulations under which we operate. I hope that attitude will apply to this Bill and that the Government will accept that the points made by the Opposition are legitimate. In many cases, these points are being made by people with disabilities, and they are worthy of consideration. That sentiment would probably be echoed by members of the Government parties. I hope there will be open minds on this issue and that the Bill before us is not set in stone but is amenable to changes that can improve it.

Regardless of the legislation we discuss, the debate almost always boils down to resources. It is a constant theme. Nobody on this side of the House is afraid or unprepared to acknowledge that spending has improved in this area. That is not a problem. However, when Members are listing the amounts of money spent, I ask them not to do so with the attitude that it is the end of the matter, the Government is great and it is a job well done. That attitude is common with some Members of the Government parties and it is a pity. It is not enough to list what has been spent because the Government will be judged on what it gets for the money it spends.

Regardless of what has been spent, people with disabilities still feel they are left behind. They are entitled to feel that way because there is a great deal of catching up to be done. That is a fair point. It is the base from which we must progress when we discuss resources. The money that has been spent has dealt with some of the difficulties but we still have a long way to go.

I am concerned that the provision on assessments could be open to interpretation. It is a pity to put forward legislation that is open to interpretation. One of the flaws in this Bill is the language that is used and the fact that so many provisions are open to interpretation. I would prefer a more clear and definite Bill. It should be in black and white, as it were, and not open to interpretation. I am concerned that assessments will or could be subject to health board constraints. There is no such thing as a health board, or whatever it will be called in a few weeks, without constraints. Obviously, no health board has money left at the end of the year — at least it should not if it is doing its job. Assessments will be a problem.

I am unsure of how many assessment officers will be appointed — it does not appear to be in the Bill — and whether this will be affected by the ban on recruitment to the public service. Who will carry out the assessments? If the ban is still in place, are there people in the system with the qualifications, expertise or correct training to be assessment officers? Assuming the ban will affect this area, will health board budgets be increased to cater for assessments? The Minister for Finance is expected to make an announcement in the Estimates at 4 p.m. with regard to disability. I hope the points I have made will be dealt with in that announcement. We must wait and see.

The next question relates to service provision after assessments are carried out. How will that be provided? What guarantees will be given? There is provision for a services statement, which is a good principle, but there will have to be a guarantee that what is in the statement is what the person will get. That is not covered by, the wording of the Bill. The statement must meet the needs of the person if it is to work. When the needs will be met and what should happen if they are not met, are not covered in the Bill either. There is little point in telling people what they need if they cannot have it. That sentiment would be shared by, people with disabilities. We have learned this from the education system. Children are being assessed and psychologists' reports are being compiled but it is most frustrating for parents to be told what their children need and to know they cannot get it.

The Bill appears to suggest that because the services are subject to resource constraints they will be provided out of what is, effectively, left over. That is a problem. The parents of children with autism in my constituency have formed the Laois-Offaly Parents of Children with Autism group. For the past three years the parents have protested outside the Midland Health Board about the lack of facilities for their children. Some of the children were getting one hour of speech therapy per year. When I quoted that fact the journalists got it wrong. They probably could not believe that the children were getting only one hour per year so they referred to it as one hour per week. However, many of the parents would be delighted if their children could get one hour per week.

They cannot get that so they raised funds and are now employing a speech therapist for their children from their own resources. I put down questions to the Minister on this issue previously, and the reply was that there are not enough speech therapists and the Department is trying to improve the numbers. There is an element of truth in that answer but when the parents in Laois and Offaly raised the money they were able to employ a speech therapist even though the Midland Health Board could not find or employ one to look after their children. These basic issues must be dealt with.

One of my colleagues pointed out that 150 extra speech therapists had been recruited in recent years. That is fabulous if one's child can get to see one of those therapists. If not, however, it is small consolation to hear that. With regard to autism, I put down 60 parliamentary questions yesterday to the Ministers for Education and Science and Health and Children about the task force report on autism. I put down a further 90 questions on the same report. I was extremely disappointed to receive a standard response when each of my questions dealt with an individual issue outlined in the report. If reports are to be produced, follow-up information should be provided on what is happening with the reports and if there is an intention to implement their recommendations.

Within weeks of the debate concluding on the legislation that eventually emerged as the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act — I am not sure if the President had even signed it into law — the weighted system of providing for children with special educational needs was announced. At no stage in the months of discussion on that legislation was there mention of a weighted system. The legislation provided for a multi-disciplinary approach in which parents could make an input with the teacher, therapists, school principal and special needs organiser. Suddenly, however, we were informed of a new system that had no basis in the legislation. That is extremely difficult to explain to the public.

I cannot explain it because I believe the system is wrong. There is no logical explanation for it. When we have dealt with the Bill before us I hope there will be no announcements afterwards dealing with the areas that are not covered by it and which would restrict the rights we are providing in the Bill. Deputy O'Donovan spoke about rights and whether this Bill is rights based. He referred to the delegations that came before the justice committee to discuss this legislation and seek rights.

I am a realist when it comes to resources. However, we must remember that the issue of rights arose out of people's frustration because people could not obtain what they needed for their children or for adults in their care. As a result, they were obliged to consider how they could get what they required. They arrived at the conclusion that the best way to do so was to have it stated as a right.

I also have a difficulty with the legislation in respect of the right of appeal. Deputy O'Donovan welcomed the fact that there is a right of appeal to court but I do not know if he is aware that such an appeal can only be made on a point of law. The Deputy comes from the same professional background as me and I am sure he is aware how restrictive it is to appeal to a court on a point of law only. What is contained in the legislation is not a right of appeal. I support the idea that people with disabilities or special educational needs should not be obliged to go to court to get what they need. In reality, however, I am aware that they sometimes must do so.

When we debated the Education for People with Special Educational Needs Bill, the then Minister, Deputy Noel Dempsey, stated that if services etc. were not provided, people could appeal to the courts. Under that legislation, which deals with children, there is a right to appeal to court and not just on a point of law. However, the Bill relates to people over the age of 18 and they do not have such a right of appeal. That is wrong and Government must take action in respect of it. The right of people with disabilities to appeal to court — a right, which everyone else can exercise — on an issue that affects them will be severely restricted. The Bill was published when the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform was heading off to court in the company of two senior and one junior counsel. People with disabilities are being informed, however, that they cannot go to court unless their case relates to a point of law. I worked in the legal profession previously, but I am not saying this to line the pockets of solicitors or barristers. People should not have to go to members of the legal profession to gain access to services. The full right of appeal must be included and I ask the Minister to reconsider the position in respect of that.

The Bill must be made more, user-friendly and the language used in it should be made less archaic and complicated. Legislation of this nature should be easy to understand. Deputy O'Donovan referred to advocacy, which is extremely important. A good start in this regard, which would allow people to help themselves, would be to use language that is more understandable. Deputy Stanton stated that he asked some qualified legal people to consider the Bill. If they could not make a great degree of sense out of some parts of it, I do not know how other people will do so. This matter must be addressed.

Earlier today I met staff representatives of the National RehabCare Advocacy Council and some of the users of the council's service. They made a number of points, including some relating to advocacy. What became apparent from our discussion — this point was made by previous speakers — is the number of matters that are not dealt with in the Bill.

One of my main problems with the Government's attitude to people with disabilities is the belief that matters can be considered in isolation or in small groups. The Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Hanafin, recently made a big announcement about special needs assistants in the same week the House had debated their position and that of resource and learning support teachers. It is as if the recruitment of an additional 200 plus special needs assistants will address the entire problem. We must still consider the issues of resource teachers and learning support. We should not look at these matters in isolation, we should look instead at the needs of children and what will help to serve those needs. However, we are not doing that at present. The Bill should be aimed at the needs of persons with disabilities and should take account of what is required to improve their quality of life. We are focused, however, on their health and educational needs, not their housing, transport or employment needs.

I discovered today that the train stations in Tullamore and Clara in my constituency do not have access for people in wheelchairs. If one wants to take a train from Tullamore to Galway, one must cross the line. There is, however, no way of doing so other than by pushing people in their wheelchairs across the tracks before or after the train arrives. That is not acceptable. Basic rights such as access at train stations are not enshrined in the legislation. If we do not consider matters such as housing, transport and employment, we will not deal with this matter in a holistic way. We cannot separate these people's health and educational needs and make it seem as if the remainder of their lives are totally different and that they are able to fight their own corner on these issues. The things to which I refer must be enshrined in legislation. It is important that is done and that we stop considering matters in isolation.

Housing needs are also ignored in the Bill. There are two types of grants available in this area, namely, the disabled person's grant, which is operated by councils, and the housing aid for the elderly grant, which is operated by health boards. The systems for dealing with these grants are in chaos in my constituency and I am sure the position is similar in every other constituency. A delegation from Offaly County Council met the Minister of State with responsibility for housing last year and he informed us that the system in our county operates too well. He stated that if, like other counties, we continued to spend, we would probably be able to obtain more of a top-up on our allocation. As a result of the fact that it operates the grant properly and does not run up debts, Offaly County Council is obtaining less funding than should be the case. That is extremely strange and it reflects the way Government operates. Advice such as that received by Offaly County Council should not be given to any local authority. I accept, however, that the Minister of State was probably frustrated because he did not have access to adequate funds to allow him to take action.

The Government should consider how it intends to proceed in terms of the operation of the grants to which I refer. One person is responsible for running the entire housing aid for the elderly scheme in County Offaly. That woman is literally run off her feet and can only deal with between 30 to 40 people each year. The backlog relating to the scheme stands at approximately 300, while that relating to the disabled person's grant scheme is even higher. People who are elderly and who do not necessarily have disabilities — they may have had hip replacements or whatever — often opt, because they believe it is quicker, for the disabled person's grant scheme rather than the housing aid for the elderly scheme. These individuals are eligible to apply for the disabled person's grant under the criteria laid down and they are taking away from the funding which should be going to those for whom the grant was originally envisaged. One cannot necessarily blame them, however, because anyone in their position would take the quickest route to obtain funding. These two issues will have to be considered and, again, they cannot be looked at in isolation from the Disability Bill.

The Government should give serious consideration to creating a special fund to help clear the backlog that exists in the area of disabled person's grants. The scheme could then be looked at in terms of determining how it might better or more efficiently operate. We must ensure that the people who need the money can obtain it under the scheme. A man with whom I discussed the scheme informed me that he was going to apply but that he thought he would not bother because he believed he would be dead before his case was dealt with. Unfortunately, that is the sad reality in some cases.

I wish to make a final point on housing and, in particular, social housing for people with disabilities. The relevant Department operates relatively efficiently and a great deal of good work has been done in terms of the provision of social housing and that for people with disabilities. However, there is a difficulty in that there is no funding stream from health boards or authorities. Where the scheme is up and running, there have been instances where someone's house has been ready but there was no care person available to help them move in and come to terms with the idea of independent living. The latter is due to the lack of a funding stream from health boards. Consideration should be given to the establishment of such funding streams.

I ask the Government to engage in real debate on this issue and to be open to change. If changes are made, this Bill will become much better and far easier to live with. As it stands, the Bill does not meet the needs of people with disabilities and it will not help us achieve what we want to achieve.

I welcome the Bill. I measured its content against what has obtained up to now and then considered the national disability strategy. I listened carefully to the many groups in my constituency which have come forward with views and opinions in respect of this issue not only in recent months but also during the period which dates back prior to my election to the House in 1997.

We have a bad history in caring for people with disabilities and we need to come from behind to catch up. The budgets prior to 1997 made little or no comment on arrangements for the State to care for people with disabilities and those budgets provided very little money compared with today's standards. I acknowledge the excellent work done since 1997, especially by Deputy Wallace who was a Minister of State at that time. She put the bones of this Bill together, which was later fleshed out more substantially.

It was thrown out.

The Bill was thrown out and there was much debate at the time. I have no difficulty with the fact that it was not taken then because of reservations which I also shared. Having listened further to those organisations, groups and individuals directly involved in the area of disability and care, this Bill is a much more substantial document and considerable work has gone into its preparation. Having read the Bill and listened to the various briefings, my understanding is that it will not just end here on Second Stage. There will be opportunity on Committee Stage to flesh out the details to a greater degree and perhaps to introduce amendments where necessary. I have listened carefully to the language used by officials and politicians in their presentation of the argument. I interpret it as a language that is accommodating and encouraging. There is much to look forward to in this Bill. I hope it has a speedy passage through this House. It should be considered as a work in progress even when it is passed.

The circumstances which affect people with disabilities today, be it funding or how they engage with society through work or leisure activities, will need to be changed and updated on a regular basis. It is a rights-based Bill, which is driven by the Government's commitment to that community of people and their rights rather than being a rights-based Bill that can be tackled and challenged in court. Too often legislation in this area is challenged in the courts. The energy, commitment and finance is used up in that process rather than being used in a much more sensible way by delivering services to those with disabilities. Families directly affected by disability, specifically families of children with autism, have been forced to go to court for their rights. The costs for both families and health boards are significant. The support they receive as a result of the court case is often quite poor compared with what they had prior to the case being taken.

We must ensure that people with disabilities can access the services to which they are entitled. This Bill must enable them to access those services and activate those rights in a way that is within their ownership and within their control and not within the control and ownership of the legal profession. I hope this Bill will provide a mechanism to deliver that wide range of service and will support the services by the inclusion in the Estimates of a fairly substantial sum of money. The sum of €2.5 billion is spent across Departments but there is a need to increase that amount and perhaps achieve greater value for money in the delivery of services through schemes such as the disabled person's maintenance grant and the housing aid for the elderly grant. Greater efficiency must be injected into those schemes so that the spend is directed at the clients and not at the bureaucracy delivering the scheme. The schemes need to be simplified and made user-friendly.

The Bill must continue to be simple and user-friendly while supported by an extensive budget across the various Departments providing the services. This was not the case heretofore. As a public representative I find it is a battle with the local authority and the health board to get them to provide what is an entitlement for the person with a disability. We should instead be able to concentrate on the people rather than on the bureaucracy of the system. This Bill delivers that kind of approach without being too legalistic. The Bill will require constant review in the years following enactment to allow for corrections to be made. If it needs to be simplified or if any aspect needs to be improved, it should be brought back to this House and the improvement should be delivered.

I have read the Bill and my understanding is that if one considers one has a disability, then, one is entitled to assessment which will provide a definition of the disability, assess what is required and deliver the services. No definition is more open-ended than that. It is a good and reasonable definition that will open the door for people and allow them be assessed.

The other issue being discussed is the general language of the Bill, that if money is to be made available, the disability sector will be looked after when everything else is looked after. Nobody can sign an open cheque and that is, generally accepted, even by those who campaign for much more to be included in this Bill. Within that framework there is much more flexibility for financial support from the Department of Finance and other Departments for the delivery of services. I acknowledge the investment of €2.5 billion made by the Government. In 1997 there were 100 special resource teachers for children with special needs and there are currently in excess of 2,300. The number of special classes has grown from 350 in 1998 to 500 currently. I know this is not sufficient but the Government has made considerable progress. I hope that the Estimates to be announced today will include substantially more funding.

This Bill and the national disability strategy have resulted in sectoral plans made available as a complete package. Spending cannot be confined to one single Department from where the spending is controlled because it runs across many Departments. Previous speakers have referred to each one. The Bill is comprehensive and the framework of the sectoral plans are comprehensive and can be implemented. I read the synopsis of the sectoral plans. I regard them as being a significant advance in this area. The plans will improve people's lives. I will refer to some of the plans. They list the improvements needed to access vocational training and employment opportunities for people with disabilities.

People with disabilities have fallen behind in the employment stakes. We debated legislation some time ago on education and information technology, for example, but we have not sufficiently applied information technology in the context of the delivery of training or job opportunities to people with disabilities. I am delighted that area is covered, to a degree, in the sectoral plan for the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment. It highlights a plan for labour market policy initiatives aimed at ensuring equal opportunities for people with disabilities, including a FÁS action plan, and the implementation of that new criteria under the FÁS initiatives. It refers also to a new full-time employment support scheme. I am told these sectoral plans are accompanied by the appropriate levels of finance but we can only await passage of the Bill and the putting in place of these sectoral plans to see if delivery is satisfactory and that it has a tangible effect on the employment of people with disabilities, not just in the public sector but in the private sector also.

That is a major untapped resource in the context of possibilities for employment when one considers the disability group, those with disabilities and the way they can access this market. If that initiative is taken by FÁS and properly supported, and if employers support it by way of grants and incentives, that will be a major step forward. My local authority in Kilkenny is a full participant in this area and one can see the benefits to people with disabilities, how their lives have been improved and what they can do in terms of work. That is to be welcomed and it is something we will see when the Bill is enacted.

One of the major areas — the previous speaker mentioned it — is transport. Enormous investment is required in the context of transport. The railway system needs to be seriously upgraded to reflect the needs of the travelling public who are physically disabled in some way and those who are not as mobile as others. The sectoral plan I referred to states that 95% of all buses operating Bus Éireann urban services in Cork, Dublin, Limerick and so on are now easily accessible by people with disabilities, but there is more to this country than the cities of Dublin, Cork, Galway and Limerick.

In my constituency, a group in north Kilkenny called DISC continues to highlight the difficulties faced by people with disabilities in accessing the urban centre. The dishing of paths and the funding that is set aside by local authorities is not sufficient. That is something we must concentrate on because it is the little things that make a huge difference to the lives of people with disabilities.

We need to invest in railway stations. The railway station in Kilkenny needs to be upgraded and made user friendly for those with disabilities. Sometimes there is no public transport system. It needs to be put in place and upgraded. Incentives need to be given to private operators to encourage the development of small public transport services throughout counties and in urban centres. The new system in Kilkenny, Ring-a-Link, connects rural areas with the urban centres around particular locations. That type of bus service, which is hugely successful, needs incentives to ensure the vehicles operated are easily accessed by people with disabilities.

In regard to taxi services — we are ranging across different Departments — local authorities issue licences for taxis to carry people with disabilities, yet some people who are disabled cannot access the taxis that meet the criteria to allow them carry disabled people. That is happening in Kilkenny city. I have had a number of complaints from people with disabilities who simply cannot gain access to taxis for disabled people. It just does not cover every disability. We have to examine this area in a more general way to ensure that transport of that kind, particularly taxis, is user friendly for disabled people, and we should not be afraid to create an incentive to do that. We are embarking on a new era, well supported by finance, but we need to get the small issues dealt with effectively because many people who are disabled travel to gain education at community centres throughout the country. That is their only way to access education for employment and employment itself, and if they are inhibited by transport, we are simply failing in that area. Perhaps we need to incentivise that.

From my experience in Kilkenny, the Irish Wheelchair Association is to be complimented on the excellent way it organises access for its members to community centres, jobs, education and employment, and the manner in which it cares for them. Many of the volunteers associated with the Irish Wheelchair Association give a great deal of their time and energy to ensuring their members get the best possible care and get out socially to hurling matches and so on, which is a major feature. It is part and parcel of normal life and, therefore, should be mainstreamed for those disabled persons who want to attend.

The sectoral plan for the Department of Social and Family Affairs outlines in a general way what it intends to do. A great deal of funding has been made available in that Department, which has proved itself to be efficient not just in the delivery of its programme but in reaching out and finding solutions to the odd case that needs a once-off examination and solution.

The one area of the Bill that concerns me relates to the Department of Health and Children as it operates through the health boards. I have seen the greatest inefficiencies within the services being delivered in the health board area, and I want to highlight a case, which relates to autism services. A site in Myshall was purchased some time in the late 1990s for use by the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform to house those waiting for their applications for asylum to be processed. That property was in fine working order when it was purchased. This issue has been dealt with by, the Committee of Public Accounts because the property remains idle and is now in a very poor state of repair. Following lobbying by me and groups in Kilkenny, it was recently handed over to the South Eastern Health Board which set out a report on what it might put into it in terms of services to people with autism. That report is still not concluded. It is being discussed in terms of the work with the health board, but it is not finished. It is beginning to come to the conclusion — I have seen some parts of it — that Myshall is an isolated site, which may not be suitable.

The people with autism who had the expectation that services would be delivered through Myshall will be terribly disappointed with the results of that report. I hope there will be intervention by the Department, which made the property available to the South Eastern Health Board in the first place, to ensure that something is delivered either on the Myshall site or by way of moneys that might arise from the disposal of the Myshall site. We owe it to the people who lobbied for this service and who were given this expectation by the South Eastern Health Board. This case shows an appalling inefficiency on the part of a health board to deliver on the back of a property it got from the Department of Health and Children.

In terms of the inefficiency of health boards, not just the board in the south east but others, to see groups representing the disability sector, particularly autism, picketing outside health board offices is a terrible reflection on the State and the health boards. I hope that in the context of this Bill that type of protest will not be warranted in the future.

I support the Bill and encourage the Minister for Finance to ensure the funds of €2.5 billion are built on in the course of this budget. I wish the Bill a speedy passage through the House.

As the House debates the Bill, the Book of Estimates is being published. We already know we can expect great things. It appears, for instance, that after several years of allowing crises to build up in nearly every area of the disability service, the Government will loosen the purse strings today and in the budget. Finally, after years of lonely and often difficult campaigning, the families of people with disabilities will see some reward. Between now and the budget, extra money will be allocated for new residential places, training and education, respite care and to deal with some of the waiting lists that have been allowed to grow over the past three years and more. I welcome this; it is long past time that disability was afforded the priority it needs. There is no doubt, however, that if we had set our minds to this issue at the start of the Celtic tiger period rather than after years of protest and suffering, we could now point to Ireland as a place in which people with disabilities are full and equal citizens.

The very existence of extra money and the Government's willingness to invest it now after years of pressure proves how necessary it is to have a disability Bill. It is a lesson that people with a disability do not need to have spelled out. For years they have known they are at the back of the political queue. They are getting investment now because the Government has plenty of cash to spare, not because it regards the issue as one of basic justice. They are getting it because they have built an articulate and effective lobby, not because the Government has undergone a conversion to their cause.

The corollary, sadly, is true. People with disabilities will slip to the back of the queue again if resources become tight or the disability lobby allows itself to relax for an instant. The only thing that will change this position is if society and Government finally recognise that the challenges facing most people with disabilities arise not so much from their impairments, whatever they may be, but from the barriers we erect for them. This is the reason rights are so important.

Every party in the House has committed itself to a rights-based approach to disability. The disability movement has never sought any superior right. Its campaign has been for equal rights and it assumes that we recognise that the achievement of equal rights means tearing down barriers and changing attitudes. The disability movement has never demanded that everything should be done overnight but instead called for the progressive realisation of rights in an achievable timeframe. It has never asked to be given priority in the health services over people who are sick. Instead, its demand has been to be given equality with people who have only the normal advantages to which every citizen is entitled.

Without such a rights-based approach, the injection now and again of money into services, which have been chronically underfunded will only paper over cracks and will change nothing. This is the reason the disability movement was prepared to negotiate with the Government for two years a Bill that would finally begin to change attitudes and commit the community as a whole to putting the structures and capacity in place to ensure equality became a reality. At the end of this process, during which the good faith of the disability movement was never open to question, the Government produced this Bill.

We know that perceptions of disability have changed over the years and it is people with disabilities who forced us to change them. We can no longer pin whatever label we like on people with disabilities or put them into whatever pigeonhole fits. At least, we thought that was the case until we saw this Bill. Like most of my colleagues, I wished I could be able to describe the Bill as a welcome development which reflects credit on the Government. Instead, I must state that the Government should be ashamed to bring this measure before the House.

The programme for Government included a commitment to introduce legislation containing, rights of assessment, appeals, provision and enforcement. This Bill is a betrayal of that commitment. Above all, it is a betrayal of people with disabilities, many of whom have struggled long and hard to see the Bill introduced. The promises they were made have been broken. As my colleague, Deputy Lynch, stated, this Bill is shoddy, mean-spirited, badly written legislation. It is motivated by a determination to deny greater equality to people with disabilities and its consequence will be a cumbersome, bureaucratic nightmare for thousands of people.

None of the rights promised in the programme for Government is in the Bill. Let me spell this out, promise by promise. The programme for Government promised a right to an assessment. The assessment contained in the Bill is so highly restricted that many people with disabilities will not qualify. The programme for Government also promised a right to provision. Not only is this right not provided for in the Bill, the opposite is the case. As the Bill is framed, the liaison officers charged with drawing up service statements must exclude any aspect of provision, which, in their view, it is not practicable to provide immediately or involves a cost not provided for in the annual budget of the service provider. This is the crux of the Bill. If the Government had any commitment to a progressive realisation of rights as it has always pretended, it would have drafted the Bill the other way around.

Members know that capacity in many necessary services and therapies is inadequate and that if, for instance, an assessment determines that a person with a disability requires 20 hours of speech therapy over a sustained period to begin immediately, it will not always be possible to provide this service instantly. Instead of forcing liaison officers to exclude anything they consider immediately impractical, a rights-based Bill would have imposed a different obligation on them by obliging them, in the case of any necessary service not immediately available, to draw up a plan, in consultation with the person with a disability, to secure the provision of the service in question as quickly and fully as possible.

In the example I cited, for example, in which a need for extensive speech therapy is identified but not immediately available, an agreed plan could provide four hours of speech therapy immediately, building to the required amount as the extra capacity is recruited. Instead of taking this approach, however, the Bill guarantees that people who secure assessments of the needs arising from their disability will shortly thereafter receive a piece of paper telling them which of these needs will not be met. This is an absurd and cruel approach, which portrays a Government determined to get rid of the issue of disability rights rather than confront it and to do as much as possible on the cheap while portraying itself as genuinely committed and caring.

The programme for Government promised a right of appeal. Instead, the Bill creates a crazy bureaucratic superstructure. In addition to assessment officers and liaison officers, two new grades, we will have complaints officers and appeals officers. Every one of these officers will be constrained in the same way. In too many cases, the complaints they receive will arise from the gap between the assessments and the service statements. As the Bill is written, no complaints officer or appeals officer will be able to compel a service provider even to consider providing a service if the issue of practicability or affordability arises. There will be no basis on which an appeals or complaints officer will be able to compel the service provider to plan for increased capacity or to meet over time the need which cannot be met immediately.

What the bureaucratic superstructure will do, however, is wear out the person with the disability. As they trudge from assessment officer to liaison officer to complaints officer to appeals officer, all the time aware that the Bill is a conspiracy against any change in the ultimate outcome, they will at least come to realise that a commitment to rights by Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats is not worth the paper on which it is written.

The programme for Government promised a right to enforcement. Like the other rights promised, it is nowhere to be found in the Bill. The person with a disability has the right to go to court in respect of any of the measures in the Bill only if a point of law arises. Apart from this, the only enforcement provided in the Bill is the bureaucratic quagmire I have described.

Debate adjourned.