Disability Bill 2004: Second Stage (Resumed).

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

I pointed out earlier that this second attempt at a Disability Bill has not been followed through in terms of the consultation the Government stated it would deliver. Proof of this is the facilitation by the National Disability Authority of an organisation known as the Disability Legislation Consultative Group, the membership of which is comprised of people directly involved in the disability sector. This group, in its report on the Bill before the House, has indicated that there are ten fundamental flaws with the legislation. It is not talking about minor modifications or areas that are subject to amendment, but fundamental flaws. The series of flaws may be put into two categories which are at the heart of how public services are delivered and can be resourced by people with disabilities and their families. There are the specialist service areas, affecting how the disability of the individual may be treated on a daily basis. Then there is the wider area which involves ensuring that people with disabilities can fully access every public service that is open to citizens of this State. Under both of these headings the Government has been found wanting. If it is to listen or engage in any exercise of consultation, this Bill should be withdrawn and put together in a manner that not only the Opposition, but those in the disability sector can accept is proper legislation. Unfortunately, that is not likely to happen because the Government, since the inception of any legislation in the disability area, has opted for a divide-and-rule approach. Rather than embrace all-encompassing legislation such as in the Swedish model or the Americans with the Disabilities Act, it has chosen to divide the disabilities legislation into different components.

We have had the Education for Persons with Disabilities Act 2004, as approved by the House, for which the Minister for Education and Science will be directly responsible. While it makes some advances in that area, it does not tackle the basic concept that education should be about enhancing the individual rather than making a person into some type of economic act. That is at the heart of the Government's philosophy with regard to education. People with disabilities in particular fall into that category.

That is wrong.

I will argue from my experience, having worked with the National Rehabilitation Board, which the Government made a mistake in getting rid of.

The Deputy said this was the basis of the Education Bill, which is far from true.

The experience is that people who have——

We have only started to implement it.

There are thousands of families with members over the age of 18 with physical and intellectual disabilities who cannot access any education that helps develop them as individuals as they progress through life. That is the reality for thousands of people and the Minister has a responsibility for that.

The Act addresses that. The Deputy does not know what he is talking about.

The Act may address it, but the reality of people's lives is not being addressed.

The Deputy should not refer to the Act when he is talking about-——

The Act is meant to be the mechanism through which these people have their needs addressed on a daily basis. Those needs are not being addressed.

The Act is not even in place a year yet.

If those needs are not being addressed, the legislation is flawed. However, to get back to the central tenet of my argument, that was just one Bill. This is the second Bill and the third is the Comhairle (Amendment) Bill 2004. The idea of divide-and-rule is also a central piece of the Government's argument. Give people a piece of everything and the impression is conveyed that all is being done. By dividing up the resources and the legislative inputs as regards how people will access services or have their rights conferred on them, the Government is just engaging in a smokescreen. This rights deficit issue is a fairly repugnant concept in a republic since they should exist automatically. We should not go around this type of carousel in the Chamber as regards how such rights are defined and properly resourced.

In trying to access their rights, citizens of this State who live with disabilities will have to go through a myriad of legislation to try to vindicate what should be their natural rights. The Government stands indicted for not only failing to properly resource services for people with disabilities but also providing a defective legislative framework in this regard.

If the Government has engaged in effective consultation with the disability sector and the groups which represent it, why is there such constant lobbying of Deputies about the unsatisfactory nature of the legislation? Why will a major meeting, almost of rally proportions, of the people involved in the disabilities sector be held next week in this city to express their unhappiness with this Bill? If this was a truly representative Government, we would not have seen a Bill of this type before the House. Those whom this Bill is meant to serve would have welcomed it had the Government engaged in effective consultation.

Given the personal interest of the Minister for Finance and the budgetary package, there was at least a recognition that resources had to be increased, and that was done, but they are still somewhat short of what is necessary. The Government seems to be missing the bigger picture, however. The provision of the resources for people with disabilities is only part of the picture. In framing legislation to meet the needs of people with disabilities, not alone have current needs to be considered, but also how the rights of those concerned can be conferred well into the future.

It is unlikely there will be major legislation dealing with disability for another generation. Members of voluntary organisations dealing with disability have had to put up with a virtual history of reports. It is ten years since the report of the Commission on the Status of People with Disabilities, with its hundreds of recommendations, most of which have never seen the light of day. All of them require a particular political focus and on most of them the Government seems incapable or unwilling to deliver.

Given that the coalition is made up of two parties, one of which is prepared to shape itself ideologically to the whims of its current partner at the time, we must question the views of some members of the Cabinet who appear to query the existence of certain rights if they come with a price tag. Of course there is a wide variety of rights that all citizens should have. There are civic and political rights, but there are also economic and social rights. It is in this area that the Government has proven negligent in the day-to-day delivery of services. With this Bill, insult is added to injury on the lot of people with disabilities and, more importantly, their families.

Members of the Government have pointed out some areas of advancement that the Bill has achieved over the original aborted Bill. It is churlish not to acknowledge that some effort has been made to meet existing concerns. However, there appears to be some political philosophical wall that the Government is not prepared to go beyond. It will tweak around the edges and throw a few euro here and there so that the perception seems somewhat better, but it is not prepared to address the reality. The reality for one person in 12, or 8% of Irish society, is that their ability to be full citizens is compromised by the way the Government allows them to access and enjoy their rights. It can be seen every day as regards access to employment, with up to 80% of the disability sector unable to gain such access. It can be seen in terms of how they access public transport — usually there is no such access. It can be seen in housing, in terms of the basic rights and needs that most citizens expect. Most of all it is seen in terms of shortage of resources and lack of infrastructure and a legislative base to ensure resources are provided on a regular basis for the specialist services these people require. The Government can take no pride in putting a Bill before the House and using its majority to have the legislation passed. The Bill changes very little as regards how people with disabilities can improve their lot as citizens.

It is not a matter for me, as a Member of this House, for the Opposition or for my party in particular to table amendments to the Bill. Given the views of the Disability Legislation Consultative Group, this is a Bill that does not need amendments. It needs to be withdrawn because of its fundamental flaws.

I would like to share time with Deputy Cregan. I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill, which is of fundamental importance to the Government's strategy to support participation by people with disabilities in all areas of society. Access to education is key to full and active citizenship and the fulfilment of personal potential as a member of society. This has quite rightly been identified as an issue of major importance to persons with disabilities, who can face daunting obstacles in their efforts to progress through the education system. There has been significant progress in recent years at each stage of our education system in enabling and supporting participation among people with disabilities. I want to highlight some of the steps that are being taken in that regard. In recognising those advances, I accept that we still have some way to go in ensuring that those with a disability have full and timely access to the range of education services and supports that are appropriate to their needs. The education provisions of this Bill should greatly strengthen the efforts that are already under way in this respect.

This Bill and the Comhairle (Amendment) Bill 2004 are both complementary elements of a developing statutory framework that started with Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004. This Bill will take up where that Act leaves off as it will provide a mechanism to address the educational needs of those over 18 years. Both pieces of legislation provide a mechanism for assessment of need and for the preparation and delivery of a statement of needs. In each case, the National Council for Special Education has a pivotal role. That council has now been established with general functions to carry out research and to provide expert advice to the Minister on the educational needs of children with disabilities. That body was working on a non-statutory basis for the past year and has now been formally established since 1 January 2005. Its advisory function will now be extended under Part 2 of this Bill to include advice on how to meet the educational needs of adults with disabilities and to assist the Health Service Executive with the educational assessment of adults with disabilities. Where an assessment identifies an educational need in an adult, a service statement will be prepared which includes measures to address the need. The council will identify an education service provider that can meet that need and will arrange for the provision of the service on behalf of the Health Service Executive. This represents an important extension of the established functions of the council under the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004.

That Act has now provided a map to the future development of special educational needs services. It builds on a period of significant investment in special educational services which has seen much growth in resources following the Government's decision in 1998 that children with special educational needs should be given an automatic response to those needs. This has produced a dramatic expansion of available supports. The number of resource teachers at primary level has grown from 104 in 1998 to more than 2,500. The number of special needs assistants at primary level has grown from 300 in 1998 to more than 5,000. In the area of equipment to assist pupils with special needs, provision has grown from €800,000 in 1998 to over €3 million. Significant expansion has also occurred at post-primary level where there are now 1,400 teaching posts and more than 600 special needs assistants. The funding allocation in the area of special needs education this year now stands at €628 million, which is an increase of 12% on 2004. The implementation of the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004 will have further consequences for the allocation of resources in the education sector. The challenges of gearing the system to deal with the demands placed on it will be intensified by the expanded role of the council provided for under this Bill. It is vital that all of us in the education system rise to these challenges over the coming years.

I would like to highlight some of the measures that have been taken over recent years in the further and higher education sectors for adults with disabilities. The research work of the Association for Higher Education and Disability, or AHEAD, has been invaluable in both identifying progress and pinpointing the areas in need of improvement. Data available from vocational education committees on adult literacy provision for 2003 indicate that 27 out of 33 VEC adult literacy schemes made provision for persons with disabilities. Statistical returns for the back to education initiative for 2003 show a figure of 15.3% of participants classifying themselves as having a disability. Two special schools receive funding under that initiative for courses for former pupils who are now either in employment or have left full-time education. Useful initiatives have been introduced in some centres in conjunction with the former health boards to provide education for people who need support to function outside long-term residential care. In other cases, the back to education initiative providers are working in conjunction with organisations that provide support for people entering employment for the first time.

In the higher education sector, the Higher Education Authority has provided approximately €8.5 million since 1996 for the development of a core infrastructure in our universities to support the participation of students with a disability. This has enabled the development of academic policies and procedures as well as physical structures to accommodate students with disabilities on all programmes. Dedicated disability support offices and specialist staff are in place across the institutions. Training is provided for academic and non-academic staff. Units for the provision of assisting technology for students have been established. Pre-entry programmes and links to second level schools have been established and post-entry orientation and support programmes are in place, while other forms of direct support are provided. These measures are aimed at creating as supportive an environment as possible for students with disabilities.

Preliminary indications from the latest research conducted by AHEAD are that these measures are yielding very positive outcomes in participation rate increases over the past five years. However, this is from a very low base. The work of the recently established national office for equity of access to higher education will be important in promoting the further progress required on this front. It is important to recognise that we are not yet adequately dealing with the full range and level of demand for educational services that exists from adults with disabilities. I am committed to using this Bill to advance progress on this front and to ensure that models of best practice are in place throughout the further and higher education sectors.

There has been a palpable pace of development in the needs of persons with disabilities in recent years. I am especially pleased with the warm welcome that was given to the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004. This Bill is a near mirror image of the systems and procedures inherent in that Act. I am convinced that these will revolutionise approaches throughout the education system by placing the educational rights of every person with a disability at the centre of our concerns. It would be naive to think that this Bill alone will provide all the solutions. I believe, however, that it provides a strong basis for action and progress. It points a clear way forward for my Department, for the National Council for Special Education, for education service providers and adults with disabilities.

I thank the Minister for sharing time. In 1997, Fianna Fáil committed itself to introducing legislation for people with disabilities. Legislation was published just before the previous general election which contained much that was modern, innovative and radical. While it certainly improved the position of people with disabilities, it attracted a firestorm of criticism and was rightly withdrawn in my view. There were two principal difficulties with the original legislation. There was no independent assessment of needs and there was no right of redress. The withdrawn legislation gave the right to assessment, but it was to be conducted by the very body that would deliver the service. The suspicion was that the assessment would be influenced by the fact that the organisation assessing the needs would ultimately have to bear the cost of delivering them.

The new legislation will provide for an independent assessment of means by the health boards. There will be a body established to ensure that the assessment of needs is genuinely independent. This body will set standards. It will also provide training for those assessing the needs and this is an important step for those in society with disabilities. I want to stress that the system being put in place will be genuinely independent and constantly monitored to ensure its independence. A person living in a particular health service area would not have his or her needs tested by that health service. A body will also be established to ensure that the assessment of needs is genuinely independent. The body will set standards.

It will also provide training for those assessing the needs. This does not mean that specialists such as physiotherapists, child psychologists and so forth will work exclusively on assessing needs. There is already a severe shortage of people with these skills and critics of the Bill would do well to take a long-term view of the issues. With the best will in the world, we cannot train and roll out extra numbers of trained individuals to work in this area overnight.

Another aspect of the Bill that is worthy of praise is the provision for redress. The withdrawn legislation was criticised for not being rights based. The criticism was based on a narrow interpretation of rights based legislation. According to this interpretation, if a person with disabilities does not get what they consider to be the appropriate redress from the State, they should be entitled to go to court and have a judge assess both needs and delivery of service. In practical terms, this would have meant that the amount the State spent each year on disabilities would be decided by judges and the courts.

A significant percentage of overall disability expenditure, therefore, would be swallowed up by legal fees and would not improve the lives of people with disabilities. Furthermore, resources would be allocated by professionals and courts without reference to the Oireachtas or the availability of resources. Disability groups were consulted in the drafting of this Bill, which is a sign of the Government's commitment to improving the lives of people with disabilities. However, the Government is unable to write a blank cheque.

I wish to refer to the significant level of investment by the Government in disability specific services across a range of Departments. Currently, €2.5 billion, representing 7% of gross current public expenditure on services, is provided specifically for people with disabilities. This includes health sector services for persons with an intellectual disability or autism, physical or sensory disabilities and mental illness; first and second level special needs education funded through the Department of Education and Science; the specialised training and employment support services provided by FÁS; and the cost of various tax relief schemes and local authority spending to adapt accommodation for people with disabilities. I hope to see more spending by local authorities to ensure that building regulations are enforced properly and that every citizen, able bodied or disabled, has equal access. Our efforts should be concentrated on ensuring that local authority staff get every support from the State to enable them to do their job properly.

The figures I have mentioned do not take account of the income support and other services provided through the Department of Social and Family Affairs or the fact that many people with a disability participate in or benefit from mainstream public service programmes and services. Speech and language therapy, physiotherapy and other similar key services for people with a disability, for example, are provided as part of the mainstream health services. Similarly, improving access to public transport services for persons with mobility and sensory impairment is an integral requirement of all Exchequer funded new investment in buses, rolling stock and station infrastructure.

This year's budget will undoubtedly bring about certain changes but it is the multi-annual funding from 2006 which those working in the sector believe will make a real difference in providing better services. The multi-annual investment programme was designed with the intention of supporting the prioritisation of disability support services over the period 2006-09. The Government has pledged an additional €900 million for spending in those years. I would prefer if it was to run from 2005 to 2009 and I ask the Government to examine this again with a view to bringing that date forward. It would make a huge difference.

Publication of the Bill was accompanied by the announcement of new funding arrangements for capital and current spending on disability support services. In accordance with requests from those in the disability sector, funding is based on a five year multi-annual programme. This is the first time a Government has adopted this approach towards spending on services and it is a positive step. This new approach demonstrates the Government's commitment to funding for disability support services and to implementing the initiatives announced with the publication of this Bill.

Every day can be a challenge for parents of a disabled child and in recent years the voluntary sector has continually campaigned on the issue of respite care. It is critical that parents and carers of the disabled have access to high standard care for their loved ones. The Government has reacted by pledging an additional 4,260 new residential and respite day places by the end of 2009.

This Government has treated this issue with seriousness and responsibility by providing more funding and ensuring that the funding will make a real difference. The Opposition parties had a chance to do the same when they were in Government but they chose not to do so. The Comhairle Bill, the Disability Bill and the accompanying sectoral plans as well as the huge funds allocated to improving services for people with disabilities represent a turning point for this country.

I agree the Disability Bill does not go far enough; I am not so naive not to accept that. However, it is a very good start. It is the best attempt ever at introducing legislation that caters for people with disabilities. We have shown our firm commitment in this area. In particular, the Minister, Deputy Cowen, did so in the recent budget when he announced a €900 million package for the multi-annual programme. That is what will make the difference and it shows where this Fianna Fáil led Government's commitment lies.

I look forward to the implementation of the Bill. I sincerely hope that whatever difficulties remain between people with disabilities and the Government can be resolved for the benefit of everybody.

The Disability Bill 2004, first published in September of that year but only now being debated, must be dramatically changed if it is to be of benefit to those it proposes to protect. The Bill was first promoted as a Government guarantee for disabled people in 1997. Its predecessor was published in 2001 by the then Minister of State, Deputy Mary Wallace. However, it was subsequently withdrawn following overwhelming rejection by disability organisations and activists.

In March 2002, an expert consultation team was given the task of consulting with all stakeholders and reporting to the Government. At the same time, the National Disability Authority was asked to facilitate meaningful dialogue at national level with people with disabilities, their families, carers and service providers. From that arose an umbrella group called the disability legislation consultative group. After many false starts and promises, the Bill was launched, with much fanfare about the promise of multi-annual funding, by the Taoiseach and most of the Cabinet. I am sure the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Lenihan, was also present.

However, the Bill falls far short of what the consultation group recommended. Many of the disability groups want Fine Gael to once again reject this Bill. We will not do so. That would be an excuse to delay it further. One legal expert stated the Bill is the most convoluted, turgid, incomprehensible legislation the person had ever read. Its complexity was intentional and avoidable. If this was the response of a legal expert to the Bill, how will an ordinary person be able to deal with it? It will be even more difficult for somebody with a disability.

Fine Gael hopes it will have the opportunity, on Committee Stage, to insert reasonable amendments to make the Bill workable. Total rejection of the Bill will only give the Government an opportunity to put the problem on the long finger. We expect to have dialogue with the Minister and subsequent improvement of the Bill. If the Bill is enacted as published, many new officials and structures will be put in place but there are few guarantees that services will be delivered to those who need them. Judging by statements made by Ministers, the Government appears to be more uneasy about administrative structures than meeting the needs of the persons assessed.

There is no timeframe for when their needs might be met. Instead of providing for realistic targets, the Bill, supposedly the best legislation for people with a disability since the foundation of the State, is 80% concerned with the State running away from its responsibilities and the remainder is a small attempt to give a little. The complaints system provided for in the Bill is too complex and must be simplified to make it more easily accessible. There is another plethora of officialdom in the complaints process and this threatens to exclude rather than include.

If the Bill is to have meaning, it must provide for ring fencing of disability specific resources. Political promises have been made but if no commitment is enshrined in the Bill, those promises might be meaningless given the Government's past history. The Government has an unenviable record of producing major plans with a great deal of fanfare only for them gradually to be shelved as more urgent, short-term political priorities arise. As evidence, we need only consider the €30 million spent by the previous Minister for Health and Children on 115 reports, not including a further 35 which have yet to be costed. We cannot allow this to happen again. The Bill must provide for a clear statutory duty on all Departments and public bodies to include people with disabilities in their plans and services with appropriate monitoring and accountability. "Public services" in this context should be defined to include all public services provided in the public system by statutory and non-statutory entities.

There has been much talk in the Dáil during the debate on the Disability Bill of massive increases in resources over the past few years in an effort to suggest that all the problems have been solved. Such contentions do not reflect the reality on the ground. Parents often must pay for their children's assessments while others cannot access respite. Restrictions on carer's allowance continue to be imposed. Many carers feel abandoned and isolated. While the new respite grant announced in the budget represents a degree of admission that this problem exists, it is another example of the provision of too little too late from an economy which makes so much money available through increased tax yields. In the recent Asian disaster, the Irish demonstrated as a people their commitment to those in need by giving voluntarily three times the amount the Government committed. Similarly, the Irish taxpayer would support the Government if it made a genuine attempt to deal with disability once and for all.

In putting together my contribution to this debate, I returned to disability groups. I have in my hand a notice for a meeting next Tuesday night which reads as follows:

People with disabilities, their families, carers and service staff need your support. This year the Government are committed to seeing the Disability Bill 2004 enacted into legislation. The Bill as it stands is fundamentally flawed. Since the Bill's publication last year all sectors of the disability community have expressed their grave concern that it contained little of what had been identified as essential for such legislation. The Government asked the disability community what was needed. They told them but were ignored again. What is more, the funding package announced in the budget falls far short of dealing with current waiting lists not to mention further needs.

The circular reflects the extreme concern of disability groups that they were not listened to. People want to see the disabled looked after well.

I cannot help but refer to the disability group in my constituency chaired by Mr. Dan Rogan which has shown the way on how to best use funds to ensure that people with disabilities are looked after. Mr. Rogan has worked closely with Mr. Billy Davey, an executive of the North Eastern Health Board, to use voluntary housing funds to take over a house in Tiernaneil in north Monaghan to accommodate disabled persons. Staff were provided by the health board. It is an example which should be considered in a national context. They have done a tremendous job and I pay tribute to the work of voluntary groups with locals. A number of housing places have been supplied in a tripartite agreement among the voluntary sector, the health board and Monaghan County Council. A great service is provided for those in need.

I mention this example in the context of a meeting I had to attend in my constituency recently. It was not until I arrived that I realised how great a service was being provided by the voluntary group in question in conjunction with the statutory bodies. Approximately 40 people have been accommodated, some of whom had to come to north Monaghan as facilities were not available elsewhere. I do not blame the Government solely. It was shown in north Monaghan that the voluntary sector could lead the way. Every effort must be made to ensure that those in need are properly looked after.

I am sorry the Minister for Education and Science has just left the Chamber. She raised a number of very important issues in her address to the House. She spoke of how children with special educational needs should be given an automatic response and said this approach had produced a dramatic increase in available supports. She said the total funding for special educational needs this year is €628 million, representing an increase of 12% from 2004. I received a letter addressed to the Taoiseach which was passed to me on behalf of the parents of children attending the Holy Family special school in Cootehill. The school is a brilliant educational facility which caters to two counties. It reads:

Dear Taoiseach,

We as parents of the children who have moderate learning disability, severe profound learning disabilities and autism are extremely concerned about the problems arising due to the lack of space at our school. The situation is now one of crisis. Some of our children are being educated in classrooms measuring 11.9 m2 [nine feet by 11 feet] while the Department of Education and Science has stipulated in a circular that class units should have a minimum space of 55.7 m2. You must appreciate our concerns especially when these small rooms also have to accommodate wheelchairs. These conditions are totally unacceptable.

In addition to the school's cramped conditions, there are also pupils awaiting placement in the school. The number of new children enrolled this year has risen by ten. There are 104 pupils at the school. This far outweighs the number of children leaving. We know the board of management has applied for an extension to the school and this has yet to have the funding sanctioned. This to us is a major priority for our children and the staff. In the meantime, the school has applied for temporary rented accommodation that is some distance from the school and which will also bring its own problems and concerns.

These problems include addressing the various dietary and other needs the children have which require the services of the main school. According to the parents, the temporary accommodation will present many difficulties for children and staff. They are not happy with this state of affairs and seek an assurance that the alternative accommodation will constitute a temporary solution. I emphasise the highest possible standards obtain at the Holy Family school. I know many families in receipt of its services.

The letter to the Taoiseach was accompanied by a personal letter to me which I have no intention of reading. As the families are desperate, I put down a written question to try to help them, but am concerned when I compare the answer I received to the Minister's speech. The Minister replied that her officials were nearing completion of a review of all projects which did not proceed to construction as part of the 2004 school building programme, including the school in question. She stated that all projects were being assessed against the published prioritisation criteria agreed earlier this year with the education partners. I beg the Minister of State to accept that the project in question is a special one for people with special needs which cannot be considered with all the others. It will take approximately €5 million to €6 million over a three-year period to finance the project, and that is the reason I mentioned the total budget available to the Minister to fund education. A sum of €6 million on its own seems significant but out of a budget €628 million, it is not that large. If that sum is spread over three years, it amounts to €2 million a year. The Taoiseach visited that school and his presence was appreciated. I recall Jack Charlton visited that school to open a special classroom. He had an hour to spare when he arrived but, having spent a half hour in the school, he cancelled his appointments for the day and stayed until the school closed. He was a complete outsider but he recognised the great service and facility the school provided. I hope the Minister for Education and Science will understand this case must be a priority. The school cannot be treated similar to all schools. If the Government wants to demonstrate commitment, it must address this case.

I refer to other cases that could demonstrate the Government's commitment to people with handicaps. I came across a young man with spina bifida recently. He got a good job in Dublin but then he wanted to move closer to home for family reasons. He was granted a transfer to a town that does not have a bus service or other facilities. One only has to look at the lad to see he cannot drive a car. One does not need medical expertise to see that, but he has been refused a primary certificate. The system is completely haywire.

An 87 year old neighbour of mine has two handicapped adult children. Her family has suffered many a sad bereavement. She lies awake at night worrying what will happen her children when she passes on. She has had great difficulty getting respite care for them for a few weeks to give herself a rest.

I had a case of a handicapped child waiting for more than year in a small school in County Cavan for a classroom assistant. Recently, well into the current school year, the school got word that it would be provided with a 50% service. The Government states millions of euro have been provided for these services. However, that child was in a special language class in a much larger school and had a full classroom assistant for two years. If the service means anything, the assistant should be transferred immediately.

I and others were fortunate to secure a house for a young blind man on his own beside his place of worship and adjacent to the main road where he can avail of the local bus service. He has made tremendous progress but he needs to make alterations to the house. It would require him buying it but, because of a technicality, the county council cannot sanction his purchase of the house. There has been reference to all the developments that will take place as a result of the legislation but I am afraid it will be tied up in technicalities such as this and, therefore, it will not achieve half of what we would like it to.

The key challenge of the legislation is to put right for the future the continuing wrong that has reduced the life opportunities in Ireland of people with disabilities, their families and carers. It is our duty and responsibility in Government and Opposition to get it right. I hope and expect that the Minister will seriously engage with us in this task on Committee Stage. It is not a solution to just say "no". Every amendment must be examined and we must listen to what people with disabilities and their carers say is necessary. We need to take on board their arguments and suggestions and ensure the legislation is the best possible.

The complaints system is an administrative game of snakes and ladders because it goes on forever. This matter must be addressed so that the complaints system is workable and simple. The Minister referred to international legislation in her speech. However, the European Union has adopted methods to enforce equality as a legal right. People with disabilities want legal rights to ensure they do not have to wait indefinitely for admission to facilities and for the resources needed subsequently.

The legislation requires a great deal of work which we must do together. The Bill, in the eyes of those who understand legislation such as this much better than I, needs to be taken apart and put together again to make sure the best interests of all those it is supposed to serve are served. I have dealt with many people with disabilities as a public representative. Their parents and carers do tremendous work and it is not too much to ask that we should listen to their needs. It will not be possible to put everything they want in the legislation but we should improve it.

That will be done. We will listen.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate on this long awaited legislation. It was originally introduced in 2001 but was then withdrawn. However, the intervening years have provided the Government with a major opportunity to consult extensively on what is required in the legislation and provided people with disabilities, their parents, carers and support groups an opportunity to meet and lobby politicians about the areas they feel need attention.

That happened in my constituency and I refer to a meeting I had with representatives of the Mayo Autism Support Association to discuss their needs in November 2004 following the publication of the legislation. They outlined their experiences, which highlighted a geographical issue among others. The experiences of people in the west, particularly in County Mayo, are worse than in many other areas. The association's representatives stated they received a poor service or in the case of Erris and Achill absolutely no service.

People with disabilities in County Mayo have no problem getting assessed and, in some cases, they were assessed not once or twice but three times. However, following the initial assessment, no service was provided. Parents had nobody to call for advice or help and there is little speech or occupational therapy. The Western Health Board and Western Care, which are responsible for services in County Mayo, have a major difficulty recruiting and retaining staff. The speech and occupational therapy service must be addressed at another level because if this service is not provided, the assessment and sectoral plans will make no difference because professionals will not be available to deliver them at the end of the day. It will be difficult to resolve this problem in the short term.

Many parents, carers and groups at the meeting did not know who was responsible for the educational and health needs of people with disabilities. No support service is provided. For example, if a speech therapist becomes pregnant or ill, nobody is available to cover her area meaning the service collapses completely. The loss or withdrawal of such services is a retrograde step for the individual involved and it is not acceptable because it causes a great deal of hurt and anger among the families affected.

There was also a feeling that once an assessment is conducted and a plan put in place, the individual should have a right to the service proposed. It was also felt inadequate respite and transport facilities were in place and the group was concerned about provisions in the legislation relating to resources and the practicability of providing services. In other words, rather than getting a rights-based Bill they were getting a resource-based one. This was a subject of much criticism.

Last October, before I met this group, I wrote to the Western Health Board to ask it about the services it offered to people with disabilities, and received two interesting replies. The first reply stated that those on the board were all in agreement that the current Government funding levels were inadequate to meet the requirements and that they had made submissions to the Department of Health and Children to highlight this. The other letter, from a person directly involved in the services, said that, unfortunately, the autism service was currently restrained by a lack of adequate resources to provide the level and intensity of supports believed necessary for children and families of children with autism in County Mayo. It went on to say that any help to lobby the Government in that regard would be welcome. The Western Health Board is the same health board that will carry out the assessments and the service plans on individuals under this new legislation, yet it feels its hands are tied due to the lack of available resources.

It is important that our view is balanced. The fact that we are discussing this legislation is a step in the right direction. It is important to recognise the amount of money that has been spent in the area of disability services. I compliment the Minister for Health and Children from 2000 to 2002, Deputy Cowen, who was very sincere in his efforts in the disability area. He announced a package at the time of €220 million for the provision of services for people with disabilities. Again in December of this year, in his first budget as Minister for Finance, he introduced a multi-annual programme of €900 million over 2006-09. This must be welcomed. I am delighted disability groups have welcomed the sincere effort he is making to deal with the issue.

It must also be recognised that there is an allocation of €2.8 billion in the Book of Estimates for the current cost of disability services. This is not an insignificant amount of money and represents a serious increase in the allocation of resources over several years. The sad reality, however, is that we are coming from a low base. Prior to this, services for people with disabilities were so inadequate that as a result we have massive problems in the country.

If we look at the people with disabilities, we see an aging population and improved mortality rates. There are more people getting older who will require these services for a longer time. This will require more residential places and respite services, which are currently inadequate.

A report was produced by the National Federation of Voluntary Bodies, which did an analysis of needs for people with an intellectual disability for the years 2005-08. With regard to the unmet need, it stated that in 2003 there were 2,284 people who were either without a service or without a major element of the service. It went on to highlight the need for day services, residential services, additional supports etc. Despite the fact that there has been a significant increase in funding, there are many needs that are unmet. This is a grave concern. While I welcome the move in the right direction, we must acknowledge that this can be improved upon.

While I welcome the fact that there was some consultation and that the Government showed some flexibility with regard to the preparation of this Bill, it must be acknowledged that it does not go far enough. I hope some improvements in the legislation will be brought about as a result of this debate.

Part 2 of the Bill establishes a right to an independent assessment of need, an individual service statement and redress. The assessment of need is carried out by an officer of the health board. This officer is supposed to be independent and will be appointed by the CEO. Most people in County Mayo have had no difficulty with the current assessment procedure. They can get the assessment, but the problem is they cannot get anything after the assessment. From now the situation will be somewhat similar. The person carrying out the assessment of need will be independent within the health board. The assessment will only cover the areas of health and education. It must be recognised that people with disabilities have many other needs. Admittedly, health and education may be the most important of their needs, but they have other needs such as housing, transport and employment. While this Bill deals with sectoral plans, when those plans are produced and finalised they will have to be evaluated in detail to examine how they deal with the needs of people with disabilities.

To return to the assessment of need carried out by an independent officer of the health board, it will be carried out without regard to cost considerations and will be a true assessment of the needs of the individual. This will create huge expectations. In dealing with parents and people with disabilities, I have found that when they get the assessment of need they feel they know exactly to what they are entitled, yet when it comes to the provision of the service they are caught up by the inadequate resources of the health board and cannot get the service they have been assessed as needing. Now that this right is enshrined in legislation and people will have the assessment within a three-month period from when they apply, people will have huge expectations. I expect there will be much anger among the families who have their needs assessed and ultimately cannot get the required services.

Section 10 deals with the individual service statement. A liaison officer from the health board will be appointed, but will, supposedly, be independent of it. It is not good enough for a person to be declared independent, he or she must be seen to be independent. In a situation where a health board officer carries out an assessment, prepares a service statement and, ultimately, deals with an appeal, we must ask whether the service will be seen to be independent. This lack of independence is the criticism I get most from groups looking after people with disabilities and it should be addressed.

Once the assessment has been carried out and the liaison officer comes to produce the service statement, the problem is that the legislation requires the liaison officer to have regard to the health board budget for that year and other criteria, including the eligibility of the person for the services and the practicability of providing the service. This is the real stickler in this situation. I already mentioned that two letters I received from my local health board stated that resources were inadequate. In practical terms, speech and occupational therapists are not available on the ground. With this Bill we have created an expectation in the minds of individuals and families that once they get their assessment of need they will get the services. Sadly, however, when the health board budget and the practicability of providing the service is taken into consideration, the service cannot be provided.

We hope to see much improvement in the area of resources, but this will not happen overnight. Even if the Disability Bill gave a person an automatic right to what was in the assessment of need, it could not be provided because we do not have the people on the ground to provide the service. How we marry these two factors is a difficult area for the Government. Staffing, in particular with regard to speech and occupational therapy, is a significant problem in County Mayo. Something must be done in this regard. I know children with autism and other disabilities in my constituency who have never seen a speech therapist. In some cases children will be contracted out to attend a private speech therapist for six sessions only. It would be better not to do anything than to provide that level of service for a child suffering from a disability and then stop it. I see significant problems in this area. How will a person with a disability be better off as a result of this legislation, if passed, than he or she was six months ago?

Section 12 deals with records and reports. This is an important measure. The Bill provides that health boards must keep records of the service planning and that these records must be submitted each year to the Minister for Health and Children. I am concerned about the level of service in County Mayovis-à-vis other parts of the country. The only way this will be highlighted on an annual basis will be if the report goes to the Minister and it turns out that a person in my constituency is getting a substandard service to that of a child or adult with a disability in another part of the country, which is unacceptable. I believe that is the situation. My experience is confined to County Mayo where a substandard service is provided. This matter must be addressed. We have many policies on the regions and so on that do not work and we cannot allow it to continue in this area.

There are three stages in the redress process; the complaint, the appeal and enforcement of the plan. Section 13 allows for making a complaint in regard to an assessment or a service. Section 14 requires the CEO of the health board to appoint the complaints officer who will be independent in the performance of his or her function. The problem is that while complaints officers may be independent they must also be seen to be independent. There may be a better way to organise the appeals system so that one would appeal to a body other than the health board. Is it realistic for an officer of a health board to overturn a decision made by another health board officer, bearing in mind that they must both have regard to the exact same conditions in terms of resources and the practicability of providing a service? This issue is a stumbling block.

Sections 15 and 19 deal with the appeals officer who will be independent in the performance of his or her functions and will be appointed by the Minister for Health and Children. Although there is a move away from the health board the jurisdiction still comes under the Department of Health and Children. In effect, everybody dealing with the assessment and service plan comes within the remit of the Department of Health and Children. We could improve on the independence of the appeals process.

The appeals officer is given substantial powers to call witnesses, obtain documents, enter premises and ultimately, if necessary, to secure a search warrant from the District Court. An appeals officer may make a recommendation but he or she has to take into account the same considerations in regard to resources, eligibility and practicability to which the liaison officer also had regard in the provision of the service plan.

I have a problem with section 19, which provides that the determination of the appeals officer will be final and will not be referable to the courts except on a point of law. The entire process is carried out under the remit of the health boards and the Department of Health and Children without any real independence and a person who believes he or she is not getting his or her entitlements can only go to court on a point of law. I consider that a removal of a right from an individual. I ask the Minister of State, Deputy Callely, to inquire of the Minister responsible if anything can be done with this section.

I already referred to the predicament of people who had their needs assessed but, unfortunately, their service plans fell far short of what was required due to a lack of resources. As a result, many people are dissatisfied and angry. Having met many groups and individuals in my seven and a half years as a Deputy, I sense there is a great deal of anger out there. It is very hard to tell the parents of a disabled child that while their child needs help he or she cannot have it because the resources are not available. In County Mayo in particular the resources do not appear to exist and people are not getting any service. I find it understandable that parents are angry when they raise these matters.

Part 3 deals with access to buildings and services. As a member of Mayo County Council I proposed the adoption of the Barcelona Declaration by the council for the provision of accessible buildings for people with disabilities. I am aware that many county councils and urban councils also adopted that declaration but the reality is that while this has been taken on board in principle it is not always put into practice. I have heard it said that many buildings may not be accessible until 2015. We should ensure that all people, able-bodied and disabled, can gain access to public buildings. We should examine this matter as a priority.

The Minister for Education and Science spoke in the House recently about the treatment of children with special needs and how education services are improving for children in schools. I brought a matter to her attention some months ago and she is now carrying out a review in the area of support and resources for children with special needs in schools in view of the weighting system that was to be put in place in September 2005. I am not happy with the allocation of resources based on the weighted system. In particular I am not happy with the allocation of resources for disadvantaged schools in rural areas as opposed to urban areas. I remind the Minister that we anxiously await the outcome of that review. Many schools catering for children with special needs will be in a worse position in September 2005 unless that decision is reversed or seriously amended.

I am aware the Minister is actively consulting on this matter and examining it in a serious manner. I commend the Minister because when she was newly appointed she put her hands up in the House and said that she accepted discrimination existed in this area.

I am also concerned about individual sectoral plans. Assessments will be made regarding education and health but many other areas are also involved such as housing, employment, transport and so on.

There has been little reference to personal assistants although the debate about personal assistants for people with disabilities has waged for many years, especially because many of them were employed through community employment schemes. Unfortunately, once they had completed three years, personal assistants had to abandon their posts. It is important that this would be covered under the sectoral plan. I accept that there is a 12 month period before the plans must be finalised but this area needs to be examined.

The Bill is a step in the right direction. I welcome the significant increase in resources for people with disabilities. I ask that the Minister would focus on some of the points raised because with the contributions of Members on all sides of the House, we will ensure that people with disabilities get a better deal than they had in the past. Certain improvements could be made to the Bill which would be acceptable to everybody in the House.

Well done.

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Callely. The disability area is an extremely important one and at last the Disability Bill is before the House. The previous Bill on this subject came before the House in December 2001 but it was withdrawn because of the opposition of the disability sector. All of the disability organisations were vociferously opposed to it because it did not include basic elements of entitlements that the sector found were necessary for the provision of a proper service. Unfortunately, the organisations in the disability sector that have been involved are also strongly critical of the legislation before us. There is general agreement that the Bill is fundamentally flawed and is lacking in the level of entitlement they expected.

All of us in this House deal with areas of disability in one form or another, be it physical or intellectual. I know a ten year old pupil who is attending St. Mary's Drumcar school for children and young adults at St. John of God, Dunleer, County Meath. Parents of children at the school have just been informed that facilities are no longer available for respite care. They were just told that was it. Respite care had been provided a couple of times a month. Although these young people have severe intellectual disabilities, parents have been told no alternative facility will be provided. This decision will impact on the young people, their parents and families. Significant funding was provided in the recent budget to ensure that services are properly resourced but this service has been withdrawn. I urge the Minister to examine this matter.

The level of funding has been increased.

I refer to St. Mary's, Drumcar, Dunleer, County Louth, where the authorities told parents a month ago that there would be no further respite care for the families, who are all now up in arms. One of the families who contacted me about the issue have a youngster with attention deficit disorder and this development is a serious blow to them.

A young man in my constituency, with whom I have been dealing for a number of years, has an intellectual disability, is hard of hearing and has attended the school for the deaf in Cabra. Services of one sort or another were available to him until he reached 21 years of age. However, he is now 24 and has had no services for the past three years. He has ended up in St. Ita's in Portrane where he remains even though it is totally unsuitable. There has been no improvement in this respect even though we have been fighting for a decent service for him. The resources are seriously flawed in regard to providing adequate and appropriate services for people in need.

That is not a fair reflection of the position.

It certainly is not and his family is furious that they have been fighting for so long trying to get a decent service for him. He entered the education system and had a brief period in a community employment scheme but, at the age of 21, there was nothing for him. There was no employment, further education or appropriate services available to him. There are also other complicated matters to which I do not wish to refer.

What happened to the extra hours which were promised in the budget?

Deputy Finian McGrath's point is a good one because the extra funding which was supposed to be provided has not reached the services for some reason, which is a constant complaint. When will the money, which was supposedly poured in by the budget, percolate down to provide services because it is not in place at present?

It is not just 2005 we should be talking about. Tremendous progress has been made in the provision of services in recent years.

The Minister of State will get his chance to put everything he wishes on the record.

Deputy Costello should be allowed proceed with his contribution without interruption.

I am recounting my experience and that of the people I represent.

The Deputy stated that the case to which he referred has unique complications. I am sure he will agree that it will take some time to put the services——

They are not unique complications.

The debate should not continue on these lines. Deputy Costello should make his contribution.

I just said that there were other complications but they are not unique by any means. That is no excuse for a person ending up in Portrane.

Deputy Costello should address his remarks through the Chair.

It is no excuse when a service has been taken away even though the budget injected new funds.

I do not believe it.

I have just given the Minister of State the details.

The Deputy should address his remarks through the Chair.

There is no sense in the Minister of State saying he does not believe it. Why would I put it on the record of the House if it was not a fact? Does the Minister of State want me to state the case again? I will if he claims he did not hear me.

St. Mary's in Drumcar is a school belonging to St. John of God's and is located in Dunleer, County Louth. The respite care for all the parents of the children attending the school has been withdrawn since January 2005.

The Deputy is referring to the previous issue.

I do not know where the Minister of State is coming from.

A third example of problems concerns an old lady whom I encountered today. She has serious mobility problems and cannot get a place in St. Mary's, Phoenix Park, because it is full. She has a serious physical disability and has no toilet or central heating in her house. She is seriously ill and yet there is no possibility of getting her into a residential care place, which is a basic service. I attempted to deal with the problem today but no service is available. What will happen to this woman? These are examples of the position at present.

Will the Minister of State check to see what has happened to the funding promised in the budget? I acknowledge the substantial increase in funding for the disability area in the budget but is it percolating down to the service providers? This seems to be the problem because I have been told the money is not being provided. People are still waiting for funding to come through but it has not yet done so. Why else would a respite care place be withdrawn? Why else would adequate services for a young man or a residential care place for a person in need not be available?

It is neither today nor yesterday that the debate began on this issue. The Commission on the Status of People with Disabilities was established in November 1993 with Mr. Justice Feargus Flood in the chair.

The usual wide consultation took place and the commission drew up a strategy for equality with 402 recommendations, which we discussed in the House on a number of occasions in the past ten years.

Recommendation No. 9 of the commission's report reads:

A Disabilities Act should be introduced which sets out the rights of people with disabilities and means of redress for those whose rights are denied. The Act should outlaw all discrimination against people with disabilities and should require public and private bodies, employers and educators to make reasonable accommodation to meet their needs.

I am not sure if this Bill has fulfilled the recommendations of that report.

The Long Title of the Bill sums it up where it states that this is "An Act to enable provision to be made for the assessment of health and education needs occasioned to persons with disabilities by their disabilities". In other words people have a right to an assessment of their health and educational needs. The Title continues on to say that it is "to enable Ministers of the Government to make provision, consistent with the resources available to them". Immediately the Bill has undermined the entitlement already referred to. When is an entitlement not an entitlement? One either has an entitlement or one does not.

The Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Hanafin, informed the House earlier that everything was hunky dory and that she had all the special educational needs personnel in place. However, one must still obtain assessments from the private sector if one is to have all the youngsters in a school assessed. There is a huge waiting list of principals of primary and secondary schools waiting to have children assessed. They cannot get them assessed through the State system because not enough qualified people conduct assessments. This means they must buy in the service if they have the money to do so. If they do not, they must simply do without it. This approach has been ingrained once again as it is consistent with the resources available to the principals and their obligations in regard to the allocation of services to meet the needs of people with disabilities.

The Bill also provides for appeals, complaints and so on. It provides for a flawed system which is not much different from anything we have had before. It provides for a commitment to provide the service but this is immediately cautioned by the need for resources. If the resources are not available, the services will not be provided. One can appeal the matter or make a complaint, for which there is a mechanism. Once the assessment is carried out, one goes to a liaison officer who seeks a provider of the service in so far as is practicable as section 10 states. However, no progress has been made in this area as there is a backlog of service requirements. Unless the commitment is phenomenal, we will not get the results people need and youngsters will fall through the system. Even if the needs assessment is delivered upon, the services will not be there to back it up.

The issue of prisoners' health, education and employment are again in the news. An Agreed Programme for Government states:

We will complete the programme of expansion of appropriate care places for people with disabilities with, in particular, the ending of the inappropriate use of psychiatric hospitals for persons with intellectual disabilities.

What has happened to this commitment? There is much to be found wanting in this area. The programme also states, "We will increase funding for the full range of open and supported training and employment schemes for people with disabilities." Again we must wait to see if this promise will be delivered. The programme states: "We will complete consultations on the Disabilities Bill and will bring the amended Bill through the Oireachtas and include provisions for rights of assessment, appeals, provision and enforcement." While the right of assessment is included in the Bill, the right of provision is subject to the availability of resources. When one looks at the fine print, the rights of assessment is subject to the same caveat, meaning this is not a rights-based Bill. The programme further states, "We will expand the income limits for the carer's allowance so that all those on average industrial incomes can qualify". This could be dealt with in a meaningful fashion in the provision of resources. The best people to care for anyone, elderly or disabled, are the family and neighbours but they do not have the financial back-up to do so. The Government should not have expanded the means-testing for carer's allowance but eliminated it. If it was abolished it would create categories of carers, willing and anxious to provide care that would be better than any offered by State service or institution. If the Government acted on this meaningfully, with one real action, a huge difference could be made.

The programme for Government states, "We will legislate for the achievement of the employment quota for people with disabilities in the civil and public service." Is legislation coming through to ensure this? Dublin City Council may have achieved the 3% quota in this regard, but I am aware of no other Department or public sector employer which has done so. Legislation must be introduced to achieve this promise.

The entitlement of people with an intellectual disability in a prison environment is in need of attention. It seems not to be improving but deteriorating. Many Members will have seen last night's "Prime Time" programme, dealing with the Central Mental Hospital and the prison system. It indicated there was a large increase in certificates being granted that resulted in people being involuntarily transferred from prison to the hospital. They were then subject to receiving medication against their will, effectively being denied their rights. The number dealt with in this capacity has increased enormously in the last two years. Is that a sign of equal citizenship? How can the Departments of Health and Children and Justice, Equality and Law Reform connive to deprive prisoners of their rights in this manner? There is no review mechanism. The argument was made that the prisoners are psychotic and, therefore, cannot consent to whether they wish to go to the hospital. Many of the prisoners transferred and certified as insane are not insane. Yet they are transferred to the Central Mental Hospital and subject to medication against their will. Their rights are undermined as they would have been 100 or 200 years ago. This is not progress. There is no provision in the Bill to change this.

The issue was raised on the Order of Business to which the Tánaiste, in reply, referred to the Criminal Law (Insanity) Bill. That Bill has been around since 2002, resting in the Seanad. Like much of the legislation from the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, it seems to hang around for a long time. When will it be updated so that prisoners will have the same rights as other citizens? In last night's television programme, the authorities claimed that as there are now more clinics in prison, they are discovering more prisoners with mental handicaps. That is putting a good gloss on the matter, as if the authorities are doing something beneficial. Last year 295 prisoners were transferred to the Central Mental Hospital. None had a say in the matter. They are simply certified as insane, irrespective of their situation.

Much work has to be done in this area. The proposal to locate the Central Mental Hospital on the same site as the new prison shows us the direction of this policy. Will the Minister of State at the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy Fahey, allow the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to rule the roost on the location of the Central Mental Hospital? Approximately 35% of the hospital's patients have not gone through the court system. There is no reason to have it located on prison grounds.

There is more to be desired in this Bill. I am delighted the budget will provide new resources for the area. However, those funds must go to those providing the services on the ground. I hope the Minister will accept amendments to make the Bill more rights based.

I am pleased to have an opportunity to speak on the Bill. It is important legislation and, as most people said, it came before us in a different guise in 2001. It is a shame it has taken so long to come back to this House. I am aware people have varying views on how it deals with the issues they want addressed.

When one considers the whole issue of disability, it is a case of thinking "There but for the Grace of God go I" because some people are born with a disability and others acquire a disability. Very few disabilities are equal in severity, therefore, to find an all-embracing Bill to deal with each type and level of disability, and the variations, is difficult at the best of times. No one understands the situation as well as those who are close to people with disabilities. Any of us might need the protection of this legislation in the future, therefore, it is important to examine it and how it can be maximised to advance people with disabilities and to be instrumental in sustaining progress in the longer term. This is not legislation in isolation. Significant funding supports it. It has been recognised on all sides of the House that there has been a massive increase in funding.

How to distribute resources on the ground is sometimes the biggest issue. We have given in to despair in the past. I recall being in this House when the Minister for Education was Niamh Breathnach. People alluded earlier to the fact that the Minister for Education and Science suggested that everything is rosy in the garden. I came to this House on a number of occasions to argue a point about remedial teachers with the Minister at the time. I tried to give my version of the statistics, but "lies, damn lies and statistics" was the phrase used in reply, because the Minister's statistics were completely different to mine.

At that time, everyone wanted their children assessed so that they could prove they had a disability such as dyslexia, dyspraxia, Fragile X or whatever was the challenging behaviour or the educational issue. Some 72% of schools in Donegal were supposed to have access to remedial teachers. One teacher appeared to be doing rally driving to five or six schools, therefore, her actual time in any one school was minimal. Thus the number of children being dealt with was also minimal. This was not a reflection on the remedial teacher, it was a reflection on the numbers involved. Nationally, one was talking about hundreds, whereas one is now talking about thousands of people. The argument that was used at the time was why be assessed if a service is not available. The crux of this Bill is similar — why be assessed if the services do not exist to deal with the outstanding issues.

However, time moves on, and time has moved on in respect of remedial teaching. Many more children now have remedial support. Not only have they remedial support but they have classroom assistants, resource teachers and other support mechanisms. I am citing this aspect in order to balance the equation.

Deputy Costello criticised the respite grant. The respite grant did not always exist. The Minister, Deputy Dermot Ahern, introduced it. It is one of the most important supports for people who are under serious pressure 365 days of the year. It can be a very tough station. People survive out of love for the person for whom they care. The respite grant and the availability of some help is very important. I welcome the changes in the recent budget in regard to the respite grant.

I do not believe that if the carer's allowance is not means tested it will fall into the hands of people who will abuse the system. Anyone who keeps a person at home, regardless of their means, does so for the right reasons, therefore, they deserve the support of the carer's grant. However, I am pleased the respite grant has been separated from the carer's grant.

This Bill is just one element of the strategy. I recognise the difficulties some people have with the Bill. However, the fact that it is just part of an overall strategy is very important. I had people coming to my constituency clinic who had just found out that their child who was approximately 14 years of age qualified for domiciliary care allowance and was eligible for various supports. It annoys me that this information is not made available to people following the birth of a child. At birth or around the age of two or two and a half is when disabilities such as autism are identified. Perhaps disabilities such as deafness and so on cannot be identified at birth. However, in this age of communications and technology, there should be a system in place whereby people are informed of their rights. The work Comhairle does has improved the system. It is terrible to think that in this age of technology people are still not fully aware of their rights and entitlements. These people often work very hard just to keep the show on the road. It is not the case that there is no support, it is just that people are not aware of the support available to them.

In many instances people had to go to court to ascertain their rights. The bottom line is that if one goes to court to ascertain one's right to be assessed for disability, while one can insist that one has a right to receive speech therapy, occupational therapy or whatever, professionals are not always available to provide the service. We must examine how we can entice more professionals into training. When I was on the health committee, we examined the whole issue of orthodontistry. Trying to get people to train in orthodontics was quite a feat. The previous Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Martin, worked very hard on this issue. Results cannot be achieved overnight because it takes years to train people. However, we must try to find ways of enticing professionals into the country and retaining them so that the regions get their fair share of professional expertise. Whether through Hanly or whatever, this is the key aspect. If people are assessed and told what they require, the next step is to be able to get professional help for the individual and maximising the services that are in place.

I look at this issue from my perspective. In a region where many professionals appear to be available, they are on the wrong side of the Border. When one lives as close as I do to an alternative system, and one can see that professionals are often available, I would like to see the maximisation of an all-Ireland health facility. This happens in the case of the North Western Health Board more so than it does in the case of other health boards. If we have the means to trade professions and professionals, we should maximise that facility.

I acknowledge the fantastic work being done. One of the obvious examples is Scoil Íosagán in Buncrana for which the Bill is all about integration and trying to minimise segregation. The principal of that school has been outgoing and forward-looking for a long time. On the site of the primary school there is a number of classes for moderately and profoundly disabled. The initial class was for the moderately disabled. One of my first battles in this House with Niamh Breathnach involved trying to get the classroom assistant for the profoundly disabled class when it was set up. I had been told that the classroom assistant was to be moved from the moderate class to the profound, leaving the moderate with no support.

The school has moved on and now there are multiple autism classes in there. Last week, with the support of the Government, we got money for the bus for ICARE, the support group for autism in Inishowen. We had great fun because some of the children got on the bus and would not get off after the photographs were taken because they liked it so much. They wanted a little tour and got it. They got their treat and then we returned to the school.

One can say the Government should be providing such services and that we should not be taking credit for the fact that those people got what they needed. Yet there is a strong working relationship between the support groups and the local community, so it was a big community event for this bus to be launched. There was a sense of fun and of people all being part of one community, as opposed to having the disabled or the service providers and users on one side with the people who did not need the services on the other. A St. Valentine's ball is being held on 12 February to further celebrate the fundraising and the community spirit of ICARE.

The Taoiseach also opened another major development at Cashel na Cor. This was an old Fruit of the Loom warehouse where people decided to create a facility for young adults with disabilities who had moved out of the education system but wanted to stay in education and access sheltered employment opportunities. This too was a combined effort between the support groups, the community and Government. The facility is second to none.

There are also groups in Moville looking to progress pre-school supports and after-school links to the community because in many places, especially rural areas, people, particularly young people with a disability, must move out. From Moville they have moved to places like Malin and Carndonagh to get their pre-school interaction and education. They do not build up a relationship with children of the same age in the town, so the groups I mention are moving to develop facilities. The capital expenditure is important there as is the support for those people to develop those systems.

In Carndonagh we have the Friends of the James Connolly Hospital. The late Margaret Canny, who died this year, did superb work there in maximising services for the disabled and the supports for service users. Julian, who is now in charge of the hospital, has been maximising those services too.

In my area we have groups such as Moville Mental Health and many others working with the health board. Regarding the disabled in my area I have had very positive interaction with the health board personnel. There are certainly issues outstanding but the health board personnel are more than helpful and are open to the concept of new ways of training. When ICARE started it was looking for ABA — applied behavioural analysis — supports and got assistance in that area.

Someone approached me recently who had attended a homoeopath in order to get support for a child. When the person tried to claim the expense back from the Revenue Commissioners using the Med 1 form, the person was told the local general practitioner would first have to agree. The GP however said that as a result of a decision by the Medical Council, or so I understand, homoeopathy services were not to be supported in that way. There may be an issue there. If one tries to use alternative supports there may be a block there which needs to be addressed. I would like that followed up.

Many people are in home situations with a young, adult or elderly disabled person, so they are exercised to do something about it. By going out to do voluntary work they then involve the community. It is important to generate community awareness of what a disabled person can encounter. A simple example is the issue of access to buildings. I agree that 2015 seems a long way off for full disabled access to buildings, but it would be good if there were a community emphasis in each locality. If a bank is not accessible by the disabled and the local community were to express its unhappiness at its friends being unable to enter, it might move ahead long before 2015. Such community activism must be fostered and encouraged.

To plug the Joint Committee on Arts, Sports, Tourism, Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, we launched a report last week on volunteers and volunteering in Ireland. People from many walks of life appeared before the committee and some were involved with the disability sector. The Minister and his officials might take note of the recommendations in our report because they have regard to the core of volunteering, of getting people involved initially and of retaining them, as well as dealing with funding. One of the major issues confronted by anyone seeking funding is the variety of sources of funding, with people sometimes falling between stools. We are looking for that to be streamlined. I can refer the Minister to the volunteer report without going through the details now.

Deputy Flynn mentioned the issue of independent living and the one to one initiative. The decision on the community enterprise schemes and the ring fencing of scheme places for the disabled was an important step. The notion of people having to give up their posts after three years was ridiculous since it often took a year to find a person for the post. Because it is such a one to one issue, trust must be built up and other issues dealt with. By the time a person got used to the person with them the time allowed was nearly gone. The move to change that has been important and I want to see it continue and expand. Many people want to be able to do more than they are credited for and can do so if given a little support.

Many people contacted me regarding this Bill. One person welcomed the increased focus on the rights and needs of people with disabilities along with the recent announcement by the Government of the €900 million multi-annual funding package, which the person suggested would go some way towards addressing the underfunding of services and support for people with disabilities. This person went on to say that while the funding is an important and significant development it only solves part of the problem, with much more needing to be done to ensure people with disabilities can truly become equal citizens. Some of those who contacted me focused on the lack of the right-based definition and I said I would express their concerns. They are annoyed that while they had unanimously agreed issues with the Government, they now feel there are many obstacles to accessing support because of the way the Bill is structured.

As I said at the start, though it might not look perfect now, it may evolve positively, and I underline that. I am disappointed the Minister is not here. He answered a letter that I had forwarded to him from a person in my constituency that outlined many of the concerns Deputies have raised about the Bill in the House. He has said that he has noted the concerns and will examine them in the context of further consideration of the Bill on Committee Stage and so on. It is a landmark, and it is important that it be part of an overall strategy; it cannot be taken on its own. The sectoral plans must cross all the Departments. Most issues that come before this House depend on a multi-departmental response. That has not always happened, and I would therefore like to think that this is the start rather than the end of a process, and that those involved will gain confidence in it.

However, the biggest issue is how we get those professionals on the ground to enable those who have had their assessment and are happy with it to get the requisite resources. That cannot be done by a click of the fingers or overnight. The strategy to get more professionals into the system must be moved forward or we will be headed nowhere. This important Bill has the potential to move in the right direction an issue that has long awaited such support.

I wish to share time with Deputy Ferris.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

This legislation once again represents a squandered opportunity. There was a chance to contribute handsomely to an inclusive society where disabled people would be accorded some semblance of equality. Unfortunately, the story has remained the same, since they are still excluded from being equal citizens. Disabled people expected to have the same enforceable rights as everyone else. Why should they not, and why should such people as Kathy Sinnott have to go to court to secure basic educational rights for their children? Effective legislation should encompass positive rights that can be enforced and also duties and responsibilities that can be placed on public and private bodies that provide services to the public. The idea is to remove the barriers, placing disabled people centre stage, or at least, if at all possible, giving them greater equality.

However, they are not equal. At the time of the 2002 census, only 26% of people with disabilities in the main working age group of 20 to 64 years were in work, compared with 70% of the rest of the population. There is no excuse whatsoever for that. A booklet issued by the Disability Legislation Consultation Group is entitled Equal Citizens: Proposals for Core Elements of Disability Legislation. It appears the Government was going to do everything right. It ensured that the DLCG came into being. It wrote to everyone and got everyone on board, but what has come out is certainly not what is in that book. The book shows the signposts. If there were a breach of this legislation once enacted, that should be construed as discrimination under the Equal Status Act 2000. If it were so construed, it would be under the remit of the Equality Authority and the Office of the Director of Equality Investigations. These too are lost opportunities.

It is true that the Minister for Finance, Deputy Cowen, has provided substantial funding, but that was easy, since he was coming from a low base. Will it be sustained? The Bill allows wholesale opt-outs for Ministers to get themselves off the hook. When funds are scarce, the disabled are certainly those who suffer, and this Bill ensures that exactly that will happen. The independent assessment of need is a joke. Health and education are certainly covered, but what about housing? If one does not have a place to live, what good is education? What if someone has to wait three years to get an assessment to find out his or her housing needs? What good is that? The form that we will have to fill out is a massive document.

The recommendation can be appealed to an appeals officer, but that decision is final and can only be appealed to the High Court on a point of law. It is clear the Bill is an attempt to do people out of their right to go to court. Parents want to secure those rights for their children, but they cannot, since there is no appeal except on a point of law. It would appear there should be a right to an advocate, but not to the type of advocate who might secure equality to disabled people. There is no right to a legal representative, which is a usurpation of civil rights under EU law. The legislation exists, and we have signed up to it. Where is the fair representation and where is the equality? There is certainly a strong case in terms of EU law.

All the appeals take place within the realm of the service, denying people their right to independent assessment. People are paid by the same bodies, and he who pays the piper calls the tune. There is no mechanism to resolve that, and the system is very biased. The control of the assessment, complaints and appeals system lies with the Health Service Executive, raising major questions about how this legislation is to work. One should hear the Mayo Autism Support Association in my county. They can tell one exactly what is happening. They are crying out for the rights-based legislation for which they had hoped and for medical cards for family members with autism. The Department of Education and Science and the Department of Health and Children seem to have no joined-up thinking on what this is all about. When it comes to sorting out the person with the disability or autism, responsibility is passed from one to the other; they are tossed between Departments. There is a total lack of occupational and speech therapists, and a lack of respite care. Schools must examine their policies towards children. Where is the joined-up thinking that is needed for those people? It is simply not there.

In the Disability Bill 2004, there are so many opt-out clauses that it will seriously impair disabled people from accessing services. The Government does not even have to provide services under the Bill if it is deemed too impractical or costly in the context of available financial resources. Phrases such as "not possible or practical to provide", "appropriate allocations", "availability of resources" and "budget priorities" clearly outline the Bill's commitment to ensuring that those with disabilities receive the necessary services. Why should disabled people not expect to be treated equally with able-bodied people so that they can fully participate in and contribute to society? It is a crying shame that the Bill offers only conditional rights that depend on the State and the public finances. It falls far short of the rights-based legislation that everyone had hoped for and for which various disability groups had campaigned. It flies in the face of An Agreed Programme for Government 2002-2007's solemn undertaking to include provision for enforceable rights of assessment and appeals on service provision. That has been utterly abandoned.

Section 6(2) of the Bill deals with interpretations, stating that

In the definition of ‘‘disability'' in section 2, ‘‘substantial restriction'' shall be construed, for the purposes of this Part, as meaning a restriction which is permanent or likely to be permanent, results in a significant difficulty in communication, learning or mobility and gives rise to a need for services to be provided to the person continually.

The rub lies in the word "continually". Someone who is blind would not qualify under this legislation. It could be enormously restrictive regarding those who may receive an assessment or service. Most people who require access to a product or service will need it on an occasional or regular basis but rarely continually. The whole definition of disability is far too narrow, excluding episodic conditions and early intervention needs. It appears to be attempting to divide and conquer the disability community. A young man seeking services, speech therapy or special teaching aids is left waiting. He is not realising his potential and will not do so. A great opportunity has been missed.

Unfortunately, people are suffering because of that. In the past, early intervention has proven to be the key to the effective remediation of a person with disability. We have all heard the saying, "a stitch in time saves nine". In the same way, early and effective intervention in the early stages of a child's development will often preclude the necessity for considerably more expensive intervention at a later stage, but that is not happening. People, like the young man to whom I referred earlier are being left on the shelf, so to speak, at a stage when the child's condition would be infinitely more pliable in that remedial and rehabilitation therapy would work. In the longer term it would prove financially viable, which comes back to the value for money everyone seeks. That is in the Bill but not in what is being proposed.

Section 7(1), which deals with assessment of needs, states that assessment officers will be appointed by health board chief executive officers. That is not independent assessment. The assessors must be independent of the organisations that eventually will have to provide a service.

Section 7(b)(ii) states that the assessment report is confined to health and educational matters but it must relate to all the needs of the person and not merely health and educational matters.

Speech and language therapy is another important area. Many people are awaiting those services but services in Ireland are just playing catch-up, and that will continue to be the case for years to come. In 1975 in the United Kingdom, the Quirk report on speech and language therapy provision recommended that the optimum minimum requirement for this service was one therapist per 10,000 of population. If that were applied to the Republic of Ireland, it would represent a basic need for 310 therapists in 1975 — almost 30 years ago. However, in the latter end of the 1980s, 23 years after Quirk reported, our total complement here was a mere 95 speech and language therapists. Is it any wonder we cannot get speech and language services or that people who have suffered strokes are languishing without that service? Is it any wonder that children are languishing without the essential services they need to give them a chance in life? I understand the current complement of therapists is approximately 170. That is a disgraceful figure 29 years after Quirk's report recommended more than 300 therapists. That is the type of shoddy service the Bill is bringing forward, and I fear for its implementation and the future of services for the disabled.

The withdrawal of services provided by special needs assistants and resource teachers in schools continues apace. Croke Park was barely emptied after last year's Special Olympics when Department reviews of special needs assistance and resource provision began in schools. Inspectors were delegated to sit in school rooms and preside over the dismemberment of a service that, for the first time, had given pupils with learning disabilities a chance to catch up. That was a pruning exercise and a gung-ho approach by the Department that was totally unacceptable.

We have the farcical situation where a child in sixth class was notified on 26 June that he had been granted resource hours, despite the fact that he had long left the school. The practice of informing parents that these services were being withdrawn after schools had closed for summer holidays was sneaky and reprehensible and something of which the Department should be ashamed.

The Bill also ignores the needs of people with disabilities who are not sick and who have left the education system, such as those in employment or those seeking employment in the open market. The assessment also fails to cover the needs of a parent or guardian who is supporting or caring for the person with a disability. Their needs should be included in the Bill also.

Under section 10(1), regarding the service statement, the health board will nominate the liaison officers to write the report. Those liaison officers must be independent.

Section 10(6) requires the liaison officer, in the preparation of a service statement, to have regard,inter alia, to “the practicability of providing the service”. The woolliness of such terminology would appear to confirm its insertion as another opt-out clause for the State’s responsibility in service provision.

The proposed complaints system requires simplification. It must be made more accessible and user friendly since its very complexity would pose enormous difficulties for many parents. Under sections 14 and 15, complaints officers, appeals officers and mediation officers will be appointed by the health board chief executive, the Minister and the appeals officer, respectively. They must be independent. The appeals system must be truly independent of the Department of Health and Children. Otherwise, how can it retain the confidence of parents?

The Bill's claim that the assessment and appeals procedures are independent is literally firing out the seeds of hope but, unfortunately, it is also hoodwinking people into believing that these procedures are truly independent. The position is that the Bill does not provide a clear right to a genuinely independent assessment of the disabled person's needs, and that must be a prominent feature of the finished legislation. The Bill fails to provide for a child's unmet needs as identified in the assessment, the independence of which is questionable, on an annual basis or as changing circumstances would require.

The provision of disability specific resources should be clearly ring-fenced. People with disabilities deserve and are entitled to nothing less. It is not a case of services being granted at the grace and favour of a Government, the Department of Health and Children or appointed officials but, rather, the civil and human rights of those persons who have to cope with enormous difficulties in their daily existence.

Public agencies catering for the wider needs of disabled persons, such as housing accommodation, do not appear to have been provided for in the Bill. Both statutory and non-statutory bodies that provide public services must be accessible to the disabled. After all, disabled people need a house to live in and lifetime adaptable housing is something that could have been provided for in the Bill. That would have been easy to do and would have meant so much to those people in the future.

The development of sectoral plans across six Departments would appear, at first glance, to represent a significant response to the complex and varied needs of disabled people. I propose the appointment of a Minister of State with responsibility for the affairs of the disabled. That would represent the most effective vehicle for the co-ordination and implementation of the sectoral plans that transcend six Departments.

This could have been a Bill for all sides of this House and civil society to rally round and welcome. It could have been an example of international best practice and a source of national pride. Instead, it is an occasion for anger and despair. Many people with disabilities in this State, who were optimistic that the Government had got the message after the last occasion, feel completely disrespected by this Bill and this Government. They have come to the conclusion that the PD-led coalition has no intention of ensuring that people with disabilities assume their rightful place as equals in our society.

Sinn Féin shares this sense of outrage, and we are not alone. The scope of dissatisfaction with this Bill is immense. It can be seen not only from the serious concerns raised by the Human Rights Commission, the Equality Authority and the Twenty-six Counties National Disability Authority but also the dozens of disability groups, large and small, which made impassioned submissions to the Joint Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights since the Bill was published.

The Disability Legislation Consultation Group, the very group the Government invited to allegedly guide its approach to this new legislation, has, after its good-faith engagement in negotiations, failed to yield results. It identified ten fundamental flaws in the Bill. They are as follows. The definition of "disability" is too narrow and will exclude people from protection. Contrary to Government claims, it does not provide a clear right to an independent assessment of needs. It makes no provision for an individual person's right to progressivity on their unmet needs.

The system of complaints is too complex and is not independent. It does not provide for ring-fencing of disability specific resources. It does not impose a clear statutory duty on Departments and all public bodies to make public policies, plans, programmes and services accessible and fully include people with disabilities, and the sectoral plans are not an adequate substitute for that. It is in conflict with the Equal Status Act and undermines pre-existing protection for people with disabilities. That alone should provide enough justification to scrap the Bill as proposed.

The Human Rights Commission believes that some of the Bill's provisions also conflict with the European Convention on Human Rights, now incorporated into our domestic law. There is no onus to even review the operation of the legislation for effectiveness.

The Taoiseach and the Ministers concerned are well aware of these and literally hundreds of other specified critiques that have been levelled at the Bill by many thoughtful people who have the most to gain but also the most to lose. This cynical Government knew of these concerns even before the Bill hit the printing presses.

The consultation on the Bill was a sham and the launch of the so-called national disability strategy was just another Government PR spectacle, a shiny object dangled to distract attention from its total lack of commitment to real rights and real progress. However, the people have not been fooled. The Disability Federation of Ireland has continually argued that good intentions are not enough and that we need to get it right. There must be a seismic shift in attitudes. This would require compulsion, it must be legislated for and can no longer be left to discretion and patronage. The DFI is correct. The Oireachtas has a choice: it can endorse the Bill and maintain thestatus quo, thereby obliging people with disabilities to remain second-class citizens and petitioners on the margins of society; or it can reject it and introduce better legislation which offers full inclusion.

Sinn Féin Deputies know where they stand and they reject the Bill because they have a vision for a very different future. We want a fully accessible Ireland of equals where all people with disabilities can reach their true potential as individuals because society will no longer disable but will rather enable them. This will also be an Ireland where disability rights lawsuits will be rare, not because the Government will have blocked legal avenues for redress but because it will have listened, fulfilled its statutory duty to promote equality and inclusion, committed resources and affected profound social change.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate on this important Bill which affects a large number of people. The Bill should be rights based in nature but, unfortunately, it raises more questions than it provides answers for about real guarantees for people with disabilities.

This Bill came before the Dáil on a previous occasion and had to be withdrawn. I thought the Government had learned its lesson and had engaged in major discussions with many of the groups involved in this area. All of those groups and every person with a disability requested that the legislation be rights based. The Government has failed to give these people their rights. There is no doubt the Government has not learned its lesson. It has, however, learned lessons about spin doctoring. If the same level of resources, effort and discussion had been invested in the Bill as has been invested in the process of spin doctoring, people with disabilities would have no concerns.

Ours is a sad and sick society. We have had ten years of unparalleled growth and it is an indictment of us that we cannot cater for the need of the less well off in society, namely, people with disabilities who find it difficulty to survive on a day to day basis. Is it not sad that, in light of the amounts of money floating around the economy, we cannot put resources in place for people with disabilities. The people want us to put such resources in place. Everyone witnessed the terrible tragedy that occurred in south-east Asia during Christmas. The Irish people indicated to the Government and the world their desire to provide help to those who need it. People with disabilities need the support of the State. The people do not object to paying their taxes, particularly if they are used to improve the lot of individuals with disabilities. They have proven, through their generosity, that they would not object to the Government putting resources in place for people with disabilities. All that has been forthcoming, however, is this flowery Bill.

Ministers and their PR people have put a spin on the legislation for the benefit of the media and the public and informed everyone about how wonderful it is. When my party has access to the resources, it will ensure that they are spun towards those with disabilities. What happens when the resources are not provided? When it appeared 12 months ago that, for the first time in ten years, the Exchequer would not meet its target and that cutbacks would be needed, the money for those on social welfare payments was reduced. These people are the most needy in our society.

I would not mind if the State had no money. However, it has money and I could find it for the Government in two minutes without placing a burden on those who pay tax. First, I would target those who do not pay tax. I refer to the tax exiles who live outside this country and who fly here to attend race meetings, all-Ireland finals and other sporting events. These people use this country as a place for enjoyment and pay their taxes elsewhere. However, they should be obliged to pay tax here. There is then the horse breeding industry, members of which do not pay tax. Who needs the money most, Alex Ferguson, taxpayers or people with disabilities? Members are familiar with the name of the horse, Rock of Gibraltar, which nearly brought down Manchester United Football Club. However, the horse was not important to the case which revolved around not having to pay tax and the profits involved in the horse breeding industry. The money can be found without an additional burden being placed on existing taxpayers. All we need to do is tax those who can afford to pay.

I have attended many public meetings at which people have protested. I attended a number of meetings in Castlebar on the subject of autism. In many cases, parents sent apologies for not attending. They were not able to be present because their children needed 24-hour care and they could not leave them at home. One could see, on the faces of those who did attend, that they were frustrated and worn down by the fact that the State had not provided them with the support and services they required. Shame on the State and on the people in power, who will not provide such services. All these people are seeking is a small measure of assistance and support from the State and that their children, particularly those with autism, are provided, at the right time and in the right place, with the education they require. If the latter occurs, these children will be able to adjust to and enter society.

Some of the people to whom I refer find it difficult to obtain the most basic services. I will provide an example. Last week a woman who had attended an orthodontic surgeon visited my clinic. The surgeon in question told her that she should go home and that she might be dealt with in 25 years' time. He also stated that he could guarantee that her child would not get gum disease until he or she reached 85 years of age. That behaviour, from a public servant, was insulting. The surgeon — I do not know whether he has a vested interest — then handed the woman a list of private orthodontic surgeons who operate in the area and stated that she might be able to avail of a tax break in respect of the treatment. If we do not ensure that our services are rights based, that is the type of treatment people will receive.

Another issue to which I wish to refer is speech therapy. I understand that there are 170 speech therapists in the State. If these people go on holiday or take sick leave, they cannot be replaced because there is no one available to stand in for them. Speech therapy is one of the most basic of services and there are not enough speech therapists here, particularly in the west. When a therapist leaves the service and enters the private sector, the State finds it difficult to recruit replacements because it does not offer the same level of salary that can be earned in private practice. That is why the service must be rights based. If it is, when a need for speech therapy is diagnosed the person involved would have the right, when the State cannot provide the service, to employ someone in the private sector and oblige the State to pay. If we had such a service, the woman to whom I referred earlier would not have had to listen to smart answers from a public servant who is probably earning €300,000 or €400,000 per year from public and private practice.

People whose children are autistic are obliged to fundraise to send their children abroad to obtain the services they need. I attended a particular meeting at which the people present were lovely and decent but they were also frustrated. They believe they have been left behind by the State, that there is no back-up or support. Is that not sad when we see the level of resources at our disposal? Governments are throwing out money to spin doctors, programme manager and advisers. We see wastage such as that in my county where a new school had to be re-roofed after four years because people had not done their work properly as regards the public service. I would ask that the Bill be withdrawn, but I do not want to do that, because there would then be nothing in place for people with disabilities. However, I urge the Government to be fair to these people and to put the proper amendments in place on Committee Stage. I ask Members from my party to table the necessary amendments to ensure this Bill is rights-based so that people do not have to beg for services.

People come into my clinic who I immediately recognise as having difficulty in getting services for someone for whom they are caring. They are under stress, trying to rear other children and to pay a mortgage and they see the State letting them down. The State has let people down as regards disability in other ways. A quota arrangement was in place whereby a certain number of people with disabilities were to be employed in the public service. Why does the State not prosecute the public servants, councils, health boards and any of its agencies that do not have their quotas in place? Why is the person in charge not sacked or removed from his or her position? If that was done in one county council, health board or Department, I can guarantee that there would be an immediate reaction and the quotas would be filled quickly. If the law states that each Department must take on a certain number of people with disabilities, and if that is not honoured, then action must be taken. If the State will not do it, how can we expect the private sector to take on these people? Action should be taken against the people not doing their jobs, in every Department, county council and health board that has not obeyed the law in this regard.

I have listened to people talking about resources. There will always be people seeking more money for this, that and the other. I challenge the Government to recognise that the electorate wants people with disabilities to be looked after. We have the resources and the money and what is now needed is the will of the Government to deal with this. There is no doubt that every single Member of the House would welcome this Bill if it was rights-based. I urge the Government, even in this, the 23rd hour, to put such an initiative in place. There is no point in saying that if the resources were in place, they would be spent. The Minister for Finance in his budget speech, told us about all the money that is to be put in place for people with disabilities. Another Minister of Finance told us about decentralisation, a year ago. It did not happen. We have had Ministers telling us about all the money to be put in place for infrastructure. It did not happen. I have never heard a Minister for Finance telling the House how much was to be spent on programme managers, advisers or PR, but that money was spent.

I want the people I represent in Mayo to have the services they need. They are not looking for big things. They simply want resources for early diagnoses as regards children so that ailments may be detected at an early stage. They are looking for intervention, but first of all for diagnosis. They want the services and back-up to be put in place for their children of school-going age. In addition, they are seeking a degree of respite for parents caring for children with disabilities. Is it not a simple matter to give someone a break who is under tremendous pressure 24 hours a day, seven days a week? The least we can do is give such people a little back-up by putting the resources in place to give them some respite.

The other matter I am concerned about is job opportunity. It is only right that some of these people get a chance in life and that jobs are made available for them. Fianna Fáil has always been great for jobs for the boys and girls. Can we not have jobs for people with disabilities? That would be the right course in this case.

The Bill is before the House is not the legislation people with disabilities or the public wanted. The Irish public has shown, in the way it has responded, that it wants to look after people that should be taken care of. There is still some Christianity left. The public wants to see people with disabilities getting the services they need. People do not mind their taxes going towards that. Are we not a poor society if we cannot take care of the people that need looking after in this State? This country and Government are great at lecturing on how matters should be dealt with abroad. Let us start at home and take care of the people that need to be looked after, namely people with disabilities. They have waited long enough.

We can say that the resources were not there 30 and 40 years ago. The resources are there now and there never was so much money. Tonight we have the debate on the Dormant Accounts Bill, or what I call the slush fund for Fianna Fáil. Let us take that money. It is neither Fianna Fáil's nor the Government's, but belongs to the people. Let us use that money for people with disabilities. Let us be serious and give them resources instead of promising this or that six months before a general election and delivering here and there. People would love to see that Dormant Accounts fund money being used on people with disabilities.

I have identified where the Government can get the money — from the super-rich not living in the country. The media will not print anything about them because many are involved in business themselves. They are outside this country and lecturing us. It reminds me of Bono who is having two big concerts in Dublin. He should take the money from those concerts and give it to the most needy. It would not mean a thing to him because he will recover it the following day on his music rights. I am proud of U2 as an Irish group, but Bono is great for lecturing. I challenge him to use the money from the concert in Croke Park and give it to charitable organisations abroad or at home. It would mean nothing for him to do that and I hope he will.

I am glad to have spoken on this Bill. I hope the Government will take on board the opinions of the groups it has met, those involved with people with disabilities. They are only looking for their rights and that is a simple matter. People with disabilities do not want to be treated differently. All they want is their right to proper access and services and for the State to treat them equally. That is all I am asking, for people with disabilities.

Shortly before Christmas I received a phone call from a friend. He was in great distress because he has a disabled son in St. Mary's, Drumcar. He had to have an operation, but could not arrange it until he was sure respite care was on offer for his son while he was in hospital. The problem was St. John of God's, Drumcar was told its funding had been cut. It could manage its own budget but would have to cut back on respite care. This man was in much distress. However, eventually St. Mary's, Drumcar was very helpful and arranged for respite care for the son while the father was having his operation. This was very important as it meant there was continuity of care from the home to the institution.

I attended another meeting in Drogheda during the week with 50 parents and about 50 carers. They were working with children at home who had disabilities and many of whom are now adults. All of them were concerned that the respite care facility, which had previously been available to them in Drumcar, would no longer be there. One lady claimed the cutback for St. Mary's, Drumcar was around €250,000, which is less than the money paid to Monica Leech Communications. The lady stated that if that money was spent in Drumcar, the carers and parents of children with disabilities would not have had to convene the meeting. The parents involved met with the Minister for Health and Children yesterday but I am not sure of the outcome. A big song and dance is made about improving services and about more money for disability, yet the Government is cutting back on existing services. It is not possible to plan new services for disability unless the existing services are sustained and improved.

There is a lack of concern at the heart of this Government. There is a challenge to meet the needs of disabled people in society and to listen to what groups are saying. I have a letter from the Disability Legislation Consultation Group from 13 January. It claims it sought a meeting with the Minister. It expressed a clear view that the next meeting with the Minister and her officials should be to hear the Government's comprehensive response to the ten key issues of concern on the Disability Bill, which were presented to her on 27 October 2004. Over 11 weeks have elapsed since that meeting and extensive consultation has taken place in the interim with those represented by the group. The group went on to state that it finds it unacceptable that an official response has not yet been issued. A full response in now required as a matter of urgency. The disability group is saying that it is not happy with the Government's response to its needs. Surely 11 weeks is long enough time for the Government to formulate its views and it should meet the group. The Government should be knocking on the door of the group's chairperson, Ms Angela Kearns, giving its response and what it proposes to do.

For many years, local authorities have had a less than excellent record in the area of disability. How many footpaths in our towns, cities and villages are broken or in disrepair? How many elderly people are not able to walk at night on these footpaths? Local authorities need to take a hard look at what they need to do to make all of our footpaths accessible to people in wheelchairs and to other disabled people, as well as young parents who are pushing prams. It is not possible in Drogheda to go from one end of the town to the other because not every footpath has a ramp. The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government should introduce a scheme where he would reward local authorities that excel in the area of provision for disability. That would help improve the profile of this particular need.

Many people come to politicians asking about the disabled person's grant. The problem with the grant is that different counties run it differently. Some counties are better than others in the provision of this money. There is an amount of money which each local authority must commit to disability and then matching funds come from the Government. Nevertheless, that is just not good enough. Proper provision ought to be made by the Government so that regardless of where one lives, it is only one's need that matters. If one meets the requirements of the application, there should be no need to have differences based on the geography of where one lives. The health boards work with local authorities in the provision of this grant. Louth County Council has been unable to process applications for occupational therapists due to the shortage of therapists in the health board. One is told the council will look at the application as soon as an occupational therapist becomes available. It is not good enough and there is a need for joined-up administration in that area. Occupational therapists make a report, which goes back to the health board and from there to the local authority. It is all just bureaucracy. We need a one-stop shop for the disabled person's grant, be it the health board or the local authority. Once a person applies, the application should be dealt with by one organisation only. The involvement of both health boards and local authorities leads to unnecessary delays and bureaucracy. Meanwhile, the disabled person is waiting, wondering and worried. In many cases, they are not able to look after themselves in their own homes. They have to get out of the acute hospital bed because their medical needs have been met. Yet the reality is that they cannot live in comfort in their own home until the disability is dealt with and until the structures are in place to meet their needs.

The reason we have so many people on trolleys in our hospitals is because there are no beds available. This is partly because existing patients, who are often well enough to go home, do not have the facilities to deal with their disability. The absence of these facilities leads to this continuing problem.

A primary medical certificate is issued to someone who is almost completely incapacitated. The test involved is very difficult. The health board will recognise that a lady has had a stroke, cannot use her right hand side, cannot use her left leg but can use her hand, so therefore does not meet the requirements of the primary medical certificate. One will then have to appeal and wait six months before anything can be done. People who apply for the primary medical certificate very rarely get it and it puts much pressure on families for the provision of transport for affected individuals. In the modern world, this is totally unacceptable.

The other question on disability concerns the care of the elderly. We have many elderly people in our society. The North Eastern Health Board rejected the budget because of the significant reduction of 80,000 home help hours, which the then Minister, Deputy Martin, approved. The community was not prepared to accept that such reduction would take place but it did.

If our health strategy is to be meaningful, it must have a community care strategy. There is much talk about acute hospitals but if the investment was made into community care and keeping people at home or allowing them to go home from hospital, we would get better value for money. It would also provide a higher quality of life for people. We should increase our contacts in the community, particularly with the elderly and the sick. The Government's policy in this regard is disgraceful and must be reconsidered and revamped.

More people in our society are living longer and, as they get older, the incidence of disability will increase. A proper strategy is required to deal with this but there is no such strategy at present. Consider people who have suffered a stroke. Often they are unable to communicate but they and their families will confirm that they need physiotherapy or speech therapy. However, they cannot get such therapy. When somebody has a stroke and is sent home, nothing further happens. There is a lack of continuity of care.

These people have a disability that is not being looked after. There is no provision of services for stroke victims. Many people die as a result of strokes but if there were a more proactive and interactive relationship between the health services and stroke victims in terms of care in the community, especially speech therapy and physiotherapy, it would make a significant difference.

A man who came to my clinic recently had bruises on both hands. I do not know what illness he had. He badly needs physiotherapy but he cannot get it. The waiting lists are phenomenal. We should encourage more young people to opt for those careers. Some years ago I researched the issue of speech therapy in Ireland. I discovered that Trinity College is the only college in the country that trains speech therapists. Students required seven or eight As in the leaving certificate to qualify for the course in the first place, which seems ridiculous, and the college could only take 30 or 40 students per annum.

The reason for the limit was that the students had to be given placements in the community with existing speech therapists and the system could only cater for that number at the time. I do not know if it has changed but a more dynamic approach is required to providing more speech therapists. There must be more speech therapy places and it should be easier for people who wish to do the course to qualify for it. However, that is another issue. Setting such a high barrier in academic standards, whereby practically nobody can qualify to do the course, does not make sense.

My main concern at present is that one of my constituents has been lying in a hospital bed in County Louth for three months awaiting a neurosurgery bed in Beaumont Hospital. Beaumont Hospital would be delighted to admit the person but the person has MRA so the hospital cannot do so unless it has a special room available. Unfortunately, that room is already occupied. My constituent is getting the best care the hospital can provide but she cannot see a neurologist. Her disability is, therefore, getting worse. Notwithstanding the efforts of the hospitals concerned, nothing is happening with her case. She must remain where she is until somebody in the special care unit either passes on or goes home. The lack of provision in the health service for people who suffer an illness and whose condition will worsen unless they can see a specialist is a damning indictment of the lack of resources provided by the Government for the health service.

Everybody welcomes this debate. Most Members of the House have spoken on this Bill and it is important that they do so. I hope the Minister will take on board the points we make. There is increased funding provision in the budget but more is required. The Government must listen more to the disability groups and not keep them waiting more than 11 weeks for a meeting.

How easy is it to come into this House if one has a disability? One must use the stairs to get into the House. If one has a disability, it is practically impossible. We are the legislators yet we do not provide an effective and easy access system into the Chamber. What will the Minister do about it? The issue must be addressed. There have been changes and improvements but that fundamental improvement has not been made. Let us get our act together as well as sorting out the other problems that exist.

This Bill is long awaited. I wish to make some general comments on the disability sector and to comment on the Bill's provisions. These arise from discussions I have had with disability representative groups who are concerned about a number of aspects of the Bill.

I welcome the genuine indications that the Government has a new found concern for, and commitment to, the disability sector. The Disability Bill is an important part of the national disability strategy launched last September by the Taoiseach. There are four parts in the strategy — the Disability Bill, the Comhairle (Amendment) Bill 2004, six sectoral plans and a multi-annual investment programme for disability services. In the budget we have seen a new and strong commitment to setting aside significant funds for investment in the disability sector, although clarity is still required about how that money will be spent. I presume we will receive such clarification in the coming months.

The most important element of a disability strategy is the legal commitment and legal rights given to those living with a disability. The cornerstone of a disability strategy must be a comprehensive disability Bill which satisfies representative groups, as well as people living with a disability, with respect to their rights. The principle behind legislation in this area must be that disabled people have the same right as everybody else to maximise their ability, through education, assessment if necessary and through work, to live as normal a life as possible. To ensure this is the case, the State must take on a legal responsibility in a range of areas, including access, early intervention, treatment, support and ending a mindset of discrimination that clearly exists, which is less pronounced than some years ago but which still requires a Government strategy.

I was fortunate to be asked to speak at a disability forum in UCC recently. It was a sober reminder that people living with a disability do not seek anything extraordinary. They simply demand the right to get the necessary assistance from the State to allow them to live as normal a life as possible. Normal things such as living, working, training, socialising and something as simple as going from one's home to one's shop if one happens to use a wheelchair, are things the State must attempt to facilitate in a more proactive manner than it has done to date. While this debate should never be about charity, many voluntary organisations that provide services to people with disability appeal to people's charity much of the time to finance their activities. As far as the State is concerned, the issue should be honouring people's legal rights and fulfilling commitments based on those rights.

As the UCC forum was centred on access to the workplace, it is shame the Minister of State with responsibility for this area has left. Perhaps I should have started with this part of my contribution. Approximately 10% of the population is affected by disability. When one considers that only 2% of the student population is affected, one starts to realise some of the challenges we face. When one discovers that between 60% and 80% of adults with a disability are unemployed, one begins to realise the extent of the challenge faced by the State. It is not an easy problem to solve through legislation or investment. Despite the fact that unemployment among the general population is down to approximately 4.5%, if one happens to be someone living with a disability, one is likely to be among the 60% to 80% who are unemployed. It is understandable that people who live with disabilities are finally standing up to say this is unacceptable and to demand their rights and access to the workplace where possible. They are not asking for anything extraordinary.

The spectrum of case studies with which we dealt at UCC was a reminder of the very broad spectrum of disability the State must address. One person speaking about the difficulties of the workplace was partially sighted, another was dyslexic, another was in a wheelchair, a fourth was deaf and the fifth was suffering from depression. While this is the range of the spectrum with which the Bill should deal, when we come to consider its definition of "disability", we will see that many of those people are left out.

The fact that the Disability Bill is before the House is welcome given its shelving in the past. The Bill was taken off the table three years ago when we could not get agreement on it and there was a general election in the offing. Tonight's debate allows the Opposition to focus on the many welcome aspects of the legislation, for which I commend the Government, as well as its unacceptable provisions. There are many aspects of the Bill that require adjustment, amendment and change. I hope the Government is willing to consider on Committee Stage the amendments tabled by Members including Deputy Stanton who has done a great deal of work in this area. Many representative bodies have already been very critical of the Bill and expressed their frustration in contacts with Opposition and Government Deputies.

I turn now to specific comments on the text of the Bill. As I have mentioned, there is a real problem with its definition of those people to whom the legislation is relevant. The definition must be broad enough to encompass the vast majority of the 10% of people who have a disability. Instead, the Bill provides that people must be substantially restricted in capacity. What does that mean and how will we define such persons? According to the Bill, a person must have an enduring disability. If a person who has suffered a stroke is on the road to recovery, can he or she be defined as having an enduring disability? Politics aside, many people with disabilities are seriously concerned and have asked directly whether they come under the terms of the legislation. I have been unable to give them a straight answer because, quite simply, I do not know. If one adopted a very restrictive understanding of "substantially restricted in capacity" and "enduring disability", one could leave out the vast majority of people. While I accept that it is especially difficult to define "disability" due to the massive range in the spectrum, the Government must do a better job than it has. As the main Opposition party, Fine Gael will propose an amended wording it hopes the Government will consider constructively.

There is a general concern at the use throughout the Bill of the terms "subject to the availability of resources", "where practicable" and "practicability". These hedge and restrict many of the Bill's positive elements. While the Government says people have the right to an assessment, which is very welcome, it also provides that the plans health boards must put in place to facilitate assessments will be subject to the availability of resources. On one hand, the Government is telling people what they want to hear, but on the other it says if it cannot afford to do assessments, they will not be carried out. The credibility of the legislation is, therefore, called into question. While it uses the terminology people want to see and grants the right to an assessment which has been sought for a very long time, we cannot be sure if a system will be implemented as it is subject to the availability of funds and, or, practicability. As Deputy O'Dowd pointed out earlier, there are staffing difficulties across the country which complicate the implementation of occupational and speech therapy assessments. A level of honesty is required in the context of the welcome and important right to an assessment as outlined in the Bill.

It is crucial to carry out early assessments as disabilities develop over time. If a person is lucky enough to be assessed, he or she receives a services statement which outlines the services he or she requires from the State to live with his or her disability. While that is welcome as it means people will at least know what they need, the problems arise when it comes to providing the services in question. Such provision depends on the availability of resources and whether it is practicable. While the recent budget encouragingly set aside significant resources for the disabilities sector and persuaded people that availability will not be an issue in the next few years, the Government must reassure people further and ring-fence money for certain areas.

I am concerned about the services statement, for example, in the case of a five-year old with a severe speech problem. If he or she receives the assessment to which he or she is entitled, a services statement outlining the treatment he or she needs is issued.

However, there is no requirement on the Department to provide an update of the service statement in two, four or six years' time. The lack of a progressive policy of assessment is a concern. In other words, the progress a child makes between the ages of five and eight needs to be measured given that, in the meantime, the treatment he or she requires could have changed. Assessments must be conducted continually as the disability changes or as other disabilities develop, particularly in the case of children who suffer from development co-ordination disorder. Different problems emerge at different ages and new assessments are required. However, under the legislation the individual is entitled to only one assessment. The Minster of State is shaking her head and I hope I am incorrect. A progressive regime must be put in place so that people with disabilities can see what is happening as their circumstances change throughout their lives.

Many practical examples have been given regarding access to buildings. The Bill proposes that all public buildings should be accessible from the outside by 2015 but we should be more ambitious than that. It is all well and good to have access to a building but the ability to move around within it also needs to be addressed in the legislation. Issues in this regard include the location of fire exits and moving between an office and a cafeteria. For example, if somebody confined to a wheelchair is elected to the next Dáil, how will he or she be able to vote? People with disabilities who are participating in the workforce have raised these issues. The onus on the private sector in this regard should be increased. The Government has a responsibility to co-ordinate with local authorities regarding what is acceptable in the planning and design of buildings owned by private companies.

There is also a concern that no effort is being made to address housing needs in the Bill. If a person with a disability is on a housing list, is he or she considered on the basis of his or her needs? My experience as a local authority member is that no special criteria are applied for the adaption of houses, which is required by people with disabilities.

There are positive examples of Governments amending disability legislation when they listened to Opposition concerns and I hope that will be the case with this legislation. For example, the Education for People with Disabilities Bill became the Educations for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2003, which reflects the change in thinking between the time it was introduced by Government and its enactment. The Minister responsible, Deputy Noel Dempsey, deserves credit. I hope there will be a similar change in mindset on the part of the Minister and his advisers and that he will take on board the legitimate concerns of the Opposition. Most politicians do not like playing politics with disability. They want to make genuine changes so that more positive developments take place and I hope that will be reflected on Committee Stage.

I refer to two projects in Cork, which offer a substantial, valuable service to people with disabilities and their families. Neither project has been mainstreamed nor are they in receipt of funding on a consistent basis. The CABAS project comprises a school on the grounds of Ashton Comprehensive in Cork, which uses the ABA as opposed to the teach method. A valuable one-on-one service is provided for children affected by a broad range of autistic disorders. I appeal to the Government and those interested in disability in education to mainstream funding for a project that has proven itself to be extremely successful for many of the children in attendance. Children require different treatments and education strategies. ABA works for some while teaching works for others. The Department must introduce flexibility to mainstream both educational streams.

The other project is a development co-ordination disorder, DCD, unit in St. Finbarr's Hospital, Cork. A multidisclipinary team provides valuable treatment to young children primarily who have difficult disabilities and face physical challenges. The team comprises an occupational therapist, a physiotherapist, a speech therapist, a general practitioner and counselling and support staff for those who face mental challenges. The unit is working superbly and, instead of being under threat of closure, it should be used as a template elsewhere because of its phenomenal success. The professionals involved are constantly worrying about where the next tranche of funding will come from instead of concentrating on what they should be doing, which is providing treatment. For example, the parents of these children are holding a St. Valentine's Ball to raise money. The neglect of such projects, which are a proven success, by Government needs to cease. We must stop being afraid of projects being a victim of their own success. If DCD units are opened in Tralee, Galway and Limerick, parents will bring their children. Successful pilot projects should be mainstreamed in other cities, instead of the participants being afraid of success.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate. I have a long association with people with special needs. The Bill affords us the opportunity to have a lengthy discussion on disability. Even though the legislation has not met our expectations and those of many representative groups, we still have an opportunity to improve it. Many Members, including Government backbenchers and representatives of disability groups who appeared at the joint committee hearings have stated this Bill, although welcome, can be amended and improved. I appeal to the departmental officials to ensure the issues raised passionately by many speakers are taken on board.

We have been all well briefed on this legislation and most of us have been better briefed on this legislation than on most other Bills. We have had the advantage of the hearings in the House, so we know what the various representative groups think. Therefore, we have an ideal opportunity to improve this Bill.

Debate adjourned.