I preface my remarks by wishing the best to Pope Benedict XVI. I hope he has a long and successful pontificate.
The Disability Bill before the House is fatally flawed. It does not meet the needs of people with disabilities. What this Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrats Government does not appear to fully realise is that this Bill was introduced to provide for essential services to people with disabilities to which they should be entitled. Instead it merely offers false hope that these services will be made available. Essentially, there are no guarantees for anyone in this Bill as everything is qualified by being subject to the availability of funding. On that basis, Fine Gael will oppose the Bill at every Stage until that fundamental flaw is removed and people with disabilities receive a guarantee that, at a minimum, essential services will be available to them.
My real concern at this stage is that this Government has no intention of making any of the major changes necessary to ensure the provision of quality, responsible and appropriate services to people with disabilities. For that reason, Fine Gael has prepared more than 100 amendments for Committee Stage but only the Government can transform this mean-spirited Bill. There are some basic aspects of the Bill that the Government must tackle if that mean-spirited tag is to be removed.
We must bear in mind that the Bill, as it stands, excludes more people with disabilities than it includes. Resource constraints are littered throughout the Bill and the assessment, appeals and complaints procedures are excessively over-bureaucratic.
I mentioned the problem about amendments. It is a procedural problem because under our rules the Opposition is not allowed to bring forward any amendments that would have the effect of imposing a charge on the Exchequer yet these amendments are necessary to guarantee the Bill will provide for people with disabilities essential services to which they should be entitled. Only the Government can make the fundamental amendments required to transform the Bill into legislation which will enable people with disabilities to become equal citizens of this prosperous state.
The Bill is the cornerstone of the national disability strategy announced by the Taoiseach and six Ministers in September 2004. The Government has an unenviable record of producing major plans with great fanfare only to shelve them gradually as more urgent, short-term political priorities arise. The national disability strategy forms part of that record. As the Bill forms a defective foundation, the rest of the strategy is falling apart. No one is in charge of ensuring it fulfils its announced aims and the proposed legislation will not provide a bulwark against which it can be developed. The Taoiseach does not have a co-ordinating role and it is unclear what the Cabinet sub-committee on social inclusion will do.
The Disability Bill is the responsibility of the Minister of State, Deputy Fahey, while the Comhairle (Amendment) Bill is the responsibility of the Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Brennan, who with the Ministers for Health and Children, Transport, the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Communications, Marine and Natural Resources and Enterprise, Trade and Employment are in charge of so-called "sectoral plans". The Minister for Finance, Deputy Cowen, is, of course, looking after the money. Given that what is everybody's business is nobody's business, involving nine Ministers is a recipe for a pass the buck outcome.
It will be several years before new standards for services for people with disabilities are set. The Minister for Health and Children has passed responsibility to the Health Information and Quality Authority, a body which has not even been properly established under what is euphemistically called the health reform programme. Even the Tánaiste admits it will be several years before standards can be applied. Frankly, this is unacceptable. The Disability Bill and the national disability strategy are in crisis which only the Government can turn around. It must decide what level of social exclusion it finds acceptable for people with disabilities in 21st century Ireland.
The Bill has been discussed extensively by many of my colleagues and I do not intend to plough the same furrows. It is clear the definition is far too narrow and that the commitments set out are subject to resources. There are get out clauses scattered through the legislation. It reminds me of the many commitments to overseas aid made in the House when what were generally Fianna Fáil Party Ministers stood up to propound their absolute, undying commitment to the Third World and the 0.7% of GDP UN target. It was always set out in the small print that we would attain the UN target when resources permitted but a safety hatch was always constructed in the context of overseas development aid. We are still a long way from reaching the UN goal. The approach of the Government to disability provision is analogous to that to overseas development aid.
If one wishes to make an absolute commitment to the disabled, one provides for it in legislation. No absolute rights have been provided for the disabled in the Bill. It does not even contain an absolute right to an assessment of need. Even if one obtains such an assessment, there is no guarantee that one will receive any support in a statement of need.
I urge the Government to engage with the Opposition constructively to improve the Bill. We accept it will not reach the end of the rainbow overnight but there are many improvements it could make if it engages with us. If it does not, we will be left with legislation which will place the disabled in a worse position. The Government must meet this challenge.
I was greatly impressed by many of the submissions on the Bill by those speaking on behalf of the disabilities sector and by many disabled persons. A submission which struck me as absolutely compelling in its advocacy of a decent Bill was that of Mr. Olan McGowan of the Irish Wheelchair Association. We should all bear in mind his sentiments on the Bill as formulated and those of others like him. He referred in his submission to the prosperity of the Ireland of today and discussed how it had developed. He said prosperity did not occur in a vacuum and that it could be reasonably argued that our new found confidence underpinned it and our achievements to date. Despite this, he submitted, the group in Ireland presented as the greatest threat to its prosperity and the section of the community which we are told will destroy the economy if its demands are met is, unbelievably, people with disabilities.
While it is easy for us to speak about the Bill in the abstract, its provisions will be of crucial importance in the years ahead to the lives of the disabled and those who speak on their behalf. Mr. McGowan asked each Member of the Oireachtas to reflect on the Bill and consider if it represented the way we would like to see Irish citizens with disabilities treated in this day and age. It is the central point of this debate and it is not political. I am concerned that someone who speaks passionately on behalf of the disabled does not consider the Bill to reflect the way in which he and many others wish to see Irish citizens with disabilities treated. Mr. McGowan asked what was it that prompted the body politic to set the bar of what was possible so incredibly low in the context of disability. We must ask whether we have properly reflected on the question. Mr. McGowan made it clear that nobody with a disability expected everything to be handed over on a plate. While he accepted that was not possible, he asked if the disabled were incredibly naive to expect a Bill which pointed the way to a future in which equality of opportunity was attainable. He said bluntly that the Bill's provisions pointed in the opposite direction.
I am concerned that the House does not acknowledge Mr. McGowan's message and urge the Government to listen to him. While I cannot change the Bill while in opposition, I can tell the Government that we have a duty to listen to people and amend the Bill to create decent provisions. Mr. McGowan said the Bill did not reflect who we were as a people but the belief Ireland was an economy first and a society second. It protects the economy at all costs while coldly accepting the pragmatism of inequality. He raises the issue and accepts the fact that members of the Government have waxed lyrical about how lengthy the consultation process was and that the legislation is unique. The punch line is — what good is consultation if the voices and recommendations of those consulted are ignored? What good is legislation that places existing and completely inadequate Government policy on a statutory basis? In other words "we can give you what we feel we can, when we feel we can and after we take care of everything else". As I understand it, that is the well-expressed and broadly based view of most people who are disabled and of most people who are involved in organisations dealing with and speaking on behalf of the disabled.
Mr. McGowan then raises a most interesting point. He refers to the fact that there are countries not far from Ireland that do not need legislation because it is a matter of social policy to give disabled citizens what they need to participate in society. He also raises what has to be the crunch question as far as the Government is concerned, which I raise on his behalf in this House: what level of social exclusion is acceptable in 21st century Ireland?
I address that question to a Government that continually propounds our economic strength. Mr. McGowan also refers to the significant amounts of money in the Exchequer. On that basis, with what level of denial of dignity and human rights is the Government comfortable in order to insulate itself from any perceived threat to the comforts of our economic status quo? It is up to every Member of the Oireachtas to show where he or she stands on disability issues. This is the Government’s last chance to indicate how genuine it is on accepting the need for real and positive change. It is also the Government’s last chance to highlight whether it was just going through the motions in talking to representatives of the disabled or was genuinely and sincerely listening.
This raises the question of whether the Government is genuinely seeking to implement legislation that reflects the economic strength of the society in which we live. We must address the need for us to be more forthcoming in terms of putting some of that economic strength towards the needs of the disabled to give them an opportunity to participate with equality of opportunity as far as possible in society.
The debate has continued for several days and Second Stage will draw to a conclusion this evening. I deliberately stayed away until I had listened to the debate and talked to people involved in the area of disability. Eventually I felt it was time to say bluntly that the Bill will not do. It is not acceptable in its present format. It is a complete disappointment as far as people in the disability sector are concerned. On that basis it should be a complete disappointment to us all. The proper course of action for us in the Fine Gael Party is to oppose the Bill. We will table a number of amendments to it in an effort to improve it. We will do so within the constraints and procedures of this House.
If the Government insists on pressing ahead with Second Stage, I plead with it to engage constructively with the Opposition and to be prepared to try to improve the Bill in some decent way. If that does not happen, the Government will be seriously letting down the disabled in society.