Disability Bill 2004: Second Stage (Resumed).

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

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 economicstatus 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.

I welcome the Bill and congratulate the Minister of State, Deputy Fahey, for the good work he has done on it. The Bill builds on the groundswell of public opinion towards disabilities that manifested itself in the participation of members of the public when the Special Olympics was held in Ireland in June 2003. We must re-examine our environment and try to make a society that incorporates disability access to all new buildings, parks and play areas. We must move away from the mentality that just because a public building has a wheelchair accessible toilet that we have done our bit. For far too long the disabled have suffered from the indignity of having access to our public buildings through a back door or along a ramp attached to the side of the main entrance. The Bill will help to transform that mentality and will widen doors for wheelchairs so that entrances to buildings will be accessible to all.

Everyone craves independent living. It is regrettable that it is only now that we are seeking to enshrine the rights of the disabled. However, we must look forward rather than back. The Bill heralds a new beginning for the disabled in Ireland. I hope it will be a cornerstone in building a country that is truly independent and enshrines the right to independent living for all.

In a technology-driven society and economy such as ours and particularly due to the great advances in the biotechnology industry, it is crucial that we as a Government seek to develop sustainable long-term employment for people with disabilities. This will be a long-term project requiring great investment by educational institutes as well as employers in general. Special emphasis must be placed on innovation for the disabled as well as providing technology that would make life easier for the disabled. In doing so we should encourage employment and boost industry.

I congratulate the Galway County Association and the Brothers of Charity for their great work in providing services for people with special needs in County Galway. There is currently a great need for an activation centre for 15 young people aged over-18 in Ballinasloe. These teenagers have finished their course in a resource centre that caters for young people up to the age of 18 years and they do not have anywhere to go to continue to develop their skills. I ask the Minister to intervene and provide funding for the project and provide a site through the Health Service Executive on St. Brigid's Hospital land.

The Irish Wheelchair Association's centre in Tuam is providing a great service but it has ongoing problems with funding personal assistants and providing in-home services. Most personal assistants are FÁS employees and the system does not allow for the same people to remain in the job for more than three years. This causes a great deal of stress to clients who are in need of assistance and who have to bond again with new assistants.

The Bill is a positive action measure that includes several important rights: a right to an independent assessment of health and educational needs to be undertaken without regard to cost or capacity to supply the services; a right to a related service statement setting out the services that can be provided within the resources available to the health or educational service provider; a right to redress through an independent complaints and appeals mechanism, including ultimately enforcement of decisions through the Circuit Court. This structure gives statute-based systems for assessment, service statements, redress and enforcement.

Of particular notice is the fact that people seeking services must be allowed to give their input to the assessment process. Special liaison officers will be appointed who will help communicate between individuals and the relevant public bodies. The redress system is similar to those applying for planning permission, employment, equality and social welfare matters.

The Comhairle Bill introduces personal advocacy for vulnerable people with disabilities who may need assistance in accessing social services. The plans are published in outline form with the Bill and will be the subject of consultation with interested parties before they are finalised. This gives details of services as they relate to people with disabilities and points to the future developments that will facilitate co-ordination of actions across sectors and will involve people with disabilities in the process. There will be plans for six Departments: Health and Children, Social and Family Affairs, Transport, Environment, Heritage and Local Government,Communications, Marine and Natural Resources and Enterprise, Trade and Employment.

The Taoiseach has committed the Government to a multi-annual capital and current investment programme in the forthcoming Estimates and budget. Already the Government has spent approximately €2.5 billion on disability support services, including welfare payments, in 2004. This is about 7% of gross current expenditure on the service across the sector. It is important that all moneys go to the people with disabilities and are not spent in courts, proving cases. An independent appeals officer, somebody with no ties to the health boards, should be appointed. I ask the Minister to consider this, perhaps on Committee Stage. Provision of an appeals officer is critical for any modern assessment system. It provides for a necessary series of checks and balances and is crucial for public confidence in the new measures being introduced. Provision of an independent appeals person would provide openness and transparency to the system, for assessment and service statements.

The Bill will bring about the dawning of a new age. All children born with disabilities will now have the types of opportunities that were denied to previous generations. This can become a society that not only engenders equality, but which in time may be a role model for Europe. With so many advances in construction and technology within the economy, by bringing forward this legislation I hope the changes will make us leaders in this area for the future, as regards providing conditions that allow people with disabilities to live independently. Provision of services should take into account at all times the special position the family holds in Ireland. All provision of services must recognise that the first provider of care, in most instances, is the family. Often families make enormous sacrifices to ensure independent lives for their disabled. State agencies therefore need to ensure they are extra sensitive towards the needs of the families of the disabled.

I welcome the Bill, overall, because it gives people the resources and opportunities they need to live life with dignity and have access to quality public services that underpin life's changes and experience. Every parent in this position, on getting older, asks who is going to care for his or her son or daughter with a disability. We can now assure them that the State will cater for them. I welcome the Bill.

I choose to make my maiden speech in Dáil Éireann on the Disability Bill 2004. It is one of the most important Bills to come before the House in recent years.

I want my first formal speech to be a positive one. I would like to be able to praise the legislation and welcome its provisions. A proper Bill should have the capacity to transform the lives of people with disabilities and their families. It would give hope of social inclusion to people who have experienced exclusion for too long. While I welcome the Bill's publication at last, its problems are all too obvious.

Let us be clear on what is needed in a disability Bill. It should give rights to people with disabilities. We need adequate responsive services to allow people with disabilities to participate as equal citizens in Ireland. These services should be there when people need them and all disabled people should have access to them. The barriers we place in front of people and the attitudes we have to their participation are more disabling than any impairment they may have. A Bill is needed that removes those barriers. We need a Bill that empowers, that is honest about what is possible. It must be practical. We need a Bill that allows for services to be provided on a temporary or ongoing basis, depending on the needs of the individual. It should be a Bill that assists people with mental health difficulties. It should expand employment opportunities and ensure access to transport and buildings for the disabled, on an equal basis.

It is a sad fact that this Bill does not fulfil these needs. Try as we might to be positive, the flaws in the Bill are all too obvious. The definition of disability is too narrow. It includes only those in need of continuous services. It traps people in the old medical model of disability while all progressive opinion suggests they should be part of the social model. The definition is good news, not for the people with disabilities, but for the Exchequer. The Exchequer will have to pay less if fewer people qualify and there is less demand. The definition saves the State money. Is that what was intended?

People with disabilities who are not in need of continuous access to services, have no protection and no right to services of any type. For example, blind persons in full time employment, living independently and not in need of continuous services, are not recognised as disabled in this Bill. How can the Bill protect the rights to any type of services at any time if such people are excluded by the definition? If one has a disability that is not included in the Bill, it is not much good.

Many people are prisoners in their own homes because of the special needs of their particular loved ones. I think of parents who are too old or too feeble to travel, carers of adult children with severe behavioural difficulties. Will the Bill help them or their children? The Taoiseach, I am told, said at the launch on 21 September 2004, that the national disability strategy showed clearly our intention to put a programme of action in place to support and reinforce equal participation in society by people with disabilities. The Tánaiste said she believed that those who had advocated change for quite some time, would see, in the legislation, an honest attempt to get it right. I would tell the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste that good attempts are not in themselves enough. We have got to get it right. There must be a massive shift in public service delivery all around. There has been an enormous change in attitude. I have just spent an intensive period during the by-election in County Meath knocking on doors. Families poured forth to me on doorsteps in every parish, village and street as to how they feel let down by the State in their attempts to cope with disability in their homes.

The experience of one neighbour's child was typical. This young man was born with cerebral palsy. His parents, through their tremendous efforts, with little or no State support, taught him to walk and to talk. He made such progress that he represented Ireland in the Special Olympics. This outstanding achievement has led his neighbours and some local papers to compare him to Pat ‘Red' Collier, a legendary Meath footballer. This young man and his parents recently received a slap in the face from the State. His medical card was withdrawn because he obtained nine hours work as therapy. This decision was taken, despite the heroic efforts of his parents to allow their son to lead an independent life, with only minimal calls on the State for support. Is it any wonder we public representatives see such anger on the doorsteps of families trying to cope with disability?

Over Easter I was privileged to visit the home of the O'Hara family, outside Kells. It was an extraordinary and moving experience. The story of the O'Hara family is well known and I will not go into details today. However, I propose to highlight one aspect of the family's difficulties, which reflects poorly on the State's approach to disabilities in general. It is recognised that the children in the O'Hara family have special needs. Small things count for this family. The O'Haras travel everywhere by car, as a family. They are not eligible for a disability car sticker, despite their special needs. I question whether this is how families with very particular needs should be treated, at a time when we take such pride in our standing on the world's stage.

A mother of two children with disabilities told this story of her experience at a recent meeting of a disability group, seeking to have the Bill changed. I quote from her account:

My son is 16 years old, and has Down's syndrome, a moderate intellectual disability and many medical problems. He will leave school at 18. He will probably get a training course for three years, but then "into the Labour" starts. There is nothing in this Bill to indicate to me that he will get a service. It will be written down in its assessment of need, but if the Minister has not the money, then it is tough luck for my son. He will be stuck at home, and when that home is gone, he will fall into the emergency bracket of needing the service. This is the type of scenario that terrifies me. There are times when I cannot sleep at night, worrying about who will look after him when I am gone. Families can be given peace of mind by correcting this Bill.

That mother's account of her experience will be familiar to many thousands of families throughout the country. This does not come as a surprise to any public representative. We have all encountered such families and listened to such fears in the course of our work. Saying to them that we understand is not enough, we need to act. This Bill should have been an answer to their prayers and a solution to their problems. However, it is not and the Bill must be amended accordingly. There is no point in enacting legislation if it cannot do what it is supposed to do. If this Bill, as the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste have claimed, is an honest attempt to get it right, then the Government must be honest in admitting its shortcomings. The Government must make an honest attempt to amend the Bill to meet the needs of people with disabilities.

In the sunny days of the 2003 Special Olympics, people with disabilities delighted everyone with their abilities, commitment and enthusiasm. It was a showcase of inclusion of which everyone wanted to be part. The mother I spoke of asked her daughter, a wheelchair user, how she felt about the Special Olympics. She replied that it was the first time in her life that she felt part of Ireland. This young woman, a university student, had never felt part of Ireland until 2003. This Bill must reassure her that she will be treated like the rest of us, as being part of Ireland. Being part of Ireland means she must be provided with access to public transport, public services, accessible buildings, employment and opportunity. She must be given the challenges and opportunities we choose and expect for all our children.

Our thinking must also change. We must stop expecting people with disabilities to wait or put up with less than we expect. In this respect, the Bill is seriously flawed and requires amendment. The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform must go back to the drawing board to get it right. It is my wish that, after a mature debate, an agreed way forward will be reached with the support of all sides of the House. Getting it right would be an acknowledgement of the enormous contribution made by, and the struggle faced by, those with disabilities and their families. The Government's challenge is to amend this Bill to reflect what the Tánaiste claimed was its intention: an honest attempt to get matters right. I urge the Minister to take on board the concerns of people with disabilities and their families. Listening alone is not enough, the Minister must amend the Bill. We now have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to ensure Government policy and public services include disabled people from the start, not as an afterthought. This opportunity must not be wasted.

I am delighted to speak on this important Bill, which has been on Second Stage since November 2004. Since then the Minister of State at the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy Fahey, has heard constant cries from this side of the House that the Bill needs to be amended. The Fine Gael Party considered opposing the Second Stage reading of the Bill, but it was decided that this would let the Government off the hook. Our spokesperson will table more than 100 amendments on Committee Stage, reflecting the concerns we have encountered about the Disability Bill.

A society should be judged not by how it toasts its success but how it deals with its most vulnerable. As our society has evolved, there is much to be desired. When knocking on doors during elections, we encounter many problems of society's successes. People complain about the lack of a second terminal at Dublin Airport, others complain about noise pollution, traffic and global warming. However, there is the mother, living down a long lane in County Wicklow, who puts her child on a bus in a nappy at 7.30 in the morning only to get to school at 9.30 a.m. after a tour of the country. Similar problems exist on the return journey.

Disposable income cannot all be spent on good causes and some must be spent on pastimes. However, provision of funding for the most vulnerable in society is a necessity. Volunteers do much work in dealing with disabilities. At the height of the controversy over the last Disability Bill that was withdrawn in 2001, I attended a public meeting in Bray on the issue. It was a humbling experience for me as a politician as I felt inadequate when put on the stage to answer questions from an audience coping with disabilities. Their problems surpass the majority we as politicians encounter every day. As a society, we have never addressed these issues. Deputy Callanan claims that the Bill will solve all problems and people can rest assured they will be looked after. However, this Bill does not make that promise. It is full of aspirations, which are to be expected of Departments, with no concrete guarantees.

The definition of disability in the Bill raises other issues such as the disabled driver's tax concession scheme. I have a case of a family with one member with Down's syndrome, who spends most of her day on all fours. The family applied for the grant and did not get it. The family then appealed the decision, which has already taken more than 12 months. I tabled numerous parliamentary questions and got in contact with the appeals body who informed me of the length of the waiting list. The case is still unresolved. I also have a case of an individual who suffered a brain haemorrhage when five years of age. He has no use of his right side and restricted leg movement. He applied for the concession but was refused. Who qualifies for these grants? The definition of disability is no different than the one we had last year. Why are these people denied access to these grants?

The Government often claims that little money is drawn down from the disabled person's grant. Has any Member attempted to go through the process of getting the grant? Getting through to the Health Services Executive is an achievement in itself, not to mind tracking down someone to do the job. Many of the executive areas will take assessments from private occupational therapists. Will the Minister consider allowing individuals to get private reports? I have had cases where, by the time the matter was sanctioned, the applicant had passed away.

Hardly a week goes by that Members do not get a request from a group dealing with disabilities. Correspondence from an individual in Vevay Crescent in Bray claimed the Bill does not give any rights, not even the right to an assessment. The disability representative bodies have described it as being fundamentally flawed. It must be changed drastically, they claim, to meet the needs of those with disabilities. I have been requested to demand of the Minister of State at the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy Fahey, that the Bill be redrafted to properly reflect the Government's responsibilities in international human rights and standards. The Minister of State will have received similar letters. These letters are being sent, not as a matter of routine but because there is a genuine belief among many that they are not being listened to and that there is nothing concrete in this Bill. That belief is well founded.

I hope the Minister of State will try to get money from the Minister for Finance for the disability sector, although I accept there is a finite amount of funding. However, it has been reported in the past few days that the estimated tax yield from the insurance products initiative will be approximately €2 billion. I am often concerned that such moneys go into a slush fund to promote pet projects. The Minister of State should make a play for that money and ring-fence it in order that it is spent only on the disability sector. That could be described as a populist approach. It is populist but why should the Government not do it? Let us see something concrete.

I received a letter from Sunbeam House Services in Bray, an organisation which deals with education and the placement of people. Many children are catered for up to the age of 11 or 12 years but when their families seek secondary places, none can be found. I am aware this Bill deals with people over the age of 18 years. According to the letter, a number of parents who have sons and daughters on waiting lists have recently approached Sunbeam House Services to obtain clarity in regard to placements in 2005. At this time, with one quarter of the year gone, Sunbeam House Services is still not in a position to address the worries of these parents because there is no clarity from the Health Service Executive in regard to either the number of new places which might be provided or the quantum of new revenue in capital funding which might be made available to address their needs. Despite a number of promises made by the Government, the parents are concerned that their young sons and daughters who have left or are leaving school will be without a service from 2005.

This is not unique to County Wicklow but happens throughout the country. The Minister and his colleagues are familiar with the situation. I cannot understand why we treat the most vulnerable people in society in such a callous manner. Nowadays, we talk about the child abuse that occurred in previous years. A redress board has been established. Politicians often spend too much time on minor matters; we do not consider the redress board or the tribunal of inquiry into corruption in planning. In future years, when we look back on how we treated disabled people, it will be a source of shame.

There are many organisations in the disability sector. There is a Lalor Centre in my home town but much of its funding comes from voluntary fundraising and an auction. It receives a limited amount from the Government. Some facilities have improved with the arrival of the Celtic tiger. I am familiar with the Cheshire Home in Tullow, County Carlow. One of my relatives was there and in the past ten years facilities have improved. However, often these improvements are due to the person running the facility creating an environment that encourages fundraising. The Cheshire Home in Shillelagh has also improved but this is due to the people working there.

The Minister has said section 5 of the Bill is a novel provision which makes specific arrangements for Ministers to earmark funding for the purpose of implementing the provisions of the legislation. That is extremely vague and Deputy Stanton intends to table amendments to this section. This vagueness is one of the weaknesses of the Bill. A consultation group was assembled to discuss a disabilities Bill and published a report. However, the content of the Bill is different from what the consultation group had envisaged. This is a great country for cheering athletes on their return from the Special Olympics. We have seen the television coverage of people praising and congratulating them. However, afterwards we tend to lock away the problem. We must deal with it.

Part 2 of the Bill deals with the assessment of needs. Again, however, this is subject to resources. Section 14(11)(a)(i) provides that if there are no resources, it will not take place. First, the Bill provides that the amount of money the Minister puts aside is optional. Second, there is provision for assessment of needs but this is dependent on it being economically viable.

Part 3 refers to access to buildings and services and provides for the sectoral plans which the various Departments must produce. Access to buildings is one of my main concerns. I accept that doors are available in certain widths but it is difficult to manoeuvre a wheelchair through the patio door of most modern houses. Perhaps the Department will examine this issue. One side of the patio door is stationary whereas with French doors both doors can open.

Many new developments are inaccessible for people with disabilities. I accept that every building cannot be accessible but many of the modern private houses and developments which are being built in higher densities are difficult to access. The Minister of State, Deputy Fahey, will find that in many of the developments in Galway not only can one not access the house, one cannot access the scheme. That is unpleasant and gives the wrong message. The entrance to many buildings involves climbing a number of steps.

Another issue relating to the building regulations is the design of housing estates. As a result of our economic progress, parking has become a problem due to households having two, three and sometimes four cars. It is difficult for an ambulance or a fire engine to get into many housing estates, particularly local authority estates, let alone reach somebody who is disabled. This is probably a matter for the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government but roads should be wide enough to allow an ambulance to get into an estate. I encountered a situation recently where people had to lift cars out of the way in order that a medical service vehicle could get to a house.

Part 4 of the Bill deals with genetic testing, in respect of which there could be a difficulty with insurance. Recently, I heard about a young man of 23 or 24 years who had been refused insurance for a motorbike. He took the case to court and was awarded free insurance as compensation. The company had refused to give him a quote. Insurance companies are reluctant to insure people with even a minor disability or ailment. There must be a mechanism whereby people can have access to a mortgage. Many do not have such access due to medical reasons.

Part 5 deals with public service employment. There is a target of 3% of staff. I am unaware of whether Leinster House meets the 3% target. However, it should not simply be a case of filling 3% of vacancies with disabled people. If memory serves, many local authorities have not reached the 3% target. Where they do, it should not be the case that they consider their duty done. The 3% target should be reached but it should not prevent public bodies from employing additional people with disabilities, most of whom are every bit as capable as those who are deemed to be perfect.

Another letter I received from a constituent outlines five key demands. They include a national policy and appropriate funding levels for a countrywide programme of personal assistant services. Another demand is rights based legislation to be enacted but this is not provided for in the Bill. A significant number of people with disabilities are being forced into residential settings, although efforts are being made to address this. There is also a need to ringfence 5% of disability funds to provide services for people with disabilities in developing countries. We cannot meet the target of 0.7% of GNP in overseas development aid. As we cannot give a guarantee of funding to our own people with disabilities, I do not know how the Government envisages reaching that figure, although I appreciate some of the demands are severe.

Everyone in this House wants to see something done for people with disabilities. We are called to a relatively small number of meetings on the issue of disabilities. In recent years the representatives of people with disabilities have organised themselves well but time and attention have never been given to them. I am aware that we do not have infinite resources but it is time to put serious funding in place. On Committee Stage it will be important to see a figure.

There is an appeals mechanism in the Schedule to the Bill but if it is anything like the mechanism for people looking for the tax concession in the disabled driver's grant, it should be radically reformed. An appeals mechanism can only be successful if it is timely. My experience of appeals systems in the public service has been that they are cumbersome and not timely.

Deputy Stanton spoke about his experience with the Minister, Deputy Dempsey, when the Minister accepted many of his amendments on Committee Stage of a previous Bill. Despite the fact that speakers on the Government back benches have supported this Bill, I know that privately they do not believe in it. They realise there are problems and would like to see a stronger commitment. I know the Minister of State would also. I ask him to go back to the Government and demand something concrete. If there is nothing concrete on assessment and the provision of funding, this Bill represents nothing but an aspiration.

I thank the Deputies who contributed for their comments on the Disability Bill 2004. I concur with Deputy Timmins that we all want the best for people with disabilities. I have listened to valuable contributions in the House and read extracts trom the debate when I was not present. Much of what has been said relates to the ten key points raised by the disability legislation consultation group. These points have also been presented by the group to the Joint Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights. Many other important points were also presented, some of which will require time on Committee Stage to tease out more fully. I will look at amendments on Committee Stage.

Listening to the contributions, I am not sure Deputies recognise the significant impact for people with disabilities of the equality policies pursued by the Government since 1997, or the importance of the national disability strategy launched by the Taoiseach, of which the Disability Bill is but one element. When I presented the Bill to the House on 4 November 2004, I referred to the developments in policy and service provision for people with disabilities which have gathered momentum in recent years. We have had strong employment equality and equal status legislation in place since 1998 and 2000, respectively. That legislation is among the most advanced in Europe. In June 2000 the Taoiseach launched the policy of mainstreaming public service delivery for people with disabilities. Mainstreaming requires that public bodies, wherever practicable, deliver services in a way that is accessible to people with disabilities as well as other citizens. The policy signalled the Government's commitment to move away from segregated service provision to a more inclusive model.

Some Deputies have suggested that we have failed people with disabilities and put the economy first. In the course of the past decade a thriving economic climate has been created in Ireland. We have recorded one of the best economic performances in the European Union. From 1997 to 2003 Irish GDP grew by around 8% per annum, compared to an average of about 2.5% in the rest of the European Union. The fruits of this economic success have been put to good use and are reflected in the increased investment in disability services.

Expenditure on disability services in 1997 amounted to just €800 million, or 4.8% of gross current public expenditure on services. By 2001 the comparable figures had risen to €1.6 billion, or 6% of gross current public expenditure on services. This showed that disability services were an important spending priority for the Government.

The investment programme announced by the Minister for Finance in last December's Budget Statement will result in an even greater emphasis on disability services. In 2005 €2.9 billion, or almost 7.5% of gross current public expenditure on services, will be spent in this way. The figures quoted do not take into account the income supports and other services provided through the Department of Social and Family Affairs. Nor do they reflect the fact that many people with a disability participate in, or benefit from, mainstream public services and programmes. The 2005 expenditure figure represents a 3.5% increase in the eight years from 1997.

Everyone in the House welcomes the budget announcement of the new multi-annual investment programme for high priority disability support services. The total value of the investment programme is close to €900 million in the years 2006-09 and will be focused on the health and education sectors. This is in addition to the further €150.5 million included in the 2005 Estimates. The programme will enhance service levels where most needed. Its significance is due to the high value of funding committed and the application of a multi-annual approach to current spending.

Some Deputies have criticised the Bill because service provision is subject to resource availability. Let us be realistic. Every area of public service provision is governed by resource constraints of time, personnel and funding. The Government recognises that there is an historical deficit regarding disability services. We know that they need more funding and have put in place a firm programme to establish a sound baseline for service provision. In addition to the unique investment programme announced in the budget, the legislation will require Ministers for the first time to make an explicit determination of the funding they will allocate each year for the purposes of the Bill. In making these allocations they must weigh their other commitments while giving specific consideration to the disability element of their allocations.

Many speakers have found fault with the Bill because they say it is not rights based. In other words, it does not provide justiciable rights to services. They criticise the absence of direct access to the courts but fail to acknowledge that a court case can cause delay and hardship for a person with a disability and his or her family. In contrast, the legislation will provide important new rights such as a right to an independent assessment of health and educational needs, undertaken without regard to costs or capacity to supply services; a right to a related service statement setting out the services that can be provided within the resources available to the health or education service provider; and a right to redress through independent complaints and appeals mechanisms, including, ultimately, enforcement of decisions through the Circuit Court. I assure the House that will not be a major bureaucratic exercise, as has been alleged.

In particular, the Bill provides an easily accessible user-friendly means of redress. It is based on existing successful models of independent redress that apply in other sectors, such as social welfare.

Listening to the Opposition, I am clear about their plan for involving the courts in disability service provision. However, I am not clear on how they would develop disability services — and we know there are limitations in present services — so that people who do not have services will get them. The Opposition does not refer to planned service growth supported by sectoral planning and prudent investment.

Perhaps they see case law driving service delivery but do not see the inevitably uneven way in which services would be delivered overall, based on occasional judicial decisions. In making these statements the Opposition should be aware that for every €1 given in settlement of legal cases and paid out by the Department of Education and Science to special needs education, €4 went to pay the fees of members of the legal profession, in connection with those cases.

They would not have to go to court if the Government delivered their rights.

These figures do not include the additional legal costs borne by the State, including the Department of Health and Children. I am convinced that judicable rights are not in the interests of people with disabilities here.

People with disability do not believe that.

Through the Bill and the other elements of the national disability strategy, the Government seeks to offer practical and real benefits to those most in need of services and to support the efficient use of available resources. After listening to the Opposition, I am more convinced than before that the approach to rights taken in the Bill is the correct one. As the national disability strategy shows, there are many elements to the process of developing our disability services further. We have a road to travel to bring disability services to a level of which we can all be proud. Unlike the Opposition, I believe that court-driven policy is not an appropriate response to the service needs of the vast majority of people with disabilities.

Turning to the specific concerns of Deputies about the detail of the Bill, the definition of disability is based on the definition in the National Disability Authority Act 1999. That definition is narrower than that in the Equal Status Act 2000 and the Employment Equality Act 1998, so as to allow resources and positive measures to be focused on areas of most need. In contrast, the definition in equality legislation is broad so that discrimination is outlawed as regards all kinds of disability——

We will have a hierarchy of disability.

——even relatively minor impairments such as the need for glasses to read or having a birthmark. Deputies have mentioned some aspects of the definition about which they are concerned. I will be happy to discuss in more detail any specific perceived difficulties on Committee Stage. I am open to considering amendments in this respect.

Many Deputies have called for a clear right to an independent assessment of need. I assure the House that the Bill provides for an independent assessment of need to anyone who considers that he or she may have a disability, following an application to the Health Service Executive. I assure the Deputies who disputed that fact, that there is no question but that an independent assessment of needs will be provided.

Last September, the Taoiseach announced that a dedicated group had been established within the Health Service Executive, which will look at what needs to be done to implement the Disability Bill in the health sector. The group is working to develop a sensible programme of action to implement and underpin the delivery of Part 2 and I am keeping in touch with progress on this important task. I am satisfied that a good process will be put in place which will not be bureaucratic. It will be user-friendly and in the interests of people with disabilities. The Health Service Executive is currently doing significant work on this issue. The House will be satisfied with what emerges on Committee Stage.

Deputies have referred to a gap between the service needs identified in the assessment report and the services committed to in the statement of need. Some have called for the Bill to include a statutory review mechanism that would support full delivery of assessed needs over time. The Bill provides individuals with a right to the contents of a service statement that will outline the services to be provided. The Bill allows for an amendment of the service statement by a liaison officer where there is a material change in the person's circumstances. This would include, for example, an enhancement of the service statement when a new service becomes available.

The Cabinet committee on social inclusion had already considered this point when it was raised by the DLCG with officials in the early part of 2004. The Cabinet committee's response had three elements. First, the legislative proposals were amended to provide for a periodic review of each service statement and, as a result, section 20 allows for the making of regulations for this purpose. Second, a systemic response was elaborated, which is contained in section 12. It involves identifying both levels of assessed needs and related service availability, so that hard information will now underpin service planning to ensure future provision. The third element involves the growth in provision so that much needed extra services are put in place. The multi-annual investment programme announced in the budget supports that third element.

Since the Government came to office in 1997, there have been notable milestones in the policy for people with disabilities, including equality legislation, mainstreaming and, most recently, the national disability strategy. In the short time available for my reply, I can only touch on some of the major issues raised in the debate. Given the serious and lengthy debate on Second Stage, I know I can expect a variety of proposals for amendments on Committee Stage.

There are significant differences in some instances between Government policy and the proposals of Opposition speakers. These differences are also reflected in the submissions from interest groups, such as the DLCG and others. I look forward to exploring in a focused way the range of important points to be raised on Committee Stage when I will be open to having a full and frank discussion. I will also be open to considering Opposition amendments in addition to tabling Government amendments. I thank Deputies who have already submitted proposed amendments through the Bills Office. I assure Deputies that we will consider them and I hope some of their proposals can be accommodated by way of Government amendment.

Many representations have been made by people with disabilities and by disability groups. My Department is determined to ensure that this Bill is the best possible legislation to provide a substantial range of rights for people with disabilities. Through a multi-annual investment programme, it will provide such people with the adequate services that we all accept they have not had in the past.

Major progress has been made in recent years through the provision of significant additional resources. In the recent budget the Minister for Finance introduced, a multi-annual programme made major increases available through the various Departments to implement improved policies for people with disabilities. I have specific responsibility in this area and along with the Government will do everything possible to put through a Bill which will be satisfactory to the vast majority of people here who have people with disabilities at heart.

Question put.
The Dáil divided: Tá, 65; Níl, 52.

  • Ahern, Dermot.
  • Ahern, Michael.
  • Ahern, Noel.
  • Andrews, Barry.
  • Ardagh, Seán.
  • Brady, Johnny.
  • Brady, Martin.
  • Brennan, Seamus.
  • Browne, John.
  • Callanan, Joe.
  • Callely, Ivor.
  • Carey, Pat.
  • Carty, John.
  • Cassidy, Donie.
  • Coughlan, Mary.
  • Cowen, Brian.
  • Cregan, John.
  • Cullen, Martin.
  • Curran, John.
  • Davern, Noel.
  • de Valera, Síle.
  • Dempsey, Noel.
  • Dempsey, Tony.
  • Dennehy, John.
  • Devins, Jimmy.
  • Ellis, John.
  • Fahey, Frank.
  • Finneran, Michael.
  • Fleming, Seán.
  • Glennon, Jim.
  • Hanafin, Mary.
  • Haughey, Seán.
  • Hoctor, Máire.
  • Jacob, Joe.
  • Keaveney, Cecilia.
  • Kelleher, Billy.
  • Kelly, Peter.
  • Killeen, Tony.
  • Kirk, Seamus.
  • Kitt, Tom.
  • Lenihan, Brian.
  • Lenihan, Conor.
  • McEllistrim, Thomas.
  • McGuinness, John.
  • Moloney, John.
  • Moynihan, Donal.
  • Mulcahy, Michael.
  • Nolan, M. J.
  • Ó Cuív, Éamon.
  • Ó Fearghaíl, Seán.
  • O’Connor, Charlie.
  • O’Donnell, Liz.
  • O’Donovan, Denis.
  • O’Keeffe, Batt.
  • O’Malley, Fiona.
  • O’Malley, Tim.
  • Parlon, Tom.
  • Power, Peter.
  • Power, Seán.
  • Roche, Dick.
  • Sexton, Mae.
  • Treacy, Noel.
  • Walsh, Joe.
  • Wilkinson, Ollie.
  • Woods, Michael.

Níl

  • Boyle, Dan.
  • Breen, James.
  • Breen, Pat.
  • Broughan, Thomas P.
  • Burton, Joan.
  • Connaughton, Paul.
  • Connolly, Paudge.
  • Costello, Joe.
  • Cowley, Jerry.
  • Crowe, Seán.
  • Cuffe, Ciarán.
  • Deenihan, Jimmy.
  • Durkan, Bernard J.
  • Enright, Olwyn.
  • Gilmore, Eamon.
  • Gormley, John.
  • Gregory, Tony.
  • Hayes, Tom.
  • Healy, Seamus.
  • Hogan, Phil.
  • Howlin, Brendan.
  • Kenny, Enda.
  • Lynch, Kathleen.
  • McCormack, Padraic.
  • McEntee, Shane.
  • McGinley, Dinny.
  • McGrath, Finian.
  • McGrath, Paul.
  • McHugh, Paddy.
  • Mitchell, Olivia.
  • Morgan, Arthur.
  • Moynihan-Cronin, Breeda.
  • Neville, Dan.
  • Ó Caoláin, Caoimhghín.
  • Ó Snodaigh, Aengus.
  • O’Dowd, Fergus.
  • O’Keeffe, Jim.
  • O’Shea, Brian.
  • O’Sullivan, Jan.
  • Pattison, Seamus.
  • Penrose, Willie.
  • Quinn, Ruairi.
  • Rabbitte, Pat.
  • Ryan, Seán.
  • Sargent, Trevor.
  • Sherlock, Joe.
  • Shortall, Róisín.
  • Stagg, Emmet.
  • Stanton, David.
  • Timmins, Billy.
  • Twomey, Liam.
  • Upton, Mary.
Tellers: Tá, Deputies Kelleher and Kitt; Níl, Deputies Neville and Stagg.
Question declared carried.