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Joint Committee on Disability Matters debate -
Thursday, 27 May 2021

United Nations Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities and Ratification of Optional Protocol: Discussion

Apologies have been received from Deputy Tully and Senator Bacik. Today's meeting is to discuss the implementation of the United Nations Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities, UNCRPD, and the ratification of the optional protocol. I extend a warm welcome on behalf of the committee to Mr. Markus Schefer, a member of the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, Ms Catherine Naughton, director of the European Disability Forum, and Mr. Pat Clarke, vice president of the European Disability Forum. We are also delighted to welcome members of the Spanish Senate Comisión para las Políticas Integrales de la Discapacidad. It is an honour to have this meeting and everyone is extremely welcome. We look forward to the discussion.

I remind members they are only allowed to participate in this meeting if they are physically located within the precincts of the Leinster House complex or in the convention centre, if the Dáil and Seanad are sitting there. This meeting is online, so I ask people to bear with us if there are technical issues.

Before we start the proceedings proper, I must begin with some formalities. Regarding matters of privilege, witnesses are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of the proceedings should be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not criticise or make charges against a person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. I advise witnesses giving evidence from a location outside of the parliamentary precincts to note that the constitutional protection afforded to witnesses attending to give evidence before committees may not extend to them. No clear guidance can be given as to whether or to what extent the evidence given online is covered by absolute privilege of a statutory nature. Persons giving evidence from other jurisdictions should be mindful of their domestic statutory regimes. If witnesses are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence in relation to a particular matter, they should respect that direction.

Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice, as stated previously, not to comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. I now call Mr. Schefer to make his opening remarks.

Mr. Markus Schefer

I am honoured to give a brief presentation on the implementation of the UNCRPD and on its optional protocol. I will begin with some of the insights the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities has gained from conducting state party reporting procedures.

The UNCRPD covers nearly all aspects of life and requires substantial changes in law, society and individuals’ attitudes toward persons with disabilities. In addition, it extends to all types of impairments. Correspondingly, implementing it is a task with which every member state struggles. It is of paramount importance to develop a comprehensive strategy that sets out goals, timeframes and the measures to be taken and that clarifies the priorities and spells out the reasoning behind them. Poorly co-ordinated, piecemeal approaches are ill equipped to succeed. The measures included in legislation must be accompanied by the funding required to realise them. The committee is frequently faced with promising legislation only to be sobered by an absence of enforcement due to a lack of funding. Representative organisations of persons with disabilities need to be actively involved throughout the process.

From my personal experience in implementation processes in five Swiss cantons, such participation is indispensable in developing those measures that in fact address existing problems in society and address them appropriately. These experiences have also underlined the importance of including local government in all implementation efforts that touch its spheres of responsibility. Our committee observes that the provision of services for persons with disabilities is often the responsibility of local government and that it is here where the implementation frequently fails, whether the state is unitary, as it is in Ireland, or federal, as it is in Switzerland.

Article 33 of the UNCRPD requires the establishment of an independent monitoring mechanism. Parliamentary oversight cannot substitute for it, but it can complement it by transforming its findings and those of the independent monitoring mechanism into political action. In addition, parliamentary oversight equips the legislature with direct know-how of those areas where existing legislation is adequate and those areas where it needs to be amended. However, a clear separation of the parliamentary oversight and monitoring bodies must be precisely delineated and it must be ensured that the independence of the monitoring mechanism is not compromised.

The convention does not contain an exhaustive definition of disability, but it does clarify that a disability is the result of the interaction between an impairment and society at a given time and place. Domestic law ought to specify further the disabilities covered by law, but it must not attempt to codify an exhaustive list. As society changes, together with its perception of discrimination and suffering, any definition must remain open to be adapted accordingly.

Allow me one last remark. Implementing the optional protocol in a dualist state effectively requires its incorporation in domestic law. We may expound on this in the discussion.

I again thank the committee for its generous invitation, and I look forward to discussing this subject and addressing questions from the committee members.

I thank Mr. Schefer and we appreciate his contribution. I now call Ms María Teresa Fernández Molina, the President of the Spanish Senate Comisión para las Políticas Integrales de la Discapacidad.

Ms María Teresa Fernández Molina

I thank the committee on my behalf and on behalf of the commission for the invitation to discuss disability policies at this meeting. Parliamentary work for the fulfilment and development of the agreements of the UNCRPD and for the rights of people with disabilities has been very intensive and fruitful. We started this legislature with the mandate to represent the interests of people with disabilities, who were able to vote for the first time thanks to a change in the legislation. I refer to 100,000 people whom we feel we can represent because they have used a constitutional right which had been taken away from them.

Also, from the Cortes Generales, along with a great agreement, we have changed laws on forced sterilisation or neutering of people with disabilities. This is a milestone both for society and for Spanish democracy.

An essential part of the new educational law is educational inclusion. There is some debate but also lots of support. It means that over the next ten years there will be an increase in the resources used by the autonomous regions for the inclusion of students with disabilities in ordinary classes, and in respecting the opinions of parents and all the educational community. Social inclusion in society starts in schools. The ability law supports the rights of people with disabilities, supporting them to use their legal rights in all legal areas of life. It tries to change the parliament to promote abilities and to focus on the right to autonomous decision-making for people with disabilities. It promotes liberty, equity and basic rights, as full members of society. We have other challenges facing us. Throughout this process, the participation of the entities representing people with disabilities, social organisations and families, have been and are essential in reaching agreements and in moving forward in the fulfilment of our commitments to the rights of people with disabilities.

I thank the witness. I call Mr. Pat Clarke, vice president, and Ms Catherine Naughton, director of the European Disability Forum, EDF, to make their contribution.

Mr. Pat Clarke

Go raibh maith agat, a Chathaoirligh. The EDF is an umbrella body organisation, which represents more than 100 million EU citizens with disabilities in the EU. It does that in conjunction with members at a national level and at a European level, all across Europe. Our work advocates for the rights of persons with disabilities. The EDF is part of the independent monitoring framework established by the EU to monitor the Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, CRPD, at the EU level. It does this together with the EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency, FRA, the European Ombudsman and the European Parliament. EDF publishes information for its members on their rights within the EU. It has a regular human rights report series, which assesses the extent to which the CRPD is being implemented in Europe. Last year's report focused on Covid-19 and on persons with disabilities. It highlighted the neglect and discrimination faced last year by Europe’s 100 million persons with disabilities as the pandemic ravaged Europe. I will now pass the floor to Ms Naughton.

Ms Catherine Naughton

I thank the Chair for the invitation to take part in the committee today. While it was disappointing that Ireland was the last EU member state to ratify the convention, it is inspiring to see the leadership now being shown in Ireland through the establishment of this joint committee. The committee demonstrates the vital scrutiny role that national parliaments can play.

As Mr. Markus Schefer has already pointed out, parliamentary oversight complements the independent monitoring function established in the convention. Of course, this committee does not stand alone. Every other committee in Dáil which follows a Department also should be playing this scrutiny role. For example, if the Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence is working on the sustainable development goals, SDGs, this is also where the inclusion of and accessibility for persons with disabilities can be handled. This Committee on Disability Matters can hold ministers and civil servants to account related to implementation of the convention and the allocation of resources to its implementation. It also has the opportunity to discuss these matters with visiting EU officials, giving the committee a potential role in the scrutiny of the implementation of European Disability Rights Strategy, which was adopted recently in March 2021.

In terms of the ratification of the optional protocol, which allows individuals, groups of individuals or third parties to submit a complaint to the committee, complaints can only be made against a state party that has ratified the optional protocol. It is, therefore, important that Ireland moves ahead with this. Twenty-two EU member states as well as all EU candidate countries and the United Kingdom have ratified the optional protocol. The CRPD committee has consistently called on state parties to do so in its concluding observations. We see it as an important measure of a state party’s willingness to be held to account and to enable its citizens to seek redress.

The sustainable development agenda was mentioned on the agenda of this meeting. At the core of the 2030 agenda for sustainable development is its promise to “leave no one behind” but also “to reach the furthest behind first”. Unlike the previous millennium development goals, MDGs, disability issues and persons with disabilities are included with 11 specific references throughout the 2030 agenda. Persons with disabilities are mentioned 19 times in the SDGs. A key message presented in the introduction of the indicator framework is that all indicators should be disaggregated, where relevant, by disability and other characteristics. If you want to know how well Ireland is progressing in its goals to tackle poverty, you also need to know how people with disabilities are being reached.

On Covid-19, people with disabilities around the world have been hit very hard by the pandemic, by the measures taken to control the pandemic and by the pandemic itself, looking at the loss of life of people living in institutional facilities across Europe, and of course by the middle and long-term economic consequences. On the EU's recovery and resilience facility, Ireland is expected to receive €853 million in 2021 and 2022. It is important to see this as an opportunity to invest in and to promote the rights of people with disabilities. Following the guidelines given by the European Commission, there should have been extensive consultation with civic society on how and where those funds could be used. Persons with disabilities should be at the heart of reforms funded by Ireland’s recovery and resilience plan. The area of greatest concern is, of course, the tragic number of deaths and infections in residential care. EU funding is an opportunity for Ireland to invest in personalised and community-based support and services to ensure those who require support and services are not cut off from their communities in times of crisis. It is also an opportunity to assist persons with disabilities in finding their place in the open labour market, especially after the job losses we have seen during Covid-19.

Last, as we hope we see the end of the Covid-19 crisis, EDF has been campaigning for access for persons with disabilities to vaccination. In low- and middle-income countries around the world, it is expected the European Union and countries such as Ireland will contribute to the COVAX programme to ensure vaccination and recovery funding and investment will these countries without discrimination. This is something Ireland can support.

I thank the witnesses for their opening statements. I now call members for questions. Then we will return to witnesses for their comments on the questions or statements. I call Deputy Violet-Anne Wynne.

Go raibh maith agat. I extend a welcome to our witnesses today and thank them for their time and for the information that they have provided in their submissions. We are talking about the UNCRPD. The European Disability Federation referred to it as a convention of many firsts. First, it is the first human rights treaty to be adopted in the 21st century. Second, it is the first international human rights convention that the European Union has ratified as an entity itself. That means that as a collective, as a network of states, the EU itself is committed to bringing into fruition the humanitarian aspirations outlined in terms of access to rights. Third, it is the first convention that has been negotiated directly with its beneficiaries through sustained consultative procedures. Fourth, it is the first convention that makes explicit provisions for a series of multi-level mechanisms of monitoring its actual implementation.

In my view, it is the most inclusive disability legislation to date in that it incorporates, on an equal basis, different levels of lived experience of people with different impairments. Taken together, these unique aspects of the convention should cumulatively give it height and weight, gravity and meaning in terms of genuinely improving the lives of people with disabilities. All of that is good, but because Ireland has chosen not to ratify the optional protocol, it has wangled itself out of any accountability for the disabled people of this country who know the rights enshrined in the legislation are not being vindicated in their direct lived experience.

As a country, Ireland has more equality legislation than many other jurisdictions but some of the least equal metrics in terms of employment, independent living and access to personal assistance services for disabled people. As a State, we did not embrace the UNCRPD and delayed its ratification for 11 years because Government knew how shaky our legislative and service provision foundation was, with a significant number of Acts yet to be fully commenced. There is concern about the optional protocol and its ratification. In responses from the Minister, it has been pushed backed a number of times and different excuses have been given. The most recent excuse was that Government is awaiting a response from the UN on its report. I am concerned about that and about the protracted publication of several vital reports, such as the Indecon report on the cost of disability and the disability capacity review. Coupled with this, the disability portfolio has been transferred from the Department of Health to the new Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth. As a committee, how do we ensure appropriate accountability and funding in the budget process for this area?

I have a number of questions. As the committee is aware, key to an effective implementation of the UNCRPD is co-ordination between social services and health services and between central government and local government. Will Mr. Schefer outline how we can ensure effective implementation of the UNCRPD at local government level and a co-ordination approach in that regard? Will he also comment on the additional mandate provided to the UN committee by the optional protocol and the impact of a state party not ratifying that protocol?

Based on his knowledge, does Mr. Schefer feel the shift of the narrative from disabled people being service users to rights bearers and the move from a medical or charity model to a human rights model will be key drivers to the effective de-institutionalisation and Article 19 of the convention? I would welcome his thoughts in that regard. A deep attitudinal change is needed. What are the practical policy changes that accelerate cultural change?

My next question is to the Spanish Senate members. Based on the experience in Spain, what have been the most effective measures taken to increase employment in the disabled people's community, in respect of which Ireland has the lowest level in the EU, at 32.3%. We have a Comprehensive Employment Strategy for People with Disabilities 2015-2024, but the extent to which it has been effective is inconclusive.

My final question is to the European Disability Forum representatives. They have noted that disabled people are disproportionately impacted by the risk of poverty, a situation compounded by economic recession. In the forum's analysis of various member states of the EU, what countries were identified as having best aligned their social policy with the social model of disability? In what national context is there the best statutory footing and consistent choice-led access to services?

Mr. Markus Schefer

I thank Deputy Wynne for the questions. On the co-ordination issue, it is an issue on a horizontal level. It does not just pertain to social and health services, but to all aspects of Governments. For example, the security services need to be included. Policing and construction need to be included. Every department of government needs to be co-ordinated. That is the purpose and focal point of Article 33.1. The convention leaves open to member states whether they create one or more focal points. However, it is important to have one focal point that has the ability and power to link together all Government entities and to co-ordinate across all administrative borders, which in my experience is a quite a task. Administrations are usually structured vertically and they do not have much interaction. A member state needs to have one entity. It is important that entity is hierarchically suitably located and not on a low level because low level focal points in this area usually do not have the capacity to bring on board government entities that might be resistant to a common policy footing, including local government. As I mentioned in my opening remarks, very often services are being provided by local government. This is where good intentions very often come to an end and are not transformed into action. A member state needs to have focal points on local government as well because it, too, is structured vertically. There must be close interaction with central government or otherwise it will not work. It is a task to create an entity that can effectively work across established borders within administrations and such entity needs to be located at a hierarchically relatively high level.

On the impact of non-ratification of the optional protocol, the optional protocol in effect puts some pressure on the Judiciary to abide by the UNCRPD in that it opens up an avenue against the decision of the highest court. Once a domestic remedy has been exhausted a complaint can be filed with the committee. Where this is a possibility, it transforms into some pressure on the Judiciary to take the UNCRPD seriously and not simply to ignore it. As I mentioned in my opening remarks, to ratify the optional protocol a member state needs to have a legal means in place for people in judicial proceedings to invoke the rights in the convention. To do that in a dualist country requires incorporation. In the UK, the lack of incorporation of the UNCRPD hampers the effectiveness in judicial proceedings despite the UK having ratified the optional protocol.

On the shift from the perception of disabled persons as service-users to rights-based bearers, this week we had European hearings on de-institutionalisation. It has become clear that de-institutionalisation will not work as long as persons with disabilities are viewed as objects of Government benevolence and users of services that cost a lot. This mental shift needs to be take place to enable de-institutionalisation and vice versa. By starting de-institutionalisation we contribute to a change in societal views. We cannot wait for one part to happen in order that the other can start. It is a shift that will require some time. It is not a development that can be completed by tomorrow morning. It will require time and this is more of a reason to start now and start intensively.

Deputy Wynne mentioned attitudinal change.

In the end, the effectiveness of the convention relies on attitudinal changes. That is partly why the convention contains a provision for measures to create some sensitivity in society. Article 8 is a provision that not all of the UN human rights treaties contain. We are here not just as a legal matter but to change society, with the timeframe that entails.

Ms Catherine Naughton

I will address the question to the EDF and I thank the Deputy for it. It is a complicated picture in terms of which country is doing best. I will share with the committee that our last human rights report, issued in 2019, was on poverty and social exclusion. What we saw across Europe was a mixed picture. However, really disappointingly for Ireland, the employment rate of persons with disabilities was the lowest in Europe, which has been mentioned. In this human rights report, we compare many different elements of progress in some countries. For example, on disability assessment, Estonia was very good. In terms of government spending, Denmark was the highest. Ireland was close to the lowest there as well, unfortunately. In these obstacles to employment and social inclusion, there is a range of policy areas affected, be they transport, housing, education or personalised support. This requires, therefore, a whole-of-government approach. I am not sure how this has been done in Ireland but it could be something like a disability lead in the Taoiseach’s office or some kind of central co-ordination mechanism that can look horizontally at the elements that will contribute to social inclusion, to tackling poverty and to promoting employment. It is not simply a one-Department issue. I will share the forum's European Human Rights Report 2020 with members in order that they can look at the different elements in more detail. Then, if there are any particular microdata that they want from countries as well, that is something we can also provide to give more nuanced detail.

Mr. Pat Clarke

Briefly, I want to alert the committee that Wicklow County Council has set up a Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, CRPD, implementation committee, with the assistance of the Disability Federation of Ireland. It is getting out there, but slowly.

Deputy Wynne asked the question in relation to the Spanish Senate committee. Would someone respond on behalf of the committee?

Ms María Teresa Fernández Molina

There are three different levels: local, national and municipal. The powers mainly reside in the autonomous communities. However, at legislative level, it is the state that decides on the guidelines for its development. In my opinion, being part of the convention, as well as being able to ratify the agreements of the convention and the protocol, benefits persons with disabilities, in the sense that the national reports help us to take legislative measures. Then, via the transfer to the autonomous communities, competencies can be implemented afterwards. Also, the organisations representing people with disabilities provide a very important service, both to people with disabilities and to their families. They provide support, via the creation of residencies and social services support. They also help in decision-making. Every time a rule or regulation is created, it is binding in its application in the full territory of Spain. It is, therefore, important to conduct continued assessment on our decisions, so that we can make better decisions at every step. This is essential to give people with disabilities the possibility to enjoy the same and equal rights to the rest of the citizens. In this regard, today, in Spain, we are working very actively. Actually, we are going to modify the Spanish constitution to change the wording we use to refer to disabled people. We will include the term “persons with disabilities”, instead of “disabled people”. This is an important step. In Spain, we have a rule of law where people with disabilities should be able to enjoy full legal, judicial, and social capacities and to live autonomous lives. Every year, national reports will always include recommendations to improve the quality of life and equal rights for this community. The Government of Spain takes this very seriously.

I welcome witnesses and thank them for their contributions. I have a few questions. On this committee, I feel frustrated that we have a segregation or compartmentalisation of Government functions. The Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth seems to have to have to pull extra weight. I do not see other Departments rowing in as efficiently and as properly as they should be. I would ask the members of the Senate, from their experience, how did they get the segregation, the roles of national government, central government and local government, to all to take their responsibilities in relation to people with disabilities as a default base level in how they go about all their policy duties? Second, when they ratified the optional protocol together with the convention, was that a basis to help that along? When they had the optional protocol in tandem, did that help make progress in respect of the segregation of responsibility?

I have a general question on the cost of disability. There is definitely an argument for a payment for the cost of disability. We all agree that having a disability costs extra to survive because we, as a society, put up so many barriers to people taking part. It does cost extra. I would like to hear people's opinions on how we re-balance that with a payment to help on the cost of disabilities.

I thank the Senator. I call the Spanish committee to take those questions.

Mr. Alfonso Escudero Ortega

I would like to contribute to the contribution of our president. Spain has a central power. In the Spanish Parliament, there is a Lower Chamber and the Senate. Legislation is created from there. Legislation passed there goes to autonomous communities. Autonomous communities have their own legislative powers but they develop their powers from national legislation. On another level, there is the local level, which every important. I know that as I have been the mayor of my home town.

I have a colleague here, Josep Rufà Gràcia, who has also been a mayor of his home town. Lots of us today come from the level of the municipal governments, which play a fundamental role. For instance, in the case of my village, my home city council had a number of agreements with the autonomous communities. Via those agreements, the economic resources were provided so that we could devote them to fighting gender violence and promoting the quality of life of people with disabilities. This is essential if we want to develop social policies and provide all those who need it with the economic and social resources that they need.

I was a mayor of a small village with 6,000 inhabitants but we had social housing spaces for people with disabilities and they lived in the local area. They were also very active in local activities. It is also very important that there was a really beautiful atmosphere in the village. People with disabilities were really catered for by the rest of the neighbours. They were helping them all the time. They were playing with them at playgrounds. They were helping them when they went to the sports centre. I think this is the tendency, as it should be. We should create effective legislation that does not overlap or interfere with old mentalities that have been there throughout the past such as has been said, identifying them with higher costs for society. No, this is wrong. We in society should be doing exactly the opposite: it is our duty and obligation to help them. When we talk about costs, we have to think, believe and make sure that it is an effective cost and that we spend our money effectively.

My dream is that disabled people are fully integrated in society, that they are really happy and that we overcome the negative image. They have been rejected by society. We are living in a modern society and modern societies should be inclusive. For that, we need the economic, legislative effort from all of us in order that we can overcome barriers and that we can count on the understanding of everyone in society. That is why taking part in this committee is a great satisfaction for me, because I know I am working, I am making an effort so that my child will feel part of society and he will not feel like he is excluded because he has a disability. I am sorry if I get emotional when I think about my son. This is what we are dealing with here.

This is a must for states. I believe that in Ireland and in Spain we must pass laws in a comprehensive way and listen to people in this community because they know at first hand the reality. All these laws must be accompanied by funding and can be translated to the next level, which is the autonomous regions and through partnerships with local communities. A part has to be given by the local government, the regional government, the central government and another by the users. All this money is then used to fund the cost, which is considerable. If we listen to the stakeholders and the families we will be able to be successful in Spain so that the users can welcome the work that has been done. There is a lot still to do but the law must be a driver for getting funding for what we are doing. I have tried to explain how we do it here in Spain. In each region there are different aspects because they have the ability to pass laws according to their own criteria, and also at local level, so there are some actions taken which are the result of these negotiations.

I am quite proud. I will tell the committee an anecdote. Fifteen years ago, I visited the United Kingdom. There were several representatives from municipalities, and we met a parents' association - parents of children with disabilities - but this association was merely about helping one another. When someone needed some help, he or she would ask the other members of the association for help, which means that the Government was not helping them. It was not providing professional or specialised care for disabled people. When I came back to my home town, I told people in the parents' association there about it. What they do is mediate between the users and the local government or the regional government in order to get more effective services for people with disabilities.

It all depends on the political drive. We think that with this Government, there is enough sensitivity about it. We have a specific Ministry for the disabled. That means we are getting the resources that we need, and we get attention as there is an open channel for communication. I say this to help the committee to understand how we do things. There are many things we should do better and some more things that we should do but it is good to let the committee know how we do things here in Spain and to encourage members to keep up the effort and the good work to raise awareness and to be heard by all the powers and administrations that are in Ireland to make them understand that we have an obligation towards these people. We have to work for that and it is worth it.

Ms Catherine Naughton

I would like to come back in on the very important issue of the extra disability-related costs. This is something that is really influencing poverty and social exclusion among persons with disabilities right across Europe. For example, in our human rights report on poverty and social exclusion we saw in some countries the annual additional costs come up to something like €23,000 a year in higher-income countries in Europe. Research in Ireland shows also that it can be up to 23% of a family's budget. The extra costs include transport, housing, assistance, things which should be covered by social protection and other measures which families are taking on themselves. The idea of totally separating disability-related support and income or employment-related support is really important to ensure that when somebody can go into work, they still receive the support they need for the extra disability-related costs, which are substantial.

They are covered well in our human rights report to the extent that we could and I can give the committee more details on that later from the countries where we had the research.

I will keep my questions brief to leave time for answers. I have four, if there is time to get to them.

First, how can we truly ensure participation for people with disabilities? With the implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, what is the best way to ensure that happens effectively? Second, how can people with disabilities be put at the centre of our response to Covid-19 and, going forward, the climate emergency? Third, and perhaps this is for the Spanish Senate, I am wondering if members could discuss their experience of ratifying the optional protocol at the same time as the implementation of the convention. I am wondering how this benefited people with disabilities and the progress on the convention.

Finally, I am wondering what the impact of Ireland not ratifying the optional protocol is. Some of the statements and submissions referenced the increase in poverty and disproportionately higher rates of poverty for people with disabilities. I am wondering how that will have an impact.

I thank Deputy Cairns. Who wants to take those? Do some members of the Spanish Senate want to comment?

Ms María Teresa Fernández Molina

Mr. Josep Rufà Gràcia wants to take the floor and then I will take the floor.

Mr. Josep Rufà Gràcia

Good morning. I am happy to be here with you. I have been twice to the Irish Parliament - the last time in 2019 - and also the Congress so I have some knowledge about the green island that is so close to Spain. In my party, as you know, in the Spanish state, we have different levels. We have the Spanish state and the Spanish law. Then we have the autonomous regions and we also contribute some laws. This is very important because in each region, we might have different political parties and the combination of these parties has an effect on the social policies and also the investment changes.

We do not see this as spending. We call it investment. It is not spending; it is investing. Of course, it is a cost, but it is a cost of an investment for these people to access a normal life.

In our group, we have sponsored that the political programmes should be prepared in easy reading. We are training people with disabilities to be part of the political election lists for the Congress and for the Parliament, and also for the Congress of Catalonia. As you know, my party is now ruling in Catalonia. We have the presidency and we want to keep the investment. First, I call it "expenses". I am going to call it "investment".

It is good to revise the convention. This is done by external assessment of the Spanish state and how it works. This helps the regions, the central state but also the political groups in the different chambers. My party is in the Senate. We are in the Spanish Congress, also in the European Parliament in the European Free Alliance and also in the Government of Catalonia. This work will never be ended because we do not know if we will get to a certain level of disability in the future, maybe due to a disease or an accident.

As for the last point, I think the president will answer the Deputy. I thank her for her questions and thanks for being here.

Who else wants to come in? Does somebody else want to address the points made by Deputy Cairns?

Mr. Pat Clarke

I will be quite brief. In relation to some of the earlier questions that were listed, one of the ways in which we can get meaningful engagement of people with disabilities is for a level of funding to be made available, and if it needs to be, specifically directed around the CRPD. That is about the only way that people will be in a position to engage.

One of the areas that might work in this regard is the recovery and resilience funding. As far as I am aware - I was not in a position to find it - Ireland has not yet published its plan for how that money will be spent and this could well form part of that overall plan.

There are a few other points mentioned earlier. Senator McGreehan mentioned the extra cost of disability. I am quite well aware of this. My son has Down's syndrome and the extra cost that we have to incur in terms of getting him in and out of his employment etc. is quite significant. This morning, I was at a meeting on the European Year of the Rail and it was about independent and spontaneous engagement with the rail system. One can put anything after "independent and spontaneous". The way it is structured at present in Ireland, particularly around the lack of additional funding to cover all these matters, means that independent and spontaneous actions by persons with disabilities are severely restricted and that needs to be addressed in the greater scheme of things.

Deputy Wynne mentioned a comprehensive employment strategy. I sit on the implementation group and when I finish here this afternoon, I go to a monitoring committee meeting of that. That is one of the areas that has been lacking or at least that was the first committee strategy that ever had its own monitoring committee. That is something that should be replicated in other strategies across the board within Ireland which will give it greater credence when it comes to reporting on the CRPD. I believe that should an approach to be made to the implementation monitoring group for its comprehensive employment strategy, I am sure that the chair of that committee and some of the members would be delighted to enlighten this committee as to the work and what the group has achieved in the recent past.

The main point is funding for the disability organisations in order to get meaningful engagement.

Mr. Markus Schefer

On the impact of not ratifying or ratifying the optional protocol, I would say it has a legal and political impact and a symbolic impact. The legal and political impact is you add the Judiciary to the players promoting rights of persons with disabilities. If you ratify the optional protocol, the Judiciary will have to take the CRPD and the rights in the CRPD seriously and apply them. You do that if you incorporate it.

If you can have recourse to the Judiciary against an Administration that is not quite willing to implement the laws that Parliament has passed to the degree necessary, an active Judiciary will have an impact on the Administration and that then will transform, hopefully, into better implementation of the laws by the Administration. It adds the regular parts of government that we usually rely on in order to implement the laws. If you do not ratify the optional protocol, you will leave out the Judiciary and, as in all areas of law, if you leave out the Judiciary something is lacking and implementation will suffer.

Then there is a symbolic consequence.

Not ratifying the optional protocol tells the world community you are not comfortable enough with what you are doing to have an external body in a court-like procedure examine whether your internal actions, as they transform to individuals, are in conformity with the CRPD. It creates the impression among the rest of the world that you are not confident enough that you are doing enough or whether you are implementing what you are doing to the degree that suffices under the CRPD. The optional protocol and the convention together are one whole. That is why the committee continuously urges and recommends member states to ratify the optional protocol. I am the special rapporteur on new communications on the committee so I deal with all the individual communications as they come in as well as with, for example, the interim measures that have become more important. It is important that, even from the international level, we give people who think their rights have been violated under the convention a recourse outside of their country that gives them the assurance that the person looking at their case is not entangled within the confines of the political system of a specific country. The optional protocol can assure that.

I will go to members of our committee and then we will go back to the members of the Spanish Senate again. Our next speaker is Deputy Hourigan. I know that some members of the Spanish Senate wanted to come back on points Deputy Cairns raised. They might take the two points after Deputy Hourigan has spoken. Deputy Hourigan, you are on mute. We are not hearing you in the committee room. Do you want to see whether you can resolve the issue? Will I go to the next speaker and give you a chance to come back, Deputy Hourigan? We will come back to Deputy Hourigan in a few moments.

This is my first time attending this committee, so I wish you, Chairman, and the committee well in the work you do. As the only Member of the Oireachtas with a declared physical disability and a Senator in my third term, I think the establishment of the committee is very welcome and I hope we will see benefits from the work it does.

I have a couple of questions. I thank the contributors. It very interesting to listen to the international perspective on this. I was struck by a comment made earlier about how poor Ireland is in respect of employment of people with disabilities, and that is true. We have an appalling record in that regard. Education and employment are intrinsically linked. Is there an example internationally of near full participation of people with disabilities in integrated education which then leads on to a better prospect of employment? I would like to know whether there is an example of good education which has led on to good-quality employment.

As for the review of the UNCRPD, I note the EDF is essentially monitoring it and picks a different topic each year. It was Covid last year. Are there other NGOs that do similar monitoring? I am thinking in particular of the Zero Project, which holds a conference in Vienna every year. Is that part of the EDF's network, or how does that work? I would be concerned if there were a plethora of organisations monitoring but not working together on this.

Does the EDF have any statistics on the number of policymakers across Europe who have a declared physical disability? I am referring to people who participate in other European countries. Our system is PR-STV, so our Parliament is very much elected by the people. The Seanad is elected in part by county councillors and Members of the Oireachtas. There are list systems in many countries. Is there an area where the witnesses see best practice and where the list system is used to put people with physical disabilities into positions of influence? If so, has that resulted in a better and a more equal politics? Those are just some reflections on my thought process from what I have heard so far today. I would like to hear our guests' views on those points.

We will go to the Spanish committee. While the witnesses are reflecting on Senator Conway's contribution, Deputy Cairns raised the question of truly ensuring participation of people with disabilities in the implementation of the UNCRPD. The witnesses might give us their thoughts on that as well. Who wants to take Senator Conway's questions?

Ms Naughton might like to do so.

Ms Catherine Naughton

I am happy to do so. They are great questions. I thank Senator Conway. I would be very interested in Mr. Schefer's viewpoint as to whether any country reviewed by the CRPD committee has seen its education system found to be completely aligned to the convention. I think that is a work in progress in most countries. I do not know that you will find a country that would say it has managed to fully include children with disabilities with adequate support in mainstream classrooms, making sure they have education on an equal basis with other children. Certainly, in European countries and in most other countries, there is a lot of work still to be done to ensure that.

The Zero Project is a kind of annual conference which celebrates good practice. It does not monitor the convention. Rather, it shows snapshots of good practice in different fields. It brings people together to discuss matters, highlights what is going well and stimulates international co-operation. It does not have a formal role in monitoring the convention.

It is true, however, that co-ordination and collaboration are extremely important. At the European level, when we had, for example, the last and the first review of the EU by the CRPD committee, as the EDF we worked together with all our members and with any other organisation that contributed to the review of the EU. We had meetings and discussed priorities. When the review took place in Geneva, we also met with all the people concerned. We tried to work out what the top priorities that affect everyone were. However, you still have, and I think the committee appreciates having, the viewpoints of different sectors and organisations. The committee probably also appreciates it when the organisations can come together and define priorities so it is possible for the committee itself to see what the top issues at stake are.

In addition, at the international level there is the International Disability Alliance, which tries to support the disability movement to engage with the committee in Geneva. When any country is being reviewed, the International Disability Alliance gives advice and support to the disability movement to contact the committee, to present its priorities and to act as a sort of support and clearing house in Geneva, working directly to make sure that in every country the disabled persons organisations, DPOs, can find out who the committee member reviewing in their country is and what the different committee members specialise in. We in the disability movement try to act at the national, regional and international level to do that co-ordination without trying to curtail too much the involvement that could come. For example, when the EU was reviewed, we found that organisations such as those working on corporal punishment of children and very many other issues that we had not really included in our work added a richness to the report given to the committee.

On the number of decision makers, I do not know. It is a really good question. We try to look at it every time for the European Parliament. The number is always extremely small. We always look at the representation between men and women, which is easier to assess, more or less. As the Senator says, many people with disabilities do not declare as such, they do not put it forward and it is not counted very specifically. In the European Parliament at the moment there are a small number of members with disabilities, fewer than ten, that we know of. Some of them are active in the disability intergroup of the Parliament. They immediately come and join the intergroup and work on disability issues. Some of them are less involved in disability issues and are working more on other issues, so it is not always that parliamentarians with disabilities work on the disability agenda straight away. I do not have a number across Europe but I think in the Parliament it is something like five or six. Again, this is something I could come back to the committee on in more detail. We could try to do some research on it if it is of interest to the Senator.

I would be very interested to know the number of people with declared disabilities who are directly elected as opposed to becoming members of parliament through the list system. I suspect that if you were to look at the number directly elected, it is a minute - tiny - proportion, because of the ten in the European Parliament, my understanding is that a number of them get elected through the list system. I think that for a long time, former MEP Mr. Brian Crowley was the only one directly elected by the people. If there were more who were directly elected or got through the list system, it would certainly help the programme of work the forum is trying to achieve.

Ms Catherine Naughton

I fully agree with the Senator. It is not even ten; it is fewer. The reason I said ten is I know there will be people who do not come forward as saying they are a parliamentarian with a disability.

Okay. I thank the Chairman.

Does Mr. Schefer want to come in there?

Mr. Markus Schefer

The committee has not reviewed any country thus far where it has not found serious deficiencies in the education system. Of course, from the side of the committee, I cannot now go into naming the countries which do best and worst but an aspect that frequently contributes to low unemployment is the transfer from the education system into the labour market. That proves to be very difficult. There was no single exception we have looked at where that was not a main difficulty for persons with disabilities. Therefore, as I said in the opening statement, implementing the CRPD is something which every single member state struggles with and education is one of the areas where the struggle is particularly intense.

Deputy Hourigan does not appear to be online. I call Senator Higgins.

I had a few questions I wanted to come in with. In speaking to our colleagues in the Spanish Senate, I was very struck by what Senator Escudero Ortega mentioned about playgrounds and that idea of participation. Can our guests comment on the importance of those aspects that are not necessarily the basic needs? So often it can be such a struggle to access education, healthcare and appropriate housing that is not institutionalised that the measures required to give access to those other aspects of life such as cultural participation and participation in public life and political life can sometimes be left to the side. Perhaps our guests can comment on that full picture within the UNCRPD in terms of full access, full expression of rights and full participation. What I like about that as well is that it flips not just the notion of society having an obligation to certain of its members but more the picture or the vision of the society we want, namely, one where we are all benefiting from each other. That is one piece I would like a little bit of comment on.

The other piece concerns the optional protocol and its importance, as that is a key focus for us today. Something we encounter again and again in the committee is individuals with a disability or sometimes their families who, as well as all the other challenges they must face, must take on a huge body of work in advocacy. They must spend many hours in advocacy work, not in creating new rights but in accessing those rights they already hold. One of the reasons I believe the optional protocol is important, which I would like our guests' thoughts on, relates to people who are engaging in that advocacy which can be so difficult. One of the hopes within the optional protocol is that when individuals engage in advocacy through its mechanisms, they do not simply win a resolution, outcome or improvement for their own situation but that maybe it establishes a body of case law so there is then a wider giving of that benefit rather than the same battle being fought in multiple places again and again. I also hope we will be looking to case law in other countries in the context of the optional protocol, such as at what was decided around what is a meaningful vindication of a particular article in a certain country. Will our guests comment on the importance of building up the interpretations that might flow from something like the optional protocol in shaping that wider implementation and delivery of the full vision of the UNCRPD?

I have another comment for our colleagues in the Spanish Senate. I was interested in the national vision and the local municipality embracing of that. What has been the experience of good things happening in a particular municipality getting extended? I refer to the flow back upwards whereby if there is a municipality or local authority showing leadership, how do we give it mechanisms to spread that? In this regard I am very conscious that the UNCRPD, like the SDGs, is universal in that it has a universal vision. I am hoping we get a flow whereby we are taking the best practice from a town in Spain and we are applying it in a town in Ireland, for example. I hope that will be the case for the SDGs as well as for the UNCRPD.

Perhaps there will be comments on those issue. I thank our guests again. It has been a really interesting discussion.

Who wants to take that? Perhaps members of the Spanish committee want to come in and speak to the last points Senator Higgins raised?

Mr. Jesús Caro Adanero

Good morning. First of all, I congratulate all the members of the committee for all the work they have been conducting. Disability is a fundamental issue. It is important we give our best efforts to improving the quality of life of persons with disabilities. Here in Spain we have made great progress in the past 62 years. I say 62 years because I am a person with disabilities myself and for 62 years I have not had full vision, so I know what I am talking about. These days, thanks to new legislation, children with vision problems are fully integrated within the education system.

Thanks to new legislation, children with vision problems are fully integrated within the education system. I wish that had been my experience.

We are fully convinced by the Spanish Government that the new education law has two main objectives. The first is integrating all people with disabilities and the second is raising awareness in the rest of students. Both of these are of fundamental importance. Those of us who have felt what it is to have a disability are fully aware of how hard it is to live in society. It is hard when somebody has a disability and they must hide it when looking for employment, for example.

When I was 20, I joined Telefónica, a very big corporation in Spain, after passing an exam. It was the achievement of a great goal. After three months of training, I went to a doctor for a physical exam, and the decision was made that due to my visual disability, I could not work with the company. I have been in the army but I could not work with that company because of my sight. It is important to learn to fight and all people with disabilities have a special and very important gift that lets us make a greater effort to become a better person.

I founded a company when I was 30. I am the general secretary of a province, Ávila, and I am a Senator in Spain. It is an honour for me to be here to testify at this committee discussing disabilities. We are all working to try to improve the awareness in society. It is very important we all work together.

We have done much in Spain with committed organisations and important associations. Some of them are local and some are national. We have the Organización Nacional de Ciegos Españoles, ONCE, in Spain, for visually disabled people and those with other physical disabilities. It is mainly focused on visual disability. For many years these organisations have guided us, raised awareness and recognition and improved access to the labour market. It is important for people with a disability to be able to work to get recognition. At the beginning, I stated it was important to raise awareness for people when they are children and it is even more important when those people must access the labour market. It is important that there should be no limitations. As I need to be brief, I cannot go into detail.

I thank the witness very much for his answer and examples. Could Mr. Schefer or Ms Naughton perhaps comment on the case law and the importance of a standard definition of disability in building a common body of best practice in law? I apologise if I have cut across a speaker.

Mr. Jesús Caro Adanero

The Senator need not worry as I was about to finish my intervention. We should have these kinds of meetings more often and it may at some stage be possible to meet in a physical room. This pandemic is especially hard for people with a disability but it should not hinder us from meeting to discuss matters affecting people from different countries. It is important to include this in the political agenda of countries in Europe. It is important if we are to solve this.

I apologise again. I did not realise I had cut across a speaker.

Mr. Pat Clarke

I mentioned earlier the Wicklow County Council example of involving persons with a disability at the municipal level. That is at a cultural perspective. If that could be replicated across the country, it would be a great advantage to including persons with disabilities from a very young age in society.

Senator Conway asked a question about education and the transition from education to work for people with disabilities. I mentioned the comprehensive employment strategy, the implementation group and the work it is doing. There is also quite a deal of work being done by various disability organisations like WALK and Down Syndrome Ireland in preparing people with disabilities for access to the workplace. There are good examples of projects funded by the Government. They demonstrate what can be done with the right attitude and mentality.

Mr. Markus Schefer

I have been asked to give a brief reply to a question. When the committee decides on cases under the optional protocol, it contributes not only to deciding individual cases but also the development of a body of law. That is true for any court. We have not been able to do this in the committee to a very large extent because we have only existed for a couple of years.

Even during this short period we have created a body of law on the principle of non-refoulement in the area of disabilities rights. Migration authorities may have decided an asylum seeker from another country may need to be removed from the country and repatriated to the country of origin. What would be the legal requirements under the convention? We have spelled this out in several cases and they come to us quite often. Quite frequently we are required to take interim measures. It is not each individual case that is being decided on its own and we are creating a body of law that pertains to the problem of removing persons with disabilities from a country and repatriating to a country of origin, where he or she might face death within a couple of months or persecution by family and society as a whole and so on.

The Senator mentioned a definition of disability under the convention.

Our case law under the optional protocol clarified that albinism is also an impairment that transforms or may transform into a disability depending on the society. Participating in the individual reporting of the optional protocol allows a country to also give the input necessary through its cases to contribute to the body of law that we develop in the committee.

In addition, our cases are structured in a way that give recommendations in the individual case and the general recommendations on what laws to change. That is certainly also important for other countries to look at, when one looks at the concluding observations. For example, if one looks at the first case against Spain in which we decided on the right to education, that is a case that will also set the tone for other countries.

It is an integral part of what the UNCRPD means. The UNCRPD is law and under the European Convention on Human Rights we are all used to the fact that the European Court of Human Rights creates a body of law and the same applies under the UNCRPD.

I thank Mr. Schefer. Does Senator Higgins wish to speak?

I thank the Chairman and Mr. Schefer for his answer.

I call Deputy Murnane O'Connor now.

I thank the Chairman and the witnesses today. On the impact on people with disabilities across the EU, how can countries within the EU work together to ensure alignment with the UNCRPD? Have lessons been learned here?

People with disabilities in Ireland were impacted significantly in loss of services by both the financial crisis and the Covid-19 pandemic. Can the witnesses discuss how we can ensure the most vulnerable are protected?

A further question which has already been highlighted is how we ensure effective implementation of the UNCRPD at local government level to ensure a co-ordinated approach. I know that Mr. Clarke spoke about Wicklow County Council where the roll-out has been quite slow. We have 31 local authorities and it is very important at local and national level that we have a co-ordinated approach and we need a plan for that. What are our witnesses' ideas on that?

Finally, what are our witnesses' views on a medical model of disability? We have not spoken about the medical area. I was wondering what we might do in that area because it will be a very important issue. I thank the speakers again.

I thank Deputy Murnane O'Connor. Which of our guests would like to deal with those questions? I call Ms Naughton to speak now.

Ms Catherine Naughton

I thank the Deputy for her questions and I am very happy to answer on the European co-operation question. This is very timely and a very good question because the European Union adopted its disability strategy in March which outlines activities at both EU and national levels to try to harmonise and co-ordinate in a better way, as the Deputy has mentioned. A disability platform will be set up which should include representatives from EU and national level. It is very important for Ireland to have a robust engagement on the disability platform as it is set up to see whether, from Ireland’s point of view, it wants to set up working groups on specific topics that it may want to co-operate on with other European countries. The more dynamics that come from the national level, the more this will energise that disability platform. This is an opportunity for setting up a structure of co-operation. The terms of reference have not been launched for this yet but an online platform should be possible for national and European engagement, peer exchange and sharing on various topics.

One part of EU laws and policies which is a weakness in European co-operation is that the convention calls on all state parties to have a focal point and co-ordination mechanism. We discussed earlier that it would be very good in Ireland, for example, to have something like this in the Taoiseach’s office which has that horizontal mainstreaming. This has not yet been very well established at EU level but the European Parliament has a disability interest group that is looking at creating a focal point and it already has a UNCRPD network which is somewhat advanced. We all know that the members of the Council of the European Union are people who stay up all night to make decisions about large and important political and economic issues within the Union. The Council has no focal point on the UNCRPD. That means that there is no part of the Council where we have a contact point person who would look at horizontal mainstreaming and the rights of persons with disabilities. These are the discussions and this is the place where important legislation is reshaped in a real way by member states.

Another thing that would greatly contribute to a harmonised approach in Europe would be to have a focal point in the Council of the European Union and the EU Council where the Ministers and heads of state sit and make decisions about resource allocation. Many more parts could have been added to the European accessibility act, which is an EU directive that was adopted a couple of years ago and is a very strong piece of legislation concerning accessibility mainly in the digital field mainly for the European Single Market, but in the negotiations with the Council of the European Union many parts were removed. These discussions do not take place with people with disabilities and their representative organisations. The Council of the European Union has more of a closed-door discussion. The European Ombudsman has also been working on the transparency of decision-making, and this is something that Ireland can contribute to. If it believes that people with disabilities should be at the table in the national discussions, then it would also be important to be present at the European level. I thank the committee.

I thank Ms Naughton. Does anybody else wish to contribute? I thank our guests very much for their engagement. It is very important that we have cross-European engagement. With Covid-19, physical meetings have been more difficult. I thank our colleagues in the Spanish Parliament for joining us this morning. I thank all those on the team who have discussed so freely with our committee and who are clearly on top of their brief. It is clear that a great deal more work has to be done right across the country, Europe and the world to make the lives of people with disabilities more inclusive with better outcomes for everybody. We thank everybody for their engagement. We will certainly return to our guests. If Covid-19 allows, we may take them up on their offer to meet physically. I thank our committee members for their contributions, time, patience, and perseverance in the work we are trying to do on the committee.

The joint committee adjourned at 2.08 p.m. until 12.30 p.m. on Thursday, 3 June 2021.