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Joint Committee on Disability Matters debate -
Thursday, 17 Jun 2021

UN Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities and Ratification of Optional Protocol: Discussion (Resumed)

The purpose of today's meeting is to discuss the implementation and ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, UNCRPD, optional protocol. On behalf of the committee, I welcome Fergal Lynch, Secretary General of the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, and departmental representatives Carol Baxter, Úna Ní Dhubhghaill and Richard Quilliam. I am delighted to welcome from the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, Sinéad Gibney, chief commissioner, and commission member Adam Harris.

I remind members they are allowed to participate in this meeting if they are physically located in the precincts of Leinster House or when the Dáil meets in the convention centre. In this regard, if members are joining remotely, I will ask them to confirm they are in the grounds of Leinster House or in the convention centre. For anyone watching this meeting, witnesses are accessing this meeting remotely. Due to unprecedented circumstances, I ask that everyone bear with us should any technical issues arise.

Before we commence our proceedings, I bring your attention to the formalities and advise our witnesses on that matter. You are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given. Members are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise nor make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

I wish to advise witnesses giving evidence from a location outside the parliamentary precincts to note that the constitutional protection afforded to witnesses attending to give evidence before the committees may not extend to them. No clear guidance can be given on whether or not the extent to which the evidence is covered by absolute privilege of a statutory nature. Persons giving evidence from other jurisdictions should be mindful of the domestic statutory regime. If they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence in relation to a particular matter they must respect that direction. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House, or an official, in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

I call Mr. Lynch to make his opening remarks.

Dr. Fergal Lynch

I thank the committee for the invitation to attend the meeting. As the Chair said, I am joined by my departmental colleagues Carol Baxter, assistant secretary, Úna Ní Dhubhghaill, principal officer, and Richard Quilliam, assistant principal officer.

Our Department was established in its current format last October. This is the first opportunity for officials to meet with the committee since we took on very important disability functions from what was the Department of Justice and Equality. We have also taken on other functions in the equality area, as well as matters relating to international protection and integration. Since we became the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, our formal mission is to enhance the lives of children, young people, adults, families and communities, recognising diversity and promoting equality of opportunity. For the first time Ireland has a Department with "Disability" in its title, illustrating that disability is a key pillar of our work. It is an area we will continue to expand on with the transfer to us of responsibility for community-based disability services from the Department of Health.

It is both practical and symbolic that the Department tasked with promoting equality now has responsibility for important strands of disability policy and that this responsibility is set to grow further. Taking on these functions is central to our wish to move from medical models of disability to a social and rights-based way of thinking about, and progressing, disability issues. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities is key to how we wish to plan and deliver our work. The breadth of the new Department’s remit ensures that we see our work in disability not as a single focus area, but one that intersects with our other policy responsibilities across equality, children and young people. This encourages us to think more widely, understanding that the links between disability, gender, race and age affect people in complex ways. We need to think and work with those complexities in mind.

The new Department has a pivotal role in respect of progressing disability and promoting the implementation of the UN convention. Since October last, we become the national focal point and co-ordination mechanism for the UN convention. This places us at the centre of all activity relating to the progression of the convention and the specific actions that are being taken across Departments. While we are not implementers of the vast majority of policy relating to disability, we have key responsibilities in monitoring and co-ordination of that activity. For example, the Department is responsible for our reporting requirements to the UN committee. In this regard, I can report today that we are at an advanced stage in the drafting of Ireland’s initial state report to the committee. I am conscious of concerns to conclude this phase as soon as possible, and we are keen to do so, but we consciously took time for a meaningful consultation process.

The Department also has responsibility for the design of an overarching UN convention implementation plan, which we are currently working on and will be an important basis on which to pursue and monitor our progress in implementation. In addition, the Department co-ordinates the activity which takes place under two key Government strategies, the national disability inclusion strategy and the comprehensive employment strategy for people with disabilities.

These responsibilities are not simply administrative. In fact, they afford the Department a position from which it can promote a human rights and UN convention-conscious approach across Departments and agencies. In addition to these important co-ordination roles, we have direct responsibilities for implementing policy that progresses the realisation of the rights of people with disabilities in particular areas. Specifically, the Department is responsible for establishing a disability participation and consultation network, funding the employers for change initiative, continuing to progress key legislation relating to disability and delivering the access and inclusion model.

The disability participation and consultation network is aimed at ensuring we deliver on the obligations of the convention to include and hear directly from people with disabilities and their representative organisations when developing policy legislation. The employers for change imitative provides a vital service in the context of the employment of people with disabilities. Removing barriers to work and employment is the key to the implementation of the convention. The progress on key legislation relating to disabilities includes the ongoing work on the assisted decision making legislation, which I hope will be considered by the Government the week after next, and the commencement in December last of the Irish Sign Language Act. The Department is, therefore, providing for law that promotes and protects the rights of individuals with disabilities. The access and inclusion model provides for access and meaningful participation of children with disabilities in early years education, ensuring that Ireland has an inclusive education system at all levels, as required under Article 24 of the convention.

When the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, appeared before this committee in November last, he stated that he was "determined that our new Department [would be grounded in] in human rights and social justice" and that it would "drive changes" for children and adults with disabilities. I believe the Department has begun this work by implementing the measures outlined before the committee and by putting in place pathways to continue the progress to full realisation of the UN convention, as outlined in the programme for Government. Of course, we have much work to do, but I am very pleased the Department has given me these important functions. I look forward to working with this important committee as the implementation process continues.

I thank Dr. Lynch and invite Ms Gibney to make her opening statement.

Ms Sinéad Gibney

On behalf of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, I thank the Chairman and members for the invitation. I am joined by my colleague and commission member Adam Harris, who is also the vice chair of our disability advisory committee. The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission is Ireland's human rights institution and national equality body. We are also Ireland's in-house monitoring mechanism designate under Article 33 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and in this role we welcome the opportunity today to share our recommendations on UNCRPD implementation and the ratification of the optional protocol. We note the stated commitment to developing an implementation plan for the UNCPRD in the programme for Government, and the role of the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman's, Department as the main co-ordination point in developing this implementation plan. It is important to say from the outset, however, that we, as a commission, are already concerned about growing delays in implementation and associated reporting.

"Optional protocol" is a technical term that, unfortunately, does a disservice to its meaning and significance and masks the urgent need for action for people with disabilities and our society. The protocol is about empowering people with disabilities. It underpins effective domestic implementation of the convention by encouraging states to realise CRPD rights, provide more local remedies and remove discriminatory laws and practices.

Similarly, ratification and implementation say little of the vision of a better life that the CPRD and its optional protocol hold, one in which people with disabilities are viewed not as objects to be cared for, but as people with rights who are capable of claiming those rights and making decisions for their lives based on their free and informed consent, as well as being active members of society. During our All Human, All Equal disability rights public awareness campaign, one of the participants, Eliona Gjecaj, stated that it hurts when people tell her she is an inspiration because she is just human like everybody else. While this committee and others can go some way to addressing these out-of-date, if well-intentioned, views, it is through concerted and co-ordinated State leadership to embed the CRPD in law and policy that lasting change will be achieved in attitudes, behaviours and practices.

The optional protocol is the key to that. It introduces two procedures to strengthen the implementation of the convention, namely, an individual communications one and an inquiry one. In particular, the individual communication procedure offers an essential access-to-justice mechanism for rights holders where all available domestic remedies have been exhausted. Last week, on behalf of the commission and prompted by our disability advisory committee, I wrote to the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, and the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, emphasising the need for the State to progress the adoption of the optional protocol as a matter of urgency. Considering delays in reporting to the UN and an anticipated lengthy delay of the UN examination due to backlogs, we consider that the State plan to ratify the optional protocol after the first reporting cycle, which could take several more years, needs to be reconsidered and should be brought forward.

In this context, accountability for implementing the UNCRPD outside the international reporting process has become all the more important. Relying on the committee's feedback and observations to guide Ireland's implementation of the convention is no longer an option. Disabled people have waited too long to have their rights realised. In line with the principles that underpin the UNCRPD, we also recommended in our letter that the Minister make an annual statement to the Dáil on the progress on implementing UNCRPD, starting this year. We believe such a statement would be a very positive signal and a demonstrable commitment to meeting Ireland's international obligations to people with disabilities, and would serve to promote transparency for stakeholders. To support the Government's implementation plan, we also recommend that the State develop a framework for the recognition and support of disabled persons' organisations and pay due regard to the statutory public sector equality and human rights duty.

I will conclude with the words of Gary Allen, another All Human, All Equal campaign participant, to illustrate the potential that the CRPD and optional protocol can release: "Just because I have a disability doesn't mean my limits are any less than anybody else's." I thank members for their attention. Mr. Harris and I will be happy to take questions from them all.

I thank Ms Gibney.

I thank our guests for attending. My first questions are for Dr. Lynch and relate to the ratification of the optional protocol. The Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, in response to a parliamentary question, reiterated the commitment in the programme for Government to addressing this issue. The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission stated that this could take years and no reference was made to the ratification of the optional protocol in the opening statement. Will Dr. Lynch explain the divergence in priority between him and the Minister? At a meeting of this committee, the Minister was very clear in his statement. Does Dr. Lynch intend to accelerate the process as a result of this? If that is the position of the commission, does he intend to recommend that the Minister do the same?

Dr. Fergal Lynch

Can members hear me better now? I understand there was a problem with our microphones.

Dr. Fergal Lynch

Apologies for that. Deputy Cairns's question concerns one of the most important issues we will be dealing with during this meeting. I have discussed the matter with the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, and the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte. When we spoke initially about ratifying the optional protocol at the end of the reporting cycle, this was on the assumption that the cycle would take a particular length of time, that is, until at some stage next year. It seems to be case now that there is going to be a significant delay on the UN end, as we understand it will be quite some time before we are invited to Geneva to speak about this. If that is the case, I can confirm we will be very open to ratifying the convention much sooner. We would like to do it as soon as possible but, obviously, logistics are involved and we want to ensure we have the proper systems and procedures in place to ensure we ratify it with meaning as opposed to just nominally ratifying it.

Our main concern relates to having this operational. As members will be aware, we have committed that the targets for that are for this time next year, in June. We hope the assisted decision-making capacity legislation, which deals with that, will have been enacted by the end of this year. With that in mind, if we can achieve that objective in that timetable, the Department and the Minister will strongly push to have the optional protocol ratified as soon as possible thereafter. If it is the case that the reporting cycle is significantly delayed, we will seek to ratify it well before the end of that reporting cycle.

Ultimately, with whom does the decision to ratify the optional protocol rest, is it with Mr. Lynch or is or with the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman?

Dr. Fergal Lynch

Ultimately, it is the Government. The Department would make recommendations to the Minister. The other component I need to stress is that the Attorney General has an important role in this in judging the legal perspective to ensure that Ireland is legally positioned to ratify the protocol. Ultimately, it is a matter on which the Minister would bring a decision to Government to seek its approval. There is a recognised process thereafter, through the Department of Foreign Affairs, where the instrument is formally ratified.

I thank Mr. Lynch and call Deputy Wynne now to speak.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an gCathaoirleach and I wish everybody a good afternoon. I thank everybody for joining us here today on the committee. I have a number of questions on the topic at hand to look at the co-ordination, implementation and oversight of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, CRPD, on the one hand, and the lack of clarity around the ratification of the optional protocol.

First, Ms Gibney has mentioned something that resonated greatly with me when she pointed to the fact that the technical terminology of words like "optional protocol" and "ratification" disguised the fact that this is about value and worth, about equality, and disabled people being able to demand that their rights are safeguarded and provided for by this Government. The shift from disabled people being seen as objects to be cared for to being people with rights requires deep attitudinal transformation and corresponding cultural, social, systemic and structural changes to reflect that shift of perspective. So far, the transfer of the disability portfolio from the Department of Health to the newly-formed Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth has been mainly semantic. Yes, finally the word “disability” explicitly appears in the title of a Department, but that is not much good if the Department is not actively progressing policy and programmes.

The Department of Health dealt with disability through a medical model and addressed services. This Department must bring forward social, rights-based developments.

Interestingly, in the Revised Estimates for public service finances, under the five programmes listed under Vote 40, none is disability-specific. The only distinct investment in the progression of the rights of disabled people in its allocation is to the National Disability Authority through the equal and inclusive society expenditure. The Minister, Deputy O’Gorman, announced, Hub na nÓg, a new programme for youths; he has commissioned a new anti-racism task committee; and luckily there are several well-established programmes for children. It is becoming more and more apparent that disability is the aspect of the Department that is falling by the wayside. Will there be a disability programme in budget 2022?

The rest of my questions are about timing, funding and responsibility. Looking at timing first, can the members of the Department here outline the roadmap as to when the roll-out of the programmes mentioned in the lead up to budget 2022, such as the access and inclusion model and the employers for change initiative, will happen?

Second, on funding, will the Department dedicate more disability-specific programmes in the upcoming budget for 2022 in order to honour the provisions of the CRPD and its centrality in the overall remit of the Department? I know that the transfer of the portfolio has many financial complications and consequences. Although the Department may not have a full allocation for disability services that does not prevent it from initiating equality-based empowerment, educational and rights-based programmes.

On responsibility, as per the expertise from the CRPD committee together the European Disability Forum, there has to be interdepartmental co-ordination in order to effectively realise the provisions of the CRPD. Where is the Department on that issue? What actions have been taken to have representatives from different Departments working together on disability-related issues? Is stewardship needed or expected from the office of the Taoiseach to oversee the transfer of functions? The transfer has been ambiguous as to a clear timeline. A constant fog surrounds the ratification of the optional protocol. It will take several more years if we wait until the final first reporting cycle is complete. When combined with the extremely protracted nature of the CRPD in the first instance, this points to a general political unwillingness to accelerate the changes that are needed.

Lastly, who is responsible? Is it the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte; the Minister, Deputy O’Gorman; or possibly the Taoiseach who can review the decision to delay ratification and give some teeth to the convention? Gabhaim buíochas.

I thank Deputy Wynne. Who from our guests would like to respond to her questions?

Dr. Fergal Lynch

I will respond, in the first instance, Chairman, if I may. I thank the Deputy for her various questions. I hope that some of them will have been answered in respect of the protocol where I underline our wish to ensure that we seek to ratify the optional protocol as soon as we possibly can rather than waiting for the end of the reporting cycle.

On co-ordination and implementation, there is a significant architecture to ensure that it happens and it is important that we work our way through that. In the first instance, we have the steering group for the national disability integration strategy and the group in respect of the comprehensive employment strategy.

I respectfully disagree that it has just been semantics in moving responsibilities from the Department of Justice to this Department. We have been very active since we took over this area last October and, of course, there is a significant amount of more work to be done. One of the important things that the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, has done is to fund the disability participation and consultation network. That will be a very important group in assisting and supporting people with a disability to input into the process of implementation and being consulted on that. We regard that as being of great importance and want to press ahead with it as much as we possibly can.

I can confirm that the Employers for Change initiative is already in place and is producing some positive results. We have, obviously, a distance to go yet but there are some positive results in this.

The Deputy asked about co-ordination from the Department of the Taoiseach. It is always a matter for the Government to decide who co-ordinates actions that apply right across different Departments and agencies but I am conscious that the Government made a very specific decision to assign disability services to our Department with a clear intention that we would have responsibility for co-ordination functions, which we have taken on enthusiastically. We have a history in co-ordinating other areas such as First 5 in the early years area. We also have a number of other strategies where we co-ordinate, including the National Strategy for Women and Girls 2017-2020; the National Traveller and Roma Inclusion Strategy, 2017 – 2021; and other such strategies in the equality sphere.

We are well-positioned to co-ordinate and to do what we possibly can in that respect. It is never an easy function because it involves cajoling and encouraging other Departments and agencies to get on board and work with us but we have a good record in other areas of doing that. While we always welcome the support of the Department of the Taoiseach, my understanding is that the Government’s view is that it is this Department that will carry out this co-ordination. That is, obviously, a matter at all times for the Government to decide.

The disability budget for 2022 will be an Estimates process. We are already working on our Estimates process for next year. Similarly, in the health sphere, the Department of Health's function in this area is being transferred from that the Department to here and we will also be closely involved in that Estimates process over the next number of months.

One way or another we are showing reasonable form. For example, we have increased the funding on the decision support service from €3.5 million in 2020 up to €5.8 million in 2021. I hope that that is a practical indication of the extent to which we place an emphasis on ensuring that this important service will be properly up and running and operational.

I hope that I have covered most of the Deputy’s questions. The Deputy also asked about the Access and Inclusion Model, AIM. That, if I may say so, is one of our success stories. The numbers who have benefited from the targeted services under AIM are some 15,000 children since it started in 2016. The total budget has gone up from €43 million to €48 million. It has benefited many more children in addition to the 15,000 who were the beneficiaries of targeted supports and it supports approximately 3,600 childcare providers. It has won awards both here and internationally and is generally regarded as something of a success story. That is not to say for a moment that we are resting on our laurels or anything like that. AIM is due to be evaluated. This is under way at the moment and is due to be completed in February 2022.

According to an independent review carried out on the second year of the AIM's operations, 78% of parents reported that their children had benefited from it. A similar proportion said the AIM had made the culture of preschool more important. Rightly, speakers have been talking about culture, outlook, support and inclusivity. The AIM programme is all about that. I hope that gives some illustration of this Department's commitment to work in this area.

Ms Sinéad Gibney

I want to build on the questions Deputy Wynne asked on the optional protocol and the timing. I absolutely welcome the Secretary General's comment that the Minister and Department will be open to bringing forward the optional protocol's ratification and not sequencing it after the committee process because that would guarantee a much longer delay. We do not need to delay any further. Deputy Wynne said the complaints procedure itself takes time. That ratification can happen now does not mean it will not result in problems for the Department immediately. It will still give the Department and Government time to put in place the systems and procedures mentioned.

Nominal ratification is, in itself, such a message and a commitment to those in the disability community who have fought so hard for ratification. I remind members of the testimony or evidence received from Professor Gerard Quinn last year. He pointed out the inconsistency in the approaches of the Government to the optional protocol to the CRPD and the revised European Social Charter. Indeed, he believed commencement should happen immediately.

To follow on from what Ms Gibney said, it is important to have a twin-track approach. Complaints procedures must be put in place now so that when the optional protocol is in place, everything will be in place.

I heard the Secretary General say "as soon as possible". What does that mean in months? Is there a deadline? I would like a specific date. Without hanging anyone out to dry, it is important that we get that information.

My sole purpose as a member of this committee is related to my belief that disabilities have been treated in the wrong way for many years. There are many things happening that I would not be proud of as a legislator, as I said the first day I became a member of the committee. It is important that we start to put things right.

I welcome the fact that the Department is taking responsibility for disabilities but there is a major task ahead because there are so many facets to the problems on the ground that are not being addressed, as raised in every public representative's office. They are wide-ranging. The main issue is that parents and families are so frustrated and have to fight so hard for what should be a basic human right for their child, brother, sister or other individual. We talk about putting money into systems and so forth but the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, being from my constituency, will concur that the important point is that the money should go where it should be going, namely, to the person with the disability.

I do not have very many questions. The optional protocol is essential. It is essential that it be delivered and that there be a timeframe in this regard. There is no doubt about that. With it will come all the systems by which complaints can be made. We have a fractious system for allocating funding to organisations and it is characterised by multiplicity and complication. Parents, especially when they find they have a child with a disability or special need, find themselves in a swarm of paperwork and new terminology. It is important that we cut to the chase in the services we provide and make sure they are streamlined and co-ordinated in a way that helps the parents. That is the kernel of what I would like to see happening.

Today is crazy with meetings so it is not with disrespect that I will be leaving in about ten minutes; I have another meeting to go to.

I thank Deputy Canney. Do the witnesses want to respond to his points?

Dr. Fergal Lynch

On the question on timing, I am not in a position to be specific, in terms of months, on how quickly the optional protocol can be ratified. However, we are committed to ratifying it as soon as we possibly can. A key element is making sure the decision support service is in place in advance of ratification. I take the chief commissioner's points on that. We will work as much as we possibly can to achieve it. It is, unfortunately, not completely straightforward. I take the point on the importance of even nominal ratification but, as a Department, we are anxious to have the proper architecture in place to deal with it.

On funding, we will be taking over the disability services from the Department of Health. I am excited and enthusiastic about considering this area, how we can streamline it, whether there are other means of funding and working with organisations to deliver services, and putting the person with the disability at the centre of everything we do. The advantage of moving the services to my Department is that it is relatively small by comparison with the Department of Health, which is very large and has a huge number of other responsibilities. I mean no disrespect to it whatsoever. It probably would not say itself that it was not able to give disability the amount of attention it would like to have given it. Given that ours is a somewhat smaller Department, with a smaller budget and staff, we are hopeful that we will be able to focus on disabilities in a way that would not be possible elsewhere. We are very much looking forward to taking on this area of responsibility and dealing with the types of concerns Deputy Canney has raised.

Mr. Adam Harris

I want to address a couple of the points raised by Deputy Canney. Building on the chief commissioner's point on delays in implementation, it is worth noting the significant surprise within the disability community that the optional protocol was not agreed to on the same day the convention was commenced because the reality is that this had always been expected prior to the ratification of the convention. I note the Secretary General's response today but when queries were raised on the night of the ratification of the convention as to why there were delays, they went unanswered. While the disability community notes the Department's delays and the challenges it faces, ultimately when we talk about implementing with meaning, we believe the meaning the optional protocol will provide to people with disabilities will involve having recourse and a demonstrated commitment by the State to live up to the values of the convention. That really must proceed with urgency.

The issue of funding reaching people with disabilities is highly relevant to Article 4.3 of the convention, which refers to the role of disabled persons' organisations. In Ireland, we are in an unusual position in that we do not have well-funded, established disabled people's organisations, and service providers have a disproportionate influence on policy and advocacy matters within the State. While the work being done by the Department with the Disability Participation and Consultation Network is welcome, Article 4.3 is not just about advocacy; it is also about making sure the voice of people with disabilities directly influences how services are designed and delivered.

That is a crucial area that needs to be followed through to ensure that money reaches those who most need it.

I thank our speakers for their presentations which are very useful for the committee to hear. I echo the words of others, following Mr. Harris's points, that the lack of clear timeframe for the ratification of the optional protocol is disappointing. We have all shared our concerns about that. I appreciate that it is difficult to give an exact time line but will the Secretary General say a little more about the establishment of the decisions support service, the key element in the ratification process?

I have another question on a specific issue in the work being done by the Department. I am conscious that there has been this change and a move into the children's Department from the Departments of Health and Justice and so on. All of us very much welcome that and note the need for an intersectional approach to dealing with disability rights. Where it has really come into focus for myself and others is in the area of education. There are huge issues in my own local area about access to local school places and local ASD classes for children with autism in particular. That is a huge issue in south Dublin and also in other areas. Where provision is made, it is often made at quite a distance from where children and their families live. In some cases they must be bussed or driven out of their area and are therefore missing out on a lot of social engagement locally. It seems inequitable because they may have siblings who are going to local schools and they cannot participate in them. I note that the Department is delivering the access and inclusion model in seeking to ensure meaningful participation of children with disabilities and additional needs in early years education. It is very welcome to see a focus on early years education but how can we be sure that at early years stage we do not see the same difficulty with the lack of local access to places? Is there provision for requiring local providers to ensure that children with disabilities are included? There are huge problems in schools and the process does not seem to be sufficiently robust to ensure that schools will deliver local places.

I thank everyone and to Ms Gibney for her powerful words on disability rights and treating disability matters as rights.

Dr. Fergal Lynch

I thank the Senator for her comments. I take her point about a very specific timeframe for the protocol. It is not really possible for me to be very much more specific now but my focus and that of the Department will be on getting the decision support service in place and moving ahead as quickly as we possibly can thereafter. I cannot be too specific because there are individual steps which are not completely in our control. However, getting the decision support service in place first is valuable and a requirement. Then the Attorney General needs to advise on our readiness to ratify the protocol at that point. We will do everything we can to move it as quickly as we can in that context.

To give some further details on the decision support service, the legislation is being worked on and, as I said in my opening statement, we hope that the Minister will be in a position to bring proposals to the Government on this the week after next, 29 June. The general scheme has priority drafting so the aim is to publish the legislation in the autumn term. Our overall aim is to ensure that the legislation is enacted by the end of the year if at all possible. I think that is a realistic deadline. If we can have that legislation in place by the end of the year, in the meantime the decision support service, which the committee met some weeks ago, has been working on putting its processes and structures in place. The deadline of next June is realistic for it to be operational. The specifics of that include an interdepartmental steering group that is chaired by this Department to ensure that the Act can be commenced by next June. The steering group is also supporting the decision support services to become operational by that date. That steering group is important because it includes representatives of the mental health commission, the decision support service itself, the Department of Health, the HSE, the Department of Justice and the Courts Service. There is a concerted effort by all involved to ensure that we are ready, first, with the legislation and, second, with the practicalities and the logistics of ensuring that it happens within the timeframe.

On the access inclusion model, AIM, and how we ensure local access, we have never had a policy of absolutely requiring this access. What we have done is strongly encouraged it in the financial structures that we have offered in AIM itself and the link individuals, that is the people trained as childcare support personnel to work with children with additional needs, we have funded that programme and its training very substantially.

I am not very close to the access to local education and autism classes in the education sector. We can take that back to the Department of Education. We are very conscious of that as an issue. The Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, recently committed to an autism innovation strategy. The group which will develop that will meet very shortly. I think it is being set up in the next month.

Mr. Adam Harris

On some of the barriers on the ground in accessing services, particularly around education services, we can bring it back to the UNCRPD. The UN convention has not been transposed into national law. Implementation requires national law to work and to live out the values of the convention. We have heard about new legislation today but we should not lose sight of the fact that much of the existing disability legislation in Ireland, dating from the late 1990s and the early 2000s, has never been fully commenced. For example, in education, we are looking at the Education of People with Special Education Needs, EPSEN, Act 2004. The non-commencement of that Act is very problematic from the UNCRPD perspective for a few reasons. It means the bulk of supports provided in an education context are on a non-statutory basis. Where the UNCRPD speaks about rights, the supports provided by the State are of a much more grace and favour nature. Furthermore, the non-commencement for such a period means that the Statute Book in many respects around disabilities is significantly out of date. Very specifically around the context of the UNCRPD, if we take the EPSEN Act, its definition of disability does not align with the definition of disability in the UNCRPD in that it seeks to provide an exhaustive list of disability rather than taking a person-centred approach. It also does not recognise the individual lived experience of disability. Critically, it actually provides an exemption around inclusion. It goes so far as to say that we can be inclusive up to a point but there are some people who we just cannot possibly include. There is a real need to look at our domestic Statute Book, commencing and updating its provisions, if we really are to fulfil the values of the UNCRPD.

I thank our distinguished guests for their submissions and their clarification of a lot of different areas. I am struck by why the optional protocol was deemed optional in the first place. It really should have been part of the whole agreement. There is so much confusion around it and also delay. I understand from what Dr. Lynch said that it may not be as long as we had originally thought which is good news.

In 2015, the Department of Justice published a roadmap for the legislative measures that were needed to meet the requirements of the UNCRPD. An updated roadmap would be beneficial in monitoring implementation. Has an updated review of this kind taken place?

Is there an indicative timeline for the publication of the implementation plan? This crosses all Departments and to have Departments working together is usually important. The witnesses might give an update on how the key Departments are working together.

Of course, we know from one of the UN committee members that many of the issues impacting people with disabilities fall under the responsibility of local government. While local government comes under the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, I would like feedback on how the witnesses think the implementation can be strengthened across local government.

Mr. Harris spoke about inclusive education, and we had a recent engagement with the Spanish Senate commission. This is an area in which I am particularly interested and one we have spoken about quite a lot at the education committee in regard to ensuring inclusive education within communities, on which Senator Ivana Bacik has also spoken. I believe this is key to how we go forward. The Department of Education is one of the most important Departments in this regard and it is where we have to prioritise. Thankfully, we are doing better. In looking at the school building programme over the past year, we can certainly see an emphasis on inclusive and special education, which is important.

Given the impact of Covid in the past 16 months on people with disabilities, particularly those who attend schools and day care centres, it is clear we need to have contingency emergency plans for people with disability because they are so significantly and adversely impacted. I would like to hear the witnesses’ views on that.

There is another area of concern. In the mandate of the previous Dáil, three committees came together in regard to employment for people with disabilities, that is, the education, disability and health committees. EU figures show that Ireland is the country with the lowest employment rate for persons with disabilities and with the largest employment gap between persons with disabilities and persons without disabilities. That is concerning and we need to up our game in this regard.

My last question is the big question in regard to funding. A key measure in terms of translating this into law is ensuring adequate funding is allocated in the national budget for various sectors right across the board. I would be interested to hear if there is any feedback in regard to how we ensure adequate funding across all of the different sectors.

I invite responses from the witnesses.

Dr. Fergal Lynch

I am happy to respond. I thank the Senator for those questions and I hope I do them justice. In terms of what remains to be done on implementation, it is helpful to note that the NDA has done a gap analysis on what is currently in place and what needs to be done to achieve implementation of the convention, and that is important work.

Related to that is how Departments are working together. Our overall structure is one that has worked quite well, even if it is quite complicated. There is a steering group in regard to the national disability inclusion strategy, NDIS, chaired by the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, and there is a steering group in regard to the comprehensive employment strategy, chaired by Fergus Finlay. Both of those have worked throughout the Covid pandemic, met throughout that time and worked closely on the different areas of concern. In terms of moving it forward and ensuring that we make the sort of progress we want to make, in many of the areas raised by the Senator, the response will involve the development of an implementation plan, which we are committed to doing.

We have started work on that with an initial discussion with the steering group on the NDIS in terms of what that might look like. That is going to be a key document, which we hope to produce between now and the end of the year, with a view to publishing it early in 2022. It will contain a number of specific provisions relating to how best to implement the UN convention in all of its areas. One of the things it will do is to highlight and identify the areas that are not yet adequately dealt with and where gaps arise, arising from the analysis that the NDA has carried out. That is going to be an important component of this. We hope to have a draft followed by a consultation process on that in the autumn. That will make a significant difference in how best we advance all of these different components to make sure it is properly and genuinely implemented.

Rather than necessarily having a separate roadmap, it seems the implementation plan will be the way forward. I am conscious that the strategy is due to expire next year, having been consciously extended by a year, and it may be that the way forward in that regard is to merge or effectively group the two together to turn the implementation plan and effectively to represent it as the next national disability inclusion strategy, while also having regard to the employment components.

On the employment side, there are a number of important initiatives, and I mentioned Employers for Change earlier. In terms of our employment record for people with disabilities, one of the things that the assisted decision making (capacity) legislation will do is to provide formally for the public sector to set a target of 6% employment of people with a disability as opposed to the current 3% target. That was provided for originally in the Disability (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill of the previous Oireachtas, which lapsed on the dissolution of the previous Dáil. I am happy that the provisions relating to employment of people with a disability - the increase from 3% to 6% - will be included in that legislation.

Funding is a key issue for us. In future, there will be the national development plan, there will be budgetary arguments and negotiations in the normal way and there will be the normal interaction with individuals and organisations as we go through. Clearly, this is an important part of what we are doing and we want to get it right. I hope that covers the main elements of the Senator's questions.

Thank you. Does Ms Gibney wish to come in?

Ms Sinéad Gibney

Yes, I will come in and Mr. Harris will follow. I want to pick up on two particular points from the Senator: first, the questions regarding local government and, second, the points around Covid. I urge the Department to consider in its implementation plan for the UNCRPD the foregrounding of the public sector equality and human rights duty of 2014. This has been on the Statute Book for seven years. If the local authorities were in compliance with their public sector equality and human rights duty, there would be a natural flow into their compliance with the UNCRPD. Therefore, it is important to remember that this duty is a positive statutory obligation on public sector bodies to have regard for equality and human rights in the work they do, and that they assess, address and report on their activities within it. If we can continue to foreground that, it will help with that implementation plan for the Department. I just wanted to point that out. Obviously, this applies to local authorities.

I want to pick up on a few points on Covid, in particular, as I know this is relevant to the committee today. Equal rights for disabled people have to be central to our recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic. Ireland is set to receive €915 million in grants from the EU's Recovery and Resilience Facility, and the EU has advised that it needs to be spread across gender equality and equal opportunities for all, and this has to include disability considerations. Covid-19 has exposed a lot of vulnerabilities in the architecture of rights for people with disabilities.

Many of us will have already been familiar with those vulnerabilities, but I believe it has exposed them to a much broader audience. It is important for the committee to press Government to progress the range of legislation that we have mentioned today on disability rights and to give full effect to the UNCRPD. We have continued to engage in various forums throughout the pandemic to advise on the issues that are particularly affecting people with disabilities as they have arisen.

To touch on a few of them, the participation of people with disabilities and disabled persons' organisations in the Covid response has been lacking. Of course, we have had particular concerns around the situation of persons in residential settings, including nursing homes. There have also been challenges for people living in congregated settings, whether they are people with disabilities, older people or indeed people living in prisons and mental health detention facilities.

I would also like to emphasise the lack of publicly available real-time disaggregated data. That is problematic for us as a national human rights and equality institution in respect of being able to monitor how the issues and challenges that we are facing as a society and also the response from the State are affecting individual groups and, particularly, people with disabilities. The disruption of services has been really problematic and has led to stagnation and regression for individuals. There have also been problems with accessibility of information, awareness of disability and inadequate positive representation of persons with disabilities. Those are some of the key issues that we wish to highlight.

I would also assert that there is an opportunity for us, as a country, to emerge from this pandemic with a structure and an architecture that better cares for everybody in our society. I urge the committee to emphasise that going forward.

I will hand over to Mr. Harris, who might raise some points on Covid and specifically on employment.

Mr. Adam Harris

There are a few points that I wish to make. Coming back to a point I made earlier on, the issue of a lack of well supported and resourced and consistently consulted DPOs has been a core problem in terms of our response to Covid-19. That might be best illustrated in respect of the issue of school closures. Often, the voices of people who were missing from discussions around that issue were those for whom the services were created. It is a very significant concern that when services were closed, the voices of disabled people were not at the table and were certainly not given the same weight as large services providers or groups with vested interests. That is concerning and it is not in line with the rights-based approach conceived in the UNCRPD.

In addition, there is concern around the fact that there was a lack of sufficient safeguards when Covid-19 restrictions were put in place. Very often, when safeguards were put in place, they were not actively implemented or policed by the Government. That is particularly well illustrated with the example of face coverings. Many disabled people have been isolated at home and unable to access vital services, despite being exempt from wearing a face covering. That is an example of where rights were not protected proactively during the pandemic. It is worrying and it has had a long-term impact.

Looking down the list of articles in the UN convention, there is not one that was not impacted in one way or another during the Covid-19 pandemic. One thing that is of concern is that while to our credit equality legislation was not suspended during the pandemic, the reality is that in practice, the right to access vital supports was suspended. A very bad message was sent by the State when vital supports for people with disabilities, such as occupational and speech and language therapy, were diverted away as if they were not essential services. That sends a message about where we are at still in terms of our understanding and our position around a rights-based approach to accessing support.

Finally, I think the reopening is an opportunity. The world of work is an area where there is a particular opportunity. It is probably the area of life that is going to be most substantially impacted into the future by Covid-19. We are at the very early stages of the discussion of what the future of work looks like. We really must take it as an opportunity to make the world of work more inclusive. For example, we have heard some feedback from around the world that many people with disabilities are underemployed at present because commuting to a workplace, having to interact with people and deal with a busy environment every day is so exhausting that people with disabilities are significantly underemployed or cannot work full-time. The dawn of flexible working potentially creates new opportunities. We must recognise the mistakes that have been made over the past 15 months, but we must use this an opportunity to look at how society is changing and how we can really bring the UNCRPD to life.

I call on Deputy Tully.

Like previous contributors, I wish to welcome our guests today and thank them for their statements. I confirm that I am in Leinster House.

Many points have been raised in the meeting. I agree with those made on the optional protocol. It should have been ratified at the same time as the convention. However, I welcome a timeline for its ratification next year. That is most important. Many of the other points made around how the Covid-19 pandemic has affected society, and particularly people with disabilities, have been well-made. We all know that is the case. It is an opportunity to have a look at how different bodies are run, how supports are provided and to try to improve things with a view to preventing it happening again.

I have a few questions on the important issue of funding. I have a specific one on funding for the IHREC itself. Have sufficient funding and resources been provided to the IHREC to enable it to carry out its role as independent monitor or of the implementation of the convention?

We have talked about different Departments. All of them have a role in implementing the convention. This committee has written to the different Departments. While some have responded with the very comprehensive outline of what they see as their role in the implementation of the convention, the responses of others leave a lot to be desired, to be perfectly honest. I ask the witnesses to outline how the Departments are working together and how we can ensure that they are all carrying out their role.

Can sufficient funding and planning for UNCRPD implementation be achieved without key documents such as the Indecon report on the cost of disability and the disability capacity review. I believe both of those reports are completed, yet they have not been published. It is very important that they are published, because there is a deficit in data on disability in our country. How can we provide for people in need if we do not know where the need is and where the funding is needed?

I have a brief question for Dr. Lynch. He mentioned the Irish Sign Language Act 2017 in his statement. It is something I have been asked about quite a bit. Irish Sign Language was recognised as a State language in 2017. Yet, a four-year honours degree in Deaf Studies from Trinity College Dublin is not accepted as a teaching subject by the Teaching Council. Is that going to happen? People are very anxious to know if Irish Sign Language will be taught in our schools to our students.

Dr. Fergal Lynch

I am sure that Ms Gibney will want to respond to a number of points. Perhaps she might want to comment, in particular, on the funding for IHREC. I am sure she will have a view on that.

On the question of the Irish Sign Language Act 2017, we will pursue that. I am not familiar with what the exact position is on the issue. Given that the Act has now commenced, hopefully, that approach should be possible.

To deal with a few of the other issues in relation to departmental roles, we are very conscious that different Departments have very different roles in relation to the UNCRPD. As the Deputy might expect in many areas of cross-Government co-operation, some Departments are very enthusiastic and interactive and others are perhaps not so. We have similar experience in other areas such as early years, youth services and so on. Therefore, it is a challenge to encourage full participation by all. In our implementation plan for the UN convention, one of the areas that we will look at is identifying the best architecture and way of encouraging co-operation and collaboration between Departments. It is vital to get all of it right.

I wish to comment on a few points raised by Ms Gibney raised because they are very important. I want to respond to, and agree with, a number of points she has made. In the context of the human rights and public sector duty, the Minister is actually going to speak on the topic this afternoon for local government reports that have been launched by Disability Federation Ireland. It is an IHREC-funded initiative. We also place a great emphasis on it. In our own Department's statement of strategy, we placed a very specific emphasis and included a specific addendum setting out our approach to that requirement. We regard it as being of particular importance. That is going to grow in emphasis in other Departments, as the awareness around it grows.

In terms of some funding issues, the new round of European Social Fund funding prioritises funding for employment and training.

We will push that as much as we possibly can.

As for a response to disability during Covid, I take the points Mr. Harris made about how people with a disability were treated and the experiences they had. We laid a great emphasis on supporting them as much as we possibly could. Disability organisations were represented on a vulnerable persons sub-group that NPHET established, and our Department was closely involved in that. The Department put a lot of effort into co-ordinating and communicating with organisations, people with a disability and people representing people with a disability to keep them in the loop on initiatives and what was happening as the pandemic continued. It is probably true to say we ended up developing an even stronger relationship with a number of organisations on foot of that. Of course, I accept there is much more to be done in that regard.

As for the publication of reports, I know that the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, and the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, are anxious to publish the capacity review as soon as they possibly can. That work is being done on a framework for an action plan. That report should be published in the not-too-distant future, and I absolutely take the point that it forms a very important backdrop to what needs to happen in the future.

Those are my responses to the various points raised.

Ms Sinéad Gibney

I thank Deputy Tully for her questions. As for our funding, we are a merged institution and an equality and human rights institution. To give the committee a bit of context, we are only now the same size as the bigger of our former legacy bodies, the Equality Authority, was in 2008. That was a single mandate organisation. We are at a point where we have had a straight budget in recent years as we have been able to develop and build as an organisation. We are now, however, turning into what we describe in the human rights and equality world as a multi-mandate organisation. We are taking on new mandates such as this independent monitoring mechanism and, similarly, the co-ordinator role for the mechanism for the optional protocol to the convention against torture, OPCAT. We also took on this year the role of domestic rapporteur for anti-trafficking. We are at an inflexion point where we will seek increases in our budget and an expansion of our overall organisation over the coming years. It is helpful to be able to put that out today, so I thank Deputy Tully for asking the question. We are absolutely ready as we are to act as independent monitoring mechanism but I think it is something we will grow as an organisation over the coming years.

I am also very happy Deputy Tully raised the issue of data. I feel like we are continuing to speak about this at every forum I go to. It is absolutely central to the ability to measure and monitor CRPD implementation. As a national human rights and equality institution, it is critical to all we do. What we cannot measure we cannot change. We do not have at the moment enough disaggregated data in this country for us to identify effectively which groups are being affected by which policies or to address those effectively. A notable feature of the UNCRPD is Article 31, which stipulates that states must collect appropriate statistical data relating to people with disabilities. We have been calling for this, and the OECD, the EU and the UN are consistently calling on public bodies to collect and publish disaggregated data. What we come up against when we do this is a response from the State relating to the GDPR and data privacy, which it believes is a barrier to this. We hold a very strong and clear position that that is not the case and that the collection and publication of this data can be done within the legal confines of data protection law because it is done for non-discrimination purposes and to drive the equality agenda. The failure to maintain disaggregated data does not only run the risk of concealing these human rights and equality violations; it is in itself a significant breach of international human rights law on the part of the State. It is therefore really important to continue to push for better collection and publication of aggregated data. We have put forward recommendations on this and on how the CSO, for example, can play a part in this. We work with Departments to help push on this and we are happy to provide any more information that could be helpful. The Secretary General mentioned the public sector duty. While it is great to see that appearing in the Department's strategy statement, an audit we did showed that, unfortunately, 80% of Departments were not yet in compliance in their most recent round of strategy statements so, again, we really need to push for the public sector duty.

Dr. Lynch, do you want to come back in?

Dr. Fergal Lynch

If I may, on one point I forgot to mention, that is, data. I thank Commissioner Gibney for raising it. I totally agree with her points in that regard. To confirm, the National Disability Authority has begun a disability data audit and is reviewing key elements of its own internal operations in the area of data management to establish its key objectives in this area. Importantly, that data audit is intended to cover all available data resources relating to disability, covering national statistics, research databases and administrative data. In addition, the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform is developing an equality data strategy as part of its ongoing work on equality budgeting, which our Department is closely involved in as well. We are very strongly supportive of that. I absolutely take the point about the importance of data and the requirement to be able to extract data relating to disability, to disaggregate it accordingly and to judge progress in that regard, particularly for equality budgeting. We are highly supportive of those areas and will push ahead with them.

Ms Gibney, do you want to come back in?

Ms Sinéad Gibney

If I may. That has given me a chance to remember a few more points that may be of interest to the committee. First, in July of this year new obligations will come into force for public bodies with the transposition of the open data and reuse of public sector information directive. This will introduce the concept of high-value data sets associated with important benefits for society and economy. The committee may be interested in that. Second, the UN Human Rights Council has noted that governments and international actors should start as soon as possible to gather adequate data on the impact of the Covid-19 crisis. We have just touched on Covid-19, but that is another really important data set for us to look at in the context not only of the pandemic but also of the Government response to it and how that has been impacted.

I am in Leinster House. I welcome our guest speakers. It is good we are speaking about disabilities because I always feel it is an area we need to get stronger on. I am really glad about and welcome the fact that Ireland for the first time has a Department with the word "disability" in its title. That is a good sign. I agree that both the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, and the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, should make an annual statement to the Dáil on Ireland's progress in implementing the UNCRPD, commencing this year. We have to make sure that happens. I ask that as a committee we do so because it is very important.

We have spoken about data. I had a question about that but I am glad to say it has been answered. We need to look at that. Many people I work with say to me it is a matter of the social cost of living with a disability. There are huge issues in that regard. We have spoken about education and employment. Transport is another issue we need to look at. We need to recognise the need to support persons with a disability to stand for elections. If we have learned one thing, it is that it is so important now that everyone gets to do what they want to do in life. One could not get a better statement than "a vision for a better life". How can we improve the participation of and consultation with people with disabilities across all disabilities and ensure that the hard-to-reach are included? That is where I have a big concern: that we make sure everybody is included. Ms Gibney spoke about Covid. Our disability sector had been really affected by Covid, and the Government needs an emergency plan. We need to have that in place. I ask that we look at that.

I was a bit surprised by the employment figures. They show Ireland to be the country with the lowest rate of employment of persons with disabilities. That is unacceptable. There are huge challenges here and we need to address them.

Dr. Lynch spoke about an implementation plan being in place by 2022. He might provide more information on that. It will be the key for this. I thank all the speakers. Many of the questions I had have been answered.

I will ask Dr. Lynch to respond first.

Dr. Fergal Lynch

I am happy to deal with those issues raised by the Deputy. Regarding the suggestion by IHREC of the Minister making an annual statement to the Dáil, we saw that in the letter it wrote to Minister, Deputy O’Gorman and the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, on 11 June last. I have been speaking to the Ministers about that and they will certainly consider it. They are open to looking at that. It is appropriate they would respond to the commission and they will respond shortly. They will also write to the committee in that regard. That is a positive and important suggestion.

Regarding standing for election, it will be of noteworthy value for the committee to learn the Bill we are now preparing includes provision to enable people with disabilities to stand for election. This was previously provided for in the miscellaneous provisions Bill. That is a valuable process for the future.

In terms of the implementation plan and how we will do it, we have started working on it by having initial discussions and preparing what we call a concept paper with the NDIS steering group just this week. We are asking for its view in the next short period. We hope to develop a consultation document by September. We will then consult widely on that in the autumn. We would hope, ideally, to have a draft of the implementation plan by the end of the year, by December, with a view to the Government signing off on an implementation plan early in 2022. That is the timescale we have in mind. As I said, we regard this as an important document that would set the roadmap for how we implement each component of the convention, including elements Deputies and Senators have rightly identified are not adequately covered at present and areas that require more attention.

Does Ms Gibney wish to respond?

Ms Sinéad Gibney

I will briefly touch on the Deputy’s comments on participation. I remind everyone the UNCRPD is a groundbreaking UN convention. It is different from other ones because it involved people with disabilities in its development and design. Key to its implementation in any domestic situation is the continued participation of people with disabilities. I am a year in my position as chief commissioner. Within our organisation we have built in structures to make such participation a part of what we do all the time in the make-up of the commission around me and in our disability advisory committee, which advises us on issues of disability. One of the most enriching parts of my experience to date has been the ability to interact with people who are affected by the issues we discuss. Unfortunately, Dáil Éireann does not yet represent people with disabilities. There is a major under-representation of people with disabilities in public life. Until there is such representation, there is major obligation on this and every committee to make sure those voices are central to policymaking in every step of the way. Participation has to follow that step by step by step. As I say every day, nothing about us without us. Honestly, it has been the biggest lesson for me so far in my role as chief commissioner and it is one I want to make sure this committee holds dear throughout the work that it does.

I thank the three witnesses. I am glad we seem to be narrowing down on the issue of a timeline for the optional protocol. It is welcome to hear we are not waiting for an external process in terms of the UN but that an internal set of factors, which are within the control of the State, will determine the timeline for ratification of the optional protocol. Given the Department is looking towards December or January next year with respect to the legislation on decision-making, we should seek to have the optional protocol ratified in parallel with the implementation plan in January 2022. That seems to be the natural time whereby the State will have addressed the gaps it has identified. It will have identified the gaps in implementation and addressed known legal failings. That would be the appropriate time.

I sat through the entire previous Oireachtas term during which we went from signing to ratification and ratification was delayed year after year because we were told we needed to get things in place before we could ratify. Now its seems the optional protocol is going through the same process.

There will be an iterative development to this and even in cases that are taken but the UNCRPD is already law. The optional protocol will not make it law; it is law. The optional protocol will simply ensure persons are able to hold states to accounts. It is an instrument of strengthening implementation. It is fundamental not only for the individuals but for society because it internalises that set of expectations of how we live together and treat each other. It we look to the parallels on the European Court of Human Rights on the general data protection regulation, individuals holding the State to account and reminding it of the collective commitments we have made have helped to drive implementation and create that energy for it. In doing that, they do a service to the State and the wider public body.

Professor Schefer appeared before the committee recently and I was struck by what he said. He specifically said the optional protocol is an integral part of what the UNCRPD means. He said we are used to the fact that the European Court of Human Rights creates a body of law. He spoke about how the case law under the optional protocol had the participation of individuals in reporting on the optional protocol, which allows a country to give the input it needs. Basically, it is about that collective strengthening and the building of a body of law and of case law. It is not about catching out countries; it is about working and learning.

Can we move towards a January implementation alongside the implementation plan? It seems the complaints process could be put in place in a twin-track process, as Deputy Canney suggested, during the autumn. The implementation plan will not be a set plan; the implementation will be ongoing because needs will be made evident. That is where the funding of IHREC, disabled people's organisations, DPOs, and legal aid procedures, if necessary, comes into play. We should put the multiple facets in place in the autumn to ensure we have many people looking to implementation and monitoring if it is working on ongoing basis. We will not get to a point where Ireland has everything right but we will get to point where we have a vision for it and that will evolve. Those are key aspects. Do the witnesses believe we should move towards that January date? What should we have in place in respect of an ongoing, empowered monitoring of development post-implementation plan and the raising of ambition? Another aspect is the extent to which the Department is looking to case law emerging from the UN committee and taking it on board.

The recovery and resilience strategy was mentioned. I am sure the Chairman will be able to confirm if the committee is writing to ask how disability is being reflected in that. Regarding the making of a statement to the Dáil, interestingly, we had sought an equality statement in parallel with the equality budgeting process. That proposed statement reminds me of that. I would appreciate if Mr. Lynch would advise how the Department intends to press to ensure the budgetary process specifically reflects the duties on equality and human rights because we are entering a budget cycle.

We have heard about a new Department taking on a new brief. The key issue is every Department needs to take on this brief. They should already be doing it under the public duty to an extent and should scale it up.

What measures is Dr. Lynch's Department taking with regard to the gaps between other Departments? We have had quite a few experiences as a committee of issues getting kicked from one Department to another and gaps emerging, for example, between education and health. That is a very clear example of where we have new health services being developed but the diminishment of educational supports and services at the same time. Is, for example, Dr. Lynch's Department part of the bridge in that regard? Could he give us an example of how he is navigating the gaps between Departments and, indeed, perhaps bridging some of the areas of ambiguity within Departments to make sure they are held to account?

There are so many interesting points. I thank the witnesses very much. Apologies that I probably went over time.

Ms Sinéad Gibney

I believe most of those questions are probably directed towards Mr. Lynch. I am happy to pick up on one thing, however. I think it is very helpful to posit the 22 January date. Personally, I would probably do it tomorrow if we could. Absolutely, let us set a date as soon as possible.

Mr. Harris and I were chatting ahead of today's session to try to find an analogy for the optional protocol to the UNCRPD. The best we could come up with was a topical analogy to say that it is like playing a football match without a referee. Essentially, by implementing the optional protocol we are providing for a kind of backstop. The Senator is correct; it will build capacity and capability in the judicial system to deal with these types of complaints and issues. I would also suggest that because this does not exist, cases and remedies are not sought because of people's poor experience with them to date here. Once that is put in place, however, I would imagine we will see an increase in cases coming forward and, exactly as the Senator described, what we will have then is a building of case law. The State needs to see it as being a capability exercise that can really assist in identifying issues and allow the Department then to deal with those issues.

That is all I wanted to comment on. I think most of the other points are related to the Secretary General.

Dr. Fergal Lynch

I thank Senator Higgins for those important points. On the timeline for the optional protocol, I very much take the Senator's concerns into account and the points made by Ms Gibney. We have to be very careful about what is realistic and what we can do at a particular point. We want to be ready to support the protocol before we ratify it. I have a concern that if we attempt to ratify the protocol before we are ready to give expression to it, we will run into difficulties in that regard. My particular concern is to make sure the decision support service is actually in place as opposed to it simply being provided for in law.

I stress it is ultimately a Government decision when this can and will be done. I am listening very carefully to the views of the committee as to the timing of it. As I said earlier, our original timeline was in the context of assuming the UN reporting cycle would be to roughly the middle of next year. That is the basis on which we were pitching implementation of the optional protocol. We are still at that timeline in my mind because of the importance of the decision support service and having it in place. Obviously, we need to take advice from the Attorney General's office as to the legal requirements relating to this and Government needs to make a decision. We will not, however, be found wanting in trying to press ahead with everything that is required for the optional protocol as soon as we possibly can. I absolutely take on board the concerns to do that as soon as possible. I just want to get the sequencing right. I know Government is committed to doing that as quickly as it possibly can.

With regard to the budgetary side and equality budgeting in particular, our Department and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform are jointly leading an equality budgeting initiative that is looking at the equality impacts of budgets. That is a very important component which we have not been able to do in the past and which we are now pressing ahead with. We did it on a preliminary basis last year and we are moving much further on it in the current year. That is important.

In terms of bridging the gap between Departments and so on, I would mention the transitions working group, which will meet on 23 June. That is aimed at bridging the gap and trying to ensure smoother transition, for example, between education and employment and the transition from education into employment. We are working on those areas as much as we possibly can.

Senator Higgins also asked about how we encourage other Departments to work with us and deliver their side of the bargain, so to speak. We work closely with individual Departments. The best example I can think of a positive area of progress in which I have taken part recently involved Tusla - the Child and Family Agency - and the Health Service Executive with regard to supports for children with additional needs. A set of issues were identified by the Ombudsman for Children over a period where there was a clear difficulty in transitions between Tusla-based and Tusla-funded services and those for the HSE. I am pleased a protocol has been developed and is now being implemented successfully. Previous issues with regard to gaps and a lack of transition between agencies have been satisfactorily addressed, in my view. I am not saying everything is perfect but it is an example of where we can encourage Departments and agencies to work together and show this can happen in a meaningful way. The protocol on the disability side has been a good example of that. It has meant smoother working and transition, particularly for children with a disability as they move towards the age of 18 into young adulthood, where there was quite a gap and quite a difficulty because of the responsibility of different agencies.

We will continue our work in that regard. We are acutely conscious, both here and in other areas of our brief, of the difficulty in securing a good join between the responsibilities of different Departments. The last thing we want are interdepartmental disputes or disagreements as to who is responsible for what. We tried very hard to negotiate and work with Departments to make sure that does not happen and that where there is a grey line as to who is responsible for what, we can sort that out. It behoves us all to do that. Again, I refer back to the implementation plan, which will be an important element in that regard. I hope that covers the essential elements of Senator Higgins's questions.

Many questions have already been answered. I will follow up on two areas. I was delighted to hear Dr. Lynch talk about implementation in terms of making Departments work better together. I want to pick up on the issue around data, which I think is incredibly important.

We hear over and over at the health committee about the fact that services and the roll-out of policy are hamstrung when data on what people need are constrained and not available. Making sure Departments are joined up in their data collection is crucial. Obviously, with regard to disability, data on health would be very important. We heard previously about issues around registers for diabetes, heart conditions and cancer. That can really impact outcomes because it relates to how easy it is for a person to access services and care.

My question is not just on how we can optimise this or the challenges to data sharing between Departments. Obviously, there will probably be challenges and difficulties. Given the past few months, however, what are the concerns or challenges in terms of data security? We must ensure that where data is being collected on people in terms of preventative health or accessing services, we are mindful that while we are utilising that data during the UNCRPD process, we are also safeguarding it and walking that tightrope of general data protection regulation, GDPR, and people's human rights. That is one issue.

As so much has already been covered, my second question is around our definition of disability, which various NGOs have raised with me a number of times in recent months.

We have a number of definitions for disability such as those in the Disability Act 2005, the Equal Status Act and the census. Some are broader than others. Will the witnesses inform us with what definition we are working? Do multiple definitions being in play pose a challenge to the implementation of something like the optional protocol? Have we had any advice on this issue from the Attorney General's office?

Mr. Adam Harris

I thank the Deputy for that important question. When we talk about the UN convention, we should not lose sight of its main achievement which is changing our understanding of disability, moving away from a medical model that view disabled people as lesser and requiring them to become more like non-disabled people. Unfortunately, that has been most of the history that disabled people have lived through.

The UN convention recognises that disability comes into play when impairments interact with both environmental and attitudinal barriers. The Statute Book's definitions of disability do not, in many respects, bring that to life. They approach disability more from a medical-based model which still informs the system that sees disabled people as less than or as having to conform or needing help or needing to be treated as opposed to being empowered. It has a more practical consequence as well in that it tries to create an exhaustive list of disability whereas in actual fact disability is much broader. We know a significant percentage of people at some stage in their life will experience disability. While it is appropriate for the Statute Book to categorise disability where it can, it should not seek to codify or to make an exhaustive list.

The census is a great example of this. As an autistic person, I cannot actually answer the disability question on the census because autism is not an option. It is an example of how we are losing data visibility because we are too defined and confining in our approach.

Regarding full implementation and reaching everybody with this convention, we have talked a lot today about how we bring the convention to life in practice and also the optional protocol. The committee should not lose sight of Articles 12 and 14 of the convention. These relate to deprivation of liberty which has a lot of consequences, particularly for older people who may be in nursing home care. Ireland had reservations around these pieces of the convention. The commission has expressed concern on several occasions about the draft heads of Bill and the deprivation of liberty. While the Bill has been delayed because of Covid-19, it is important that a timeline is established around when the legislation will proceed. Critically, as we recently asked the commission against torture to ask the State, when that Bill proceeds, it must be clear how it is intended to ensure the Bill aligns with international human rights standards.

Dr. Fergal Lynch

On data security and the need to safeguard it, we are conscious of that across the board. The Department has a specific data protection policy which provides us with a clear statement on the Department's commitments to protect the rights and privacy of individuals. We have a privacy notice, a data subject rights policy and a clear policy on breach of data. We set significant store in these in terms of protecting people and ensuring that they are handled properly.

When we are dealing with data and how it functions, the CSO, Central Statistics Office, is leading on the quality data strategy. That will hopefully help to create a more consistent and joined-up approach to data. I take the point made by Ms Gibney and Mr. Harris on this area.

I am conscious of the different definitions of disability that are used. The equality Acts have a broad and inclusive definition which is in line with the social model of disability and is compatible with the UN Convention. The definitions in the Disability Act tend to be narrower and refer to a substantial restriction in the person's capacity and so on. This is an area we are conscious of in terms of being clear on the definitions that we should be using. Clearly those definitions have to be compatible with the UN convention.

One item on our workplan this year is actually a review of equality legislation. Within that, we will have an opportunity to review the definitions of disability. Given that there are different definitions, we want to move away from one which relies on medical models and move to one which is clear and close to social-based models.

In our area of access and inclusion models, it includes early years education. It uses the social model in its definition of disability in the spirit of the convention. It does not require formal diagnosis of disability. It is a more inclusive, workable and appropriate definition. The area of definitions of disability is important to us. The review of the equality legislation will be a particular concern in that regard.

Ms Sinéad Gibney

While I appreciate data safeguards are required, we come up against this reluctance all the time to collect and publish disaggregated data. Particularly in our work around the public sector equality and human rights duty, there is this reluctance around the collection of equality data over legal concerns. We are absolutely clear that the collection of the equality data, including special categories of personal data, can and should be undertaken by public bodies in compliance with European and Irish data protection legislation, GDPR and the Data Protection Act. That provides that the personal data is for the specific purpose of ensuring that there is no discrimination in carrying out functions. In other words, if it is clearly defined and for the purposes of promoting equality, it can be collected lawfully.

I call Senator McGreehan. I thank her for her co-operation with other members during the day as she started off at the top of the sheet earlier.

I thank the witnesses for their time and contributions. It is almost daunting to be the last speaker because many of the questions have already been covered.

I am ambitious for this committee and it is great to have a January 2022 deadline. We have all been asking for a timeline. One big issue for me is implementation. It is transformative and is about attitude. It will cross every part of our society, economy and our community. From our engagement with Departments, I feel they box-tick this convention. They show up to the meetings and yet hand deliver back the responsibility to the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth. We all know that the implementation of this convention is for everybody, from the shopkeeper right up to the Taoiseach. Every Department needs to start disability proofing and coming up with a strategy to ensure disability is the default option in how they carry out their functions. For example, it could be the Department of Health making equipment and screening machines disability friendly. It could be the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine putting creative thought into a TAMS, targeted agriculture modernisation schemes, grant for accessible farmyards. I feel for all Departments that this is just a box-ticking exercise.

It is handed back then and too much pressure is given back to the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, when this is everybody's responsibility. I would like people's opinions and thoughts on that.

I think Ms Gibney is indicating she wants to come in.

Ms Sinéad Gibney

Yes. I will keep it brief as I know we are coming up to time. I will give an answer similar to what I mentioned with regard to local authorities. If Government be doing this. It has now been on the Statute Book for seven years and, unfortunately, 80% in the most recent round failed to fully comply with it in their strategy statements.

With regard to starting to assess, address and report, it is a framework which is ready-made for Departments to now implement. They are saying it will take account, not only of disability, but all equality and human rights issues. That is important. Another thing we have been calling for is an Oireachtas committee on equality, human rights and diversity. This is something we saw during Covid-19 in particular, in terms of a lack of scrutiny within the legislative process. We have been calling for this since 2016 and it would assist Departments and the members, as legislators, in this work.

When one is talking about implementation, it is important to mention some of the key concerns we have. We will be reporting formally on the first period. Our key concerns are lack of participation, which applies to Departments, and if there is one thing Departments need to embody, it is increased participation of people with disabilities in decision-making; key legislative gaps, around which Mr. Harris has given some detail; the slow pace of the institutionalisation of disability services and with regard to the articles related to life and health, we have concerns around mortality rates, people with disabilities taking more medication than those without, increasing waiting lists and very low levels of timely completion of assessment of needs. In terms of health outcomes, persons with disabilities are twice as likely to live in consistent poverty, compared to non-disabled people and half as likely to be employed. Those are some of the headline concerns in terms of implementation.

Dr. Fergal Lynch

I thank Senator-----


We have gone down. We have a technical issue.

Dr. Fergal Lynch

My apologies. I tried to unmute unsuccessfully. I was just thanking Senator McGreehan for her questions and saying I agree implementation is so much about attitude, culture and positive engagement as opposed to box-ticking. Within our own Department, we are hugely bought-in to what we are trying to achieve and I get the same sense of buy-in from many other Departments. Obviously, Departments and agencies have huge agendas in other areas. The constant challenge is to persuade, cajole and encourage people to come along this road as well but, as Ms Gibney rightly said, this is the law and not some optional extra. It simply has to be done.

This implementation is about attitude. One of the things we are doing is that each Department is to have its own implementation actions and specified actions for implementation of the convention. It is not simply a case of doffing the cap or ticking a box. Each Department is identified as having its own specific areas it needs to deal with. They are engaged in a whole load of other areas but it is important they be encouraged and we will continue to encourage them.

In terms of equality budgeting, it is important to note a network of equality co-ordinators has been established in each Department and disability is a key strand for that and in terms of extracting and understanding the data and funding related to disability, this will be an important part of that process. I was struck by what Senator McGreehan said about being ambitious for the committee and it is good to hear that. As I think I noted at the beginning, this committee is a key element of the overall implementation process, because of the role of national parliaments in monitoring the implementation of the convention and acknowledging the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission's, IHREC, important independent role in that regard.

We have a good architecture in which to press ahead with implementation. The committee has, in this Department, a strong advocate for pushing ahead with implementation. I commit and I know my colleagues do also, to working closely with other Departments and agencies to implement the convention. The fact the convention is in existence has helped us move forward in terms of provisions within the assistant decision-making capacity legislation and the establishment of the disability participation consultation network, all of which were shaped by the convention. We are committed to continuing our work on implementation. We look forward to working with this committee in its important work.

Mr. Adam Harris

It is welcome to hear Departments will have defined goals within the implementation plan. Where many plans have failed was in terms of having vague goals and buzzwords such as "ongoing" have often been the words we have heard again and again and again. Having defined, measurable goals is key to success. To that end, we have talked a little bit about representation today and if I was to leave the committee with one idea of where we can begin to make progress it is with regard to how important representation is.

One of the commitments of the comprehensive employment strategy is that by 2024, all public bodies should have 6% of their staff having a disability. It is vital that goal is achieved, not just at an entry-level role because the key way we will influence public policy in this area is when it comes to Departments having a responsibility to report. We need to see people in leadership roles who have a disability and know the importance of this policy area. That goal of 6% is something which needs to be monitored closely and we need to ensure it is realised by 2024.

With regard to what Mr. Harris said about getting the public sector to that 6%, the fact the assistive technology grant is not an individual grant for public sector employees is a huge disadvantage to them. I know so many of our employees in the Civil Service who have to make a business case to get assistive technology and they are often turned down because it is in county councils or a Department budget, but if they were in a private company, they would get it.

Having the opportunity to upgrade within the Civil Service is about assistive technology and advancing that grant. It is a huge issue for me and the people involved.

I thank our witnesses for their engagement and our members for their informed questions in terms of the urgency to try to move this on in terms of the option of protocol and the entire UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, CRPD. We are trying to get that underpinning that in all we do as a State in terms of the disability sector we are trying to make lives better for everybody and be more inclusive.

It is our first engagement. We look forward to further engagements because we will have further questions and issues to raise. The witnesses have outlined the timeframe. We will be watching this closely and we may engage with the witnesses in the fall of the year on other issues. I thank our witnesses for participating remotely and also the members and our team in the background.

Our public meeting stands adjourned. We have a private meeting on Tuesday, 22 June 2021, at 4 p.m.

The joint committee adjourned at 2.29 p.m. sine die.