I thank you, Chairman, and the members of the committee for the warm welcome. It is great to be here. It is great to get out of Beaumont Hospital and be back in business. I welcome this opportunity to update members of the committee on the important work being undertaken in the Department of Justice and Equality to support the recent ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Specifically, I will update the committee on progress regarding the Disability (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities, the Assisted Decision-Making (Capacity)Act 2015 and the implementation of the National Disability Inclusion Strategy 2017-2021.
The week before last, I was delighted to attend the UN conference of the states parties to the Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities, CRPD, and to speak of Ireland’s progress in ratifying and implementing the convention. The ratification of the convention has been a deeply held commitment of mine since I was appointed Minister of State with responsibility for disability issues a little more than two years ago. Indeed, as an Independent Alliance Minister of State I insisted on it being highlighted among the highest priorities when negotiating the programme for Government. In other words, I was directly involved in inserting it in the programme for Government. It was a key issue for me in supporting the Government.
The convention came into force for Ireland on 19 April 2018. This marked a key moment not only for people living with a disability but also for their families, friends and support networks and for Irish society generally. Ireland’s ratification means that all European Union member states have now ratified the CRPD, making the EU the first region to ratify the convention. Ratification was the first action listed in Ireland’s national disability inclusion strategy. The strategy takes a whole-of-Government approach to improving the lives of people with disabilities and contains 114 measurable and time-specific actions under eight themes that relate to the areas of education, employment, provision of public services, health, transport, personal safety and autonomy. The strategy and the robust monitoring framework supported by the National Disability Authority, NDA, leaves us well placed to respond to the requirements of the convention. I commend and thank the NDA on its magnificent and supportive work on the disability issue.
I am a firm believer in placing a strong focus on ability rather than disability. Key actions in our national strategy include the implementation of a comprehensive employment strategy for persons with disabilities, including an increase of the public service employment target from 3% to 6%, the arrangement of special public service recruitment competitions and the opening up of alternative recruitment channels. Ireland has strong equality legislation which prevents discrimination on the basis of disability. However, people with disabilities are still only half as likely to be in employment as others of working age. I take that very seriously. This is why the comprehensive employment strategy sets out a ten-year approach to ensuring people who are able to and want to work are supported and enabled to do so. The strategy includes commitments such as special public service competitions and the opening up of alternative recruitment channels as well as the provision of a NDA-assisted employer helpline to provide expert guidance and peer support to employers. There is a great deal of work taking place under the radar in the broader society with regard to employment, with small companies and businesses taking on people with disabilities. In addition, some Departments are doing a magnificent job. I accept that we still have a long way to go but a quiet revolution is taking place regarding the employment of people with disabilities. These are concrete examples of how Ireland will fulfil its obligations under the CRPD.
In line with the convention’s guiding principles of respect for inherent dignity, individual autonomy - including the freedom to make one’s own choices, and independence of persons, the disability inclusion strategy contained a commitment to establish a task force on personalised budgets to make recommendations on potential models of personalised budgets to give people with disabilities more control in accessing health funded personal social services. When establishing the task force in September 2016, I was eager for it to proceed along the lines of my thinking and beliefs regarding people with a disability - that we must allow them to say how they wish to lead their own lives.
I am pleased this vision was demonstrated in the recommendations of the report of the task force, which I hope to publish very soon. I brought a memorandum to the Cabinet on Tuesday morning. I thank Mr. Christy Lynch and the task force for their magnificent work on the report. It will be a core element in responding to some of the fundamental principles of the convention. I refer to our respecting dignity, autonomy, independence and the freedom to make one's own choices.
The convention rebalances the right of people with disabilities to make decisions for themselves, rather than having decisions made for them. With ratification now in place for Ireland, I can now focus on using the convention to better equip and resource people with disabilities to improve their quality of life. The ratification of the UN convention is an important support for me as a Minister of State.
Ratifying the convention signals a commitment to ongoing improvement in the provision of disability services. In keeping with this principle, I recognise totally that there is always more to be done, including ratification of the optional protocol. I will respond to this in more detail later.
There has been some commentary on ratification of the optional protocol, which is not being ratified at this time but will be ratified as soon as possible following the completion of Ireland's first reporting cycle. This will provide an opportunity to identify areas for improvement and any actions needed for a high level of compliance. While I accept there was a commitment given, in the 2015 roadmap, to ratify the optional protocol at the same time as the convention, my current focus has been on ratifying the convention in the first instance. That was the first step.
As I have outlined, the convention and the optional protocol cover a broad range of commitments, some of which require substantive cultural change. Indeed, an analysis of the some 14 complaints brought under the optional protocol since 2010, indicates a range of areas on which we are actively working hard to address, such as deprivation of liberty and the right of deaf persons to participate in jury duty.
Work is continuing on the final reforms needed for Ireland's compliance with the convention's requirements. Just because one does not see this in the newspapers every single day does not mean the work is not being done. A phased approach is seen as the most practical and realistic way of moving ahead. Furthermore, while we have already made significant progress in terms of legislative change, including to the law on decision-making capacity, there still remains some legislation to be enacted.
The disability Bill was published in 2016 and is currently awaiting Committee Stage in Dáil Éireann. This is something Deputy Ó Caoláin has raised with me regularly. The Government has given approval for the Bill to receive priority within the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel, and work is under way to progress the Bill for enactment by the end of the year. I hope it will be sooner. When I say that, I mean it.
The Bill addresses a range of issues to facilitate the highest possible level of compliance with the convention such as an amendment of the Juries Act 1976 and the Electoral Act 1992 to facilitate greater participation of persons with disabilities in jury service and political life; improving the standard of reasonable accommodation to be provided by commercial bodies whose activities are regulated for quality of service; bringing civilian staff of the Garda Síochána back within the terms of Part 5 of the Disability Act to promote and support the recruitment and employment of persons with disabilities. This will allow the public sector employment quota to apply to civilian staff, which is an important part of any employment strategy.
There is a range of mostly technical amendments that are to be brought forward on Committee Stage. It was originally intended to introduce deprivation of liberty provisions as amendments at this stage. However, due to the complexity and far-reaching implications of the proposals and in response to feedback from many in the disability sector, the Government decided it was better to deal with the issues separately. The deprivation-of-liberty provisions will now feature in a standalone Bill to be sponsored by the Minister for Health, Deputy Simon Harris, and me.
The central problem to be addressed by the new provisions is that existing legislation does not provide a procedure for admitting persons without capacity to relevant facilities in which they will be under continuous supervision and control and will not be free to leave.
Existing legislation does not provide procedural safeguards to ensure individuals are not unlawfully deprived of their liberty. The draft legislative proposals that I published for public consultation last December are designed to address this gap by providing safeguards for older people, persons with a disability and some categories of people with mental illness to ensure they are not unlawfully deprived of their liberty in certain residential facilities. The consultation was an important part of the debate. We wanted to ensure everyone was consulted, including those with disabilities, senior citizens and those in the mental health sector.
The development of these deprivation-of-liberty legislative provisions is a highly complex undertaking. In addition to satisfying the requirements of the CRPD, the provisions must also align with our obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights and existing legislation, such as the Assisted Decision-Making (Capacity) Act and the Mental Health Act. I am continuing to progress this legislation as a matter of priority. The target date for finalisation of the heads is the autumn.
The Assisted Decision-Making (Capacity) Act needs to be fully commenced. Three million euro in funding has been allocated in 2018 for the establishment of the Decision Support Service.
A question that people often ask me about the convention is on resources, and rightly so. I fully agree that to support people effectively in accessing their rights, the proper allocation of resources is a key consideration. That is an important part of my strategy on providing services for people with disabilities.
We, as politicians, need to be mindful of any changes in policy and resourcing that can significantly impact on everyday circumstances. I am very much aware of this, and many members of this committee are very supportive in this regard. When the matter arises in the Dáil, as it does regularly, the committee members are very supportive of the concept of implementation. It is all very well to be talking about rights but they have to be backed up by resources. In fairness to the committee, every member has an amazing track record on disability services.
I have always placed strong emphasis on securing adequate funding, with €1.76 billion allocated by the Department of Health for disability services in 2018, representing an increase of 4.4% on 2017. Furthermore, in December of 2017, I announced the securing of an additional €10 million funding for respite care. This was based on listening to families on the ground and colleagues such as the members present regarding the crisis in respite care. That funding is now being pumped into 12 additional respite houses all around the country to support the families.
It is not just about funding, however. That is the important thing I have learned in the past two years. We need to challenge attitudes and mindsets and recognise the valuable contribution that persons with disabilities have made and will continue to make to our economy and society when supported to do so. We have to change the mindset in broader society and right across all sectors of society because we still have a long way to go. We need to focus on ability rather than disability and we need our society to encourage and empower people with a disability to define themselves, and in turn to be defined, not on the basis of what they cannot do but on the many things they can do. Last Friday week, along with the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Regina Doherty, we announcement €16 million for the Ability programme, which is totally ignored by all sectors of society, including our national media. Some 2,600 young people between 16 and 29 years saw their organisations and groups, which focus on education, training and employment, receive substantial funding for their programmes based on an independent assessment of the work they do. Many of the organisations and groups, such as the Central Remedial Clinic, CRC, have been crying out for funding. It was given. It has a positive effect on young people, many of them with ability. One should note the programme is called the Ability programme.
We need society to encourage and empower people with disability to define themselves. This country has embarked on an era of unprecedented change in services for people with disabilities in recent years, which means we are now ready to meet our obligations.