Comhairle (Amendment) Bill 2004: Presentation.

I welcome Mr. John Dolan and Ms Joanne McCarthy who are here to make a presentation on the Comhairle (Amendment) Bill 2004. They have submitted a very detailed document, one of the most comprehensive we have seen with regard to any Bill, for which we are grateful. Members will have had an opportunity to peruse it, so Mr. Dolan and Ms McCarthy will only have to give a broad outline. Now that we have two people before us who know this area very well, we can ask them succinct questions and elicit the maximum information that might be of benefit of us to in our legislative role.

I must first say the customary few words with which Mr. Dolan is very familiar. The clerk is very conscious of the legal process being adhered to. Members are reminded of the parliamentary practice that members should not comment on, criticise or make charges against any person outside the Houses or an official, either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. Members who wish to make a declaration regarding any matter being discussed may do so now or at the beginning of their contribution. Members are also reminded that if there is a possibility of a conflict of interest arising, they should make a declaration of interest either now or at the start of their contribution. I draw witnesses' attention to the fact that members of this committee have absolute privilege but this does not apply to witnesses appearing before the committee. It is generally accepted that while witnesses will have qualified privilege, the committee cannot guarantee any level of privilege to witnesses appearing before it. I do not think any of this will ever arise, but that is the customary admonition.

Mr. John Dolan

I thank the committee for giving us this opportunity at short notice and the staff of the Oireachtas for its facilitation and support. The Disability Federation of Ireland, DFI, has approximately 100 member organisations. Reflecting their experiences, and in cahoots with them, we put this submission together. I also acknowledge the work of my colleague, Joanne McCarthy.

I will accede to members' request to cover the headlines only. We make this submission conscious that the Bill is an important part of a suite of legislative and other measures regarding the national disability strategy. We look forward to its moving to Second Stage sooner rather than later.

On the opening page of our submission we discuss three issues, namely, mechanisms to review the operation of the amended Comhairle legislation, a comprehensive advocacy role for a director of advocacy, and access to, and participation in the personal advocacy service among people with disabilities. The first of those I will deal with fairly quickly, since it is addressed at the bottom of page 2 of our submission. I acknowledge that many members of this committee and others were very much involved in work on the Disability Act 2005 in both Houses. Members will recall that section 6 of the Disability Act 2005 inserted a five-year review mechanism covering its operation. Since we are very much in uncharted territory, it would be a useful fail-safe mechanism to have in this Bill. I will leave it at that.

There are two other substantive issues, the first being a comprehensive advocacy role for a director of advocacy. When one looks at the Bill, one sees that it adds to the current Comhairle Act 2000, which already lays down substantive functions regarding advocacy and support for disabled people and those voluntary organisations that support them. There are echoes of the discussion on active citizenship. There is a raft of organisations, many of which are now promoting very strong involvement by people with disabilities, and that is part of democratic participation.

Comhairle already has a function in that regard, not only concerning disability organisations but more generally. When one looks at the Comhairle Act 2000 and at the proposed amendments, leaving aside the specific personal advocacy service, one sees there are five Comhairle functions, which I address in the following pages, concerning advocacy and support for those with disabilities, supporting and enabling the voluntary disability sector to conduct its business more effectively for and with those who are disabled. One can take that as read.

The architecture of this Bill is to insert a very specific and necessary personal advocacy service that will focus on individuals and on hard cases such as those of people who have never got as far as falling through the system, as well as those who have consistently fallen through it in all its guises. When one reads the Bill, one sees that those are the people whom it is trying to catch and assist.

Advocacy is wider than that, but it certainly includes it. It is commendable that the Bill will deal with that aspect. DFI suggests that the Bill's motivation is excellent but that the way in which it sets about doing it will be counterproductive. I will try to explain it in the following terms. If this country had a policy and commitment to ensure that people did not lose their lives through drowning, it would not usefully implement or promote that by having someone on the bank of every river and waterway. One would provide for a certain number of measures, such as installing lifebelts. However, if members will excuse my pun, one would also do a great deal upstream. It is a matter of consciousness, safety and keeping people from falling in rather than of how quickly one might pull them out.

That is the point on which I would like members to reflect in this regard. This legislation must drill into people's minds very strongly that others should be plucked from the water. One will always need a fire brigade, but also fire prevention, good building standards, and people trained to know how to behave so that they do not do silly things and remember to get out of a building in an emergency. One does not depend on having a fire station on every corner. I ask members to reread the functions under the Comhairle Act 2000. Functions 7(1)(b) and (c) have been taken out and replaced by (b), (bb) and (c). Several others are left. There are many other advocacy routes that can support and enable disabled people.

I ask that members change and broaden the job description of the director of personal advocacy services, giving the person the current remit to establish, run and develop that very specific service, but putting something into the person's other hand, the opportunity to work on Comhairle's other advocacy and support functions. A person will be appointed, and as matters stand, that person's sole focus will be on the personal advocacy service. There will be no role or remit to encourage, co-ordinate or integrate the other Comhairle functions that can prevent people from needing to avail themselves of the service.

Let me move on swiftly and tie that up with the third point which is access and participation issues for people with disabilities. We argue on pages 7, 8 and 9 that on the one hand we have people who have not managed to be picked up by a whole raft of State, voluntary and community services, Members of the Oireachtas and so on. They are not easy to come by, for all sorts of reasons. One is that they are sometimes so vulnerable and isolated that they do not know how excluded they are or that there is something to which they are entitled.

In a sense, we are asking the most vulnerable people, often excluded from networks and contacts, whom all the apparatus of the State and voluntary sector has failed, to write in to apply; the Minister may also prescribe some other format. They must also state what they are applying for. They must have fairly significant insight into what they are losing out on before they are even at the starting line, and they must be able to write the letter. Perhaps I have stated that in rather strong terms, but I wished to make the point.

We have garnered a great deal of experience over the years in this area, and it is only when people are brought in and nurtured by others into some kind of connectedness that it can develop. There is much capacity in the community, including among voluntary disability organisations, citizens information centres, Members of the Oireachtas, representatives at local authority level and decent citizens. However, they need something to latch onto if they are to get people involved.

The problem is not just the passivity of the system. I do not want to be critical because the intention is excellent. However, the format being used — I would be happy to find I am wrong in this regard — is constructed in a way that will make it very difficult to work effectively because it does not have enough of the carrot and stick, or perhaps it would be better to say it does not have enough enablers. One must wait for events to happen before intervening. Surely the point is to marshal resources and achieve better value for money.

There is much latent capacity among citizens information centres and voluntary organisations of all kinds, including among committee members, to help progress matters. The trick is simply to broaden the job description so that a person can mind the broad bag of advocacy within Comhairle, advise the director and be able to set up programmes to harness the rest of us around this, and enable us to work more proactively.

I am happy to finish on that note. There is more detail but others can pick up on that.

I welcome Mr. Dolan and Ms McCarthy and thank them for a comprehensive document and a succinct and clear presentation, as always. The issue of advocacy first arose when we were dealing with the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Bill and the Disability Bill, as it is now. The Disability Bill was published in 2004 but has yet to come before the House and I am not sure if it will do so before the summer recess. Given the current position, it may be autumn before we see it.

The need to develop an independent advocacy agency is agreed by everybody as being important, and the sooner it happens the better. There are many who need that kind of support and help. I agree with the idea of having a review mechanism built into the amended Bill, which is important. I am impressed with the proposals regarding a comprehensive advocacy role for a director within Comhairle and to broaden this role to include all the aspects of advocacy.

The witnesses made a strong case on the need to be proactive rather than reactive or crisis driven with regard to advocacy, and the need to help those who cannot help themselves, for various reasons, or who do not know what services are available or how to access them. Increasingly, public representatives meet people in their clinics who do not know what services are available because nobody has given them the information. They ask how they could know about the services if they did not know they were entitled to the services in the first place. Well-meaning Ministers may tell us a website is available but those who need help most are often those who find it difficult to read let alone access a website. We have a long way to go. It is hard to beat personal contact at a one-to-one level, as opposed to dealing with a website, which seems to be the answer to many questions nowadays.

When I meet people in the course of my work, I find it is possible to sit and chat. If a professional service also provided this service, it would be a great help in identifying those in need. There is a hidden Ireland of people in need of support and advocacy, particularly people with disabilities, who are possibly even further disadvantaged in that in some cases they cannot travel due to a hearing, visual or intellectual impairment and find it doubly difficult to access services.

I take on board what has been said. I would welcome proposed amendments from the Disability Federation closer to Committee Stage, when we could debate them with the Minister. Provided they do not incur a charge on the State, we can put them forward.

Mr. Dolan

I thank Deputy Stanton for his compliments, comments and questions. I understand the Opposition cannot put forward amendments that incur a cost. Leaving aside my ignorance of the intricacies of how the Oireachtas works in that regard, I cannot understand how the issues I raise will bring down the house.

Sometimes we cannot understand it either.

Mr. Dolan

I cannot comment on the Deputy's lack of insight. With regard to self-confidence and assertiveness or lack of it, we all know from dealing with people that it is the most assertive who get what is going. This is not a criticism. It is great to see and they are entitled to what they get. However, the poor devil who does not know one part of himself from the other gets nothing because he does not have the confidence. We are trying to help such people.

Comhairle commissioned a report from A&L Goodbody Consulting on developing an advocacy service for people with disabilities. The report prioritised three strands of advocacy. The first, a personal advocacy service run by Comhairle, has been caught well by the legislation but the other strands have not been drawn into it. To give it balance and ballast, this needs to be done.

An example of a technical issue in regard to access and participation is that personal advocates can enter certain day and residential care places. Unfortunately, there are hospitals, places of detention and prisons where, whether rightly or wrongly, people with disabilities and mental health needs are housed, despite often being the most vulnerable. I do not understand why advocates are not given the authority to go where people with such needs are located. To touch on another subject, a person might be placed in a hospital bed because there is no place else for him or her to go as a residential care place might not be available. Such a person would be outside be scope of the Bill. These are examples of technical aspects of the Bill.

The Bill is strong on the catch-up element but silent on the proactive element, which is needed. Comhairle has a good, broad knowledge of the voluntary sector and can act as the catalyst to harness our sector and others such as citizens' information in this regard.

I also welcome Mr. Dolan and Ms McCarthy and thank them for their presentation. The fact that the legislation has not yet come before the House is advantageous. Will the Disability Federation of Ireland make a direct submission to the Minister, as it has done here today? Deputy Stanton has noted that the Opposition can table amendments. However, the Minister can also table amendments for debate when the Bill reaches Committee Stage. It would be helpful if the Disability Federation of Ireland were to make direct representations or submissions to the Minister before the Bill comes before the House. Members have heard a synopsis of the federation's document today, which has been helpful. They will have the opportunity to debate the pros and cons of the Bill with the Minister when he appears before the committee.

We see the importance of having such a dialogue with the Minister before the Bill reaches Second Stage in the Dáil. We have done so and the Minister has a copy of the submission. We also participate in the disability consultative group of the Department of Social and Family Affairs. It gave a presentation on the Bill at which we raised these and other concerns which arose from consultation with our membership. Hence, we have had such a dialogue at a number of different stages and the Department is aware of our position. However, we hope to keep the dialogue going until the legislation is passed.

The personal advocacy services run by Comhairle constitute one side of the triangle which was advocated by Goodbody Economic Consultants. How does the delegation envisage the operation of the other two? Will it operate through the constituent components of the disability federation?

I have done much work with carers and the joint committee invited carers' groups to appear before it. We received more than 100 oral and written submissions. As the witnesses are aware, there are almost 50,000 carers around the country. However, as the Minister has proven, many carers are not familiar with their entitlements. Although the Minister has widened the availability of respite grants, he has not reached half of the people who now automatically qualify for them.

This is merely one aspect which indicates the need for advocacy. Is something more than advocacy required? Although Comhairle can do so at a regional or national level, it will take more than that. The people who lose out are those who come, as I do, from the back of beyond or from the boreens.

I recall an example of an elderly farmer, who lost out badly when her nephew took over the land. She never drew a penny in subsidies, while those farmers with 200 cattle always drew everything available. Effectively, they commandeered her entitlements. The poor woman died a few years ago and her nephew now tries to make a living there. This is an example of how the types of people discussed by the witnesses, who have lived simply all their lives, do not think that anyone will help them to escape from the situations in which they find themselves. How does the delegation envisage the operation of such services? It is important for the committee to have a clear grasp of this issue to prevent it from being wrong-footed.

Mr. Dolan

That is quite helpful.

I am very supportive of the Disability Federation of Ireland's activities because I am familiar with its objectives.

Mr. Dolan

As for Deputy Dan Wallace's point, it is important to state publicly that we find the Department of Social and Family Affairs to be a fantastic outfit with which to deal. The same is true of the Minister. We have good contacts with them and consequently, such dialogue exists and will continue.

Comhairle is a State body with a remit which concerns such broader issues. It is not a question of Comhairle being the sole provider of such services, but of who will provide that critical State-wide focus and leadership. In a democracy, no one can do anything fully without the participation and co-operation of other people. That is the role of bodies such as the Disability Federation of Ireland and the carers' groups. The Chairman is correct in this regard, although I believe he underestimated the number of carers. I understand there are 150,000 carers.

There are probably 100,000 to 150,000 carers.

Mr. Dolan

To return to the previous discussion on people working, all carers are workers in that they perform work. A total of 40% of them provide more than 40 hours of care per week.

This saves the State €2 billion per year.

Mr. Dolan

It is the same issue. The joint committee could have the same discussion with the Carers Association or 50 other groups. It concerns the groups which have the capacity to get closer to people. It is a source of frustration for our organisation that we still come across such cases. Although one thinks one knows it all, one comes across such cases. The Chairman's description of the woman he encountered can be mirrored in the farming sector or wherever.

Hence, this issue affects such disconnected and vulnerable people. It concerns neighbours, postmen, local groups and the GAA, who must have a hook onto which they can quickly put such vulnerable people. Part of that hook consists of the existence of a local or national group which deals with people with such issues or conditions. Thereby, one builds up a fabric and a network. In addition however, Comhairle, as the State agency, must be there to co-ordinate everything.

It must act as an overarching body.

Mr. Dolan

Yes. It should learn from practice about developing policy. It should identify the soft and hard spots, as well as those areas in which it should develop. It should be able to advise the Minister.

Obviously, it should operate with a sub-unit, or cell structure.

Mr. Dolan

Yes.

I understand. This discussion is useful and provides the committee with a great opportunity. The presentation constitutes a pre-emptive strike by the Disability Federation of Ireland, which puts it ahead of the posse. Normally, people appear before the committee when legislation is being debated.

Mr. Dolan

We have done so with the committee's support.

I appreciate that. However——

Mr. Dolan

We would not be here unless the committee allowed us to be.

The committee sees good value in having the witnesses come before it. They have the requisite knowledge, know-how and experience. Members cannot be so uppity as to think they know everything and they depend on the Disability Federation of Ireland to provide it with additional knowledge. It is also important that the federation is in communication with the Minister and his officials, who are fairly open and receptive to new ideas. The Disability Federation of Ireland has approached this issue in the correct manner. In that context, it is important the committee has acquired an understanding of the issues today.

Deputy Dan Wallace is correct to suggest the Minister should be made aware of all the points which the witnesses wish to raise. The committee will certainly take them on board. As Deputy Stanton has noted, the delegation should send to the committee members any amendments they feel should be put forward. We will be willing to take them on board. The Bill has a noble objective and it would be foolhardy to allow it to proceed through the Oireachtas only for it to fail to achieve its wider objective because it was curtailed, circumscribed or restricted in some form. That would be a sin.

I agree with the witnesses that the review mechanism is vitally important. It would be nonsense to state that we cannot learn, particularly when new structures are being implemented.

Mr. Dolan

It is new for everyone.

As it is new for everyone, to do so would be absolutely nonsensical. I believe the Minister would look kindly on such a mechanism. He continually states that he wants to make progress and this would be extremely useful.

The members are delighted the witnesses took the time to come before the committee. The witnesses have other things to do and we asked them to appear at short notice. We acknowledge and thank them for their rapid response. I again thank Mr. Dolan. He is an old favourite of this committee and knows his way around it. I believe this is the first time the committee has met Ms McCarthy and the members look forward to meeting her again.

The committee may be obliged to seek the Disability Federation of Ireland's expertise again for further guidance and help when the Bill reaches Committee Stage. Its written document is extremely comprehensive and the members are pleased with it. They recognise that much hard work has been done behind the scenes. Moreover, the witnesses' oral elucidation and expansion of various matters was also useful. Sometimes, one derives greater benefit from simple examples. I again thank the witnesses for appearing before the joint committee. The members appreciate their attendance and look forward to continuing their dialogue with them.

The joint committee went into private session at 4.30 p.m. and adjourned at 4.35 p.m. sine die.