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.