I am pleased as Minister of State with responsibility for equality to bring before the Seanad this important legislation. This Bill, once enacted, will significantly advance the position of people with disabilities and will be instrumental in sustaining progress in the longer term. The Bill is one element of the national disability strategy, launched by the Taoiseach on 21 September 2004. The strategy has three other elements, namely, the Comhairle (Amendment) Bill 2004, six outline sectoral plans and a multi-annual investment programme for high priority disability support services.
The strategy represents a commitment by Government to drive forward a significant evolution in policy and provision for people with disabilities, which has gathered momentum in recent years. Among the established building blocks are the strong anti-discrimination framework of employment equality and equal status legislation, the policy of mainstreaming services for people with disabilities and the significant increase in investment in disability services in recent years. This framework is supported by infrastructure comprising the Equality Authority, the Equality Tribunal, the National Disability Authority and Comhairle which together have had a positive influence on equality, service development and delivery, and on practices and attitudes generally. These milestones set the context for the national disability strategy and the Bill.
An important aspect of equal access is education and the support of children with disabilities to fulfil their potential through education. The Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004 is another important development which has put in place a strong framework for the transformation of special needs education policy. Since last July, the Act creates rights to an educational assessment for children with special educational needs, to the development of an individual education plan and to the delivery of educational services on foot of that plan.
Side by side with equality and mainstream policy development, there has been a significant increase in spending on disability specific services. This year, some €2.9 billion, representing almost 7.5% of gross current public expenditure on services, will be spent in this way. This figure does not take account of income support and other services provided through the Department of Social and Family Affairs. It does not take account of the fact that many people with a disability participate in, or benefit from, mainstream public service programmes and services. The figure of €2.9 billion compares with expenditure of just under €0.8 billion in 1997 — a 3.5 fold increase in eight years.
Building on this successful experience, the Government has guaranteed a multi-annual investment programme totalling over €900 million, comprising capital and current funding for high priority disability support services, over the years 2006-09. The funding focuses mainly on the health and education sectors and will enhance service levels where they are most needed. The multi-annual approach is an unprecedented initiative where spending on services is concerned. Generally, funding to run all Government services is allocated on a year-to-year basis, taking into account existing commitments and expected revenue.
The Bill is unique in the legislation that comes before this House. It seeks to provide for services that come within the ambit of a wide variety of Departments and State agencies. Knowing the cross-departmental nature of the work envisaged, the Government decided at an early stage to refer the process of overseeing the preparation of the Bill and the national disability strategy to the Cabinet committee on social inclusion.
The committee, which comprised 11 Ministers as well as concerned Ministers of State met regularly for this purpose and its work has been supported by a cross-departmental group of senior officials. In the course of its deliberations, the committee oversaw development of the scope and framework for the Bill and took decisions on the way forward on key policy issues.
The published Bill was the subject of extensive consultations with interest groups. Following a request from my Department in April 2002, the National Disability Authority brought together a group representative of people with disabilities, their families and carers and service providers in the sector. The Disability Legislation Consultation Group — the DLCG — provided meaningful dialogue at national level, within the sector and with Government.
Senior officials and Ministers have had regular contact with the DLCG over the past two and a half years. These meetings, together with the DLCG document Equal Citizens, have allowed the committee and the senior officials working with it to obtain a detailed understanding of the issues of concern to the DLCG in regard to the legislation.
The Bill was drafted to take account of proposals in Equal Citizens such as a right to an independent assessment of need, transparency as to related services, a right of redress, mainstream service provision and the 3% target for the employment of people with disabilities. Senior officials presented an outline of the Bill to the DLCG in early 2004. The shape of the Bill, as initiated, and the national disability strategy reflect several important elements sought by the DLCG and agreed by the Cabinet committee.
The Bill contains no clause to protect the State against litigation for the breach of statutory duty, which was the case with the much-discussed section 47 in the Disability Bill 2001 and was unacceptable to disability groups. The absence of any such provision represents a fundamental shift in Government policy designed to accommodate widely held concerns.
Another major concern of the DLCG has been that the Bill would be supported by a multi-annual funding package for disability services. The Government has guaranteed an unprecedented multi-annual investment programme providing significant additional funding up to and including 2009, on top of funding to be provided through the annual Estimates process, which shows the special concern of Government for disability issues and is evidence of the Government's strong, positive response to this DLCG proposal.
The Bill as initiated, also reflects a DLCG proposal that a sixth sectoral plan dealing with training and employment issues be prepared. It also ensures that liaison officers will undertake a periodic review of each individual's service statement to ensure that its contents are being satisfactorily implemented. Since the Bill was published I have met the DLCG to discuss its views and the ten key areas of concern they have identified.
Arising from those meetings and consultations with the relevant Departments and the Cabinet committee, I accommodated changes to the Bill to address the group's concerns to the greatest extent possible. These changes were effected by way of Government amendments to the Bill during its passage through the Dáil. They provide for the following: expanding the definition of substantial restriction to ensure certainty in the inclusion of persons with mental health impairments and children needing early intervention services to ameliorate a disability; building in a requirement that the operation of the Bill be reviewed within five years; simplifying the complaints mechanism by removing an option of the Health Service Executive or education service provider to refuse to implement a recommendation of a complaints officer; broadening the sectoral plan of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to include housing and accommodation and for co-operation between the relevant authorities on such matters; providing an additional ground for complaint where the HSE fails to commence or complete an assessment within the timescales required; requiring public bodies to make published documents available in easy to read formats, as appropriate, for persons with intellectual disabilities; and allowing Ministers to make orders requiring public bodies to provide work experience contracts for persons with disabilities.
The DLCG welcomed the changes made to the Bill in the Dáil but later outlined five key issues upon which it sought further consideration. I met with the DLCG to hear its concerns and to outline the position on its proposals. The Taoiseach subsequently wrote to them setting out the Government's policy on each of the five points.
The DLCG sought a right to an assessment that would not be resource dependent. The Bill provides a right to an independent assessment to a benchmark standard with access to redress. The assessment will be undertaken without regard to the cost of or the capacity to provide any service identified in the assessment. The assessment process, however, will ultimately be resource dependent. In practice, the Government is confident that resources will not normally restrict the assessment process in view of the multi-annual investment programme. The DLCG sought that the Bill would require the provision of all assessed service needs within a reasonable and agreed timeframe and that there would be clear protection for disability-specific resources. The Bill will impose significant new requirements on Ministers and the Health Service Executive in regard to transparency of funding and service provision. It also places a statutory obligation on the Health Service Executive to collect aggregate data on assessed needs and on available services for service planning purposes.
The DLCG wants every Department to prepare a sectoral plan. The Bill provides for six sectoral plans dealing with those services which involve medium-term investment either to develop disability-specific supports or to underpin infrastructural change. Other public bodies are already obliged under the Bill to make their services accessible by next year.
The DLCG also sought that disability proofing be placed on a statutory footing. The Government is satisfied that the Bill already creates significant new requirements for public bodies in terms of accessibility of buildings, services and information and that delivery on these provisions will in itself represent significant progress.
Some members of the DLCG left the group because the Government could not agree to change the Bill to accommodate the five points outlined above. The Taoiseach met with the remaining members of the DLCG on 25 May 2005 and, while restating the Government's position on the five points, he agreed to consider a number of further issues of concern to the DLCG, including the following: the need to provide for a face to face interview to review each applicant's service statement; additional powers for the complaints officer, which would allow him or her to recommend the timing of the service or assessment; to review concerns about the wording of section 5(4); the publication of the report on aggregate needs prepared by the Health Service Executive under section 13; the preparation of progress reports by the six sectoral plan Departments at least every three years;