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Seanad Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 1 Jun 2005

Vol. 180 No. 18

Disability Bill 2004: Second Stage (Resumed).

Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I again welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Fahey, to the House. Yesterday I dealt with the issue of rights-based legislation. This morning I would like to deal with other issues, the first of which relates to consultation.

The Government is frequently accused of not listening, a subject on which I would like to expand. During the preparation for the legislation, the Government facilitated extensive consultation with the Disability Legislation Consultation Group, chaired by the National Disability Authority. It comprises eight members representing more than 500 disability interest groups nationwide. As the Minister of State explained in his opening remarks yesterday, the DLCG met him. The Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights heard the views of more than 30 interest groups on the Bill last November. It received more than 40 submissions from the public. By any standards considerable consultation has taken place and as a result the Bill was fully reviewed in light of concerns expressed by DLCG and during its passage through the Dáil. Substantial amendments have been made and the Minister of State indicated that he might be in a position to accept more amendments in this House.

While the Government proposed the option of an ombudsman, the appeals system was the preferred option. The complaints system has been simplified with greater emphasis placed on the review of the service statements. The implementation and progress on the legislation will be reviewed in five years. While it was suggested that this should be three years, to allow the legislation be fully implemented and fully assessed, many people in the disability sector regard five years as preferable. While one can always argue about how long it should be, in any event a timescale has been defined.

Consultation is about listening. It falls to us to legislate. There is an opinion in some circles that the people who are consulted should be the legislators. In other words everything they recommend should be adopted. In some cases that is possible and in other cases it cannot be done. It is the job of the Government to legislate as appropriate.

The experience definitely underlines that the Bill is necessary and needs to be disposed of by the Houses of the Oireachtas. Having listened to those with an interest in the outcome in various fora, the Government engaged in consultation and is satisfied that it has accommodated as far as possible the proposals made by the public, representative groups and Members of both Houses. A point must come at which the consultation ends, the Bill proceeds and the legislative process is disposed of. Consultation and amendment have continued during the process as the Minister of State has indicated. I believe the Taoiseach met the groups as recently as 25 May. I welcome that we have reached this juncture following an extensive consultation exercise.

I would like to address the matter of funding. Again it is necessary to put certain facts on the record. An additional €205 million in current funding will enhance services for people with disabilities in 2005. As the Minister of State explained yesterday, €2.9 billion, representing 7.5% of gross current public expenditure, has been allocated this year. This is considerably more than the €800 million of public expenditure in 1995. We have seen a 3.5 fold increase in eight years, which by any standards is quite phenomenal. I fully accept that more remains to be done and that the situation is not perfect. However, a dramatic and welcome improvement has been made in the amount of money allocated to the sector.

Figures have been given for the number of additional places for people with intellectual disability, and additional respite places, day care places, etc. Some €2 million has been allocated to meet costs associated with moving people to more appropriate placements. On physical and sensory disabilities, an additional sum of €15 million has been allocated. There are 60 new places for people with significant disabilities, more than 2,000 extra hours of home support and personal assistance, an additional funding of €3 million for aids and appliances, approximately 90 extra rehabilitative training places and additional funding to voluntary organisations. The record of funding exists. This is an important point that must be made quite strongly.

We frequently equate resources with funding, but they are not the same. Sometimes we think of matters in simple monetary terms. The danger is that we neglect the question of the people involved. If we do not have properly-trained and experienced people — there is some evidence that we do not have the required numbers — it does not matter whether there is additional money, since the service will not be effective and funding alone will not suffice.

We must be mindful not to get so far bound up in the issue of financial resources that we neglect human resources. The two are interlinked, but there must be an increasing emphasis on the quality of personnel in the service, their capacity to deliver and their professionalism in the specialist areas with which they deal. Extra funding will expand community-based adult mental health teams and provide additional community residential places, but it is not the whole story.

I would like briefly to address some of the other criticisms that surfaced when the Bill was being discussed. One of them did so most recently this morning through some of the e-mail correspondence we received, to the effect that the Bill may be unconstitutional. In the first place, the Attorney General would not recommend legislation knowing it to be unconstitutional. However, it is not for us to determine the constitutionality or otherwise of the Bill. We can express a view on whether it is constitutional, which in my view it is. However, it is the job of the courts not the Oireachtas to determine constitutionality. This can be done by the President referring the Bill to the Supreme Court or by any group or citizen that considers it unconstitutional taking a court action.

The Government did that recently.

That is how the matter is disposed of. Another way is to suggest that the Bill contravenes the European Convention on Human Rights. Once again, the Attorney General would not advise the Government to initiate legislation and pilot it through these Houses if he considered it a breach of the convention. The same story applies; it is a case of legal challenge. If people believe it is a breach, they have recourse to the courts.

The third, often repeated claim regarding the Bill is that it does not make it clear that services identified in the assessment of need for an individual must be provided within a reasonable and agreed period. In that context, I refer to sections 10 and 11, which provide that each person found to need disability-related services should be given a service statement setting out the health and educational services that can be provided. The service statement will set out the period within which those services will be provided, where appropriate.

There are other points that need to be made, one of which concerns access. We have not gone nearly far enough regarding access for people with physical disabilities. In my own county of Kildare, the desk at the health board was two or three floors up in a building with a restricted lift; that is just not good enough. A health centre was built without specific access for people in wheelchairs; that is not good enough. There are swimming pool and sports facilities that people cannot access; that is not good enough.

When I went to Luxembourg recently I was very taken by the fact that in one of the large public buildings I visited, there were wheelchairs inside the door. In other words, if someone arrived by car and needed a wheelchair, he or she would have it. That should be standard practice in Departments. We simply do not think about how it is to be restricted in sight or by having to use a wheelchair. In my local community in Newbridge, we have a very active access group. Some time ago it put public representatives in wheelchairs and let them try to get around the town, but it was just impossible.

County councils make a great play of installing ramps and making footpaths accessible, but then the roads team comes along and carries out repairs that make it impossible to get onto the footpath. That is just not good enough these days, and we must have some regard to that practice.

Senator Terry was correct in her comments on building regulations. There was a fair amount of hope in disability circles when the Part M regulations were introduced that many problems would be solved. It is quite apparent from some of the buildings that have been built since that the regulations are not being implemented as they should be.

I am glad the Bill has been amended to make the literature easy to read. Legislation is by definition complex. It has to be so, since there is no alternative. Having said that, if one looks at some of the British legislation from the 1890s, one sees they were models of clarity in their use of language. We still need legislation that is fairly complex, but there should be some "translation service" to make it readily accessible to the ordinary citizen, particularly those with intellectual disabilities or even visual impairment, allowing them to read it easily.

The 3% employment target is a matter of concern, and we must examine it. In county councils and local authorities there are great differences in the progress that has been made. It is not a very high threshold, and every Department and local authority should reach the mark for providing employment to people with disabilities. We have all met people who are eminently employable but have great difficulties in securing employment. On the other hand, we have such bodies as Care, which looks after people with intellectual disabilities in Kildare. It has been extremely successful in placing some of its clients in local communities and getting them jobs in shops and businesses. These are more fulfilling and fruitful jobs than those they had in some of the sheltered workshops which, although they did a good job at the time, are not an ideal situation now.

We have made significant progress with this legislation. The Bill is badly needed and represents a vast improvement over the system that currently obtains. Despite that, it is not perfect, but if we wait for perfect legislation, nothing will get done, since the current systems will persist ad infinitum. The Bill improves the situation for disabled people, which is what legislation should do. The Minister has shown himself quite open, as he already did in the Dáil and, I am sure, will do so again.

Where appropriate amendments must be made, he will make them. Judging from some of the literature we have received, one would think nothing had been done in the Dáil, yet there was a series of beneficial amendments. As I said at the start of this debate, I had serious reservations about this Bill, fewer after what happened in the Dáil, and fewer still after hearing the Minister of State speak yesterday. The Bill provides a legislative basis for the individual assessment of service delivery that is considerably more advanced than those in many other jurisdictions, something of which we should not lose sight.

As I said, the legislation is only part of the story. We have heard a great deal about passing legislation which does not necessarily improve things. We need the will to do it. I am confident the will is there and applies across all sections of the two Houses to ensure people with disabilities have proper facilities, a good quality of life, and rights that improve their situation. This Bill has been introduced after an extensive period of consultation, debate and amendment. It provides a legislative basis for individual assessment of service delivery that puts Ireland in a position that will no doubt be studied and emulated abroad. It is not perfect, but it is an improvement, and as such I welcome the Bill.

I wish to share time with Senator Quinn.

Is that agreed? Agreed. The Senators have ten minutes each.

I also compliment the Leader of the House, since the material I received from the Disability Federation of Ireland stated she had given it an undertaking that there would be ample time for discussion of the Bill in the House. It is clear from the provision of time yesterday, today and tomorrow that there will be such provision. That is very good.

The Bill is a kind of dialectic. An earlier Bill had to be withdrawn because it was plainly unsatisfactory. I have no difficulty in agreeing with what was said by Senator Dardis in his reasonable speech. Other things may need to be tidied up and I understand from the Minister's speech that he is tabling further Government amendments. This Bill is in the process of being improved all the time and this Chamber will play a role in that.

I am glad the Minister has accepted the idea of a review. I made this point in discussions with groups representing people with disabilities as I thought it was a sensible thing. They told me that they had already made a suggestion of three years, but the Minister suggested five years and they seemed to be quite comfortable with that.

Yes. As a former teacher, it seems to me that a continuous assessment would be a good idea. Having a review at the end of three or five years is not the best way to do it. A process of continuous assessment from the beginning gives a far better chance of reaching down into the consequences of the Bill and finding out what happens.

Part 3 is the most significant element of the Bill, as it deals with access to services, public buildings and so on, as well as the sectoral plans. We must arrive at a situation where disability becomes a prime factor in Government policy and is factored into every Department. Someone in each Department should be charged with responsibility to enforce such a policy. Perhaps it should be the General Secretary.

In a briefing Senator Quinn and I had with disability groups yesterday, we were told that €38 billion is spent on health services and people with disabilities get around 3% of that which is roughly proportional to their size. However, they made the point that they are excluded from many of the services provided for everybody else by virtue of their circumstances which could be remedied without a huge amount of expense. The Government has taken a practical view on this, which is understandable, but one which is open for us to challenge. Many people fear that a financial haemorrhage from a rights-based Bill could affect the Exchequer. They also fear that it would be left to the courts to deliver services.

Many people talk about rights — I have been talking about them all of my life. I have come to the conclusion that rights are of no use unless one is in a position to exercise them. One can have theoretical rights, but unless there are practical mechanisms whereby one can obtain these rights, then they are of virtually no use at all.

I was listening to the radio last night and there was a very good programme about an awards scheme that was won by a group from the west of Ireland. The scheme dealt with disability. The students got themselves into wheelchairs and went around the town with their companions. They were helped consistently by members of the public, but those people never spoke to the people in the wheelchair. They always spoke to the person who was with the person in the wheelchair. The young girl interviewed made the point that she had a problem with her legs and not with her brain. This is why people need consultation and the Government has gone some way to meeting that need.

I listened to the programme "Outside the Box", presented by Olan McGowan who had an accident in his twenties and is now in a wheelchair. There was a discussion on disability and a woman representing the blind claimed that he should be able to play for Ireland or climb Kilimanjaro, only if it was made accessible. That is at the outer limit of political correctness and Mr. McGowan fortunately pointed out that we must live in the real world. We must attempt to imagine what the situation is like in human terms, so that we can be in a position to understand the desire for rights on the part of the disabled community. On the other hand, we also need to be realistic. The Government is moving to some extent in this direction.

I have a document in front of me from the Disability Federation of Ireland, indicating that it is aware that the legislation is coming before the Seanad. The document states:

If this legislation goes through without major changes, the DLCG and its member organisations will be left with no option but to reassess our future co-operation with the Government, Departments and agencies. We may also consider a nationwide campaign to alert the general public to the failure of the Government to meet our legislative needs.

The federation feels that the Bill needs to focus on two matters to ensure that people have timely access to the necessary specialist services and to ensure that what Ireland has to offer becomes fully accessible to people with disabilities.

We have not gone far enough in this Bill and I hope the Minister of State addresses some of the issues that have been brought to his attention by the Disability Federation of Ireland. He has included the Ombudsman in the Bill, but I am not sure if that is needed. It has been suggested to me that a disability commissioner is more appropriate. If the Minister of State accepted that, it would go a long way towards meeting the problems of the disabled community.

That is not as strong as the Ombudsman.

That is surprising, given that the Ombudsman has much on her plate already.

There will be a new division within the Office of the Ombudsman.

I see. Why not have a disability ombudsman with just this remit?

That is what the appeals officer does, if we give him the choice.

That is an interesting comment and I will pass it on to the Disability Federation of Ireland. Its representatives were very interested in the idea of a disability commissioner based on the precedent of the language commissioner that was created recently.

I suggest that the language commissioner is not at all as strong as the Ombudsman.

I will relay that point back to the disability groups. I am glad there will be a separate section in the Office of the Ombusdman. I understood from the speech by the Minister of State that it was all coming under the remit of the Ombudsman, who is already over-burdened. If the Minister of State can assure the House that there will be staffing and funding specifically dedicated to the issue, the Disability Federation of Ireland may well think that is a very good idea.

The federation also states: "The value of the public investment is not around whether, for example, the wheelchair was purchased at the best possible price or terms, but by the measure of how it facilitates access for that individual". I do not see how the two are incompatible. It is a requirement of the Government to get the best deal if it is buying services with taxpayers' money. Senator Dardis mentioned a number of ways in which the Government has moved to meet some of these concerns and the DFI has accepted the changes.

However, the Government's response to calls for the service preferences of the individual to be considered in the assessment process is that there will now be a requirement to "note the views" of the person being assessed. This is entirely ineffective. I have had my views noted until I am weary of expressing them but nothing is achieved.

Senator Norris's views have been noted and ignored.

This provision must be copperfastened.

This will have been a useful debate if we have teased this much out, namely, the clear commitment to the House by the Minister of State that there will be ring-fencing of the staffing and resources for a new section within the Office of the Ombudsman. That will satisfy the requirements of the DFI. I am also confident that the other points made by our briefing group will be adequately——

Senator Norris cannot pre-empt that at this stage.

One of the difficulties of following Senator Norris is that he generally covers everything. In this instance, he has dealt with almost all the points I wished to make. However, I wish to concentrate on one particular issue. Only a certain amount can be achieved in the area of disability through legislation. A similar point was made in regard to another matter on the Order of Business. What is required is a mind set change. In this context, I am not sure the legislation is sufficiently positive. A great deal of it is concerned with solving problems rather than changing the mind set around disability.

An example of a positive change is the ability awards that were awarded for the first time earlier this year. It was notable that they were called "ability" awards rather than the "disability" awards. These awards served to emphasise that people with disabilities have other abilities and that we should concentrate on the ability instead of the disability. As an employer for many years, I have encountered job applicants who are regarded as disabled and unable to perform certain tasks. I invariably find, however, that they will be able to perform some other task adequately. This is the mindset change that is required. We must concentrate on what people are able to do and must assist them in that regard.

Some years ago, I encountered a young wheelchair-user in one of my stores and asked whether she needed assistance. She replied that everything was fine and that people were always willing to help if she needed assistance in reaching an item and so on. Upon meeting her again at the check-out some 20 minutes later, she asked me if I had heard the announcement about a car which was causing an obstruction. When she told me this was her car, I asked whether I could provide her with any assistance. She explained that just as she had been about to park her vehicle in the disabled space, another motorist had taken the spot. She had decided to park behind that vehicle and informed me she would be finished her shopping in approximately 20 minutes. This particular supermarket is close to the airport and she observed that the motorist may well have been on the way to catch a flight. That gentleman will never again park in a disabled parking space.

Good for her.

It is great that she had such a positive attitude. I am sure the motorist who parked in the disabled space was shamed out of ever doing so again. Any anger he may have felt was surely deflated when the woman in the wheelchair finally returned to her vehicle. A positive development in the retail sector is the inclusion on the packaging of some products of information in braille, most notably those products that might be lethal if ingested, such as cleaning detergents and so on.

There are some indications in the legislation that the correct approach is being taken. Moneys allocated in this area should be seen as an investment rather a cost. We must take a positive attitude in this regard. However, I am not sure the mind-set has changed all that much. In reading the scripts of the Dáil debates on the Bill, I noticed that Deputies concentrated to a significant extent on Parts 1 and 2 and not enough on Part 3.

Senator Norris makes the case for a commissioner of disability whose job is to play a positive role rather than merely solve problems. The function of the Ombudsman is to settle complaints. The advice we have received is that those involved in the disability sector would like to see the appointment of a person who could take a positive role and attitude in safeguarding the rights of those with disabilities. The Irish language commissioner is a good example to the extent that it is a role which allows for a proactive approach in seeking opportunities to promote a particular cause. I accept the Minister of State's point that the Ombudsman can take a strong role in the area of disability. However, the function of that office is primarily to solve problems as they arise rather than to take a proactive and positive approach.

Senator Dardis observed that we have had a national debate on disability which has been ongoing for several years. The views of those concerned have been listened to and progress has been made in many respects. However, there has been no closing of the gap between those who insist on rights-based legislation and those who contend that such is a step too far. It is a classic example of a problem wherein the heart leads in one direction while the head says something different. Nobody lacks sympathy for those with disabilities and nobody would seek to deny them their role as full citizens. However, there is a reasonable concern that an open book should not be left open which allows rights to be established for which the associated costs are inestimable. I understand the difficulty in this regard.

Nobody would deny we have been unduly parsimonious in this respect in the past and that this has too often resulted in unfair discrimination against persons with disabilities. The Government has demonstrated recently — most notably in the relevant allocation in the budget — a recognition that we must do better in this area. The sums envisaged for the future are very generous when compared with what has been spent in the past. The Government and the vast majority of Irish people are convinced that far greater resources must be allocated in the future than has been heretofore to provide for the needs of persons with disabilities.

Important advances have been made and the signs are positive. However, it is necessary to strike a balance in this area because we must not commit ourselves by law to do something which we may be unable to do in the future. I often have disagreements with the mandarins in the Department of Finance but I am inclined to believe they have got the better of the argument in this case. At any given moment, a state has a finite amount of money to spend and a not quite finite list of proposals on which to spend it. Getting the balance right between the two is the job of the Government. This is what we must do in this case in legislation.

One area in which we can do something is in attempting to change minds and attitudes. We must adopt a "can do" approach rather than focussing on solving problems after they have arisen. I have always been impressed by the Oxfam maxim which observes that giving a man a fish will feed him for a day but teaching a man to fish will feed him for life. This is the approach we should take. It is a question of identifying and solving problems rather than considering this only as an issue of costs. In the past, a person with a mental disability was placed in a mental hospital for the remainder of their lives at significant cost to the State. We must find a positive attitude that sees beyond such persons' inability to lead a regular life and attempts to nurture the talents they possess so that they can make a success of their lives.

There are some positive steps in that direction in the legislation. In is in this context that we will consider what improvements can be made on Committee Stage. The Department's position has changed significantly in the last number of years since the original and entirely unsatisfactory Bill was introduced. There are voices crying out to be heard and they have been heard to some degree. However, we can do much more in the future.

Some years ago, a colleague of mine broke his shoulder in a skiing accident in Austria. I accompanied him to the hospital and found that the doctor behaved exactly as Senator Norris described in that he spoke to me rather than to the patient in the wheelchair. The doctor asked me what had happened and, after conferring with Jim, I explained the situation. I then relayed the information that the doctor had decided to test Jim's shoulder. The doctor, after taking hold and shaking Jim's shoulder, asked me if the problem had been ameliorated. Jim at that point asked me why the doctor did not speak to him rather than me. Here was a man with a broken shoulder who, because he sat in a wheelchair, was addressed as if he was also disabled in his mind. We are attempting, by means of the current legislation, to change this mindset. While this Bill will take us a number of steps in this direction, a longer step remains before we can say that people we once called "disabled" are actually "able". We must determine what they are able to do. If such people are nurtured, the country will reap the benefits.

I welcome the Minister of State to the House, congratulate him on bringing this important legislation before us, and thank him for the commitment and energy he has shown on this matter. I note from the correspondence I have received that he met with a number of organisations. Last week, I was honoured to meet with the Disability Federation of Ireland, DFI, and was impressed by its argument. I have been involved with and met the Irish Wheelchair Association members in Tuam on many occasions.

Questions on the ring-fencing of funds arise in the context of this Bill. The Minister of State is attempting to address this issue and has made some changes following the debate in the Dáil. He said he is committed to further changes. It is important that whatever funding is made available will be ring-fenced for the area of disability rather than sought for other Departments or health matters. I support the objective of Tuam members of the Irish Wheelchair Association to prevent the treatment of people with disabilities as second class citizens. The right to an assessment of need must not be resource dependent. While the Minister of State has responded to this issue, the Government, hopefully by means of this Bill, should provide services sufficient to address needs.

The DFI focused on the issues of timely access to certain specialist services and the opportunity for people with disabilities to make use of all this country has to offer. These human rights issues are as important as education or the matters we discussed with regard to the elderly. It is imperative that we address human rights. We should acknowledge and learn from past mistakes rather than continue to commit them. In 1997, a commitment was made in the programme for Government to ensure disability was placed on the agenda of every Department and public body, where it belongs. This remains the most significant challenge faced in Ireland.

Senator Norris referred to value for money, which was one of the issues raised by the DFI. This is not about the purchase of a wheelchair at the lowest possible price but about access. We should remember what happened when Mr. Brian Crowley, MEP, was a Senator. Members will recall that the passage to the restaurant included a number of steps. We acted quickly to ensure that area and this Chamber were made wheelchair friendly. New elevators were installed and corridors widened. This is a positive example of the actions which should be taken in every public building. We are all aware of the issues that arise where local authorities, community halls and schools have not taken the appropriate action to satisfy the rights of people with disabilities.

The Minister of State has expressed enthusiasm in addressing the issues which arise in the context of public transport and other services suchas employment, community participation, recreation, cultural activities, training and third-level education. The DFI noted that people with disabilities should not be denied funding from the public service expenditure of €38 billion and that legislation should provide a cornerstone for full inclusion. It was also noted that, rather than fear legal challenge, the public service should proactively design for the needs of disabled people. Regrettably, the areas of disability and education have involved extensive recourse to the courts.

I commend the Minister of State on the progress made on this Bill. In the opinion of the DFI, the key issues have been reduced from ten to five. The Minister of State referred to these issues in his opening address. I welcome the suggestion that an ombudsman be created in this area. The role of a disability commissioner was compared to the positive actions taken by the language commissioner to ensure activities could be conducted through Irish. I will take the Minister of State's word that the Ombudsman is a better option.

It is welcome that a review of the legislation will be conducted. Sectoral plans, which were discussed by the DFI, are important but unappreciated by local authorities, especially in the area of housing. During our debate on the rural housing guidelines, the Minister noted the reference to disability included in those guidelines thanks to the lobbying efforts of Councillor Nick Killeen and interested organisations. I hope that local authorities will pay heed to these guidelines when considering applications for planning permission.

It is disappointing that no specific provision was made for employment. Cross-departmental policies, which are often referred to as "joined-up Government", would be welcome in this matter. The Irish Wheelchair Association in Tuam has stressed the need to include a requirement to provide services within a reasonable and agreed timeframe. The Minister of State addressed this matter. All Departments should have a clear statutory duty to formulate sectoral plans, in which regard I welcome the Minister of State's remarks. He had a meeting on 6 May at which he said the first four of the five key recommendations would be addressed in the overall strategy. The Taoiseach offered to have meetings with each of the relevant Ministers to discuss the plans and I understand they will take place. The Taoiseach's initiative is welcome.

Senator Kett raised the issue of disability proofing which is a very useful place to start a discussion on the rights of the disabled. While the current period is one of intense activity as many organisations work to influence the final outcome of the Bill, my reading of the legislation and the Minister of State's address indicate we have come a long way towards creating very good provisions. There is an issue of access in the context of the layout of the Dáil and Seanad, in which context the Disability Federation of Ireland's slogan, "Access all areas", is a good one. To enact the slogan as policy will vindicate human rights.

I have worries which relate not to the Bill but to the way in which we do our business. As a former teacher, I am aware that access to schools is an issue. I remain concerned that roads divide the campuses at many schools, a problem which is far too common in County Galway. All schools have the ambition to have a campus on one side of a road only. Were it not for the fact that we have special needs assistance at mainstream schools we could not provide education for young people with disabilities. I hope we can continue to promote such education, although we should be very clear that it costs money. While it sounds very simple to bring all elements of a school to a campus on one side of a road, it is an expensive process as the Minister of State knows.

I referred earlier to local authorities, which have many new buildings accessible to all. Some older local authority buildings in too many counties, however, have very poor entrances and lack accessible lifts and toilets. There have been many campaigns on footpaths but while the attitude exists that someone should be there to help out, it would defeat the purpose of the Bill to adopt such a measure. We must ensure that campaigns of this type succeed. In Dublin and other cities, there has been a significant problem with access to taxi and bus transport. While there was a reluctance to provide accessible taxis and buses in the past, we have made some progress. I am not as happy about progress on rail transport. As a frequent train user, I am aware of a lack of access for the disabled. As Senator Kett knows, there are many small stations which are automated and at which one no longer buys tickets. They are not staffed by the number of personnel people might think. Disabled persons are not facilitated to embark and disembark from trains, which is disappointing.

We have campaigned long and hard at parliamentary party level in Fianna Fáil on the grant for disabled drivers, in which I would like to see some changes. While many changes have been made to the grant process in the past, difficulties continue to be experienced with the type of grant available and excise duty. A clear scheme should be established to help those with disabilities which no longer puts so many rules and regulations in place that it is almost impossible for disabled people to obtain assistance.

Senator Quinn referred to parking. I commend RTE, which has on many occasions sent reporters to parking areas in towns and cities to challenge people who have parked in spaces reserved for the disabled. Unfortunately, some people think that anyone can park in these slots. If we bear the policy in mind and remember Senator Quinn's remarks, people will eventually learn that there are certain spaces which are reserved by right for those with disability which should not be used by able-bodied people who wish to take the easy way out.

People who have concerns about the Bill would do well to read the Minister of State's comments. Changes have been made to the legislation in the Dáil and Government amendments will be tabled, which is welcome. The Minister of State has met many organisations and it is a matter of regret that some have pulled out of talks. The decision was theirs to make. Those organisations which have stayed in talks have seen changes made. Lobbying on all sides in the Houses has ensured that real improvements will be made to the legislation. I wish the Minister well in the rest of the talks and with the Government amendments which have yet to come forward.

The focus in the Bill is on the vindication of people's rights, to which end a great deal of money will be provided. I will make no apology for saying a great deal of funding is required in this area. The Minister of State is in a Department which has already set aside significant funding for child care, to which to his credit the Minister of State has given much of his time. I hope we will be able to find the money necessary to ensure the legislation before us is successful. I thank and congratulate the Minister of State for bringing the Bill to the House.

As the Taoiseach, Tánaiste and almost half the Cabinet were in attendance at the launch of the Disability Bill, I felt genuinely that the Government at last meant business on a most important issue. Surely, it could not be just another orchestrated PR event to give false hope to people with disabilities and their families. They say a leopard never changes its spots. Despite some purgatory in Inchydoney and an attempt to reverse some of the cuts in last year's budget, the Government could not resist a stroke. As a result, the most vulnerable sections of the community must suffer disappointment having been promised so much with such fanfare just a short time ago in September 2004. The people who wrote the speeches the Taoiseach and Tánaiste made at the launch could not have read the Bill as their words bore no resemblance to those outlining its provisions.

I was very disappointed by the Government guillotine on the debate on the Bill in the Dáil, as a result of which many amendments were not dealt with. It is not the way to behave in a parliamentary democracy and suggests an arrogance and complacency of which the public is only too well aware at this stage. The Minister of State said he believed he was introducing good legislation. While I do not suggest for a moment that some of the Bill's sections are not worthwhile, the Government seems to think it has a monopoly on wisdom in this area and is unwilling to accept contrary views from the Opposition benches or organisations representing people with disabilities.

In recent correspondence with all Oireachtas Members, the Disability Federation of Ireland put forward five fundamental issues which remain to be addressed. First, there must be a clear and unequivocal right to an assessment of need which is not resource dependent. Second, the services identified in the assessment of need for an individual must be provided within a reasonable and agreed timeframe. Third, the Bill must provide for clear protection of disability specific resources. Fourth, the provision regarding sectoral plans must take account of the wider needs of people with disabilities. Fifth, each Department with relevant services must provide a sectoral plan and the Government must place a clear statutory duty on all Departments and public bodies to include people with disabilities in their plans and services, with appropriate monitoring and accountability.

If we could make progress on these five points, this debate would be meaningful. It would improve the Bill significantly and lay the foundation for legislation which would genuinely give hope to people with disabilities and their families. It would also prove that the Oireachtas genuinely cares about disabled people and is prepared to take the necessary action which would improve their quality of life.

If the Government should continue with its stonewalling tactics and state that there is no possibility of altering this flawed legislation, it will confirm that it has no interest in or intention of listening to people with disabilities. I welcome what the Minister of State said in his opening remarks last night about the five points to which I alluded. He said that people with disabilities and the DLCG met with the Taoiseach. However, the responses made to the five points were very milk and water ones. I hope the promised Government amendments in this regard will be stronger than was suggested by the Minister of State last night and will give teeth to what has been sought in the five points.

I am pleased the Progressive Democrats spoke on the Bill. I welcome Senator Dardis's response. The party made little or no contribution on this important issue in the other House.

For whom are public services — financed by taxes — designed? Are they for everyone or only those people who fit the narrow definition of what might be termed the "norm", those who fit into the mould? How this Bill is enacted will dictate what kind of society this is and how real is our commitment to inclusiveness. I am convinced the vast majority of people believe in empowering people with disabilities and providing the necessary resources to help them and their families have a better quality of life. This is what we should be united in providing through legislation. Sadly, the Bill excludes rather than includes the very people it would purport to protect.

I read the Bill from beginning to end and the very complex language used made it difficult to understand. This point was also made by other speakers. In the past we often commented on the need for European legislation and treaties to use plain English but the language used in this Bill surpasses the bureaucratic speak of the EU itself. How are parents and ordinary people expected to understand sections of the Bill, when legal experts are on record as finding it difficult?

It is the Government's duty and moral responsibility to ensure the delivery of quality services and remove the barriers that hamper full participation in society. We are prepared to engage in meaningful debate to ensure this legislation will provide the necessary support and quality services. However, the Minister of State must respond in kind, which has not been the case to date. We look forward to this on Committee Stage.

If we lived in a country with no Exchequer surplus and an economy that was floundering, then some could say — without justification — that the Government could not afford accessible housing or respite and residential care for people with disabilities. However, this is not the case. The country is awash with money. The wealthiest people in the country avoid paying any taxes while at the same time elderly parents of children with disabilities worry and wonder what will happen to their children when they die. Many families of people with disabilities struggle. They are at risk of poverty and are under severe emotional and physical stress. For far too long we have consigned people with disabilities to a land that cannot afford or value them. It is time for this attitude to change. The barriers we place in front of people and the attitudes we have to their participation are more disabling than any impairments they may have.

The right to assessment is referred to more than once in the Bill, which I welcome, but it is open to interpretation whether resource constraints will curtail the so-called right to assessment on which the Government appears to place such emphasis. Even if resources are provided for assessment, the services are dependent on the availability of resources and, therefore, there is no obligation to provide these services within a reasonable and agreed timeframe.

I question the process, as outlined in the Bill, for the qualification and appointment of assessment officers by the Health Service Executive. Has any research been undertaken to provide information on how many assessment officers will be required? If designated funds are not provided to the HSE to appoint these officers, the number of assessments could be constrained. Is there a plan in place for the appointment of assessment officers and is there a sufficient number of qualified people in the State to become assessment officers? These questions deserve straight answers. We are at risk of placing another layer of bureaucracy into the process, which may take from the actual delivery of services.

When and if an assessment of needs is carried out, the last thing a person wants to hear at that stage is that no resources are available to carry out the work. This would add insult to injury. Nobody expects all the work to be completed immediately following the assessment but at least people should be entitled to a timeframe and a reasonable estimate as to when the necessary service would be provided.

Section 16 deals with appeals officers. Perhaps it would it be better if these officers were to be appointed by the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform rather that the Department of Health and Children. It is important that the appeals process would be seen as an independent one and the HSE and the Department of Health and Children are two sides of the one coin.

Section 36, which deals with the sectoral plan of the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, provides that it shall contain information concerning measures to be taken to ensure compliance with Part M of the building regulations 1997. It is an indictment of the Government since 1997 that it is looking at measures to be taken to ensure compliance with Part M. This sums up the priority that the parties in Government have assigned to people with disabilities and their families. Senator Tuffy, Senator Dardis and others also referred to this point. It is evident that the regulations are not being adhered to, which is outrageous given that it is now 2005.

The basis on which this Bill was formulated was to take the courts out of the equation rather than address the needs of people with disabilities. We all have similar human rights and people with disabilities have the same rights as everyone else but they cannot exercise their rights and opportunities because of the obstacles put in their way. The Bill as it stands, will do nothing to remove these obstacles.

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Fahey. I congratulate him, the Government and senior staff in the Department for bringing this detailed and complex legislation before the House. Having read and thought about the Bill many times I consider that we were right to delay it. There was no question of its being railroaded through. This could not have been done. If we had done so, we would not have considered all its aspects.

I welcome the fact that the Bill was based on the framework of existing legislation, including the equality status legislation. Last year we discussed at length education for children with special educational needs. We analysed the educational assessment of such children and considered how we would devise a plan and how it would be implemented. This was to lead up to this major Bill. It had to be done.

I welcomed the discussions on all the relevant issues and problems held by the vast and widely representative Disability Legislation Consultation Group. These included discussions among its own members and discussions with many Ministers, Ministers of State and senior officials. A sub-committee of the Cabinet sat to discuss the issues in question. I am very happy that these discussions were held. Interestingly, the Disability Legislation Consultation Group produced a document called Equal Citizens. I like this title. The document set out all the provisions that would be necessary for the legislation to work. Therefore, to suggest no groundwork was done before we began to prepare this Bill for discussion is incorrect.

We have a good Bill to start with and discuss. Of course there are pitfalls therein. We met the Disability Federation of Ireland and noted that while it is not 100% happy with the legislation, it is happy that some amendments were made. It is more ready for discussion. The Government is a listening Government and the Taoiseach went so far as to launch the mainstreaming process last year. He ensured it would be the basis for this Bill.

I am very pleased that the legislation is built on a good foundation and we are now ready to talk about the Bill proper. However, I am a little concerned over the definition of "disability". The Bill refers to those who have communication difficulties, mobility difficulties or language difficulties. I would have liked the Bill to have enlarged on this a wee bit. Where would the deaf or blind fit into this category? The definitions are not broad enough.

Reference was made to an independent assessment and the making of an assessment regardless of resources. I hope assessors will not adopt a one-size-fits-all approach in their assessments and that these assessments will not be restricted so as to adhere to certain guidelines. I am very concerned over the assessors' brief.

I am trying to think through how the passing on of the independent assessment to the liaison officer will work on the ground. I hope the service statement, which will be produced through the liaison process, will be created with a priority in mind and subject to a certain timescale. Who will be appointed as liaison officers? When will they be appointed and how will they work? Coming from an educational background, I am trying to understand how the process will work on the ground. Perhaps the Minister of State will refer to this in his reply.

I welcome the statement that if the applicant is not satisfied with the independent assessment and with the services provided, he or she has a means of redress by making a complaint to the complaints officer. If this occurs, the complaints officer will try to mediate, if necessary. If this fails, the case will be passed to an appeals officer. It is great to have all these facilities on hand. It is reassuring for disabled persons that their disabilities are being acknowledged, and also reassuring for their families. The legislative provisions in this area serve as a great way forward. I hope the appeals officer, chief executive officer and perhaps the complaints officer can work out a schedule such that appeals can be analysed.

New staff will be appointed as assessment officers, appeals officers, etc. What qualifications will assessment officers have? On educational assessments, the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act made reference to educational psychologists. Will psychologists make assessments of need under the Disability Bill? If so, they will need a broad brief given the range of disabilities that exist. How will we be able to define the qualifications required of someone making an assessment?

Educational psychologists will make assessments in respect of persons with special educational needs up to 18 years of age. Consider the case of persons with special educational needs who are older than this, who are in the education system and perhaps doing quite well but learning at a slower rate than others. When responsibility for the assessment of such persons is transferred to the Department of Health and Children and when they are placed in a different setting, continuity will be required in their education, regardless of the extent of this education. Some can do quite well, including remedial students or those with a reading age of eight or nine at the age of 18, but I would worry that their education or training would be stultified in some way if they were taken out of their existing environment and shifted to another. There should be continuity because relevant persons who are under 18 come under the remit of the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act while those who are over 18 will be under the remit of the Disability Bill, when enacted. I am concerned about this because one month can make a difference to the way of life of a person in this category.

I welcome the requirement for certain Ministers to create sectoral plans to facilitate access to employment for those with disabilities. These plans will be monitored. The Disability Federation of Ireland suggested that the feasibility of the plans on the ground be monitored. Timescales are very important regarding service statements and access to employment to ensure there will be no discrimination.

It is rather interesting that there will be a new centre of excellence compelling architects to redesign buildings to make them more accessible. This is to be welcomed, as is the fact that the 3% employment target for recruiting people with disabilities into the public service will be maintained. This reinforces the point that we must have equality of opportunity and equal status for everyone. We must have equal status for everyone and this is the cornerstone of this legislation. The mainstreaming of public bodies and the sectoral plan with the various Departments are comprehensive initiatives. The granting of assessments is crucial for creating confidence with families who may have problems. Ideally such assessments should be granted quickly and their findings implemented within a reasonable timescale.

I welcome this Bill. The National Disability Authority will monitor employment and accessibility. I was also gratified to see the Minister of State has introduced measures as regards rules for broadcasting. With so many different broadcasting organisations on air at present and with the push for tighter and tighter profit margins, I was glad to see the need for access being incorporated into the legislation. Access for people with disabilities might have been one variable that some broadcasters would have been happy to do away with in the rush to cut corners. It is vital this service is maintained.

There are many measures in the Bill, but the overall thrust is very positive. I have no doubt that the Minister of State, Deputy Fahey, and the Government are eager for reform and have committed themselves to this piece of legislation. It has been a long time coming but it was well worth the Minister of State's while to do all the homework to bring it to this stage. I wish him well in its implementation. Of course there are areas which we will never get right because there is such a variety of disabilities. However, there is general consensus that a good day's work has been done in bringing this Bill forward and that the necessary preparation has been done in advance. The Bill's provisions will help people in many different ways; for this reason it is worthy of a good discussion in the House today and also on Committee Stage.

Those who have the good fortune not to suffer from a disability, in many cases, do not notice the phenomenon. For many able bodied people the first shock they receive as regards disability is when they try to wheel a buggy around a supermarket for the first time. That brings the realisation of how difficult it must be for somebody in a wheelchair when so many supermarkets and multiple stores decide that all children's clothes must be on the second or even the fifth floor. The lifts are normally so small that one cannot fit a buggy into them, not to mention a modern powered wheelchair. A point made to me vigorously by many people is that the regulations for access are based on the presumption that people use wheelchairs without their own power. The larger wheelchairs cannot get into, never mind turn around, in most so-called disability proofed areas, such as toilets.

I am not criticising the fact that we have not yet caught up with a welcome improvement in the quality of life of people. If we do not listen to people who are suffering from or living with a disability and those who support them, we will get it wrong over and over again. I do not want to be too specific, but a person appeared in a class that I teach, some years ago, with a severe disability. If I had been consulted in advance by the parents and asked whether this student was able for the course, I would have said "No", based on my professional judgment. That person did extremely well and is highly successful, working in an area of chemical engineering. This is an illustration of my lack of knowledge and understanding and of the need never to underestimate what people with disabilities can do provided certain minimal facilities are made available to them.

There was a considerable controversy in Cork some time ago where the city council was redoing Patrick Street and putting in specific serrated pavements so that people with sight disabilities could know when they were approaching pedestrian crossings. Somebody in the traffic department decided that if these parts of the pavement were left for people with disabilities to use at pedestrian crossings, cars would park there. They promptly stuck bollards in these places, with the result that people who were unsighted would move confidently onto the surface, listen for the signal showing the lights were in their favour and walk promptly into a bollard. It has taken enormous argument to try to resolve this issue, because people do not listen.

The argument with Government that I keep hearing from people with disabilities is that it will not listen. There are also a number of more fundamental arguments. The central aspect of this Bill with which most people take issue, however, is the question of whether it is rights based. There is an argument about whether the right to assessment is an unqualified right. I do not believe it is. However, there is a more profound argument being advanced by the Government, that even if we accept that this is an area where resources have to be available, it would not serve any purpose. A number of issues have arisen in this regard. One of them raised by the Government concerns international best practice. It has cited studies carried out in a variety of countries which are much more advanced than Ireland. It states there is not a single model anywhere and none of them has the unqualified rights-based legislation people are talking about.

However, the Government's own position on this is the basis for the argument in this country for rights-based legislation. The problem here is that people have seen a great many areas where a minuscule level of discretion has turned into an enormous gap in service; or even where people have rights and these were ignored. What would have happened if we did not have unequivocal legal advice about old people in nursing homes? The money would not have been refunded and an extraordinary injustice would have been perpetrated. The unfortunate experience of Irish people, whether they have disabilities, is that even with a guarantee of something one does not necessarily get it. The corollary of that is that if one qualifies something by not making it rights based or by having it resource linked, one is effectively telling people they have no guarantee at all to any access to service. That is the experience.

Let us go through the list. Children have an unequivocal right to free primary education. We have managed to interpret that in a way which means that their unequivocal right to primary education is serviced by schools that, in many cases, the Health and Safety Authority regards as unsafe and many parents consider dangerous. We have qualified that right even where it exists. Therefore, our citizens do not trust the State to provide services it claims it is providing.

There is the industrial inspectorate which is covered by rights-based legislation. Workers have a right to work in a safe environment, to a minimum wage and so on. However, the State's response to ensuring access to such rights is illustrated by the fact that in 1933 the State had 16 industrial inspectors and in 2005 it has 21. The State's response is to hold back the capacity of the citizen to seek its support to enforce existing rights. That is the reason our citizens do not trust the State any more. It is the reason, according to the Government's study, people here are uniquely seeking rights-based disability legislation, but I am not sure the seeking of such legislation is quite that unique. The matter may be to do with jurisprudence in other countries. However, that is the Government's argument.

The reason people seek this legislation is that they do not trust the State because their experience is that of an appallingly poor Administration with letters being unanswered, requests not being responded to or ignored and issues being long fingered. That is the reason people want rights-based legislation. To put it mildly, it is disingenuous of the Government to launch into the usual arguments about litigation and the fact that lawyers get more money out of that process than the litigants. They do because often the families who go to court on behalf of people with various needs do not seek compensation for damages but the right to a service that is supposed to be provided for their children. If they did not have access to the courts, they would have even less of that right. If we were to follow through on the Government's logic on this matter, we might as well abolish the Constitution. Why should we give people unqualified rights under the Constitution on the basis that this only makes money for lawyers? That is the argument put forward by the Minister of State in his contribution. He said that "for every €1 given in settlement of legal cases paid out by the Department of Education and Science, €4 went to pay the fees of members of the legal profession". The reason they could go to court in the first place is that a constitutional guarantee exists.

It is interesting that the great and the good here — in the personages of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform and those who make long speeches — and the findings of a number of reviews have come down firmly against the idea of socio-economic rights. I find that astonishing because these groups are overwhelmingly dominated by people who have socio-economic rights. They are usually well off, well paid, secure in their employment, their old age and their housing because of their good fortune. They write reports about our Constitution to the effect that nobody should have those rights guaranteed in the Constitution but they have them guaranteed because of their class or good fortune. Why should people not have a right to shelter and a basic income? Why should people who are suffering from a disability not have a right to the necessary services to enable them to have a decent life? Some people get that by good fortune but apparently we are prepared to say that other people should do without it forever. That is the argument about socio-economic rights. We seek socio-economic rights for citizens, rights which most Members of both Houses of the Oireachtas take for granted. No Member of the Houses of the Oireachtas, irrespective of what happens to him or her, will sleep on the streets, ever have a major problem getting to a hospital, or suffer from poverty in old age. Apparently, to give that guarantee universally and constitutionally would somehow turn upside down our system of jurisprudence. That is what this legislation is about.

We have reached a position where people, particularly people with disabilities in the case of this Bill, do not trust the State. That is a fundamental point. They have been let down time after time and know other people who have been let down. They know the services that are supposed to be guaranteed do not work. They are of the view that the least they can get, in the context of this legislation, as a base from which to start is a rights-based guarantee which they can exercise, if necessary and presumably reluctantly, through the courts.

Nobody would dispute that there is much in the Bill that is most welcome, although I cannot believe it took eight years to draft many of its provisions. A Government that enjoyed eight years of the best economic performance, handed over to it by the best Government the country had in the past 20 years, could not get around to dealing with the issue of people with disabilities until late into its second and final term. It finally has a shot at it now, although it has had a succession of shots. The Minister of State is positively eloquent about the levels of consultation but he then tells us, having had all that consultation, that he had to introduce a large number of amendments because the Government got it so wrong. Does the Government listen? Some of the amendments introduced by the Minister of State in the Dáil are astonishing. I read his script, and I am careful to read such scripts, and regarding the amendments introduced in the Dáil, there is reference to the definition of "substantial restriction to ensure certainty". Could the Government not have got an agreed definition before it started this process? Why did people in Opposition and in lobby groups have to shout so loudly to get that?

There is reference to the operation of the Bill being reviewed within five years. Why will that be necessary? Does the Government not understand that people were wary and did not trust it because of previous experience? There is a long list of such references but it is astonishing that it took another lobby, after years of lobbying, to get the Government to introduce what appear to be eminently reasonable amendments. That is the nub of this issue. To whom is the Government listening?

Behind all the good intentions, and I accept the good intentions of many people in Government — there is no one in Government against people with disabilities — there are two issues. The first of these is the extraordinary reluctance of the Department of Finance to envisage any kind of rights-based social provision. The history of that Department, and I have only read some aspects of the history by Professor Ronan Fanning, is of profound conservatism. There is the interesting information it fed to the Government in the 1950s about the imminent collapse of the welfare state in Britain which had only been introduced in 1945, yet the Department was prophesying its imminent collapse by the 1950s. That is the ethos of that Department. I heard a senior official say that cutting taxes is always a good thing. If one believes that the job of a Department of Finance is always to cut taxes, if one gets a chance to do so, how could one reconcile that with a commitment to a set of rights properly set down and a commitment to fund those rights?

One can imagine the shock and horror in the Department of Finance at the idea that Labour and Fine Gael have in common, one of the many ideas we have in common,——

The parties have very little in common.

——namely, to enshrine a commitment to ODA in legislation to guarantee what the Taoiseach promised in New York. That is what rights-based legislation means. It means we are saying this is a right with which we will not tamper because it is fundamental. Nobody believes a word one says when one can make a promise like that to the poor of the world only to let them down on the basis of that we are getting too rich too quickly. Why would people with disabilities believe differently?

I will not rehearse the further issues raised by the disability legislation consultation group except to say that for those who do not share my direct involvement with people with disabilities they seem to be eminently reasonable requests. Everybody talks about resources but the relevant term here may be described as "Bertiespeak", if the Cathaoirleach will excuse the expression. On the one hand, people are guaranteed resources but on the other hand, section 5(4) states:

In determining the appropriate allocation under subsections (2) or (3) in a financial year, the Minister or specified body concerned shall ensure that the amount remaining after the allocation is not less than the amount that is required, having regard, inter alia, to

(a) the extent of the Minister’s or the specified body’s other obligations in that year,

One must have regard to one's other obligations, which of course means that it will not be done. In the priorities of the Department of Finance, what may be described as "productive expenditure" comes before unproductive expenditure. Building roads is regarded as productive, investment in education is regarded as a social service. I have often asked the Department of Finance to explain on what part of education we could avoid spending money without reducing the country's productive capacity.

The fundamental issue is that we decide either that there is a community in our society of people with disabilities who are entitled to a full share in the life this country can offer, or there is a group for whom we will do our best with plenty of rhetorical flourishes but with no guarantee that our best will be anything near their minimum requirements.

There is much rhetoric about public buildings and access. I hope, therefore, when I return here after the summer recess that the engineering block, where many Senators have their offices, will be accessible to people in wheelchairs. At present it is an obstacle course. I would not ask a person with a serious mobility disability to come anywhere near it. I do not know who designed it, when it was planned or how it was built but it is not of the standard people are entitled to expect today.

I thank the Minister of State and his senior officials for their attendance in the House. I commend him on his great patience and fortitude in this matter. He met many groups on many occasions and endeavoured in every way possible to make this Bill acceptable to everyone, particularly those whom it concerns directly. The Minister of State inherited this task from his predecessor, Deputy O'Dea. I was at the launch of this Bill some time ago.

It may be asked if the Bill should have orginated from the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. Its implementation generally falls under the aegis of the Department of Health and Children. That, however, is irrelevant because it is the Government that has initiated the Bill and each Department had a say in that process.

Has the Minister of State met any group which is happy that the Dáil passed the Bill last week? In this context I welcome the commitment by Minister of State and the Taoiseach to accepting amendments in the Seanad. This is important because otherwise we would have no role in this Bill. I know from my experience in Government that if the Bill was tabled close to the recess and the Dáil was already in recess, it would be impractical to accept amendments in this House.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this unique Bill which has the power to change fundamentally the way in which services are delivered throughout this State. The Bill has wide-ranging implications for all Departments which is evident in the inclusive way in which it was prepared.

Significant debate has surrounded the Bill and the amendments brought forward represent a way of enhancing it. People with disabilities do not participate on a level pitch in our society. The Bill is part of a framework of measures which supports social inclusion. It is designed to ensure participation by people with disabilities in everyday life. It is a major, though long overdue, step in the development of services for people with disabilities.

The implementation of this legislation has the potential to change radically how we treat and value people with disabilities. The consultation process attendant on the Bill exemplifies the way in which this Government listens. We have accommodated the changes to the Bill to address the concerns of the disability legislation consultation group.

The Minister of State and the Taoiseach are active in ensuring that the needs of all interested groups are met. The Taoiseach met the DLCG last week when he agreed to consider several issues of concern to the group. The Government is committed to bringing forward several amendments to address as many of these proposals as possible.

In the 2005 budget the Government made addressing the needs of the disability sector a clear political focus. The Minister for Finance ensured that the Bill is framed so that resources and positive measures can be focused on people with disabilities who are most in need of services. In the Estimates for 2005, published last November, the Minister announced an additional €290 million, or an 11 % increase in spending on services for people with disabilities, bringing the total to €2.8 billion overall, or three times the 1997 figure. The budget went further, including an additional €70 million current and €60 million capital expenditure for disability services in the health area.

More significantly, the budget announced the provision of a special disability multi-annual package of €900 million for the period 2006-09, dedicated to the delivery of high priority disability services. This is a unique Government commitment. I welcome this and commend the Minister on ensuring that this funding has been ringfenced exclusively for disability services.

The Bill makes several provisions for the allocation of resources for services. It sets out new rights for people with disabilities and places several obligations on public bodies in respect of them. These rights and obligations are not absolute but are subject to various conditions, and exceptions may be made in some cases.

People with disabilities will be entitled to have their health and educational needs assessed, to have individual service statements drawn up setting out what services they will receive and to access independent complaints and appeals machinery. I am particularly pleased that there is now a clear further commitment to the 3% employment quota but this percentage is too low. There should be an effort in the Bill to raise this to at least an aspirational 5%. That should be the minimum not the maximum percentage in the public service. There are plenty of roles, opportunities and jobs available. It is essential to give people with disabilities these opportunities.

This is much easier now, given the standard of new buildings and in the context of decentralisation. New buildings will be fully equipped and designed to ensure full accessibility for those with disabilities which will enable us to realise the minimum quota of 3%, but I strongly recommend increasing that to 5%. While general unemployment is running at less than 4.5%, estimates of unemployment among people with disabilities start at 60%. Therefore, there is much room for improvement.

A number of key changes to the Bill have addressed the concerns of groups representing people with disabilities. In response to calls for a review process the Government is committed to review the legislation after five years. This timeframe allows all those involved to fully assess the positive implications of the Bill. It is important that a full review of the legislation takes place on a rolling basis. Many criticisms have been made of the Bill but hopefully they will be resolved before it is finalised and I hope we end up with the best possible legislation. Ultimately, the Government may decide to recommend to the President that she refer the Bill to the Supreme Court. That is an option the Government may wish to take to ensure it is constitutional.

In order to take account of concerns about the wider needs of people with disabilities, there is a broadening of the sectoral plan of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to specifically include housing and accommodation. I listened to my local Shannonside Radio today where people telephoned in and said that deliberations on the Bill had been completed in the Lower House. I reiterate the point made in the House yesterday by the Minister of State when he clearly stated that arising from the consultation that has taken place, he has open mind in this regard, as has the Taoiseach and the Government. The Minister of State mentioned ten key areas of concern for the DLCG and those will be considered in the light of the proposals put forward in this debate.

I have attended public meetings for many years as a member and chairman of the Western Health Board, Member of this House and as a member of Roscommon County Council and have heard many views expressed on a rights-based Bill and rights-based legislation. I wish to make a point in advance of the holding of a general election within the next two years. Politically, if not for the good sound reasons that it is right, it is essential for any Government to satisfy the needs of such a powerful and influential group as the disabled and all the organisations that represent them. Given that up to 400,000 people have forms of disability, it is essential that the Bill is accepted by the vast majority of those involved.

At my constituency clinic last Friday I met a group called Brainwave, the Irish Epilepsy Association. It has made a detailed submission which I will send to the Minister of State. It makes the point that its members are not recognised in the Bill to the extent that there are different degrees of epilepsy and that the definition in the Bill is too narrow and inconsistent with other legislation. The definition of "disability" in the Equal Status Act 2000 is much more inclusive. By contrast, the definition in the Bill would exclude many people with disabilities who require services. For example, because epilepsy is not a permanent disability, people with epilepsy would no longer be defined as people with a disability. Therefore, they would be denied entitlements and access to services which they hold. These include disability allowance, occupational therapy and supported employment services. Perhaps the Minister of State would look at the submission and respond to it in the context of the Bill.

The Irish Epilepsy Association maintains that the Bill has the potential to undermine section 4 of the Equal Status Act. I would like to hear the views of the Minister of State on that issue.

The DLCG has proposed that the implementation of the legislation is reviewed after three years. This provision is not provided for in the Bill. I understand the Minister of State has indicated that the legislation would be reviewed after five years.

Up to five years.

It could be three years as such.

It could start at three years.

That is very responsible. These are the concerns people have and they are being expressed to us. The submission by Brainwave, the Irish Epilepsy Association states:

We believe we have a great opportunity to ensure that people with disabilities have the services and supports to enable them to participate fully in Irish society by enacting rights based disability legislation. However the Bill will not achieve that goal as it is fundamentally flawed and needs to be amended.

We would be grateful if you could respond to this letter. In particular, we would appreciate if you would bring these views and concerns to the attention of the Taoiseach, Tánaiste and the Government in general. We would also encourage you to raise these issues during the debate on the Bill in the Oireachtas and at parliamentary party meetings.

That is what I am doing on behalf of Rebecca Leavy, community resource officer of Brainwave, the Irish Epilepsy Association. I have not outlined all the points raised by the association but perhaps the Minister of State's excellent and well-qualified public servants would prepare a response to the points made before Committee Stage.

Eight people are on a waiting list for personal assistants in parts of County Roscommon. A Bill will mean nothing to them unless they are provided with these services. The personal assistant service is a marvellous development. It has empowered people with disabilities, particularly those with physical disabilities and confined to wheelchairs, who have been given freedom of movement by the assistance of their personal assistants. I wish to place on record the appreciation of the State to those who are prepared to work as personal assistants. They have enormous responsibilities which should be recognised.

I have before me a submission from Councillor Molly Buckley, executive chairperson——

Senators are not allowed refer to names.

——of the Irish Wheelchair Association.

The Irish Wheelchair Association is acceptable but not names.

The association makes the point that 85 Deputies said "Yes" to the Bill in the Dáil while 500,000 people say "No" and goes on to ask if this is justice. I am sure the Minister of State has received this submission. There must be a clear and unequivocal right to an assessment of need which must not be resource dependent. The services identified in the assessment of need for an individual must be provided within a reasonable and agreed timeframe. The Bill must provide for clear protection of disability specific resources. Provision has been made for that.

The provisions regarding sectoral plans must take account of the wider needs of people with disabilities. Each Department with relevant services must provide a sectoral plan. So far as I am aware that issue was agreed and the Taoiseach and the Minister have discussed the sectoral plans for each Department. The Bill must provide for a clear statutory duty on all Departments and public bodies to include people with disabilities in their plans and services with appropriate monitoring and accountability.

The Irish Wheelchair Association has in the past pledged services in a voluntary and professional manner for people with disabilities. Before there was a Disability Bill the association was in existence and has been supported by the public. As Minister for the Marine and Natural Resources, the Minister of State was responsible for providing fishing stands for the disabled on the River Suck. That was a clear indication of his commitment to this area before he took on this portfolio. These fishing stands were well-designed for wheelchair bound people at Cuisle on the banks of the river. It is a clear indication of a commitment that has assisted so many to enjoy fishing. He has done much good work in that regard and it should be recognised. Given that the Minister of State has been elected on many occasions to Galway West and other constituencies prior to that and has great experience of public life, I have no doubt he will do his utmost to satisfy all the aspects of the representations made. I am sure the Department is inundated with representations.

The Irish Wheelchair Association asks what is meant by the term "right-based". Without question, people with disabilities do not participate in Irish society on a level playing field. To do this would require many things to be done, including the provision of adequate services, education, employment opportunities, accessible built environment and transport infrastructure. This submission by the Irish Wheelchair Association was made in February 2005. I have attended many meetings. I would like a situation where I will be receiving positive e-mails. I received an e-mail today from another group, which is not too happy about the situation. The group is called EMBRACE, Promoting the Rights of People With Disabilities, and is based in Fairyville Lawn, the Lough, Cork. I asked for up-to-date views from all the groups. I have received only one reply. I have not been inundated with individual representations but rather representations from groups representing people with disabilities. Progress has been made over the years. Our slogan of, "A lot done, more to do", still stands in this regard. The EMBRACE e-mail states:

Dear Senator Leyden,

Thank you for your e-mail in relation to the Disability Bill 2004. What a sad day for all of us to see such a shameful piece of legislation passed by Dáil Éireann on May 26th last.

This is typical of the reaction being expressed to me. I do not think the group is aware that the Minister of State is prepared to accept amendments in the House. I will make this e-mail available to the Minister of State.

I am delighted to have had the opportunity to contribute to this Bill. I look forward to the amendments which the Minister of State has proposed on Committee Stage the week after next. When he studies all the submissions made I am confident he will do his utmost to ensure they are met in so far as is practicable in the circumstances. The Government can be proud that at least it is tackling this issue. I do not know of any other Government or any other party in Government that is prepared to put forward a better Bill than is being proposed by the Minister of State. I challenge anyone else to produce a Private Members' Bill to see how it compares with this Bill.

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Fahey, and his officials to the House. I thank him for staying for the Second Stage contributions from all sides of the House. I am aware of the effort devoted to this Bill in the other House by Deputy Stanton and other Deputies and the Minister of State.

To take up Senator Leyden's challenge, I do not think it is a question of one Bill competing against another, but of getting it right this time. As other speakers have said, this Bill has been eight years in gestation. This House now has an opportunity to deal with it as conclusively as possible and to ensure the best possible deal for disabled people in this country.

The Fine Gael spokesperson, Senator Terry, will circulate 100 amendments on Committee Stage and realistically, much of the work will be done then. As the Minister of State is a former Senator, he will be aware that Committee Stage in the Seanad is very different to Committee Stage in the other House, primarily because it is held as a plenary session whereas Committee Stage in the Dáil is made up of the principal spokespersons and the Minister.

This House is a great fount of wisdom on this issue. Some Members have served time on health boards and are long-standing constituency politicians. Committee Stage will take place in two weeks' time and will provide an opportunity to tease out many of these issues in greater detail. The Minister of State will be aware of the long-standing tradition in this House that where ideas are brought forward on Committee Stage, the Government will consider them. He has already mooted his willingness to do so which is to be welcomed.

Many of the critical amendments proposed in the other House were not accepted by the Government so I hope it will use this opportunity to have another look at this Bill in order to improve it to ensure we all support it. It is not a case that we wish to vote against the Bill but we are forced into doing so because of the caveats that currently exist in the legislation.

Senator Leyden referred to whether or not the President should send this Bill to the Supreme Court, but this is a failure on our part to take responsibility for legislation. The President has the right to do that but it is also clear in the Constitution that the Oireachtas cannot enact legislation which it regards as repugnant to the Constitution. The reading of Bunreacht na hÉireann and case law leads to the conclusion that the Houses of the Oireachtas cannot pass a Bill which they regard as being repugnant to the Constitution. The right of access to the courts in Article 34.1 of the Constitution was vindicated in the 1966 case, Macauley v. the Minister for Posts and Telegraphs. Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights enshrines the right of access to the courts within a reasonable timeframe.

If this House is of the view that this Bill puts limits on the two key rights of access to the courts and a reasonable timeframe within which the courts can determine matters, we are duty bound to oppose the Bill and not leave it to the President to refer the Bill to the Supreme Court. I ask the Government to consider this matter between now and Committee Stage. Both the Department of the Taoiseach and the Minister of State's Department are continuing to discuss these matters with the lobby groups. This House is genuinely concerned to make the best possible use of its time to ensure the Bill is a framework for the rights of disabled people.

Last Thursday a large group from all over the country took to the streets on the day the Bill was being voted on in the Dáil. This does not bode well for the manner in which the Government has presented this matter. This Bill is the third separate opportunity for a legislative initiative which the Government has had in the past four years. It has been dealt with by three different Ministers. There is still a significant body of opinion within those who represent people with disabilities that this Bill does not contain the legislative provision required which it can support. I take my lead in this area from people who have a disability or who represent people with disabilities. As Senator Ryan said, for people who do not have a disability or are not close to someone who has, we must seriously consider the genuine concerns of people about this Bill. We must make the best possible fist of it.

What is the automatic guaranteed legal right that must be furnished to a person where a child born to that person presents with some form of disability? We are all aware of cases where a child is born with a clear disability. The first question the parents will ask is, "What next? "Whatare the life expectations and chances for my child?"

Debate adjourned.
Sitting suspended at 1.30 p.m and resumed at 2.30 p.m.