Disability Bill 2004: Second Stage (Resumed).

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

Before the sos I made the point that we have an opportunity to make the Bill more rights-based. The key issue affecting parents when a disabled child is born is having a guarantee about the kind of services that child will need. In recent years we have seen tremendous advances made by disabled people as a result of new treatments and the intensity of one-to-one educational opportunities, etc. As these are citizens of a republic whose journey through life is made more difficult as a result of their condition, we have an obligation to ensure that the Bill takes a rights-based approach and that these people are given every opportunity to fulfil their lives.

As politicians, we should lead by example. Very few disabled people are involved in representative politics. I can think of Brian Crowley, MEP, and Anna Fenlon from our party in Wexford. Political parties have not done enough to bring people into the mainstream and make the environment accessible despite the significant advances that have been made. Having people like Brian Crowley, MEP, in politics shows how the issue can become mainstream. All political parties have a responsibility to do much more in terms of making our meetings more accessible and selecting candidates in that area to ensure that not only is the focus not lost but also that they fully contribute to decision making at the highest level.

I am sceptical of any Minister who proposes a multi-agency response. When a number of Departments are responsible for an issue, none of them takes responsibility. The issue is shunted from Department to Department. I believe in the notion of having a single Minister as the lead Minister in respect of answering questions in the other House and being the firm advocate for policy in an area. The Government's intentions were good when seven or eight Ministers came together to make the announcement last September. However, because of the difficulty of public administration we need one person to take responsibility. This was the case when the then Minister for Equality and Law Reform, Mr. Mervyn Taylor, took responsibility for the issue of equality and major advances in that area were made under both Governments between 1992 and 1997. A multi-agency or interdepartmental response means that nobody takes responsibility for anything.

While I have read the sections of the Bill that deal with the sectoral plans, without having one Cabinet Minister to take responsibility we will not make the kind of advance we should. The Minister of State, Deputy Fahey, who is present, works in the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. It is logical to ask whether this is a health issue and that the Department of Health and Children should take the lead rather than the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. In saying this, I do not denigrate in any way the work done by the Minister of State and his officials to date. However, we need to find a more appropriate location for the Bill in the relevant Department.

While the sectoral plans as outlined in sections 32 to 37 are fine in themselves, they are premised on resources being made available from the Department of Finance. As other colleagues have said, based on the historical record of that Department I would have concerns over the commitment that has been made. The Government does not want an open chequebook and citizens need to be confronted with the fundamental costs involved in genuinely addressing this area. However, if anything, we need an open chequebook policy as we are trying to make such rapid progress in a very short period to make improvements for people who have been utterly disenfranchised over the years. We will return to this matter on Committee Stage, but I am critical of the way in which many of the provisions of the Bill are so completely dependent on a financial envelope from the Department of Finance. A Cabinet Minister with full responsibility for this area could do considerably more than can be done by sharing responsibilities over several separate Departments, which is a recipe for disaster.

I agree with the notion of disability proofing, which should be applied in the Office of the Attorney General. Other similar proofing also takes place in that office. As legislators we need to continually proof all legislation to ensure that we do not place additional barriers on people with a disability. Recently the Taoiseach hinted at doing so in his discussions with the lobby groups in this area. If the Minister of State is prepared to move such an amendment in this House, he will find support. Ultimately, our obligation is to ensure that every opportunity is given to those with a disability. In this regard disability-proofing would be a minimum requirement. I hope the Minister of State will table a Committee Stage amendment in this respect. We clearly do not support the Bill as it stands since the Government has not adopted rights-based legislation. I once again remind colleagues that, when we decide on this on Second Stage and then Committee Stage, we cannot abdicate our responsibility to the President and ask her to decide for us whether the Bill is constitutional. We are obliged as Members of the Oireachtas not to pass laws repugnant to the Constitution. There is an absolute guarantee in Bunreacht na hÉireann regarding access to the courts. In addition, under the European Convention on Human Rights, there is an absolute requirement that courts make decisions in a timely fashion. We must be mindful of those two guarantees when we make our decision on Second Stage.

If I were not involved in politics but active exclusively in the area of disability as the parent of a child with special needs, which I am, I would have great difficulty supporting this Bill in its current form. However, I understand the difficulty in which the Government has found itself in recent years. I record my appreciation, and that of others in a position similar to my own who may not belong to any lobby groups but are parents, of the sincerity with which the Government, from the Taoiseach down, has approached this very complex issue. In its original form, the Bill was withdrawn three years ago, and the fact that it has gone through several manifestations to arrive with us today is a firm indication of the Government's commitment to wrestle with this problem and put forward solutions.

I have the greatest sympathy with those who do not understand, or do not wish to understand, how the Government works and the manner in which finance is dispersed to various Departments. For them, it is a simple matter of black and white. They are involved in the disability area as disabled persons or as parents of disabled people. As citizens they look at the Constitution and, when the Government says it cannot do something, ask why it cannot provide enough resources to address the issue once and for all. Why can the Government, notwithstanding its own commitments, not decide that it will give a right to that section of the population who, in spite of their disability, are citizens in the fullest sense of the word? That has been the basis of much of the criticism of the Bill.

As a politician, I have tried to explain to people that I do not believe it possible for any Administration — and I say this about my distinguished colleague on the other side — to give a blank cheque to any sector of society. It has become something of a negative slogan used by the Minister and others in defending the Bill, that they will introduce and implement the measures in so far as resources allow. However, I suggest that behind that bland, somewhat clichéd term, which is used across the whole panoply of Government and not simply regarding this Bill, there lies a very deep commitment on the part of the Government, from the Taoiseach down. He has stated publicly that the issue is to be addressed in a fair, equitable and honest manner. Those are the broad strokes of my approach to this Bill.

I would be grateful for some clarification of section 11 when we discuss the Bill on Committee Stage. I understand that, even as we speak, the Government is engaged in consultations regarding possible amendments that will be tabled in this House which might help advance issues that continue to be raised by a group of people outside who, if I may be blunt, are very angry. The Minister needs no reminding of this fact. I hope those amendments and that ongoing consultative process will help alleviate the pain these people feel and address in as practical a manner as possible, within the context of the Bill, the issues that have been raised. One relates to the question of the timeframe within which any assessments will be carried out and the consequent recommendations implemented.

On the question of access, if I were in a wheelchair in this city, I would also be very angry. I remember a group of people representing the Independent Action Group campaigning outside the gates of this building for better access to taxis and public services. That was three or four years ago. I am pleased that at least some action came as a consequence. Politicians in this House were rightly angry at what they saw as further neglect of a very important group of people in our society. Efforts continue to be taken to introduce more user-friendly taxis, buses and trains, and I applaud the Government for having provided the resources to Iarnród Éireann and CIE as a corporate body. They are gradually increasing the number of wheelchair-friendly buses in this city and other towns and cities across the country.

The criticism has been that the process is too slow. When I asked the question, the Irish Wheelchair Association said that things were happening but it could be 2015 before services in this country were complete. This is 2005, and perhaps the Minister of State might comment in that regard. It is once again a matter of resources. Time and again, when it comes to the controversial issues of this Bill, it comes back to the question of resources. I am a committed Government supporter and know the Taoiseach well enough to be able to state that he is pained and deeply involved emotionally in this argument. I have no doubts regarding his credibility and commitment. However, ultimately it is about resources. We are unquestionably a wealthy country, but sometimes I get fed up hearing people tell us how wealthy we are when I see the disadvantage around us in certain parts of the country. This section of our people is crying out for more money and, in many cases, money would solve the problems.

Section 34(b), regarding the sectoral plan for the Minister for Transport, refers to “measures to be taken for the purpose of facilitating access by persons with disabilities to such services and the time within which such measures are to be taken”. That time element arises time and again in this Bill. I hope it will be addressed as far as possible in the consultative process under way.

Part 4 refers to genetic testing. Fifteen years ago, when our daughter Siobhán was born across the road in Holles Street, she spent three weeks in a special baby care unit because they did not know what was wrong with her. All sorts of internal tests were carried out, and Members will appreciate the trauma that my wife in particular was going through at that time while we waited to find out exactly what was wrong. Along with staff in the hospital we knew that something was wrong. Eventually, they sent a blood sample to London on the basis that, having eliminated all other tests, the condition might be genetic. In London they carried out a genetic test and discovered that she had a condition known as Prader-Willi syndrome, named after two Swiss professors who identified in 1959 a deletion of chromosome 15 which in essence is an eating disorder. It is also a mild mental and physical handicap — estimated at approximately 5% to 10% — and it affects boys more than girls. This syndrome can lead to a variety of disabilities but, in our case, the eating disorder means that the chemical messages to our daughter's brain are scrambled to the point where unlike you and I, she does not have the capacity to know when she is full. Consequently, she must be watched and monitored on a regular basis. It usually falls to mothers to do this although fathers make a modest contribution. At 15 years of age, she currently weighs 22 stone. In the future she could develop life threatening conditions such as diabetes but she is perfectly healthy now. She goes to the gym, she swims, she rides horses and is in a special needs class. I am grateful to successive Ministers for Education and Science who, from the time it became apparent that there was a need in Drumshanbo for special provisions, have responded magnificently at primary and secondary level.

I put this on the record because it informs people of a rare condition, but also because our concern is with what will happen to Siobhán when she leaves school at 18. There are not sufficient respite care facilities in the north west. There is a desperate need for such teenage children to have some form of respite on a one-to-one basis. There is no point in putting her in with a group of similar minded special needs children or young adults because she has special dietary needs. That is a resource issue. I do not wish to attract an emotional response, but I want to give an insight into our particular experience. We are blessed. She is the most beautiful daughter and we are very proud of her.

I am pleased to learn that most genetic testing now takes place in Our Lady's Hospital for Sick Children in Crumlin, so one does not have to wait as long for results. There is a very experienced team in Tallaght, led by Professor Hoey, that has a very specific expertise on Prader-Willi sufferers. The support services are there and the State is doing a good job in that regard.

To return to another special interest of mine, section 53 refers to section 19 of the Broadcasting Act 2001. I welcome the commitments contained in this section. It states that the commission shall make rules requiring each broadcaster to take specified steps to promote the understanding and enjoyment, by persons who are deaf or have a hearing impairment, and persons who are blind or partially sighted, of programmes transmitted on any broadcasting services provided by him or her. I want to place my appreciation of RTE on the record, although I declare an interest as I receive part of my annual income from RTE. The station initiated subtitling on all of its programmes. At a recent presentation to an Oireachtas committee, it was claimed that it was the only national television broadcaster that was doing so. This Bill should legally oblige TV3 and other national and regional stations to do the same. It is important that local radio stations look at the content of the Bill to see how they could implement measures to help people who are impaired in some way. As a broadcaster, I learned how important radio was to the lives of disabled people, particularly the blind. Broadcasters have a responsibility in this area. Wherever it is possible, they should reach out to this section of the community.

Despite the fact that I have reservations, I welcome this Bill as a very significant advance in addressing an issue that has exercised the minds of this party over a number of years. This is not a culmination of that process, but a major step along the way. The people out there who are feeling angry, disenfranchised and disillusioned will soon feel this Bill will be of real practical help to them if the resources are provided.

I welcome the Minister of State to the House and hope he has taken note of the comments made by Senator Mooney and others who have acknowledged flaws in this Bill. The Government rushed the Bill through the Dáil and guillotined many of the amendments tabled by the Opposition. I compliment Councillor Molly Buckley——

I do not like it when Senators mention the names of people outside the House.

I compliment the chairperson of the Irish Wheelchair Association, who brought many people in wheelchairs to the House to protest against the inadequacies in the current Bill.

The Bill before us today, anticipated as a beacon of hope by our disabled citizens, is a major disappointment and has extinguished the light of that anticipation. The inalienable rights of all our citizens are enshrined in the Constitution. These rights are not quantified, they are not exclusive and they should certainly not be limited to the able-bodied or able-minded. By definition, facilities for the disabled are not a privilege but a right and the Government must be the guardian and facilitator of the provision of this right. This Bill is a very grudging concession to that obligation.

The disabled should never have been treated as second-class citizens without a voice but this has been the reality. However, they are no longer prepared to accept such discrimination. This was made quite clear at last Thursday's protest outside the gates of Leinster House, when wheelchair power made its presence felt and these Irish citizens demanded to be heard. In 2002, there were more than 360,000 people with disabilities in Ireland, representative of 10% of the population compared with an average of 12% for EU countries. Northern Ireland had an estimated 17.4% of the adult population with disabilities, with 3.5% of the child population in the province disabled. The difference is that there are more up-to-date statistics in Northern Ireland, the UK and other EU countries.

Disability in a person means a substantial restriction in his or her capacity to participate in economic, social and cultural life on account of an enduring physical, sensory, learning, mental or emotional impairment. The important point is that disability is not a choice, but a state that is outside the control of the sufferer. We must see beyond the disability to the fellow human being who is entitled to the benefits of normal existence and the protection of human rights. These rights include the right to a job, to education, to health services, the right to access essential services, transport and buildings. Such rights are taken for granted by able-bodied people. When will the casual expectation of norms such as these be also the preserve of the disabled? When will all our citizens be treated equally? This is the nub of the matter and the source of many grievances in regard to the Bill.

Even though more than 500,000 people expressed concern and despite Fine Gael's criticism of the guillotining of more than 100 amendments by the Government, the Bill passed all Stages in the Dáil, leading to the protest outside Leinster House last Thursday. The Bill was published on 21 September 2004, with real activity only commencing in April 2005 when the Government announced its amendments. We have waited some years for it to come before the Seanad but, despite the Government's assurances that this is good legislation, it is clear that it is open to improvement and that the Government must be equally open to such alterations.

The Disability Federation of Ireland, DFI, contends that in order to be comprehensive, the Bill must focus on two matters. First, is the need to ensure people have timely access to the necessary specialist services and, second, is the need to ensure over time that what Ireland has to offer becomes fully and equally accessible to people with disabilities. The Government stated in its 1997 programme for Government that it was "committed to ensuring that disability is placed where it belongs, on the agenda of every Government Department and public body". The programme for Government further states: "We recognise that disability is one of the most important social issues facing Ireland today".

However, in the eight years since these fine sentiments were expressed, little practical action has been taken. For example, although the Irish Wheelchair Association recognises that some effort has been made, it argues that the Government has no real concept of how the flaws in this Bill will ensure that those with disabilities continue to be treated as second-class citizens. It has been claimed that fear is driving the Government's approach to this legislation. This fear translates into a perception among the parliamentary parties, particularly Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats, that disabled people will bleed the public purse dry, while simultaneously having public services delivered from the Four Courts.

Unless the Minister of State has lost the plot, he must be aware this is not the case. Disabled people have only one agenda, which is to achieve their status as equal citizens in an equal manner. Who would wish to deprive them of that? Who is to refuse them that equality through the denial of direct or indirect provision? Will the Minister of State refuse to ensure this equality and allow his actions to speak for themselves to the detriment of some 10% of our citizens? It is an ill-advised person who would do so.

How far have we gone in our commitment to inclusiveness? Is it something to which the Government merely pays lip-service or will it allow this Bill to make a real difference? The mere fact that we are debating the Bill at all sends the message that we have a long way to go. Is this not an issue about which there should be real unity among us and a consensus to do all in our legislative control to bring about essential equality without dissension?

We must recognise and accept the unequivocal right of all to an assessment of need which is not resource-dependent. The services identified in the assessment must be provided within a reasonable and agreed timeframe and the Bill must provide for clear protection of disability-specific resources. The provision regarding sectoral plans must take account of the wider needs of people with disabilities. Each Department must provide a sectoral plan and attain the inclusiveness of involvement and provision committed to eight years ago in the 1997 programme for Government. Moreover, 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.

To date, the debate has focussed on the search for rights and fears about public services being delivered through the courts. However, it is essential that we keep the concept of human rights beyond disability firmly in our minds. This Bill could and must ensure that we do not repeat the mistakes of the past. It should be part of a framework of measures that aims to support social inclusion and participation of the disabled in everyday life. One can only imagine what it is to have one's life controlled and defined by disability. Perhaps it is the arrogant disregard and casual acceptance of our abilities that makes it hard for us to appreciate and to strive to eliminate the problems of others.

It is unquestionably the case that the Bill is not the panacea for the ills and difficulties that beset the disabled in this country. This is a crying shame. It is an indictment of the Government but it is also an indictment of all the able-bodied citizens who are prepared to let the old status quo persist in regard to those less fortunate than themselves. This Bill and the Comhairle (Amendment) Bill 2004 are the two vehicles on which the hopes of the disabled are pinned for the immediate future.

Opposition by groups representing people with disabilities led to the withdrawal of the Disability Bill 2001. If the Government digs in its heals with regard to the obvious failings of the current legislation, it is incumbent on all of us to force its amendment or withdrawal. At the very least, it must be taken apart and reassembled. Senator Brian Hayes observed that the President may have a role to play if the Bill is guillotined in the Seanad in the same manner as it was guillotined through the Dáil.

Enable Ireland is concerned that the definition of disability is narrow and aimed at excluding a large number of people from receiving an assessment and services. A person who does not come under this definition is given the option of complaint but without essential appeal. In its submission to the Minister of State, Deputy Fahey, the Disability Legislation Consultation Group, DLCG, sets out ten major areas of concern in regard to the Bill and emphasises its standpoint that people with disabilities are members of the public.

Viewed like this, all perceptions of the difference and separation of able-bodied and disabled go out the window and raise again the question of the appalling condescension of legislation such as this. Unless we overcome the "them and us" mentality and legislate for all citizens, regardless of status, equality will never be achieved and terrible injustices will continue.

The DLCG's submission went on to state that the Bill requires major reconsideration in order to bring the needs of those members of the public who have disabilities into the centre of public policy and public service delivery. The DLCG envisages two possible scenarios for the disabled if this legislation is enacted. People with disabilities will either be fully welcomed into Irish society, with all the challenges that brings to the public services, or they will continue as outsiders. The outcome rests with the Government and with the Minister of State. I hope he will accept in this House some of the amendments tabled by Fine Gael in the Dáil and will allow the Bill to go back to that House for proper amendment. Otherwise, as Senator Brian Hayes observed, the only option remaining is that we ask the President to review the legislation, as she has done in the past. President McAleese is an active President and I am confident she will have an input into this legislation before it is enacted.

While I share Senator Bannon's objectives, I do not share his opinion of this Bill. We are all committed to normalising as much as possible the lives of people with disabilities by enabling them to play as full a part in society as their capacities permit. These capacities should not be underestimated or obstructed by statutory barriers. People should not believe that they cannot cross a certain threshold to their development. I approach these issues with optimism. All public bodies, including those engaged in the development of services, must strive to ensure all citizens are normalised and treated equally.

Certain logical consequences ensue from this. One cannot demand to be treated the same as every other citizen while also arguing that resources should be allocated without regard to others' needs. The phrase in the Long Title, "consistent with the resources available", is a wise provision and one which I support. To do otherwise is to advance the proposition that resources are infinite. We are all aware that they are finite and that hard choices must be faced. Judgments must be made by means of the political process rather than the courts. We must recognise the needs of handicapped people and their salience to society. They will be demeaned if they are not given every possible assistance to express their own views. They are now represented by strong lobby groups and have the power and strength to play a role. They ought not be put into a ring-fenced ghetto where they are fed on money and services. We should take a more inclusive view of their role in society.

If no regard is shown for resources or if these are ring-fenced, the distortion of other services is threatened. Recently, I witnessed an example of this in Northern Ireland, where an unintended consequence of the assertion of the rights of children with certain degrees of handicap to care assistants was that the education board had to lay off school patrolmen and dinner ladies and close libraries. Resource allocation, which is a function of the democratic process, must be examined in the round. People may, if they dislike a certain policy, vote against a Government. This is not a matter for the courts, partly because judges do not have any money.

I look forward to discussing this Bill in more detail on Committee Stage. The provision in section 8(5) that assessments be made without cost is a potential hostage to fortune. I understand that the implication is that people should not be refused a service due to lack of precedent. A cost element is involved if required services may only be provided outside the State. Provision cannot be made in this State for certain types of handicap because it may not be economic to do so for one or two people. The necessity to send people outside the State should be implicit in the legislation.

I take it that the provision in section 21 for the prescription of qualifications means that the assessors mentioned in section 10 will be appropriately qualified, whether as doctors, physiotherapists or educational psychologists. Section 11(7) makes reference to a lack of resources within a financial year. I hope it is understood that some people may need lifetime care rather than have to apply anew every year. Assessments should involve a commitment to make care available for as long as it is needed.

The reference to search warrants in section 23 strikes me as draconian. I wonder why this measure was included in a Bill such as this. The powers in question seem to be more suitable to the Criminal Assets Bureau.

The Defence Forces and the Garda are excluded from the provisions of the Bill. While I wonder why this is so, firemen might also be excluded. Certain positions in both forces require a level of physical fitness but many others do not. An increasing number of jobs within the Defence Forces and the Garda are being civilianised. Fulfilment of the duties of telephone assistant or office worker does not require hard physical labour. It would be worthwhile to clarify whether such work is carried out by civil servants and therefore subject to enforcement under this legislation.

I welcome the provision for a centre of design excellence and the arrangements which may be made between it and other institutions. This centre should be situated in an existing school of architecture so that the wheel is not reinvented. It should be part of the mainstream rather than involve a small group of people who think great thoughts. Designers of houses, public buildings and methods of access should refer to the centre's ideas when making plans.

More is needed than the arrangements of Departments. Culture must change and society shift the way in which it relates to people with handicaps. People must be assumed capable of action rather than doubted. They will be capable if they are provided with opportunities. I welcome that the Bill draws attention to the necessity for sectoral plans. I appeal to disabled persons' representative groups which are dissatisfied to work towards improving matters. My basic point is that it is a distortion of the notion of equality and normalisation to ring-fence money to make applications come through the courts. It would be wise in light of references which have been made if the President were to refer the legislation to the Supreme Court. To avoid endless litigation, it would be prudent to examine the provisions in the Bill to ensure they accord with the State's obligations under various human rights laws and the rights of the people concerned. I welcome the Bill and look forward to considering it further on Committee Stage.

I welcome the Minister of State and the opportunity to contribute to the Bill. I cannot but remark on the body language of the Minister of State which is indicative of many of the sentiments behind the legislation. The Minister of State's comment last week in the Dáil that there was no opportunity to change disability legislation indicates it was resource-based from the start. The Government has little interest in a rights-based approach. If the Minister of State had his way, he would not have introduced the legislation in its current form. His consultation with groups in County Galway and elsewhere indicated his preference for a genuinely rights-based Bill, but we are not getting one.

I looked at that objectively and decided genuinely that it was not in the best interests of people with disabilities.

I accept that in the context of the timeframe involved. The Minister of State is in a straitjacket and must pursue the current policy.

I am not.

I imagine he is not happy with that.

That is not correct.

We must give credit to Senator Mooney who stated in the House today that, as a parent, he was not happy with the Bill. He said that if he were outside politics, he would not accept its provisions. Senator Mooney's contribution took great courage. Many Dáil and Seanad Members have communicated over the past ten years with various representative groups in the disabilities sectors and none could in conscience say they could not have a rights-based Bill. Politics, legislative imperatives and procedure, however, have taken their toll.

While everyone agrees legislation must take resources into account, the Government has adopted as a scare tactic the argument that a rights-based Bill would lead to a rush to the courts. Can the Minister of State tell the House why, if the Government believes the legislation to be free of warts, it is necessary to block access to the courts? As there would be no rush to the courts if the legislation was adequate, why is the Government's fear such as to demand a caveat which prevents court access? If I received a legitimate answer, I would change my mind on certain issues. I would appreciate a meaningful response from the Minister of State when he winds up the Second Stage debate.

The Government has no interest in rights-based legislation and we have seen no courage or imagination from the Minister of State. Even if he wanted to, it seems his senior colleagues would not allow the Minister of State to amend the fundamentally flawed Disability Bill. All representative bodies in the disabilities sector have said the Bill was flawed from its inception. Having engaged in years of consultation, which continues, the sector sought meaningful legislation. The 2001 Bill was withdrawn with the Taoiseach's promise that it would be changed meaningfully but nothing has happened in the meantime. When I heard someone remark on the sincerity of the Taoiseach in this context, I recalled his statements after the Special Olympics to the effect that it was a wonderful occasion for all, especially the disabled participants. He stated clearly that he would prioritise their needs and provide funding to create access. One must consider the sincerity of his statements in light of the Bill before the House.

Every provision in the Bill is qualified by reference to the availability of resources. The Bill employs the terms "should", "might" and "could" which constitute an opt-out clause. At the launch of the legislation, the Taoiseach, in the presence of the Tánaiste, indicated that no other country would have such up-to-date legislation or provide for such a response to people with disability. That the statement is true is clear from the comments of representatives of the Irish Wheelchair Association that no other country would enact legislation which denies the right of people with disabilities to access services and qualifies its every provision.

The Bill must be a terrible kick in the teeth to the individuals, families and groups who worked so hard for people with disabilities. One must ask why so many have walked away from the consultation process being overseen by the DLCG. They realised the legislation was flawed and did not want to participate any further in the process. The other groups have remained in the process in the hope that some small crumbs might fall to them by way of amendments. Those hopes must be viewed in the context of the Minister of State's contention that there will be no fundamental change to the core principles of the legislation. Why spend three days discussing the Bill when we know few significant and worthwhile amendments will be made to it?

The Disability Bill 2004 is a pale shadow of the legislation the Taoiseach promised when he was forced to withdraw the 2001 Bill after the 2003 Special Olympics. He said clearly that we would enact better legislation than any other country but we will have to wait and see. The Bill is designed to prevent further judicial intervention other than on a point of law. Why was it necessary to introduce that? I accept that the O'Donoghue and Jamie Sinnott cases frightened everybody. The courts made right decisions in those cases. Those who drew up the legislation had one thing in mind — to ensure there would no longer be access to the courts. I agree it is a waste of resources going through that process. The Constitution entitles people to have recourse to the courts as a last resort. If the legislation is, as has been claimed, the best in the world, why was it necessary to prevent access to the courts?

The Minister of State referred to value for money and cost in regard to the legislation. I urge him to examine the bureaucratic process the legislation will put in place that will include appeals officers, assessment officers, liaison officers and a plethora of support staff. Has the expenditure on staff been costed? How many people will be recruited and will it be done on the basis of county, population or representative group? Rather than put in place a structure with so many financial demands in terms of resourcing, would it not be better if the system were simplified and people were entitled to services as of right? That would eliminate the need for the employment of so many additional staff.

Nothing in the legislation indicates the process will be in any way independent. It reminds me of what happened in the Department of Agriculture and Food. I do not wish to draw a general analogy other than in regard to the appeals process. A former Minister for Agriculture and Food set up an appeals mechanism based on appeals officers who are employed by the Department. It is proposed to adopt a similar procedure here in that the people adjudicating on the appeals will be employed by the HSE. It is not the case that I do not trust them to give a professional judgment, however it is unlikely that they would overturn a decision based on a report drawn up by their colleagues.

We all perhaps fall a little short of the yardstick of the Minister of State, Deputy Fahey. His body language is enough to signify his sufferance in listening to us. I have seen this attitude before from the Minister of State. I will note it and let it pass.

Senator Burke displays an unbelievable lack of knowledge of what is in the Bill.

The Minister of State will have an opportunity to reply. There are many others outside this House who will categorise him in turn.

The Senator should stick to the facts.

Senator Ulick Burke should be allowed to speak without interruption.

I am grateful for the Minister of State's assessment. If that is his attitude, he should carry on and it will get him places. It has got him into trouble before. I await the Minister of State's reply when he is ready to give it in a courteous manner. I am well used to his lack of courtesy.

It is strange that Senator Ulick Burke is the only speaker to whom I have found it necessary to react.

It is not a bit strange. The Minister of State is here, probably against his will. He has been told to toe the line and perhaps that is the best way for him to deal with these matters.

The Senator is pathetic.

Senator Ulick Burke should be allowed to speak without interruption.

I return the compliment.

Senator Burke should speak through the Chair.

I will, but the Minister of State should be asked to restrain himself.

I have not found it necessary in the Dáil or Seanad to interrupt any other speaker.

I accept that.

I seek the protection of the Chair from the Minister of State's snide remarks.

On a point of order, I have not found it necessary——

If enacted, the Bill will create a huge bureaucratic infrastructure of hundreds of assessment officers.

——to interrupt any speaker in the Dáil or Seanad.

Senator Ulick Burke should speak through the Chair. He should be allowed to speak without interruption.

I will speak through the Chair, as I have done all day. I would have continued to do so were it not for the arrogance of the Minister of State, Deputy Fahey.

Perhaps the Minister of State will agree to tell us how many people will be employed? I may be incorrect in suggesting it will be hundreds. I am open to correction on the number of liaison officers, complaints officers and appeals officers and the corresponding support staff that will be required.

The Bill contains the type of provisions that are either unnecessary or irrelevant to the needs of people with disability. If disabled people cannot access services and a large bureaucracy were in operation they would have good reason to be aggrieved. When the Bill is stripped down, its principal purpose is to refuse disabled people rights or to severely limit the circumstances in which meaningful rights are granted, rather than actually giving rights to people with disabilities.

The Bill aims to confer one right on people with disabilities — the right in certain circumstances to an assessment of their health or educational needs. Arising from such an assessment a person may get a statement of the services to which they might be entitled if they are eligible for these services and provided it is practicable and affordable by the Exchequer. There are many qualifying clauses on the rights that are specified which provide an opt-out for the Minister and Government of the day. It is time for the Minister of State to agree to amend those provisions to verify that an assessment will be given, and that the needs identified will be resourced whether they are in the area of health or education.

Constituents of mine in County Galway have a three year old child who is profoundly handicapped. The mother gave up her job for three years to care for her child. The father gives as much time as is available to him in support of his child. They applied in the usual way to the local HSE office for funding for a place for their child in the education system. The family lives on the border of counties Galway and Roscommon. The most convenient location for a service to be provided to them is Roscommon town. The service providers in County Galway stated that its allocation, which had only recently been received, would be taken up by the provision of services to children over 12 years of age and that nobody within the county aged under 12 would get a placement in the coming year without additional funding being made available to the HSE. If the Minister of State can live with that, so be it. In this instance, there is no place for a child of three and a half years of age to go to obtain any assistance because the resources are not available. There is a turf war over who will have responsibility for the provision of the necessary resources in counties Galway and Roscommon.

I have no reason to believe this legislation will provide the necessary funding because it is qualified according to the availability of resources. If such circumstances are to continue, the eight young people under 12 years who are on the waiting list in County Galway will have to live without any support services. Their parents will have to continue as they are and stay out of work to maintain their children in their homes. If the Minister of State is to preside over legislation that will allow this to continue, be it in respect of health or education, he should note that all the platitudes in the Bill will come to naught. He is not prepared to change the legislation regardless of the pleas of so many bodies that have suffered at the coalface over the years in terms of consultation and the provision of resources.

I listened very carefully to Senator Ulick Burke and noted that he did not advocate one proposal to amend this Bill.

We are not allowed to.

Senator Daly without interruption, please.

Did the Senator not hear what the Minister of State, Deputy Fahey, said? He qualified everything he said. Why are we here?

Senator Burke is a sad case.

If the attendance of the Opposition is any indication of its commitment to people with disabilities, it is a very sorry sight. I am sure the disability——

I know it is hard for the Government side to take it.

——organisations will take note there is nobody present from the Labour Party during this debate. Senator Ulick Burke came in at the last minute to fill in and seemed to ask the previous speaker for time. I noted his body language——

On a point of order——

Senator Burke talked about body language earlier.

I ask Senator Daly to withdraw that——

We can all see the body language——

——because we are speaking according to a roster. Senator Daly should withdraw that statement.

The Senator's commitment to disability is evident in the House today.

The Government side has no commitment to it.

Your commitment to disability can be seen from the empty benches today.

The Senator should speak through the Chair.

I welcome the Minister of State and compliment him on the considerable volume of work and time he has put into preparing this legislation. He took over from the former Minister of State at the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy O'Dea, who was also involved in legislating in this area. The original Bill was introduced by former Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children, Deputy Mary Wallace. We appreciate her introducing it to deal with this vital issue.

By any comparison, the Bill is very comprehensive. There are in excess of seven Parts and 58 sections. It deals with very specific issues. If I had a criticism of the Bill — I do not disagree totally with Senator Ulick Burke in some respects — it would be that it is cumbersome and involves many people doing work that should be done in another way. Nearly every Senator, including the Acting Chairman, could put forward views on how this issue might be dealt with. I believed it might be possible to establish a semi-State organisation or body, such as those involved in food safety and other health and safety issues, which would be given the power and budget to deal with the issues the Bill addresses. At present, there are various Ministers and Departments involved.

The Bill underlines the importance of the financial commitment the Government is making in this area. I have had some discussions with organisations that deal with people with disabilities. I appreciate the invaluable work such organisations are doing and I appreciate their care of and dedication and attention to people with disabilities. I refer especially to carers looking after people with disabilities, many of whom have considerable problems, some of which legislation will never address.

This Bill presents an opportunity to put on record our appreciation for the various organisations and individuals working with people with disabilities. I refer in particular to their families, who are going through traumatic times and, in some respects, face a very bleak and threatening future. I say this because many people with disabilities have a longer lifespan that they used to, thus putting considerable pressure on their carers, particularly elderly people, who worry about what will happen to their children when they are no longer able to take care of them.

This issue is above and beyond party-political issues and contentious issues that might arise in consultations between the Department and disability organisations. I hope this legislation will put an end to the disagreement that has been evident in the consultation process for many years.

Many of us who have been Members for quite a while have always been very wary of getting involved in court cases because we all know the courts are very expensive places in which to settle grievances. For many years, politicians have advised people, in so far as possible, to try to reach agreement without necessitating litigation. Litigation is very expensive and time-consuming and is not sometimes not very productive.

The amount of work done by the Government in preparing this Bill demonstrates a very serious commitment, both legislative and financial, to coming to grips with one of the major issues requiring attention. I am a little surprised by the attacks that have been made on the legislation. I read some of the speeches made last night. The Minister of State gave a very detailed, comprehensive assessment of the legislation and therefore it is not necessary for us to outline every detail of every section. In some of the speeches of the Opposition Members, I could not find any meaningful proposal to amend the Bill that should be promoted by the Minister and supported by this side of the House. The speeches were mainly a continuation of the criticisms to the effect that the Bill should be rights based. I will not elaborate on this as it has been dealt with adequately by other speakers, particularly Senator Maurice Hayes, who put his case very clearly. Given his experience in other jurisdictions, I could not put the case more clearly than he did.

It is important to note that in this legislation, we are not only dealing with issues associated with access to buildings and opportunities for employment in the public service but also with basic issues such as the provision of services and the need to ensure people are satisfied with their assessment of need.

I partly agree with Senator Ulick Burke that bureaucracy may result from so many people having an influence in the decision-making process. In our efforts to get this legislation right, we should endeavour to use existing resources to the benefit of people with disabilities and their families. We should avoid unnecessary bureaucracy in so far as we can.

I am aware that provisions for appeals officers and other personnel in this area are included in the legislation at the direct request of some of the disability organisations. It was not merely the decision of the Government to make such provisions. The decision was made after consultation with the disability organisations, which felt it important that there be an appeals mechanism in place for those who are not satisfied with the outcome of their assessment. Those representing people with disabilities have been pressing for a provision of that kind in the legislation.

It is difficult to divorce some of the other legislation we discussed in this House from the Bill. The special educational needs Bill was considered a few months ago and many of the issues raised in that have a bearing on this legislation. This is why I believe it might be better to have a single semi-State body to take care of all the areas involved because it so wide and complex and covers so many Departments.

There will always be occasion for maintaining that it is necessary that legislation of this kind contain various provisions, to the extent that it would never be enacted. In the circumstance it has been a major achievement of the Minister of State in getting the legislation to this Stage. I compliment him and the Government on this and also on the spending initiatives of almost €3 billion that have been put in place, with ongoing commitments to ensure there is multi-annual investment. The Minister of State mentioned a figure of around €900 million per annum. These are substantial sums.

In making such provision it is important to ensure, as far as possible, that the financing and funding is directed to the areas that most need them and that duplication and bureaucracy are avoided. In some respects I foresee the possibility of some duplication over what is being proposed, both in terms of the education Act of 2003 and this Bill. Before the legislation is finally passed, it would be useful if the Minister of State considered whether it would be possible to correlate more fully the activities of both Departments responsible in order to enhance co-operation and consultation between them and also with the representative organisations for people with disabilities. This would facilitate the best possible results from the legislation.

Government guarantees are very important. I do not wish to be confrontational but I recall that solemen commitments were given in the past by a Labour Party-Fine Gael coalition Government to provide £25 million for people with disabilities. That never materialised and ultimately, some £4 million was spent.

Given the enthusiasm we saw from the Labour Party at the weekend, I would remind its members of the time Labour Party Ministers stood on the steps of Government Buildings and walked out of the Government they shared with Fine Gael because they could not agree on policies or on issues. Not much has changed since that time. If the mad rush of enthusiasm for a new partnership with Fine Gael displayed by some members of the Labour Party, though not all, is an indicator for the future, they should be reminded of past events and the attitude of the late Frank Cluskey when he walked out of Government. At the time Labour Party Ministers said they could no longer work with Fine Gael. Current party members should not forget that.

We should also not allow the Labour Party to forget that it made promises in this area which it did not honour or respect. Party members should therefore be slow to come into the Houses of the Oireachtas to criticise what the Government is now doing. They do not have a proud record in this area.

The Minister of State referred to the necessity for training and employment. Will he indicate the number of people with disabilities who are currently unemployed? Will he also indicate the number of public authorities and State bodies that have not fully committed to the objectives, as set out for them in the legislation, to provide employment for people with disabilities? Greater attention must be paid to the whole training and employment area. The legislation should be used, in particular, to expend substantial funding, especially in the technology training of people with disabilities, where there are far greater opportunities for employment than in the past.

I am also anxious to see some funding put into research. I do not mean research on the type of access to public buildings and so forth but rather inquiries into some of the causes of disabilities, which seem to be occurring at an ever increasing and alarming rate. I was recently taken aback in a discussion with people in west Clare to hear of the escalating numbers of people with disabilities in particular parts of the country, especially in that region. In this regard, I am particularly conscious of the work that is being done by carers' associations and other organisations in west Clare who are still seeking some basic facilities.

Mention is made in the legislation of early intervention. This is very important, but it is also crucial that when needs are identified and quantified, remedies are available. Very often they are not. That is why in some of the other Bills that came before the House reference was made to a necessity to increase the intake into the colleges of the skilled personnel required to deal with some of the people who do not have a service at present. While it is fine to have such provisions in the Bill, unless the necessary skilled personnel are available, especially to provide the expert advice that families need, particularly in the early days of disability detection, then much of the legislation being put in place will be in vain. It is important over the coming years not only to devote resources to these areas but also to provide funding to encourage people to become involved in the relevant professional areas to be highlighted in the assessments of people with disabilities.

I again refer to the organisations involved in this area such as the health boards and local authorities. It is crucial when the legislation is finalised that the Minister of State accelerates the important work that needs to be done, especially as regards access to buildings. There is no reason — engineering, structural or otherwise — why access to public buildings cannot be improved. We as public representatives get more complaints about this than anything else. I deplore the attitude of certain individuals who, at the last election, attended meetings of children and adults with disabilities and made false promises on the basis of using particular circumstances to gain electoral support. This is deplorable conduct and we saw a good deal of that in my constituency during the last election campaign.

This is a good Bill. It has been worked on diligently and thoughtfully by the Minister of State. I compliment Deputy Fahey on getting the legislation to this Stage. I hope it will be successful and, above all, that it will have an impact on the lives of people disabilities and their families, for many years.

I welcome this opportunity to contribute to this important Bill. I wish to refer to 1997, although I will not use the example of that year as a watershed for a political debate, or 1996 when I became involved in debates on the issue of disabilities through my involvement in the community development sector.

People with disabilities were targeted as an category in respect of which there was a need for redress, a change in legislation and a change in the types of services, if any, offered to them. At that time, as representatives from Border areas will be aware, many programmes, specifically the Programme for Peace and Reconciliation, were in place. That programme was supported by ADM-CPA. Many people working in funding agencies used criteria which highlighted that funding was needed for grassroots community support, not only for people with disabilities but for ex-prisoners and women. At that time women were targeted as a group who were marginalised and disadvantaged. They were granted disadvantaged status in terms of funding on a cross-Border basis. Other groups included Travellers, the unemployed, youth groups, and young people in general.

Such groups were identified through debate for which I compliment the role of the Community Workers Co-Operative which was heavily involved in identifying such target groups. There was real debate, effort and significant time and commitment devoted to identifying how services could be mainstreamed to facilitate disadvantaged groups and how people on the margin could be brought into society. "Social inclusion" were the buzz words at that time and they are still used.

Much has happened since 1996 and the debate on this issue has moved forward. I will use the example of Travellers to illustrate how the debate has evolved. Many people would disagree with the concept of giving Travellers special disadvantaged status simply because they are Travellers. There is the question of the individuality of Travellers as an ethnic group. However, giving a group disadvantaged status can be dangerous in that it can label people and compartmentalise groups. In trying to include people in that sense, one can end up excluding them. In certain instances that happened. Where estates were given disadvantaged status, people started to label them and if crime levels were high in such estates they were branded in a negative way.

The debate has evolved since 1996. I wish to concentrate on the debate because that is what is important as opposed to the political gamesmanship. The debate has evolved to the extent that people, such as disability groups, do not want to be compartmentalised. From people I know who work with people with disabilities and from people with disabilities, with a number of whom I have a close relationship, they do not want to be compartmentalised and classified as a people with disabilities. They do not want to be faced with a situation where special funding is set aside or sanctioned or special privilege is given to the group of which they are a part simply because they cannot mobilise themselves in the same way as the Acting Chairman or me. The debate has gone beyond that point.

The Bill is about the issue of disabilities but it is essentially about providing equality, access and justice to people with disabilities. It is not only about sanctioning on budget day moneys to be set aside for people with disabilities. That is not a measure that sits comfortably with me or with many people involved. I am even finding it difficult to pronounce the word "comfortably" for which I apologise.

We need to examine our mindset as legislators and in terms of the way we treat, view and categorise the person in a wheelchair we meet on the street or the person in a special unit for people with disabilities. From my knowledge of this area, there are two points to note. One is that a person with a disability living in an independent living centre does not want sympathy. If one were to express sympathy to a person in such a centre, that person would react in disgust. People with disabilities do not want sympathy to the effect that one asks them how they are doing or whether they will be able to manage. They do not want to be treated like imbeciles or juveniles. That is the first important point. People with disabilities are human beings and equal to myself, the Acting Chairman and every other person. That is the message we need to get across today.

The second important point to note is that people may make a stereotypical comment that many people with disabilities come across as being angry. There are many angry people with disabilities, and some of them are extremely angry. They can exercise their anger at any given time. If one works closely enough with them, one could feel the brunt of this anger. However, nine out of ten times that anger is not expressed as a result of their disability, although part of it will be and like anybody else they can be angry depending on their mood or state of mind. The anger felt by people with disability is based on the lack of services and access available to them. It may come down to the simple matter of the provision of an appropriate footpath or means by which they can get into town for a pint. We cannot over-emphasise the difficulty faced by a person in a wheelchair who may live a mile from a pub. The social and recreational life of that person is severely restricted. Such restriction can start with that person being in a bed in a centre for independent living and not being able to get out of it because he or she requires a personal assistant who is not available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. That is his first obstacle.

This man I speak of is a good friend of mine. The second obstacle, if he can summon somebody to help him get out of bed, is to call a taxi. Certain urban councils have done great work in making grants available for wheelchair accessible taxis but at peak time on a Saturday night they are hard to come by. It takes a taxi driver a long time to help a person with a disability in and out of his or her cab. When one is in the business of making money one does not have time to waste. This is not a criticism of the taxi drivers.

The next obstacle this man meets is use of the telephone. Some people with disabilities cannot use a telephone. I have contacted people in O2 and Vodaphone to ask them to look at ways to adapt mobile telephones. For those of us with no disability it is easy to carry our telephones around and hold them to our ears. Speaker telephone is an option but there are people who cannot hold a telephone. Some effort must be made to fit telephones into wheelchairs or otherwise help people with disabilities to communicate.

Returning to my example, the gentleman in question cannot get a taxi and decides to go to the pub alone. He must travel on a footpath that may not be passable, or onto which he may not be able to drive his motorised wheelchair. Traffic poses a problem as do crossing the road, access to toilets and returning home. There are numerous problems for a person simply trying to go out for a pint.

If that person has such a problem going out for a pint on a Saturday night, what sort of obstacles does he encounter in accessing services, job opportunities, training opportunities, other social and recreational outlets and participating in the civic responsibilities of his community? We take these matters for granted.

We can get into a car and go wherever we want at any time because access is not a problem. There are more cars than people. Access to services and people is easy. We politicians make ourselves available to people all the time and there are people who can come to us. The main problem in this Bill is that it is impossible for us to quantify the difficulties encountered by people with disabilities.

If a sum of up to €300 million was set aside in a special budget for people with disabilities it would be throwing money at a problem. This is not a question of money; it is a question of individual rights because people with disabilities are the same as the rest of us. Many are smarter and more street-wise than us. We have the disability of being unable to come to terms with people with disabilities. We should put up our hands and say we have this problem. We cannot understand what it is to be without choice.

If I may digress somewhat, one of the arguments in the debate on suicide is that young people have too much choice. Perhaps they do. I know I do. People without disabilities have so much choice they do not know what to do. There is so much we can do during the day, so much entertainment is available, so many challenges are open to us, and we have many options to choose from for a weekend. We have choice at home and abroad. People with disabilities do not have choice. They are limited in what they can do, when, how and with whom.

People in the Disability Federation of Ireland say that assessment of need, whether in terms of health or services, should not be resource dependent. That is the key issue to highlight in respect of this Bill. The Disability Federation of Ireland states:

—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;

—The provisions regarding Sectoral Plans must take account of the wider needs of people with disabilities. Each Government Department with relevant services must provide a Sectoral Plan.

Monaghan County Council and Donegal County Council do not meet their public service obligation to make 4% of their jobs available to people with disabilities. I name those counties because Donegal was at the bottom of the list and Monaghan was on the list. I doubt there is a local authority in Ireland that meets the 4% criterion. If there is no sectoral plan and there are no monitoring bodies to deal with this matter it will not be implemented.

Thirty years ago people saw council workers with their shovels every two miles along an old country road cleaning siocs and drains. Now they look around and see only one digger or one man and a shovel. One does not see council workers on the ground. They are all indoors, doing office jobs, sitting at desks. A person with a disability can sit at a desk. Many people with disabilities are qualified and well-motivated enough to be pen-pushers in any local authority. They can do as much pen-pushing as the next man or woman.

My party opposes the Bill on the grounds that those involved in the disability movement do not feel it is right. We must change the mindset by which we compartmentalise people with disabilities. We must constantly remind ourselves how difficult it is for a 42 year old man to go for a pint on a Saturday night. If it is difficult to go for a pint it is extremely difficult to attend a training course or take up a job. It is difficult to go on a training course and become competent and later discover there is discrimination in regard to employment. St. Thomas Aquinas said: "Never let the perfect be the enemy of the good." People with disabilities are not looking for perfection, they are looking for their rights. We should try to look at the good and examine our conscience in regard to the Disability Bill and provide for some of the issues highlighted here.

I am happy to have the opportunity to speak on the Disability Bill. I have listened carefully to much of what has been said in the other House and since the debate commenced here. It has been very informative and many Members of both Houses have given constructive views on the Bill. I am sure the Minister of State will take many of these practical suggestions on board.

The Disability Bill is detailed and comprehensive. It has been under preparation for some time and there has been widespread consultation with all the various interested parties in bringing about its publication. It has been criticised by various sectors and we have heard some of that same criticism here today. When all is said and done, it has to be recognised that this Disability Bill is a major step forward for disabled people and their families.

I wish to congratulate a number of Ministers who were involved in the Bill's preparation. I congratulate the then Minister of State at the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy Mary Wallace, the Minister for Defence, who was then Minister of State at the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy O'Dea, as well as the Minister of State at the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy Fahey. The Minister of State, Deputy Fahey, must be congratulated for presenting the Bill to the House and explaining the detailed provisions and implications of what is proposed to Deputies, Senators and the wider public. I wish him well in his ongoing work in ensuring this important Bill becomes law.

As other speakers have said, this Bill has to be put in context. It is but one part of the overall national disability strategy which was published last year. The Disability Bill is part of a much larger framework of measures which it is hoped will create greater social inclusion. The other elements of this overall strategy include the Comhairle (Amendment) Bill 2004, the Employment Equality Act 1998, the Equal Status Act 2000, the Equality Act 2004 and the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004. Further to those items of legislation my constituency colleague, the Minister for Finance, Deputy Cowen, announced the provision of a special disability multi-annual investment programme for disability support services. For the coming years, 2006-09, a package of €900 million has been dedicated and I commend the Minister for Finance, Deputy Cowen, for this significant allocation of funding. When speaking in the other House, my colleague, Deputy Moloney, highlighted this matter as a great step forward for the entire disability sector. It is worth noting that the then Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Cowen, recognised the need for multi-annual funding for people with disabilities and particular groups.

There is no doubt about the commitment of the Government in dealing with the entire disability sector. If one wishes to measure its commitment to dealing with disability issues, it is possible to do so by looking at the level of funding that has been allocated by the Government to address the issue. The multi-annual funding is the only way forward to ensure the disability sector is best provided for. This is a positive step on which the then Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Cowen, should be complimented.

All of us have read the various submissions from the disability groups and representative bodies for those in the disability sector. I have been impressed by their passion and commitment to some of the most vulnerable in society. I am not alone in saying we have been inundated with representations from such groups. I reassure these people and these groups that the Government is proud of what has been done but we all agree that much more needs to be done in the area of helping the disability sector. I compliment the chief executive officer of the DFI who has worked hard and whose views have been balanced and fair. We have all met him in recent weeks.

I welcome sections 7 and 9 which provide for the inclusion of assessment officers. This is set out in detail and I am delighted with the provisions. A consistent criticism I have heard from people with disabilities or groups representing them was that they felt marginalised and left out because there was no specific appeals mechanism for them. While there was an appeals procedure in place disabled people or their representative groups will be happy with the new set up proposed in the Bill. It is my hope that the introduction of these assessment officers will make the whole process of getting what each individual is entitled to much easier for the most vulnerable members of society.

The Disability Legislation Consultation Group put forward a number of key requests. It sought the right to an assessment that would not be resource dependent. It is clear from the Minister of State's contribution last night that the Bill provides a right to an independent assessment to a benchmark standard with access to redress. The Minister of State explained that this assessment will be undertaken without regard to the cost of or the capacity to provide any service identified in the assessment. I am happy with this assurance.

The group sought that the Bill would require the provision of all assessed services needs within a reasonable and agreed timeframe. I am pleased the Bill addresses that concern in that it will, when enacted, impose significant new requirements on Ministers and the Health Service Executive in regard to service provision and transparency in regard to funding. The group requested also that the various Departments would prepare a sectoral plan. From my understanding of the Bill there is provision for six sectoral plans which will deal with services for those with disabilities. In his contribution last night the Minister of State, Deputy Fahey, pointed out that other public bodies are already obliged under the Bill to make their services accessible by next year.

In the past, Governments of all persuasions have allowed problems in the disability sector to be unresolved. We should be realistic in our criticisms of the problems we face. It would be wrong not to recognise the positive aspects of what the Government is doing. For the first time, the Government is putting in place a firm financial programme and a national disability strategy to establish proper disability services.

I compliment the Government and the Minister for Finance, Deputy Cowen, for this substantial commitment from the Exchequer. Under the provisions of the Bill, Ministers will be required for the first time to make explicit plans regarding the amount of money they will allocate each year from their own budgets to ensure that the provisions of the Bill are implemented.

The overall national disability strategy which includes the Disability Bill and the multi-annual investment programme announced by the Minister for Finance, Deputy Cowen, provide a strong basis for moving forward and getting some progress on the existing problems that confront people with disabilities. I hope the Bill will help those who work with people with disabilities. My wife works with disabled people in St. Anne's in Roscrea. It is a tough job.

I wish the Minister of State, Deputy Fahey, and his officials well in the ongoing work on the Bill. I appreciate he has put a very significant amount of work into it in recent months. When enacted I have no doubt it will contribute greatly to the lives of our disabled citizens and those of their families and friends.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this important Bill. Like all Members, I have received a large volume of correspondence on this issue. I concede I am not an expert on the proposals but we must ensure that at the end of the parliamentary process we will pass a Bill of which we can all be proud and which will have a positive impact on the lives of the tens of thousands of people across the island of Ireland who suffer from various disabilities.

It is important to stress there will be no political gain for any side arising from this debate and nor should we seek such a gain. In the past decades since the issues of disability and disability rights have come to the fore, every Government and political party has been guilty by omission in not providing resources and guilty of lack of attention. We all have a political duty to try to redress the balance to ensure that the disabled in our community are given a fair crack of the whip.

The concept of republicanism is often debated in this House and elsewhere. It is a word that has been debased by others. If we wish to have a true republic and ensure that all citizens of the Republic have equal access to services, equal opportunity in life and equal chances to succeed, then this legislation is a core of that argument. If this is to be truly an Irish Republic, we must ensure the Disability Bill offers a real opportunity and way forward to those people who are meant to benefit from it.

I fully accept the Minister of State and his colleagues in Government want this Bill to work. There is no point in being in Government or in bringing forward legislation if one does not expect it to work. However, the Minister of State knows as well as I that grave doubt exists among many of the disabled people and among many of the groups advocating their rights about the long-term impact of this legislation. Would we be having this debate in the weeks following the Special Olympics when probably for the first time in the history of the State the country as a whole concentrated on the role of the disabled and their achievements? I think we would be treading with more caution because the public would expect more from us and from this legislation.

If resources were open-ended and if we were guaranteed the Celtic tiger would continue roaring into the next decade and into the future, we would not need to be worried about legislation because the rising tide would lift all boats. However, it must be accepted that the Government purse strings will tighten again when the Celtic tiger will not roar as strongly as it did for the last five or six years. Unless the maximum guarantees are included in this legislation, the weakest in society such as the disabled may well suffer. This has been the history of the response of all Governments to marginalised people. When the time for cutbacks comes, those people who cannot speak loudest, suffer. This is the reason so many groups representing the disabled are concerned about this legislation which they regard as not sufficiently rights-based. It is so dependent on resources which may become scarce again, they are genuinely fearful that no matter what are the political intentions of the Government and Taoiseach, without stronger guarantees it all may come to naught. This is a genuine worry for us all.

The case for the legislation not being rights-based has been made by a number of people. I listened to the Minister of State's contribution yesterday and a very balanced contribution this morning by Senator Dardis. The Minister of State argues that no other country offers such a rights-based approach. I accept this may be the case. I listened with interest to the debate on the situation in South Africa where the apparent rights-based legislation does not work in practice. The challenge for politicians is to put in place a Bill which will be a world leader. Just because these proposals have not been implemented elsewhere does not mean we cannot be the pioneers of rights-based legislation. It would be admirable if the Government and the Members of the Oireachtas lived up to their names as republicans and enacted legislation which would result in Ireland being the best place in the world to live if one was disabled. We should aspire to this.

This legislation will be an improvement but the message from those who know best, the disabled, their supporters and representatives, is that there is a long way to go. In the course of his contribution the Minister of State outlined possible Government amendments which would be welcome. The issue which keeps returning is that of rights-based rather than resource-based legislation. We have been politically unable to satisfy the call from the disabled groups and their representatives. This is to be regretted and something upon which the Minister of State must further reflect.

The Minister of State correctly said the Bill is part of a broader strategy. It is a major piece of a jigsaw. I welcome the other parts of the strategy such as the Bill to amend the Comhairle Act 2000 and the six sectoral plans. I acknowledge the 2004 budget allowed for a major financial blueprint by way of the multi-annual investment programme which any fair-minded person would welcome as a major step forward. We await with interest to see how these sectoral plans work and the difference they will make. As work progresses towards the next budget and the next Finance Bill, we look forward to seeing the continuation of the investment programme. I hope to see a clearer picture in the near future and a clearer picture of how Departments will spend the additional welcome moneys.

Those of us who were members of local authorities and who were dealing on an almost daily basis with issues such as disabled person's grants note with anxiety and disappointment that regardless of legislation, sectoral plans and multi-annual investment programmes, we receive correspondence from constituents who are refused a disabled person's grant because of lack of funding at local authority level. This type of issue is the proof of the pudding. Can those issues be addressed and resolved? This is the political challenge. What recourse to further adjudication or further assessment will be available when such applications are rejected by a Government body. As the Government attempts to make further progress on reaching the target of 4% of disabled persons employed in the public service, we should meet the representatives of the Departments of Finance, and Enterprise, Trade and Employment, and the various employer groups to see if we can introduce a meaningful incentive for private sector employers to increase their intake of disabled employees. While it may not be possible or constitutionally appropriate to apply a 4% minimum on private employers, tens of thousands of admirably suitable disabled persons are available and we should give a genuine incentive to employers to look with absolute favour on those people. The Government is examining the issue of tax reliefs and incentives, which are now generally regarded as being negative terms. However, if we could use any kind of tax relief, incentive or other approach to encourage private sector employers to employ disabled persons it would represent a meaningful step forward.

On Committee Stage I am sure we will reflect in much greater depth on the issues concerning the disability groups and those they represent. We cannot get away from the issue of rights-based versus resource-based legislation, which appears to be the sticking point. When the Minister of State with responsibility for this area in the previous Government, Deputy Mary Wallace, introduced her legislation it was met with great disappointment and was subsequently withdrawn, which apparently resulted, perhaps unfairly, in her political demotion. As a result of that episode and the ongoing dialogue involving the Government and the interdepartmental committee, it was expected that all the issues would be addressed in the Bill before the House. The message we are getting on this side of the House — I am sure the same is true for backbenchers on the Government side — is that all the issues have not been addressed.

I ask the Minister of State to keep listening. The groups for whom this Bill is designed to provide support and encouragement deserve no less than him listening to their concerns on an ongoing basis. While we are nearing the end of the legislative stage, it is not too late to introduce meaningful amendments. In his contribution the Minister of State mentioned five issues that had been raised with him and the Taoiseach and which were agreed to be considered 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; and to review concerns about the wording of section 5(4). At a minimum I hope the Minister of State will table amendments in that regard.

While I recognise that the Disability Bill is a first step, I reiterate the point I am hearing from constituents and others that it is not enough. It provides hope and comes from a political desire on the part of all of us to give people meaningful help. However, it does not provide the guarantees required. For all of the good points and glories of this country, we have never given sufficient recognition or support to its disabled community. We have an opportunity to redress that matter. We are taking some positive steps in this legislation but not enough. I hope the Minister of State will try to offer a little more as it would make a significant difference to those most affected.

I wish to share my time with Senator Brennan.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I appreciate these few minutes to speak on this very important Bill. Meeting the needs of people with disabilities and their families is an important part of my work as a public representative and is certainly a part of my work that I take most seriously. I want to address two specific points, the labelling of people with disabilities and the issue of access.

On the first issue, I know much of the Dáil debate focused on the definition of disability. While I do not want to get into the technicalities, people with disabilities must not be labelled, intentionally or unintentionally. Unfortunately, we need to focus attention on the marginalisation of some people with disabilities within all areas of Irish life. This includes the issue of inappropriate labelling. Labels can create expectations that are based on our previous experiences, hearsay, or what we were taught. The problem is that these expectations can be wrong. Labels make people think that persons thus labelled are the same. Not all people labelled "disabled" are the same. Not all people labelled "blind" or "deaf" are the same. They are not all the same and they have very specific talents, circumstances and needs, which we should not forget during our discussion on the Bill.

I refer Members to the early sections of Part 3. Last night the Minister of State said the Government is satisfied that the Bill creates significant new requirements on public bodies in terms of accessibility of buildings, and service and information. I hope these move from being requirements to being a reality as soon as possible. This morning Senator Dardis outlined some problems with access to buildings in Kildare, of which I am aware. In as far as is possible people with disabilities should have access to the same places to which the rest us want to go. We should make whatever changes are necessary in terms of infrastructure, ramps, lifts, doors, etc. While I know progress has been made, we need to keep our eye on the topic.

Regarding the Bill in general, I want to commend the contributions of the representative groups. The legislation has benefited from their input. I also want to thank the Minister of State and his Department for the broad consultation process that was held. Given the tireless and brilliant work done by support groups and families — we owe them due regard — I am happy the Bill has been shaped by their needs.

I thank Senator Kate Walsh for sharing her time. I am pleased to make a contribution to this debate. I welcome the excellent and thought-provoking contributions made in the House thus far. In introducing the Bill to the House last night, the Minister of State said it would significantly advance the position of people with disabilities and would be instrumental in sustaining progress in the longer term. I support the Minister of State and his Department in their efforts to make this happen.

I would like to concentrate on the issue of consultation. Support groups, voluntary groups and family representative groups play an immense role in society supporting and advising those with disabilities and their families. I express my appreciation for all the work done by these groups. The Bill before us was rightly the subject of intensive consultations with interested groups. The National Disability Authority brought together a group representative of people with disabilities, their families and carers, and service providers in the sector. This was done on foot of a request from the then Minister of State at the Department in April 2002 and is to be commended. The Bill has been improved as a result of the process. The disability legislation consultation group has provided meaningful and important input at national level on the sector, for which work I thank it.

Some of the media coverage gives the impression that the Bill was drafted to the exclusion of representative groups, that it has not been shaped by their contributions and that groups were not listened to. This is simply not the case. In the first instance, not only senior departmental officials but also Ministers had regular contact with the DLCG. That important process has been ongoing for two and a half years or more. It was crucial that those in the Department get a real and detailed understanding of the issues that concern the representative groups. I am glad that such ongoing contact, together with the DLCG document, Equal Citizens, allowed the Department to gain that understanding.

Second, contrary to some claims, the Bill takes account of proposals in the Equal Citizens document and other submissions, for example, the 3% target for the employment of people with disabilities, the mainstream service provision, the right of redress, transparency regarding related services and the right to an independent assessment of need. Those are just some of the examples of the great benefit of contributions from representative groups and the responsiveness of the Department in taking account of them. We must remember all that was done before the Bill was even initiated in Dáil Éireann.

Third, meetings and consultations continued between representative groups and the relevant Departments and committees. The Minister is to be commended for his work to accommodate changes to the Bill to address the concerns of the DLCG and others to the greatest possible extent. Throughout the legislative process, the proposed changes were accommodated by Government amendments and I commend all involved in this. I hope that if further amendments come to light while the Bill is before the Houses, they will also be taken into consideration.

The Bill is a positive action measure, being made up of several distinct initiatives. On their own, the provisions may not look radical but taken together, they will over time lead to a sustained improvement in the lives of people with disabilities. There remain issues regarding definitions, access and resources but these have been spelt out in the House over the last few days.

The majority of the various cases currently before the courts deal with children with autism. The legal costs associated with those cases will be substantial and an ordeal for the families involved. Could they be dealt with under the Bill once passed by the Oireachtas? That might be a more suitable, fairer and more cost-effective way to meet people's needs.

In conclusion, I congratulate the Minister of State at the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy Fahey, along with his predecessors, Deputies O'Dea and Mary Wallace, and the full Cabinet for introducing this Bill on the basis of the programme for Government. I wish the Minister every success.

I join the other speakers in welcoming the Minister of State, Deputy Fahey, and his officials. I congratulate him on successfully steering this legislation through the other House and on to the Seanad. I also acknowledge a colleague from County Cavan, Councillor Peter McVitty, and his party in the Gallery, and welcome them to Dublin and the Seanad.

The Disability Bill 2004 is very important. Once enacted, it will significantly advance the position of people with disabilities and be instrumental in sustaining progress into the long term. The Bill is one element of the national disability strategy, which the Taoiseach launched in 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 Government commitment to a significant development in policy and provision for people with disabilities, something that has been growing in recent years.

People's minds have been more focused on disability and people with disabilities since the Special Olympics in 2003. We saw at first hand what can be achieved for and by people with physical and intellectual disabilities when resources are provided and people power and volunteerism get behind them. Among the established building blocks of the strategy are the strong anti-discrimination framework of employment equality and equal status legislation, the policy of mainstreaming services for those with disabilities, and a significant increase in investment in disability services over recent years. That framework is supported by an infrastructure comprising the Equality Authority, the Equality Tribunal, the National Disability Authority and Comhairle, which together have a positive influence on equality, service development and delivery and practices and attitudes generally.

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 in this country. Last July, the Act created rights for children with special educational needs to an educational assessment, to the development of an individual education plan and to the delivery of education services on foot of that plan. I welcome the fact that this year, €2.9 billion, representing almost 7.5% of gross current public expenditure on services, will be spent in that way. That figure does not take account of income support and other services provided through the Department of Social and Family Affairs. Nor does it 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 almost €0.8 billion in 1997. My colleague on the other side of the House, Senator McHugh, said he did not want to discuss what happened in 1997. The fact that this represents a 350% increase in spending since then tells me why.

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 to 2009. That funding focuses mainly on the health and education sectors and will enhance service levels where most necessary. The Bill already places an obligation on all public bodies to facilitate access to services by people with disabilities as far as practicable. That covers buildings, services and information. Disability is also one of the nine grounds under the equality legislation.

I would like to address the issue of transport. The Department of Transport published the outline sectoral plan for transport as part of the national disability strategy launched by the Taoiseach in September 2004. The Department is committed to the comprehensive development of accessible public transport for people with mobility and sensory impairments. In addressing the issue of transport accessibility, the Department uses the term "accessible transport for the mobility and sensory impaired" to refer to people with physical, sensory, learning — Senator Coonan should listen to that word — and cognitive difficulties, and others whose access to traditional public transport services and infrastructure——

The Senator is not well this evening.

——is constrained on account of — Senator Coonan should listen to this too — age. The definition has been developed in consultation with members of the public transport accessibility committee. The committee was established under the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness in July 2000 and it comprises representatives of the following organisations: Comhairle, Forum of People with Disabilities, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, the Irish Wheelchair Association, the National Council for the Blind of Ireland, the National Council on Ageing and Older People, the National Disability Authority, the National Association for Deaf People, People with Disabilities in Ireland and Vantastic, along with representatives of Bus Éireann, Bus Átha Cliath, Iarnród Éireann, the Railway Procurement Agency and Connex Transport Ireland Limited.

Debate adjourned.