The 2007 budget — the opening budget — of the advocacy and interpretative service is €4.3 million. Data compiled for a Comhairle report, Developing an Advocacy Service for People with Disabilities, indicate that approximately 26,000 people, including 9,200 children, are registered on the national intellectual disability database. Approximately 14,800 people with mental or intellectual disabilities are in hospitals, including full-time residential and community facilities, at any given time. Although the figures I have given date from July 2004, they give an indication of the likely demand.
I do not want to be awkward about Senator Terry's proposal to provide for a two-month timeframe. I have examined the amendment, which seems to be reasonable, since the Dáil debate on this matter. I am anxious not to include in the legislation a provision that might have an effect contrary to what is intended. When organisations are under pressure because they are facing deadlines, they sometimes make bad decisions. It is not good to be under pressure to make a decision by 5 p.m. on Tuesday in order that one does not breach the legislation, for example, because one might not make the right decision. An alternative strategy that is often pursued in such circumstances is to issue a letter looking for more information, thereby causing the clock to start ticking all over again. The officials in An Bord Pleanála are masters of such tactics.
When one imposes a timeframe on the provision of services of this nature, it can become a target. If one makes an application today, one is less likely to get an answer this week if some genius somewhere realises one does not have to be given that answer for two months. It can became the norm to choose not to take further action for six or seven weeks. An amendment like this may be necessary in the future, if delays and backlogs start to arise. If, in the initial stage, I were to include a provision whereby two or three months could be taken to respond to an application, it would almost certainly lead to circumstances in which the full two or three months would be taken. That has been the experience when we have provided for such targets in the past. People take the time available to them. If we have a certain number of weeks to an election, we will use that time to do what needs to be done. If we have a shorter length of time, we will squeeze the same amount of work into the shorter timeframe. We all tend to work to deadlines. Those of us who have sat examinations will remember that we did not tend to get down to the serious business until the target date we had set started to loom. I am a little nervous about setting a deadline in this instance.
I have been advised by the Office of the Chief Parliamentary Counsel that the text of the Bill as it stands would be interpreted as requiring the determination of entitlement to the service within "a reasonable timeframe". The board will set targets in its various documents, such as its business plans. It will be required to deliver the service within "a reasonable timeframe". Medical advice and judgment is a central feature of any debate on disability matters. A timeframe of a month or two might be perfectly reasonable in the case of a person with a particular type of disability, but a longer timeframe might be more appropriate in the case of a person with a different type of disability who is trying to access a more complicated service.
It is better to leave this section of the Bill as it stands, although I would not rule out a change in the future. I presume Social Welfare Bills in the years to come will offer us plenty of opportunities to include a provision of this nature in this legislation. I am worried that if we make such an amendment now, it will have a counter-productive effect. We need the professionals to get to work on this new service, which is very sensitive, to see how it develops. That is the most practical way forward, to be honest. I am satisfied with the Office of the Chief Parliamentary Counsel's assurance that, legally, the board will be required to make a decision within "a reasonable timeframe". That is probably the most reasonable thing to do.