I welcome the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Ó Cuív.
Services for People with Disabilities: Motion
That Seanad Éireann welcomes the announcement that a new National Advocacy Service for people with disabilities is to be set up to provide independent, representative advocacy services for people with disabilities from January 2011.
I welcome the Minister to the Chamber. This is a very important step forward for people with disabilities and I welcome its announcement. As Members may be aware, there had been a recommendation to establish such a service for people with disabilities, which led to approximately 46 pilot schemes being operated throughout the country. Following a review of those pilot schemes recommendations were made, a number of which have been taken on board by the Minister in his announcement. Significantly, the pilot scheme demonstrated that where advocates were put in place it was possible for them to gain an understanding of services for people with disabilities, to support those people to understand their entitlements, to draw together the range of services they need to support them in moving from institutional living into the community and to support them in their interactions with their families. In other words there was an opportunity for people with disabilities for the first time to have access to somebody who was completely on their side, who was only there for them, and whose only motivation and interest was the well-being of the person with whom they were working, which is very significant. Despite the very tough economic times, it is very welcome for the Minister to be able to announce that it is still intended to proceed in January 2011 with establishing this national service.
We are all very aware — none more so than the Members of this House — that people with disabilities can get left behind or forgotten about. The establishment of a national advocacy service will help to counteract this. A number of points were made in the review of the 46 pilot schemes, including comments about geographical services and organisational structure, and I have no doubt the Minister intends to take them on board. However, I was particularly struck by the comments in the report regarding the way complex cases could be dealt with. One of the issues that highlights is that, at the time, it had not been possible to implement one of the original recommendations, namely, the establishment of a personal advocacy service which would seek to work with individuals who would have either a complex case or complex needs. I note in the Minister's announcement and in details we have been able to glean so far that the Minister is indicating that it is intended that aspects of this personal advocacy service will be incorporated. I ask the Minister to elaborate on the form that will take and the way we might see it come into action when replying.
One of the original recommendations would have pointed to a programme of community visitors for people in residential settings with cognitive intellectual disabilities. These are a particularly vulnerable group of people. I welcome the role that the national advocacy service will have the potential to play for those people. We all know of individuals who are living either in community group home settings or in institutional settings who perhaps do not have any visitors from one end of the year to another. I refer to visitors who are specific to them and who come in to say "Hello" to them and see how they are doing. That applies as much to community group homes as it does to institutional settings.
Originally, when we moved towards de-institutionalisation and established community group homes we spoke about community group homes as if they were the panacea to everything. We know they are not. In many cases, even with the best intentions, they have ended up becoming mini-institutions in the community where people do not necessarily know their neighbours or interact with their community.
One of the dangers of that, particularly for people with intellectual disabilities, is the isolation. One can be in the heart of the community and still be isolated. Having a situation where advocates can be appointed and can visit, and whose sole interest is the person with an intellectual disability, is a powerful protection.
In the past number of years, because of the number of sad, traumatic and profoundly disturbing cases of abuse across the board that have come to our attention, we must be aware that people with intellectual disabilities are particularly vulnerable. The role of an advocate is an added protection measure. Having somebody who is not part of the system come in and out of a place changes the dynamic and increases the protection available. I note that we are able to do this within existing resources because of the way we will organise it and that points to something that is very important.
Sometimes the work we need to undertake in the area of disabilities is not all about money. There is much work that needs to be done, particularly if we are to see the purpose of this through to its end. This is only the starting point. If we want an advocacy service to work as effectively as we intend it to, we must address a number of other issues. I do not have time to go into them now but there are two in particular that I ask the Minister to raise with his colleagues.
The first is the need for the Mental Capacity and Guardianship Bill to come before the House. Without that Bill, any advocate who is acting in good faith on behalf of somebody with a disability, particularly with an intellectual disability, will come up against barriers on occasions that they do not need to come up against. There are certain basic rights the Minister and I take for granted that people with intellectual disabilities cannot access currently because of our outdated laws regarding their status in our society.
On the day the Minister made this announcement he made a striking comment. He stated:
The new National Advocacy Service will give a voice to people with disabilities who are isolated in the community or who are living in residential institutions and who cannot represent themselves. The Service will protect their rights, help them gain their entitlements, obtain a fair hearing and make positive changes in their quality of life.
That is an important statement but if we want to deliver on that, the Mental Capacity and Guardianship Bill must follow this measure. It is such important legislation it must come before us in sufficient time to allow us consider it and debate it. It will have to link in with many other existing pieces of legislation. It will be extraordinarily complex but it is necessary if we are serious about people with disabilities taking their equal role as citizens in our society.
The second issue that must be addressed is the supports we put in place for vulnerable adults within the criminal justice system. In terms of wanting an advocate to come in and play their role, and particularly in complex cases, if it is a case that there is something untoward or if a vulnerable adult has been exposed to either a criminal act or to an act that has done them wrong and we want to take it further, there are no supports currently within the criminal justice system to do that. An advocate can go to the Garda Síochána on behalf of a vulnerable adult and I guarantee that in 99 cases out of 100, it will stand still because we have not put the measures in place within the system that will support people with disabilities either to be witnesses, to give evidence or even to have their story taken credibly. I am aware that we cannot put those supports in place without having the Mental Capacity and Guardianship Bill in place but these are important protections.
At a life-changing juncture we brought in extensive, realistic and practical supports that allowed children who were victims of abuse engage and interact with the criminal justice system. It gave them the support they needed to give their statements to the Garda and to give testimony within the courts system. We must be doing something similar with vulnerable adults because currently they fall between the two stools. With that will come all the other additional supports and training that gardaí, for example, will need to have to allow them take their statements.
In seeking to ensure that the most fundamental and basic of rights are afforded to somebody with disabilities so they can take their place as an equal citizen within our society, it is not all about money. There are actions we could be taking currently within the political system that could have a profound and real impact on people's day to day quality of life.
I congratulate the Minister on the announcement. I see it as an important step forward but to ensure it achieves its potential we must follow up on what happens to the advocates afterwards. When replying I would appreciate if the Minister could provide some additional details on the points I mentioned earlier.
I second the motion and reserve the right to speak later.
I move amendment No. 1:
To delete all words after ‘‘Seanad Éireann'' and substitute the following:
‘‘welcomes the announcement that a new National Advocacy Service for people with disabilities is to be set up to provide independent, representative advocacy services for people with disabilities from January 2011;
condemns the Government for:
the delay in introducing the Personal Advocacy Service, which was originally promised for 2008, under the Citizens Information Act 2007;
abandoning the National Disability Strategy, with very little of the strategy announced in 2004 realised;
the deferral of the implementation of the EPSEN Act 2004 and the failure to publish a costed multiannual plan for its implementation;
abandoning the National Carers Strategy which was originally promised by the end of 2007 and abandoned by the Government in March 2009;
long waiting list for services such as speech therapy, OT, psychology and other services;
failing to put the National Standards for the inspection of disability residential services, published by HIQA in May 2009, on a statutory footing;
slashing budgets to voluntary organisations providing vital services for people with disabilities under the guise of ‘efficiency savings' and HSE cost saving measures; and
calls on the Government to prioritise the interests of people with disabilities and to publish their priorities for the implementation of the National Disability Strategy.''.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. In moving this amendment I say, with a touch of irony, that the Government is establishing a national advocacy service for people with disabilities when, under all current legislation, it has failed to recognise the basic rights and entitlements of people with a disability. While this new national advocacy service will provide independent and representative advocacy for people with a disability, it will have few, if any, statutory powers with regard to resource allocation, effecting change at governmental policy level or at the implementation of policy at the Health Service Executive level.
I listened to Senator Corrigan's contribution and noted her words but again we see Government attempting to introduce measures for the most vulnerable and marginalised in society on the cheap. That is the reality. I say that as somebody who comes to this debate with a strong family involvement in disability organisations and who is personally involved as a member.
The fundamental task for all of us is to uphold the rights of all of our citizens but for value for money purposes this new service will be unfurled in 2011 under current resources. It means there will be little to go around. The Federation of Voluntary Bodies talks about the rights of adults with disability and families with children to direct their own supports and have access to resources to run their own lives. It is disappointing, when we talk about equal citizenship and the task force in 2007, that we have lost sight of the needs of a group in our society. If we look at the history, this was first promised in 2004 under the Comhairle Act and subsequently under the Citizens Information Act 2007. We were told it would be delivered in 2008 but we must now wait until 2011.
It is important we would welcome the eventual roll-out of the service as it will offer freedom and choice to people with disabilities. There are almost 400,000 people with disabilities in Ireland, 24% of whom are unable to carry out everyday activities and are dependent on full-time care. There is a large young population with intellectual disability, and it is important to stress that such people are living longer and, therefore, demands are increasing on organisations and families while resources are limited.
We have neglected the most important sectors of our society. The Irish saying, duine le Dia, is a great one. At a time of boom, we did not eliminate the barriers which existed. It is important we allow people with disabilities to access services and allow them to have understanding, proper resources, enhanced public transport, information and knowledge, many of which have not been addressed properly by Government over the years. Will this be addressed in a meaningful way by the establishment of this service?
If we are so committed, why do we need a national advocacy service in the first place? I am sure the Minister in his reply will refer to the substantial investment by Government in the resourcing of different issues and areas of service. There has been a denial of rights and entitlements over the years by Government. We have not explained and communicated in proper language what people are entitled to. Many of our schemes are very bureaucratic and people are intimidated and afraid. Regardless of whether we like it, that is the reality. We have not listened to people when they have spoken up and been a voice. We have forced people to go to court to get their basic rights and entitlements.
In 2008, Deirdre Carroll of Inclusion Ireland said, "it is a great disappointment that the Government has decided to cut back the public advocacy service", this at a time when we had boom and bloom. She continued: "It is a pity that one of Minister Hanafin's first acts in her new Ministerial role was to cut a vital service for people with a disability."
It is about trust. The Government has failed people with disabilities. There are many issues we must address in terms of the models of service delivery in the context of mainstreaming, professionalism, specialisation, models of service, partnership and best practice innovation. Is the current proposal too broad? We have a crisis of massive proportions in the disability sector. The Minister should listen to the groups we meet regularly, the parents and carers who are present today and the Disability Federation of Ireland, which will be in the Houses tomorrow. There are a plethora of issues regarding whether there are enough training places for vocational post-leaving certificate students. The students and their parents will argue there are not. Service placement does not seem to be evolving in a meaningful way and there is a constant battle to get residential places for respite care.
Parents are asked to go to the nth degree for their loved ones — their sons, daughters and family members — yet we are putting barriers in their way. I know of a woman in her 70s whose husband weighs more than 20 stone but she got nothing from the State by way of home help or care except a commode. All Members could tell stories of people who have been left behind and neglected. If we are advocating independent living, let us have real independent living provision, supports and structures in place. Let us have a proper home care package of which people can avail. Let us examine the issue of dental provision for people with disability, for example, in Cork, where people are unable to access dental care under anaesthetic. Let us deal with the waiting lists for LTOT and psychology services.
We have many vibrant people with disabilities who want to live an independent life. They do not want to be condemned to a life of handicap but want to live a full, open, active and equal life of citizenship. We as a State are not letting them do so. We are reducing budgets. It should not be all about money. It must be about people and about doing our best for those who need us the most — the marginalised and the vulnerable. I remind the Minister and his colleagues that it was their slogan in 1987 that cutbacks hurt the old, the poor and the handicapped. It is ironic that today, in 2010, we are back to that again. We seem to have learned nothing.
I second the amendment. I welcome the Minister. I listened with interest to the words of Senator Corrigan, who is always very helpful in the area of disability.
Let us consider the issue of disability as being broader than simply the need for a personal advocacy service. I concur with Senator Buttimer to some extent that the need for a personal advocacy service will tell us how dependent people with disabilities are, although I fully accept the service is intended to ensure they can be given an even break and to level the playing field in order that they become independent.
People with disabilities are a highly differentiated population with varying ranges of abilities and disabilities and a vast range of needs. One fact that is glaring is that 90% of people with disabilities are unemployed, so they are a group which is always at high risk of poverty. This struck me strongly three or four years ago during the boom when a deaf girl came to me looking to get work. Even though there was high employment, she, among others, was very much at risk.
The experience I encounter in my constituency office is a cycle of depression, anxiety and disability resulting in a feeling of helplessness, although not necessarily in that order. The reliance on service provision is huge and this impacts on the individual user and his or her family. In an environment of budgetary cuts, people with disabilities have less capacity to recover from cuts. Life has severely stalled for them in many cases and, by definition, people with disability are excluded from mainstream participation in life — from employment, in some cases from transport, from housing and from education. I will elaborate shortly with regard to education. Progress has been made for people with disabilities, which I have noticed and acknowledge. Access to public buildings has improved, building regulations are more cognisant of people's needs, there are taxis for the disabled and even the kerbs have been improved to allow people to access footpaths. That said, places such as Mervue in Galway city still do not have the kerbs to make footpaths more easily accessible for people in wheelchairs.
Generally, the level of service progress and speed of delivery has been worse than anticipated. In the first decade of this century there was a massive debate about rights-based legislation for people with disabilities. Customer experience is not consistent throughout the country. For example, people with disabilities in Galway city cannot use all the buses. The public advocacy service was due to be delivered in 2008 but it is now due in 2011. Three years is a considerable period of time. The national disability strategy is driven by individual service user needs, and satisfaction will depend on the complexity of their needs and how those needs are met. A person with a physical disability who is incapable of independent living could need many personal assistant hours but, with current resourcing, this person is unlikely to get the hours he or she requires. His or her disability becomes more embedded as a result.
The main point that must be made is that service providers are under extraordinary levels of stress to maintain services. The Minister will be aware of this from Enable Ireland Galway and the Brothers of Charity in Galway. When budgetary cuts occur, funding must first go to paying wages. This might be of least apparent benefit to the person with a disability. It might be the personal assistant service that will be cut first, and that might have been the single element of support that most enhanced the life of the person with a disability.
I broadly welcome the public advocacy service. I have had recent experience of seeing an advocate advocating on behalf of a person who was very unhappy in her residential home in Galway. The advocate was very independent and worked for the person with disability but despite the advocate's best work, the person still remains unhappy. The main thing is that the service is available. I support that work. Will the Minister clarify what aspects of the public advocacy service will definitely be implemented in 2011? Has funding been set aside in the budget for it? Is it dependent on such funding? Will staff be appointed given the embargo on public service recruitment? I note the number of staff that are needed in various geographical regions of the country.
Very little of the national disability strategy which was announced in 2004 has been realised. What has this meant in reality? I have been speaking to the Brothers of Charity and they would say the disability strategy is dead in the water. It is still policy but it is not backed up by funding. The main thrust of the strategy was to provide resources to meet people's needs and to move to seamless service provision, be it in housing, transport or health. This costs money. The strategy is great in theory but has led to disappointment among many users.
I will elaborate in more detail on the deferral of the implementation of the Education for People with Special Educational Needs, EPSEN, Act which applies to children and young adults, and the failure to publish a costed, multi-annual plan for its implementation. I spoke to the then Minister, Deputy Mary Hanafin, and to subsequent Ministers about this. The Act still has not been fully implemented. This is a great disservice to and crime against children and young people with disabilities. Children are not getting adequate access to supports, such as the psychological supports required to provide assessments, occupational therapy and speech and language therapy. Most of the school age services provided by the Brothers of Charity are for children in mainstream schools. The striking fact is that, at present, 200 children are not getting an adequate level of service to meet their needs because the EPSEN Act has not been implemented. As a result, there is an increase in the number of applications to special needs schools. This is not Government policy but can one blame the parents for seeking appropriate education when the supports do not exist in mainstream education? I certainly do not blame them. It is the Government's fault that parents are now applying to special needs schools.
I will conclude by referring to the individual education plans, IEPs. They are not fully in place in law. There is something similar in place at present but it is not in accordance with the terms set out in the EPSEN Act. This is according to the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, this morning. Schools are using the IEP guidelines as set out by the NCSE. They are just guidelines, however, and are not on a statutory footing under the EPSEN Act. As long as this is the case, children with disabilities will continue to get a raw deal in education. I have much personal experience of this. I look forward to hearing that the Minister will address the EPSEN Act and the IEPs.
Gabhaim buíochas leis na Seanadóirí as ucht an deis cúpla focal a rá faoin ábhar seo sa Seanad. I hate confrontational politics for the sake of it, but at times it is important to spell out some basic facts. There is a total contradiction in a party leader saying they would take €3 billion from current spending instead of €1 billion from the capital budget and €2 billion from current spending, as was discussed previously, while the party's members incessantly seek in the House extra current expenditure. When I was going to school there were fairly simple rules in mathematics. While I might not be a genius in many things, I studied mathematics in university and no matter how far I went, the basic laws of mathematics applied. One cannot take away €3 billion and suddenly have a heap of money in one's pocket. We would all love to add to services; I know no one in politics who would not like to provide better services. It is time for those who say they wish to add to every service to show us in the Estimates where they would make the alternative cuts to raise the money to do that. In the case of the Senator's party, it told us not to cut the capital budget, which means an extra €1 billion on the current expenditure side. If the Senator's party does not show us the alternative cuts, it is not being up-front about what it is trying to do.
With regard to the HSE, the Senator is aware we had a meeting in Galway. HSE west has a statutory duty to run the services. I organised for all Members of the Oireachtas in Galway and Roscommon to meet representatives of the HSE. Despite that meeting and many others, I still do not have a clear direction from those Members of the Oireachtas on their budget alternatives.
The Minister can discuss it with the Minister for Health and Children and work it out.
There should be no interruptions while the Minister is speaking.
Senator Ó Brolcháin was there too. As Senator Healy Eames knows, because I was very clear about it on the day we met them, I believe there is an obligation, and I will continue fighting for this both publicly and privately, that we be given a clear outline of the choices. I believe, and I am sure the Senator will concur because the Fine Gael Party previously had a major policy on savings in the public service, there are ways of cutting costs without cutting front-line services. Our first duty as politicians is to examine how we can cut costs without affecting such services. We found ways of doing it in other sectors. It involves analysing everything and considering whether it is now best practice in the 2010 context.
With regard to the issue we are discussing today, there was a pilot scheme. As Minister, I believed it was my first duty not to have an interregnum or uncertainty, during which doubts were created in people's minds, between the end of the pilot scheme and the start of a permanent dispensation and provision. I received two letters from people saying they were beginning to be worried as to whether I was going to take action. I had already put everything in place, more or less, before I received those two letters. I was pleased that we were able to create certainty following on from uncertainty. A budget has been made available and the service will commence in January 2011. It is about nine weeks to Christmas and most people take a week off over the Christmas period. One arrangement ceases at that time and we will move seamlessly on to the new arrangement and in my view that is a satisfactory arrangement in this regard.
I am setting this up under the Citizens Information Board which means all of the services of the Citizens Information Board are also available as support for the advocates. They are not operating in an island but rather in the context of a much bigger board. The Citizens Information Board services are co-located in structure with the MABS offices and this will provide a comprehensive approach.
The Department is very supportive of the Citizens Information Board and increased the funding for the agency quite considerably, paying out €46 million to the agency in 2010. This is testament to the importance attached by the Department to providing information to people.
The Senator rightly pointed out the importance of advocates. People sometimes question why politicians act as advocates. When the well educated and well-off ask me, I have a very simple answer. I remind them if they were planning to go to court they would engage a solicitor even though they themselves are smart and well-educated; that they would hire an accountant to complete their tax returns. These professional people are, in effect, acting as advocates on a person's behalf and using expert knowledge to make the best case. The Department tries to provide resources for those who do not have such resources, using the resources of the State. I do not expect anyone to be apologetic about getting the support of people with expertise in whatever field is required.
Under the Comhairle Act 2000, the Citizens Information Board was given responsibility for supporting the provision of information, advice and advocacy services to assist individuals, in particular those with disabilities, in identifying and understanding their entitlements to social and public services. The importance of information provision and advice cannot be overstated. As a Minister and public representative, I am very aware that people's rights and entitlements are often dependent on access to good independent advice. This is particularly relevant to those who are marginalised or who need somebody else to advocate on their behalf. Under the Citizens Information Act 2007, the CIB received a remit to provide advocacy services to people with disabilities. The Act defines disability as meaning a substantial restriction in the capacity of the person to carry on a profession, business or occupation in the State or to participate in social or cultural life in the State, by reason of an enduring physical, sensory, mental health or intellectual impairment. It is important we are all clear about what is meant by advocacy in this regard. In the context of its legislation, the Citizens Information Board defines advocacy as a means of empowering people by supporting them to assert their views and claim their entitlement and where necessary, representing and negotiating on their behalf.
Many people are able to do this to some degree, either for themselves or for friends or family members but in many situations the issues of independence and competence will arise. Therefore, it is important the advocate is well informed, is knowledgeable about regulations and precedents and is able to act on the wishes or in the best interests of the person with a disability without any tie to a service provider or any conflict of interest. This independence is crucial and it is the reason the advocacy functions for people with disabilities were devolved to the Citizens Information Board. The advocacy guidelines 2007 state, "delivering a professional advocacy service means providing a trained person who, on the basis of an understanding of a client's needs and wishes, will advise and support that client to make a decision or claim an entitlement and who will, if appropriate, go on to negotiate or make a case for him or her". This person-centred approach is considered essential by international best practice. While some level of advocacy support has always been provided by the Citizens Information Board services, additional measures were required to ensure those with a disability are given the advocacy help they need.
In preparation for the proposed legislation, the CIB commissioned research from Goodbody Economic Consultants. The report, Developing an Advocacy Service for People with Disabilities, was launched in 2004 by Deputy Mary Coughlan, then Minister for Social and Family Affairs. The report proposed a three-strand approach: the establishment of a personal advocacy service to deal with critical and complex issues only, to be provided by the CIB in line with the new Act; a programme of support for community and voluntary sector advocacy; and a community visitor programme to focus on people with cognitive disability in residential institutions. Following the report it was agreed to concentrate on the implementation of the first and second strands. Arising from the national disability strategy and the Disability Act 2005, the Citizens Information Board was given responsibility to provide advocacy services to people with disabilities under the Citizens Information Act 2007. The primary purpose of the Act was to establish a personal advocacy service to be delivered directly by the CIB. Implementation of the Act was deferred by the Government in 2008 due to budgetary constraints. However, following the publication of the Goodbody report in 2004, the Citizens Information Board began the process of engaging with the community and voluntary sector in order to develop advocacy provision at local level for people with disabilities. This was in line with the national disability strategy and the proposed citizen information legislation. By the end of 2009, 46 pilot projects had provided advocacy to more than 5,000 service users.
In order to measure the effectiveness of the community and voluntary sector advocacy programmes, CIB carried out a major evaluation and case analysis in January 2009. The evaluation focused on two areas, a case review and analysis and a structural review and analysis. Before outlining the recommendations of the evaluation report, I take this opportunity to acknowledge the important work by those working in the advocacy projects and all those people on the various advocacy steering committees and on the boards of the Citizens Information Board, who gave their time over the past number of years to help to build up the service.
Part of the process in conducting the evaluation involved meeting with the stakeholders from eight selected projects, facilitating focus groups with more extensive project participation, examining a random selection of case files and tracking 20 live cases. I also wish to thank those people who were involved in this part of the evaluation and I acknowledge their valuable contribution to the report.
The finding of the evaluation of the 46 projects identified the significantly positive impact of the programme on people with disabilities and the number of people who benefited from the services provided to date. The evaluation report also identified a number of weaknesses in the existing service, such as the geographical gaps in the delivery of the service and the fact that some projects were working in isolation. There was no dedicated management structure and the ability to escalate or deal with complex cases was impaired. There were no senior advocates within the service. These issues were addressed in the recommendations of the evaluation report which also set out the future role of advocacy in the community and voluntary sector. The report recommended a new service that would enhance and protect the independence of the advocate to represent people's disabilities; improve the quality, capacity and level of advocacy response to a point where the service is capable of developing and sustaining itself and is not limited by structural arrangements; demonstrate and communicate the worth and value generated for the money invested and the time given by all involved in the provision of advocacy; and maximise the collaboration and partnership between all stakeholders which is central to the success of the advocates' work with service users. The report recommended increasing the level of diversity among those advising on or working to improve the situation for people with disabilities who use the advocacy service. This has a direct impact on the quality of the solutions found. It also recommended building capacity and confidence that the most vulnerable are being reached. We must ensure the voice of the service user is at the centre, informing the ongoing design of the advocacy service. The review noted the benefit of having advisory groups with representatives from service providers and service users. I want this to continue in the new service.
Regarding the proposed introduction of a personal advocacy service, the report notes that the evaluators found a small number of cases that would have qualified under the personal advocacy service and where the presence of statutory power could have been crucial. The report also notes that cases pertinent to the personal advocacy service are being dealt with but can be time-consuming owing to the complexity of the issues presented. It is important we continue to improve the services we deliver. The evaluation report acknowledges that taking it to the next level and delivering increased value with fewer resources will require change. A new model of representative advocacy, informed by collaboration and partnership, is required.
In light of this, with particular emphasis on independence, the report suggests a new structure for the roll-out of advocacy services in the community and voluntary sector. It recommends bringing together the experience and learning of all stakeholders into a single service, with the ability to provide improved advocacy services to people who need them regardless of location, disability type or level of vulnerability. The new structure will provide the independent representative advocacy service for people with disabilities that is needed as we move into more challenging times in 2011 and beyond. It will be regionally structured, with five regional teams replacing the existing pilot projects. The five regional teams will be managed by the citizens information service in Dublin, Westmeath, Offaly, Waterford and Leitrim but there will be 100% coverage of the territory of the State.
Some people will not arrive at the citizens information centre seeking assistance so, importantly, the new service will seek out those most vulnerable people with disabilities who cannot self-refer, who are isolated in the community or who are living in residential settings. It will offer an independent advocacy service, which will protect their rights, help them gain their entitlements, obtain a fair hearing and make positive changes to their quality of life. The new service will help to meet the commitments made in the national disability strategy, in my Department's disability sectoral plans and in the Citizens Information Act 2007, to support and provide direct advocacy services to individuals, in particular those with a disability.
The new model will see 46 individual pilot projects replaced by five regional teams based within an established citizens information service. The five teams will work to a national strategy in a co-ordinated way, working closely with the Citizens Information Board and supported by national and local advisory groups made up of key stakeholders. The new service will be undertaken within current resources and is in accordance with Government policy to provide a more integrated service and give value for money in how services are delivered. The new service is committed not only to identifying those in need but also building networks locally to ensure all services provided — governmental, community and voluntary — are made available to those who require them. I note that one of the positive outcomes of the review of the pilot project was the benefit of having advisory groups with representatives from several service providers such as my Department, the HSE and local authorities, as well as local representatives of disability groups, such as the Disability Federation of Ireland, Inclusion Ireland, centres for independent living, the National Disability Authority and others. I want this to continue in the new service. I welcome the positive response from these stakeholders to the new service and the feedback and commitment given to the Citizens Information Board as it continues to engage with the stakeholders. In addition, advocacy support workers will be recruited to support the provision of an enhanced mainstream service so that more people with disabilities can access and use the general citizens information services, while the national advocacy service will seek out and respond to more vulnerable people with disabilities. Along with the new national advocacy service, the provision of these support workers will be undertaken within current resources and will provide a more integrated service while achieving better value for money. There is much work to be done between now and January 2011 and in the years ahead. The Citizens Information Board has shown it can meet the challenges, however, and continues to have my support and the support of my Department in achieving these objectives.
I thank those involved in advocacy pilot projects over recent years, providing assistance to more than 5,000 people. I am confident a new advocacy service will provide a more professional, independent, mainstream, representative advocacy service and will give a voice to people with disabilities who are isolated in the community or living in residential institutions and cannot represent themselves. The service will protect their rights, help them gain their entitlements and obtain a fair hearing, and make positive changes in their lives.
Education was referred to. Staff resources will be made available and there is no issue with embargoes. The funding is available and we will get on with the job. There will be senior advocates and advocates working under them. It will be well structured.
Ensuring those with disabilities have access to employment opportunities is dear to my heart. Many people would prefer to be at work than be idle. I assure the House I am working hard on that issue. I have been in contact with groups who represent people with disabilities, especially people who work with others to provide employment. I hope to bring forward practical ways to enhance access to work for those with disabilities. This is a basic entitlement.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. Tá an t-ábhar atá idir lámha againn sa díospóireacht seo thar a bheith tábhachtach agus fairsing. Ba mhaith liom díriú isteach ar ghné amháin de leasú Fhine Gael — an giota a dhéanann déileáil leis an Acht EPSEN. I want to focus on that issue. Members are aware I have raised this on many occasions. I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Áine Brady, who is well aware of the views I shared with her on many occasions. As a teacher, when the EPSEN Act was published, I thought it was as close as I could have dreamed to the ideal response to special needs education. I might have written the words in the Act differently but in terms of what it sought to do, I was part of it. It is not rights-based but is as close to being rights-based as is practical. The Act suggests that as long as the State can deal with it, it should deal with it in a particular way.
I received commitments from Ministers about this. A number of amendments that were important to me were accepted as the Bill was passed. I thought it was so important that I set up meetings throughout the country and produced information and training documents about the Act so that teachers could understand what it was about, how they should use it and its importance. That took place in 2005 and it is appalling the Act was never commenced. The Government has now decided not to commence it for the foreseeable future.
This is important because the advocacy issues raised in the motion before the House become less important if the EPSEN Act is in place. It is important people recognise what is in this. Parents, a class teacher, a principal or a medical person might identify a special need or a learning problem in a child. This could then be confirmed by a school principal or class teacher.
Following this was a legal requirement that the child be assessed within a number of months, following which a full assessment had to be presented to the school and the class teacher, if appropriate. It was also available to the parents and appealable by them if they considered it was incorrect or that there were things wrong with it. The assessment identified the resources and support the child would need in a learning environment. It was a requirement for a wide-ranging team of professionals to meet, including psychologists, psychiatrists and various therapists, including speech and language therapists, among others. They would determine how the child's needs would be dealt with in a school setting. They brought forward a learning plan referred to by Senator Healy Eames as an individual education plan, IEP. In essence, it was anad hoc programme designed to help the individual child to cope with his or her learning difficulties. It was then determined how the plan would be implemented. The hope was it would generally be implemented by the class teacher and done over the course of a year, at the end of which the class teacher, the principal teacher and any others whom it was considered necessary would assess whether the child had improved and if the plan had had a positive impact in helping him or her. If that was not the case, they would rewrite the programme. If it was considered the school did not have the capacity to deal with the particular needs of the child in putting a programme together, an appeal could be made to one of committees of the National Council for Special Education and it would put a programme together. At every single stage of the process the parents were involved and an appeals option was built in. An appeal could be made by the parents, the school authorities or various other named persons.
There was no need for advocacy in such a system. Children were brought through it and it fell into place to support them. It was not particularly expensive because much of it was school based and involved harnessing the skills, professional ability, knowledge and experience of the stated professions. It was a perfect resource. It was a case of a child with special needs learning with his or her peers within a school. I do not wish to use any of the terms used to describe this because they all cause difficulty. Language deteriorates at an extraordinary rate in the field of special education. Words in use five years ago are no longer acceptable. I remember all of them because I am that old and do not use them anymore. I describe what it is I want to say. I am talking about children learning with others in their peer group.
If the Government was to give a commitment to indicating a date for the commencement of the various sections of the EPSEN Act, it would do more for children with special needs than anything else. I give credit to it for one thing; the one aspect of the Act it has progressed three quarters of the way is the appointment and employment of educational psychologists. The appropriate number has not been reached, but the Government has gone a long way towards reaching it. That is useful. However, the problem is that until the number reaches the level required, the educational psychologists employed will spend all of their time assessing when they can visit schools, classes and support programmes, offer a view and engage with the class teacher, principal teacher and parents, as required. In that way there is team support working through the system. I accept an educational psychologist will only visit a school once every couple of weeks, but one must have the numbers required for this to work.
I deliberately picked out that one aspect and it is a shame that to which I have referred has not been done. At least, the Government might consider giving a commitment to considering how it might be done. I will not get into an argument about economies. The legislation has been in place since 2005 before we got into difficulty. It might be acceptable for the Minister to argue about economies if the Act had been passed last year, but it has been in place since 2005. The National Council for Special Education which is subject to many complaints and criticism was given the job by the Government of outlining an action plan for implementation of the Act. The exercise it carried out could act as a role model in terms of best practice. It outlined and costed every action point and timeline. We could well have had the money in 2005, 2006 or 2007, but the Government decided to walk away, which was a shame.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Áine Brady, and I am delighted she is present for this important debate. I also welcome the national advocacy service which will be introduced in January 2011. It is important to recognise that it will be a step forward, but nevertheless we should not get carried away. It is no more than a step in the right direction. It will not solve all of the problems for people with disabilities.
We have had an interesting debate about adopting a rights-based approach, individual education plans and needs-based assessments. The Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Ó Cuív, is correct; there is not a Member in the House who does not wish to move towards the system outlined. The EPSEN Act is something for which I fought and I welcome the comments of Senator O'Toole. It is crucial.
As someone who has been involved in dealing with people with autism, I have seen how early intervention works. The way individual education plans are produced is far from perfect but early intervention works. Senator O'Toole is correct; it would be progress if we were to obviate the need for advocacy by ensuring people were able to advocate for themselves from an early age by providing a proper speech therapy service or whatever other service is required, as the lack of such services could prevent them advocating for themselves at a later stage. That said, it is clear there are many people with disabilities who need an advocate. I presume that is the reason an advocacy service is being provided.
I very much welcome what the Minister said about ensuring a regional balance. That is important. However, I urge him to assess the situation because there is always a great difficulty in providing a service in all parts of the country. One often finds that geographical realities bite. I refer to people living on the Aran Islands or in County Donegal, for example. If a service in County Leitrim was the closest in terms of advocacy, this could present a difficulty, whereas if there was a cluster of advocates in Dublin, the situation would be enhanced. Therefore, we need to assess the effectiveness of the service that will be introduced in 2011 from the point of view of geographic considerations.
I support Senator Corrigan's call for the fast-tracking of the Mental Capacity and Guardianship Bill. That is important and the Bill should be introduced as soon as possible.
The advocacy service is due to be introduced in January. We will need to carefully monitor how it is working.
The point was made to me today that we must look at legislative power to enforce the rights of the advocates. The rights are centred on the individual with a disability. I would hate to see a situation where an advocate is refused access to a meeting under any guise. Advocates must have the same powers under legislation as the person himself or herself. It is crucial we ensure advocates have proper access to all necessary facilities.
My party supports the primary care model, where we do all we can within the community. It is the right way forward in health care and works in other countries. There must, however, be proper linkage between the primary care teams and the advocates. Advocacy is not all a matter of health, some of it is a matter of rights, campaigning for those cannot campaign for themselves for basic services.
It is important we move to a rights-based approach to health. The Minister spoke about the funding-based approach and we cannot have a system that is not robust when there is a recession. We must look at the necessary services and it is then a question for Government to ensure those systems are delivered. If we must cut services because of funding instead of looking at different ways of delivering those services, we will find that services will be put in place and then removed, something no one wants to see.
We must look at this from the service user's point of view, from a person-centred approach and the rights-based approach. That does not necessarily mean a person has a right to a huge level of expenditure but that he or she has a right to a service being put in place. Those are not quite the same, although I accept that funding is always necessary to provide services.
We should not get carried away with negativity in the disability arena. We should be positive about people's abilities and about the fact that a new service is being put in place in January 2011. We should seek to make that work no matter who is in Government in the future. We should build on what is being achieved in January 2011. I commend the motion to the House.
I welcome the chance to contribute to this debate. Everyone has the right to the highest attainable standards of physical and mental health. I take issue with the Minister, however, when he talks about studying mathematics at university and taking money from the economy. Services were not improved when the State was awash with money. I have been involved in politics for 17 years and there are many people whose needs were not met. Some areas were improved and I welcome that there have been modest improvements. More needs to be done, however, in children's mental health services and within the education system.
The Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act was mentioned by Senator O'Toole and I agree with his remarks on it. We must also deal with the justice and care systems. Access to health rights and equality of access to care are very important.
Advocacy is defined as taking action to enable people to express what they want, to secure their rights, represent their interests and obtain services they need. It is an uphill battle for some. The Minister's announcement of the national advocacy service is important but we must remind people of the context and the way services for people with disabilities are developing. The national disability strategy that was launched in 2004 included a commitment to introduce legislation establishing the personal advocacy service. There was controversy about the legislative components of the strategy, especially the limited recourse to the courts in the Disability Act and the introduction of the personal advocacy services. There was a need to examine the Act in depth.
In the current climate the focus is on cuts to front-line disability services rather than the rights of the individual to receive services and have a say on how services are delivered to them and planned for them, which is how those who best know their own needs have an input. For those who cannot speak for themselves, there should be advocacy to deal with those issues for them. The failure to introduce personal advocacy, with the introduction of a system where State-appointed advocates who can support people with disabilities to challenge inappropriate or inadequate service provision or the lack of consultation in decisions made that affect them, should be a matter of concern. We are paying lip service to something we do not really understand. It was a priority in ensuring Ireland's compliance with the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities, which Ireland is yet to ratify, particularly Article 12 on equal recognition before the law and Article 13 on access to justice.
Instead of introducing the personal advocacy service, a pilot project of 46 community and voluntary sector advocacy projects was introduced in 2006. These projects have been hosted throughout the country, with some targeting specific areas and others trying to serve particular populations. The projects were hosted by local groups, Citizens Information Board services and other community bodies, with one staff member in place working on complex cases with the most vulnerable populations. I have met people in that situation and some areas did not have an advocate owing to the lack of a project to host the service. Some groups put together excellent proposals to host the service and were disadvantaged in other areas because their case was so good. Only a few residential services had access to advocacy services and no community visitor programme was introduced as proposed by the Citizens Information Board which had statutory responsibility for advocacy.
The evaluation of the pilot programmes was published in June and recommended statutory independent advocacy being put in place with regional teams of advocates hosting five regional services, hosted by the Citizens Information Board services. This evaluation was independently conducted and met many people who have assessed the advocacy services and they tell the real story of people's situations.
I have permission to outline one case that involved a man living in residential care who had multiple sclerosis, which left him paralysed from the neck down, along with some cognitive difficulties. He was separated and had two children who lived in another European jurisdiction with his former partner. He had not seen his children for two years. He was looked after by a member of this family but when he entered residential care, she could no longer care for him. He was very unhappy in care. The facilitator in the home referred Patrick to the advocate. His issues included access to finance, planning for independent living, access to his children and seeking the medical support required. His family was not in favour of him travelling to see his children, but the advocate worked on his behalf and secured a trip to Europe for him. Organising support and planning for the trip required protracted negotiations with the management of the residential home, but he visited his children and plans to do so again.
A pilot service, the Tipperary advocacy service, provided a personal advocacy service for people with physical and sensory disabilities. As the project involved only one advocate, it was unable to provide a service for every people with a disability, including many in the county with an intellectual disability and mental health difficulties. As such, there is no independent advocacy service for such persons in the county or elsewhere in the State. What assurance can the Minister of State, Deputy Áine Brady, give that the national advocacy service will be able to meet the needs of all vulnerable adults with disabilities in, for example, County Tipperary? No additional posts are being created and there will be no further funding. The service in Munster will be managed by Waterford Citizens Information Services, with eight or nine advocates covering the entire region and the different client groups.
Recently I met a constituent who was wheelchair-bound and listened to what she had to say. She expressed great frustration because she had reached the limits of her ability to get around. She had problems egressing her house. She also told me how previously dished footpaths had not been returned to their original state after being interfered with by the local authority while it was laying new pipes or lines. There was no joined-up thinking where access to taxis was concerned and the bus system did not meet her needs. That shops on the main street did not allow her wheelchair access was ludicrous. When I had a double buggy all those years ago——
Not long ago.
——I found access in some areas limited by the high number of steps. One only notices issues such as this when one uses a buggy or is at that level. I put myself in the mind of someone who was in a wheelchair or pushing a double buggy and had to deal with bushes that had not been cut back and becoming entangled in briars. If there is dirt on the footpath and things are not cleaned——
The Senator has gone over time.
Will workers in the service have the powers of enforcement promised in the Citizens Information Act 2007? The evaluation of projects in the community and voluntary sector highlighted the difficulties experienced by many advocates in representing clients, with service providers and others refusing to recognise the advocates, to allow them to attend meetings or reply to letters on behalf of disabled people. The personal advocacy service was seen as important when the Disability Act was passed in 2005, yet it has not been commissioned. The new service presents a good opportunity to ensure new advocates will be given the powers envisaged for the personal advocacy service at no extra cost to the taxpayer.
I did not get a chance to say all I wanted to say. I await with interest the Minister of State's answers to my questions.
It is my pleasure to welcome the Minister of State. This represents a great move to promote the human rights of people of all ages with a disability, be it intellectual or physical. As the Minister said, people with money are well able to get advocates to represent them. As politicians, we regularly advocate for persons who cannot break through the bureaucracy. The new national advocacy service will empower people with a disability by supporting them in asserting their views and claiming their entitlements and, where necessary, will negotiate on their behalf.
I have personal experience of an injustice done to a good friend, Mr. Martin McBride of Portsalon, County Donegal. It was an invidious and unpleasant experience of the stigma attached to epilepsy. Martin worked in a clerical position in the late 1970s and 1980s in a public sector organisation in County Donegal. He had temporal lobe surgery in Beaumont Hospital in 1991 and his employers were intolerant of his condition. They prevaricated and procrastinated regarding his period of probation. His elderly mother, Mrs. Susan McBride, received letters and belligerent telephone calls, but her sole concern was that her son would live and get well.
Martin's consultant in the hospital's neurology department was world renowned for his expertise and knew the history of his condition better than anyone. However, the consultant's advice was contemptuously ignored and Martin was requested by the public service organisation in County Donegal to attend a doctor in Altnagelvin hospital for an independent medical review. That doctor carried out a perfunctory examination — his blood pressure and temperature were checked, etc. — but performed no brain scans, CAT scans or EEGs. Such scans are considered orthodox in hospital examinations for persons with epilepsy, as they provide guidance on prognosis and medication to be provided.
Martin received a letter from a senior official in the public service organisation. According to it, the doctor in Derry had stated that, following the examination, it was his view that Martin was unlikely to offer a worthwhile service to the organisation ever again. The doctor recommended that Martin be offered early retirement on medical grounds. He considered this callous. Caring and empathetic employers would have offered a career break for a few years, for example.
In Martin's experience, people are not open and frank in talking about epilepsy. Some will not even use the word. As with mental illness, epilepsy is regarded as being inscrutable, enigmatic and a source of shame. There is a stigma attached. The Minister of State, Deputy Moloney, is travelling around the country to try to do away with the stigma attached to mental illness, which is a worthwhile crusade.
People were patronising towards Martin; they glanced in his direction and there were furtive whispers. Stigma can manifest in low self-esteem, no self-confidence, withdrawal, isolation, depression and, in extreme circumstances, suicide. Martin could have offered his former employers a worthwhile service following recuperation had he been allowed to do so. He lives alone in his house. Modern medication, regular check-ups by consultants at Beaumont Hospital's excellent neurology department, research and technology enable a person with epilepsy to lead a normal life, as Martin does, despite being let go from his job. He was top of the poll at the Donegal Local Development Company and serves on many boards of management, on which he gives of his intelligence, opinions and observations. He is fully active, despite his epilepsy, but the conservative, ignorant and unjust approach adopted by his former employer demanded that he retire.
People might find it interesting to note that having epilepsy did not affect the contribution to society of people like Napoleon Bonaparte, Handel, Vincent van Gogh, Elton John, Agatha Christie, Leonardo da Vinci and Richard Burton. Few may know that these personalities had or have epilepsy. However, most are aware of their immense contribution to society. That is as it should be, with no stigma attached to divert attention from their intelligence, dignity and rights.
Martin spoke at a recent meeting in County Donegal. He quoted Dr. Martin Luther King, who said, "Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of injustice to the solid rock of human dignity."
This is a great day for all those who have a disability, are not top shots in society and cannot pay barristers and solicitors to advocate for them. We see those who can day in, day out because they have the money to get themselves out of various situations. Please God, this will be a great day for Ireland and those who suffer injustice and are not able to go to work, which is a fundamental right.
Martin's story shows the ugly conservativeness of those who did not have the guts to make a decision and judge whether he was able to do the job in question.
I seek permission to share my time with another strong advocate of people with disabilities, Senator McFadden.
Does the House agree? Agreed.
I also welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Áine Brady. In a non-patronising way, I congratulate Senator Mary White for her contribution and advocacy in that individual case which had a traumatic quality. There was ignorance in the way in which the person concerned had been dealt with. I commend the Senator.
It is no harm to remember there are 400,000 people with a disability in this country, of whom 24% are unable to cope with day-to-day activity and ordinary living. There is a risk in an economic downturn that the people concerned would become victims. We have to have sound values and core principles and beliefs dictating public policy. A society predicated on proper Christian principles and values should value and cherish people with disabilities who in no way should become victims and dupes for years of incompetence, hubris and greed. They should never be victimised. This important principle needs to be restated.
I welcome the establishment of the national advocacy service and have no problem with it. My party and I, because it is our job to so do, rightly condemn the tardiness of its introduction and the way in which there has been a type of west Clare railway approach to it. However, it has been born eventually and we are happy with this.
I refer to the EPSEN Act. It is a great tragedy, wrong and a mistake that the Act has not been fully implemented. Its practical implementation would bring about an educational plan for students with specific disabilities which would extend over the year, be the subject of review and ensure the availability of language therapy and psychological services and proper assistance for a child. It would give him or her the right to a plan specific to his or her needs and specific supports. It is a great indictment of the Government that it has not implemented the Act. It is an indictment of its value system, of both Fianna Fáil and the Green Party, both of which should stand condemned on the issue. It is necessary to implement the Act and cast in stone the rights of children and schools. The IEPs, individual education plans, currently in place are not the same and do not have the same legislative effect or rights base.
I am interested to hear the Minister of State's comments on and see her further pursuit of the use of quotas in local authorities, health boards and public bodies to provide work for people with disabilities. From my experience of dealing with such issues, what is happening in all of these bodies is that people within them who have accidents and develop disabilities are meeting the quota and kept on. I am not sure the quota system is being implemented properly. I would like to know if there are quotas in place and what is being done about them. We should employ people with disabilities as of right through a quota system in health boards, local authorities and public bodies.
It is a pity the carer strategy has not been implemented. I refer to the carers who attended the Houses today to lobby. They do great work. Whatever about the social and lifestyle benefits they offer, the effect of the economic benefits they offer has never fully dawned on us. The savings in institutional care achieved by carers are enormous and should be applauded.
I shall finish in deference to my colleague who is very experienced in these matters and to the Acting Chairman who wishes to move the debate along.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Áine Brady. I was in my office and became outraged when I heard the proposal. I am angry because my learned colleague on the opposite side has always spoken about rolling out the policy, A Vision for Change. I seethe with rage because the Government is clapping itself on the back about introducing the national advocacy service when it is cutting services left, right and centre. A Vision for Change was about the closure of draconian institutions, but we have not implemented any part of it. Instead there are cuts across the board. I accept we are living in very challenging times, but I do not think the Government should clap itself on the back for piloting the advocacy service. Advocacy is fine and good, but it only applies when services are in place and up and running. Human rights issues are at the kernel of the issue, as people are being discriminated against. They do not have opportunities to avail of basic services such as speech therapy or occupational health services, yet the Government claps itself on the back for rolling out the advocacy service. It is a disgrace and should not be done.
A number of weeks ago 14-year old children were accommodated in the adult psychiatric service of Waterford Regional Hospital. That is an outrage. Advocacy is fine if there are services in place, but we should go one step further, especially in institutions and the services with which Senator Corrigan is all too familiar. There should be human rights based committees staffed by ordinary people who could represent those in need of representation. There might be a solicitor, parents and others on such a human rights committee which would embrace the service. That is the way to proceed. The Government should implement such a policy rather than have tokenism, or what I would call glossy tokenism. It should feel ashamed for clapping itself on the back in this instance.
I am very reluctant to engage with my colleague on the other side of the House on what is essentially a political charge. No Senator on this side spoke about the Government clapping itself on the back. Mr. Tony McQuinn, chief executive of the Citizens Information Board, who is neither a Minister nor speaking on behalf of Fianna Fáil stated:
This is a very good day for people with disabilities in Ireland as a national advocacy service is introduced. I would like to thank the 46 organisations who generously provided the opportunity to run a pilot advocacy service over the past five years. The pilot service demonstrated the importance of advocacy for people with disabilities in having their voices heard and the choices respected.
I suggest Senator McFadden engage with Mr. McQuinn and perhaps make the same political charge, telling him that it is about the optics and a waste of time, and see what he has to say about it.
What about all the cuts which have been made?
The Senator should ask about all of the organisations which have obviously welcomed it.
What about those who are not able to access the services to which they are entitled?
It is all very well to make a charge, but the Senator should back it up and provide substance. It is a political charge and I accept that if I was sitting on her side of the House, I would probably do the same.
I am not making a political charge. I do not do that.
The Senator did.
Senator Mooney should address the Chair, rather than Senator McFadden.
That is why I said I was very reluctant to get involved because I am only wasting my time.
On a point of order, I have been accused of making a political charge. I am making an observation based on experience in representing my constituency. It is not a political charge.
I am not in any way undermining the bona fides of Senator McFadden, but I will say this. I am the parent of a special needs child and believe I have particular experience of dealing with State agencies and others; therefore, I become somewhat sensitive from time to time. I know there are inadequacies in the system and that there are very serious difficulties and deficiencies. I am also aware of all the statistics for successive Governments dating back to the late 1960s and early 1970s. Most recently, this was starkly illustrated by those involved in mental health services when it was shown that the actual percentage of State expenditure had decreased in the last 35 to 40 years. All Governments stand indicted for this. However, this is a particular initiative which I would have thought would be welcomed, at least, as a step forward. As my friend and colleague, Senator Corrigan, said, it is only an initial step.
I was about to raise the issue with the Minister of State of whether State agencies will respond to the setting up of citizens' advice bureaux for people with disabilities. Have they been mandated to put their house in order as regards how one should deal with people with disabilities because I believe there is no obligation on State Departments to respond to the needs of such persons on an individual basis? I hope the advocate who will be put in place as a result of this initiative will be able to challenge Government agencies dealing with the mentally and physically disabled.
I want to quote from a paper issued by Ms Anne McGuire, MP, Minister for Disabled People in the United Kingdom, which was sent to Government Departments in which she makes the point:
If our customers are not aware of the service, the criteria needed to qualify for it, and how it can benefit them, we will fail the very people we seek to benefit. We cannot provide responsive services unless people have a bigger say in what they receive and the places where they live...
No public body serious about its role in delivering services to people can hope to meet their wider strategic objectives without first thinking explicitly about the impact upon disabled people.
The Disability Equality Duty (DED) ... requires all public bodies to look at the impact on disabled people of everything they do. Such an approach will benefit the service provider as well as the customer.
She makes a further point which, in the context of what we are debating, I address too at Government Departments:
You should seek to gain an understanding of how disabled people need and use services. Like all people, different groups of disabled people may require different information to others. A person with a severe learning disability may require a very different approach to someone who is visually impaired. A disabled person who does not speak English as their first language may have particular needs.
In our increasingly multicultural society that last sentence adds another dimension. People with a disability often need support in standing up for themselves, putting forward their views and gaining control over their lives. The empowerment advocacy can bring to the lives of disadvantaged and vulnerable persons is considerable. In particular, advocacy services can support people with disabilities in gaining access to quality social services and ensuring fair and dignified treatment by service providers. Advocacy should not be confused with the giving of information, the offering of advice or social work. While the purpose of social work is to resolve issues and find solutions, advocates strive to make a case for someone or support him or her in making a case.
People with learning disabilities, disabled persons and those with mental health problems are among the least powerful in our society. Senator McFadden and I demonstrate empathy in that regard. Advocacy can provide those concerned with the support necessary to make their own decisions and choices. It can enable them to have more control over their lives. Even the provision of information and education on the options available and their advantages and disadvantages is enormously empowering for the disabled in the sense that it might give them the self-confidence to act on their own. The empowerment advocacy brings supports the other three principles — autonomy, inclusion and citizenship. Autonomy, however, should not be confused with independence. Where people with learning disabilities have to depend on others for some level of support in their everyday living, it is still possible for them to determine their own lives by being autonomous. Advocacy supports a person's right to voice his or her views, opinions and preferences in forums in which others are making decisions which impact directly on his or her life. It plays a key role in enabling people to make informed choices about and remain in control of their own lives.
The most vulnerable in society are often isolated from social groupings and communities because of inequalities in access and opportunities. These can occur at many levels, from the physical, where access to transport and other public facilities may not be user-friendly, to the emotional, where people with learning disabilities are not treated as independent thinking individuals in their own right. Having an advocate to communicate with and work alongside can help to increase all levels of access, thus offering greater opportunities within the community to everyone.
Although it is slightly tangential to what we are discussing, I would like to commend an autism service being provided by HSE West, impacting on people in the Sligo-Leitrim and west Cavan areas. I commend, in particular, Ms Mary Durcan, the autism service manager, and Ms Regina Bohan, the autism therapist. In the mission statement it is stated they set out to deliver an exemplary service to individuals with autism spectrum disorder, their families and those who work with and support them. They say they do this by fostering a spirt of mutual respect and support, with a commitment to enable individuals with autism to live life in a way that maximises their independence and happiness. They are involved with individuals "in a multidisciplinary meeting" and say they "act as a referral agent, contribute to the assessment review process, liaise with multidisciplinary teams in relation to the needs of the child and convene regular multidisciplinary team reviews". They provide support and advice and engage in consultation in the support of young adults in their new adult placements. This is one of the good things going on within the HSE. I commend, in particular, the people I have mentioned and understand this is a unique pilot project. I passed on the details to the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, in recent weeks following a PowerPoint presentation by Ms Bohan and Ms Durcan at a meeting I attended in Country Leitrim.
I have no wish to denigrate or reduce the emotional impact of what Senator McFadden said. We are all very emotional about the issue of people with disabilities, both physical and mental, and I believe this debate will, at least, go some way towards contributing to an improvement in the services being inadequately provided. I agree with the Senator in that regard. However, there is a good heart on this as on the other side of the House in trying to improve the lot of those who are physically and mentally disabled. I, therefore, welcome the new initiative.
I call on Senator Corrigan to conclude the debate.
I thank all the Senators who contributed to what has been a very informed debate in the last couple of hours. Senator McFadden and I are frequently in agreement and share many of the same thoughts, beliefs, hopes and aspirations. I can understand where she is coming from in the points she has made, but I regret that she did not, perhaps, have an opportunity to hear the earlier part of the debate when we made it very clear that while we welcomed the announcement today as a great step forward for people with disabilities, this could only be the starting point. If we do not get the mental capacity and guardianship Bill before us in sufficient time to be able to consider and amend it and if we do not take steps to support particularly vulnerable adults within the criminal justice system in engaging with the Garda Síochána and the courts, this advocacy service will never reach its full potential. I understand the point the Senator is making but, far from clapping ourselves on the back, we have acknowledged it in the announcement of the service and its commencement in January 2011. Members have made the point that it has been slow to commence and that we will lose out because of the pilot projects, but that is not the case, as the pilot projects will finish at the end of December and the service will start at the beginning of January. The fact that there will be no hiatus between the two is to be welcomed. The announcement of the service today is a step forward. By itself, it will not be sufficient for what all Senators want to achieve, but it is an important step and must not be underestimated. I hope it will bring us further down the road. The fact that the service is to begin in January 2011, despite the economic circumstances in which we find ourselves, sends a powerful message to people with disabilities: that we will try, as far as possible, to ensure they are somewhat protected from the impact of the economic climate.
The Minister spoke about the fact that he personally had an interest in supporting access to employment for those with disabilities. We can see the impact of the economic circumstances on people with disabilities. Everyone in our society needs the economy to recover, particularly those with disabilities. It is not only that the development of their services depends on our being able to establish an economy that will generate funding; in addition, when the economy is doing well, there are more employment opportunities. People with disabilities are the first to be hit in an economic downturn. The great thing about the boom years was that we had such a shortage of labour that people with disabilities were supported in training and taking up positions and had access to employment opportunities.
In moving forward with the advocacy service, which I welcome — I urge all colleagues in the House to support the motion — we do face challenges. The service will face challenges in the context of the relationships and situations in which people with disabilities find themselves and in which the service will become involved. These could be anything from issues regarding bank accounts, access to welfare entitlements and the spending of money based on the needs of the person with a disability to his or her happiness with a placement, whether it is a day service, a supported employment placement, a training opportunity or a residential placement. These are the challenges we will all have to face as the result of the establishment of the service, the only intent of which is to meet the needs of the person concerned. That will be its only motivation. It will be a challenge for all of us in society to accept that an advocate's only agenda is to tell us whether a person with a disability is happy with his or her situation and ask us what we will do about it. That will certainly put it up to us.
The second challenge we will face is in the legislation. I mentioned earlier that establishing services for people with disabilities and ensuring we put in place mechanisms and supports to enable people with disabilities to take their full place in society as equal citizens were not just matters of money. The required legislation, including the Mental Capacity Bill, must be brought before us in sufficient time for us to consider it because it has enormous implications for all aspects of life. We must also establish supports for vulnerable adults within the criminal justice system. If we do not do this, those advocating on behalf of people with disabilities will be limited in how they can deal with situations.
I thank my colleagues, the Minister of State, Deputy Áine Brady, and the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Ó Cuív, for their presence. I believe we are further down the road, but we are not there yet and still have a long way to go. However, the establishment of the national advocacy service is an important step forward. I, therefore, ask all Members to support the motion.
- Bacik, Ivana.
- Buttimer, Jerry.
- Coghlan, Paul.
- Cummins, Maurice.
- Donohoe, Paschal.
- Fitzgerald, Frances.
- Hannigan, Dominic.
- Healy Eames, Fidelma.
- McCarthy, Michael.
- McFadden, Nicky.
- Norris, David.
- O’Reilly, Joe.
- O’Toole, Joe.
- Phelan, John Paul.
- Prendergast, Phil.
- Regan, Eugene.
- Ross, Shane.
- Twomey, Liam.
- White, Alex.
- Boyle, Dan.
- Brady, Martin.
- Butler, Larry.
- Carroll, James.
- Carty, John.
- Cassidy, Donie.
- Corrigan, Maria.
- Daly, Mark.
- Dearey, Mark.
- Ellis, John.
- Feeney, Geraldine.
- Glynn, Camillus.
- Hanafin, John.
- Keaveney, Cecilia.
- Leyden, Terry.
- MacSharry, Marc.
- McDonald, Lisa.
- Mooney, Paschal.
- Ó Brolcháin, Niall.
- Ó Domhnaill, Brian.
- Ó Murchú, Labhrás.
- O’Brien, Francis.
- O’Donovan, Denis.
- O’Malley, Fiona.
- O’Sullivan, Ned.
- Ormonde, Ann.
- Walsh, Jim.
- White, Mary M.
- Wilson, Diarmuid.
When is it proposed to sit again?
Tomorrow at 10.30 a.m.