We will now move on to statements on the national disability inclusion strategy. I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Justice and Equality, Deputy Finian McGrath, to the House. Group spokespersons have eight minutes while all other Senators have five minutes. I must apologise again to the Minister of State for the elongated Order of Business.
National Disability Inclusion Strategy 2017-2021: Statements
I thank the Cathaoirleach and Members for the opportunity to address the Seanad in its new premises. I wish all Senators the very best for this term. I welcome the debate this evening about the work that is under way on the implementation of the new National Disability Inclusion Strategy 2017-2021 which I published on 14 July and the range of related initiatives, including in the employment sphere, that are under way at present. Through eight key themes, consisting of some 114 actions, the strategy seeks to significantly improve the lives of people with disabilities in a practical sense and also to create the best possible opportunities for people with disabilities to fulfil their potential. We have not wasted any time in starting the implementation of the strategy. I chaired the first meeting of the strategy’s steering group, comprising Departments and stakeholders, on 24 July and we meet again this Friday, 29 September. The work has begun. The steering group will publish an annual report on progress for each year of the strategy and we will have a mid-term review, which will involve public consultations, in 2018.
The Department of Justice and Equality is also leading on the implementation of the Comprehensive Employment Strategy for People with Disabilities 2015-2024. This seeks to address the under-representation of people with disabilities in the labour force. This is an issue I feel very strongly about and we must act on it. The purpose of the strategy is to ensure that there is a concerted, cross-Government effort to address the barriers and challenges that impact on employment of people with disabilities. As part of this effort, we will increase the public sector employment target of persons with disabilities from 3% to 6% and will embed this target into all public service workforce planning and recruitment. This work has already begun and some Departments are moving more quickly than others. Implementation of the strategy is under way and is co-ordinated by the Department of Justice and Equality. An implementation group consisting of relevant Government Departments and stakeholders meets regularly and is engaging in discussions with large public sector employers such as the Public Appointments Service, PAS, and the Health Service Executive, HSE, to progress the commitments outlined in the strategy.
I want to mention the task force on personalised budgets established in 2016 to make recommendations on a personalised budgets model. The aim of these personalised budgets will be to give people with disabilities more control in accessing Department of Health-funded personal social services, along with greater independence and choice in accessing services which best meet their individual needs. I understand that the task force is on schedule to submit its report to me before the end of the year. I met Mr. Lynch a number of times over the summer and I know that this work is progressing very well.
The key issue regarding the disability inclusion strategy is setting worthwhile targets and ensuring that Departments and agencies work together to deliver on them. This is not just about money, or extra money, but of course money is important too. The Government, through the HSE, is committed to protecting front-line services for people with disabilities, with targeted improvement in identified priority areas. As part of budget 2017, a further €92 million was allocated towards priority areas. The priority areas for these additional resources include: the allocation of an additional €10 million in 2017 for the provision of services for 1,500 young people leaving school and rehabilitative training this year; the development of alternative respite models, with €1 million targeted funding; the reconfiguration of residential services, supported by €20 million in capital funding and to be further supported by the service reform fund; quality improvements to increase compliance with national standards for residential centres for children and adults with disabilities; and over 1,950 inspections of residential centres for people with disabilities conducted by the Health Information Quality Authority, HIQA, since regulation began in November 2013. I have visited many of these residential centres myself.
As of 1 June, approximately 10,000 children in receipt of the domiciliary care allowance, who did not previously qualify were awarded medical cards. These children are now entitled to the following services free of charge: inpatient and outpatient hospital care; GP care; prescribed drugs and medicines, subject to a co-payment; dental, ophthalmic and aural services; and medical aids and appliances.
The Make Work Pay for People with Disabilities report was published in April 2017 and examines the complex interaction between the benefit system, including the medical card and the net income gains in employment. The excellent report makes 24 recommendations with defined timelines for implementation. At the launch of the report it was announced that a number of changes would be implemented immediately. First, people in receipt of a long-term disability payment who move off the payment to get a job will retain their free travel pass for a period of five years. This measure goes beyond the recommendation of three years contained within the report. This has been achieved. The report also recommended a fast-track return to disability allowance or invalidity pension for people where employment does not work out and this is in progress. This is an attempt to address a complaint that is made to the Department regularly. Another recommendation was that we would dispense with the requirement that work be of a "rehabilitative nature" for the disability allowance earnings disregard. This means that a report from a doctor is no longer required before commencing work and that the focus is on capacity rather than incapacity. Legislation to give effect to this change is included in the forthcoming Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2017.
The Department will review its communications with specific focus on the needs of people with disability. This, too, is making progress. There will be regular reviews of policies to ensure their effectiveness. Recommendations 9 and 10 of the Make Work Pay report seek to promote early intervention by introducing a new process to ensure that individuals who wish to work can engage with appropriate support systems at the earliest possible times.
At the launch of the Make Work Pay report, the current Taoiseach specifically acknowledged that any changes - this is important - to the disability allowance or the domiciliary care allowance could only be done with the support of the disability sector. He also signalled, and I support, the need for a consultation around these specific proposals.
To this end, the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection has embarked on a wide-ranging consultation process with people with disabilities, their families and their representative stakeholder groups. To ensure that this process is as inclusive as possible a cross-section of the disability sector has been invited to a Make Work Pay stakeholders focus group. This group has begun the process of agreeing the format and content of the wider consultation process. This wider process will then take place over the period October to January and it is anticipated that the consultation process will conclude by the end of the first quarter in 2018. I emphasise that people with disabilities will be at the heart of this process.
I know that Senators will be interested in the progress on the ratification of the UN convention. Ireland signed the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2007 and, since then, successive Governments have emphasised Ireland’s strong commitment to proceed to ratification as quickly as possible, taking into account the need to ensure all necessary legislative and administrative requirements under the convention are met. I assure the House that ratification of the convention remains a high priority for me as Minister as well as the Government. Considerable progress has been made to overcome the remaining legislative barriers to Ireland’s ratification of the convention. The Assisted Decision-making (Capacity) Act 2015 was signed into law on 30 December 2015 and is a comprehensive reform of the law on decision-making capacity. The Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2017 has reformed section 5 of the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 1993 to facilitate the full participation in family life of persons with intellectual disabilities and the full expression of their human rights. The Disability (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2016 was published immediately prior to Christmas and completed Second Stage in February 2017. The primary purpose of the Bill is to address the remaining legislative barriers to Ireland’s ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Work is ongoing on all the other issues set out in the previous Government’s roadmap for ratification published in October 2015, and these will be progressed as Committee Stage amendments. The Bill will be progressed to enactment at an early date to facilitate ratification of the UN convention as soon as possible. We have sought the Attorney General’s advice on how this process can be accelerated, but I should make the point that the precise timing of ratification now depends on how long it will take for this Bill to progress through the enactment process and on issues relating to the commencement of deprivation of liberty provisions, which will be included in the Bill on Committee Stage, and of the Assisted-decision Making (Capacity) Act 2015.
The major issue at this stage, which I would like to explain so as to reassure people, concerns the deprivation of liberty in the case of, for example, persons in nursing homes whose capacity to consent may be in doubt. This is a sensitive and important issue and we must get it right. Unfortunately, it is taking longer than expected, which I have found frustrating, to develop a proposal that is constitutionally sound and operationally effective and reasonable. The Department of Justice and Equality continues to engage with the Department of Health to assist with that work, but there is still some work to be done on the issue. While Ireland’s not having ratified the convention is a recurring point of criticism by the UN as well as domestic civil society, non-governmental organisations, Senators and Deputies, it is important to note that, in terms of quality of service and the actual position of people with disabilities in society, Ireland is in many respects in advance of other EU states. This is not to be complacent and we continue to take practical measures to improve the lives of people with disabilities.
The report of the Make Work Pay group was published earlier this year and already action, as announced at its launch by the then Minister for Social Protection and now Taoiseach, Deputy Leo Varadkar, the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris and myself, has been taken on its recommendations. As I mentioned, we have a comprehensive employment strategy in place and we have published the national disability inclusion strategy, which contains a wide range of practical commitments to improve the position of people with disabilities. This is an ongoing and inclusive process. At the heart of the decisions are three key stakeholders: the person with the disability, families and carers. We want to ensure that we reform and invest in disabilities services but, above all, to ensure that we respect the rights of the person with a disability and is at the centre of all the services.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I am glad to see on Twitter today that #MakeWayDay has been trending. Stickers have been placed on objects which have obstructed access for people with disabilities. As a society, we all have to be more mindful of this.
Fianna Fáil welcomes the publication of the new strategy but, at the end of the day, it is the Government’s ability to deliver it and improve significantly the lives of people with disabilities that will be the only metric that matters. Progress must be made as quickly as possible with regards to implementation. Many disability groups are rightly sceptical about delivery and a convincing effort is required on the part of the Minister of State and the Government. This scepticism is understandable when we consider that we are still awaiting the ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Similarly we have long waiting lists for many essential therapies, especially for children. Nor are people with disabilities having their right to an assessment of need vindicated within the statutory timeframe. These are all challenges that must be addressed if we are to significantly improve the lives of people with disabilities in a practical sense.
During the week an article popped up on my Twitter account. It was written by Tom Clonan and titled: “Leo knows we get up early in the morning to bathe, toilet & spoonfeed our loved ones”. Tom takes care of his son Eoghan who suffers from a rare neuromuscular disease. I, along with more than 40,000 others, read this most harrowing article. In it he talks about the deep fear he has for the future and, when he allows himself, he asks the most frightening questions: Who will do his physio and stretches when I die? Who will hold him and lift him? Who will dress him in his favourite Leinster rugby top and Abercrombie & Fitch tracksuit bottoms? Who will look after his most intimate care needs? What kind of hands will be placed upon him? This is heartbreaking stuff. In his words, it is "[t]oo frightening to contemplate" the answers to these questions. His son Eoghan is one of approximately 600,000 Irish citizens living with a disability. These are an invisible community which has been living for the most part in silent suffering as its members cope with the day-to-day struggles and poverty that generally accompanies disability in Ireland.
This new strategy cannot let Eoghan and people like him down. It aims to significantly improve the lives of people with disabilities in a practical sense and also to create the best possible opportunities for people with disabilities to fulfil their potential. Eight themes were identified as central to the success of the strategy: equality and choice; joined-up policies and public services; education; employment; health and well-being; person-centred disability services; living in the community; and transport and accessible places. In this sense we will all have an opportunity to follow the progression and we will be watching carefully. This cannot be an "all talk and no action" strategy. The Government says it is intended as a living document, and further actions will be added where necessary.
Key commitments include a review of transport supports to determine the cross-departmental transportation options that will best help people with a range of disabilities to get to and from their workplace and the implementation of the most viable proposals. Also included are the development of proposals to address the issue of access to, or the affordability of, necessary aids, appliances and assistive technologies required for everyday living for those with disabilities whose entry, retention or return to work could be jeopardised by their being unable to afford them; the development of proposals for attaching conditions regarding the wheelchair accessibility of passenger licensed services and notification times of travel with transport service providers for people with mobility difficulties who require assistance; full implementation of the access and inclusion model of supports for children with disabilities to allow every child to participate meaningfully in the early childhood care and education scheme; and full implementation of the Transforming Lives programme. Other key commitments are the examination of the recommendations of the Make Work Pay working group with a view to introducing meaningful reforms that will make it financially worthwhile for a person with a disability to take up employment; implementation of the comprehensive employment strategy for persons with disabilities; the examination of the recommendations made in the report of the personalised budgets task force with a view to introducing the option of availing of a personal budget as one approach to individualised funding; and the development of codes of practice to support implementation of the Assisted Decision-Making (Capacity) Act 2015.
Ireland has yet to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, UNCRPD, and it is critical that we do so soon. The Government did publish a Bill at the end of 2016 to give effect to it, but Fianna Fáil was disappointed that the Bill had been published incomplete, with many significant sections to be provided through Dáil Committee Stage amendments. Eight months after the Bill went through on Second Stage in the Dáil, the amendments still remain to be published. The Bill, as published, contains six substantive sections and, judging by what is being proposed for discussion on Committee Stage, at least another six sections are in the offing. lt appears that, in order to meet the programme for Government commitment on ratification, it was imperative to publish a Bill come what may. That is disappointing. However, to publish what is essentially half a Bill is hardly the best way to honour ratification of the most important UN convention. The failure to ratify the UNCRPD is a black mark on the country's name. The failure to ratify it is clear evidence that people with disabilities continue not to be seen as a priority.
I welcome the Minister of State. I do not doubt for one moment his commitment, but the reality, on which I want to be clear, is that there were great expectations for him on entering the Department. He had had an enormously long track record in the disability sector, but there was great disappointment. He says he is frustrated. I spent the past two weeks visiting a number of people who have been really wonderful advocates for the disabled. My final conversations culminated in a meeting with a councillor, Councillor Miriam Murphy, in Arklow last Thursday with a colleague of hers, an advocate in the disability sector in Arklow. We laughed, cried and shared so many stories. They, among many others, touched on a range of issues, including housing, planning, access to services, the provision of social supports and the lack of access officers in some of the 31 local authorities, and generally felt things were not moving. I share their view which I can pick up from the Minister of State who said he was frustrated. He is the Minister of State and frustrated, but the people to whom I am referring are absolutely frustrated.
It is a great shame that we have not ratified the UNCRPD. I believe this is the only country that has not done so and the Minister of State did not state once that it would be ratified. He said he was endeavouring to achieve it and that there were targets, but we have no deadlines or timeframes. Earlier today I spoke to a number of my colleagues about the lack of legislation coming from the Lower House to the Seanad. There will be huge gaps in the legislative process in this House between now and Christmas. Therefore, we have time in both Houses to have meaningful dialogue and legislation. When one speaks to people with disabilities and learns that they do not feel empowered and believe they have no control over their lives, one has to wonder what the Government is doing.
I commend an article which appeared in The Irish Times yesterday. It referred to two people with disabilities who had spoken at a conference about the right to life, the right to respect for them, the right to be consulted on their sexuality, sexual practices and sexual orientation, their right to remain in congregated settings, if they so wished, despite Government policy stating they must all be got out of such settings. It is about choices and rights, not about what someone sets out in a strategy entitled the national disability inclusion strategy. I welcome the strategy and want to be positive as it is good, but I am making the point that there are unique aspects to choice and people believe they do not have a say and power.
Let me draw the attention of the House to some details. Some 1,200 young people, clearly under the age of 65 years, are permanently living in nursing homes because community supports are not provided. That is an indictment of the system. There are people who are waiting for access to social housing who cannot get it. There are local authorities stating they do not have adequately designed social housing to meet the needs of people with disabilities. Legislation needs to address the planning process for designed for purpose fit-outs for people with disabilities. There are those who cannot find meaningful employment without being penalised. There are those who do not have full-time personal assistants but who absolutely need them. That is really important.
I should have said at the outset that for many years I was a director of Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind. There was a pilot scheme for people who were blind, children who had no eyes in their sockets and were given two hours of home schooling per week. That is the reality. I appeal to the Minister of State to examine specifically the pilot scheme in Munster operated by Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind on behalf of the health service to determine how we can beef it up to fulfil our obligations to children to enable them to realise their full potential. They need that support and assistance.
When a Minister says to me on a corridor that there is no problem and asks to be sent a name and address and that he or she will sort it out - I am not referring to the Minister of State - I am not really interested in any of that. I am interested in setting the foundations of a policy that will stand the test of time way beyond the term of office of the incumbent Ministers and Senators. I am referring to real policy. I do not want to be negative but to acknowledge absolutely the work taking place, but it is not happening fast enough. I am echoing the words of the Minister of State, not mine, this very day in this very Chamber. He told us he was frustrated by the lack of progress in ratification. They are his words and he can play them back and listen to them later. I share that frustration and can understand why the Minister of State expressed that view.
Issues arise about the reinstatement of the mobility and transport benefits. I have talked about personal assistants. We need to prioritise access to social and affordable housing. The living alone allowance needs to be addressed to offset costs associated with meeting disability needs. There needs to be a sizeable ramping up of resources for education and training. The number of people with disabilities living in poverty and isolation who do not have access to supports to have a meaningful and full life in their community is noteworthy. They do not have the opportunity to be fully authentic, to be empowered to be themselves and to play their role in their community rather than in some institution. They should be able to commute, live and work and enjoy and gain access to all services in their community, including sports, the arts, public services and facilities. That is what is meant by real inclusion.
The Government has a strategy, which is important, and the work to meet many of the objectives is ongoing, but the timeframe for delivery is not tight enough. I am quoting the Minister of State and note that he is throwing his head up a bit. However, the reference is to "ongoing". I have the timeframes in front of me. If the Minister of State can contradict me and tell me something else, so be it, but I am just telling him what has been clearly documented. I do not wish to say anything simply because it is coming into my head but because I took the time to meet and engage with advocates in the disability sector, those who are suffering with disabilities and those who are frustrated at the lack of progress and want change and action.
It is time the Government made this issue a priority. What people want is the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities to be implemented and a timeframe for its implementation. They do not want more excuses. If there are financial and legal implications in adopting it, as there must be and which I can understand, the Minister of State should tell us because I believe that is the real story. What are the legal, financial and political implications in ratifying the convention? If that is what is delaying its implementation, we need to hear it. I thank the Minister of State for his great work on the issue. I do not want to be patronising in saying he is committed to dealing with it, but I want to acknowledge the fact.
I welcome an tAire Stáit. We are in a new Chamber and I hope we will be here for 12 to 18 months while work is continuing in the other Chamber.
I would like to inform the House of my perspective of this issue as someone who suffers from a serious vision impairment. Senator Victor Boyhan spoke about people who had no eyes in their sockets. As my eyes are 84% faulty, I have 16% vision. When I speak about disability issues, particularly vision impairment, I like to think I know what I am talking about.
I commend all those involved in the new Chamber project. It is certainly much more user-friendly for me than the other Chamber. It is much brighter, airier and convenient. There is much more natural light compared with the other Chamber, although I can manage well in it. I encourage the Houses of the Oireachtas in the renovation of the other Chamber to ensure it will be much more user-friendly for people with a vision impairment, including those who will come after me. I question how user-friendly this Chamber is for members of the deaf community because there is a significant echo. Thankfully, in this Seanad, to my knowledge, there is no Member with a hearing impairment. However, in the overall context, that is an indictment of the system because a person with a serious hearing impairment has never been elected to either Houses of the Oireachtas, but I hope it will happen in due course.
I salute the work the Minister of State has done in the recognition of Irish Sign Language. I also salute him for his work in dealing with a structure that is traditional and archaic in promoting the rights and lifelong ambitions of people with disabilities, but the fact that the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities has not been ratified is a little black mark against his name. I have no doubt, however, that it is probably something beyond his control. Knowing him as I do, I believe that if he could have had it ratified, it would have been done a long time ago. Having him in office is our best chance of seeing the convention ratified. Its ratification is a priority of those at the top in government. On the day Deputy Leo Varadkar became leader of Fine Gael and Taoiseach-elect he said in his first speech in the Mansion House, an event I attended, that one of his priorities was ratification of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Obviously, there are significant institutional and legislative challenges that have to be dealt with to get the convention over the line to ratify it.
The last thing I want to see happen is the convention being ratified without provision of the proper backup supports and resources to ensure it will be meaningful and make a genuine difference to the lives of people with disabilities. We have had too many talking shops. The last thing I want to see happen in nurturing and developing the hopes, dreams, aspirations and ambitions of people with disabilities nurtured is ratifying the convention without the proper backup supports to make it a reality in their everyday lives. We all have to be patient and have faith that a genuine Minister of State will ratify the convention when the time is right and the proper protocols, procedures and resources are in place. People in the media and disability circles will talk and criticise. I am not saying any of my colleagues will, but there is no point in adopting a convention unless we have proper backup supports in place.
We are in a new Chamber that facilitates reflection. I can reflect on the opportunities I have been by the State. I attended integrated education classes in the west where there were no resource teachers or special needs assistants, but there were good-hearted individuals working in the education system who helped me. They could see that I was bright and had the ability to progress and went the extra mile to put resources behind me. That meant I did not have to attend special education classes or a school for the blind in Dublin away from my family at the age of four or five years. There are a great number of good people who do great work that is not recognised. There are no conventions, resources or facilities in place, yet they do what is right. That is why I am in this Chamber. It is a credit to them that I am a Member of the Oireachtas. As a member of a Government party and a Senator who proudly represents a party in government, I can tell Members that the Government has done more than any other to promote equality of access to education and opportunity. It has been difficult for the past five years and very difficult choices had to be made, but a great number of the difficulties have been reversed. We have new plans and strategies in place and, for the first time in the history of the country, there is a Minister of State sitting at Cabinet who has specific and total interdepartmental responsibility to deal with disability issues. I am quite happy to debate issues with anybody, but I also want fair play. I want people to recognise what the Government has done for people with disabilities. It is a work in progress. Rome was not built in a day; nothing ever is. It is a programme which involves incremental achievements. I have no doubt that if the Government lasts its full term, the lives of people with disabilities will be far better than they were when it came into being in 2016.
The Minister of State is trying to do something positive in bringing this strategy before the House. However, given the evidence of previous strategies, I remain to be convinced and I am unconvinced by it. The national disability inclusion strategy is, at best, a naive and half-hearted attempt to address the most serious issues facing people with disabilities. It shows little ambition to tackle the extent of the core issues in a professional and cohesive whole-of-government way. Senator Martin Conway spoke about need for time to facilitate the introduction of the legislative measures required to permit ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. I respect him, his experience and story, but ten years is a long time to wait. To add insult to injury, the Disability (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill which is needed to ratify the UN convention is awaiting Committee Stage in the Dáil, yet the strategy indicates the timeframe as being 2017, of which three months remain. The Government is notorious for kicking legislation to touch. Therefore, I have zero confidence that the Bill will pass all Stages in the Dáil or the Seanad this year. The Minister of State confirmed this when he mentioned 2018 and my heart sank. Policies should be coupled with strong legislation. I am disappointed, therefore, that there is no new legislation on services for people with disabilities in the Government's autumn legislative programme.
The health (transport support) Bill is there but it has been on the legislative programme before and did not get anywhere. What is to say that it will not have the same fate this time? I fear this indicates that this strategy is another empty Government promise. One of the biggest omissions from the strategy is the lack of any real outline for reducing and ultimately eliminating poverty among disabled people. This is a huge issue and I do not understand how it could be left out of a strategy.
The CSO survey on income and living conditions published in February 2017 showed that 53% of people who are not in work due to a disability or illness experience enforced deprivation. The same survey showed that while there has been some improvement in overall general poverty rates in Ireland, it is worsening among those living with a disability. It is estimated that living with a disability in Ireland can bring extra costs of €276 weekly. The €5 increase in the disability allowance in the last budget was an insult to all those who cannot afford the basics and need to provide for extra costs on top of that. They have minimal opportunities for social inclusion.
I welcome the mention of social housing but sadly, there are no real action plans or timelines. Some 4,500 households that qualified for social housing in 2016, are linked to enduring physical, sensory, mental health or physical disability. That is an increase of 13.7% on 2013 figures. These figures show that the last strategy failed completely and gives no weight or confidence to this renewed plan.
I am Sinn Féin's Seanad spokesperson on health and well-being and I am especially concerned about the weakness of section 8 which addresses transport needs. Access to transport can mean the difference between inclusion and exclusion for people with disabilities. Almost 50% of people living with a physical disability experience difficulty in just going outside the home. I acknowledge that this strategy commits to the improvement of both urban and rural transport and this is welcome, however it is cause for concern that no specific details are provided for many plans regarding how these goals will be achieved. It cannot be the case that the aims set out in this document fall to the same fate as the goals of the previous disability strategy. I urge the Minister of State to take seriously the issue of transport for those with a disability. I know too well the effects that social isolation has on individuals and communities and it would make a real difference if they were addressed by real positive changes in transport.
I congratulate the Disability Federation for its Make Way day which highlights obstacles and physical barriers to them participating in life that we take for granted. Our job in this House is to analyse and scrutinise legislation and to make statements, sometimes ad nauseam, on issues and with that comes the need to acknowledge positives, so it is great to see commitments on joined up working and collaboration, the promised review of make work pay proposals, the commitment to changing the model from one of care and dependency to one of support and independency, and a commitment to Irish Sign Language. The plan also makes commitments to further implementing existing employment strategies. Currently, 31% of working age people with a disability are at work compared with 71% of those without. We should be careful to ensure this must be fulfilling employment.
Inclusion Ireland has said that the plan is short on vision and does not go far enough to address the inequalities. The national disability inclusion strategy has been a long time in development and the final product covers a large number of actions aimed at promoting inclusion, however most of these are vague. Specific timeframes are needed to avoid the implementation failures of the last disability strategy.
The Minister of State referred to the Assisted Decision-Making (Capacity) Act 2015 and noted it was an major issue. We still await it. I was with an 18 year old young man who is disabled and in a wheelchair. He was in hospital after a shocking diagnosis. After many months, with beds needed in acute hospitals, the only thing that he was offered was a place in a nursing home. He has gone there now and it seems he will be there for the rest of his life. It has torn his family apart. There is nowhere else for them to go. He is only one of 1,200 younger people in nursing homes facing a very bleak future. That is a deprivation of liberty, lack of consent and it is a matter shame for us that we let it happen for the sake of funding home extensions or adaptations or practical community supports.
This is a very important period as the budget is coming up. There will be grappling for everything among everybody. The budget will be a litmus test of the Government's commitment to people with disabilities and I believe a large part of the available spending should go to seriously address the national issue of our disrespectful disgrace. I hope this strategy is the one that will deliver genuine positive change to the lives of those living with a disability but as it stands I will wait to congratulate the Minister of State.
I welcome the Minister of State.
I thank the Leader for ensuring that this new strategy was on the clár on the first week the Seanad was back after recess. Regardless of our views on the strategy, that is a very important thing and I welcome it. I also welcome the initiatives, moves and improvements that have been made over the last year or so by the Minister of State.
He and the Government have mistakenly put their faith in this strategy. It is the road to further doom, gloom and loss of any hope for people with disabilities, more than 640,000 of them. There are serious and fatal fault lines in the design and make-up of the strategy. These can be addressed but I will first set them out.
First, page 1 of the strategy states that the enactment of new or amended legislation is required prior to the ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, UNCRPD. I am not confident that the Minister of State understands what ratification is about. It is simply about a Government having a programme of progressive realisation, progressive improvement for the UNCRPD. If we are fully compliant, we do not need the UN convention. If we have nothing to do towards it, we are there. We need to just get on with it and start doing the work.
Second, pages 2 and 3 of the strategy set out 13 initiatives that the Minister of State says will, in their cumulative effect, be life changing for very many people. Of these, six, almost half, are processes such as examining the recommendations of the make work pay working group with a view to their introduction, reviewing transport supports. We find the development of proposals are there twice and the development of a code of practice for support. These are planning and preparation tasks, they are not delivering for people. Showing people the menu when one has no food to give them is frankly misleading.
Third, post-ratification is mentioned twice on page 11 without any commitment to a date for ratification of the UN convention even in the 2021 deadline. Is this a misprint or an attempt to mislead? Did the Minister of State hear the following statement: "As a Government, we are renewing our commitment to ratifying the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities this year and to improving services available to people with disabilities”? That was said by our newly elected Taoiseach in the Dáil just after he said that the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath remains Minister with responsibility for disabilities across several Departments. Does the Minister of State not trust what the Taoiseach said in the Dáil? That was on 14 June. This strategy was published on 14 July and there is not a hint of that commitment in the strategy, high up or low down.
Fourth, there is an issue of trust and confidence between the Minister of State and some of those staff who advise him.
In an interview with Áine Lawlor, the Minister of State said on RTE Radio One earlier this year that he was misled regarding the date for ratification. He said that when he came into Government, he was clearly misled regarding doing it in a shorter timeframe. Áine Lawlor then asked him who he had been misled by. He replied that people within the system told him that it would be done by Christmas. That was the Minister of State's reply. As of now, the Minister of State has refused to put the Taoiseach's commitment into this and furthermore, he has officials advising him whom he has stated publically he does not trust. I am now asking the Minister of State about what he has done regarding these officials who are known to him. Has he raised this matter with the Secretary General, the former Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, or the current Minister, Deputy Flanagan? Why does this strategy not contain the commitment given to the Dáil by An Taoiseach front and centre?
I will move to good news. This strategy is in need of what I call fairly major rehabilitation but it can be done successfully and quickly. The section on disability in Ireland on page 5 sets out a range of damning statistics outlining key challenges. Fair play for actually putting them upfront - poverty, unemployment and low participation in education. Yet those 1,200 young people living in nursing homes or the increase in the already high levels of social housing need do not figure. These are recent Government figures. The strategy demonstrates little or no ambition to address these critical matters. Ambitious outcomes for people's lives are not in this plan. What can be done and what is the solution? A couple of things can be done straight up. Let us take this document back, amend it, insert the Taoiseach's commitment to ratify, set out the extent to which services will be improved and place the Department of the Taoiseach at the centre of ensuring that this whole-of-Government strategy is ratified and implemented fully. Yes, there is a continuing and important role for the Department of Justice and Equality in terms of continuing necessary support.
Budget 2018 is critical to the other side - real and practical outcomes for people and key outcomes to be delivered. It is the third year of this Administration. The liberty of the forgotten 1,200 who have already been mentioned by Senator Devine is denied. They are deprived of it. We do not need to go to any barristers to sort that one out. We should take the funding that is going into keeping them in nursing homes and put it back in the community. They are already being funded to basically stay in captivity so we should ensure that not one more young person goes into a nursing home.
That is the first aspect. In parallel, we should commit to returning the 1,200 young people over the next three or four years on a phased basis in keeping with the convention. In respect of housing, we should commit on a phased yearly basis to provide social housing. I can name 800 people on the waiting list. Does the Minister of State know that the figure of €178 million that is being given back to people who paid their water charges would actually fund that? We should make the housing adaptation grant more available and accessible. There is a lot of talk about the restoration of pay. Let us have the restoration of income to people on means-tested payments - disability allowance, which has already been mentioned, to give them back the €1,047 they lost over the past five years. Surely to God, that has to be the first call on a Government that has a heart. These people were on means-tested incomes. In respect of employment, there is a strong commitment to move from 3% in the public sector to 6%. I note that the conclusion date for that is out to 2024, which is a long time away.
The priority in the budget can be and needs to be disability inclusion. Responsibility for addressing these issues impacting on people with disabilities rests first and foremost with An Taoiseach, Ministers and the budget. The budget needs to be a game-changer. I know so well that the Minister of State wants this strategy to work. Everybody else wants it to work. I am sad to say that as it is, it will simply flounder.
I have one question for the Minister of State. Could he tell us when he first saw the Attorney General's advice or when the Attorney General's advice was sought as to how the process of ratification could be accelerated?
I welcome the Minister of State to the House. It is a particular pleasure given that in all his years in public life, he has been a passionate advocate for persons with disabilities. Now he is a very proactive Minister of State who has hit the ground running and is getting results in this sector. We now believe we have a Minister in place who has a true passion for and a real belief in the importance of his work. I know this from private meetings with him and groups and from a tour of my constituency where we visited special centres. The Minister of State knows what he is doing and cares about it.
I welcome the national disability inclusion strategy. It is an excellent holistic document with very good and aims and ambitions and realistic ambitions that will acted on. I will focus on a few aspects of the strategy and a few areas I am concerned about. The ambition to increase employment in the public sector to 6% is hugely welcome. I have anecdotal evidence that in some instances, local authorities and various bodies have been including people who get sick within their organisations in their disability quotas. As people naturally get various illnesses, these bodies have been distorting the figures that way. Quotas should be used in addition to dealing with internal matters. Could the Minister of State address that matter? I have good evidence to support that and I will discuss it privately with the Minister of State if he wishes. I would like to see some action on that.
I am delighted that we have the employment support schemes and the grants for employers for adaptations. I am afraid that they are not universally known, are not marketed adequately and that there is insufficient buy-in by employers. I know a large number of employers who are not employing people with disabilities when their jobs would lend themselves to employing them. More needs to be done to advertise, push out and market those schemes and to get employers to buy in. Perhaps more personnel are needed on the ground to call in to employers. As a public representative dealing with issues like this on the ground, I think it is not functioning adequately. There is much more potential within the private sector than is being realised. It merits mentioning that the income of disabled persons is less than half the income per capita of people without a disability. This is hardly acceptable.
Another aspect of the strategy came up at a meeting I attended last night which I would like the Minister of State to address in his reply and take on board. I recall that during his visit to my county of Cavan, he discussed this on a number of occasions. The issue concerns waiting lists for assessment for children with special educational needs and others. At a party meeting in Cavan last night, a woman said publically that it took her four years to access occupational therapy services for her child. This is a horror. The Minister of State is right to be appalled by that because it is appalling. If there is that kind of wait for occupational therapy, speech and language therapy and indeed assessment, the intervening period amounts to a lost number of years in terms of intervention. Any of us who have taught, and the Minister of State is a teacher by profession, know that the earlier the intervention the better.
I am not happy with the number of persons with disabilities, at a quarter of the total number, going to third level. It is impressive in one way but it is way below the rest of the population. It needs addressing in every proactive way that we can.
I have discussed the following matter privately with the Minister of State. I had an excellent meeting with the Cavan-Monaghan deaf persons grouping for those experiencing deafness and their families. Arising from that, I had a couple of meetings with the Minister of State. I am delighted that in the 2018 budget there is a commitment of funding for sign language interpreters and for quality assurance in that sphere. I am delighted that we could get funding and make progress on that and I ask the Minister of State to elaborate on that in his reply.
I would like to see more done in the area of carers and home care packages. I believe there is much more potential here to keep people out of institutional care than is being realised. There is a cost issue and it was correctly alluded to by Senator Dolan and others. Home is also where people want to be, which is the critical issue, but it is also less expensive to keep people out of institutional care.
I support the view that we can do more in the adaption grant area, although my personal experience in my county of the housing adaption grants has been quite positive and they have done a lot of great work there. Any more potential that could be there should be realised to ensure people are able to live in their own homes.
Lastly, Senator Dolan has a view in relation to the convention. I am very conversant with this through my work in the Council of Europe. It is the practice in quite a number of European states to ratify conventions in advance. They ratify the convention and one thinks all is hunky-dory, but, in fact, nothing is done. We have a tradition in Ireland, not only in relation to this convention but to a lot of conventions, of realising the targets and subsequently ratifying when we have shown earnest and good intent and proper action. My contention is that the Irish position is correct. It is better. There are a number of states in Europe which ratify conventions and then one hears anecdotal evidence from their parliamentarians and reports that nothing has happened on the ground. That is far more reprehensible. I would slightly take issue with my good friend, Senator Dolan's, view, while I note his sincerity. Let us get the blocks in place, let us do the work and then the ratifications and celebrations can take place. In my humble opinion, it is actuality we want and real results for people.
Before I call on the Minister of State to respond, I would like to say I had hoped I would be down in the Chamber myself and in a position to address him. I am limited in what I can say here. I will raise issues, particularly in the area of persons with intellectual disabilities, with him again. The Minister of State came to the Chamber to reply to a Commencement Matter in my name where there was a problem with adults with intellectual disabilities accessing services in the Ballina area. Indeed, one individual had been waiting several years. There was some movement and that movement seems to have stopped. I would ask the Minister of State to have a look at it again.
On one other point, in the same vein that Senator Boyhan alluded to, which is the issue of persons with intellectual disabilities who have grown up in institutions being forced into community settings, there needs to be more consideration of the feelings of the individuals and the individual impacts because community settings are not suitable for some who have been institutionalised all their lives and are happy in that setting. That needs to be acknowledged by the experts. I say that having worked with persons with intellectual disabilities in an institutional setting for a time.
I have probably gone further than I should. I will get to speak to the Minister of State again. I call on him to respond.
I thank the Acting Chairman. I am happy to meet any Senator on any of these issues. Any of the Senators would know for the last year and a half that, as Minister, my door is open.
I sincerely thank the Senators for their contributions to the debate today, and particularly for their interest. It is genuine interest, as I know from talking to them privately, in advancing the position of those with disabilities in Irish society.
In relation to their concerns, I am on the same page. Of course, they have genuine concerns about the implementation but, as far as I am concerned, I will give them a commitment it is full steam ahead on this national disability strategy.
We are making real progress on the implementation of the disability strategy and in addition to the various matters I mentioned earlier, I might add that the Department of Justice and Equality has taken responsibility for setting up two subgroups to look at the number of issues key to the implementation of the strategy. The first group will develop proposals to address access to and affordability of necessary aids and appliances or assisted technologies required for everyday living for those persons with disabilities whose entry, retention or return to work could be jeopardised due to being unable to afford these items. The second group will conduct a review of transport supports encompassing all Government funded transport and mobility schemes for persons with disabilities. These are issues the Senators have all raised today in their contributions.
I will response to individual Senators. Senator Keith Swanick focused on the ability to deliver on the issue of the UN convention. Senator Boyhan quoted me voicing my frustration at the delays in the final ratification of the UN convention. However, one also must accept that the Government is doing a lot in relation to disability services. I was at a conference on special education in Carlow on Friday last and €1.68 billion is being put into special education services for children with disabilities in the primary and secondary schools. On our social care disability plan, there is €1.588 billion in HSE services. As I stated, that involved an extra €92 million. During the year, we had the restoration of the carer's grant, which is €1,700 per family, and 121,000 families are now collecting that grant which is not means-tested. Then there are the 10,000 children on a medical card for children on the domiciliary care allowance. A number of Senators mentioned housing adaptation. Last week, the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, announced an extra €12 million for housing adaptation grants. Finally, there is the €10 million programme that I announced on Friday last for young people, to try to get them into employment. What I am saying is there is a lot to be done but there also has been a hell of a lot going on over the past 12 months. It is wrong to say that nothing is going on.
My frustration, to respond to Senator Boyhan, relates to moving matters along and implementing them. I am trying to ensure that these issues are moving along. I have come from a meeting with the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, on the points Senator Dolan raised about housing. It is a scandal, and it is unacceptable, to have young people in a nursing home. I accept that. There is no row about that. I listened to the ideas of Senator Dolan, particularly as he is a member of the steering group on the implementation of the decision support service as well. What I am saying is we are trying to drive those kind of issues.
I will be straight about the UN convention. For the last number of months, we meet every week. All of the Departments, including Health and Justice and Equality, are involved. The Department of the Taoiseach is involved. I am in regular contact with the Attorney General on all the issues.
Over the summer period, we made major progress. For example, we had a job getting the person to fill the job of director of the decision support service. It was advertised. I sent it out there to every disability group in Ireland and let them know about it. Eventually, we got the director and she will be starting on 1 October. That is an important part of the UN convention. What I am saying is we are making progress.
The legislation is slow. I expect some movement over the next week or two, and that is why I am holding back. I do not want to say something in the Chamber here tonight and then, all of a sudden, it will be held up for another two weeks. I am not going down that road. I made that mistake in the past and I put my hands up. Of course, the end of this year is my clear target. The Taoiseach and I are on the same page in that regard. We are trying to drive this but on issues such as the deprivation of liberty, it is difficult. I am just making that point.
On the other issues raised, Senator Conway made the important point that the new Seanad Chamber is more friendly for the visually impaired. I commend Senator Conway. I always listen to what the Senator says because he means it from the heart and he also has an ambition of improving the services, and also attitudes in the broader society for all those with disabilities.
Senator Devine harped on about the convention. The Senator should keep harping on.
Did the Minister of State say I harped on about it?
Yes. The Senator should keep plugging that issue because I will also need support.
It is a compliment.
It is a compliment.
I do not agree with the comments of Senator Dolan in relation to doom and gloom. There is much to do but we are doing a lot of work and keep harping on about it. We will get on with it. The Taoiseach's Department is very involved and it is very important that we keep that focus on it.
Senator O'Reilly mentioned a number of important matters such as employment figures and their distortion. We will discuss that on Friday at the group. There are concerns and I also have fears in that regard. I will tackle that head-on on Friday because there are serious questions in that regard. We are talking about new jobs and the employment of persons with disabilities and not positions where people are out sick. The Senator also mentioned the issue of speech and language therapy, occupational therapy and so on. When I had my first meeting a few weeks ago with the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, therapies, emergency cases, emergency residential care and so on were on my list. I am pushing those issues. The Senator mentioned the issue of third level. It is very important that is developed. Trinity College Dublin is developing fantastic education programmes for young people with disabilities. I have been to Trinity College on several occasions over the past 12 months, meeting the students. I attended a very interesting conference there last week which involved 150 young people with disabilities attending courses. There are also radical new arts programmes for people with disabilities.
I thank Senator Mark Daly and other Senators for their support on Irish Sign Language. We are near the end of the process in that regard. It is very important that we ensure it is moved forward. There was a delay in regard to some of the talks but Senator Mark Daly and Department officials have worked very hard over the summer and an agreed suite of amendments is to be presented on Report Stage so the Bill can be signed into law by the President before the end of the year. That has taken a lot of work, is very valuable and will make a difference to the deaf community. The issue was also raised by Senator Conway. It also meets the spirit of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. It is important that is said.
Did I leave out any Senators?
The Minister of State did not answer my questions.
I will revert to Senators whose questions I did not address. I thank the House for the opportunity to address it and I look forward to being back here in a few weeks' time to discuss the Irish Sign Language issues and the details.
A Senator mentioned a conference at the weekend and it was said that I do not care enough for persons with a disability. I totally reject that criticism. I have three objectives in my policy, strategy and vision for people with disabilities. First, I want to reform services; second, I want to invest in services; and third, and most importantly, I want all future services to be designed for people with disabilities. I mentioned the task force but many other things are also taking place. Senators mentioned different services and there are many currently available. I mentioned the €1.688 billion being spent on services and the increase of €92 million. There are problems and I accept Senators' criticism in that regard. There are also problems in regard to money. Parents of children with disabilities have told me that money is not being spent in the proper way. I want to examine that issue because between 8% and 14% of those with disabilities are open to the idea of personalised budgets. Families have also told me that while the service being provided to them might cost €60,000 to €70,000 per year, they have suggestions for a more effective and local service. We are considering that.
Several Senators mentioned congregated settings. It is important to recognise that there is a choice. So far in 2017 we have bought 50 houses in the community. Four adults with an intellectual disability or some form of disability will live in a house. I want to do more and am looking for more money but we have started the process. In response to the point made by Senator Boyhan, the process has to be in consultation with those with disabilities and their families. Many are very excited about this. I was in a couple of residential services over the summer where I met young people in their 30s or 40s who kept asking the staff when they would be moving to their new house. That is going on but I absolutely want to do more.
In regard to the transport support scheme, 4,700 people are still getting the monthly payment of €208 while the Government is trying to progress the health (transport support) Bill. Negotiations are ongoing between me and the Departments of Health and Public Expenditure and Reform. There is a slight disagreement on the figures. One set of negotiators believes the Bill could cost €80 million while other believes it will be far cheaper. That is a broad summary. I am pushing that issue.
I thank Senators for their support. If Senators wish to raise any individual issues or any persons with disabilities or their families or friends want to meet me, they are always welcome in my office.
Will the Minister of State keep Members of both Houses updated in regard to progress on signing the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities?
I apologise; I did not hear the Senator's question.
Will the Minister of State keep Members of both Houses updated in regard to progress on signing the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities?
I will give Members a written update on the issues involved. If Senators want me to come back to the House for further discussion of the issue, I would be delighted to do so.
I thank the Minister of State.
I am privileged that tomorrow I will launch a report on the economic cost of sight loss, carried out by the National Council of the Blind and the Vincentian Partnership for Social Justice. I meant to mention the extra cost burden on those with sight loss who engage and are part of the workforce. The Minister of State should consider that issue.
I thank the Senator.
When is it proposed to sit again?
At 10.30 a.m. tomorrow.