I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, and invite him to make his contribution.
Ratification of UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities: Statements
I am delighted to be here to discuss the ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, UNCRPD, and I thank Senator Buttimer for the invitation. As many Members will be aware, the ratification of the convention has been a deeply held commitment of mine since I was appointed as the very first Minister of State with responsibility for disability issues. The very creation of this office signals a firm commitment by this Government to improve the lives of people with disabilities.
Today, 21 March, is World Down Syndrome Day. The day is significant in that persons with Down's syndrome have a third chromosome on the 21st strand, hence the chosen date of the 21st day of the third month. Later this evening, I will leave this House to launch a photographic exhibition organised by Down Syndrome Ireland. The theme of the exhibition, "What I Bring to My Community", encapsulates so much of my thinking regarding people with disability in society.
As a father to a daughter with Down's syndrome, this is an important day for my family and me. It reminds me of one of my primary reasons for being in politics, namely, to advocate for the rights, inclusion and well-being of all persons with disabilities. There has been some recent commentary and criticism suggesting that the ratification of the convention is a paper-based exercise or PR stunt or that it will not make any difference to people's lives. I assure Senators that if that were the case, I would not have pursued ratification so doggedly. The issue was so important to me that I made sure it was a part of the programme or Government.
People ask if ratification will make any difference to everyday lives. I firmly believe that it will. The purpose of the convention is to promote, protect and ensure the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms by all persons with disabilities and promote respect for their inherent dignity. To put it another way, the convention provides that people with disabilities should have the same rights as everyone else, and should be provided with the practical supports that make that aspiration a reality.
Ratifying the convention signals our commitment to the ongoing improvement in the provision of disability services. In keeping with this principle, I recognise that there is always much to be done, including ratification of the optional protocol. Furthermore, while we have already made significant progress in reforming the law on decision-making capacity and participation in family life, there still remains some legislation to be enacted. I accept the points on that issue.
It was originally intended to introduce the deprivation of liberty provisions in the Disability (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2016 as amendments on Committee Stage. However, owing to the complexity and far-reaching implications of the proposals and in response to feedback, the Government decided it was better to deal with the issues separately. The provisions will now feature in a stand-alone Bill to be sponsored by the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, and me. My target for the enactment of the legislation is the end of this year. A public consultation on draft heads of the Bill on this issue concluded on 9 March. I offer my sincere thanks to everyone who made a submission. A number of organisations have been granted an extension until mid-April, and I look forward to receiving these submissions in due course.
The central problem to be addressed by the new provisions is that existing legislation does not provide a procedure for admitting persons without capacity to relevant facilities in which they will be under continuous supervision and control and will not be free to leave. Existing legislation also does not provide a procedural safeguard to ensure that individuals are not unlawfully deprived of their liberty. The draft legislation proposals that I published for public consultation last December are designed to address this gap by providing safeguards for older people, persons with a disability and some categories of people with mental illness, to ensure they are not unlawfully deprived of their liberty in certain residential facilities. The development of these deprivation of liberty legislative provisions is a highly complex undertaking. In addition to satisfying the requirements of the UNCRPD, the provisions must also align with our obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights and existing legislation such as the Assisted Decision-Making (Capacity) Act 2015 and the Mental Health Act 2001.
Other implementation issues that are required to meet our obligations under the UNCRPD will be addressed via the Disability (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2016, which is currently awaiting Committee Stage in Dáil Éireann. The Government has given the approval for the Bill to receive priority within the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel, and work is under way to progress the Bill for enactment by the end of the year, hopefully sooner.
The Assisted Decision-Making (Capacity) Act 2015 also needs to be fully commenced. A total of €3 million in funding has now been allocated in 2018 for the establishment of the decision support service, with will be the engine room in the context of the UN convention. There has been some commentary in recent weeks on the ratification of the optional protocol, which has not been ratified at this time. It will be ratified as soon as possible following the completion of Ireland's first reporting cycle. This will provide an opportunity to identify areas for improvement and any actions needed for a high level of compliance. While I accept that a commitment to ratify the optional protocol at the same time as the convention was given in the 2015 roadmap, my current focus as Minister of State has been on ratifying the convention in the first instance. This was to be the first step.
As I have outlined, the convention and the optional protocol cover a broad range of commitments, some of which will require substantive cultural change. Indeed, an analysis of some 14 complaints brought under the optional protocol since 2010 highlights a range of areas that we are working hard to address, such as the deprivation of liberty and the right of deaf persons to participate in jury duty. Work is continuing on the final reforms needed for Ireland's compliance with the convention's requirements. For this reason, a phased approach is seen as the most practical and realistic way of moving forward.
The other question people often ask me about the convention relates to resources. This has been raised many times by my colleagues in the Seanad. I fully agree that to support people effectively in accessing their rights, the proper allocation of resources is a key consideration. As politicians, we need to mindful of any changes in policy and resourcing that could significantly impact on everyday circumstances. For example, since the closure of the mobility allowance, the Government decided that the HSE would continue to pay an equivalent monthly payment of up to €208.50 per month to 4,133 people in receipt of a mobility allowance, pending the establishment of a new transport support scheme. Work on proposals for the replacement scheme is at an advanced stage.
I have always placed a strong emphasis on securing adequate funding, with €1.76 billion allocated by the Department of Health for disability services in 2018 representing an increase of 4.4% on 2017. Furthermore, in December 2017, following consultation with families and members of this House, I announced an additional €10 million in funding for respite care had been secured.
It is not just about funding. We need to focus on this point. We need to challenge attitudes and recognise the valuable contribution that persons with disabilities can make to our economy and society when supported to do so. We need to focus on ability rather than disability. In Ireland, we have strong equality legislation which prevents discrimination on the basis of disability. However, people with disabilities are still only half as likely to be in employment as others of working age. This is why we launched the comprehensive employment strategy in 2015. The strategy sets out a ten-year approach, ensuring that people who are able to work and want to work are supported and enabled to do so. There is a huge pool of talent in the disability sector. It includes commitments such as an increase in the public services employment target on a phased basis from 3% to 6%; special public service competitions, and the opening up of alternative recruitment channels; and the provision of an employment helpline, assisted by the National Disability Authority, NDA, to provide expert guidance and peer support to employers. These are concrete examples of how Ireland can fulfil its obligations under the convention. I note also that we are way ahead of some other countries that have already ratified the convention.
This country has embarked on an era of unprecedented change in services for people with disabilities over recent years which means we are now ready to meet those obligations.
In July 2017, I launched the national disability inclusion strategy. It takes a whole-of-government approach to improving the lives of people with disabilities and contains more than 100 measurable and time-specific actions that relate to the areas of education, employment, provision of public services, health, transport, and personal safety and autonomy. The strategy and the robust monitoring framework supported by the NDA leaves us well placed to respond to the requirements of the convention.
In the context of living in the community, we will continue to implement Time to Move On to give those who currently reside in institutions the choice and control over where and with whom they live. Relevant to this is the programme for Government commitment to reduce the number of people living in congregated settings by at least one third by 2021 and to ultimately close all such settings. At the end of 2017, there were fewer than 2,400 people living in a congregated setting, and this year the HSE intends to move 170 more out of these old-style institutions into the community and support them to live independently. The national housing strategy for people with a disability has been extended to support this objective.
Another key commitment in the programme for Government was the establishment of a task force on personalised budgets for people with disabilities, which I launched in September 2016. The task force has been asked to analyse approaches in other jurisdictions and recommend an approach and an implementation strategy for the introduction of personalised budgets in Ireland. This task force is an example of my thinking and belief regarding people with a disability that we must allow them to say how they wish to lead their own lives. It will be a core element in responding to some of the fundamental principles of the convention that we respect dignity, autonomy, independence and the freedom to make one's own choices.
My colleagues and I obviously support the ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. This has the potential to be an important moment for tens of thousands of people living with disabilities in this country.
Ratification has been a long time coming and we have criticised the Government for delays on many occasions. Of course, ratification alone will not end the systemic discrimination that those with disabilities face day in, day out in this country. One should bear in mind that ratification coincided with the fifth anniversary of withdrawal of the mobility allowance for new entrants and we are still awaiting its replacement, even though I acknowledge the Minister of State said that the replacement scheme is at an advanced stage. For ratification to be meaningful in the longer term and to be prompt, we need to end this discrimination. It requires each and every organisation and agency to look at itself and how it treats persons with disabilities, and it fundamentally requires the Government to end structural bias in terms of accessing services from the State.
Ratification is a welcome step in the important journey towards equality. Ireland signed the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2007 and since then successive Governments have emphasised Ireland's commitment to proceed to ratification as quickly as possible taking into account the need to ensure all necessary legislative requirements under the convention are met. We are all aware, unfortunately, that "urgent" and "immediate" do not have the same meaning in the political world as they do in the real world.
The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities follows decades of work by the United Nations to change attitudes and approaches to persons with disabilities. The UN continues to lead fantastic campaigns. For example, I am sure the Senators are all aware today is World Down Syndrome Day. It is a global awareness day when we, as a single global voice, advocate for the rights, inclusion and well-being of people with Down's syndrome. The convention is intended as a human rights instrument with an explicit social development dimension. It adopts a broad categorisation of persons with disabilities and reaffirms that all persons with all types of disabilities must enjoy all human rights and fundamental freedoms. It clarifies and qualifies how all categories of rights apply to persons with disabilities and identifies areas where adaptations must be made for persons with disabilities to effectively exercise their rights on areas where their rights have been violated and where protection of rights must be reinforced.
I take this opportunity to particularly commend the work of our colleague, Senator John Dolan, in this regard. I heard Senator Dolan state he celebrated the ratification with a cup of tea, and importantly a biscuit, with his wife and daughter. No one knows better than Senator Dolan that this ratification, while fantastic, is only the beginning. There are complex challenges ahead of us all. I say "us all" because this is an issue not only for disability campaigners alone. This is a job for every leader, every party and every public representative.
I welcome the Minister of State.
I will not repeat what I stated previously about this issue but only say, "Well done." It has been a huge personal ambition as well as a political ambition for the Minister of State to get the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities ratified. It is has been a difficult road. I have been here and at other meetings where people have been critical. The Minister of State has been consistent. He has been patient. He has built the foundations and the bricks to something important which is really positive. I accept it was slow and disappointing and there were many setbacks along the way but I want to acknowledge, first, the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath's work.
I want also to take a bit of time to thank a few people. I thank the disability advocates up and down this country who, time and time again, have waited outside the gates of Leinster House in the rain. They went all over this country. They campaigned with Senators, Deputies and county councillors. It is a great day for them.
I also acknowledge - Senator Swanick was right to say so - the work of Senator John Dolan and his background team, including Ms Doreen Magee, because the day I met Senator Dolan he spoke about this and the vision to get this done. Senator Dolan is a great advocate for the disability sector. Senator Dolan will be aware, from those he has dealt with, there have been many disappointments and setbacks but I think we can genuinely say we are now going forward, and I acknowledge that.
I acknowledge the work of Senator Mark Daly on his Irish Sign Language Act 2017 and what he did in terms of another strand of advocacy for the disability sector. I also acknowledge my colleague, Senator Martin Conway, for his work on the NCBI and his other work in terms of the visually impaired. Senator Conway has been a long-time advocate for the disability sector. He kindly received a large delegation I invited here some years ago from the Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind who were greatly taken by the fact that a Senator should take the time to invite them in, show them the House, explain the processes, and give them a sense that they could be empowered and lobby politicians. They really appreciate that. I salute Senator Conway and say that I, too, was an outsider coming in and I was very impressed. It is worth taking time out to thank people.
Finally, I thank a champion for the disability sector in Arklow, County Wicklow, Councillor Miriam Murphy, who has single-handedly advocated in the community and the local authority. She attends the local authority and experiences the great difficulties of being wheelchair bound, in terms of accessing her town of Arklow, her community and her council. As she herself would say, she has continuously been a thorn in the side of officials in terms of advocacy.
Councillor Murphy asked me to ask three questions and I will ask them for her today because I want to use my time for advocates rather than for what I think. What sanctions will there be if people do not comply? Can we be assured that every one of the 31 local authorities in this country will have a full designated disability access officer who will deal with the issues? I have heard of terrible stories where persons with disabilities have arrived to public toilets in local authority offices and been told the staff are sorry that the toilets are locked or there is no one available to facilitate them. This is unacceptable behaviour. Hopefully, we have moved past that situation.
Through his work as Minister of State with special responsibility for disabilities, will Deputy McGrath seek to have a designated, full-time, funded and resourced disability officer in each of the 31 local authorities? I do not want this to be an appendix to some other position or some other person who does something three days a week and does disability advocacy on the other days of the week. That is a really important question that Councillor Miriam Murphy asked me to put to the Minister of State today.
Social housing and special access housing is another issue. I am a member of the Joint Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government and this issue has exercised us. We must be proactive on it. The Minister of State mentioned empowering people, independence, dignity, autonomy and the right to decide one's future. Those are key words. However, I also know people who have lived in congregated settings and who enjoyed living in such settings. The difference is that they do not necessarily wish to live in an old, run-down, institutional building. People get comfort from living in community. A person who has a disability and who has lived in care for many years might wish to continue to live in care. That must also be an alternative choice. I have visited people from a place which ended the congregated setting in south County Dublin. The reports are not good. I have met people who have been put in isolation in flats and bedsits. They did not have the supports. We might say it is institutionalisation but some people get comfort from being with one another. That is not a bad thing. Some of us like to live alone but it is all about choice. We should not rule out the need for a modern new approach for village or community living for people with disabilities.
I wish to mention a final area. In the disability sector, people somehow fail to realise that people have rights of expression, sexual needs and rights to be authentic as people. These are important fundamental rights. They are areas that people in the disability sector have spoken about to me recently. They are personal and intimate conversations where they feel in some way that they are not allowed to express themselves and that they are not valued and supported in that way. They feel dehumanised. They feel that somehow they are not valued if they talk about their needs over and above accommodation, education, a job or training. This is about respect, allowing people to feel authentic, secure and supported and expanding their horizons. Many people never got that opportunity. I am talking about a group of people in their 60s and 70s. There is still a lot of living for people in those age groups.
I thank the Minister of State. I realise this has been a personal journey for him and his family. He has been absolutely committed. He has had to broker many of the frustrations and to build consensus, including within the Government which is not always easy. The challenge now will be to have the money and resources he requires to set out his vision. I ask the Minister of State to pass on my thanks to his staff and background team whom I have met on many occasions. They have always been available and have been with the Minister of State consistently on this journey. Well done to everybody.
Like my colleagues, I welcome the Minister of State back to the House and congratulate him on the ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. It is a significant step forward in establishing the rights of people with disabilities.
I will start where Senator Boyhan concluded and acknowledge the backroom staff of the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, in particular Gerry Maguire and Damien O'Farrell, who have done great work in terms of bedding down what is a relatively new Ministry. We have not previously had a Minister at the Cabinet table with specific responsibility for disabilities. When the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, took up his position in 2016, there was high expectation that he would deliver quickly. Unfortunately, as with everything in life, big bodies move very slowly. It can be very technical and challenging. One could have the best heart in the world to get something done in a particular timeline but when one actually undertakes it one can discover complications, challenges and difficulties that might not have been anticipated. Anybody who has ever carried out a house extension or renovation will have discovered on commencing it that much more was required to get the product right than would have initially been tendered. I see that very much in the case of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. There were probably many technical issues that had to be ironed out. To get it over the line within less than 24 months of taking over that portfolio, given the fact that the process had been going on for so many years prior to that, is a significant achievement.
I see the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities as a mission statement, to a large extent. It is a very important one. Our country is saying that it will do what other United Nations countries are doing. Senator Swanick referred to Senator Dolan having a cup of tea and a biscuit with his wife and daughter to celebrate the ratification and the Minister of State jokingly asked where the champagne was. The champagne will be drunk when there are plenty of employment opportunities for people with disabilities, no problem with housing for people with disabilities, when they have no problems with access to services and when we can truly say in 2028, the date mentioned by the Minister of State, that this is a country that respects every one of its citizens equally.
I tend to look at the glass as being half full, although I certainly see that there is another half to go. Throughout my personal journey with disability, I have always tried to be positive and to advocate in a positive manner. I believe that works well. My good friend and colleague, Senator Dolan, does the same. Consider what this House has achieved with Senator Mark Daly's Bill on Irish Sign Language and the advocacy that is carried out by Members such as Senators Dolan and Mark Daly. We play a role in reminding the Minister of State that there is a significant amount of work to be done. We are getting there. We are all using our personal experiences to give leadership and to cajole and push.
I am clearly on the record in the Fine Gael Parliamentary Party as stating that I would prefer to see no tax cuts in the forthcoming budgets until such time as we get the key priorities right. These include having proper housing, not just for people with disabilities but for society in general, dealing with the hospital issues and until we have gone a long way to ensuring there is equality of opportunity and services. As a people we should not be looking for tax cuts. We should seek to leave the current taxes in place and if there is an increase in the budgets it should be diverted to areas where we now have a responsibility, given that we have ratified this UN convention. It will take hundreds of millions of euro to backfill the damage that was done to the disability sector as a result of the recession and the lack of investment prior to that. The Minister of State has my full support in terms of what I can do in my political party to push for the type of increased funding we need in the budget.
The mission statement is there. It is very welcome and we are all delighted. However, a mission statement is like the introduction in a book. We need to see the chapters. We must have proper employment. Increasing the 3% to 6% is a doubling of the target, but we should aim for 10% because 10% of the population have a disability. Some 10% of the workforce in the public service should be people with declared disabilities. That probably will not happen for a while but we should aspire to it. The task force on individualised budgeting established by the Minister of State is important. Many people have spoken about it. I honestly cannot say what is the best model to work from or to aspire to have but the task force can do that. I sincerely hope it will report within a reasonable period.
In conclusion, I was pleased to be asked by the Leader of the House to take the Order of Business on behalf of the Government on the day after the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was ratified. It was a recognition of me and my story, and the fact that there are other Members of the House who have their own stories, that it was appropriate for me to lead on behalf of the Government on that day.
I hope that is the first of many instances of leading for the Government in different capacities. The Minister of State is doing a good job. It is not an easy job because the expectations are enormous but he has a great opportunity to make history in this country. He is going about it the right way but there is still a lot of work to be done.
I note that there are six speakers remaining and the Minister of State must be called upon at 6.25 p.m. Consequently, I ask for Members' co-operation. Perhaps some people can consider sharing time, to give the Minister of State the opportunity to respond.
I thank the Minister of State for coming into the House to discuss this important matter. I also thank him for his genuine approach and his obvious understanding of the need to support people with disabilities and to ensure they have the rights that many of us enjoy. I welcome the disability advocates and those with disabilities in the Visitors Gallery as well. I thank them for their interest and for all the work they have done and continue to do on this matter. I thank Senator Dolan for what he has done, along with many others, including Senator Conway. I am very heartened to hear Senator Conway, as somebody who is part of the party in government, explicitly stating that we need to put resources for both people with disabilities and people who are vulnerable within our communities before tax cuts for the wealthy. I wish him well with that, and he has our full support. He can always join Sinn Féin if they do not do what he needs them to do.
I thank the Senator for the invitation.
As well as all the advocates, I wish to recognise the parents of children with disabilities. They are the people I meet every day who struggle so much. They have to fight so hard on behalf of their children and when their children become adults with intellectual disabilities. We have to address this issue, and we have a huge responsibility. That is why I, together with my party, Sinn Féin, welcome the ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, especially, as the Minister of State noted, on the happy occasion of World Down Syndrome Day.
Since 2007, when Ireland first signed the convention, we have argued both in the Oireachtas and outside it that it needed to be ratified without delay. This convention provides a framework to promote, protect and ensure the rights of all people with disabilities and promotes equal rights in all areas of life. These are the basic fundamentals that should be afforded to any person in a decent and modern society, able-bodied, disabled or otherwise. While all agree the ratification of the convention is most welcome, I must stress that it is only the first step and I believe the Minister of State recognises that. The real measure of delivery of the rights that are contained in the convention will be in its timely and speedy implementation. We are fully conscious that a raft of legislation must be introduced, amended or enacted to afford the rights that are enshrined in this convention.
People with disabilities in Ireland have long suffered at the hands of not just the current Government but successive Governments. The phrase, "put your money where your mouth is", is particularly relevant when it comes to disability rights in Ireland and I appreciate the Minister of State has addressed the issue of personalised budgeting. In his response, the Minister of State should indicate when that report will be completed because parents of people with disabilities are waiting for that report and for personalised budgeting. This is not just an issue of resources. We need to be able to track where the resources are going at present, and where they have been going. We have to make sure that they get to the people with disabilities and their families to improve their quality of life and increase their access. We cannot do that without transparency around where exactly the money is going.
In the 2018 budget there was little mention of the resources to implement the comprehensive employment strategy for persons with disabilities to which the Minister of State referred. People in receipt of disability allowance were afforded the crumbs off the table with an increase of €5 per week. Given the extra costs that arise for people with disabilities, €5 a week just does not cut it.
The rights that are afforded in this convention can only be delivered with the necessary immediate allocation of resources. This is especially relevant with regard to the ongoing preparation for the 2019 budget. It is important to discuss this issue today because, as Senator Conway and the Minister of State have noted, as we prepare for the budget, money must be ring-fenced to make sure that this ratification means something.
The convention will be rendered useless and the status quo will remain in place without these additional resources. I appeal to the Minister of State to not allow this situation arise and to not further fail persons with disabilities. We all know that travel on public transport can be a nightmare for people with disabilities. The email all Members received from two avid campaigners about their journey to Leinster House for the Dáil debate on this issue was the height of irony. In it, the sisters described how they left Greystones, County Wicklow in their wheelchairs and got on the 4 p.m. DART with no personal assistance. These are two women who have fought extremely hard for disability rights in Ireland. When their day had finally come, they described the effort required to be at Leinster House as being monumental. The Government has failed to show it really cares for children or adults with disabilities.
I must also raise the issue of respite care with the Minister of State. A response to a recent parliamentary question tabled by Sinn Féin revealed that the number of nights of overnight respite care provided to children and adults with disabilities has dropped by more than 22,600 in the past three years. We need to be straightforward and honest about what resources are available. Overnight respite is vitally important for allowing other responsibilities to be attended to and for the running of a normal household where a valuable member has complex medical needs. There is much more I could say on this. I trust the Minister of State. I trust that he is going to do the right thing and that we are going to see real, tangible changes. The changes must really matter to people of all abilities and people with disabilities. Funding must be provided and must go where it is needed and most deserved.
It is unfortunate that we have such a short time this evening for this debate. Given our late start, we have 60 minutes, with our time topped and tailed by the Minister of State. I ask that the Seanad might be able to extend or come back to this matter fairly soon. I thank the Minister of State for being here and the Leader of the Seanad for making sure we could have this early debate.
I have no doubt but that the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath's, heart is in the right place. I have no doubt but that the Minister of State wants very much to make it happen for people with disabilities. However, I do not have any trust in the national disability inclusion strategy. I set out my reasons for that on 26 September when we first had statements on this matter. This vehicle will not deliver what the Minister of State very clearly wants delivered. It will not do it. I critiqued it on that day and I can critique it again. I am happy to hear any other comments on it. The document before Members today, comprising three and a half pages, does not give me any solace that things have changed. I will use the word "trust". The Minister of State said he was let down and misled by officials in his Department. He said that publically a year ago. I put it to him last September; he did not respond to it. This document has no reference to ratification by the end of last year, even though it was published a month after the Taoiseach had committed to it.
I disagree slightly with Senator Martin Conway in this regard, with respect. The Taoiseach intervened in the middle of June and said that even if the process had to be changed, it would happen by the end of the year. It happened in early March of this year. We will not quibble over that. He said that we had to change the process and it was changed.
I revert to the document before Members and the issue about the optional protocol. A commitment was given, and the Minister of State says that it would be met when the convention was ratified. It has now been changed. There is no rationale in this document as to why it has changed. We are doing it differently now. The Minister of State said that the optional protocol, which was to be ratified at this current time, will be ratified as soon as possible following completion of Ireland's first reporting cycle. When will the first reporting cycle be completed? When does the clock start? Has the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Coveney, gone to New York to sign the papers? Has the 30-day timeline started yet? It clearly has not. There are real issues here but no reason is set out as to why the optional protocol cannot be signed. This document comes from the Department of Justice and Equality. I suggest - I might be totally wrong about this - there is a divergence of view between that Department and the view and will of An Taoiseach. I do not wish to say this gratuitously but people with disabilities need an explanation, as do I. There is absolutely no reason why Ireland cannot now sign up to the optional protocol.
We need to get on with a number of practical matters very quickly. A budget is coming up. That budget, across all of the different Departments, has to have the smell, taste and bite of a budget that is about people with disabilities and their families and not just a package of this and that from one Department. Let us see, between now and the end of the year, if the pieces of legislation are put in place. I expect that the optional protocol can and should be dealt with now.
The Minister of State spoke about unemployment, and he mentioned it in his 2017 strategy. We are now two and a half years into the ten-year comprehensive employment strategy. The Minister of State's speech contained no figures to tell us how many people have been employed although we are one quarter of the way through the strategy.
He has spoken about people coming out of congregated settings. There are 1,200 people under the age of 65 in nursing homes in this country and that is a deprivation of liberty which does not require legislation to sort out. There were 3,919 people on the social housing lists in 2013. In 2016 it was 4,456. The number is going up. Poverty is increasing. There is no sense in this document of the scale of what has to be dealt with or a resolve to actually deal with it. I acknowledge we are told about a number of very useful and important initiatives.
I wish to correct the Minister of State when he stated, "To put it another way, the convention provides that people with disabilities should have the same rights as everyone else". That is incorrect. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights of December 1948 stated that disabled people are the same human beings as anybody else. This convention intends to sort out something that has not been sorted out by states across the world for 60 years. It is about making the human rights of disabled people real, including rights to transport, employment, housing and education.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House. We are unanimous in the view that he is doing a huge job and that he is truly committed to what he is doing. He believes in what he does every day and that is great. He paid two visits to my native county of Cavan. That gives me the context to ask him to comment on the progress of the Holy Family school in Cootehill, which is a very important facility for my county and to comment on his wonderful visit to Enable Ireland on the invitation of my colleague, Deputy Brendan Smith. On that occasion, he came to Enable Ireland and the point was made to him that there was a problem with waiting lists in the various sectors for professionals such as speech therapists and occupational therapists, among others. I am happy that the Minister of State got a 4.4% increase in his allocation, meaning that the budget for this year will be €1.76 billion for this year. That is progress.
I want to race through a few things that I believe are important. I know, from speaking to the Minister of State, that my words will not fall on barren soil. Living in the community is so important. Supports need to be there in terms of home help. We need to have a broad interpretation of home help because it is a bit narrow at the moment. It is important that meals are cooked sometimes and that physical support is available, including help with shopping and different activities. Sometimes the definition of home help is defined narrowly as only being available for the personal care of those who require it. Perhaps the Minister of State could look at that. I mention it because of my practical experience of things.
The carer's allowance remains important, and the increases are welcome but we need to continue to increase the allowance and to continue to make it attractive. I was glad to see that medical cards for people in domiciliary care were introduced. Any help we can give carers or persons looking after people, and any supports and services they can be given, should be provided.
I am anxious that the Assisted Decision-Making (Capacity) Act be fully commenced. It is very important, because for so long the opposite existed. Nobody in this House needs a lecture on that situation. We need to support people in defining their own sick care.
Supported housing is very important. We have much to do in that sphere. We need supported housing where people can live in a community with in-built support and with professional assistance available in so far as it is required, including care assistance. That is a really important thing.
The housing adaptation grants for persons with disabilities are important. They have been embraced in Cavan and Cavan County Council has really made a success of that programme. However, there is still a waiting list and delays, and there remains a need for more resources in that area.
I do not believe that the employment quota system is working very well. It absorbs people who are ill or who have acquired disabilities within the institutions and it is not taking in any new people from outside. That really needs to be looked at and perhaps should be increased. It also requires a very proactive approach from the Minister of State, and perhaps heads need to be banged together on that one. I will discuss one personal case privately with the Minister of State concerning someone who has great potential to work very positively, who has been trying to get employment for a long time but it is like banging one's head against the wall.
I was happy to see that the Minister of State approved the Irish Sign Language Bill and I congratulate Senator Mark Daly on bringing that Bill forward.
The Minister of State is doing great work and we support him on it. I hope he will be in our constituency more often to give us more good news.
Like other Senators I welcome the Minister to the House today. We are all very clear that the ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities is a truly historic moment for us and it is great to see cross-party support for this ratification. However, it is only the beginning of a new journey.
I recently visited The Hub in Strokestown, which the Minister of State visited approximately one year ago.
It is run by the Brothers of Charity and creates meaningful employment for people with disabilities. I also recently visited Triest Press in Roscommon town, which supports people with intellectual disabilities. I do not like to view them in that way. They are wonderful people who now have opportunities for meaningful employment and we need to see much more of that. It is very positive that €70,000 has been provided under a community services programme to support that company in respect of its high-tech digital centre and the services it provides.
I agree with Senator O'Reilly who called for increases for home help and home care packages. People need to live in their communities for as long as possible. It is absolutely crucial to support them in every way with home help and multidisciplinary team involvement. As an occupational therapist, I am very aware of the challenges in accessing timely and specialist rehabilitation. This is very relevant to people with disabilities. The evidence is clear that this access gives those people better outcomes. As a result, they have less disability and can lead more meaningful lives.
I do not want to see beds closed in the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Dún Laoghaire. I have spoken to the Minister of State previously about that and some beds have been opened. I want to see the rehabilitation unit in Roscommon County Hospital delivered as quickly as possible. It will serve the west of Ireland and will be linked to the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Dún Laoghaire. People need to have the best opportunities to lead meaningful lives and that means proper access to rehabilitation as inpatients and in the community.
I thank the Minister of State for outlining the issues and challenges involved in the ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. While we are one of the last countries to ratify it there were many steps legally required for it to be successful. There are many challenges ahead to fulfil all our aspirations for people with disabilities and for our society to ensure that they have the wherewithal to reach their potential in employment, social life and interaction with the State. Colleagues have pointed out all that needs to be done but this Government has not met all the targets set out in various strategies. We need to do more in the way of setting targets and ensuring they are met.
Part of the process involved in the recognition of the Irish Sign Language for the deaf community is ensuring that there are reviews of the implementation of the Irish Sign Language Act 2017. All too often we have passed legislation with good intentions, great ideas and aspirations on all sides but with no review to ensure that they are met. The Act ensures that members of the deaf community are equal citizens of this State, have access to all State services like any other citizens and are not suffering the extreme marginalisation described during pre-legislative scrutiny of the legislation by the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice and Equality. That is a huge step in fulfilling one of the elements of the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities.
It will be a matter of pride for the Minister of State to have the UN convention ratified. It is a wonderful accolade for a politician. I pay tribute to Senators Mark Daly and Conway and also to Senator Dolan, my colleague in the Civil Engagement Group. They will not rest till the option protocol is in place but, more importantly, until the necessary resources are provided to make ratification and the rights involved real. This has come home to me because the youngest member of my extended clan, a 15 month old grand-nephew, was diagnosed at eight months as having significant challenges. He is a wonderful smiling boy but his parents have been pulling, dragging and fighting to get a chair that allows him to live. As someone said to me, it is hard enough for them to face this challenge they did not expect but the chair should be delivered with a bow instead of their having to fight for it. Coming from the disability sector, I know that fight is ahead of them. This seems to characterise how we approach disability in this country. It is always a big bare-knuckle fight. I would like to think we could get beyond that.
I am glad to hear about the work on the proposals for the replacement scheme for the mobility allowance, which we talked about at the Joint Committee on Public Petitions. That is long overdue and involved more pulling, dragging and fighting. It should not have to be that way. Until such time as we have not just the good intention and the rights on paper but the resources that back them up and make them real, we will not be able to go beyond offering a cup of tea and a biscuit.
The report Time to Move on from Congregated Settings was published in 2011. I was with the Cope Foundation at the time and there were many people in congregated settings. It is shocking that we are pushing that deadline out to 2023. Those institutions were due to be closed this year. There are 1,200 people younger than 65 years living in nursing homes. They are being detained. We have to do better than this. It is great that we have ratified but we need the resources to make that ratification real.
I thank all the Senators for their contributions and for their support over the past two years since I was appointed Minister of State. I accept some of their valid criticism because ratification of the UNCRPD is a common goal which should unite us all, parties, Independents, civil society groups and stakeholders. We are all keen to see it ratified. We are dedicated to continuous improvement where equality and human rights are concerned. If I run out of time in responding to questions, I will reply individually to Senators.
When I was appointed Minister of State almost two years ago, I set myself ten objectives. The first was to deal with the crisis of 18 year olds in the adult services. I had to ask the Minister and the Government to get an extra €31 million to deal with those day places for 18 year olds. The next issue was the restoration of the carer's grant to 101,000 families, at €1,700 per family. The third issue I moved on to was to provide medical cards for the 11,000 children in receipt of the domiciliary care allowance. Other issues I dealt with during the year include the €3 million for the disability support service, which is very relevant to this debate today and the increase of €10 in the disability and carer's allowances in the two most recent budgets, the €10 million for the ability programme for education and training of young people and an increase of €167 million in the HSE social care plan for 2017 and 2018.
Members referred to the respite issue. In December, €10 million extra was allocated for respite care. The final issue is the ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, UNCRPD. These are my objectives. Of course I have a lot more to do, and I intend to do a lot more. I have listened to some excellent ideas presented here today, some of which I will take on board.
With regard to the debate on the convention, if Ireland was fully compliant, we would not need a convention at all. That is the reality for people with disabilities. The disability Bill still needs to be enacted and it includes a range of provisions that are needed to improve compliance with the convention. These include amendment of the Juries Act, amendment of the Electoral Act to repeal the prohibition of persons of unsound mind from standing for election to the Dáil or Seanad, provisions to establish a monitoring framework involving the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission and the National Disability Authority, and amendments to increase the standards required for the provision of reasonable accommodation. There is also a proposal to increase public service employment of people with disabilities from 3% to 6% by 2024. I have listened to the proposals for the higher objective of 10%, which is a very concrete proposal that I welcome. Now that the priority draft has been approved for the disability Bill and it has been decoupled from the deprivation of liberty provisions, work is under way to bring it forward to Committee Stage as soon as possible.
A number of amendments that are mostly technical in nature will be brought forward on Committee Stage and I will ensure that appropriate arrangements are made for pre-legislative scrutiny of them. I want to talk to people and to listen to them. The aim is to enact the legislation by August 2018, and certainly not by the end of the year. The Assisted Decision-Making (Capacity) Act 2015 also needs to be fully commenced. This Act provides for comprehensive reform of the law on decision-making capacity that aligns it with Article 12 of the convention. It also provides for the setting up of a new body called the decision support service. This leads on to some of the points raised by Senator Martin Conway. The role of the decision support service will be to support decision making by and for adults with decision-making capacity difficulties. Key preparations are being put in place under the oversight of a high level steering committee. The recently appointed director of the decision support service is working in a determined way to get the necessary staff, resources, processes and IT systems, expert panels, codes of practice and regulation in place to get the service up and running as quickly as possible. I accept that there were delays in that regard, but an excellent director has been appointed and we are moving on to fill the other gaps.
Turning to the optional protocol, it is absolutely the intention to opt in and I can say this very strongly. I want to ensure, however, that progress is sustainable and to ensure the maximum benefit. Our time and resources in the initial implementation phase are being better spent on improving the standards of services. These improvements, many of which have been flagged in the House today, are much needed.
It is my intention that the optional protocol will be ratified once we have completed the first reporting cycle under the convention. This will provide us with an opportunity to reflect and prioritise actions to achieve the highest possible level of compliance. With the ratification of the convention in place, I can now focus on using the convention - many Members are missing this point - to better equip and resource people with disabilities to improve their quality of life. Once we have this in the bag, we can use it to push forward. Ratification was a key commitment in the programme for Government.
Senator Dolan referred to the change of approach. Given the advanced progress that has been achieved towards compliance with the convention, and taking into account the remaining implementation requirements, the Government has decided that the State is now ready to become bound by the terms of the convention and become accountable under the UNCRPD. This is an important point. I am pleased to announce that Ireland's instrument of ratification was deposited yesterday with the UN Office of Legal Affairs. It will become legally binding in 30 days, which is 19 April.
These are the issues, and I take on board the points raised by various Senators. I thank Senators Keith Swanick, Victor Boyhan and John Dolan, and also Doreen Magee and all the team. I also thank Senators Mark Daly and Martin Conway for their magnificent contributions. I also wish to acknowledge my advisers on disability issues, including Gerry Maguire, who is in the House today, and Damian O'Farrell, both of whom have been very supportive in helping me to drive this forward. I also thank Senator Rose Conway-Walsh. The Senator has always been very involved in disability issues. I absolutely agree with her and Senator Conway on tax cuts versus services and on the issue of parents.
I received a lovely email today from a group of parents who thanked me, but they also asked me not to forget the parents. We must also not forget the brothers and sisters of people who have disabilities. They make a massive contribution. I thank Senators John Dolan, Joe O' Reilly, Maura Hopkins and Mark Daly. I mentioned Senator Daly earlier with regard to the Irish Sign Language.
I know and appreciate that the people involved in this debate tonight care passionately about the rights of all people with disabilities. In order to make this a reality, we have to put the services in place. It is my objective to do this over the next couple of months. I will work very hard in the interests of all people with disabilities and their families.
I thank the Minister of State. This concludes our statements on the ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. I thank all colleagues for their contributions and co-operation. When is it proposed to sit again?
Ar 10.30 a.m. maidin amárach.