I thank the Chairman for the opportunity to address the committee. I apologise for the delay. A lot of work has been ongoing in the background in recent months. I also note the Chairman's point on the schedule and understand the difficulty that it has caused and I will deal with that later.
I am delighted to be here today before the committee, and with its assistance, to complete another stage in the legislative process and move towards enactment of the Bill. The Bill is being brought forward to give effect to Ireland’s ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which took place in March 2018, and I had the honour of visiting the UN at that time.
It is a small item of legislation but it is a significant part of the overall process of progressive realisation of the convention. It addresses a number of key strategic issues. First and foremost, it establishes the independent monitoring framework for the convention, which will be overseen by the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, IHREC, with the support of the National Disability Authority.
This week, the IHREC appointed its monitoring committee for the convention.
The composition of the committee reflects the importance of involving persons with disabilities in the monitoring process. This was a very clear statement during the week when we saw the number of people with a disability on that committee. In addition, the Bill will increase the public sector target for employment of persons with disabilities from 3% to 6% over a number of years. As Deputies will be aware, the National Disability Authority has the statutory duty to monitor annually the rate of employment of persons with disabilities in the public sector. In 2017, the employment rate was 3.5% and I am pleased to note the extent to which many public bodies have exceeded the target of 3%, with the overall number of persons with disabilities employed in the public sector increasing. This Bill will provide a mechanism to ensure a staged increase of this minimum target, reaching 6% by 2024. This is a welcome development, particularly as leadership within the public sector in this regard is a crucial step in transforming attitudes across the employment market. I accept that we have a long way to go and we also have to bring the private sector with us.
The provisions in the Bill regarding jury service are the culmination of a process started by the report of the Commission on the Status of People with Disabilities in 1996. The Civil Law (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2008 amended and updated the references to persons with disabilities but did not remove them. The enactment of this Bill will finally clarify the position of deaf jurors. The public sector duty obligations in the Irish Sign Language Act 2017 will provide the means to make reasonable accommodation for deaf people.
I am concerned about the funding position of the Irish Deaf Society and this is a matter I am actively pursuing. I mention it this morning because I am sure many colleagues will raise it. I hope to have a resolution by the end of the week.
The Bill will also facilitate the participation of persons with certain disabilities on juries and will remove barriers to their standing for election, improving the standard of reasonable accommodation by certain service providers.
Many of the issues addressed in the Bill are highly complex and intertwined with other legislation, thus its passage has been slower than I would have liked. I apologise again for the delays. For example, a decision was taken last year to remove the deprivation of liberty provisions to feature in a stand-alone Bill to be taken forward by the Minister of Health. Since then, the Department has organised a consultation process and received more than 50 submissions which are currently being analysed. In addition, while it was indicated on Second Stage that it was intended to bring forward three heads relating to equality and discrimination matters, I am not proceeding with them at this time because they are not related to disability or the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, UNCRPD. The Department of Justice and Equality is developing an LGBT strategy and it needs to await the outcome of that process before being in a position to determine if legislative change is needed.
Work is continuing on the reforms needed for an optimum level of compliance with the convention's requirements and the progress of this Bill forms a key part of this work. In the early implementation phase, it is essential that resources are focused on the improvement and enhancement of services and not diverted into additional areas such as servicing the optional protocol before we are fully ready.
Five Government amendments are proposed today on Committee Stage. We will discuss these in due course. The opportunity is also being taken to make some minor amendments to the Assisted Decision-Making (Capacity) Act 2015, which provides a modern statutory framework to support decision-making by adults with capacity difficulties.
Detailed work is ongoing to finalise amendments on a number of issues for consideration on Report Stage. These include amendments to address the use of the phrase "unsound mind" in the Statute Book where those references potentially intrude upon the rights of the person deemed to be of "unsound mind". Deputies will appreciate this is a highly technical, complex and very sensitive area. The term "unsound mind" appears in many areas of law and the meaning in each case depends on the context so it is not a simple task to replace it with a generic provision.
The Government also intends to bring forward a Report Stage amendment to align the relevant provisions of the Social Welfare (Consolidation) Act 2005 with the Assisted Decision-Making (Capacity) Act 2015 concerning persons appointed to act on behalf of recipients or beneficiaries of social welfare payments where those people have been medically certified as being unable, for the time being, to manage their own financial affairs. An analogous amendment will be brought forward to amend to the Taxes Consolidation Act 1997 to replace the reference to a "person of unsound mind" with language that aligns with the approach taken in the Assisted Decision-Making (Capacity) Act 2015. Similarly, an amendment to the Criminal Law (Insanity) Act 2006 regarding fitness to plead at trial has been drafted and will be included on Report Stage further to consultation with the advisory counsel and the DPP.
I will bring forward further amendments to the Assisted Decision-Making (Capacity) Act 2015. Work is ongoing to establish the decision support service and draft the necessary codes of practice. In the course of implementation it has been necessary to make amendments to the 2015 Act to correct initial drafting errors and to align the legislation with operational experience. I look forward to working with the committee to refine the Bill and improve the lives of people with disabilities.