Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Wednesday, 2 Feb 2005

Vol. 596 No. 4

Disability Bill 2004: Second Stage (Resumed).

Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I wish to share time with Deputy Boyle.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

Government backbenchers have exposed the Government's real position by rejecting a rights-based approach in no uncertain terms, going so far as to call it fundamentally flawed. They have tried to play cute by insisting that their approach is superior to this, using the Orwellian description of their approach as being delivery-based. It is a massive understatement to say that the Government has followed anything but a delivery-based approach with regard to people with disabilities. However, aside from this, its position is based on fallacy.

Deputy Power said last night that a rights-based approach is favoured only by academics who, presumably, are out of touch with reality. Academics may favour a rights-based approach, but so does the disability legislation consultation group which cannot rightly be described in such a condescending manner. The Government approach also ignores the fact that the rights identified are not arbitrary or optional but reflect international consensus, international agreements and international instruments. Equality and human rights are not optional. This is made clear in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Human Rights Commission has been quite emphatic on this point. The Government must cop on. A rights-based approach is what people want. They deserve nothing less.

The disability legislation consultation group has said that for this Bill to be effective, it needs to introduce not only positive enforceable rights for people with disabilities but also positive duties and requirements on all public and private bodies providing services to remove barriers to equal access and full participation for people with disabilities. It should establish a statutory basis for mainstreaming equality for people with disabilities in all areas of public policy and services. It should impose a requirement to disability-proof all public policies, programmes, plans and law. I agree with this approach.

What does all this bureaucratic terminology mean? To put it more simply, if we want to recognise the equal rights of people with disabilities and make their exclusion a thing of the past, we must stop ghettoising them and treating them only as an afterthought. Instead, we must recognise them as fully equal citizens who deserve to be included as of right. This means we must start to design all aspects of our society so that it fully integrates everyone. Therefore, it is not enough to provide disability-specific services through the Department of Health and Children or the Department of Social and Family Affairs. All services provided by public bodies must be made accessible to people with disabilities, the same as for people without disabilities. Above all, we need sanctions for those bodies that continue to exclude people with disabilities or there will be no incentive to change.

If we look at what has been done with the provisions of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 resulting from the Good Friday Agreement, we see that section 75 imposes a duty in law not only not to discriminate, but also to promote equality actively as an integral part of overall work. There is a requirement on all public bodies to set equality objectives, create strategies for inclusion, conduct impact assessments, monitor outcomes and actively involve people with disabilities in this process. This is the least of what real mainstreaming would require. It is also the minimum equivalence in equality and human rights provisions we have a right to expect in this jurisdiction as a result of the Good Friday Agreement. However, the Bill does not deliver this, not by a long shot.

Sinn Féin wants disability legislation to be a cutting-edge tool to end exclusion, marginalisation and the astronomical rate of 70% unemployment and the resulting poverty among people with disabilities. This Bill proves that the Government is not serious about mainstreaming nor about equal rights for people with disabilities. For proof of this, one need look no further than the six draft sectoral plans found in Part 3 of the Bill.

In these plans, instead of full mainstreaming and statutory duty provisions, what we get is six very weak and vague draft sectoral plans which do not even cover all Departments, much less all public bodies. We get no statutory duty equivalent to section 75, no disability-proofing process, no deadline for achievement of mainstreaming and no sanctions for non-compliance. We do not even get consistency between the six sectoral plans. Therefore, there is nothing in these sectoral plans that guarantees equal rights or substantial progress towards equality for people with disabilities in the foreseeable future.

For example, under the Department of Health and Children's sectoral plan, disability awareness training is not mandatory. Under the plan of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, universal access to local authority owned property will not happen until 2015. Even on that, the Minister could change the date. There are also no targets for access to appropriate accommodation or for independent living, even though this is one of the major issues for people with disabilities.

The sectoral plan of the Department of Social and Family Affairs does not include targets for lifting people with disabilities out of poverty nor does it introduce a cost of disability allowance to offset the additional pressures on the fixed income of those with disabilities. The sectoral plan of the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment gives no targets for a reduction in unemployment of people with disabilities. This is mind-boggling considering the disproportionate rate of 70% unemployment which pertained even during the highs of the Celtic tiger period. This plan does not even commit to a clear affirmative action process to train and hire people with disabilities for the scores of jobs that will result from this Bill.

The sectoral plan of the Department of Transport is dependent on the discretion of the Minister for Finance to make funds available. Therefore, there is no guaranteed access to transportation within any timeframe. Even more disturbing is the fact that the Departments of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Arts, Sports and Tourism, and Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs did not appear to feel the need to make plans to include people with disabilities.

It goes without saying that the Bill imposes no obligation on the private sector. It is welcome to continue to exclude people with disabilities without ever giving the matter a second thought. Recently we saw a situation where a nightclub in this city displayed a sign for a toilet for the disabled but the door went nowhere. This is the sort of situation the private sector appears to get away with.

This Bill is all smoke and mirrors. It is a public relations exercise. It will not deliver equal rights for people with disabilities. Therefore, I call on the Minister to withdraw it. As it stands, I cannot support it.

When the Government withdrew its first attempt at a disability Bill, it had the opportunity to get it right the second time around. However, despite the lengthy period between the withdrawal of the original Bill and the presentation of this one to the House, it is sad that the promised consultation does not seem to have delivered and that those with whom consultation should have been an engaging exercise continue to have widescale reservations about this Bill. The Government seems intent on pushing through a philosophy towards disability that does not meet the needs or recognise the rights of many in our society.

The Opposition has a duty to ensure there is sufficient questioning of that philosophy. If the Government is still intent on proceeding with this Bill, our duty is to ensure that we bring forward all possible amendments to improve it and put it on a better road. I am not particularly confident that a Government that did not listen on its first opportunity is prepared to listen more carefully on its second.

Debate adjourned.
Sitting suspended at 1.30 p.m. and resumed at 2.30 p.m.