Citizens Information Bill 2006: Second Stage (Resumed).

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

I am glad to have a brief opportunity to speak on this Bill, which when enacted will change the name of Comhairle so it may be known in the English language as the "Citizens Information Board" or in Irish as "An Bord um Fhaisnéis do Shaoránaigh". The Bill is to amend and in particular to confer a function on it to provide or arrange for the provision of a personal advocacy service to certain persons with disabilities, to make certain changes to its membership and provide for related matters. I heard Deputy Carey suggesting earlier that "An Bord Eolais" should be used for information rather than the more convoluted Irish version of the title for the amended Bill. I trust the Minister might take this on board on Committee Stage, or perhaps indicate in his closing speech why we need to use more terminology than is necessary. In the context of a country which is trying to promote the Irish language, with only a minority of people fluent, it is crucial we use terminology that is as simplified as possible, rather than making matters more difficult.

I congratulate the rehabilitation organisations, FÁS, the various aspects of the HSE and in particular the voluntary sector, in Donegal and throughout the country, for the massive work that is being done in advocacy and in the provision of support for people with disabilities. It has not as yet reached the level that is needed, but without doubt it is improving. I see this regularly in my constituency where I am asked to hand out certificates for various self improvement courses. Recently the various organisations in Donegal provided free technology facilities for people with disabilities to enable them to participate in anything from ECDL courses to health and safety modules so they can become better qualified in the jobs they are doing. These are important opportunities for people to expand their abilities and to become as integrated as possible with their societies and communities.

As a nation we provide a great many services across a whole gambit of fields. However, in the global age of branding and marketing, we are relatively poor at communicating our message to the people who need it most, regardless of whether it is through grants for third level education, employment opportunities or services for people with disabilities. I strongly welcome the move by the Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Brennan, to change the name of Comhairle to citizens information board and to secure a countrywide branded image associated with citizens information. Like a small business that grows rapidly, we as a nation need to consolidate before we grow further. We need to refine, improve, promote and most of all effectively communicate the message we wish people to receive. In terms of services for people with disabilities, there is no denying we have come a long way. This is due to a whole range of people, from voluntary and support groups, to charitable organisations, health care professionals through the HSE and of course the individuals themselves and their families. We see high profile support through the Special Olympics in every county and parish in the country. This is having an untold positive impact, not only because of awareness raising, but in terms of integration and showing people there are no limits to what they can do if they are supported appropriately.

In Donegal, we came from such a low baseline not so long ago, that the sector considered there was nothing to be lost. This has meant that Donegal is now leading the way in many innovative pilot projects and quite often the approach to community support services for people with disabilities there is being discussed as best practice models throughout Europe. Just look at the Donegal Cheese plant where 75% of the workforce have a disability — but that is not how they promote themselves. They are just a normal company fighting to sustain and grow their business like everyone else. However, they need to be regarded as a business by the State and they are suffering, unusually, in terms of regulations on EU standards for employment rights. They do not want the rights being imposed upon them, but because they are a business they are being told their employees must be entitled to pensions etc. The Department, in effect, is forcing the company to re-examine what it does and to diversify from what it has been doing for a number of years. It is an unusual situation in that the fight to give people rights against their will means that what they have been doing for a number of years is being compromised and will possibly be taken away from them. Their employee rights are being forced upon them when all they want is to continue working with the same degree of flexibility as heretofore, to allow them to meet medical appointments. These workers are not in it for the money. Their views are important, too. In terms of that type of situation the views of people with disabilities need to be ascertained just as much as EU regulations on rights need to be imposed.

While we continue to work towards services for people with disabilities, we need to improve our acceptance and understanding of the conditions in question. How do we diagnose and measure the extent of a disability? There is no universal right or wrong in this regard, and I am finding this very much in terms of conditions such as Asperger's syndrome, for example, which not every GP is able to diagnose. Much of the time children are either undiagnosed or misdiagnosed. It therefore becomes more difficult to deal with the condition in the classroom setting. I came across a case in which an educational psychologist told the parents in question that they should toilet train their child. The parents asked whether the educational psychologist believed, on the basis of the child's age, that they had not tried to do so. They could not train the child because it turned out it had a particular syndrome that had not been diagnosed. People had been regarding the child merely as a child without toilet training rather than one with a certain syndrome. The issue of diagnosis is therefore very important.

Many parents struggle throughout their lives to have their sons or daughters diagnosed. Even with the advances in modern medicine or genetics, this is not always possible. Not only must a family face uncertainty, it must also battle for services if the child's condition is undiagnosed or does not fall into a neat category among the list of common conditions.

Planning services is difficult in such cases. Extra resources and greater understanding of the pressures and strains parents face are required. They should be treated with compassion because quite often they are just entering new territory and are feeling their way in the dark. This is why the Bill is so important.

Consider the measurement of the severity of disability. In respect of autism, for example, some professionals are using one tool of measurement rather than another despite there being autism-specific measurement tools. There should be greater flexibility and more widespread use of the tools required for the individuals in question. These areas require attention if we are to adopt the person-centred approach.

Many patients with communication difficulties do not have the right to non-verbal forms of intervention, such as art therapy, which are being proven internationally. I recently conducted a study of music therapy and found it quite shocking that in Ireland, which is well advanced technologically and educationally, we do not recognise or define it as a profession. We therefore expect music therapists, who have spent four years obtaining degrees and who have obtained Masters degrees, to be paid as caretakers in hospitals. This does not happen in Northern Ireland, Great Britain, the United States, Australia or New Zealand. If we are to provide access to information, we must also provide access to services. Thus, we must define music therapy in the health care professionals legislation, which passed through the House last year. We are losing our music therapists to Northern Ireland and elsewhere because they are paid properly everywhere except in the Republic of Ireland.

The multidisciplinary, person-centred approach to planning and delivering services is the most effective. We talk of it in respect of home care packages for the elderly and sick but it is important that it also be applied in respect of the disabled. The role of the personal advocacy service should start at birth and continue throughout a person's life.

We often talk of the negative aspects of hospitals but there are positive examples of the system working well. I am aware of a specific case in which a child was born in Letterkenny General Hospital with abnormal features. These were identified by the consultant paediatrician after running a series of tests. Through the tests it was discovered that the child has an extremely rare genetic condition, of which there are only three other published cases in the world. The foresight of the paediatrician was such that the baby was referred to every service conceivable from the outset. While this meant much travel and many appointments for the parents initially, the services that were not needed were discounted one by one. From the outset, the parents adopted the multidisciplinary approach to planning services for their child and were given a point of contact from a medical perspective through a paediatric link nurse whom they can call for advice. They can obtain support from the counsellor for special needs.

The child is now five and is making great progress within the system. Compare this with the scenario that would obtain if there were no diagnosis at birth. In such circumstances, parents would battle to enter the system and find out when their child is 12 that they had been entitled to a domiciliary care allowance.

While multidisciplinary team meetings continue for the child born in Letterkenny General Hospital, more resources are needed to support such teams' work. More adequately qualified professionals and continuity of service provision are required. SENOs are not qualified in special needs specifically and this causes great trauma for the parents.

Where a person is born with a disability or syndrome that will last for life why is that person's eligibility for a medical card continually reviewed? Why are such individuals brought before boards to ascertain the extent of their disability year in, year out? This must be addressed. If one is born with a problem to which science has not found a solution, one should not have to assert one's rights continually. While providing support and advocacy services in this Bill, we should also remove the hurdles that do not need to exist.

Like every other Member, I welcome the Citizens Information Bill 2006. I concur entirely with Deputy Keaveney's views on medical cards for people with disabilities they will have for life. I see no reason for assessing such people continually and forcing them to lodge appeals. I am sure the Minister will do what he can about this.

All Members have been very closely associated with matters relating to disability. I have said on several occasions over the years, while in and out of Government, that we have never done enough in this regard. There is always a great shortfall in funding and consequently in the delivery of the services the disabled need.

I recognise the need for advocacy as many people find it almost impossible to gain access to various services. I am not too sure how certain technical provisions in the Bill will work. Will each person with a disability be assigned a person who will seek out for him or her the various services he or she requires? Most people with disabilities, particularly their families, will not ask who will represent them but about the services in place for them.

All political representatives in East Galway have been invited to meetings of the Ballinasloe Advocates, a forum that has met many times over the years. When I was a younger Member in the 1980s, a woman with a mentally handicapped child said at the forum that, irrespective of what way she turned, she did not seem to be able to receive a service. Every Member has heard such stories and I am not making a party-political point at all.

Certain changes have been made and there has been a fair bit of investment in the meantime, yet, 20 years after the aforesaid incident, a young mother of not more than 25 or 26 years said at the forum that her heart was broken trying to access services for her two mentally handicapped children. She was told there are services for everything but when she tried to access them, she could not do so. She could not get a child psychologist or speech therapist. The Bill will go some way towards helping this woman. However, if she could not gain access to the services in spite of her trying to do so on a full-time basis, who could? If the Ballinasloe advocates and the various groups across Ireland that do so much voluntary work to help those with disabilities cannot access services, I cannot imagine how those at whom this Bill is aimed might do so, despite its helpfulness, unless the service base is improved. Many of them will be seeking a service that does not exist, and it is incumbent upon us all to put it there. In dealing with the mentally handicapped and people with disabilities of other kinds, I have met very few who would not agree.

Like other Members, I have always believed in the human right of the disabled to an assessment and an appropriate service. Today, in 2006, we are a million miles from that. I will return to the area I know best. The Brothers of Charity are active in Ballinasloe, and the Galway County Association for Mentally Handicapped Children is the other service provider. From my many dealings with them over the years, I believe they provide value for money and that their hearts are in the right place. They are now as frustrated as everyone else, and I will give Members a case in point.

The Brothers of Charity in County Galway currently have 77 cases on their books of persons who require residential care. Up to a month ago, they had been able to place only 14. Let us consider what that means for families. There are over 50 cases in Galway, Mayo and Roscommon where parents are unable to give their child the requisite care, and there is nowhere for that child to go. There have been harrowing incidents involving very strong children aged 12, 13 or 14 with whom parents can do nothing, perhaps themselves not being in good health. We have now arrived at the situation where there is generally no place for such children.

Let no one tell me when the budget figures are issued on 6 December that, with our economy, we are unable to handle this area better. The Minister will have no trouble standing before the House and explaining the increased funding put into the system over the last ten years. It is true that a great deal has been committed, but the problem is that we are coming from a very low base. I understand some 400,000 persons are registered as having a disability. Things are happening even in today's modern age that I cannot understand, and I will explain a few to the House.

Respite care provides an example. It has been said here many times in recent years that people must give unrelenting labour 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Such total and absolute commitment means their whole lives are tied up in providing a better life for their disabled child. I know several such parents who would love a Saturday evening or Sunday off once every three or four months, never mind every week or fortnight. Even twice a year would suffice, but it is impossible. If their neighbours and relations are unable to assist, there is no respite for them. That system cannot be right, and there is obviously something wrong at its core, whether it be money, planning or personnel. If there were a rights-based system tomorrow, the Minister could not provide even a third of the child psychologists or 10% of the speech therapists required. The task of planning will obviously be much larger than hitherto acknowledged if we are to deliver the programmes and benefits that the disabled require.

Another major problem that I cannot understand is this. I have never been an educationalist, but I have noticed over the years that many children slip through the net, not having impediments identified on their way through national school in particular. I know what I am talking about, having dealt with many families in this regard. There has been major and successful change in this country, but it came from a very low base. The programme providing learning support and resource teachers is most commendable. However, like everything else, its effects are being diluted. Those with the greatest degree of handicap at national school level have access to resource teachers, but the learning support teachers are being saddled with very large classes. Since so many students just miss the minimum criteria to access resource teaching, we find that many receive much less teaching from relevant experts than hitherto.

For every young person whose impediments, such as autistic spectrum disorder, were not identified in school, there is devastation. Imagine that person journeying through the school curriculum and entering the hurly-burly of secondary school. The Minister will know as a parent that it is a step change. Most will never reach third level education, but they must try to keep up with the rest of the class and go out into what is a very big, bad world for one with such impediments.

Much can be done for such children if they are identified. What I have seen done for those assessed in time and given the type of remedial treatment to which they were entitled has been nothing short of a miracle. However, I cannot understand why we do not have more of that. Resource and learning support teaching has been useful. The integration of those with disabilities at local level should be encouraged where possible so the child is with his or her peers, brothers and sisters and neighbours. We fully appreciate there are occasions when that cannot happen, but on 6 December I expect and hope for a substantial increase in funding for the handicapped. We need not reinvent the wheel, since we now know what works. There is no need to cover old ground because we know what is needed. I hope that before long, hopefully in the next year, a situation can never again arise where a mother of two children with disabilities declares at a public meeting that she has nowhere to go and that her passage is blocked at every avenue. This woman simply could not access the services she was assured were in place. We are all assured that those services are in place, but it is difficult to find them when they are needed.

How many persons will be employed by the new citizens information board? Will they be dispersed throughout the State or will they all be based in Dublin? What type of recruitment does the Minister propose? I am sure it will be open and transparent, but what educational qualifications will be required and what training will be given to successful applicants?

I pay tribute to the Department of Social and Family Affairs as the most efficient Department in terms of providing information. I am sure other Members will agree that the communication system within the Department is open and helpful. It is the least one would expect but it cannot be said for some Departments. When I telephone on behalf of constituents in regard to some inquiry for which they cannot get the answer to which they are entitled, I sometimes wonder about the service motto or mission statement of some Departments. That is not the case with the Department of Social and Family Affairs.

In the former Western Health Board area, persons who apply to the Health Service Executive for housing aid for the elderly, which is a great scheme that has worked well for many years, are faced with long waits for a response. It seems a decision was made to postpone approvals under the scheme in the past two years. These are people of 75 or 80 years of age who require certain small but essential improvements to their homes that would make them more comfortable and allow them to remain living there. Many such persons applied to the scheme two years ago and received no response until last month.

The Minister, as a person with broad experience, must agree it is not acceptable, under any circumstances, to treat elderly persons in this way. To ask a person of 80 years to wait two years is like asking a person in his or her 40s to wait ten years. Irrespective of the resources available to the Government in this Celtic tiger economy, does the Minister agree that nobody could stand over such inadequate services for persons with disabilities? I hope all of those who have applied for the housing aid for the elderly scheme will be successful soon. It is a case of only €3,000 to €5,000 per approval, but it makes the world of difference to the recipients by making their homes easier and more comfortable to live in. This helps to address a plethora of other problems.

Deputy Andrews made a good point during the previous day's debate when he spoke about getting people with disabilities into open employment. There were great efforts in this regard 15 or 20 years ago and some degree of success. It seems, however, that this effort has begun to slip dramatically. It is something that should be revisited because there are many people who are well qualified and have sufficient confidence to work in certain jobs if they were only given the chance. It seems most of them are not being given that chance.

I hope this Bill will bring some relief to those with disabilities. It is undoubtedly a step in the right direction. If anybody believes, however, that it will be the cure for all evils and that it will fill the gaps that currently exist in the system, they are living in cloud cuckoo land.

I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak on this Bill. I concur with Deputy Connaughton's comments on the facility provided by the Department of Social and Family Affairs. The services are accessible and the staff customer-friendly, or Deputy-friendly at least. I am particularly interested in this Bill because I have worked with people with disabilities for some time, in my previous career as a teacher and for the past 23 years as a politician. I am aware, in particular, that such persons are not always aware of their entitlements.

I have done some research into the origins of the concept of citizen advocacy. One could say it has been around for generations and centuries. Officially, however, it originated in the United States in the 1960s when Professor Wolf Wolfensberger put forward the concept in order to provide a continuity of protection and advocacy for children with cerebral palsy should anything happen to their parents or guardians. In an article written in 1995, Professor Wolfensberger reviewed a set of 22 assumptions that point to citizen advocacy as a valid model strategy. He observed that the need for advocacy and assistance is widespread among people who suffer disadvantage and that the type of advocacy and assistance varies widely. He noted that in some cases, help must come from people with the competencies and resources that the person concerned lacks. All people, he contended, including disabled people, have some important needs that can only be addressed within a freely given voluntary relationship and that the needs of many people with significant difficulties are better met on a long-term basis.

The model of citizen advocacy has since spread to other countries, including the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and Ireland. It is part of the system in many jurisdictions. As the Minister stated, advocacy is a traditional concept linked to the notion of the citizen taking responsibility for himself or herself and for his or her neighbour. Traditionally in rural communities the advocate was usually the local teacher who filled out forms and made essential contacts for people, for which they were highly regarded. Otherwise, the role was filled by an individual in the community adept at writing letters such as the local garda, councillor, Deputy or parish priest. The Bill formalises this tradition. On a daily basis advocacy is still carried out by many, such as parents and teachers. Despite all the services and advisory agencies for people with disabilities, I am amazed people do not know exactly to what they are entitled. I hope the Bill will help to remedy this.

I have some concerns about the Bill. As Deputy Connaughton asked, will the required number of advocates be available for the large number of people who will seek this service? People wishing to avail of the service must apply for it. In some instances of disadvantage, some people would require the assistance of an advocate to apply for the service. Who will apply for these people? It is important to communicate to people that they can apply for the service.

A decision-making process will be in place as to who is entitled to the advocacy service. As a large number of applications will have to be prioritised, will the Minister clarify on what basis this will happen? In some cases it can be difficult for a layperson to determine levels of disability.

The Bill will provide extra functions to Comhairle. Will resources be increased to ensure these functions will be effectively implemented? The Minister referred to standards and that the services will be underpinned with strong values and principles. Will the Minister clarify the guidelines that will be in place for advocates and will they be screened? An advocate could have a working relationship with an individual for a long period. An advocate could be assigned to a person when he or she is very young. Their working relationship could develop over a long period. It is, therefore, important that advocates are well-trained and professional. What provision has been made for the training of potential advocates? Does the Bill contain provisions for in-service training?

I welcome the statutory recognition of citizen information centres. The two I know of in Tralee and Listowel operate effectively at the coalface. At times, people prefer to attend a citizen information centre than attending a Deputy's clinic because they will not feel beholden and it is a public service. Will the Minister ensure the centres are properly resourced and their office environs are welcoming and comfortable? Some centres have not been provided with good accommodation, which is not acceptable for either staff or users.

Despite the services made available to the new Irish — refugees and asylum seekers — they need continued support. While the numbers of refugees entering Ireland has decreased, many have started families and need assistance. Many will seek it from the advocacy service. Has provision been made for this group?

Some people with disabilities or the elderly are unaware of housing grants available to them. A system should be in place where, in some cases of disadvantage, if a person inquires about a grant, a local authority would fill in the form for the applicant.

The new service will come up against the area of psychological assessments for young people. For example, it is accepted that early assessment and intervention is the best way in dealing with most disabilities. Will the Minister clarify where an advocate can go if the service required is not available?

The benefits of citizen advocacy particularly for those with learning difficulties are unambiguous. The long-term nature of citizen advocacy partnerships offers the potential for developing self-confidence and new opportunities for those who may have experienced exclusion for many years. Citizen advocacy schemes, however, present several organisational difficulties. One is the recruitment of enough suitable long-term advocates. Many schemes share this problem, as the pilot scheme in Galway demonstrated. An interruption in this long-term relationship may have a traumatic impact on the user's well-being if it is not handled properly. The relationship between the advocate and the user should be monitored because the advocate may not be suited to the client's needs. Does the Bill provide for monitoring and evaluation of this scheme? It takes a degree of skill to make a good match between the advocate and the user.

Other difficulties surrounding citizen advocacy include the need for a co-ordinator with sufficient time and resources to manage the scheme, the conflict between the relative benefits of an untrained citizen advocate and a more expert casework advocate and the tendency for some advocates to befriend rather than assume an advocacy role. The advocate should be professional and avoid getting too close to the user who could be traumatised by the death or departure of the advocate.

Some health professionals are not inclined to accept the opinion of a lay advocate who, for example, refers a client for a psychological assessment. Has the Minister considered how binding is the advocate's recommendation for a service where available and the relationship between advocates and other professionals?

I welcome this Bill which legislates for what in some cases already exists but for which there will be more need as community relationships continue to break down. This trend began in urban areas and is moving to rural areas. This service will play an important role for people who cannot look after themselves. I compliment the Minister on bringing the Bill forward.

One cannot but welcome the Citizens Information Bill which in theory sets out to ensure that people with disabilities are supported, to enable them as far as possible to lead independent lives, reach their potential as individuals and participate fully in society. In practice, however, people with disabilities continually experience difficulties in their daily lives. Irrespective of the grand notions contained in this Bill practical difficulties remain.

The Minister said that the intention is to have an effective combination of legislation, policies, institutions and services in place to ensure equal access to services and full participation in everyday life for people with disabilities. We all share that wish but merely including such aspirations in legislation does not make them happen.

This Bill provides for the introduction of a personal advocacy service for certain people with disabilities who would otherwise have difficulty obtaining access to services. That is all very fine but those who are able to access services and to represent themselves fully should be given what they seek first. There is no benefit to people with disabilities in putting everything on paper but being deficient in practice.

One of the most basic human rights is the right to vote. In theory, people have that right but in practice wheelchair users have difficulty gaining admission to polling booths. I raised this issue with the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and, to make it easy for him, specified one polling station in my constituency, East Galway. In order not to overburden the Minister I kept the question short. I asked him if measures were being put in place to make a polling booth in County Galway wheelchair accessible. I expected a direct answer along the lines that the Minister was concerned that a person in County Galway could not gain access to a polling booth to cast his or her vote. I further expected him to advise me that he had initiated steps to ensure that this situation would not occur again. It should have been nice and simple. I was the parliamentary advocate on behalf of this person.

In the interests of accuracy I will read the Minister's reply:

Under the Electoral Act 1992, the selection of buildings to be used as polling stations at an election or referendum is a matter for the returning officer. [The Minister is kicking to touch here.] The Electoral (Amendment) Act 1996 provides that local authorities, in making polling schemes, shall endeavour to appoint polling places which allow the returning officer to provide at each place at least one polling station that is accessible to wheelchair users. The Act also requires that the returning officer shall, where practicable, provide polling stations which are accessible to wheelchair users. In addition, the returning officer must, where practicable, give public notice of all polling stations which are inaccessible to wheelchair users not later than eight days before polling day.

If an elector will have difficulty gaining access to his or her polling station, he or she may apply in writing to the returning officer for authorisation to vote at another polling station in the same constituency. If a person has a physical disability or physical illness which prevents him or her from going to the polling station, the person can vote by post if he or she applies to be included in the postal voters list which is drawn up each year as part of the register of electors.

What does that mean? It is such waffle. There is no reference in the Minister's reply to the specific polling station. Neither is there any expression of regret that a person was denied his or her right to vote, nor to the rights of people with disabilities. The Minister made no statement to the effect that everybody is equal under the Constitution or that everybody should be treated equally and with respect. Neither did he acknowledge that public buildings should be accessible to all.

The nub of the Minister's reply is: "If an elector will have difficulty gaining access to his or her polling station, he or she may apply in writing to the returning officer for authorisation to vote at another polling station". In practice, that requires a person who uses a wheelchair to go to a polling station a number of days before polling day to check it out for accessibility. If he or she cannot gain access, it is necessary for him or her to search for an accessible polling station in the constituency and write to the returning officer seeking permission to vote at the other venue. That is such rubbish and it is such an insult to wheelchair users. Citizens are not being facilitated to cast their votes in their local polling stations.

Another issue of great concern to people with disabilities in rural areas is their inability to access public transport. I refer in particular to bus services. This is a classic case of discrimination against people with disabilities. We do not need further legislation to know that it is wrong that some members of society cannot access public transport. A decision is required from Government to make this unacceptable. A further decision is required to rectify the matter and ensure that all public transport vehicles are made fully accessible so they can be utilised by all citizens.

Train services are also inadequate and are not designed to facilitate people with disabilities. For example, a wheelchair user who boards a train in Galway to travel to Dublin has no opportunity to access toilet facilities. That is a deplorable situation. While I welcome the Citizens Information Bill, it will not solve such problems as I have outlined that confront people with disabilities on a daily basis. The problems I have outlined are not new to the Minister but I urge him to ensure they are taken on board and rectified by the Government so that all citizens are treated equally and with respect and dignity.

I welcome the Bill. It is a step in the right direction, however, the introduction of legislation alone will do little for people with disabilities. What is required is determination on the part of the Government to ensure that the difficulties faced by people with disabilities are eliminated. Practical measures must be introduced as a matter of urgency to underpin the legislation on the Statute Book that is designed to assist people with disabilities.

Deputy Keaveney raised an important issue in her contribution, namely, people with lifelong illness. I hope the Minister will at least deal with this matter because it will not involve any expenditure by the Exchequer nor require any detailed analysis to be carried out by a Department. In effect, it would not impose any burden on Departments. People with lifelong illnesses are entitled to have a medical card but they should not have to apply for it on an annual basis. A list is available of the qualifying illnesses for the provision of a medical card and there is no reason a person should have to reapply for this card annually when his or her situation is not likely to change. Why are people put through the misery of annual applications? I urge the Minister to take on board this point.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill. I thank the Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Brennan, for being present for the debate. It is important that the responsible Minister be present to hear the contributions we make.

I also compliment the staff in his Department who provide an excellent service, both in regard to access to information and the provision of information in a speedy and comprehensive manner to Members of the Oireachtas and the public. If the Minister could instil one thing in his Government colleagues it should be for them to follow the benchmark of the officials in the Department of Social and Family Affairs. If that were the case, a great deal less time would be spent dealing with personal issues on the floor of the House or in written parliamentary questions. All the officials in the Department deserve credit in terms of their accessibility and responsiveness to queries raised by Members.

In addition, I specifically compliment the information officers in the Department offices around the country who do a tremendous job. They provide information in an unbiased manner. In many Departments, people have difficulty gaining access to unbiased information from agents of the State. People are afraid that if they bring something to the attention of a Department they could end up either being prosecuted or penalised for it. Not only do information officers provide useful information in a user-friendly manner but they also make themselves available to address public meetings in their catchment areas. All credit is due to them.

Citizens information centres do a tremendous job in making information available to the public. On Monday I heard Derek Mooney's radio programme on Radio 1. A representative of the citizens information network has a regular slot on that programme. The type and clarity of the information provided is most useful. A similar service is provided by citizens information officers throughout the country on local radio stations.

There are two aspects to the Bill, the first of which is to facilitate the implementation of the Government's legislative programme in terms of improving services for people with disabilities. It will also enhance the functions of Comhairle and rename it the Citizens Information Board.

The first issue I want to raise does not relate directly to the Department of Social and Family Affairs. It relates to Comhairle, the Citizens Information Board and, sadly, the Health Service Executive. It came to my attention last August that the standard letter the Health Service Executive now issues to applicants for medical cards and those who have had their medical card entitlement reviewed does not give any explanation as to the reasons for a decision. A person who is granted a GP-only card is not told that he or she can appeal the decision and is not given a breakdown of how means are calculated, as was standard procedure under the former health boards. For some unknown reason the Health Service Executive does not want to release that information to the public. That is wrong on two counts. First, people have a basic right to be told why they are deemed ineligible for a medical card or a GP-only card. This was common practice until the Health Service Executive took over. Second, people should be informed of their right to appeal a decision. That is not happening. They are aware they can appeal the granting of a GP-only card instead of a medical card, but they are not informed to whom the appeal should be submitted nor are they informed that they can appeal a decision to refuse them a medical card. A bunch of gurus within the Health Service Executive replaced the medical card application forms with a new combined medical card application form and, based on the responses sent to people around the country, it drafted a new standard letter which takes no account of people's basic right to information. It is clear that the Health Service Executive is in an ivory tower and does not consult with individuals on the ground who are at the front line of the service.

I raised this issue with the local Health Service Executive officers last August. A couple of the officials within the Health Service Executive contacted me directly and complimented me on highlighting this issue, but it took until 21 November to get a response, and that response was to the effect that my suggestions had been forwarded to the IT unit for its attention. That is wholly unacceptable and a gross infringement of the right of the public to information.

I will turn to the Minister in a minute but while I am on the issue of medical cards and the gurus who examined the application forms, the standard application form does not include a section for a statement of income, which was previously standard procedure. It is standard procedure in the Department of Social and Family Affairs and certainly in the health boards in the west. Whether we agree with the method of calculation is not the point. There was such a section in the application form which has now been removed. The form is four or five pages longer than it used to be but when someone makes an application they invariably receive a response to the effect that they have not provided all the information required. That is wholly unacceptable. It delays the issuing of medical cards to people who are entitled to them and this delay denies people their basic rights. It is time the Health Service Executive got its act together in this regard. If it does not have the competency within its organisation, there are plenty of Members on both sides of this House who would be quite willing to advise as to the basic information that should be required in these forms and the response that should be given to individuals. If the Health Service Executive is not prepared to talk to Members, I am sure the Minister would make his officials available to address these basic problems.

I also want to raise the issue of the right to information in the context of the Department of Social and Family Affairs. The purpose of the family income supplement is to give a top-up payment to low income families. It is a very useful payment for those who are aware of it. It takes them above the poverty line and makes staying in employment a viable option for many people. However, many people are unaware of the availability of family income supplement. I am aware the Department has done studies on this in the past and runs advertising campaigns at regular intervals to provide information to the public. We are falling short in this area and a special effort needs to be made to try to increase the uptake of family income supplement. Given the large non-national population working here, that information needs to be made available not only in the English and Irish languages but also in other European languages.

The farm assist scheme is another scheme that has not had the type of uptake that would be expected, as shown by the Department's research. Part of the problem is the difficulty in assessing farmers' eligibility. I am aware it will be difficult, but I ask the Minister to re-examine the issue with a view to resolving that problem. It has also been brought to my attention that farmers who are liable to tax believe they should have the option of making their tax returns to the Revenue Commissioners available to the Department of Social and Family Affairs as proof of their income. It would not suit farmers who are not liable to tax and I would not want to put them to the expense of producing accounts. However, where accounts are produced, it should be possible to provide these to the social welfare inspector as proof of income rather than requiring people to go through the whole rigmarole of providing receipts and documentation again. It would speed up the processing of a number of schemes. I ask the Minister to examine that possibility. When I raised the issue in the House on 1 November the Minister responded that the tax assessments show the factual income position as required under the social welfare legislation and could be used by a social welfare inspector in preparing a report but that this would not be a reliable approach in all cases. I accept that, but in many cases it would suffice and it would reduce delays in processing some applications.

Over the years the Department has examined in detail issues relating to carers. We need to provide access to basic health and safety information to home carers in particular. They should, for example, have to right to go on a manual lifting course, even if they are not entitled to a carer's allowance. They should be allowed to attend a short course to learn the basic steps a home carer must deal with on a daily basis, including working with elderly or disabled people and other health and safety issues.

I also ask the Minister to review the carer's allowance application form, which has come in for criticism owing to the volume of paperwork that needs to be completed. We do not want to turn people off when they see the application form. People can be discouraged from applying for schemes when they see the size of the application form. In many cases, when one goes through the form, it is not too difficult for most people. We need to consider streamlining the forms and making them more accessible and I know the Department has done considerable work in that regard.

It would be great if it were no longer necessary for people to submit birth and marriage certificates. I welcome that it is no longer necessary to submit children's birth certificates to receive child benefit. I am the beneficiary of that change, which is a positive development. I do not know why the rest of the population, including older people, are required to get these certificates and submit them given that they are now available electronically. Where there may be a difficulty in certain circumstances, let the Department revert to the applicant advising that it cannot locate the electronic record and asking him or her to supply the physical certificate. In many cases, there is no such need. The technology exists and the Department is using it very successfully for the payment of child benefit for newborn babies. Surely it can be rolled out for the rest of the population.

On the subject of electronic communication, I ask the Minister to work with the Minister for Agriculture and Food to address the issue of the farmers' early retirement scheme. On reaching the age of 66, farmers in receipt of early retirement payments are supposed to have the value of the old age pension deducted from their early retirement payment. While we can argue about it, that is the law as it stands. Owing to a lack of communication between the Departments of Social and Family Affairs and Agriculture and Food, farmers often get a letter from the Department of Agriculture and Food 12 or 18 months later seeking recoupment of the value of the old age pension.

Today, it is the farmers' responsibility upon receipt of their social welfare pension to advise the Department. Surely the Department of Social and Family Affairs, which is aware that the farmer is in receipt of the early retirement payment because it is mentioned on the application form, could advise the Department of Agriculture and Food that the person is now in receipt of an old age pension and that its value should be deducted from the farm retirement payment. This would avoid people getting demands for large amounts of money from the Department of Agriculture and Food purely because of the existing lack of communication. It would not take much to do this and would simplify the system and reduce hardship for many people.

I wish to raise an old chestnut with the Minister, which is the leasing of land for farmers. While I know the Minister and his officials are sick to death of me raising this issue, I will continue to raise it until we get some movement on it. At present, someone in receipt of a non-contributory State pension who is in employment has the first €100 of income exempted from the means test, which is commendable. However, in the case of a farmer who was in the early retirement scheme and it finishes or is not in the early retirement scheme and is leasing out land, the full value of the lease minus €20 per week is taken off the income.

In many cases it does not make financial sense for farmers to lease out their land. It makes more sense for them to keep two cattle on that land so that an income assessment can be done. It causes delays and ties up social welfare inspectors' time carrying out unnecessary assessments. The amount of income coming in is extremely small and it also prevents the release of farmland to young progressive farmers, who might stay in a rural area and reduce the isolation of such farmers. It would also reduce the amount of land going to rack and ruin belonging mainly to farmers without any successor.

It is difficult enough for farmers who are leasing their land and are not involved in the farm retirement scheme because at any stage they can choose to revert to farming again by putting two cows on the land, leading to the need to carry out a farm income assessment. However, once farmers leave the early retirement scheme, they have no other option but to lease the land or transfer it to a successor because they cannot go back farming, as it is one of the conditions of the early retirement scheme. It causes extreme hardship for them because while they are in the farm retirement scheme, the first €5,000 of the value of the lease is exempt from income assessment regarding the State non-contributory pension. However, once they leave the early retirement scheme, the full value of the lease less €20 per week comes into the means calculation. The Minister should consider this anomaly.

Introducing the same exemption for long-term leases as already exists in the Department of Social and Family Affairs for participants in the Department of Agriculture and Food's early retirement scheme would address the anomaly in most cases. This problem is only arising now because, from the end of this year, farmers will be leaving the early retirement scheme and it will become a bigger issue in coming years. I have raised this matter on numerous occasions.

Farmers became liable to pay PRSI in the late 1980s. Any farmers without five years' contributions paid at the time they reach 66 are not entitled to any State contributory pension. Surely this could be given to them on apro rata basis based on the two or three years they paid PRSI. While it only affects a small number of cases, it is causing hardship and is an anomaly that the Minister should review. I commend the Bill to the House.

I thank all those who contributed to a long debate on the Citizens Information Bill. I was able to listen to every speaker who contributed. I took careful notes of the points made by Deputies on all sides of the House. I thank them for giving the Bill such detailed and serious consideration and I look forward to teasing out some of the outstanding issues on Committee and Remaining Stages and during its passage through the Seanad. I hope we can complete the legislation before the recess in order that the advocacy service can be implemented.

The Bill is designed to meet the needs of people with disabilities in a changing 21st century Ireland. It seeks to bring the provision of information on State services into the modern era by rebranding, redesigning, refocusing and modernising. The Bill proposes the provision of personal advocates for people with disabilities. I am glad Members on all sides of the House indicated their support for those objectives. We can deal with any points that have been raised in respect of them.

I wish first to deal with the change of name. We gave this matter long and careful consideration. It is with great reluctance that I would drop an Irish phrase or dilute our commitment to the Irish language in any way. It would ill behove someone such as me who comes from the west to try to do something of that nature. However, there was a larger issue at stake. In trying to place a new focus on the provision of information, and remembering that Comhairle is charged with providing information relating not only to my Department but also to all State social services, I took the view the time had come to try to put in place a coherent brand with which we could move forward and which would be easily identifiable by members of the public in the context of the provision of State-funded information services. I also wanted to put in place a strategy to strengthen the public profile of the information services provided by citizens information centres throughout the country.

In considering this matter, I formed the opinion that having an organisation called Comhairle with a website called Oasis which funds citizens information centres is too much for people to take on board. The very first duty of any information provider is to ensure that it and its services are easy to locate. This new structure will make matters easier for people. If the House approves the legislation, the title "Citizens Information Board" will apply nationally as well as locally. All of the very fine citizens information centres throughout the country use that title and there is great support for it and the national body funds them on behalf of the taxpayer. However, it does not own or operate the centres. In that context, I felt it important to try to engage in a clean and crisp rebranding that provided evidence of our joined-up approach to this matter. That is why we will have a citizens information website rather than Oasis. We will also part company with the title "Comhairle" and move on to a national body that will be termed "the Citizens Information Board".

The change of name will focus the board on the nature of its work. Comhairle has done a fine job but I would like to refocus it on what it must now do, namely, to ensure a citizen or anyone else who wants information can obtain it. In addition, there will be a certain clarity with regard to the national organisation and its local counterparts.

A number of Deputies queried the use of the word "citizen". I see their point. When I came to address this issue, I was concerned as to whether non-citizens would feel that we were somehow failing to take account of their needs. I consulted some of the immigration bodies and organisations and discovered they did not have an issue with it because people tend to see themselves as citizens of Europe and aspiring citizens of Ireland. Immigrants are not of the opinion that because, in technical terms, they are not Irish citizens, the title does not refer to them. It would not make sense to try to change the names of the various citizens information centres. The logical step was, therefore, to proceed in the manner outlined in the Bill.

The additional costs relating to rebranding will be imposed over a period and will not be hugely significant. All the documentation — booklets, forms etc. — must be continually updated in any event. This will not be a major commercial rebranding and I am not overly concerned about it.

The change of name is being done to help the customer. I was of the view that trying to move forward using the titles "Comhairle", "Oasis" and "citizens information centres" would be too confusing. We will now have the citizens information board, the citizens information centres and the citizens information website. The new brand will mean everyone will automatically be aware that if they require any information regarding State social services, they can immediately consult the new citizens information structure.

Deputies Carey and Sargent queried the translation of the word "information" into Irish. Officials of my Department made further inquiries of the Oireachtas translation service and were informed the translators reserve the word "faisnéis", as distinct from "eolas" which translates as "knowledge", to refer to "information" in legislation. The distinction is important in translations of legislation because both words can appear in the same sentence. The word "faisnéis" has been used for many years to translate the word "information" into Irish — for example, An tAcht um Shaoráil Faisnéise or the Freedom of Information Act.

Deputies referred to the use of the word "faisnéis" in the context of "forecast". The use of the word has been clarified by the translation service in the context of the word réamhfhaisnéis, as in réamhfhaisnéis na haimsire. In this regard, "réamh" translates "beforehand" or "preliminary", rather than "forecast", and "fhaisnéis" translates as "information". As we will discover in the next ten days or so, "cáin-fhaisnéis" is the Irish for "budget" and translates as "information about taxes". The meaning of "faisnéis" in theFoclóir Gaeilge-Béarla by Ó Dónaill is “information, intelligence, report”, including in legal references. The translation service has explained that although “eolas” is often used to denote information in other situations, in the legislative context, “faisnéis” is the appropriate word to use to render “information”. In light of this further consideration of the matter by the translation service, I believe we should continue to use the word “faisnéis”.

Deputies Stanton, Penrose, Dennehy, Lynch and others referred to resources. In 2006, €24.36 million was allocated by the Department to fund services provided by Comhairle. This includes €250,000 for the start-up of personal advocacy services and €150,000 for the preliminary work this year relating to interpretation services for deaf people. A total of €2.012 million of the overall allocation has been provided specifically for the programme of support in the community and voluntary service. By the end of 2006, 31 projects funded under the programme will be in place throughout the country. We are committed to the progressive development of advocacy services to meet the needs of people with disabilities in line with the national disability strategy, to which some Deputies referred. The Estimates provide for an allocation of €26.5 million for the citizens information board in 2007. While further discussion and internal decisions are required, approximately €2.5 million of this amount will be used in respect of the advocacy service. However, that figure needs to be finalised.

Deputies also inquired about the research undertaken in respect of the demand for personal advocacy services. A report on developing advocacy services for people with disabilities was published by Comhairle in July 2004. This brought forward a great deal of independent evidence and research. The consultation process undertaken as part of the work identified those who have the greatest need for advocacy services as people with intellectual disabilities, those who are mentally ill and, in particular, people with long-term illnesses. These categories also include people with disabilities who are in residential institutions. Data compiled for the report indicates 26,600 people are registered on the national intellectual disability database. Of these, 9,200 are children.

A total of 14,800 persons with mental or intellectual disabilities are in hospitals and full-time residential and community facilities. People with disabilities in these categories who have difficulty in accessing social services without the support of a personal advocate will be prioritised by the new service. It is important to recognise that many people with disabilities receive support from carers, parents, brothers and sisters who act in their best interest and insist on securing their needs. In those cases an advocacy service may not be required but an application can still be made.

The future demand for personal advocacy services will be kept under constant review by the CIB and the Department. The resources needed for this service will continue to be a priority in the annual Estimates and future budgets. Consideration can be given to whatever further investment is needed in the service in the preparations for the upcoming budget. I have outlined the resources needed to operate a professional and solid advocacy service nationally and we are committed to ensuring they will be made available.

Deputy Stanton asked about the director and his staff, his remit, the service's location and recruitment. It is planned that the director of the service and between four and six personal advocates and support staff will be recruited in the initial phase. The director will initially be based in Dublin but, as decentralisation of the CIB's headquarters progresses, he or she and immediate staff will move to Drogheda. The objective is to ensure a good regional spread of personal advocates initially. The work of the personal advocates will involve meeting people in the personal advocacy service offices. However, the intention is to provide an accessible service, which will involve working with people in their own residential setting if they require it.

Deputies Penrose, Stanton and others suggested the director should have responsibility for the support programme for services in the community and voluntary sectors and for the advocacy work the CIB undertakes supporting people in accessing information and advice about their entitlements. I am advised by the board that the focus of attention of the director will be on the development of the new professional service to meet the needs of those most in need of the residential service. The board will, however, review the operation of the personal advocacy service routinely. It will continue to measure and assess the appropriateness of the structures in place as the service evolves. The legislation requires that the Minister of the day should be advised about future structures and possibilities and that will be kept under constant review.

Many Members referred to the work of the personal advocate. It is intended to provide a professional, high quality service. The guiding principles will be independence and ensuring full monitoring of their work and activities. In 2005 Comhairle published guidelines for the delivery of the service, which addressed many of the issues raised by Members about the quality, independence and professionalism which must be at the heart of the personal advocacy service. That is the clear intention of the legislation and the clear wish of the House. The need for quality will have to be followed through as the legislation evolves.

The guidelines also made suggestions about the skills and qualifications expected of a personal advocate. Many Members asked what kind of people would be hired as personal advocates. They are likely to be drawn from a variety of professions with experience of dealing with people with disabilities, many of whom will have been clients of theirs. In general, advocates will probably be expected to have attained a third level qualification, a minimum of three years experience in a relevant area and good judgment. The criteria will be developed as the advocates are sought. I intend to table an amendment to section 5 on Committee Stage providing that the CIB must set out in broad terms the qualifications, skills and experience required to become a personal advocate. Members were anxious that these should be laid out by the board well in advance and standards should be high.

I acknowledge the concerns of Members regarding people who may not be aware of the potential of the personal advocacy service because of their disability. Action is planned on three levels to ensure a proactive, accessible service, which will be designed to target people with disabilities who are most in need of a personal advocate to speak on their behalf and to assist them in accessing the service. The board will undertake a programme to promote awareness about the new facility. Service providers such as general practitioners, public health nurses, social workers, hospital, residential and day care staff and public representatives will be targeted with information about the service. The personal advocacy service will undertake training initiatives and hold seminars and meetings so that the service is widely promoted among those who work with people with disabilities, their carers and the wider public.

I intend to table a number of amendments on Committee Stage. One will make provision for the director of the personal advocacy service to proactively follow up cases. Members were concerned that this should happen, particularly in respect of people who are vulnerable and who might need a personal advocate. I will propose a legal requirement to ensure the director will adopt a proactive rather than a passive approach. I will also provide that anybody may apply on behalf of the person with the disability to the director of the personal advocacy service for the assignment of a personal advocate. That is important in improving the effectiveness of the service. I will make provision that, in such cases, the decision on qualification should be notified to both the applicant and the person who applies on his or her behalf. I will elaborate on this during the Committee Stage debate.

I have asked the CIB to establish a committee, which should include representatives of disability interest groups, to advise the Minister on what further measures can be put in place at administrative level to ensure people with disabilities most in need of the new service are targeted for attention. The programme of support for the development of advocacy services has a fundamental role in promoting knowledge and understanding of the contribution the service can make in representing people with disabilities. At the end of the year, 31 projects will be in place throughout the State involving a range of organisations working with people with disabilities.

For example, the community visitors programme to be introduced by the citizens information board in the coming years will provide another channel through which people with disabilities who may be in need of support can be helped to access the service of a personal advocate. Everything possible will be done to ensure that whoever requires the service is aware of it and that the service can be applied for and made available with a minimum of bureaucracy and difficulty.

Volunteer community visitors will undertake regular visits to residential facilities, including respite care facilities, identify issues and problems from the perspective of the residents and refer cases to the personal advocacy service and community and voluntary organisations. The citizens information board has set a target to recruit and train more than 100 volunteers in the coming years, which will allow for visits once per quarter to residences where there are people with disabilities. If we need to increase the frequency of visits, the board can examine the matter.

The provisions of the Bill, the board's plans to promote information on the advocacy service, the planned community visitors programme and the committee of the board established to advise me on additional measures amount to a proactive service that will target and identify the people with disabilities most in need of it to ensure that no stone is left unturned in bringing the advocacy service to their attention. The amendments I will propose will try to give effect to this aim. I have addressed the question concerning qualification criteria.

We will be able to quantify the demand for services as time passes. There is a consensus in all of the research and the outcome of the consultation process that certain clients are more vulnerable than others. It is intended to prioritise them during the initial stages. Adults with learning disabilities, people with mental health issues, particularly those with long-term illnesses, and people with disabilities in residential institutions will have first call on the advocacy service.

The qualifying criteria for the assignment of a person has been devised to take account of these matters and to ensure that those who are most at risk of harm to their health and welfare have easy and ready access to the specialised personal advocacy service. It is important that we not try to do everything initially. The way in which the board shall determine the order of priority in the assignment of personal advocates is set out in section 5, the amendments to which will bring greater focus to the area.

I support the points made concerning the role of carers and the benefits they bring. A considerable amount of progress and additional investment has been made in this regard and I would be surprised if the upcoming budget was not of further assistance.

Many Deputies, including Deputies Lynch, Naughten and Stanton, raised the matter of the family income supplement or FIS. A valuable service, it keeps many people who are on low incomes from slipping back to welfare payments and puts them on the ladder. There are publicity initiatives in this regard. For example, information on FIS is contained in all child benefit books, FIS entitlements are examined in respect of all back to work allowance applicants, information is given to all one-parent families when they are awarded one-parent family allowances and all employers have received information in PRSI mail shots.

I may discuss with officials whether there is scope to do more in respect of the FIS information contained in the tax clearance certificates issued by the Revenue Commissioners at the beginning of every year. A box on the form mentions FIS, but there may be scope to do more. People on low incomes who are in receipt of tax credits comprise our FIS client base. I will discuss the matter with the Revenue Commissioners because, if agreement can be reached, using the Revenue database would be a strong way to promote FIS.

Deputies are aware that FIS is advertised in local and national newspapers and via outdoor posters and posters in every welfare office and post office and that there are freefone services and information in libraries. It is heavily promoted. As a result of the campaign asked for by Deputies, the number of recipients is increasing substantially. On the week ending 3 November 2006, the latest date for which we have figures, 20,900 families were in receipt of FIS, the highest number on record. To date in 2006, the Department has received 28,499 FIS applications compared to 19,368 applicants in the corresponding period in 2005. I credit the additional awareness schemes and publicity with bringing in the additional number. Deputies can take some credit because they raised the matter in the House constantly. I will continue to maintain pressure to ensure that everyone who is entitled to FIS gets it.

I will gladly deal with any matter that I have not addressed. The legislation is a modern rebranding and refocusing of the provision of information on a social service to everyone who requires it. The legislation will be a leap forward in the provision of information via the Internet, telephones, e-mails, local offices and so on. It delivers on the strong commitment of every Deputy to people with disabilities to do them the honour of ensuring that they receive the services to which they are entitled. It will introduce a new era of providing an advocate to any person with a disability who needs access to State services, which is the least a civilised society can do at this stage of its development.

I thank Deputies on all sides of the House for their welcome for and consideration of the legislation. We can tease out a number of issues on Committee Stage.

Question put and agreed to.