I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Seán Power, and his officials to the House.
This is important legislation. When passed, it will significantly advance the position of people with disabilities and will be instrumental in sustaining progress in the longer term. The Bill is only one element of the national disability strategy launched by the Taoiseach in September 2004. The strategy has three other elements, the Comhairle (Amendment) Bill 2004, a multi-annual investment programme for high priority disability support services and six outline sectoral plans. A total of €2.9 billion has been allocated, which compares with expenditure of less than €800,000 in 1997. That marks a 350% increase in eight years. The Government has guaranteed a multi-annual investment programme totalling over €900 million comprising capital and current funding for high-priority disability support services over the period 2006-09.
Yesterday afternoon I examined the policy of the Department of Transport on people with disabilities. The Department published an outline sectoral plan for people with disabilities as part of the national disability strategy launched by the Taoiseach in September 2004, according to which it is committed to the comprehensive development of accessible public transport for people with mobility and sensory impairment. The sectoral plan states:
The Department uses the term accessible transport for the mobility and sensory impaired to refer to people with physical, sensory, learning and cognitive difficulties . . . and others whose access to traditional public transport services and infrastructures is constrained on account of age, because of accompanying children, because they are carrying luggage or shopping etc. This definition has been developed in consultation with members of the Public Transport Accessibility Committee. . . . The Public Transport Accessibility Committee was established under the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness in 2000. The Committee is comprised of representatives of the following organisations:
—Forum for People with Disabilities
—Irish Congress of Trade Unions
—Irish Wheelchair Association
—National Council for the Blind of Ireland
—National Council on Ageing and Older People
—National Disability Authority
—National Association for Deaf People
—People with Disabilities in Ireland
along with representatives of Bus Éireann, Bus Átha Cliath, Iarnród Éireann, the Railway Procurement Agency and Connex Transport Ireland Ltd. The Committee's remit is to advise the Minister for Transport on the accessibility aspects of public transport investment projects and on other public transport accessibility issues. PTAC is chaired by an official of the Department of Transport . . .
By accessible public transport is meant the following:
—Full access for wheelchair users (and for prams and buggies) including, and where appropriate, accessible toilets and lifts.
Those services should not be provided "where appropriate", they should be mandatory. Other aspects of accessibility the Department will provide are as stated in the sectoral plan:
—Features to aid people with difficulties in walking, gripping, reaching or balancing, including non-slip surfaces, handrails and handholds.
—Facilities to aid people with visual, aural and other impairments. These include consistent use of colour contrasts, clear signing and lighting, non-reflective surfaces, audio and visual announcements, tactile and audible guidance surfaces, warning systems and inductive loops.
As part of its consultative process and in preparing its sectoral plan the Department consulted the following organisations: Bus Átha Cliath, Bus Éireann, Córas Iompair Éireann, Iarnród Éireann, the Coach Tourism and Transport Council of Ireland, the Federation of Transport Operators, the Private Association of Motor Bus Operators, the Railway Procurement Agency; and the Public Transport Accessibility Committee. This process indicates a positive approach by the Department of Transport, the Minister and the Government to providing for people with disabilities. Transport is important for everybody but especially for people with disabilities. If they cannot get to work or to the shops how can they work or shop for themselves and lead normal lives, like able-bodied people?
With regard to the agencies falling under the remit of the Department of Transport, 45% of buses and 50 routes in Dublin are fully accessible to disabled people. That is a good start but it is not good enough. In Cork, Galway, Limerick and Waterford the sectoral plan states:
In general all services are fully accessible except for a small number of non-low floor buses used in the peak hour in Cork. All new buses acquired by Bus Éireann will be fully accessible.
That is to be welcomed, however, it is not good enough that "Wheelchair accessible coaches for scheduled Inter-City services are not yet available". That a disabled person from Cavan, Sligo, Laois or any other county is not in a position to travel to Cavan to Dublin, from Dublin to Cork or from Limerick to Dublin or even from Tipperary to Dublin and back is not good enough. While there is a target date of end 2009, early 2010 by which most buses will be adapted it is not soon enough. That delay is unacceptable.
All bus stations "are scheduled to be made fully accessible by 2006". All suburban rail services are fully accessible which is very welcome. With regard to intercity rail services "an accessible service at a basic level will be available on all trains by 2006". Luas is a very successful transport system in Dublin and is fully accessible. That too is welcome.
Special taxi licences were issued to facilitate the transport of people with disabilities. There are quite a few such taxis in Dublin. They are not, however, always available to people with disabilities. The taxi regulator should examine this issue. It is more profitable for a taxi to take a group of six or seven to different destinations than to take a single disabled person. That is not why the special licences were issued. The taxis are not available at peak times for people with disabilities. The new taxi regulator should look into that problem urgently.
There are people who park in spaces designated for people with disabilities. They have no consideration for a disabled person who may be in town and have nowhere to park. An able-bodied person who parks in a space set aside for people with disabilities should not only be heavily fined but should also receive penalty points.
People with disabilities suffer discrimination in the area of tourism. We are losing out significantly on tourism revenue from people with disabilities because the transport fleet, many hotels, particularly the old ones, apart from the ground floor, and most bed and breakfasts are inaccessible. The Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism and the Department should study that area urgently.
Significant advances have been made in providing for people with disabilities but to use an old phrase, "there is a lot more to be done". This Bill is a good start. I pay tribute to the Minister of State at the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy Fahey, for bringing the Bill through the other House and into this House. I also pay tribute to the Minister for Defence, Deputy O'Dea, and to the former Minister of State at the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy Mary Wallace, who made a major contribution to the Bill. I congratulate the Minister and the Department and wish them well in their work for this worthy cause.