Disability Act 2005 Sectoral Plans: Statements.

Motions seeking the approval of six sectoral plans under the Disability Act 2005 were presented to Dáil Éireann and Seanad Éireann on 17 and 18 October 2006 respectively. These motions were approved by both Houses of the Oireachtas, thereby enabling the plans to take effect.

Sectoral plans were prepared by the Minister for Health and Children, the Minister for Social and Family Affairs, the Minister for Transport, the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment under sections 31 to 37 of the Disability Act.

These sectoral plans set out the programme of measures to be taken by each of the Ministers' Departments and public bodies under their aegis, designed to provide services to people with disabilities and are perhaps the most important element of the Government's national disability strategy launched in September 2004. At that time, outlines of these plans were published and a comprehensive consultation process followed with stakeholders. The completed sectoral plans were then required to be laid before each House of the Oireachtas within one year of the commencement of the relevant provisions of the Disability Act, and this deadline was met in July of this year.

The national disability strategy builds on existing policy and legislation, including the Equality Acts and the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004. Its aim is to strengthen and support the contribution of people with disabilities in Irish society and it has been endorsed in the new social partnership agreement, Towards 2016. The national disability strategy is the agreed focus for disability policy over the lifetime of the agreement and it consists of four key elements. They are the Disability Act 2005, the Citizens Information Bill 2006, the multi-annual investment programme in disability services and the sectoral plans for service delivery by six Departments.

Since the launch of this strategy, the Government has made significant progress in implementing it in all its aspects. This progress has not been confined to the preparation of these departmental plans. All sections of the Disability Act 2005 have been commenced, with the exception of Parts 2 and 6 of the Act. Arrangements for the implementation of Part 2 are set out in the sectoral plan of the Minister for Health and Children and I will refer to this issue again in a few moments. Part 6 provides for the establishment of a Centre for Excellence in Universal Design in the National Disability Authority, NDA, and will commence on 1 January 2007. The NDA is preparing the groundwork for the operation of this new centre from early next year.

Since 31 December 2005, all public bodies, subject to certain considerations, must meet a number of criteria under the Disability Act in the area of improving accessibility. They must ensure that the provision of access to their services by people with and without disabilities is integrated. Services and goods supplied to public bodies must be accessible to people with disabilities. They must ensure that the content of communications with people with disabilities is provided in an accessible format. Procedures must be in place in all public bodies for the making and investigation of complaints from people with disabilities and public bodies must make their buildings accessible to people with disabilities.

To assist public bodies, the Code of Practice on Accessibility of Public Services and Information provided by Public Bodies, SI 163 of 2006, was developed by the National Disability Authority and launched by the then Tánaiste in July of this year. The Act provides a legal basis, for the first time, for the requirement of public bodies to take all reasonable measures to promote and support the employment of persons with disabilities. It gives the NDA important new powers to monitor the implementation of the provisions across the public service.

There are other important elements of the strategy. The Citizens Information Bill, published on 13 October 2006, will provide for a personal advocacy service for people with disabilities and is currently progressing through the Oireachtas. The Government has a €900 million multi-annual investment programme for 2005 to 2009 for high priority disability support services and there are other ongoing initiatives that complement the national disability strategy. A major national post-census Central Statistics Office, CSO, survey on disability is currently under way and results are expected next year.

The Cabinet handbook is to be amended to incorporate a requirement that all substantive memoranda submitted to Government take account of the impact on people with disabilities and appropriate guidance is being developed to assist with the new proofing requirements. Investment programmes such as the enhancing disability services project fund have been developed and funding has been made available under the dormant accounts programme.

It is agreed in Towards 2016 that future policy in relation to people with disabilities will be progressed through the national disability strategy with particular expression being provided through these six sectoral plans. Section 31 of the Act provides that in preparing and publishing plans, each Minister is required to consult with representatives of persons with disabilities. The National Disability Authority and the Departments concerned conducted a nationwide series of public consultation meetings on the draft plans.

The Act requires that the plans contain information on relevant codes of practice and regulations, complaints procedures, monitoring and review procedures and the level of access built in to the services to be provided. The Act also requires that progress reports must be prepared on each plan within three years of their publication and that these reports be laid before the Houses. The Act makes specific provision for each sectoral plan, detailing key areas to be addressed. The implementation of the sectoral plans will be monitored and reviewed and a high-level group of senior officials will report directly on progress to a Cabinet committee chaired by the Taoiseach.

Now that the sectoral plans have been approved, arrangements are being put in place to strengthen the monitoring of these plans by the inclusion of key stakeholder interest groups in the formal monitoring process. This is in line with a commitment to this effect set out in Towards 2016. Delivery of these plans will be supported by an effective Government approach and each plan contains specific commitments to cross-departmental co-operation.

The sectoral plan of the Minister for Health and Children covers the initiatives to be taken by the Department, the Health Service Executive and some 27 statutory bodies. The plan was developed through an extensive consultation process and one of the most important aspects of the health sectoral plan is the arrangements for commencing Part 2 of the Disability Act 2005, which involves assessments of need and service statements for people with disabilities.

Part 2 will commence for children aged under five years with effect from 1 June 2007. The Act will then be commenced for those children aged from five to 18 in tandem with the implementation of the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004. The EPSEN Act is being implemented over a five-year timeframe from October 2005. Services for adults and children will be enhanced progressively over the next number of years.

The HSE will promote the practice of assessment of individual needs and the provision of service statements for all service users as capacity permits. The HSE intends to appoint assessment officers and liaison officers around the country based on estimated need, as indicated by population profiles over the next 12 months. The statutory requirements of Part 2 of the Disability Act will be extended to adults as soon as possible but no later than the end of 2011.

Significant capacity building to support the delivery of the plan is under way. Additional resources have been and continue to be made available to the HSE to build capacity in services for people with disabilities through the multi-annual investment programme 2005-09. A total of €130 million in revenue and capital in 2005 and €155 million in revenue and capital in 2006 has been provided, along with more than 1,000 frontline posts associated with 2005 developments and in excess of that number associated with 2006 developments.

A major objective of the sectoral plan of the Minister for Social and Family Affairs is the development of services that give persons with disabilities financial security and encourage maximum participation in society. Initiatives include the transfer of income maintenance payments from the Health Service Executive as well as a service delivery modernisation programme. The plan identifies the key actions which will be underpinned by co-operation across agencies to develop service provision for persons with disabilities.

The sectoral plan for the Minister for Transport has been developed to accord with the concept of transport for all and will make an important contribution to addressing issues of disadvantage and social inclusion. The plan is underpinned by a series of policy objectives and specific targets for accessible transport across all modes of transport — measures to make trains, buses, taxi and hackney services, as well as air and marine transport, accessible to persons with mobility, sensory and cognitive impairments.

The plan promotes the principle of mainstreaming by making accessibility an integral element of the public transport services. Mainstreaming will operate in conjunction with the ten-year investment programme of Transport 21. This will be achieved principally in two ways. First, accessibility will be built into new transport infrastructure projects and, second, the acquisition of accessible vehicles and funding will continue to be provided to enable the phased adaptation or retrofit of existing transport facilities. Transport projects will be monitored for compliance with accessibility principles. The public transport accessibility committee, comprising the Department of Transport, transport operators and the disability sector, including the NDA, will be fully involved in the implementation process.

The broadcasting and energy supply sectors are the focus of the sectoral plan of the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources. It addresses the role of the independent Broadcasting Commission of Ireland and its responsibilities for regulating the sector, including RTE. It also deals with the Commission for Communications Regulation, including its roles in respect of Eircom and An Post. The plan also covers services provided by energy suppliers in the context of the role of the independent Commission for Energy Regulation.

The sectoral plan of the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government will support the participation by people with disabilities in all aspects of economic, social and cultural life of the community. Priorities in the plan include the building and planning code, local authority accessibility plans and a housing strategy for people with disabilities.

The building and planning code initiative reflects the importance of accessibility in the built environment in enabling people with disabilities to achieve a quality of life comparable with that of other citizens. A review of Part M of the Second Schedule to the building regulations, on access for people with disabilities, was initiated in December 2005 and the Department will prepare draft proposals to amend Part M. The Building Control Bill 2005 has been published and, when enacted, will strengthen the enforcement powers of building control authorities in implementing the building code.

Each local authority will, within six months of the approval of this plan by the Oireachtas, carry out an accessibility audit of all roads and streets, pavements and pedestrian crossings, public buildings, public parks, amenities and open spaces, heritage sites, public libraries and harbours within its control and identify the remedial action necessary to make them accessible. Each local authority will, within three months of completing the accessibility audit, draw up an implementation plan in consultation with organisations representing persons with disabilities.

To bring a new focus to addressing the needs of people with a disability, a national housing strategy for people with disabilities will be developed. New protocols will be established for inter-agency co-operation for all special housing needs. Legislation will be introduced that will result in a new means of assessing housing need to ensure that all people can live with maximum independence within their community.

The sectoral plan of the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment contains a number of initiatives that are aimed at promoting equal opportunities for disabled people in the employment market. This includes the development of a comprehensive employment strategy aimed at enhancing the effectiveness of employment and vocational training programmes for disabled people, and further developing supports for the employment of disabled people. Effective cross-departmental collaboration will be a key element of the implementation of this strategy. The Department will establish a consultative forum on the employment strategy representing key stakeholders which will provide a channel for members to contribute to strategic development on issues that directly, or indirectly, impact on vocational training and employment. The Department and FÁS will continue to review and assess the scope for increasing employer awareness to encourage increased participation by people with disabilities.

These sectoral plans are an integral part of the national disability strategy and will mark an important advance in implementing the strategy as a whole. They represent significant social partnership commitments under Towards 2016. I acknowledge the considerable contribution the various stakeholders have made to shaping these plans.

Our open, constructive relationship with the stakeholders does not end here. The implementation of the sectoral plans will be monitored by the stakeholders and the Government, and progress on implementing the plans will be reviewed at the latest after three years, although I emphasise that the review can take place sooner than that if necessary. These sectoral plans represent a landmark in the roll-out of frontline public services to people with disabilities under the national disability strategy.

I welcome the Minister of State to the House. On 21 July, the Taoiseach introduced the six sectoral plans that were to be submitted to the Oireachtas in accordance with the Disability Act 2005. The Tánaiste and Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, while speaking at the launch of the plans, encouraged Members of both Houses of the Oireachtas to engage in a full debate on the plans in the context of each House passing a resolution to give effect to them. It is regrettable, therefore, that we did not have a full debate before the plans were passed. The resolution was taken without debate.

It is unfortunate that the House was treated in such a shoddy fashion. Today's debate is welcome but it is taking place after the event and we should try to avoid that in future. There was widespread consultation on these plans but it would have been better if we had been given an opportunity to discuss them. It is noteworthy that apart from the Minister of State's contribution to this debate and a brief contribution he made in the other House last July, no other Minister has spoken about the sectoral plans in the Houses. More importantly, they have not addressed the committees on the plans. Where is the accountability? This anomaly must be rectified, even at this late stage, and I ask the Minister of State to make arrangements for the appropriate Ministers in the six relevant Departments to appear before the relevant committees to discuss the plans. An annual review must also take place.

That is a matter for the committees.

I ask the Minister of State to ensure these steps are taken because to date they have been absent. Meetings with the appropriate committees must be scheduled at an early stage. I request that the Minister of State arrange for reviews to be held to determine what, if any, progress has been made in implementing the sectoral plans. If this debate achieves nothing else, it would be an achievement to secure a commitment from the Minister of State in this regard.

The Government, the social partners and people with disabilities have high expectations of the sectoral plans. While I welcome the work done to date, action is now required to ensure progress is made. As part of the national disability strategy, it is intended that the sectoral plans will act as a detailed road map for the development of supports and services for people with disabilities in the coming years. It is essential the plans are viewed as strategic enablers to ensure each of the six relevant Departments addresses the needs of its clients with disabilities through direct policies and a review of its structures and activities.

The delivery of commitments under the six sectoral plans needs to be progressed, monitored and evaluated in a co-ordinated manner. A number of mechanisms to secure delivery on commitments have been also identified through the sectoral plans. While some of the Departments with responsibility for the plans recognise the need to embed in their business plans and strategy statements the actions outlined in the plans, this is not identified across all the plans. The Disability Federation of Ireland, DFI, commends the Department of Social and Family Affairs on its sectoral plan and proposes that other Departments mirror its approach in their plans.

The purpose of the national disability strategy, of which the sectoral plans form a part, is to ensure greater inclusion and participation of people with disabilities. To achieve this, however, the strategy will need to target the exclusion of people with disabilities in two specific ways. It must address the significant exclusion experienced by people with disabilities. The sectoral plans are a key mechanism in this regard and it is expected they will detail how Departments will address the specific services and developments needed to secure the participation of people with disabilities. However, it is also expected the national disability strategy will ensure people with disabilities will be able, where appropriate, to access mainstream services and supports. This places responsibility on Departments to include the needs of their disabled customers in the strategic planning process and the development of services. Linking sectoral plans to departmental statements of strategy will mean Departments will develop a holistic response to the needs of people with disabilities through the development of mainstream and disability specific policies and practices.

I welcome the decision to amend the Cabinet handbook to ensure interdepartmental co-operation take places and services are delivered at the highest level. This commitment was given to the disability legislation consultative group in May 2005 and repeated in 2006. When will the handbook be amended?

Who is in charge of monitoring the implementation of sectoral plans and to whom are the six Departments answerable if they fail to deliver on their respective plans? Which Cabinet Minister has ultimate political responsibility for the co-ordination of the national disability strategy?

On the health sectoral plan, the draft national standards proposed by the National Disability Authority have been in gestation for a number of years. In March this year, the report of the Comptroller and Auditor General pointed to the need for clear standards of care for people with disabilities. The sectoral plan for the Department of Health and Children promises that national standards will be in place in April 2007 under the health information and quality authority, HIQA. Is the Minister of State certain this timeframe will be adhered to given that the Bill to establish the HIQA and the social services inspectorate on a statutory footing will not even be published, not to speak of enacted, until some time in 2007? Is the Government satisfied with the current position given that no agreed national standards for services to people with disabilities are in place? What safeguards have been introduced to protect service users and providers?

A report by the Comptroller and Auditor General on the provision of services by non-profit organisations emphasised that clear accountability and financial monitoring systems need to be established. A key objective of the sectoral plans is to ensure a process of financial accountability is in place. Do the Department of Health and Children and the Health Service Executive intend to address the absence of any reference to a new method of financial accountability for service provision in the Department's plan? How does the Department intend to ensure that such a committee will be truly representative of people with disabilities and that the voices of service users are heard? Will it be modelled on the DLCG which was, by and large, representative of service users and providers?

I am asking questions about the various sectoral plans in the six Departments without knowing whether the Minister of State will have ultimate responsibility for the implementation of the plans. For this reason, it would be preferable to have an opportunity to question each of the relevant Ministers. I ask the Minister of State to arrange for each Minister to come before the House on an annual basis to respond to questions. Unfortunately, owing to time constraints, I am unable to ask questions on the sectoral plan of each of the six relevant Departments.

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Fahey, to the House and thank Senator Terry for generously allowing me to contribute to this debate during her time. I will discuss the sectoral plan in the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, specifically its provisions on training and employment opportunities for people with disabilities. Twenty-five years ago, the State gave a commitment that 3% of employees in the public service would be people with a disability. Given that this key commitment has not been fulfilled one quarter of a century later, how are we to ensure the commitments being entered into in the various sectoral plans will be met?

I regularly hear about the need for cross-departmental implementation groups, an issue raised by Senator Terry. Often this is an excuse for doing nothing. In the early 1990s there was a new management buzz in the public service whereby matters would be implemented on a cross-departmental basis. I believe it is much easier to give specific Departments specific responsibility to implement certain matters. As Senator Terry correctly asked, are we sure the commitments being entered into by the various Departments will be delivered? If not, there will be serious difficulties in this area and people with disabilities will be let down again.

This issue must be on the agenda of each Department every month. I understand the MAC group in Departments, comprising the Minister and senior personnel in the Department, meet each month. This issue should be first on the agenda of those meetings — what is being done under the sectoral plan, if results were achieved in the previous month and how the plan is performing in comparison with other sectoral plans. If Ministers embrace this issue and make it their own, progress will happen. The only time we see change in politics is when Ministers decide to run with an issue, not accept excuses for results not being achieved on deadline and push forward the issue. That is the only way this issue will be dealt with and we need to see that happen.

With regard to training, it is crucial the timeframes set out in the sectoral plan of the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment are met. They are rigid timeframes and if there is any slippage in one area, it will have a knock-on effect on another. Will the Minister comment on that? The employment rights and industrial affairs division, including the labour inspectorate, has a huge impact on people with disabilities. It is important the proposed training and employment strategy is successful in getting and keeping more people with disabilities in employment.

One of the key issues in this area is the question of benefits. Too often in the past there was a rigid approach from one Department to another in terms of closing down opportunities for people with disabilities owing to them losing key benefits to which they are entitled. If a training opportunity is being given through a sectoral plan, it is important people are not losing out in terms of social welfare provision and their fundamental rights in terms of benefits. We must keep our eye on this aspect. With regard to training, it is important to monitor closely the Health and Safety Authority. In the past, many of the authority's regulations have mitigated against people with disabilities in terms of getting them into employment and ensuring that commitments are upheld.

I recently received an e-mail from a constituent, Ms Audrey Whelan from the Greenhills area, and had the opportunity to meet her. She knew I intended to speak in this debate and asked me to put three points to the Government. She is a person with a disability and is confined to a wheelchair. The first point she asked me to make is that disability awareness training should apply to all aspects of business and enterprise in this country. We have a responsibility to fund training programmes to inform employers and employees about the issues surrounding disability. It is the lack of awareness and education that often leads to prejudice.

Her second point was that more funds should be available to allow employers make their workplaces accessible not only for wheelchair users but to people with all types of disability. A key issue in this area is ensuring accessibility. We must ensure that all public and commercial buildings adhere to the guidelines. Finally, she stated that each building should be assessed and adapted in order that everybody can use its services. This is a fundamental right for people with disabilities. She told me in her e-mail that, in her experience, the problem is a lack of education, particularly with regard to training.

In these sectoral plans we must ensure the commitments we undertake are adhered to rigorously and that there is political accountability for them. Otherwise, we will disappoint people with disabilities as shamelessly as we did in the past, particularly in terms of the 3% employment commitment in the public service.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the sectoral plans. We have reached a significant milestone in our efforts to achieve the full inclusion of people with disabilities in society. Too often and for too long people with disabilities have been marginalised and have suffered serious inequality.

As the Minister of State said, many groups should be congratulated on arriving at this point, particularly the advocates for people with disability who know the business and who have suffered the inequalities we have discussed. They have had a major impact in framing current policy. In addition, the Government should be applauded for tackling this issue. The Minister of State, Deputy Fahey, has played a major role and I congratulate him on that. I hope he continues to give this area the same attention he has given it previously as we proceed with the implementation of the sectoral plans. The work on fulfilling the aspirations envisaged in the plans now begins and, hopefully, we will succeed.

The plans are an integral part of the national disability strategy. That further indicates the Government's commitment to the implementation of the strategy. I hope that when the sectoral plans are up and running there will be a major involvement for people with disability in society generally. People will be surprised at the contribution people with disability, when given the chance, can make to society. It is also a historic opportunity for the Government to move the disability debate to a new level and to increase resources significantly, which will be required as we proceed with the strategy.

I understand that within Departments the disability heading will be one of the major considerations when framing their budgetary requirements each year. Heretofore, that was not the case. The disabled sector tended to get what was left when every other area in a Department had been catered for. Now, the disability heading must be part of the budgetary framework of each Department, which will be necessary if the sectoral plans are to mean anything. Hopefully, there will now be a truly integrated system of planning and policy making across all levels that is informed by disability.

If the aspirations in the sectoral plans are to be achieved there must be meaningful changes in the way disability issues are addressed across a range of policy areas. To ensure that happens, the progress of the sectoral plans must be evaluated and monitored carefully. Timeframes and targets must be set and levels of achievement must be monitored. That must happen if the evaluation process is to be meaningful.

Some of the organisations have told Members that they are a little perplexed that the Department of Social and Family Affairs is the only Department to have interlocked its business plan with its statement of strategy. This appears to copperfasten the commitment. People in the organisations believe the Department of Social and Family Affairs has committed itself in a greater way to the process. Perhaps this is something other Departments should examine with a view to finding a way to commit in a real and meaningful manner. I am not suggesting they have not done so but perhaps they could copperfasten it in this statement.

Who is best placed to carry out an audit on these sectoral plans or even the entire strategy? The DLCG and some of the people who brought about the overall success of this had a monitoring role with the Government in the strategy. Senator Terry and others suggested that the Oireachtas committee related to the Departments should monitor the progress annually. That may not be a bad thing, but an independent body may also do it. However, it must be monitored annually because Departments must be brought to account.

Senator Terry asked questions about various elements of the sectors and I support those questions, but today is not the time to ask them. Trial and error should be allowed and the questions she is asking today will have much more relevance in one year's time if certain things have not been achieved. It is to be hoped we will have that opportunity under the system that is to be put in place.

Different Departments cut across each other in many areas and it would concern me if one Department were less enthusiastic about its level of achievement than another. The Department of Transport and the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government spring to mind in this respect. We can have the best transport system in the world, but if the environmental issues are not dealt with in tandem with transport issues, problems will arise. We need to see how related programmes fit together. For Departments to work in tandem, it may be necessary for departmental officials, in advance of decision making, to discuss issues that may intertwine. There is no point in finding out that one is in trouble when another is six months ahead in the planning process. Planning together must occur in areas where cross-cultivation exists.

The Government has done tremendous work in education, especially in the age group of four to 18 years. I often deal with special schools and there are very few that have not been dealt with meaningfully. The Government is committed to all the processes that these schools need to carry out their work. Special needs assistants, computers, bus escorts and so on have all been put in place and this is the starting point for any disabled person's education. However, the greatest aspect of a disabled person's independence is his or her ability to hold down a job. That is why I welcome the commitment by the Minister, Deputy Martin, to the development of a comprehensive employment strategy for people with disability. Employment, independence and education have a great deal of meaning for people with disability and I will focus my energy on these areas in future.

As a society, we must focus on the ability of each disabled person and we must focus on giving disabled people the confidence they need. Many disabled people lack confidence and it is no wonder. They have been put down for many years and the boosting of their confidence is a major issue. Their abilities must also be utilised to the fullest extent. Creating a more equal labour market is essential and we must look at new and more innovative ways of bringing that about. It requires an appreciation of the wide range of skills that people with disabilities can bring to any workforce. It will require a serious attitude change. We can change many things with resources, but we must change the attitudes of employers towards people with disability. We must create an awareness that people with disabilities have a major contribution to make in the workforce. The Government must provide the necessary incentives in the initial stages to bring that about.

We must also reduce the levels of poverty suffered by people with disabilities. Anecdotal evidence tells us that a major percentage of families headed by a disabled person live in poverty. Senator Hayes pointed out that one can lose benefits if one gets onto a scheme, which is outrageous. There is so little money for people with disabilities, they should not lose out on benefits when they avail of an opportunity to improve themselves.

We should not forget the people who are unable to be mainstreamed and are not yet ready for day care services. I refer to people in sheltered employment workshops. People entered sheltered employment 25 years ago and continue to work in meaningful jobs as far as they are concerned, but there is no pressure on them to produce. They get their disabled payment and they also get a small extra amount of money which is limited because they could lose their benefits.

In 2004, guidelines for sheltered occupational services were published under the abbreviation, SOS. If implemented, they will force the closure of these enterprises and they have perplexed and excited the people working in them. The guidelines basically state that these sheltered workshops can no longer exist and that the people involved must be employed in an enterprise set-up that is self-financing. This is ridiculous because the people involved are non-productive in a sense. They have a job which gives them a meaning but there is no pressure on them. They come into the sheltered employment, they work and they receive a little payment for it. They are very happy in that environment and they are institutionalised in the nicest sense of the word.

These guidelines will force them out of this employment and into a day-activity centre, for which they are not ready because some of them are too young. A day-activity centre is also limited in how it can assist such people. If that does not happen, the guidelines insist that the voluntary organisation that holds them must set up some form of enterprise which is self-financing. I hope these guidelines are seriously examined before they see the light of day.

The needs of people with disabilities have been ignored for too long. We have now begun to tackle these injustices step-by-step. Our objective must be to move this agenda and bring about a situation which matches any other country in the world. We would not be as advanced if it were not for the fantastic contribution of the advocates that came on board and if the Government had not grasped the issue.

I hope we will have many days to rejoice as we see the contribution people with disabilities will now make to our society. It is to be hoped that when employers see the contribution such people can make to business, people with a disability will be unrecognisable, so to speak, in general society.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this matter and I welcome the Minister for State, Deputy Fahey, to the House. He is taking a step towards the achievement of a very worthwhile goal.

I was especially impressed with the point made by Senator Kett that we would be surprised at the contribution which people with ability make. I use the word "ability" because of my acquaintance with the Aisling Foundation and the O2 awards, where they refer to people with abilities. The message to be put across, particularly in the area of employment, is that those who have a disability usually have an ability in some other area that far exceeds their disability. If employers can be convinced of this then people who might not have been regarded as being capable of doing a particular job are capable of doing a different job with ability and skill. The benefits of employment rub off in many ways. Customers feel good, as do colleagues. Somebody who was not given a chance before is given a chance and is able to do more than was thought possible.

The sectoral plans will ensure that a building will be accessible because a person often may not be employed because the building was not suitable. The achievement of accessibility in public bodies is the first step which will serve as an example for private bodies to follow.

I was travelling in a taxi last week and I noted that the new taxi regulations or price list was displayed also in braille. This means that someone who in the past was unable to read the price list is now able to decipher it.

The main goal of the sectoral plans will be to change the attitude of the public, employers, those who are not disabled and those who realise an attitudinal change is required and that there is a personal responsibility on us all to ensure we do something.

I speak so frequently in negative terms about how we run our country that I feel an obligation to say something positive when the occasion arises. The sectoral plans are a very useful step forward in creating what people call "joined-up government". Too often when that phrase is used, it means people are bemoaning the absence of it. This initiative is a useful step towards what we should be doing in this particular area.

The sectoral plans address at least two serious problems in how we run the administration of this country. The first is the lack of follow-through after laws have been passed in these Houses. A significant effort is expended on the process of passing new measures into law. In some cases, such as our tax laws, these have an immediate effect. New tax laws are fallen upon by the Revenue Commissioners and implemented immediately in the pursuit of their objective, which is to collect that money. However, in far too many other cases, this immediate follow-up does not take place. In some cases the laws, although passed by these Houses and signed into law by the President, are never commenced by the Minister concerned. There is often a partial commencement with parts of the law having to wait for years to be brought into effect, if indeed they are commenced at all.

One can imagine how an ordinary citizen feels about this. He or she looks at the text of a new law that has been passed by these Houses and signed into law by the President with the reasonable expectation that after all that palaver, the law is now fully in effect. Often, however, this is not the case. The entire law, or significant portions of it, awaits commencement. I have always argued against this practice but I am ready to acknowledge that some measures may need considerable preparatory work before they are commenced. However, these should be very much the exception. In general, the case should be that if we are ready to legislate, we should also be ready to put that legislation into effect. A Legislature exists to make laws of the land, not to stock the shelves of Ministers with measures they can implement in their own time and according to their whim.

However, even when laws are properly and fully commenced, the problem does not end there. We can pass laws and they are properly commenced, but they are not enforced. This was referred to on the Order of Business today. Sometimes it seems that people think passing a law is enough to make things happen automatically. The sad reality is that perhaps most laws must be enforced if they are to work properly. Laws do not usually enforce themselves. It requires a considerable effort of will to make them work and, all too often, that effort and will is lacking. As a result, too many of the measures we pass in this House end up being dead letters.

I have often suggested in my years in this House that some kind of follow-up mechanism to our passing of laws is required. It is remarkable how infrequently we revisit legislation to inquire if it is achieving the purpose we intended for it. I have often drawn attention to the fact that we seem to wash our hands of measures as soon as they have passed through our scrutiny in the legislative process. That is certainly something the House should consider.

In the world of business, this would be a mad way to carry on. People in business make plans all the time and this is the equivalent of the laws we pass in this House, but they would be extraordinarily foolish if they thought that making plans was the whole of their job. Watching over how one's plans work out and changing course to take into account the inevitable problems that arise are essential parts of governance in the commercial sphere, as Senator Brian Hayes said in his contribution. In the public sector it seems these two things have become detached from each other with the result that we huff and puff over the details of the laws we pass but we concern ourselves very little with what happens to them after they leave our scrutiny. The notion of watching what has been done and measuring it and putting deadlines on what has been done to ensure they happen is not evident.

One problem is the lack of follow-through which I see as being addressed for the first time in a serious way by this device of sectoral plans. The sectoral plans are all about implementing the framework set out in the Disability Act 2005. Their object is to nail down the various Departments' commitments under the Act. The idea is to take the necessarily vague aspirations of a broad, general law and turn it into specific acts and specific commitments that will have a real meaning locally. This process is a major step forward.

The second flaw in our administration that the sectoral plans attempt to address is what I might call the "silo effect" of individual Departments. All my colleagues in this House will be familiar with this phenomenon. If a problem falls neatly and completely within the ambit of a single Department, then dealing with that problem is relatively plain sailing. However, as soon as the problem crosses the boundaries of more than one Department, problems immediately arise. If, perish the thought, a problem is a shared concern between as many as five or six Departments, this is a recipe for total chaos.

A reasonable person might be inclined to think that the more people concerned with a problem, the more likely it is that the problem will get the attention it deserves. Unfortunately, the very opposite is true. The sad reality is that as soon as a problem is shared by more than one Department, a considerable amount of the energy that should be devoted to resolving the problem is devoted to fighting turf wars. In fighting each other, too many of those involved tend to forget about the real job on which they should focus. This is why we need a Taoiseach. The real achievements of the past 20 years have been made in areas where the Taoiseach of the day, no matter who is in office, has exercised strong leadership. Unfortunately, in our system, we seem to need someone to knock people's heads together and keep them focused on the real job in hand.

The Taoiseach cannot do everything, and that is why an approach such as sectoral plans is so important. This is a device that forces people in their departmental silos, so to speak, to focus on the job they should be focusing on. It concentrates each of their minds on doing what is needed to achieve an overall national objective, instead of wasting energy on in-fighting and territorial disputes. Today the Minister of State set out an objective that will not be achieved until 2011. I can understand the reason for setting out the timeframe. The plan has been set in motion, even though we recognise that it will not be achieved this month or this year.

In addressing both endemic problems in our administration, the sectoral plans initiative is a major step forward. It offers people with disabilities real hope that the actual deliverables from Government will match the promises made. Only time will tell whether this is a real step forward or another false dawn. At this stage I am inclined to be optimistic about the outcome. I sincerely hope I will not be disappointed.

I congratulate the Minister of State on the content of his speech. It will take effort and commitment to ensure that what he intends to happen will be achieved. If that happens we will have done a very good job.

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Fahey, to the House and thank him for his speech. The progress that has been made to date is most welcome. The Seanad can play a very important non-partisan role in the debate on the framework for social partnership agreement, specifically dealing with disability. I look forward to seeing each sectoral plan being integrated into the business plans and statements of strategy of all the Departments. I would like to see also an annual report to a committee that would measure and quantify progress, and the Seanad and the committee system working together on identifying the progress of the social partnership agreement.

The Government and the social partners agree on the special place that the sectoral plans enjoy. It is worthwhile to reiterate what the programme, Towards 2016: Ten-Year Framework Social Partnership Agreement 2006-2015, states:

The parties to this agreement share a vision of an Ireland where people with disabilities have, to the greatest extent possible, the opportunity to live a full life with their families and as part of their local community, free from discrimination.

To achieve this vision, the Government and the social partners will work together over the next ten years towards the following long-term goals with a view to continued improvements in the quality of life of people with disabilities:

Every person with a disability would have access to an income which is sufficient to sustain an acceptable standard of living;

Every person with a disability would, in conformity with their needs and abilities, have access to appropriate care, health, education, employment and training and social services;

Every person with a disability would have access to public spaces, buildings, transport, information, advocacy and other public services and appropriate housing;

Every person with a disability would be supported to enable them, as far as possible, to lead full and independent lives, to participate in work and in society and to maximise their potential, and;

Carers would be acknowledged and supported in their caring role.

The Government and the social partners agree that the National Disability Strategy represents a comprehensive Strategy for this aspect of the life cycle framework and that implementation of the Strategy should be the focus of policy over the lifetime of the agreement.

The Government [in implementing] the National Disability Strategy, will also take account of linkages with other relevant national strategies and policies.

The Strategy includes the Disability Act 2005, six Sectoral Plans, the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004, the Comhairle (Amendment) Bill 2004 and a Multi-Annual Investment Programme of close to €900m over the years 2006 to 2009.

It provides the framework for delivery of the long-term outcomes outlined ... A series of Sectoral Plans are currently being developed by the following Departments:

Health and Children;

Social and Family Affairs;

Environment, Heritage and Local Government;


Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, and;

Enterprise, Trade and Employment.

Each plan will set out, for each of the Departments and the public bodies under their aegis, the programme of measures to be taken in relation to the provision of services for people with specified disabilities. The plans are to be laid before [the Houses] of the Oireachtas[.]

The Plans include specific targets, where practicable, and timescales against which progress will be measured. They will also address cross-departmental issues in a coherent manner.

The parties agree that future policy in relation to people with disabilities will be progressed through the National Disability Strategy with particular expression being provided through sectoral plans being developed and other relevant mechanisms. Key issues which will be addressed in these sectoral plans and other aspects of the Strategy include:

Assessment for, and access to, appropriate health and education services including residential care, community based care, and mental health services within the framework of the Disability Act, 2005 and the Education for Persons with Special Education Needs Act, 2004. Developments will include:

Implementation of Part 2 of the Disability Act 2005 and implementation of the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004;

Person-centred supports will continue to be developed for long stay residents in psychiatric hospitals, with a view to their movement back into community living;

Central to the successful implementation of the National Disability Strategy will be a process of financial accountability. Clear guidelines will be developed to ensure that the investment in the Strategy delivers value for money and real tangible benefits to people with disabilities;

Person centred supports will continue to be provided to ‘adults with significant disabilities', having regard to the range of support needs which they require, e.g. nursing, personal assistance, respite, rehabilitation, day activities, etc.;

In its consideration of the core funding requirements of agencies providing services for people with disabilities, the HSE will be asked to take into account the appropriateness of core funding essential health and person social services;

Establishing on a statutory basis the Social Services Inspectorate (SSI) (which currently inspects children's residential and foster care services on an administrative basis) through the legislation for the establishment of the Health Information and Quality Authority (HIQA) which is expected to be published during the 2006 Autumn Session, and;

Developing a strategic integrated approach to rehabilitation services within the context of the Multi-Annual Investment Programme with a view to supporting back into employment, as appropriate, through early intervention and enhanced service provision.

The elaboration of a comprehensive employment strategy for People with Disabilities including a range of measures to promote education, vocational training and employment opportunities for people with disabilities, including:

Consolidation and progressing vocational training and employment services for people with disabilities;

Exploring the potential for extending the NEAP FÁS referral process to people with disabilities in the context of their special needs and the Government's commitment to mainstreaming. This will include exploring issues of health and welfare entitlements and benefits and examining and addressing the disincentives for people in receipt of income maintenance or secondary payments who wish to participate in training or employment initiatives;

Public service employment in accordance with the provisions of the Disability Act, 2005;

Promoting awareness regarding the employment of people with disabilities and promoting employment retention, and;

The suite of materials developed under the Workway initiative will inform future policy and best practice in relation to the employment of people with disabilities.

National Standards will be introduced in respect of specialist health services for people with disabilities, taking into account the draft standards already prepared by the National Disability Authority, together with the report of the Working Group on the development of a Code of Practice for Sheltered Workshops.

In terms of ensuring adequate levels of income for people with disabilties, we will work for the continued enhancement and integration of supports in line with overall social welfare commitments and targets. This will include a rationalisation of existing allowances for people with disabilities in the context of the Government's policy of mainstreaming and the proposed transfer of functions from the HSE to the Department of Social and Family Affairs. Other issues around cost of disability will be considered following the development of a needs assessment system provided for under Part 2 of the Disability Act, 2005.

Evolving building standards and the potential for advancements in design in the future should lead to general improvements in the accessibility of the Irish housing stock over time. However, it is recognised that people with a disability often have fewer choices in terms of providing for their housing and accommodation needs.

To bring a new focus to addressing these needs, a National Housing Strategy for People with Disabilities will be developed, as recommended in the NESC ‘Housing in Ireland' Report in order to support the provision of tailored housing and housing support to people with disabilities. This would have particular regard for adults with significant disabilities and people who experience mental illness. This will be progressed through the establishment of a National Group under the aegis of the Housing Forum headed by the Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government, and involving the Department of Health and Children, the Health Service Executive, social partners and other relevant stakeholders.

The development of information adequacy services for people with disabilities. In particular, legislative provision for the introduction of the new personal advocacy service will provide for the assignment of a personal advocate to a person with a disability who is unable or who has difficulty in obtaining a social service without the assistance or support of the personal advocate. This will complement, in a balanced way, the other advocacy and support functions of Comhairle in relation to people with disabilities.

The question of accessible public transport services will be addressed in the Sectoral Plan being developed by the Department of Transport. The Plan will deal with the accessibility of the range of transport services, including the continued introduction of accessible vehicles, the provision of accessible infrastructure, and travel information systems.

Progress reports will be prepared on sectoral plans after 3 years and the Disability Act will be reviewed after 5 years.

Detailed consultations have been undertaken with stakeholders in relation to each of the sectoral plans being developed. Arrangements will also be put in place to ensure a continued constructive relationship with stakeholders in relation to progress on the Strategy as a whole. This will include bi-annual meetings between senior officials and other stakeholders.

In addition, each sectoral plan will include monitoring and review procedures. Departments are also required to set out in the sectoral plans the arrangements that will be put in place to monitor the compliance of state bodies and other relevant service providers with the provisions of the Disability Act, 2005.

Departments have published Customer Charters which include commitments in relation to equality and access and are required to report on performance in their Annual reports.

Inclusion of service accessibility and sectoral plan measures where relevant in the strategy statements of all Departments will be considered in the context of the updating of guidelines for the preparation of Departmental Strategy Statements.

The Government has agreed to amend the Cabinet Handbook to incorporate a requirement that all substantive memoranda submitted to Government take account of the impact on people with disabilities. Appropriate guidance will be developed to assist with the proofing requirements in the context of proposals being developed in relation to equality proofing more generally.

The Minister has outlined the Government's progress in achieving these objectives and I look forward to seeing all of them being achieved.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the statements on this important matter. I thank the Minister of State for his speech and for attending the House for the entire debate. In his opening remarks he referred to the fact that the sectoral pans were approved by both Houses of the Oireachtas, having been presented on 17 and 18 October. The Minister of State will know, however, that the motion to pass the sectoral plans appeared on the Order Paper and was not debated. We are, therefore, now in apost hoc situation, debating sectoral plans after they have been passed. Other Senators have said that this is not in the spirit of the legislation. The legislation has received detailed scrutiny, dedication and commitment from many Members of both Houses. It is clear to us that the sectoral plans constitute an important part of the spirit and implementation of the legislation as envisaged.

It was disappointing, to say the least, that the sectoral plans were not debated before they were passed. Senators should have been given an opportunity not only to express their views but also those of people who have made representations to us on these issues. The Minister of State says the plans were passed by both Houses, which is true, but he may or may not be aware that we voted on that matter last week because the Opposition was not happy to have the plans passed without debate. We are now commenting on plans that have already been passed and while that is useful, it is by no means as powerful, representative or important as debating such plans beforehand. A process is required whereby Members can comment on sectoral plans before they are passed.

The Minister of State rightly says that these plans have been the subject of major consultations with a broad number of people, including the stakeholders involved. Be that as it may, a key part of the process went missing. It is now time to move on, however, and examine where we are. The sectoral plans are the nuts and bolts or the meat on the bones of the Disability Act and will make the legislation work in practice. As the Disability Federation of Ireland has pointed out, the plans represent the roadmaps for the six Departments to ensure that the needs of people with disabilities, and disability issues generally, are not only prioritised but also become part of those Departments' daily operations. That must be the aim of the legislation.

Let us examine the delivery and effectiveness of the sectoral plans. Those of us who have contact with Departments, whether as public representatives, former departmental employees or representatives of lobbying organisations, will know that aspiration is one thing but delivery is another. I would not question for one minute the commitment of any member of the Government or Opposition to dealing with disability issues. Every Member of the Oireachtas is fully committed to advancing the cause of people with disabilities. I commend the Disability Federation of Ireland on being an effective lobby group in that regard. It has made a major contribution to the entire process by ensuring,inter alia, that Members of the Oireachtas are kept fully informed of developments in the sector. In that way, we can hold the Government to account in this respect. The views of groups such as the Disability Federation of Ireland need to be taken on board and I am sure the Minister of State has had meetings with its representatives.

How will these sectoral plans go beyond being just plans and become reality? This is where the Government's commitment is tested because it must become a practical and solid reality. One way of achieving this would be to integrate the plans with various Departments' strategic plans. I note that this has already been done in one case involving the Department of Social and Family Affairs, which is to be commended on that. To my knowledge, however, it is the only Department that has done so.

The situation will not be ideal until those sectoral plans become enmeshed and embedded with the existing strategic plans of all Departments. Otherwise, each Department will have a daily "to do" list, while every now and then the sectoral plans will arise with people asking where we are we in relation to disability or how this impacts on disability. In that case, such issues may be considered regularly if we are lucky but they should be acted upon all the time. There should be a standard, learned response to disability issues, whereby people will ask how decisions impact on people with disabilities. We need to consider whether decisions, actions and policies are disability proofed in every case. We must continue campaigning until that happens. It should be taken for granted that in meetings of high level strategic management groups, Department officials and Ministers discuss the impact of their policies on people with disabilities. If that does not happen on a daily basis, we have to ask whether integration is really taking place. It will not be easy to make it happen in respect of every group because a high level of commitment will be required. This is but one example of how the sectoral plans need to be stitched into strategic and operational management at senior departmental level.

Today's debate, which is being held thanks to the generosity of the Leader of the House and the Minister of State, Deputy Fahey, is important in that regard. However, while this House has shown its commitment to the issue, who knows when we will return to it? Issues pertaining to the sectoral plans and disability in general should form a larger part of the business conducted in these Houses by, for example, Oireachtas committees. Every year, the Committee on Communications, Marine and Natural Resources has opportunities to discuss communications issues with representatives of An Post and other major organisations. It would be useful if committees, on an annual or ongoing basis, were also to hold Departments to account for their implementation of sectoral plans. Without a specific focus on accountability by a body such as an Oireachtas committee, a drift is inevitable. Departments should have ownership in terms of implementing these plans.

Members regularly assist people with disabilities to surmount the disadvantages and exclusion they suffer in terms of employment, housing and services. The legislation we have introduced is designed to transform this situation, so that people with disabilities receive the support they need to fully participate in the community at whatever level they choose. I am reminded in the context of this debate of somebody I know, who because of the nature of his disability is forced to live at home and is unable to work because he does not have a personal assistant. He is virtually blind, so he finds it difficult to go out on his own, even though he is a very capable and confident person. His life has narrowed to his home because he does not have a personal assistant and cannot go out without support. His rights, therefore, are being radically impacted on by his disability. He is not the only one to face such a challenge. We have a long road to travel to ensure that people with disabilities are able to participate. For many people, that means working, so employment is an obvious place to start meeting public targets.

It is one matter to introduce legislation or to show the determination to meet commitments but the test of these plans will be evidence of the delivery of these commitments to the people on the ground. I commend the Minister of State and the Government on their commitment in that regard but their promises will have to be measured in terms of quality of life for people with disabilities.

I wish to add to the comments made by Senator O'Meara with regard to quality of life for people with disabilities by referring in particular to the issue of pre-school children with disabilities. Next Tuesday, I will make available my updated report, A New Approach to Childcare, November 2006, in which I discuss care for children and babies with special needs. When a child is known to have a disability, it is essential that he or she receives all the help required to reach his or her full potential. Unfortunately, some parents of children with special needs face particular difficulties in securing adequate child care. In some cases, the degree of expertise and level of care required means that one-to-one care is the only viable option. In the majority of cases, however, there is scope for the provision of care for children with special needs within the formal child care sector.

In 2004, the Dublin city based Childcare Focus Group published a report, Accessible Childcare for All, which identified and promoted solutions designed to ensure equality of access and opportunity in child care provision for children with additional learning, sensory, physical and emotional needs. The report, which was funded by the National Disability Authority, focused its research on areas in north-west Dublin and found that 70% of child care providers looked after one or two children with special needs. The most commonly diagnosed special needs were speech and language at 76%, and emotional behaviour at 64%. Other additional needs included autistic spectrum, developmental delay, physical and ambulatory, Down's syndrome and learning disabilities. More than two thirds of child care providers stated they never turned away children on the basis of additional needs. In almost every case of providers turning away children, the decision to do so was made because the child's needs were beyond the ability of the facility or its staff to cater for them. In one case, the facility was not wheelchair accessible. However, responses from parents did not paint as positive a picture.

The report set out 14 key recommendations to the Government and child care providers which, if implemented, would radically improve the supports available to children with special needs. It recommended that the Department of Health and Children should provide for an increase in the number of occupational therapists, clinical psychologists, speech and language therapists, public health nurses and other personnel involved in the diagnosis, treatment and support of children with special needs.

The report also recommended that concessions should be made to the extra cost of early years services for children with special needs. For example, a community or private crèche should be eligible for a grant for special needs assistants in early childhood education. Localised special needs training already in place should be built upon and new initiatives introduced. Current links between disability and child care stakeholders should be strengthened. The findings of the report represent an excellent starting point for Government policy on child care for children with special needs.

The document I will give the Minister of State next week contains 16 recommendations on child care. Building on what the Government did in last year's budget, I am analysing what was done and I am making new proposals. I am trying to get the needs of pre-school children with disabilities on the agenda. We need to talk about the issue and address it. The primary aim of my recommendation is to ensure equality of access to and opportunity for child care provision for children with learning sensory physical and emotional needs. This approach is similar to what is now the policy in national schools. Specific additional funding should be made available to child care providers to achieve this aim, for example, grants towards the employment of special needs assistants. At the heart of my document is that every child born here should have an equal chance to develop his or her potential.

I thank all the Senators for their very positive contributions to the sectoral plans. I also thank them for the recognition they have given to the great work done by the public servants in all the Departments involved with the plans. I express thanks to the officials in my Department and each of the other Departments who have put enormous work into the preparation of these plans and have had considerable consultation with the stakeholders and the public. This aspect has been especially useful and very satisfying. We are often accused of not having sufficient consultation. However, the response I have received from people in the disability sector is that they are very pleased.

Senator Terry referred to a holistic approach in linking each sectoral plan to the strategy statement and business plan. I agree with her comments in that respect. In addition to the monitoring and review mechanisms put in place by various Departments, it has been suggested that the sectoral plans' actions should now be embedded in the business plans and strategy statements of each sectoral plan Department. Such statements and business plans are prepared periodically and all the Departments intend to incorporate these commitments into their plans when preparing their next strategy statements and business plans. It will happen.

Senator Terry also referred to the need for a detailed debate in various committees, which is a matter for the relevant committees to advance. I will make her views known to the various Ministers. I am sure some discussion will take place at various departmental committee levels. There are arrangements for the involvement of stakeholders centrally in the monitoring of sectoral plans. The national disability strategy will be debated on an ongoing basis and a consultative process will be established. Discussions are taking place on the matter. It was raised in the Towards 2016 partnership discussions. We will shortly make an announcement on the arrangements for ongoing monitoring and consultation. Senator Kett also raised those issues.

Senator Terry also asked about the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act and the issue of standards. The standards are to be addressed by the Health Information and Quality Authority, HIQA, which is in the process of being established. Pending the establishment of the HIQA, the Department of Health and Children has started to work on the development of standards in conjunction with the interim HIQA, the National Disability Authority and any other relevant stakeholders, including the Department of Education and Science, the Mental Health Commission, etc. That work is ongoing and the Department of Health and Children is making progress on the formal establishment of the HIQA.

Senator Brian Hayes mentioned enforcement of the 3% employment target. Under Part 5 of the Disability Act, the monitoring and enforcement of the provision has been vested in the National Disability Authority. Departments, public bodies and the NDA are progressing the transfer of these responsibilities and the general implementation of Part 5. I agree with the sentiments expressed by the Senator. It is vital to ensure that not alone are these employment targets adhered to, but that every effort is made to exceed them.

The Minister for Finance is responsible for the policy on the employment of people with disabilities in the public sector. He is also responsible for the collation of figures on various Departments and other public bodies, which is underpinned by the provisions of Part 5 of the Act. In other areas of the public sector, each Minister is responsible for compliance with and reporting on the target as set out in the Act for the employment of persons with disabilities in public bodies under his or her aegis. Ultimately, we will depend on the growing good will and sense of public duty to be found across the public and private sector for ensuring that the greatest effort is made to employ people with disabilities across the public and private sectors. The legislation exists to underpin this requirement if it is not happening to the extent we would like to see.

Senator Brian Hayes also spoke about timeframes regarding vocational training and education. The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment sectoral plan sets out clear action timeframes for the various elements of its overall comprehensive employment strategy, particularly regarding the FÁS strategy for vocational training provision, and will work closely with other Departments, agencies and other stakeholders to ensure that these timeframes are met.

Senator Hayes also referred to the Health and Safety Authority. This year the Minister of State with responsibility for labour introduced the workplace safety code, which reinforces approaches of responsibility and voluntary commitment to ensure that individual places of work are safe and secure for all. The Health and Safety Authority will be asked to prepare guidelines by the end of 2007 on promoting safe and inclusive workplaces for people with disabilities. In addition, the workplace and well-being strategy being developed by the authority will include guidelines for employers to facilitate those who have workplace accidents, including acquired disability and illness, to return to work.

Senator Kett emphasised the question of interlocking Departments and having Departments pull together. We agree with that holistic approach. The Disability Act requires Departments to have joined up implementation, so to speak, and the sectoral plans make provision for that. For instance, there are overlapping responsibilities in the transport and environment areas, as Senator Kett said, and every effort is being made in the implementation process to ensure a synchronised approach, which we all agree is vital to the success of the plan, is taken.

From a practical point of view and dealing with people in various agencies, the Disability Act and the disability strategy have focused people's minds in a much greater way than has been the case previously. That type of inter-agency co-operation is beginning to yield significant results, which is to be welcomed.

Senator Kett also mentioned the question of the Department of Social and Family Affairs plan including matters such as examining the incentive effects of disability payment levels, addressing the benefit traps, the employment disincentives within the structure of welfare disability schemes and examining the potential for extending, improving and rationalising schemes to better support people in their efforts to take up training opportunities and employment. We fully concur with the Senator's comments. I am aware the Minister, Deputy Brennan, is anxious to ensure that in particular the benefit traps and the employment disincentives are overcome. They are now being supported by protocols agreed by various Departments. The Minister is actively examining that whole question.

Senator Quinn mentioned the commencement of the various initiatives under the legislation. As I indicated in my opening remarks, most of the provisions of the Disability Act have already commenced. The two remaining, Parts 2 and 6, will commence by 2007. Part 6 commences on 1 January 2007 and provides for the establishment of the centre for universal design in the National Disability Authority. We had much discussion on that area during the passing of the Bill. Some of the professions and experts were not as happy as they might be with our proposals but I can give an assurance to the House that there will be continuing negotiation by the NDA in the context of the setting up of the centre for universal design. I am anxious to ensure people's views are taken on board as this process is rolled out.

The rolling out of Part 2 will commence on 1 June 2007. The assessment of the needs of children under Part 5 will take place. Already, the Health Service Executive is working apace on putting in place a good, solid investment process in the most cost effective way. Assessments are taking place as we speak, although not in a formal way, but I am pleased about some of the innovative approaches now being taken by the HSE to the assessment process. I am confident that by June 2007, when the formal assessments will take place, we will have in place a good assessment procedure which will be a much more unified approach to the assessment process than what is taking place currently within individual service organisations.

The question of capacity was mentioned by a number of Senators, including Senator White in respect of pre-school children. It is generally accepted — Senators Kett and Terry mentioned it also — that there is a need to build capacity within these services to enable the HSE to meet its obligations. The process is under way but it will have to be built up over a number of years. It was also accepted, when the legislation was being drafted, that it would not be administratively feasible to introduce the implementation of this Part for everyone at the same time. Part 1, section 3, therefore, allows for a phased introduction of this Part. We are all anxious to see improvements in assessments as quickly as possible and I am satisfied those are taking place. As I mentioned, up to 1,000 extra posts are being created to enable that roll-out to take place as effectively as possible.

Senator Hanafin mentioned the focus of disability policy and programmes in the new social partnership agreement, Towards 2016. I concur with the points the Senator made in that respect. It is notable that the agreement places the sectoral plans at the centre of the Government's delivery on the social partnership commitments in the 2016 plan. Much good work took place in the context of the preparation of the partnership agreement, Towards 2016, in involving unions and employers in the partnership process in the roll-out of the disability strategy. I was pleased to see the amount of attention that was paid to the roll-out of the strategy.

On the comments made by the last two speakers, I concur with what both Senators have advocated, especially on the question of pre-school children and the need for us to respond quickly and in a satisfactory way. It is a frustrating experience for parents when they discover their young child has a disability or needs to be assessed for the possible extent of a disability. We would all concur with the need for the educational needs of the child to be determined immediately and a response put in place.

The question of speech therapy is probably the issue that hits us all initially. We agree with the need for more speech therapists. Senators will be aware that serious problems are occurring in terms of the number of speech therapists that are available and because of that new courses are being commenced in universities. We are unable to recruit a sufficient number of speech therapists in time. A programme is being rolled out currently by the HSE to actively recruit speech therapists in any part of the world. It remains a difficulty and while money is always an issue, the availability of people with the required expertise is an issue also.

To return to the question of the assessment of needs, any child with a disability may be assessed under the Disability Act 2005 or under the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004. Health needs identified in an assessment under the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004 will be dealt with in a service statement under the Disability Act. This is very important because duplication has occurred in the past. There often have been considerable gaps, perhaps as a result of the lack of co-ordination between the health and education sectors. This is now addressed in both Acts and priority is accorded in this regard under the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004. A strong attempt is being made to ensure a co-ordinated approach to the implementation of the provisions of both Acts.

Having dealt with the legislation in both Houses, the one point that struck me more than any other concerned the need for proper, quick and effective assessments of needs, on foot of which the various services, including speech and language therapy, occupational therapy and physiotherapy, could be put in place. This is clearly the main challenge for the Health Service Executive. We all accept these services cannot be put in place quickly enough. When put in place, they need to be successful. Parents, especially parents of young children with a disability, must be satisfied that they can obtain responses quickly and effectively. That is the thrust of the legislation.

Sitting suspended at 1.15 p.m. and resumed at 3 p.m.