The Citizens Information Bill 2006 is a key element of the Government's national disability strategy and is designed to ensure that people with disabilities are supported to enable them, as far as possible, to lead full and independent lives, to reach their full potential as individuals and to participate fully in society. The Bill provides for a number of important changes to the Comhairle Act 2000 to strengthen the functions of the statutory body in the provision of high quality information, advice, awareness and advocacy as part of the delivery of a new seamless and customer friendly national information service under one easily accessible and visible brand of citizens information.
With the Disability Act 2005, the accompanying sectoral plans and the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004, this Bill demonstrates clearly the Government's intention 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.
The primary purpose of the Bill is to amend the Comhairle Act 2000 to enhance the functions of the statutory body in supporting the development of advocacy services, particularly for people with disabilities. Most importantly, the Bill provides for the introduction of a personal advocacy service for certain people with disabilities who would otherwise have difficulty in getting access to the services available to assist them. The substance of the Bill provides for matters such as the qualifying conditions for eligibility for the assignment of a personal advocate, how the service is to be organised, the responsibility of the personal advocates, the application process, an independent appeals system and related matters to ensure that the new service is placed on a sound footing.
Under the provisions of the Bill, the name of Comhairle, which was established in 2000 with responsibility for the direct provision of independent information and advice services on social services to the public, will be changed to the Citizens Information Board or An Bord um Fhaisnéis do Shaoránaigh. Other provisions include a definition of social services in section 2 of the Comhairle Act 2000 to include a broad range of social and civil services provided to the public and the expansion of the definition of a voluntary body to include citizen information centres, a number of amendments to section 7 of the Comhairle Act to strengthen the board's role in supporting and developing the provision of information on social services and the work of the citizen information centres and other voluntary bodies throughout the country and amendments to section 9 of the Comhairle Act to change the size and the term of office of the board in order to provide for improved operational efficiency and to allow for greater continuity in the leadership of the organisation to the benefit of local services relying on its support.
The information elements of the Bill are designed to deliver and meet the needs of a dramatically changing and evolving 21st century Irish society in which the delivery of independent, quality, accurate and integrated information is a priority, including meeting the challenge of immigration from new EU member states and elsewhere. The Citizens Information Bill, combined with the implementation plan set out in Comhairle's 2006-09 strategic plan, represents a major overhaul and modernisation of the provision of information on social services and will deliver an integrated and seamless supply of high quality and independent information to the entire population and, in particular, those in society who are most vulnerable and in need of support.
The provision of independent, clear and accessible information has a central role in helping to break down barriers, easing anxieties, opening up opportunities and clearing the way for citizens, particularly those who are most vulnerable in society, to improve their situations and build better lives.
Before I outline the provisions of the Bill, I wish to acknowledge the significant increase in funding for disability support services provided by the Government in recent years. Under the national disability plan, some €19.2 million will be invested in providing quality services and opportunities for people with disabilities. In 2005, almost €3 billion was spent on addressing disability issues. This figure does not include the €2 billion plus spent by my Department in 2006 on income supports and entitlements for people with disabilities or illnesses and their carers. The significant real increases to social welfare rates in recent years underlines my Department's position at the forefront in providing for the income support and other needs of people with disabilities.
There is an important link between the provision of information and advocacy in that access to information and a range of options flowing from that information are two key aspects of empowerment and citizenship. That is particularly relevant to the functions of the newly named citizens information board in the provision of enhanced services for people with disabilities.
The Citizens Information Bill 2006 envisages advocacy services as supporting people with disabilities in identifying and understanding their needs and options and in securing their entitlements to social services. In its broad sense, advocacy is a traditional concept linked to the notion of the citizen taking responsibility not only for him or herself but also for his or her neighbour. It is not to be confused with the giving of information or the offering of advice per se, although both functions are aspects of the advocate’s role. Advocacy is something that many people daily do for others. Parents advocate for their children and relatives and friends speak on behalf of vulnerable persons when necessary. Public representatives do it all the time and, indeed, those present in this House today can speak from personal experience in that regard. To put it simply, it is the act of supporting or speaking up for someone. To put it more formally, it is a dynamic process of negotiation conducted by or on behalf of an individual who is marginalised in some way.
The proposed service, as set out in the Bill, will provide for the assignment of a personal advocate to assist, support and represent a person with a disability in applying for and obtaining social services and in pursuing any right of review or appeal in connection with those services. It is envisaged that the arrangements for the new personal advocacy service will be completed without delay when the legislation is in place.
The board of Comhairle has undertaken a significant amount of work in preparation for the introduction of the new personal advocacy service. Two important studies have informed this work and provide the basis for the legislative provisions in the Citizens Information Bill.
In October 2005, Comhairle published guidelines to inform and guide the development of advocacy services by community and voluntary organisations. In tandem with the guidelines, I launched a programme of funding amounting to €2 million for advocacy projects in that sector. At the end of 2006, 31 projects were in place. Each project employs an advocate to work with people with disabilities in accessing a range of different services to help them achieve their personal objectives. Other work undertaken in preparation for the introduction of the advocacy service on a statutory basis includes the production of a resource pack for the new advocacy projects, training and networking days and support for a higher certificate course in advocacy studies accredited through Sligo Institute of Technology.
I will now outline for the House the contents of the Bill. Sections 1 and 2 provide for the usual definitions of the terms used in the Bill. The definition of disability is that used in the Disability Act 2005. Section 2 amends the definition of a voluntary body in the Comhairle Act to include citizens information services and citizens information centres. My purpose here is to provide statutory recognition for the citizens information centres which comprise the primary channel through which the citizens information board will provide information to the public. This section also includes the definition of social services, which will underpin the board's work in the provision of information about entitlements and public services. Social services are broadly defined in the section and include health, social welfare, education, family support, housing, taxation, citizenship, employment and training, equality, asylum and immigration.
Section 3 provides for the change of name from Comhairle to Citizens Information Board or An Bord um Fhaisnéis do Shaoránaigh. My objective here is to have the citizens information board and the voluntary bodies providing information services, particularly the citizens information centres, readily identifiable by the public as part of one overall, coherent brand in the provision of State-funded information services in matters of civil rights and entitlements.
Section 4 amends section 7 of the Comhairle Act 2000. It provides for a number of changes to the functions of the statutory body, in particular, to provide greater support for people with disabilities. These include a function for the board to support the provision of advocacy services in the community and voluntary sector for people with disabilities; the introduction by the citizens information board of a personal advocacy service for people with disabilities who meet the criteria of qualifying persons for the service; a function for the board to support and develop greater accessibility and public awareness of the social services available to people; and a remit to promote the provision of integrated information about those services by voluntary and statutory bodies. The provisions state that the board, in providing the personal advocacy service for people with disabilities, shall have regard to the financial resources available to it and whether advocacy services are available to the person in the community or elsewhere.
In addition, section 4 inserts into section 7 of the Comhairle Act new provisions to enable the citizens information board to set terms and conditions for voluntary bodies seeking funding and to promote the development of high quality standards in the provision of information to the public. The effect of the provisions is that voluntary bodies that seek funding may be asked to demonstrate how they will pursue quality service objectives and funding may be refused if the body concerned fails to supply the board with the information requested.
Section 5 provides for the details of the personal advocacy service by inserting in section 7 of the Comhairle Act a number of new provisions — sections 7A to 7F. The new section 7A provides for the designation of persons as personal advocates by the chief executive officer of the citizens information board; that the qualifications, experience and competencies required to be a personal advocate of the personal advocacy service shall be set out by the board; for the appointment by the board of a director of the personal advocacy service who will manage the personal advocacy service; and for the qualifying criteria to be satisfied by a person to have a personal advocate assigned to him or her.
The legislation provides that a qualifying person, in the case of a person 18 years of age or older, is a person who, in the opinion of the director, is unable to obtain or has difficulty in obtaining a social service without the support of a personal advocate because of his or her disability. The director must also be of the view that there are reasonable grounds for believing that there is a risk to the person's health, welfare or safety if he or she is not provided with the social service in question. A person under 18 years of age may qualify for a personal advocate if his or her sole parent or guardian is a qualifying person or if he or she has a disability and, in the circumstances of the case, it would be unreasonable to expect a parent or guardian to act on his or her behalf to obtain the social service without the assistance of a personal advocate. The new section 7A(4) also provides that a person will not be disqualified for the assignment of a personal advocate if he or she is already getting a social service.
Section 7A(5) sets out how the board will prioritise the assignment of personal advocates to people who qualify for the service. The process will take account of factors such as the needs of the person to have a personal advocate assigned to him or her, the benefits likely to accrue to him or her by the assignment of the personal advocate and any risk of harm to health or well-being that may arise if he or she cannot obtain the services sought.
Section 7A(10) provides that any person who has an interest in or who is involved in the welfare or well-being of a person with a disability and who is of the view that the person may be entitled to a personal advocate may approach the personal advocacy service and tell it about the individual concerned. It also provides that where the director or a member of the staff of the citizens information board involved in the personal advocacy service is informed about a person who may be entitled to a personal advocate, he or she shall arrange for information about the service to be provided to the person. The section also provides that the Minister may make regulations for incidental or supplementary matters that may arise to give effect to these provisions.
The new section 7B of the Comhairle Act details the arrangements for making application to the personal advocacy service for the assignment of a personal advocate and for the decision process relating to applications. It sets out that any person may apply to the director for the assignment of a personal advocate on behalf of a person with a disability. It states that an applicant may appeal against a decision of the director of the personal advocacy service if he or she is not satisfied with the decision about qualification for the service. It also provides for a reversal of a decision to refuse the assignment of a personal advocate in the light of new evidence or if a mistake is made about the facts.
The new section 7C of the Comhairle Act sets out the arrangements for a person to make an appeal against a decision that he or she is not qualified for the assignment of a personal advocate. The section provides, in effect, that the social welfare appeals rules and procedures which are detailed in the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005 will apply, in a modified form, to appeals involving the personal advocacy service. An appeal against a decision may be lodged with the chief appeals officer, either directly by the person concerned or by any other person on his or her behalf. My objective is to ensure that people who are dissatisfied with the decision on their qualification for the assignment of a personal advocate have access to an impartial and independent appeals system. The social welfare appeals office has a proven record in this regard and is ideally positioned to meet the needs of people who seek the assistance of an advocate.
The new section 7D of the Comhairle Act, sets out the duties and responsibilities of the personal advocate. These are to assist, support and represent the qualified person in applying for and obtaining a social service, including an application for an assessment of need or a service specified in a service statement under the Disability Act 2005; to pursue any right of review or appeal on behalf of the qualified person; and to provide support and training to the qualified person, to any member of his or her family, a carer or any other person who represents the interests of the person with a disability. This section empowers a personal advocate acting on behalf of the person with a disability to enter any place that provides day care, residential care or training for him or her and to represent his or her interests. It also provides that the personal advocate may, subject to data protection legislation, access information and attend meetings or consultations on behalf of the person concerned.
Section 7D(4) imposes an obligation on statutory or voluntary bodies to co-operate with a personal advocate in the performance of his or her functions on behalf of the person with a disability. Subsections (5), (6) and (7) of section 7D set out the offences to apply to persons who obstruct or hinder a personal advocate in that context.
Section 7E provides that where an offence under section 7D(5) is committed by a body corporate and where the offence is proved to have arisen because of the action or inaction of an individual connected with that body, the individual and the body corporate shall be guilty of the offence. The section further provides that where the body corporate is managed by its members and the offence is attributable to a member in a management role, he or she shall be guilty and liable to have proceedings taken against him or her.
The new section 7F of the Comhairle Act 2000 provides that the citizens information board may arrange for the functions of personal advocates to be performed by persons other than members of the staff of the board, as it considers appropriate. Such a move by the board would be subject to the approval of the Minister for Social and Family Affairs.
Sections 6 and 7 of the Citizens Information Bill provide for changes to the term of office and membership of the citizens information board. These changes are considered necessary in the light of operational experience since the board was first constituted in June 2000. Section 6 amends section 9 of the Comhairle Act so that the term of office of members of the board will be extended from three to five years and the number of members of the citizens information board will be reduced from 20 to 15. This approach is in keeping with a general trend towards smaller boards in respect of State agencies. Of the other agencies under my Department's aegis, the Pensions Board and the Combat Poverty Agency each has 16 members on its board, while the Family Support Agency has a 12 member board. This section provides for a consequential adjustment to be made to the board arising from the reduction to 15 members. The number of members representing people with disabilities is being reduced from five to at least three and, having regard to the Government's mainstreaming policy, the nominating role of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform in respect of these members is being removed. Section 7 of the Bill amends section 11 of the Comhairle Act and provides for a revised quorum for board meetings as a result of the reduction from 20 to 15 members. The quorum is being reduced from 11 members to a number between eight and five as may be considered appropriate by the board.
Section 8 amends section 23 of the Comhairle Act and pertains to the accountability of the chief executive before the Committee of Public Accounts. The section brings the legislation in line with current best practice by ensuring that the chief executive will be accountable to the committee in similar terms to secretaries general of Departments.
Section 9 provides for the insertion of a new section 24A in the Comhairle Act. It provides that the Minister for Social and Family Affairs may issue policy directions to the citizens information board, including directions to directly undertake information campaigns on specific social services.
Section 10 sets out the standard provisions relating to short title and collective citation. It also provides for the commencement arrangements for the implementation of the Bill's provisions with different commencement dates applying to different sections of the Bill.
The introduction of the personal advocacy service by the citizens information board is an important priority in my Department's programme of work to enhance the services available to people with disabilities. A lot of progress has been made since such a service was first mooted in 2001. The views and the experience of people with disabilities and of those who work with them have made a significant contribution to the development of the advocacy programme already underway and the proposals in this legislation. Officials of my Department will continue to consult with disability interests groups in the development of the services proposed and the implementation of my Department's disability sectoral plan. The issue of resources is central to the successful implementation of any new service being introduced by the Government. I assure the House that the resources necessary to introduce the new personal advocacy service are being provided to the citizens information board. In 2006, Comhairle was allocated a total of €24.362 million, of which €2.012 million was provided for the development of advocacy services by the voluntary and community services, as well as €250,000 for preparatory work on the personal advocacy service. For 2007, my Department has allocated €28.422 million to Comhairle, with a total of €4.312 million allocated specifically for advocacy services.
People with disabilities face many barriers to full participation in society. The personal advocacy service provided for in the Citizens Information Bill 2006 has a significant contribution to make to ensure every person with a disability has access to appropriate assistance and support in securing their entitlements to social services. It represents an important step forward in delivering the Government's commitments in the disability strategy to the full integration of people with disabilities in all aspects of society.
I commend this Bill to the House.