Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Seanad Éireann díospóireacht -
Wednesday, 14 Feb 2007

Vol. 186 No. 2

Citizens Information Bill 2006: Committee Stage.

Sections 1 to 4 agreed.

I move amendment No. 1:

In page 6, between lines 10 and 11, to insert the following:

"(b) A personal advocate shall have such qualifications, expertise and experience as are appropriate to perform the functions conferred on him or her by this Act.”.

The Minister for Social and Family Affairs is welcome to the House. This Bill is of major importance to people with disabilities. The provision of advocacy services for people with disabilities has been long awaited. This service will be worthwhile and will give major support and a voice to people with disabilities. I am sure the Minister will agree that it is vital the quality and standards we set for advocates should be of the highest level.

My colleague in the Dáil tabled a similar amendment and it is also similar to an amendment tabled by the Minister, which I presume was accepted in the Dáil. However, this amendment goes further in that it provides that we would ensure through this Act that we would set certain standards. Much work needs to be done in this regard. Many advocates will be needed. The training for those advocates will be of major importance. I understand that currently training for advocates is available in only one institute of education, the institute in Sligo. How does the Minister intend to ensure the required number of advocates will be available and that the standards will be of the highest level? How will we set those standards, if they are not provided for in the legislation? This amendment is even stronger than the Minister's good amendment. I would like the Minister to assure us that the proper standards will be set to ensure the best quality service is delivered to people with disabilities. The Minister may have had time to reconsider this matter in the intervening period between consideration of the Bill in the Dáil and this debate and may see his way to accepting this amendment.

I thank the Senator for proposing this amendment to section 5. She seeks to provide in the legislation that personal advocates should have particular qualifications. I do not have a difficulty with that. There is no need and it could be counterproductive to lay down the qualifications in legislation because the necessity for qualifications of a certain type changes from time to time. I have provided in the Bill that the qualifications of personal advocates will be determined by the board. In fact, the first draft suggested it would be determined by the director, but I broadened it to make sure the whole board was satisfied with the qualifications.

Section 5, paragraph 7A(2) provides that personal advocates shall have such qualifications, experience and expertise as the board considers necessary. The intention here is that the new service should have highly trained people with specialist skills, in order that they can carry out the responsibilities of a personal advocate when speaking up for a person with disability and helping that person to access services. I took on board what was said on Second Stage.

The guidelines are published by Comhairle, the citizens information board, in preparation for the introduction of this service. These suggest that personal advocates would be expected to have a third level standard of education and experience in dealing with clients in a relevant area. The overall intention is to ensure a professional service of the highest quality. Section 5, paragraph 7A(2) is intended to empower the board to achieve this objective. The guidelines were published in September 2005 and they provide that a personal advocate shall empower the person with disability where possible, respect the person's wishes, act in the best interests of the person, act independently and maintain confidentiality. The objective is to keep the disabled person at the centre of the service and the guidelines suggest that potential personal advocates are likely to come from a variety of professions, where they will have experience dealing with people as clients. A minimum of three years' experience in a relevant area is probably desirable, but good judgment is needed overall.

In preparation for the introduction of the service on a statutory basis, the board has produced a resource pack for the community sector and has held training and networking days for the new advocacy project. The board also supports a higher certificate course in advocacy studies, which is accredited through Sligo Institute of Technology. In 2006, 26 students graduated from the two-year diploma course. There are currently 30 students in their second year of the course and 40 students in their first year. We will start off with four advocates, but I have stated that we are committed to meeting the demand and the number of advocates will increase.

I do not have a problem with what the Senator is trying to achieve in her amendment. We want to make sure that personal advocates are well qualified with plenty of experience, and are the right people for the job. I take the view that the Bill requires the board to be satisfied about those matters. It is better that the chairperson, the director and members of the board use their combined wisdom. From time to time, qualifications will change. New courses might be available or new post graduate studies might be developed. One might need a BA in psychology today or a PhD in philosophy tomorrow. It depends on society as it develops.

It is better to leave flexibility in the Bill, but it contains a requirement that the board be satisfied that people have suitable qualifications, expertise and experience. I have laid out what the guidelines state and I have no doubt they will be followed in detail.

I thank the Minister for his response. I understand from where he is coming and that we should get the best people available. I was trying to copperfasten that in the Bill. With a highly educated population we will have well qualified people to carry out this important work. Has the Minister a figure in mind? He stated that he would start with four workers initially, but how many advocates will be employed when the programme is fully resourced and working to its capacity?

I have not put a number on that. The initial phase states that the director of the personal advocacy service, four advocates and support staff of about four to six would be recruited. It is difficult to estimate the likely demand for the service, but I want to give the commitment that new personal advocates will be recruited as required to meet the needs of people with disabilities and to meet that demand. The director will be initially based in Dublin, but will move to Drogheda following decentralisation of the Citizens' Information Board headquarters. As the service develops, trained advocates will be located in different parts of the country. The objective is to build a good regional spread. I could not put a number on it, but we will take it from the start and develop it as demand grows.

The last time I spoke with the Minister about this, I outlined my philosophical difficulty in allowing the system to continue in a situation where we needed advocates to make it work for people. Will the Minister ensure a review is done within a certain period, such as every year or two years? Instead of continuing to provide advocates as required, the Department should have a quality assurance in its delivery of services. Our emphasis should be on making the system work, rather than having to put in place things to get over the barriers produced by the system.

Senator Cox made an enlightened speech on Second Stage. When one puts in place something like this, it is an admission that the system is not working. However, it is possible to make that allegation when any support system is put in place. This is in place because the sad reality is that people with disabilities find it difficult to access services. That they should not find it difficult is a philosophical debate and let us hope we are in the position someday where people with disabilities do not need that kind of support. From all the research we have obtained, the reality is they do need it.

The definition of disability is sensitive. We sometimes tend to think of it as an especially physical disability, but there are also sensory disabilities and so on where people need support in approaching any Department. We could put all those skills into the Department to deal with all those problems, but we would then probably have to replicate them across the board.

This board belongs to all Departments and not just mine. It is there to help people access their services across all Departments. The disadvantaged and vulnerable members of our society may not need this additional support some day, but it is essential for the foreseeable future.

I take the general point that whenever a support system is put in place, it means the system itself has not been able to respond. In another way, focusing on an issue allows us to reach a stage in the future where we can ease up on special support. The special support is needed at this time. I take the philosophical point that Senator Cox has made.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

I move amendment No. 2:

In page 7, between lines 30 and 31, to insert the following:

"(5) Each application for a personal advocate shall be considered within 2 months of the date of application.".

This amendment follows quite neatly from the last amendment. I read with interest the Minister's response to Deputy Stanton on this matter in the Dáil. The Minister did not agree with the proposal that applications for personal advocates should "be considered within 2 months of the date of application". He pointed out that An Bord Pleanála is supposed to give a response within four months but does not do so, which often causes the deadline to be extended. The Minister has said the imposition of a deadline could work against an individual. I am concerned about what will happen if we do not provide for a clear timeframe, or if we do not have enough advocates. The Minister has said there initially will be four advocates and six support staff. We do not know how much demand there will be for the service. If demand is high, there will be problems if not enough advocates are in place. There can be many problems with staff, often for understandable reasons — it can take time to employ people, for example. If somebody with a disability needs a particular service or services, he or she should be able to get them promptly. Many people who need services at present have to wait for a long time to get those services.

The open-ended nature of this provision, as it stands, will not work in the best interests of people with disabilities. Such people are entitled to know when it is likely that advocates will be appointed to deal with their cases. The two-month timeframe for dealing with applications, which I am proposing in this amendment, is reasonable. If we do not include this provision, the relevant period of time could be easily extended to six months. If there is no timeframe within which directors have to respond, they might take six or 12 months to consider applications. That is not good enough. If the Minister thinks the two-month timeframe is too short, I will be prepared to consider as reasonable a suggestion that it be extended to three months, for example. If we leave it open-ended, we will hinder the delivery under this legislation of the services to which we all aspire.

The 2007 budget — the opening budget — of the advocacy and interpretative service is €4.3 million. Data compiled for a Comhairle report, Developing an Advocacy Service for People with Disabilities, indicate that approximately 26,000 people, including 9,200 children, are registered on the national intellectual disability database. Approximately 14,800 people with mental or intellectual disabilities are in hospitals, including full-time residential and community facilities, at any given time. Although the figures I have given date from July 2004, they give an indication of the likely demand.

I do not want to be awkward about Senator Terry's proposal to provide for a two-month timeframe. I have examined the amendment, which seems to be reasonable, since the Dáil debate on this matter. I am anxious not to include in the legislation a provision that might have an effect contrary to what is intended. When organisations are under pressure because they are facing deadlines, they sometimes make bad decisions. It is not good to be under pressure to make a decision by 5 p.m. on Tuesday in order that one does not breach the legislation, for example, because one might not make the right decision. An alternative strategy that is often pursued in such circumstances is to issue a letter looking for more information, thereby causing the clock to start ticking all over again. The officials in An Bord Pleanála are masters of such tactics.

When one imposes a timeframe on the provision of services of this nature, it can become a target. If one makes an application today, one is less likely to get an answer this week if some genius somewhere realises one does not have to be given that answer for two months. It can became the norm to choose not to take further action for six or seven weeks. An amendment like this may be necessary in the future, if delays and backlogs start to arise. If, in the initial stage, I were to include a provision whereby two or three months could be taken to respond to an application, it would almost certainly lead to circumstances in which the full two or three months would be taken. That has been the experience when we have provided for such targets in the past. People take the time available to them. If we have a certain number of weeks to an election, we will use that time to do what needs to be done. If we have a shorter length of time, we will squeeze the same amount of work into the shorter timeframe. We all tend to work to deadlines. Those of us who have sat examinations will remember that we did not tend to get down to the serious business until the target date we had set started to loom. I am a little nervous about setting a deadline in this instance.

I have been advised by the Office of the Chief Parliamentary Counsel that the text of the Bill as it stands would be interpreted as requiring the determination of entitlement to the service within "a reasonable timeframe". The board will set targets in its various documents, such as its business plans. It will be required to deliver the service within "a reasonable timeframe". Medical advice and judgment is a central feature of any debate on disability matters. A timeframe of a month or two might be perfectly reasonable in the case of a person with a particular type of disability, but a longer timeframe might be more appropriate in the case of a person with a different type of disability who is trying to access a more complicated service.

It is better to leave this section of the Bill as it stands, although I would not rule out a change in the future. I presume Social Welfare Bills in the years to come will offer us plenty of opportunities to include a provision of this nature in this legislation. I am worried that if we make such an amendment now, it will have a counter-productive effect. We need the professionals to get to work on this new service, which is very sensitive, to see how it develops. That is the most practical way forward, to be honest. I am satisfied with the Office of the Chief Parliamentary Counsel's assurance that, legally, the board will be required to make a decision within "a reasonable timeframe". That is probably the most reasonable thing to do.

I am not happy with the Minister's response. He might think his approach is reasonable. I am not sure what is meant by "a reasonable timeframe" — such a phrase is too vague. This is a question of management and of how people do their work. One of the problems with the health service is that we do not demand that certain standards are delivered on. As legislators, we should demand high standards. This open-ended provision, which will allow decisions to be made within "a reasonable timeframe", means nothing. I wish I could share the Minister's opinion that it might be counter-productive to provide for a two-month timeframe in some cases, as officials would take the full two months to do what needs to be done. I would like to think they could respond much faster than that. I want to ensure it will not take them more than two months to make decisions. People in the private sector work to better standards because timeframes are in place. It costs them money if they run over but when it comes to social services it is somehow down to poor management in certain areas. This is not the case across the board but we all know that many of our problems are down to management.

We need to set standards and to be more demanding to ensure proper delivery of services within proper timeframes. It is up to us to set those timeframes and ensure they are met. I am disappointed the Minister cannot see his way to be of like mind and accept this reasonable amendment.

I am not disputing the reasonable nature of the case made by the Senator but I am advised that it might be counter-productive to do this in a brand new service at this stage. Not all individuals will be in need of a personal advocate. Many will have family members and carers and it is probable that only the most vulnerable will come forward initially. They will be prioritised and this has been clarified by the board. They will be dealt with immediately. I reiterate that many people will not require the service as they will be well able to speak up for themselves and to pursue an action or case on their own behalf. The Citizens Information Board has a strategic plan for 2006-09 which contains performance indicators which state that decisions will be taken promptly, without delay and within reasonable timeframes. This is the commitment in the strategic plan.

This is a point for which a strong argument can be made either way. However, I am satisfied that the assurance of the Parliamentary Counsel that the word "reasonable" when used in legislation is fairly well used and defined. A reasonable timeframe in this case could be a week, depending on the case. The timeframe for a very simple inquiry could be a week but a complicated issue could take a year. This is unknown territory and it is better to allow the board some flexibility.

The board and the director are required by legislation to deal promptly with applications. If we were to impose a time limit it should be done in future legislation. Two social welfare Bills come through this House every year and there would be little difficulty in putting an amendment to one of those Bills if a backlog occurred by inserting a timeframe of two or three months. There would be no need to draft a new piece of legislation as it could be incorporated into a social welfare Bill. This would be the most sensible way. The social welfare Bills must be enacted and they would provide for such an opportunity.

If the Senator forgives my pun, I advocate that we leave it to the board's requirement to act promptly. I would not be opposed to making an amendment similar to this amendment in future legislation if it is warranted at that time. I know the Senator would share my wish that it would not be needed at all and that the board would deal expeditiously with cases.

I will not press the amendment. I will take on board what the Minister has said and I ask that he take on board what I have said. The Minister has stated this could be changed in the future if it is found to be unsatisfactory and not working to the desired standard and this is to be welcomed.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

I move amendment No. 3:

In page 12, between lines 42 and 43, to insert the following:

"(d) A person, or a person acting on his or her behalf, who is unhappy with the performance of a personal advocate, may submit a complaint to the Director of the Personal Advocacy Service.”.

This amendment is an attempt by Fine Gael to strengthen this very good legislation to ensure that people with disabilities receive the best level of service possible. Unfortunately, not everything works out the way we would hope. In any walk of life there will always be complaints or people will be unhappy with the level of service. This Bill does not provide for a mechanism to make a complaint by an individual who is unhappy with the level of service. This is a failure in the Bill.

Everybody should be entitled to bring a complaint to another body. People with disabilities are the most vulnerable people in the community. When legislation is enacted and significant sums of money are provided to ensure that services and qualified people are available, it makes sense to go that one step further to provide a complaints resolution service. This service is available in other areas and the ombudsmen do excellent work. It would strengthen the Bill if such a mechanism were to be provided and this amendment would do so. I ask the Minister to consider it favourably.

I do not have any quibble with the intention of this and the other amendments. The intention is good and the principle behind the amendments makes sense. However, in the stark print of legislation, an amendment may not achieve the desired objective. The Senator is attempting to ensure there is a strong complaints procedure and that complaints about personal advocate performance may be made to the director. The personal advocate will be a staff member of the board. There is no reason to stop anyone bringing a complaint to the director. It is normal procedure to make a complaint to a person's boss. It is not necessary to put into legislation that a person can complain to someone's boss or to the board.

A complaints system is already in place in the Citizens Information Board in Comhairle. Anybody with a difficulty with any staff member such as a personal advocate may complain to the board or the chairman or the chief executive. The director of advocacy services reports to the chief executive. If the Bill were to state that complaints should be made to the director it should also be stated that complaints can go to the chief executive because the director may well have been the person who selected the advocate for a particular assignment.

I confirm that complaints can be made to the board, to the director, to the chief executive and to the Ombudsman or even the Department in the case of a complaint about policy. The Bill provides that appeals can be made through the ordinary social welfare appeals system. If a person is not satisfied with a decision it can be appealed through the independent social welfare appeals office. This is a safety valve if someone wishes to appeal a decision.

Advocates are employees of the board and anyone can make a complaint to the board. If we attempt to include this in legislation it may result in narrowing the range of people to whom a complaint can be made. As a consequence, individuals could argue that specific persons are not entitled to make a complaint to them because they are not named in the legislation. The common sense approach provided for in the Bill is preferable. As matters stand, the complaints procedure in the board is open to anyone who wishes to make a complaint about any person employed by the board. This is the practical way forward.

I accept the Minister's explanation. As the legislation is new, it must be given time to work. If, however, we find that certain procedures are not working properly, we will rectify them by way of amendment at a later date.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

I move amendment No. 4:

In page 12, after line 52, to insert the following:

"(6) The following persons may notify the Minister that an offence has occurred under subsection (5):

(a) a personal advocate;

(b) a qualifying person;

(c) members of a qualifying person’s family;

(d) a carer; or

(e) any combination of the persons mentioned in paragraphs (a) to (d).”.

The amendment is similar to amendment No. 3. I ask the Minister to comment.

Senator Terry will be aware of my arguments. I appreciate she is trying to be helpful in this case. I also appreciate the general welcome given to the legislation on all sides. The amendment proposes that a series of persons may notify the Minister that an offence has occurred. These persons are listed as a personal advocate; a qualifying person; members of a qualifying person's family; a carer; or any combination of the persons mentioned. The proposal is too restrictive because under the current provisions, anyone may make a complaint or notify the Minister of an offence. It will be the obligation of a personal advocate or qualifying person to notify the Minister of any issues arising in the normal course of their duties.

I am nervous about prescribing a list of people because it omits many others and, as such, would not meet the intended objective. I encourage anybody to notify the Minister or board in the event that difficulties arise at any stage. For this reason, it is better to leave open the question of which persons may notify the Minister.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Section 5 agreed to.
Sections 6 to 10, inclusive, agreed to.
Title agreed to.
Bill reported without amendment and received for final consideration.
Question proposed: "That the Bill do now pass."

I thank Senators for their thoughtful consideration of the legislation and enlightening and useful contributions. I am also grateful to my colleagues in the Dáil who examined the Bill in a rigorous but fair manner. As always, I must say a special word of thanks to my over-worked officials who have spent many years bringing this legislation to the Statute Book. They have been engaged in the process under various Ministers since 2001. I thank the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel for the extensive work it did on the Bill.

I thank the Department's disability consultative forum and the disability legislation consultative group, DLCP, which did Trojan work. The DLCP includes the Disability Federation of Ireland, Mental Health Ireland, Inclusion Ireland, the National Federation of Voluntary Bodies, the Not-for-Profit Business Association, People with Disabilities in Ireland, the National Disability Authority and others.

I thank the chairperson, board and managers of Comhairle, which will shortly become the Citizens Information Board if or when the President signs the legislation. Throughout the legislative process Comhairle has worked closely with the Department and continues to provide a fine service. With its new title, mandate, legislation and responsibilities for advocacy, it will have a heavy workload in ensuring citizens and immigrants alike who seek assistance, advice and information from the Citizens Information Board are guided in the right direction on how to access a range of State services, not exclusively in the area of social welfare. Information reduces the pressure people feel, particularly vulnerable people who need information at traumatic times in their lives. I hope the new Citizens Information Board can be a beacon of hope for such people and guide them towards full access to their entitlements. I thank Senators and the Acting Chairman, Senator Brady.

I, too, thank all those whom the Minister thanked and praised, particularly his staff who have worked on the Bill for many years. This is excellent legislation which will be of great benefit to many people. With such large numbers of people accessing the Comhairle service, the provisions of the Bill will improve the level of service delivered, particularly to those with disabilities. My party will allow time to determine if the Bill has any flaws and address any areas in need of improvement in due course. I thank the Minister and his officials for the fine work we have completed today.

I thank the Minister for his forbearance and patience in listening to arguments made by Senators from both sides in their efforts to improve the legislation. Time and again, when the House deals with legislation from the Department of Social and Family Affairs, it is wonderful, as legislators, to be in a position to discuss the bigger picture and philosophical questions as well as the opportunities available to us. For many years, the problem we faced was having too little and not being able to provide for people.

I appreciate the Minister's acceptance of my philosophical reflections on the legislation. I still firmly believe that all State enterprises, including Departments, have a responsibility to ensure that the services they provide are accessible. It is not for us to create systems to make up for failures in such situations. In the short term we may have to deal with such issues, but in the longer term the responsibility must remain with particular Departments. That, however, is a philosophical debate that will continue for many years.

I wish to thank the Minister's officials and all those who work in this area. The legislation will make a huge difference to the lives of many people throughout the country. If we do nothing other than make life better for the people we serve, then we can be justifiably proud of doing so. I thank the Minister again.

Question put and agreed to.
Sitting suspended at 12.10 p.m.and resumed at 2.15 p.m.