I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time".
I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Finian McGrath, to the House. I want to thank my Seanad colleagues and particularly those who were supportive in ensuring that we have a presentable Bill this evening. I thank my Civic Engagement colleagues, Senators Kelleher and Ruane, for doing the honours on First Stage. I also owe thanks to those who now need to see these changes and the many others affected by this. In particular, I want to mention the Oireachtas Office of the Parliamentary Legal Advisers, OPLA, for translating my objectives into a format fit for consideration by both Houses of the Oireachtas. Like the John West advertisement from many years back,“What John West rejects makes John West the best”, we too rejected many drafts to get to the Bill that is before the House. We are offering it as a clear and balanced Bill, in keeping with Ireland’s ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, UNCRPD, and which serves progressive inclusion of people with disabilities while not trampling on the rights or freedoms of others. In the past, and even still, the rights of people with disabilities were and are often overlooked and that is putting it mildly. Adjustment is necessary and this Bill is our best effort to put before the House a measured prescription to right some of these wrongs and best of all, to give people with disabilities and their families fair play, not only in the playground, but also through the provision of safe and comfortable public sanitary facilities, fully accessible public bus travel and access to critical social services.
Playgrounds are dealt with in sections 1 and 2. Currently, many families cannot enjoy a trip to the playground together as children with disabilities are often excluded from play with their siblings and peers due to the lack of accessible and inclusive play equipment in their local playground.
This Bill will provide the opportunity for side-by-side play with family, friends and peers. It requires local authorities to follow the principles of universal design. This will also apply to plans or initiatives which include playgrounds or play equipment as part of any approved scheme or part of a scheme for a business improvement district, BID. The principles of universal design are not new, and I am happy to see that the Minister, Deputy Zappone, is utilising them for early learning and care settings to make these settings more inclusive and welcoming for all family members and staff.
Section 3 concerns advocacy. The Bill ensures that advocates supporting people with disabilities to allow them to gain access to social services have statutory powers through the appointment of a director of personal advocacy, as legislated for in the Citizens Information Act 2007, but I am sad that this has not been commenced.
On transport, covered in section 4, the National Transport Authority can at present give a licence to a private bus operator to operate on a public scheduled route, but private bus operators are not required to meet the same accessibility standards as public bus operators, such as Bus Éireann.
Section 5 covers changing places and accessible change facilities. This section is to improve the current accessibility building standards as they do not meet the needs of people with a profound disability. This Bill changes the current standard so that a changing place is provided in addition to the usual toilet facilities. The alternative to not correcting the standard is to say to parents and carers that it is acceptable for them to continue to change their children, teens or adults on a toilet floor, which we consider to be abhorrent. Currently in Ireland, there are just 11 registered changing places, eight of which are in Dublin. There are 1,300 in Britain and 27 in Northern Ireland. I will put on the record the changing places currently in place and those planning for the next stages: the National Gallery of Ireland, our neighbour here; Áras an Uachtaráin; IKEA; the Irish National Heritage Park, County Wexford; Trinity College Dublin; the Lime Tree Theatre, Mary Immaculate College, Limerick; the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission; the Marlay Park craft courtyard, Rathfarnham; Dundrum Town Centre; Athboy Convent community centre, Athboy, County Meath; and terminal 1 of Dublin Airport. Naas community library, Clare county library, Dublin Zoo, Fairview Park team room, St. Anne's Park, Raheny, the new student hub at University College Cork, and the national children's hospital have made commitments.
This Bill is grounded in the reality that many people with disabilities are left out of equal participation due to a number of barriers. Public benefit and the public good will be better served by the adjustments that this Bill proposes to make over time. While the four areas to be advanced in the Bill are practical and tangible, there is more going on. First, the Bill will change the culture and attitude. Sometimes that starts on the streets, as with Rosa Parks when, in effect, she said, "To hell with sitting at the back of the bus just because I have black skin." Today, I hope we will make progress in this House because we get it that people cannot experience the public realm or be on the bus with dignity without the proposed changes. We, as Senators, know that the simple human dignity of people needs practical support.
The Nazi regime was able to exterminate up to 300,000 people with disabilities with ease. These innocent victims came mainly from Germany and Austria, yet for the extermination of people of the Jewish faith, nearly a decade had to be spent by the Nazis stripping them of their humanity in a number of ways. The Nuremburg laws took a number of years to complete. A critical part of that programme included measures to humiliate people publicly. Public humiliation came before quiet extermination. Let me be very clear: in no way has it been the instinct of any Irish Government to be a willing party to such a policy. My point in raising this is that public affirmation and celebration of participation in the community are the most potent antidote to the slippery road of "special and separate" and "other", which easily leads to the view that those with disabilities are different. That is so far from what our Dáil unanimously signed up to on 7 March 2018 when it agreed to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. In May 2017, the year before, I wrote to the contestants who wished to step into the shoes of the Taoiseach, Deputy Enda Kenny, and simply outlined that the promised ratification of the convention had not taken place. The reply, which came a few days later, was positive. The Taoiseach committed to ratification by the year's end. The Dáil then delivered on it in March 2018.
This Bill is an opportunity for this House to breathe life and outcomes into those decisions by making it easier for people with disabilities and their families to do ordinary things in ordinary places in a respectful and dignified manner. This is a powerful message for inclusion. On 14 June 2017, the Taoiseach informed the Dáil while concluding his statement on the nomination of Ministers that, as Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath remained Minister with responsibility for disabilities across several Departments and that the Government was renewing its commitment to ratifying the convention in that year. He said there would be a genuine partnership Government working to improve the lives of all our citizens and all parts of the country. This Bill provides a practical suite of measures to demonstrate that people with disabilities are included, and it supports individuals throughout the country. All of us, as Senators, have an opportunity this evening to act in partnership to support those in our communities who need to benefit from these measures.
Last week, I, as CEO of the Disability Federation of Ireland, was honoured to be part of Ireland's delegation to the UN Conference of States Parties to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. I spoke in the general debate. I noted that Departments and public bodies in Ireland and elsewhere are not designed well or practised enough to operate horizontally to maximise person-centred outcomes. This Bill, involving three Departments, brings this issue to light. I said that results for people with disabilities are often modest by comparison with the efforts made. I then said: "Ireland is serious about implementation and wants to make progress." Therefore, it is in the hands of my Seanad colleagues to ensure this Bill passes through this House and that it is subsequently enacted. This will allow the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, to go back to the UN next June and report the enactment of this legislation, along with other measures.
This leads me to my second point. This Bill challenges the traditional way in which legislation is approached. Bills so often focus on one Department. For decades, we have had the mantra of person-centred public services. This Bill builds on legislative foundations already in place, without which we could not have constructed this Bill. Universal design, as defined in the National Disability Authority Act 1999, and the Local Government Act 2001, the Planning and Development Act 2000, the Public Transportation Act 2009 and the Building Regulations 1997 are the taking-off points for this Bill.
What this Bill does is change the perspective by starting with the day-to-day lived experience of people with disabilities. Its core is to make the path towards equal, easy and valued participation in the public realm a reality. This reinforces the worth and role of people with disabilities. The three parties involved, namely, the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection, the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, and the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, will all, of necessity, have a contribution to make. Having said that, this Bill needs to be dealt with as a whole, whereby the four elements are threaded together from person and community-centred perspectives. In that context it is significant and welcome that the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, who has the disability brief and participates at Cabinet, is taking this Bill.
This Bill is not just about people with disabilities and their families. It is also about the rest of the community. It is equally about not having to be ashamed or embarrassed that our brothers and sisters in the family that our State strives to be under our Constitution do not continue to be outside ordinary participation in ordinary places.
I anchored this Bill in the commitment of An Taoiseach when he was appointed. Let me now go back a century:
The Irish Republic fully realises the necessity of abolishing the present odious, degrading and foreign Poor Law System, substituting therefor a sympathetic native scheme for the care of the Nation's aged and infirm, who shall not be regarded as a burden, but rather entitled to the Nation's gratitude and consideration. Likewise it shall be the duty of the Republic to take such measures as will safeguard the health of the people and ensure the physical as well as the moral well-being of the Nation.
This is from the fifth of the eight paragraphs of the Democratic Programme announced in the Mansion House during the first sitting of our First Dáil on 21 January 100 years ago.
We have an opportunity in this centenary year to honour the clear and simple intent of those Members of the First Dáil and, in so doing, honour the dignity and simple humanity of some of our citizens in this Republic.