Wednesday, 26 January 2000
Dáil Eireann Debate
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Amendment No. 1 in the names of Deputies Jim O'Keeffe and Broughan is out of order as it involves a potential charge on Revenue. Amendment No. 2 in the name of Deputy Jim O'Keeffe arises out of Committee proceedings. Amendment No. 16 is related. Amendment No. 17 is an alternative. Amendment No. 18 is consequential on amendment No. 16. Amendments Nos. 2, 16, 17 and 18 can be discussed together by agreement. Is that agreed? Agreed.
I note we have by-passed amendment No. 1. I regret that. I appreciate that it is ruled out of order because it could involve a charge on the Revenue. However, it is very difficult to work out how one can have full and comprehensive advocacy services without legal representation. I and my colleague in the Labour Party are of the view that we should not exclude the possibility of legal representation. It is an issue to which we will have to return, particularly as the Legal Aid Board is under-resourced and is unable to provide the full legal representation that is necessary.
My amendment No. 2 deals with gender balance. For a long time we have been paying lip service to the notion of gender equality. Some progress has been made. However, it is time to bring this a stage further by enshrining it in Acts of Parliament. That is why I moved this amendment on Committee Stage. The Bill as it stands provides that in respect of membership of the board the Minister shall have regard to the extent to which each gender is represented. There is an obligation on the Minister to ensure an appropriate gender balance. However, that is “as determined by the Minister from time to time”. The problem is that that leaves it at the Minister's discretion. It is possible to have as the Minister, a typical MCP who is totally unsympathetic to the notion of appropriate gender balance. I am not for a moment suggesting that the present Minister, whether he remains in that office or not, qualifies as an MCP. However, we could find that the current Minister will be over in Iveagh House tomorrow as Minister for Foreign Affairs, and who knows who would be in this ministry. I am not expecting that – I think I see the future Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Cowen, leaving the House. He was just keeping in touch with what is happening here. Essentially, it is not a matter that should be left to the discretion of a Minister. That is my main point. We argued that very strenuously on Committee Stage. We made the point that the time has arrived when we should enshrine in statute what is an appropriate gender balance. It is on that basis that I moved this amendment on Committee Stage seeking to have “appropriate gender balance” defined and interpreted as meaning as close as possible to a minimum of 40% men and 40% women. My colleague in the Labour Party has an amendment to section 9 along the same lines.
The Minister's reaction on Committee Stage was to listen and to promise to take our views into account. For that reason I am glad that he has put down his own amendment on Report Stage which will involve a statutory requirement on the Minister to have regard to the objective that there be no fewer than eight members who are women and no fewer than eight members who  are men. The present interim board conforms to that standard. It has 20 members, and there are 12 men and eight women. It also conforms to the 40% rule which Deputy Broughan and I are trying to have accepted.
If the Minister can convince us that his way of dealing with this is better from a drafting point of view, I am prepared to take the appropriate action in relation to my proposal. It seems that the substance of the Minister's new amendment takes on board our 40% proposal. Subject to what the Minister has to say, we may be able to dispose of it on that basis. When the Minister has moved his amendment, we can make a decision as to how we might deal with the logistics.
Mr. Broughan: Like Deputy O'Keeffe, I was very unhappy to receive the Chair's admonition that the first amendment had been ruled out of order because it could result in a charge on the Revenue. Deputy O'Keeffe and I made a strong case in favour of full advocacy, including legal representation. I accept the ruling of the House. There are many circumstances where it is unclear whether somebody should have legal representation. I particularly have in mind employment appeal tribunals and such bodies. A person might be accompanied by a workmate or a skilled trade union official. However, many workers and constituents feel there should be a legal aspect to it. The same applies to NSSB and the new Comhairle organisation. An element of advocacy brings in a legal aspect. I regret, therefore, that we are not prepared to consider this at this stage. I hope we can return to it at some future time when Comhairle is up and running.
The extent of the lacuna in the area of legal representation, including the waiting lists for civil legal aid, is indicative of the needs of our constituents. We should examine this aspect as Comhairle develops. For example, some serious cases may merit the attention of a senior barrister at the Employment Appeals Tribunal.
I am glad the Minister is still in office and I hope he will be in a position to take Question Time tomorrow. I commend him on going some way to meet us on the question of adequate gender representation. Political parties are often asked why they do not practice what they preach. The gender imbalance in the House is a serious cause for concern. My party has for a long time implemented a gender balance policy, at least in terms of a 40% threshold for candidate selection. All areas of civil society, including political parties, should pursue this objective. My predecessor, the former Minister for Education, was instrumental in the introduction of the 40% rule by the Fianna Fáil-Labour Government.
Amendment No. 2 in the name of Deputy Jim O'Keeffe provides that an appropriate gender balance should mean “as close as possible to a minimum of 40 per cent. men and 40 per cent. women”, while amendment No. 16 in the name  of the Minister provides that the Minister “shall have regard to the objective of there being not less than 8 members who are women and not less than 8 members who are men.”. Given the five members to be nominated by the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform and the possible make-up of the members of the new board, the Minister will doubtless say an absolute rule would make his task very difficult. Despite this, we should adhere to the objective of gender equality, especially in this organisation. That is why amendment No. 17 in my name provides that the Minister and his colleague, the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, “shall ensure that at least 40 per cent. of members of the Board are men and at least 40 per cent. of members of the Board are women.”. I intend to press this amendment because the establishment of a national organisation, such as Comhairle, will play an important representative role and in view of this its membership should reflect gender equality.
Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs (Mr. D. Ahern): I thank the Deputies for tabling amendments and for acknowledging that we considered this issue between Committee and Report Stages and have introduced an amendment which meets the concerns expressed on Committee Stage. My amendment proposes that on making appointments I or any future Minister would have regard to the objective of having a minimum of eight women and eight men on the board.
When I appointed the original board of 20 members there were 11 men and 9 women, which represented a gender balance of 55% and 45%, respectively. The changes to the membership since then reflect circumstances beyond anybody's control. There is a requirement to appoint five members to the board who represent people with disabilities. This quota has been exceeded by one, if not two. There is a need, therefore, to consider factors other than gender, such as disability, other persons and, given that Comhairle's offices and premises are spread around the country, geographical location.
Mr. J. O'Keeffe: We are almost ad idem on this issue. I accept that amendment No. 17 in the name of Deputy Broughan is expressed in more  explicit terms. I see the practical difficulties involved in dealing with two Departments and the disability issue. I accept that a male disabled person, who may be an excellent member of the board, would have to be excluded if the provision was too strict. Given this, I accept the Minister's amendment. It complies with the spirit of the amendments tabled on Committee Stage by my party and the Labour Party. I also accept it is for the Government and the parliamentary draftsman to express that spirit in the best way. I am satisfied the legislation will spell out the position on the 40% objective on gender equality and I will, therefore, withdraw my amendment.
“(a) to consider the establishment and maintenance of a nationwide network of accessible offices providing all necessary and relevant independent information, advise and advocacy for individuals with disabilities,”.
We are concerned here with the functions of the board, which is the core of the Bill. The purpose of the amendment is to provide for as broad a range of functions as possible for the board. On a technical point, my amendment and that of my colleague is drafted for inclusion in the Bill. We use the phrase “to consider the establishment”, to avoid being knocked out on technical grounds or being out of order. The second minor technical point is that the word “advise” in my amendment is incorrect. Whether that was caused by my bad handwriting in writing the amendment, it should be “advice” rather than “advise”, the noun rather than the verb. That can be tidied up if the Minister is prepared to go along with us.
We must return to the main and essential purpose of the Bill. The National Disability Authority Act, 1999, from which the establishment of Comhairle arises, is designed to empower and enable people with disabilities to achieve and exercise their economic, social, political and civil rights. How best can that be done? What sort of function should be provided for the board to enable that to happen? I will focus on two aspects of my amendment. One is the need to provide for the establishment and maintenance of a nationwide network. It is important that the services of Comhairle would be just as available in Ballydehob as in Ballyfermot. I emphasise the need to have a nationwide network. I accept that every effort will be made, but a requirement to have a nationwide network should be included in the Bill setting up the body. I accept that the new body  will use the citizen's information centres of the NSSB and the premises of the NRB around the country, but should we provide the actual requirement for the nationwide network in the Bill?
The second important issue and the second important word in the amendment relates to the requirement in the Bill that this network of offices should be “accessible”. In practical terms subject to finance etc. every effort will be made to make these offices accessible, but bearing in mind that we are talking about people with disability, we must put a higher priority on the requirement to make all these offices accessible. We should provide for that in the Bill. The accessibility arises from the point of view that these offices should be accessible to mobility impaired persons. Apart from what is in the Bill, I hope it will be a priority to ensure that if there is not full accessibility to these premises at this stage, this matter will be remedied without delay. I emphasise the need for a nationwide network and for the offices to be fully accessible.
The third part of my amendment deals with the need to give independent information, advice and advocacy. We did not have the opportunity to go into the question of advocacy because of the difficulty about the motion relating to independent legal representation. The Minister, like myself, is a solicitor. How can he tell the House with a straight face that one can have advocacy and at the same time preclude legal representation? Relating to the problems of tribunals and so on, it boils down to the fact that legal representation would be absolutely necessary to ensure that the rights of the individual, disabled or otherwise, will be upheld. One needs advocacy before a tribunal and if we are specifically precluding that, how does the Minister think that we can provide the full range of advocacy? I am sorry that it is precluded particularly because of the practical problem in relation to the legal aid board and its offices, without pointing the finger at those involved in the provision of legal aid. They are absolutely overworked and under-resourced and there is not enough personnel. It could mean that somebody who received the information and advice from one of the Comhairle offices would not then be able to fully prosecute his entitlements because he would not have the advocacy available which in some instances can only be provided by legal representation. That is the third aspect to that proposal. Those are the main reasons I tabled that amendment and I ask the Minister to consider the issues I have raised.
Mr. Broughan: The key reason on Committee Stage that the Labour Party put forward an amendment, which is very close to the amendment moved by Deputy O'Keeffe, was that we were concerned that in the sectional functions in section 7, we did not use that phrase “accessible network” or the word “nationwide”, both of which are key elements which should be clearly spelt out in the legislation. Accessibility continues  to be a problem. In the discussion period leading up to the publication of the Bill by the Minister, and for a number of months afterwards, I received many letters, representations, and submissions from constituents and others in Dublin city, and from the Forum for People with Disabilities, complaining about the problems of accessibility in employment exchanges, in some existing NSSB supported offices and particularly in the transport network. This is a fundamental issue and raises a question which is the essence of this amendment. To what extent can the Minister show he is providing the necessary support for people with disability through this new organisation? This is the real fear. Deputy O'Keeffe said that the network we have should be widely available from west Cork to west Donegal and from Louth to Wexford and across the country. When we were researching this around the time of the publication of the Bill, there seemed to be great uncertainty about the existing NRB premises, of which there are about 18. At that time, about three or four months ago, it was expected that Comhairle might have eight or nine. Obviously there would be many more offices around the country, such as the groups of unemployed and the resource centres, with which many Deputies such as myself and the Ceann Comhairle would be involved, which would participate in this network and utilise publications of Comhairle. Why do we not specify in the legislation that this will be a nation-wide network and that it certainly will be accessible?
Deputy O'Keeffe's amendment includes some of the aspects I raised in separate amendments and he broadened the discussion from one about accessibility to the fears which staff in NRB had in relation to the levels of support the new organisation will provide for their clientele. I am a director of the Northside Partnership and the detailed monthly reports of unemployment levels recorded at local exchanges show the huge level of unemployed who have a disability – half of the unemployed in the constituencies of Dublin North-East and Dublin North Central have a disability of one kind or another. We on this side of the House worry about the extent to which the new organisation will be able to offer these people a personalised and supportive service.
I note that in discussions SIPTU, for example, raised at length the problems it foresaw with the planned merger of NSSB and NRB, particularly in relation to the availability of information, support services and assisting technology to those with disabilities. I am sure the Minister received the submission from SIPTU which raised deep concerns. It stated:
It is not clear whether Comhairle will have anything to offer our current customers [that is, NRB customers], apart from an information service. It follows that it is equally unclear whether the experience and expertise of NRB staff will have a substantial place in the organisation. These concerns could make Comhairle  an unattractive career option for current NRB staff.
This side of the House has concentrated on the word “accessibility”, a word not included by the Minister. The functions of the board are set out in section 7(1)(b) which states “. to assist and support individuals, in particular those with disabilities, in identifying and understanding their needs and options and in accessing their entitlements to social services”. It does not say whether the Minister, the staff of his Department and the new organisation will continue to give the very detailed mentoring and one-to-one customer orientated service to those with disabilities. Neither does it say whether those with disabilities, who very often have much to contribute to our society and economy, will remain part of the monthly unemployment statistics and be unsupported in entering the work force
Mr. D. Ahern: Much depends on what is meant by the term “nationwide”. For example, we promised we would make the mediation service nationwide. When we came into office two and a half years ago there were only two mediation offices in the country while currently there are ten. I would like to think this service is as nationwide as it is possible for such a service to be. Obviously we cannot have an office in every town and village.
As Deputies are aware, there are about 85 CICs – Citizen Information Centres – throughout the country, 35 of which are regarded as key offices while the other 50 are made up of smaller, part-time offices and mobile centres. The majority of the 35 key offices are physically accessible. The view of the old and the new boards is that as many as possible of these should be physically accessible.
I cannot remember the exact funding which was available to the NSSB when I took office, but my recollection is that funding has increased by almost 100% since I became Minister. Therefore, to a certain extent there has been a huge investment in the NSSB over the past two years. The recent budget provided for an increase in the region of £750,000 with a view to ensuring the board and its staff would have the resources to progress the programme of greater accessibility.
Section 7(1)(a) refers to accessibility and the need to ensure that individuals have access to proper information. Accessibility takes a number of forms other than physical accessibility and includes accessibility to modern technology, particularly the Internet, and all the other telecommunications services which are available, which are probably much more important to  people with disabilities than to those who have no disability.
Section 7(1)(c) says a function of the board is “to promote greater accessibility . of social services and of information”. I do not agree, therefore, with Deputies who say the Bill does not provide for greater accessibility or that we are not conscious of the need for it. I cannot accept their amendments which, the Deputies have admitted, were drafted in such a way as to allow them to be discussed on Report Stage.
Implicitly and explicitly the Bill sets out as a function of the board that all information, advice and advocacy is accessible to all people, not only those with a disability. I undertake to ensure that physical accessibility to the board's premises forms part of any strategic plan brought forward by the board, in addition to accessibility to the various aids in terms of technology, etc. However, I do not think such an undertaking is necessary given the requirement that five members of the board are to represent people with disability. To the best of my knowledge seven of the 20 members represent people with disability, and I have no doubt that these people will have this issue as a key objective in any plans which are brought forward. In this context I ask the Deputies to withdraw the amendments and I guarantee this will form a key objective in the strategic plan.
Mr. J. O'Keeffe: I do not question the Minister's good faith in this matter. The difficulty is that we are providing for this issue by way of legislation and I think it is important to tease out the question of accessibility to the greatest possible extent.
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