Thursday, 10 December 1998
Seanad Éireann Debate
Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Mr. O'Donoghue): I am pleased to present the National Disability Authority Bill, 1998, to this House. The Bill once enacted will fulfil a Government commitment to establish a National Disability Authority. This commitment is a key element in the Government's programme for equality for which I have particular responsibility as Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform. I am very pleased that my commitment to publish the Bill before the end of this session has been realised and that I am in a position to initiate the Bill in this House.
The publication of the National Disability Authority Bill, 1998, is the culmination of a process which I began in November 1997 when I set up an establishment group for the National Disability Authority and a disability support service. The establishment group was asked to report to Government with detailed proposals for the new infrastructure for disability and for the future location of departmental responsibility for the functions of the National Rehabilitation Board. The establishment group reported to me in June of this year and in July the Government adopted its report entitled “Building a Future Together” and gave approval for implementation of each of the group's recommendations.
The central element in the new infrastructural and administrative arrangements for disability envisaged by the establishment group is the setting up of the NDA. Because of its importance, I have ensured that, to give statutory effect to the new organisation, the Bill was given priority in the Government's legislative programme. The establishment of the authority is an entirely new initiative which assigns for the first time to one organisation a central focus in relation to the provision of services to people with disabilities. The NDA will report to me, as Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, and will assist me in the development of a coherent approach to disability policy which will have direct application to all service providers.
The Bill will empower an independent authority working with my Department to take a lead role in developing and delivering high quality services to people with disabilities in an integrated way. The new organisation will be a watchdog of standards in services for people with disabilities. Its purpose will be to function as an expert body dedicated to the development of standards in services provided to people with disabilities and to conduct independent monitoring of these services. The NDA will not itself be a service providing agency but it will work in close co-operation with service providers in the voluntary, State and Government sectors.
 To assist it in implementing this agenda the NDA will commission independent research and will promote innovative projects. As a dedicated body, the NDA will be a source of guidance and support to all service providers. It will assist them in fulfilling their responsibilities to people with disabilities and secure co-operation in developing the best possible standards. The NDA will offer guidance and support not just to organisations providing services in the disability sector but also to mainstream service providers as they meet their obligations to people with disabilities.
The impetus for the new infrastructural arrangements for disability envisaged by the establishment group is embedded in the concept of maintstreaming. This concept was initially developed as a practical tool to facilitate the development of equal opportunities for women. Mainstreaming for people with disabilities represents a policy approach distinct from isolated initiatives targeted on disability issues, which seeks to integrate as much as possible services for this group with those available to the population generally. In other words, key State services which have a responsibility for identifying and catering to the needs of the community will now also discharge this role in respect of members of the community who happen to have a disability. The mainstreaming approach will not supplant targeted initiatives but will run in parallel and in harmony with them.
The root and branch reorientation in our treatment of disability and disability issues demands radically new infrastructural and administrative arrangements. The template envisaged by the establishment group's report “Building a Future Together” involves not only the establishment of the NDA but also a number of new administrative measures intended to mainstream services for people with disabilities.
We all know that disability until recently has been viewed from a medical perspective rather than as a social issue. Consequently, the traditional logic has been to place responsibility for services to people with disabilities with the Department of Health and Children. Many of these services have been provided by that Department through the NRB. As a result the decision to establish the NDA and to introduce the new arrangements for service provision involves the relocation of the functions at present carried out by NRB.
In line with the principle of mainstreaming, vocational training and employment services for people with disabilities will be provided by FÁS operating under the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment. In addition, the information service currently provided by NRB will be assigned to the disability support service and will merge with the National Social Service Board to form a new mainstream information providing service. The new service will operate under the aegis of the Department of Social, Community  and Family Affairs which currently has responsibility for the NSSB.
In making its recommendations in regard to the role of the NDA, the establishment group advised strongly against burdening the NDA with functions which would detract from its central activities in relation to the development of standards, policy and research. It is also important that the NDA should not be directly linked to service provision. Such responsibilities would run counter to its role as a guide and support to service providers. For these reasons the infrastructural and administrative arrangements which I have outlined will assign tasks related to service provision to agencies other than the NDA. I am anxious too that the new arrangements do not overlap with the functions of other agencies.
Where grievance procedures in individual cases are concerned I am satisfied that existing mechanisms for redress, such as the Office of the Ombudsman, are appropriate. Provision for redress in the case of discrimination on the grounds of disability are provided under the Employment Equality Act, 1998, and will be extended on enactment of the proposed equal status legislation.
The principle of mainstreaming services for people with disabilities sets the context in which the new NDA is being established. This principle underpins the report of the Commission on the Status of People with Disabilities entitled “A Strategy for Equality” which was published in November 1996. The Commission on the Status of People with Disabilities was set up to listen to people with disabilities and to establish what they believe is needed to empower and enable them to achieve and exercise their economic, social, political and civil rights. The recommendations in the commission's report give clear expression to the views of people with disabilities and to the policy direction they would wish to see Government follow. The mainstream arrangements for service provision being introduced and the establishment of the national disability authority are key recommendations of the commission.
The gap that exists between what can ultimately be achieved to empower people with disabilities to exercise their economic, social, political and civil rights and what is being achieved now is a knowledge gap. The NDA will provide the link between Government policy and funding for disability and the services and quality of service being provided to people with disabilities. As an expert body, it will contribute to informed policy from which I and future Ministers for Justice, Equality and Law Reform would hope to benefit. This will be the role of the National Disability Authority as I envisage it and as I provided for in the Bill.
With the help of the NDA, the Government will be in a position to take a more coherent and responsive approach to service provision for people with disabilities. The National Disability Authority is being set up as a result of the long  consultation process among people with disabilities. This led to the report of the Commission on the Status of People with Disabilities and the detailed deliberations of the establishment group which I set up and which reported to me in June of this year. I am, therefore, confident the provisions of the Bill will be welcomed by the disability sector. People with disabilities can be confident that real progress will be achieved in the coming years as a result of the work of the NDA.
I will outline to the House some of the main features of the Bill. The Bill is divided into three parts. Part I contains standard and technical provisions. Part II provides generally for the role and functions of the NDA and the requirements in relation to the members of the authority, its chief executive and staff. Part III contains provisions arising from the dissolution of the National Rehabilitation Board.
I will now explain the main provisions of the Bill in more detail. As already indicated, Part I, comprising sections 1 to 5, contains preliminary and general provisions. In particular, section 1 provides for the short title, section 3 provides for the establishment day, section 4 provides the powers to make orders and regulations and section 5 makes provision in relation to expenses.
“disability”, in relation to a person, means a substantial restriction in the capacity of a person to participate in economic, social, or cultural life on account of an enduring physical, sensory, learning, mental health or emotional impairment;
Part II comprises sections 6 to 19. Section 6 provides for the establishment of the authority and for its corporate rights and responsibilities. Section 7 provides that the authority will be independent in the performance of its functions.
Section 8 provides for the functions of the Authority. Its principal function will be to advise the Minister and keep him or her informed of developments on any disability of persons which concern issues of policy and practice. In particular, the authority will keep the Minister informed of developments which relate to the specific functions enumerated in the section.
Section 9 requires the authority to prepare and submit to the Minister strategic plans relating to its objectives and strategies. Section 10 empowers the authority, following appropriate consultation, to prepare draft codes of practice aimed at achieving good standards and quality in programmes and services provided to people with disabilities. Section 11 allows the authority to appoint advisory committees and to engage consultants or advisers to assist it in the performance of its functions. Section 12 provides that the Minister may, with the consent of the Minister for Finance, confer additional functions on the authority. Section 13 gives the authority a right of  access to relevant information and data held by a public body except where the information or data sought is of a private or personal nature or its disclosure is precluded by law. Section 14 empowers the authority to seek information on matters concerning the provision of programmes or services for people with disabilities from persons, including public bodies, who have overall responsibility for their provision. Where there is a requirement in law to provide a programme or service to persons with disabilities, or where a programme or service for people with disabilities is in receipt of State funding, the authority may seek information regarding the provision of that service and the manner in which it is being provided. Where the authority determines that such a programme or service is not being provided or that it is inadequate or unsatisfactory in any manner, there is provision for the authority to inform the person or body concerned.
Section 15 provides for the submission by the authority of an annual report to the Minister and for the laying of each such report before each House of the Oireachtas. The section also empowers the authority to make other reports to the Minister.
Sections 16 and 17 are standard provisions covering grants and the accounts and audit of the authority. Section 18 provides for the procedures and business of the authority. Section 19 contains standard provisions relating to the seal of the authority. Section 20 provides for the membership of the authority. The authority will comprise a chairperson and 20 ordinary members, including an elected member of its staff. The section provides that the Minister shall appoint the members of the authority and that in selecting members he or she shall have regard to the desirability that a majority of the members of the authority are persons with disabilities, their families or carers.
Sections 21 to 24 deal with the terms of office of the members of the authority, the filling of casual vacancies and the meetings and proceedings of the authority. Section 25 provides for the appointment of a chief executive of the authority. The first chief executive will be appointed by the Minister and, thereafter, the chief executive will be appointed by the authority. Section 26 deals with the functions of the chief executive.
Section 27 provides for the appointment of persons as staff of the authority. The authority is required by the section to have regard to any arrangements for conciliation and arbitration in place when determining the terms and conditions of its staff. Section 28 places a requirement on the authority to put in a place a scheme or schemes for the granting of superannuation benefits to, or in respect of, its staff.
Provision is made that where a member of staff was, immediately prior to his or her appointment to the authority, an officer or servant of the National Rehabilitation Board, the terms and conditions of the superannuation benefits granted  under a scheme made by the authority shall not be less favourable than those which previously applied.
Sections 29 to 33 are standard provisions on disclosures, declarations and disqualifications that relate to the authority. Section 34 provides that a review of the legislation is to be initiated not later than three years after the establishment of the authority.
Part III comprises sections 35 to 38. This Part provides the necessary linkage between the Health (Corporate Bodies) Act, 1961 and the provisions of this Bill in relation to the authority and the other agencies and Departments concerned.
These sections deal with issues arising as a result of the dissolution of the National Rehabilitation Board and the transfer of NRB staff, assets and liabilities to the authority and the other agencies and Departments involved in the new infrastructural and administrative arrangements. The necessary orders to effect these transfers will be made by the Minister for Health and Children under the Health (Corporate Bodies) Act, 1961.
Section 35 is a definitional section on this Part of the Bill. Section 36 makes provision in regard to pay and conditions of service of members of staff of the authority who, immediately prior to their appointment, were serving as officers or servants of National Rehabilitation Board. Except where there is a collective agreement negotiated with a recognised trade union or staff association concerned, such members of staff shall not, while in the employ of the authority, receive a lesser scale of pay or be made subject to less beneficial terms and conditions of service than they had been entitled to in the National Rehabilitation Board.
Section 37 extends the scope of section 7 of the Health (Corporate Bodies) Act, 1961 to include the authority or other public body. The public bodies concerned are FÁS, under the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, and the new information service being established under the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs. As a consequence, the Minister for Health and Children may, with the consent of the appropriate Minister, make orders to transfer or assign property enjoyed by the National Rehabilitation Board as well as liabilities incurred by the board which have not been discharged prior to such transfer or assignment, to the Authority or other public body.
Section 38 makes a further linkage with section 7(2) of the Health (Corporate Bodies) Act, 1961 by providing that, notwithstanding section 37, the Minister for Health and Children may make an order under that Act for the dissolution of the National Rehabilitation Board and the transfer from NRB of property rights and liabilities not transferred to the authority or other public body under section 37, or of staff not appointed to the authority or other public body within the meaning  of this section. These provisions deal with the dissolution of the National Rehabilitation Board and the relocation of departmental responsibility for its functions, assets and staff.
I express my gratitude, and I am sure the gratitude of everyone involved in the disability sector, for the work done over the last 30 years by the National Rehabilitation Board. It provided a dedicated service to people with disabilities and did so, particularly in the early years, with little support for, or understanding of, the needs with which it was faced. The change in perception, whereby disability is perceived as a social rather than a medical issue, has led directly to the new approach to service provision for people with disabilities and to the creation of the new authority.
The National Rehabilitation Board has been at the forefront of the call for change. I am confident the staff of NRB who transfer to the new structures will continue to provide excellent standards of service for people with disabilities. I commend the Bill to the House.
Mrs. Ridge: No Member of the Seanad will object to the provision of a National Disability Authority. The Bill is welcome. What may be perceived as possible criticisms would not necessarily be critical of the objective of the Bill; they would be put forward from the point of view that the provision of the authority is long overdue, much awaited and welcome. In setting up the authority we should be trying to close all the possible loopholes so that in the long run, as the Minister stated, the new organisation will be a watchdog of standards and services for people with disabilities. We want to make sure that when the Bill leaves this House this watchdog will have teeth.
I agree with the Minister that the focus of the provision of services for people with a disability at all levels has changed, and not before time, to the social rather than the medical aspect of how we, as a society, treat people with a disability or lack of mobility — I will stick with the term disability because that is what is in the Bill.
The Programme for Government and Partnership 2000 accord significant priority to the needs and rights of people with a disability. Governments have always given plenty of verbal assurances rather than getting into the practicalities and doing something visible to provide for what is a real description of what we are supposed to be about, that is, social inclusion. We were good with the words but short on delivery. Happily that is changing but it is changing too slowly and gradually. For all those reasons I welcome this Bill.
Yesterday, when gathering my thoughts on this matter, I read in a magazine the words of Frederic Ozanam, founder of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, 172 years ago. He said it was a matter of grave social concern whether society is to be merely a means of exploitation for the benefit of the strong or the dedication of each for the benefit of all, especially the weak. The need for the  Society of St. Vincent de Paul is as evident today as it was 172 years ago. However, I am focusing on the fact that he was addressing the social aspect of — I will not just use the term “weak” because one must be careful not to offend — those who need our assistance to become intergrated into society as full members.
The authority is being established because of a process of change. Change can be positive but the older I get, the more I notice that every change, while having a positive aspect, has a down side. All change brings disturbance and apprehension for the people affected by it.
This process of the delivery of services to people with disabilities under this new authority involved the Commission on the Status of People with Disabilities. The commission's report, to which the Minister referred, was published in November 1996. The Government decided on its response to the report in November 1997 when the establishment group was appointed. That group's role was to agree and arrange for the restructuring of service delivery. This group reported in July 1998 and was requested by the Minister to remain in place to oversee the implementation of its recommendations. The final report of this establishment group was due yesterday. Does the Minister have any information in that regard? Was the report delivered yesterday, 9 December, or has it arrived yet? I am sure everybody is anxious to see the final report of the establishment group. The process of change to which I referred is unique in as much as it was welcomed and participated in fully by the people who will be most affected by it, that is, those with a disability and the workers in the sector who have provided similar services to date.
Many valuable contributions from the various bodies involved in the process must be acknowledged as timely and welcome. I acknowledge the major contribution of the NRB over the past 30 years and the co-operation and attitude of the staff in general who recognised the need for change. If amendments are tabled to deal with some of the matters to which I have referred, it is hoped they will make the Bill as watertight as possible. We acknowledge this is a good process, but we want to make it better.
We are talking about including people, however, those who provided the service may not have been included to the extent possible. The announcement of the report of the establishment group in 1998 was done without prior notice. Some NRB staff did not know of its existence until they saw it on television. We are constantly being encouraged to engage in consultation. Given the co-operative and positive attitude of the staff of the NRB, consultation with them would have been appreciated. It was not good for relations that this did not happen.
I have a problem with the board of the NDA. The Minister probably acknowledged this when he stated the first chair of the NDA would be appointed by the Minister for the first year. I  wonder if we proceeded too quickly with the appointment of the first chair to the NDA in July 1998. I have a direct interest in this area as a former teacher of those with learning difficulties and having a family member who has mobility difficulties I am concerned about the speed with which the Minister moved on this issue. Ministers are usually blamed for not acting quickly enough. However, because of the huge number of service providers and the high numbers of those involved with the NRB, would it not have been better to have more consultation? There was a need for more consultation as there was no legislation in place.
There is goodwill on all sides and this should continue if the consultation process is open and clear. The Minister referred to the sections of the Bill which will affect those transferring from the original service into the new disparate services. I did not have time to read the Minister's speech, but I wonder if he referred to the fact that the NDA will be an overall watchdog? There will be the disability support service, the NSSB, and the information service of the NRB. This issue also includes FÁS, which reflects that up until the past few years FÁS courses were for people who had attained a certain educational status. Those with disabilities could not access the level 2 and 3 courses provided by FÁS. It is only dawning on us now that FÁS, the State training authority, should train those with disabilities. Special schools are fine, but those with disabilities should not have been denied access to mainstream training service, except in workshop and special service areas. Happily, this issue is being addressed and FÁS will provide training for all citizens, regardless of their social status or disability.
I do not know what will happen with the audiology service provided by the NRB. I did not have time to read the Minister's speech, but it appears health boards will now be responsible for providing hearing aids. I do not know if this is the best way to proceed. Perhaps this matter has been investigated, but I would be interested in the Minister's response.
Legislation was not in place when the NDA was established, so the purpose and scope of the authority was not clear. Why did the Minister act so quickly? The rapidity of his actions caused concern to some of those who were positively disposed to this measure. This matter could have been handled in a more user-friendly manner.
The current chair is a lady of exceptional ability and experience in the area of rehabilitation. However, are we not placing her in an anomalous position if she is to be a service provider and chair of the NDA? One would want to be Solomon to find a suitable definition for “chair” of such a body. Are we causing ourselves unnecessary problems which could be avoided from the outset? This comment is in no way a reflection on the excellent chair. I am questioning whether this is the best procedural approach.
 Service providers for people with disabilities are disappointed there was little or no consultation with their organisations before the appointment of the board. I acknowledge the Minister's right to make appointments and that should always be the case. However, some of the appointments were made without full consultation. It was not right for organisations to read about the new appointments in the newspapers. We are always preaching about partnership, putting the consumer first and dealing with people on a consultative basis. I would be very put out if I was a member of any of these organisations and read about these developments in the newspapers.
Without reflecting on the excellence of any of the appointees, there is a feeling they are relatively unknown in the field of service provision. Many of the organisations are not familiar with the new members of the board. Would the Minister comment on this point? I will withdraw every word I have said on this issue if I am wrong, but I do not think I am.
There are four aspects of this legislation which require attention and perhaps amendments will be made to them. The National Development Authority should be given sufficient legislative power to impose sanctions on agencies, including public bodies, which provide services for persons with disability. It is totally inadequate for the authority to only inform the person or body providing an inadequate State funded service, as is provided in section 14. Slapping someone on the wrist and saying he has not been behaving very well and must not do it again is not a sanction. What happens after they are told not to do this? How will they react? Will they say they will not do it again and then do it again? Will we have a realistic sanction rather than just informing them? It is too indefinite to “inform”. When one is informed what does one do? I am drawing the Minister's attention to this and I will return with an amendment.
Appointments to the board are by ministerial appointment only. I do not know how we can overcome this, but in some cases the views of people with disabilities and organisations working on their behalf must be reflected in the content of the board. That is essential. I appreciate it is difficult to pluck the right person from every organisation, but I am not convinced enough effort has been made to ensure the organisations are reflected on the board. With respect, the Minister could confer more with the service providers before the appointments are made.
The third issue regards the National Rehabilitation Board. I appreciate the Minister's comments that the assurances already given to the National Rehabilitation Board staff will be honoured and that there will be no piecemeal change to services for people with disabilities. I am sure that will be the case. Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. That brings us back to my  drawing into one cohesive unit disparate units. It is important that the new National Disability Authority is an authoritative body and will be able to provide, monitor and, if necessary, police the service providers under the new arrangements.
In view of my and the Minister's comments and the goodwill of all Members towards making this the best possible authority, I ask that a second worker director be allowed. I do not think this should be a problem. It is not asking for the impossible. I also ask that the views of the staff of the National Development Authority are adequately represented at board level.
I again welcome the change to this new authority; however it is a cautious welcome. We are trying to ensure that this is an important step forward in the lives of those we are trying to serve with this watchdog body and also in our lives as members of the social partnership. My welcome is guarded until we see if we can effectively amend this Bill to give it even more teeth.
Mr. Kett: I welcome the Minister. I like to see him or his Minister of State, Deputy Wallace, coming in because I am always hopeful they might bring good tidings for people with disability. I am told by wiser heads that this is the seventh Bill initiated in the Seanad. I am also told the Minister initiated more Bills in the Seanad than any other Minister. That is a clear reflection of the esteem in which he holds the Seanad. We should be thankful he recognises us in that way.
The establishment of the National Disability Authority was a key recommendation of the Report of the Commission on the Status of People with Disabilities. The main functions of the authority are to be research and advice on the setting of standards for services. The establishment of the authority is a major step forward in ensuring equality for all citizens. It marks the move away from the medical model which was discarded by those with disability in favour of the more social model which is internationally recognised.
The social model means that, where possible and appropriate, all services provided for people with disability should be mainstreamed. The Minister mentioned this in his speech. That is not to say that the standards which safeguard and protect people with disabilities — for example, recommendations for access to buildings and transport — are not needed.
We all know people with disabilities are the most vulnerable in society. Consequently, as legislators, we need to protect them and ensure their rights. The body being set up will provide a monitoring service. It will ensure compliance with the statutory recommendations and relevant EU and international agreements which have been ratified by the Government. It will serve as a national focal point for co-ordinating disability policies, it will undertake and commission research on disability issues, advise and develop  standards in relation to disability programmes and services and ensure the creation of appropriate standards for service provision and their observers. There are also a number of other monitoring agencies but I will not go into them.
This is not to say the services currently provided by voluntary bodies and other agencies are not of the highest professional standards. Nothing could be further from the truth. The bodies currently providing services in this area are of the highest quality. However they lack a real focus and co-ordinated effort. This authority will provide that focus. In my view the Minister's decision not to confine selection to any one of the organisations currently in the field was correct. Instead he drew from a vast group of experienced agencies and people who will bring a better base of knowledge to the thinking of the authority. If the authority is to be the standard bearer for all the voluntary agencies, we need a strong individual with a broad base of experience in the authority. I read the names and I know many of the people from working in this area. I feel the Minster has struck a good mix and I hope time will prove him right.
The role of the authority is dedicated to research and development and this is very welcome. Many voluntary organisations have embarked on research over the years. I work in the Central Remedial Clinic which invested heavily on a gait analysis laboratory. It was one of the first purpose built laboratories in Europe. Its function was to investigate the fundamentals of walking in patients with neurological disease and disability. This, in turn, aided diagnosis and developed protocols for surgical intervention. In layman's terms that means it allowed orthopaedic surgeons to make an educated decision on where an incision should be made when working on a disabled child. Heretofore, some children could have had anything from 15 to 40 operations to give their lives some small measure of welcome motivation. This gait analysis clinic is also a research process and has been of tremendous benefit to a great number of children.
It is important the legislation clearly reflects the advisory role of the authority and it is right that this is stipulated in the Bill. It is equally desirable that it is stated in the Bill that the authority is independent and is answerable to the Minister. How will this gel with the Dublin Regional Authority? Many voluntary organisations, with the new change in emphasis on financing, will be responsible in some way to the Dublin Regional Authority. Perhaps one authority will supervise finance and the other services.
Some time ago my organisation commissioned a study on the services we were providing to our clients. We engaged an outside body to do this objectively and called it a client survey report. The outside agency was charged with talking to parents, patients and clients. What kept re-emerging from the interviews held around the country was the lack of information available to people  with disabilities on services and entitlements. I welcome the setting up of the disability resource centre which forms part of the authority and will provide information and support so that people with disabilities can access the services available to them and their entitlements. Those with disabilities will applaud this.
I agree with the centralisation of decision making on training and employment. I do not mind which Department holds the key decision making role. However, it was necessary to draw them together so that a whole range of Departments were not dealing with this issue. The real issue relates to the variety and quality of training the disabled are getting and its relevance to requirements in the workforce. They must be trained in a relevant way to be able to cope with these requirements.
I am not saying it is widespread, but in some instances, training is provided on vocational courses which has no relevance whatsoever. What it does is it prolongs the decision whether a child should go to a day centre. They get vocational training for the sake of it and that has no relevance and does not leave them with a chance of getting a job. It may be fine at the time and prolong a decision for a year or two but I am not sure it is the right thing to do.
The Commission on the Status of People with Disabilities recommended the development of employment support and workplace equipment and adaptation schemes as well as new employment opportunities. That appropriate support should continue to be made available for those who work in sheltered and supported work settings. The biggest gripe of those who work in sheltered workshops is their income level. They get DA, previously known as disabled person's maintenance allowance, which amounts to £70.50p. The maximum they can earn on top of that without being disallowed is £50 per week. Very few employers in sheltered workshops are in a position to pay them this amount; some workers earn as little as £10. On average, the majority of them earn under £100 per week. In this time of employment equality we need to look at that.
It is also frustrating for them that, if they earn over £50 per week, they lose their DA or it is scaled down; if they earn up to £200 per week, the chances are they lose it altogether. A price comes with being disabled and a cost factor is involved. These people did not choose to be disabled. They argue, and I agree, that some funding should be made available to them to counteract their needs by virtue of the fact that they are disabled.
The employment support scheme provides support for employers to encourage them to take on people with disabilities; it is a very good one. It was abandoned for a couple of months last year because of a lack of resources. However, I am glad to say it is up and running again and there is a large take-up. The productivity worth of an  employee is established by an employer. For example, if someone is stated to be 60 per cent productive, the State pays the balance of 40 per cent. The employer loses nothing and is getting a good member of staff.
The priority the Minister gave to finalising the Employment Equality Act, 1998, which was published late in 1997 and signed into law last June, showed me his commitment in this area. The purpose of the Act is to outlaw discrimination on a number of grounds, which include disability. It also provides an entitlement to equal pay in respect of equal work of equal value. The Act obliges an employer not to discriminate against a person on disability grounds. Statistics show we have a high rate of unemployment among the disabled and it is unfortunate that those who do obtain employment tend to be on the lower rung of the ladder. This also needs to be addressed. It has been stated that poverty and disability go hand in hand; this is probably the case.
I am confident that the Employment Equality Act will have a positive bearing for those with disabilities. Hopefully, the authority will assist in creating the necessary awareness among employers of the availability of highly motivated and reliable people whose disability is entirely incidental to their value as a potential employee. I was delighted to hear the Minister of State, Deputy Mary Wallace, reaffirm her commitment to ensuring the 3 per cent public service quota was maintained. She stated it was up to 3 per cent and that she would monitor and maintain it.
We need new thinking as regards building. Planners must be called into question on accessible buildings and places of employment, safer roads and paths. It is ridiculous that we make such an effort to organise good employment for those with disabilities to find they cannot enter their place of employment. In this regard, I was delighted to hear the Minister for the Environment and Local Government, Deputy Dempsey, announce that he was amending the technical guidance document on access for disability in order to make new dwellings from 1 January 2000 accessible to people with disabilities. This should be extended to existing buildings, particularly those which are State owned and are not accessible to people with disabilities.
I am a Dublin city councillor and if I wanted to bring someone in a wheelchair into the council I could not. I understand they are looking at this. I am not sure I have the option of bringing someone in a wheelchair into this House to listen to this debate. These might sound like small matters but they are major to those with disabilities. The public needs to be educated and we can start here. The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform and the Minister of State, Deputy Mary Wallace, have done powerful work in this regard. I applaud them for it and I know it will continue.
The fact buses in this city and throughout the country have been inaccessible to wheelchair  users is another area at which we need to look. On the Order of Business this morning I mentioned that CIE has acquired or placed an order for 150 buses. I have been advised that not one of those buses is accessible to people with disability. The Leader gave a commitment to write to the board of CIE following my raising the matter, and I encourage him to do so. If we are to start to address this issue, where better than with our transport or our buildings? If we do not start there, we may as well forget about it.
We, in City Hall, recently went through a process in relation to accessible taxis. We are now told those taxi drivers prefer to pick up able bodied people because it means a quicker turnover and the poor wheelchair user is right back where they were before these taxis came into operation. The taxi driver prefers to pick up a handy fare. If that is the case, they need to be brought to book. They should be called in and, if necessary, their licence should be revoked. It is as simple as that.
The relief on VRT and VAT is a positive move but it does not allow people on low incomes to lease or hire a car. While the Minister cannot address everything, I have been told there is a scheme in Northern Ireland whereby an allowance in the region of £40 per week is set aside and made available to people who are unable to access transport. I believe it is called “motability allowance”, but I could be wrong. The scheme works on the basis of particular garages being nominated to the scheme. The £40 is paid directly to the garage which will provide the disabled person with a car on a three year lease after which it is again renewed. I am not sure of the full implications or potential of the scheme but I believe it is in place.
As we move into the 21st century we can no longer tolerate to neglect people with disability either economically or socially. We must also look at unthinking public attitudes which I mentioned. We all need to educate ourselves in this regard. The Minister introduced many excellent changes, has successfully highlighted and addressed others and, not least, has knocked heads together in an effort to centralise thinking on issues of common concern.
This Bill, in many respects, is a culmination of all the efforts the Minister has made in this area. I read the booklet “Building a Future Together” but I did not see technology mentioned, although it may have been. It has long since been recognised that new and developing technology is the greatest pitch leveller between able bodied and handicapped people. Technology can bring independence to a handicapped person. Independent living allows people to live on their own or with a friend, if they wish, because they can use the environmental technologies which are available. It also enriches their leisure time and their whole outlook.
Sport is another uniting force and clubs and halls should be encouraged to provide facilities  for disabled people, particularly if they get grants. If they get a reasonable grant from the State but do not provide the proper facilities, the grant should be withdrawn. It is a simple thing to do and an easy way to get them to wake up and think disabled.
Again I congratulate the Minister on his commitment and ongoing efforts to improve the position of people with disabilities. His commitment and hard work are noted by the organisations he has supported and with whom I work. I congratulate him on the Bill and commend it to the House.
Mr. Norris: In general I give a guarded welcome to the Bill. I will watch to see how it works in practice. I agree wholeheartedly with my colleague, Senator Kett, who raised a number of issues which I proposed raising myself and which illustrate very clearly the need for this type of authority. The fact our public transport system is making a massive investment in new vehicles which are not wheelchair accessible suggests a rather limited definition of public, and Senator Kett spoke very well on that and made that point so I do not need to labour it. The same applies to taxis, an issue I raised the other day.
I understand there is film in the possession of RTÉ which will soon be broadcast showing a reporter telephoning from the corner of St. Stephen's Green for one of these disabled taxis. There were three or four in the queue but the reporter was told nobody was available. These people were given special concessions by the city authorities to invest in these vehicles. We are not getting value for money in that regard and this new authority should be charged with that.
Senator Kett also raised the question of accessibility to buildings. I am ashamed to admit that the James Joyce Centre is not fully wheelchair accessible. It is very difficult, particularly with old and historic buildings, and one cannot interfere with them. One could not bring a lift up to a ceiling such as the one in this House. I have good news for Senator Kett; this Chamber is accessible in a rather roundabout way. We have a member of the Minister's party to thank — Brian Crowley, MEP, who was a Member of this House. It took the physical presence of somebody in a wheelchair to ensure that all the bumps, hollows and steps with which this House was infested were flattened. We, who are not disabled or confined to wheelchairs, should have sufficient imagination to try to imagine the difficulties for those who are in this situation.
I have a couple of comments to make on the Bill and the Minister's speech. The Bill states: “The Authority shall consist of a chairperson and 20 ordinary members who shall be appointed”. I note the future tense is used. Am I not correct in suggesting the authority already exists and that people have been appointed to it? Perhaps the Minister will tell the House. I understand the authority already exists and that we know the names of the people on it. It is not a question of  the future tense; it is already in place. This is my first critical point. It is extraordinary that we have a Bill which says we will do something which we have done before the legislation is passed.
I would not impugn any of the excellent people whose names have been made available to me and who are on this board. I know of their work and I fully support them. There are, however, questions of principle involved, one of which was raised by Senator Ridge. Obviously, it would not be appropriate to name the people involved but there are some personnel who are and will continue to be involved in the service providing area. We know that because this board already exists.
The Minister said: “The NDA will not itself be a service providing agency but will work in close co-operation with service providers in the voluntary, State and Government sectors”. He went on to say: “To assist in implementing this agenda the NDA will commission independent research and will promote innovative projects.” The Minister is keenly aware of the need for independence in this area. He went on to say that:
In making its recommendations in regards to the role of the NDA, the establishment group advised strongly against burdening the NDA with functions which would detract from its central activities in relation to the development of standards, policy and research. It is also important that the NDA should not be directly linked to service provision. Such responsibilities would run counter to it role as a guide and support to service providers. For these reasons the infrastructure and administrative arrangements which I outlined will assign tasks related to service provision to agencies other than the NDA.
Yet we have prominent personnel on this already established board, which is in existence prior to the passage of this legislation, who are the service providers. The principle of independence to which the Minister trenchantly referred has apparently been violated. I say this to address the principle and not to impugn the qualities of the people involved. I presume the Minister will address this point.
I am also interested that the National Rehabilitation Board will be dissolved. Senator Ridge asked about the audiology unit and other matters. Those are pertinent questions and I am sure the Minister will address them. I am aware of them partly because the NRB is located in North Great George's Street in the former secretarial college of the Loreto school. We would all wish to place on record our gratitude for the work of the NRB over the years.
I assume the Minister is in discussion with the unions involved, assuming there is more than one, to examine the human resource element, specifically people currently employed by the NRB who presumably will not dissolve with its dissolution. I note there is technical provision for certain personnel to be transferred to the new body.
 However, we should ensure the conditions for NRB staff are not made difficult and problematic. I understand assurances have already been given to the staff and its unions by the Minister. Given that he has done the House the courtesy of introducing the Bill here, perhaps it would be possible for him to place on record what specifically those assurances contain. It would be of great interest to Members and comfort to people currently employed by the NRB.
Given the tragic situation in Donegal with Fruit of the Loom, it would be a great pity if we were to cause uncertainty with regard to their future employment, remuneration, compensation and other prospects. I do not know the ins and outs but I offer the Minister an opportunity to place the information on record to relieve the worries of the people involved. Section 28 examines the issue of remuneration.
The Authority may seek information on any matter which concerns the provision of programmes or services for persons with disabilities from a person (including a public body) who has overall responsibility for provision of those programmes or services or a part thereof.
In other words, we will receive information on whether services are being provided, if value for money is being given, if behaviour is appropriate and if people with disabilities are being treated properly and in a humane fashion. However, section 14(2) states:
I would be beside myself with terror in those circumstances. Imagine the humiliation, pain and distress which would be caused if I were informed I was not doing something. I ought to know if I were not doing it or if I were doing it wrongly or inadequately. Merely being informed of it is a complete nonsense and is not worth the paper on which it is written. If I had a gardener or window cleaner who did not do the job for which I was  paying them, I would not just send them a Christmas card saying: “I would like to inform you that, although I paid you £76/14/7 1 2, you did not clean the windows”. There must be a sanction and realistic teeth in the Bill. It is not good enough to inform people in this manner and I look forward to the Minister accepting an amendment or perhaps he will table his own. If not, the House will, as always, endeavour to be helpful.
There is only one worker director on the board of 20 people. I am sure I will receive the support of Senator Dardis in this matter. When the Progressive Democrats went into Government, they insisted on two Ministers with a vote at Cabinet because they knew what a lonely little voice they might have at that table without psychological reassurance and support. One worker director is not enough. Why is there only one? There must be more and I can point to umpteen precedents. An Post has five and Telecom Éireann has two worker directors and two observers on a ten person board. Twenty people are on this new board with only one worker director. The NRB, which has 20 members, has four worker directors.
Mr. Norris: They are all workers. Did the Senator not know? I am shocked to learn that. Does that mean he thought I was there all those long 30 years not doing any work? He obviously did not attend the College of the Holy and Undivided Trinity of Queen Elizabeth near Dublin.
Mr. Norris: I will. Usually interruptions are very good and pointed. However, I caught the Senator on this occasion because the members of the board are almost all teaching members of the university. It was a good try on the Senator's part and I was nearly caught out only I had that sudden access to information which is so refreshing when it happens. The number of worker directors in the Bill should be debated further.
The impetus for the new infrastructural arrangements for disability envisaged by the  establishment group is embedded in the concept of mainstreaming. This concept was initially developed as a practical tool to facilitate the development of equal opportunities for women. Mainstreaming for people with disabilities represents a policy approach, distinct from isolated initiatives targeted on disability issues, which seeks to integrate as much as possible services for this group with those available to the population generally. In other words, key State services which have a responsibility for identifying and catering to the needs of the community will now also discharge this role in respect of members of the community who happen to have a disability. The mainstreaming approach will not supplant targeted initiatives but will run in parallel and in harmony with them.
This is the aspect of the Bill which the Minister's officials should monitor carefully. Although it appears to be a laudable principle, there is a danger that what will occur will not be mainstreaming but marginalisation. If an agency deals with able bodied people 95 per cent of the time and 5 per cent maximum with people with disabilities, the tendency will be to have a leaflet under the desk dealing with disability. Furthermore, the front of house staff may not have the immediate acquaintance or skills to deal with people with disabilities because they will not be top of their priorities. At present, people with disabilities enter a specialised system where the person with whom they have contact has a direct and immediate knowledge and grasp of the area. I would be worried about the future of that.
I am aware of parallel areas where people are supposed to have information and do not. I will give an example. We sent spies to the tourist office to inquire as to the whereabouts of the James Joyce Centre. While the office has various information on the centre, it they did not know where it is located. People must be sensitised and made aware they must have this information at the top of their heads to be dispensed to their clients.
I hope the National Disability Authority can do the challenging work set down for it. I have reservations about the Bill. I am sure it is motivated by goodwill and wishes to ameliorate the problems for the disabled. It is highly appropriate that the Bill is being introduced in the Seanad on this, the 50th anniversary of the UN Declaration of Human Rights. The disabled are among the marginalised groups in our society whose human rights have not been fleshed out.
They are often people of great courage. I am sure my colleagues remember the occasion on which we were lobbied by people from the Centre for Independent Living. I launched a wonderful book of poetry the other day on behalf of the disabled in the City Arts Centre. They made a point of letting me know they had produced the book in its entirety. They did not have the assistance  of able-bodied people. They did the writing, the poetry, the lay-out, the compositing, the publishing, the design, colour and illustration. They were immensely proud of their achievement and justly so. I hope this Bill will be of assistance to them.
Mr. Dardis: I welcome the Minister to the House and that this legislation is being initiated in the Seanad. Bills which commence their passage through the Houses in the Seanad have frequently been improved here. There are a few aspects of the Bill which the Minister might consider between now and Committee Stage with a view to improving or modifying them.
The legislation represents an important step forward in vindicating the rights of people with disabilities. There was an increase in the budget in the amount of grant aid available to disabled people for home improvements. The Bill also delivers on the commitment in the programme for Government agreed between Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats to implement the Report of the Commission on the Status of People with Disabilities. I am pleased a section of the programme was devoted to people with disabilities. I pressed hard for that at the time. The Minister of State at the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy Wallace, was also active in this area.
There are a few gaps in the Bill. I heard a discussion on radio this morning about buses not being accessible to people with disabilities. The underlying philosophy of the person from Bus Éireann who responded to the discussion is prevalent and needs to be challenged. There is an attitude that people with disabilities should be treated as a charity, that in some respects they are to be pitied and we should do certain things for them. It does not occur to many people that these are matters of right which relate to citizenship and being part of a society. People with disabilities have fundamental rights which must be vindicated. It is not simply a matter, as was stated by one of the people from the Centre for Independent Living, of patting them on the head, giving them a cup of tea and sending them home happy. It is very important that we acknowledge that. There are 360,000 people involved and their rights must be vindicated.
The Minister has implicitly stated that position by talking about mainstreaming and the need to bring people with disabilities into the social arena. It is also important to state that we are dealing with two different groups of people, those with physical disability and those with mental disability. Each of those groups has rights. Many of  those people have not had their rights vindicated because they have had difficulties getting out to the marketplace to promulgate them.
The Bill accords with the recommendations in the report of the Commission on the Status of People with Disabilities and in the report of the establishment group published in June 1997. It fulfils the thinking of those two groups. The Minister said the National Disability Authority will not be a service provider. That is correct, but it impinges on a service and that is evident from various sections of the Bill. We have to salute and acknowledge the role of voluntary organisations. Without them the plight of people with disabilities would be worse.
Senator Norris referred to the independence of the authority. I could not find clarity in his argument, which is unusual. The Bill is explicit on the authority's independence. It is dealt with in section 7, which is a short section and states:
The Report of the Commission on the Status of People with Disabilities dealt with equality, maximising the participation of people with disabilities in society and enabling independence and choice. That brings us back to the issue of rights which are fundamental to looking after people with disabilities. The establishment group, in its report, excluded provision for grievance or redress procedures in individual cases. It suggests the authority should monitor and report on the existence and effectiveness of complaint procedures. It could be inferred from that that the establishment group did not wish to see anything done in relation to grievance and redress procedures. That is not the case. The report states there are three functions — the provision of grievance and redress procedures, the disability support service at local level and the organisation of a community action plan — which would be more appropriately and effectively addressed other than by being specifically included in the NDA remit. It then goes on to state the group agrees with the commission in recommending that a formal complaints procedure should be introduced by all services where such a procedure is not already in place.
That brings me to the necessity of drawing up and imposing sanctions. I agree with Senator Norris's point about section 14 which states that the authority shall “inform the person or body providing, or failing to provide the programme or  service concerned”. The Senator is correct, this sanction represents nothing more than a slap on the wrist.
With regard to the recent purchase of 150 buses by Bus Éireann, are any of the functions of the authority listed in section 8 relevant in that context? Under the terms of the Bill, a public body is defined as a board or other body established by or under statute, which would include Bus Éireann. However, I am not sure whether the National Disability Authority, if it took the view that Bus Éireann was not doing its job properly in respect of providing buses to cater for the needs of people with disabilities, would have a role in that area. I await the Minister's comments because I am not sure whether Bus Éireann comes within the scope of the Bill. As already stated, the establishment group did not state that there should be redress, etc. It recommended a different way of proceeding in that regard.
There are a large number of agencies involved in this area and it is hoped that the establishment of the authority will promote coherence. However, in respect of section 37, the Explanatory Memorandum refers to the responsibilities of the Ministers for Health and Children, Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Education and Science, Enterprise, Trade and Employment and Social, Community and Family Affairs. If ever there was a recipe for doing nothing, that is it. As public representatives we are aware of the cyclical nature of indecision in the Civil Service whereby Department A tells you to contact Department B which tells you to contact Department C which tells you to contact Department D which, in turn, refers you back to Department A and obliges you to begin the magic mystery tour again.
It is not contemplated within the scope of the Bill, but in my opinion an interdepartmental group comprising the senior public servants who deal with these aspects of disability service and the provision thereof should meet regularly to ensure that there is a degree of implementation of some of these measures. That would be an important development.
I already referred to sanctions in the context of section 14 but there is another aspect of that which must be considered. People with disabilities have rights which are enshrined in international conventions and agreements and the National Disability Authority should be charged with monitoring whether Ireland is adhering to the provisions of those conventions and agreements.
Other Members referred to the composition of the board. I have no difficulty with the Minister nominating people for membership of the board. When one considers the composition of the current board, it is broadly representative of the various interest groups one would wish to see involved. However, it would be preferable to include in the legislation that, for example, a national federation in a particular area should  have nominating rights. I do not suggest that it should be able to specify the person who should sit on the board but it should be able to submit a list to the Minister from which he or she could select a suitable candidate. This has been resisted by a number of Departments but there are many precedents for it in legislation. For example, An Bord Bia Act specifies that the Irish Farmers' Association can nominate a list of people for membership of the board from which the Minister selects a suitable candidate, in other words, interest groups have a statutory right to be represented on the board. This is reasonable. I do not believe every local body or agency should be consulted but there are a number of organisations which could be given nominating rights.
An Bord Bia Act and other Acts continuously refer to organisations or bodies designated by the Minister. In this instance, the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform could designate organisations and bodies which could be given nominating rights. Rather than specifying an individual, they could submit a list to the Minister who could then select a suitable candidate.
I recently read in the magazine Spokeout that the Irish Wheelchair Association and the Irish Deaf Society have reservations about the composition of the board and they objected to the new chairperson because they claim she is non-disabled and has a deep rooted connection to the service providers. I have no objection to the service providers being represented on the board because if the board itself is not in the business of service provision it seems acceptable that service providers should be permitted to join as members. However, there is a need for greater coherence in this area. In my opinion the new chairperson is an expert in the field and is an able individual. I do not believe it should be specifically stated that a disabled person should chair the board. However, I have no objection to the word “could” being used in that context. In any event, this matter should not be dealt with in the legislation.
The questions revolve around the authority's powers to impose sanctions, which are not as strong as they should be; in the matter of appointments, questions have been raised about worker or staff representation on the board and it is important to state that there will be one elected member but it might be appropriate to increase this to two; and assurances to staff in terms of the continuity of their service, pension rights, etc. I accept the assurances provided by the Minister but I recall that under other legislation assurances were also given to employees of the various district milk boards but difficulties arose and the legislation was delayed for a long period. A lot of this detail will be the subject of negotiation between the Minister and the unions and the Department and the unions. However, the assurances must be explicit in order to avoid confusion and there must be a process of consultation.
 Another matter about which I am concerned is access. I have tabled a motion to Kildare County Council on the standards it should adopt in terms of the care of the disabled. The text of the motion reads:
Kildare County Council resolves that standards for disabled access be established and implemented for roads, pavements, parkways and buildings and further resolves to take a pro-active approach to creating a public awareness of these issues.
The motion arises from an access report, prepared by the Newbridge Access Group and the access committee of the Kildare County Network of the Irish Council of People with Disabilities, on Newbridge, County Kildare, my home town, which highlighted a catalogue of areas in which the services provided are deficient. One of these areas — it is critical — involves access to the FÁS office. A person with a disability recently stated it is amazing to note the number of statutory service providers with offices situated on the upper floors of buildings. If the State does not provide access for people with disabilities how can the private sector be asked to do so? Access to this Chamber was improved only when Senator Brian Crowley was elected to the Seanad. It is wrong that people with disabilities should be statutorily expected to attend training courses at offices which are not accessible to them.
We must be careful that when people with expertise in the area of disability are transferred from the National Rehabilitation Board to FÁS or another such agency, their expertise is not lost in the larger area of general training. That is a detail which can be addressed and I hope it will.
We are told that because of manufacturing difficulties, none of the 150 new buses for Dublin city will be accessible to people with disabilities. If one is buying a product it must be possible to insist on certain specifications. We heard this morning of a man who almost had to crawl on to a bus in Dublin and then dismantle his wheelchair. That is not acceptable.
Disabled parking spaces should be for the exclusive use of disabled drivers. I know of a recent instance in my own town when a disabled driver could not get into his car because another car was parked too closely and of two instances  where disabled drivers could not park because the reserved places had been taken by other drivers. In my local hotel last week I witnessed a driver who was not disabled park his car in a space reserved for disabled drivers, lock his car and walk away. A severe sanction should be imposed on drivers who are guilty of such behaviour.
Sanctions must also be imposed on owners of buildings which do not comply with Part M of the building regulations. Who will impose these sanctions? There is no use in passing legislation which will not be enforced and the relevant penalties implemented.
Dr. Henry: I too welcome the legislation although I agree with Senator Dardis that sanctions must be strengthened. It will not be sufficient for the authority to inform bodies which have erred. An imposition of penalties will be absolutely necessary. I also agree with Senator Dardis's point about ministerial appointments. I had thought the original report recommended that the authority should include representatives of various bodies. I may be wrong about that. Senator Dardis's suggestion that various bodies might recommend people to be selected by the Minister might work. The situation regarding worker directors is also important.
The definition of disability in the Bill is a good one but the definition has been changing at quite a pace. Most of our discussion today has concerned physical disability and the difficulties of wheelchair users. Learning disabilities have been mentioned too. In the medical literature the definition of disability is being extended enormously.
The New England Journal of Medicine reported a recent case in the United States. A young woman went to a dentist and because she was HIV positive the dentist refused to treat her in his surgery and said she would have to be seen in a hospital. This was despite the fact that the dental work was fairly uncomplicated. He said it was his policy not to treat people with HIV infection in his surgery. The woman claimed that HIV infection was a disability and that she was being discriminated against on the grounds of disability. She took the case to the United States Supreme Court. In the past AIDS has been recognised as a disability in the United States but HIV infection has not. The Supreme Court ruled that HIV was a disability and that the woman was being discriminated against by the dentist. I was interested to see how broadly the term disability could be interpreted. Although it was apparently within the dentist's rights to decide what way he would treat her she nevertheless won the case. The definition of disability is one which will be constantly changing. While it may seem very clear cut  we must be prepared for challenges to the definition in the future.
I am delighted that section 8(2)(b) declares that one of the functions of the authority shall be “to undertake, commission or collaborate in research projects and activities on issues relating to disability”. We are inclined to assume that a disability is something one is born with but an enormous number of people acquire disabilities in the course of their lives. Recent research done in casualty departments has found that accidents are a major cause of death in children. While this work was concerned with mortality figures, the morbidity figures are enormous too. A very important part of the authority's work will be to see what can be done to prevent disabilities. I do not need to tell the House about injuries caused by car crashes. Accidental head injuries are often suffered by young men, many of whom cannot work for the rest of their lives. It will be very important to examine the needs of this group.
Research into ways of preventing disabilities will be one of the most important tasks of the new authority. Various bodies are already concerned with the prevention of road traffic accidents, accidents in the home and other forms of accidents. However, an overall authority which will correlate the work of these various bodies will be very useful. I hope the reports of the authority's research will be taken seriously. The Bill does not specify what action will be taken as a result of the reports of the National Disability Authority.
Research into the causes of spina bifida will be important. We know there is a strong genetic tendency towards spina bifida in this country. It is possible to reduce damatically the incidence of spina bifida if women and men pre-conceptually, and women in the early days of pregnancy, have a high level of folic acid in their diet. On previous occasions in the House I have proposed the fortification of flour with folic acid but I got nowhere with it because I was told there would be trouble with EU regulations. At some stage, the prevention of disability must come into the equation. We must decide how important it is for our native population that flour should be thus fortified. We have tried advising women of child bearing age to take folic acid, particularly when pregnant but, unfortunately, the uptake has not been very high. The authority should also examine these areas.
Folic acid intake could be very important in reducing the incidence of coronary disease. We have not looked at the enormous amount of disability arising from heart disease. There is a huge remit for the authority to deal with apart from the obvious matters, such as people in wheelchairs.
I am delighted to see that the board is being set up and I will not delay the House with any more of my concerns about it. I would like to see the authority having more teeth. In particular, a little more thought should go into research to see if that area cannot be promoted further. An enormous number of disabilities are due to accident  or disease and many of them are preventable. I hope we can consider this matter before Committee Stage. The Minister has accepted amendments from me in the past and I know he looks kindly upon them. Perhaps some of these matters can be brought forward on Committee Stage. I commend the Bill to the House.
Mr. O'Donovan: I welcome the Bill which represents an historical development for people with disability. I note with some surprise that none of my Labour Party colleagues is present. I remember that in the Programme for Government in 1992 there was much hype about people with disability. Their absence today is nothing short of a disgrace.
Mr. O'Donovan: It speaks for itself. The Bill is a major step forward and I compliment the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, and his Minister of State, Deputy Mary Wallace, on their wonderful initiative. They acted quickly, although they were criticised earlier for perhaps acting too quickly. The authority will provide a major focus for the development of the entire area concerning people with disability and it will have a huge input into this sphere in future. It empowers people with disability to achieve and exercise their economic, social and civil rights.
I recognise the huge role the National Rehabilitation Board has played for the past 30 years. Going back to my childhood in the early 1960s, disabled persons were often locked up in institutions or were otherwise hidden away from public view. Over the past 20 years we have achieved enormous progress in our attitude towards the disabled and I recognise the significant role played by the NRB in this area.
My town of Bantry, with a population of about 3,000, has an active action group as well as a rehabilitation centre which employs approximately 60 people. Houses have been provided for the disabled there. It is a welcome development for a peripheral area like west Cork, serving the peninsular region. Over the past ten or 15 years, huge progress has also been made in towns such as Bandon and Castletownbere. This wonderful development must be welcomed.
I thank the Minister for his commitment to and recognition of the House by initiating this Bill in the Seanad. This is the fourth or fifth Bill so initiated since the Minister took office last year. It is a wonderful recognition of the role of the House. We have had an excellent debate. I allowed my colleague, Senator Kett, to contribute  first because he is working directly with the Central Remedial Clinic and this subject is close to his heart. He made an excellent contribution.
The new authority will have a key role in bringing all strands of the disability issue together. We are getting away from a four-tier system that existed hitherto, including the NRB, the NSSB — which will be replaced by the disability support service — and the input of FÁS in training. The proposed establishment of a national audiology service is a welcome development.
I ask the Minister to examine a couple of matters before Committee Stage. Perhaps nothing can be done at this stage, but I have read in some newspaper articles of concern being expressed that only one worker director has been appointed out of a membership of 20. Perhaps that is something that could be examined in future. Senator Norris referred to An Post where there are five worker directors, so there may be possibilities for change in this area.
Senator Dardis expressed concern about whether the authority would have enough teeth. He mentioned the case of Dublin Bus. If companies such as Dublin Bus, Bus Éireann or Iarnród Éireann do not comply with directives, what recourse will the Minister have? The wording of the section is very narrow, so perhaps he will explain what powers exist to compel compliance with the purpose and direction of the authority.
I was glad to hear the Minister give a clear and categorical assurance to the House that the rights of NRB staff will be protected and that any rights that have accrued will be maintained under the new authority. That is a welcome assurance.
There was some criticism of appointments to the board but, from my knowledge, those who have been appointed are excellent choices. Someone suggested it was incumbent upon the Minister to appoint somebody with a disability, and whereas that might be a laudable approach, it is not essential. The Minister will appoint the first chairperson and after a year the authority will have power to elect its chairperson.
I compliment the Minister and his team on the historical step forward which this Bill represents. This is a red letter day, representing a significant move by the Minister and the Government as a whole. I acknowledge the huge input the Minister, Deputy O'Donoghue, and his colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Mary Wallace, have made. Since her appointment, the Minister of State has visited west Cork on two occasions to deal with disabled people and others who are less privileged.
We must face the fact that approximately 10 per cent of the entire population suffers from some disability. The authority will carry on the excellent work done today. Much work remains to be done, both at local authority level and in other spheres, but this is the right direction to take.
Mr. Gibbons: I thank Senator O'Donovan for agreeing to share his time with me. One must acknowledge the speedy way this Bill has been introduced and the contributions of the Minister and the Minister of State, Deputy Mary Wallace, who is undoubtedly committed to this area.
We must look at the area of disability from a rights rather than a charity point of view. The establishment of this authority is a major step in that regard. One of the greatest criticisms disabled people have is that they are regarded as a charity. They abhor that and I fully understand why. They also feel that lip service is paid to their problems and that action is not being taken. This Bill is a major step towards helping us to provide solutions to the problems of people with disabilities.
The establishment group recommended that organisations providing services to disabled people should put in place their own grievance and redress procedures. One of the difficulties people with disabilities have with that proposal is that they will be looking for redress. They are concerned they may not feel comfortable outlining their grievances because they are the recipients of whatever is available. Perhaps the Minister would consider putting a proper redress system in place so that the recipient does not have to go directly to the provider of the service.
The establishment group suggested that a disability support service was necessary, particularly in local areas. There is great concern, however, that if this service is set up, the referee will also be the player. While I accept it is not possible to do it without having both on the same pitch, this support service must be provided. Perhaps the Minister could indicate when and how it may be provided in the future.
As regards the composition of the board, the commission originally suggested that a High Court judge could chair the board. I support that view, although I do not want to cast aspersions on the chairperson because anyone who knows their work can only praise it. That suggestion might be worth considering because someone who has not been involved in service provision and who looks at it from a totally different angle might have a better view of the overall picture.
It is a mistake that county councils and health boards are not represented on the board. Health boards are one of the major service providers and they should have an input. The views of county councils should also be considered, particularly given their role in planning and providing access to buildings for people with physical disabilities.
We must applaud many of the services provided. The role of the voluntary organisations cannot be overstressed. Over the years people gave their energy and time freely. People involved in the riding project for the disabled in Carlow give up their time to look after disabled children who ride their horses for several hours.
Service providers, particularly the larger ones such as health boards, must remember that people need and have a right to the service they provide. It is important that these matters are dealt with sensitively. If someone has a problem, service providers should help them rather than putting up barriers. In some cases people have to be reassessed every 12 months to determine if they are entitled to certain provisions. If a person has Down's syndrome or cerebral palsy, they have it for life, so why should they be reassessed every 12 months? These people must live with their condition for life and do not need the humiliation of being reassessed on a continuous basis.
Service providers should remember they are there to give these people the help they need rather than telling them their budget is overstretched. In one case, for example, a person wanted extra incontinence nappies from a health board. However, they could not get them because the allocation was three nappies per day as they were supposed to last for eight hours. Do we leave someone in a soiled or wet nappy for five, six or seven hours because the system says only three can be allocated per day? That attitude needs to be addressed. We are not talking about a major issue but about treating people with dignity.
Other speakers mentioned the inaccessibility of buses. We all know that special schools are doing marvellous work. The pupils who attend these schools travel in small buses which have been contracted by Bus Éireann. There are more people in wheelchairs using these buses than the general public, yet wheelchair access is not provided. We can talk about the situation at Dublin Bus. It is a very real issue but when you are dealing with a specific situation the need is even greater. There has been no attempt to deal with the problem. These are the areas that we should be focusing on. The schools that provide their own buses to bring pupils to football matches, etc. must provide buses that are wheelchair accessible. Yet school buses used to transport the children to school are not so accessible. That is not good enough because this is happening on a daily basis.
With regard to health boards, service providers receive various amounts of support from health boards. In the Delta Centre in Carlow employees only receive 50 per cent of the salary that is paid to people working in the health board in their area even though they are all doing the same work. Carlow is on the edge of the South Eastern Health Board and that catchment area covers the Midland Health Board. People working in the Midland Health Board area receive 95 per cent of the salary. We must have a level playing pitch for all these services. Health boards need to come together and decide what is being done and not  just say this is what we can afford or this what we cannot afford and this is what we are doing.
There are a number of issues with regard to the composition of the board which I would like to see addressed, particularly in relation to the position of county councils and health boards. In general terms we also need to place a greater focus on how the service providers are doing their job and, as has been mentioned by Senators Norris and Dardis in relation to section 14 of the Bill, we need to put teeth into this area so that sanctions can be imposed on people.
Mr. Costello: I welcome the Minister to the House. He is a regular visitor here. This Bill is surreal because it is not appropriate for the Department of Justice but is far more appropriate for the Department of Equality and Law Reform. This legislation indicates why these two Departments should have remained separate as they were under the previous Government. This Bill clearly deals with equality and law reform and it would be more appropriate for that Department to deal with it.
I am disappointed that we have to discuss this Bill at this time on a Thursday afternoon, at the end of a week's proceedings. It should have been mainstreamed to a greater degree at an earlier stage in the week and given the proper importance and status that it requires.
Senator Dardis referred to this legislation having beef. He finished off by saying he would like to see more teeth in it. Is it going to have teeth and beef? It does not have beef and it lacks teeth so there is not much left to chew on this Christmas. It seems like lame duck legislation because while the body itself is a very necessary, important and desirable body, unless it has the powers to deal with the delivery of services and the people, the personnel and the organisations who are delivering the services we might as well not have it at all. That is the key question. I hope when this debate reaches Committee Stage the Minister will address the real concerns that were expressed by everyone in the House in relation to section 14 which is a whimper in terms of how the body will deal with its remit.
In terms of the body itself, and its purpose, it is very worthwhile because it seeks to empower people with disabilities and enable them to lead a more independent life. It seeks to establish their economic, social, political and civil rights. It will do this by identifying best practice and standards. It will also undertake research. It will be an expert body that will be responsible for advising the Minister. It will co-operate with the various statutory bodies, agencies, organisations and personnel who are involved in providing services. It will not provide any services itself but it will co-operate with those who are providing services and assist them through its research and developmental work in relation to disability issues. It will also advise the Minister on those issues.
 All those functions are exemplary and desirable but what it does at that point leaves a lot to be desired. Before I go into that I will put this in its proper context, and that is very much in line with what we are discussing this morning in terms of commemorating the 50th anniversary of the UN declaration on human rights. Yesterday we discussed 1798 and the rights of man as enunciated by Thomas Payne over 200 years ago, what arose from the American Revolution in terms of no taxation without representation and the French Revolution in terms of liberty, equality and fraternity. All those fundamental human rights and principles have levelled and enriched society throughout the world in the intervening 200 years.
It is in that context we examine this Bill because we are talking about the rights of a minority group of people, perhaps as many as 10 per cent of our population. The Bill seeks to enshrine those rights in legislation and ensure that international legislation is put in place. Let us remember that we still have not incorporated the European Convention on Human Rights in our domestic legislation. We have not incorporated the convention against racism or the convention against torture. These are basic human rights conventions that were part of the declaration of human rights promulgated on this day 50 years ago at 3 p.m. It is high time we made it clear in our domestic legislation that we are going to fulfil our international duties, which impinge on our domestic duties to our own people.
Fifty years ago the world was shocked by the holocaust of the Jews in Europe. Our own track record was not great in certain sections of this country at that time either. We still have major problems in that respect in the manner in which we treat the travellers in our community, refugees and asylum seekers. The Minister has a specific brief. There has been a lot of criticism of how we have been dealing with our refugees and asylum seekers.
Many young people have been abused but we still have not put proper structures in place to protect them. There is now a proliferation of such legal cases. While many of the institutions have been closed down we still do not have any specific programme of child care legislation in place or resources to back it up. At present, Dublin Corporation is discussing a recently published report on homelessness. The number of homeless people has increased from 700 in 1996 to almost 2,000 at present. Local authorities are doing nothing to ensure that we eliminate homelessness which is a serious problem.
People with disabilities are last in the pecking order. We discussed the education Bill last week, but we could not get the Minister for Education and Science to amend the legislation to ensure specific provision is made for people with mental handicap in light of the O'Donoghue case when the Supreme Court determined there should be special deployment of resources for people with  severe mental handicap. This is not enshrined in the legislation. This issue should be dealt with in the consolidation legislation. There is reference in the legislation to special needs, including the old caveat “in so far as allowances allow” and “so far as is practicable”. That is not good enough.
I have a motion down for the Adjournment next week dealing with dyslexia. This relates to a student who suffers from dyslexia and cannot get special consideration when sitting the leaving certificate. Students with dyslexia are examined by an ordinary examiner as though they have proper spelling ability rather than a spelling disorder. This is an area for which special provision must be made. The family of this student has been told her case must go before an ordinary examiner. The student will receive special consideration if the examiner deems it necessary. That is not the way to deal with this problem.
On the question of the physically handicapped, many Senators mentioned that Dublin Bus is purchasing 150 buses at a cost of £150 million. This money has been saved as a result of the postponement of Luas. It seems the 150 buses will not be wheelchair accessible. I cannot understand why CIE and Dublin Bus, who have more than 900 buses on their books, did not put in an order for a supply of wheelchair accessible buses given that there is a changover of approximately 600 buses that go out of commission every year. Why are they now saying this cannot be done overnight? For years Dublin Bus and CIE have been asked to ensure their fleet of buses is wheelchair accessible. This can be achieved, but the order was never put in. It is estimated that 600 buses will be required in Dublin to supply the service that will be available when the new quality bus corridors are in place. There is only one bus corridor at present and a second is being provided. Ten or 12 will be provided before the end of next year. Will these new buses be wheelchair accessible?
As Senator Kett knows, the taxi situation was discussed last Monday night at a meeting of Dublin Corporation. That local authority has put in place a provision whereby those seeking new taxi licences must have wheelchair accessible vehicles. Some 200 licences were granted last year to people with wheelchair accessible taxis. Another 200 licences were granted the previous year and 820 will be granted in the next three years. All these taxis must be wheelchair accessible. This is a desirable development on the part of the local authority. However, the local authority is not responsible for this development, the councillors are responsible. It was a long-running saga on the part of a colleague, Mary Freehill. She kept working on this until all the councillors got behind her to ensure this became a requirement of the local authority in distributing taxi licences. This is not necessary in the case of the hackney service. We must try to make hackney cars wheelchair accessible  by offering owners a carrot such as relaxing VRT.
The Tánaiste should again consider community employment schemes. She should ensure the physically and mentally handicapped, who are allowed to take part in these schemes, get the full range of secondary benefits rather than the partial benefits available at present.
On housing, the local authority is the housing authority, but the health boards are ancillary housing authorities. A local authority has no obligation to provide sheltered housing for people with disabilities. The local authority will make provision for senior citizens and the homeless, but it will make no specific provision for people with disabilities. That responsibility must be imposed on local authorities because they deal with the housing and planning sectors.
The planning process was mentioned earlier. Some Senators spoke about how far behind we are in relation to planning permission for public buildings and the private sector. When Dublin Corporation built 75 housing units in Jervis Street for the elderly it did not install a proper lift. That is a five storey development and the lift goes only to the first floor. Middle aged and elderly people were asked to surrender their houses and move into this new apartment block which did not have a lift. That is basic irresponsibility and thoughtlessness. The local authority must be represented on any body set up to monitor or implement the needs of people with disabilities.
Some of the provisions in the Bill are desirable. Section 7 provides that the authority shall be an independent body. There is provision in section 8 to advise the Minister, to devise three year strategic plans, to prepare codes of practice, to establish sub-committees, to provide an annual report and so on.
I have a problem with section 14 which will defeat the entire purpose of the Bill. The National Disability Authority has a broad range of work to conduct in terms of its functions and purpose and its advisory, developmental, research and monitoring role. The section states that the authority is required to inform the person or body concerned of its opinion if adequate services or programmes are not being provided. How can legislation get the support of this House, the other House or the organisations who deal directly with the disabled if it has no teeth? This is a weak statement requesting the authority to communicate its opinion to the body or persons in question that they are providing an inadequate service, that they are being negligent in not doing what they are statutorily bound to do and have the funding and resources to do. That section should be deleted from the Bill. I hope on Committee Stage the Minister will ensure there is a range of sanctions for anyone who has been negligent in the provision of adequate services. These people are service providers. They have the resources and responsibility to provide the service. The body should be empowered to ensure  they come up with a remedial course of action for people who do not fulfil the services required of them. That section needs to be amended.
I was surprised to hear that all the appointments to the board have already been made by the Minister and that the chairperson has been appointed. While nobody has any query about the credentials of the chairperson, nevertheless she is a senior manager with an organisation which is a deliverer of such services already. This would certainly seem to involve a conflict of interests. How can the Minister deem such a chairperson to be impartial if she is part and parcel of an organisation already delivering the services? How can the Minister stand over that appointment? What was the justification for it?
Furthermore, I understand the appointment of the authority members was without any consultation with people with disabilities or with the organisations representing them. If that is the case, it leaves much to be desired. To set a new body up without reference to the organisations which have been involved in the delivery of services or which have been working on behalf of people with disabilities is a bad start. I would like some clarification on that point from the Minister.
There has been a request for at least a second worker director selected from the staff. I pay tribute to the work of the NRB over the past three or four decades. The NBR has filled a difficult role with great responsibility and professionalism. I pay tribute to its staff.
We want to ensure that the 20 members of the authority are properly representative and that the chairperson is above question not just in terms of ability but in terms of the impartiality. We want to ensure that at all stages there is adequate consultation between the people involved in the provision of services and the trades unions involved, mainly SIPTU and that this continues throughout the operation of this legislation.
As the Minister will be aware, there is no point in setting up a body unless it is well resourced. That the relevant Minister did not provide adequate resources or the Minister for Finance was not prepared to provide them is what hampered so many groups, bodies, organisations and committees established on a statutory basis. I would like to hear some statement by the Minister now or on Committee Stage about the level of resources which will be made available to this body so that it will be able to fulfil its research, advisory, monitoring and implementation work, the latter of which was much emphasised today. Implementation is, above all, the most important of these jobs. The authority must be able to ensure that the bodies it monitors are doing their work.
I welcome the legislation. I am happy with its thrust but am not happy that the National Disability Authority is adequately provided for in terms of the parameters of its remit to fulfil the purpose for which it has been established. I am  not satisfied there has been adequate consultation in the formation of the body. I want a clear statement on how the body will be resourced and the extent of those resources.
Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Mr. O'Donoghue): I thank the House for the attention which has been given to these innovative proposals. No doubt there will be an opportunity for a comprehensive discussion of some of the more important issues involved on Committee Stage next week. At this stage, I am pleased to take the opportunity to respond to some of the points of principle which have been raised.
In considering service provision for people with disabilities one must have regard to the diverse range of services provided. The adoption of a mainstreaming approach will inevitably broaden the range of services which will be directly applicable to people with disabilities. It will be necessary to take into account both the specialised services required by people with disabilities and the way in which general services are provided for and are accessible to people with disabilities.
The need for a dedicated organisation to oversee and co-ordinate this diverse range of service provision will be filled by the authority. The National Disability Authority will develop standards for service provisions where standards do not currently exist and it will promote and monitor the implementation of these standards. While many services are provided in a satisfactory and appropriate way, there will undoubtedly be instances where there is room for improvement in the level of service or the type of service provided. In some instances services for which there is a requirement may not be provided at present. In other instances there may be duplication of services or inadequate monitoring of cost effectiveness. In a sector where major funding and investment is involved we cannot afford to allocate resources to incorrectly targeted services.
I thank Senator Ridge for her positive and reflective comments on the Bill. It is good to know the principles on which the new organisation is founded attract such general agreement across the House. I expect there will be some difference of detail when we discuss this matter on Committee Stage. I assure Senator Ridge and, indeed, other Senators that I will give due consideration to any proposals for improvements provided that they are in concert with the general policy approach underlying the Bill.
Senator Ridge asked about the final report of the establishment group. The establishment group has continued to work to implement the new arrangements as part of the Government decision of 27 July. A number of working groups have been set up and their final reports are awaited by the establishment group. These reports will propose detailed new staffing structures for each of the new agencies and will allow the final arrangements for transfer of NRB staff which is to be agreed. I understand these reports  will be provided after a consultative process and will be submitted to me at that time. I wish to give the group the little extra time for deliberation which it has sought. I am sure the latitude it needs will be reflected in the quality of the final proposals.
With regard to the question of consultation with the NRB, the establishment group has proceeded in an open and consultative manner throughout this process. The NRB has been involved and informed at each stage of development as have the inter trades union group set up by NRB. The staff of NRB have made numerous submissions to the establishment group and these have been most useful in the work of the group.
When I appointed the chairperson and members of the authority I was anxious that a broad range of interests and sectors from the disability sector were included. Thirteen of the new board, for example, are people who have disabilities, members of families with people with disabilities or a person with a disability or carers. I also felt it was important to include representatives of the social partners, relevant Departments and service providers as they are all key players in this area. In other words, I tried to ensure the board had as broad a membership in terms of experience and involvement with disability as possible.
Senator Kett is an expert in this area. I thank him for his kind words on my record and that of Minister of State, Deputy Wallace, as regards initiating this Bill in the Seanad. I have always had a positive attitude to this House. At times debates in this House have been more heated than in the other House and long may that continue. I compliment Senator Kett on his comprehensive and broad-ranging contribution. I am sure he will forgive me if I respond to only some of the thought-provoking issues he raised.
I welcome the Senator's comments on the balanced composition of the new authority. A great deal of care and consideration was given to appointing members to achieve the balanced representative body which has been put in place. I also welcome the Senator's comments on the new information service. The setting up of one-stop-shops to enable those with disabilities to easily access information on services is of critical importance. I am confident the new service, which will be run under the aegis of the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs, will deliver this need.
I also note Senator Kett's comments on sheltered workshops and those who work in this environment. Responsibility for this area will remain with the Department of Health and Children. The Minister, Deputy Cowen, has stated the relocation of other services from his Department will free resources for this service.
Senator Norris appears concerned about the NDA and its role. I draw the Senator's attention to section 8 which sets out the statutory functions  of the NDA. It is important to distinguish between the scope of the remit of the new organisation and the knowledge, experience or background of members of the authority. I am obliged by section 20 to ensure the board includes those who have knowledge or experience of matters pertaining to disability or other subjects of assistance to the authority. Inevitably, those in the service sector will dominate as, predominantly, they will have such knowledge and experience. It would be remiss of me to avoid appointments from this sector in view of my statutory obligations under section 20.
Senator Norris has worn many different hats. I hope he will have the generosity to acknowledge that others are also competent to discharge a variety of functions and that they may even be able to do so as well as the Senator. He also seems concerned that, rather than leading to the mainstreaming of disability issues, the NDA might result in the marginalisation of such issues.
He spoke of other such organisations which lack the information they are supposed to provide. I am sure the NDA will help to alleviate the lack of information and awareness relating to disability issues. The legislation makes it clear that the authority will be empowered to seek relevant information from service providers. It will also undertake and commission research projects to increase awareness of relevant issues. This is part of a wider programme, including legislation such as the Employment Equality Act, to mainstream the issue of disability and to ensure the inclusion of persons with disabilities in society. This inclusion is a pivotal objective of the legislation.
Other Senators commented on the chair of the authority, the authority itself and why it was established before legislation was introduced. Senator Norris appears to be of the view that the cart was put before the horse. However, following the decision of 27 July to establish the NDA, I appointed the chairperson and the members of the authority on an interim basis. The authority will become a statutory board only when this legislation is passed and commenced. I hope it is understood that the board was established on an interim basis.
I assure Senator Norris that the functions of the NRB will continue to be performed under the new arrangements. The staff and resources of the NRB will be relocated in accordance with these functions. The NRB operates 17 resource centres, including one in North Great George's Street. Each centre will continue to be available for those with disabilities after the new arrangements come into place.
I welcome the comments of a number of Senators on the accessibility of public transport. Deputy Wallace has been in direct discussions with the Department concerned about new buses ordered by Dublin Bus. I appreciate that the purchasing of buses without providing access for those with disabilities will be a test of whether  the new authority will be able to influence or change such occurrences. When the NDA is established on a statutory basis it will be directly involved in standards and the monitoring of the implementation of those standards. When established, the NDA will be able to specify standards. If this legislation had been in place, it is unlikely that the situation which has arisen in Dublin Bus would have occurred. In other words, it is my view that such an event will not occur following the establishment of the NDA on a statutory basis.
As the Minister responsible for the NDA, my Department will have a formal role in the quality of service provision from each Department. Under section 8(2)(e) and (f), the NDA will be empowered to develop codes of practice and to liaise with public bodies about accessible facilities.
A number of Senators, including Senator Dardis, were concerned about mainstreaming. The new arrangements being introduced will mainstream services for people with disabilities. Like any citizen in the State, a person with a disability will be entitled to seek services from each relevant Department. This is not a retrograde step. It is an element of added value because targeted services, where appropriate, will continue, with mainstream facilities complementing and reinforcing them. The National Disability Authority is being established as a body dedicated to people with disabilities. It will co-ordinate an overall approach to disability service provision, whether mainstream or targeted.
I listened with interest to Senator Henry's concerns which were shared by a number of other contributors. I agree with her comment on the role of the National Disability Authority in the possible prevention of disability. This issue has not been given sufficient thought to date. I assure her and the House this issue and research will be an important element of the role and function of the authority. It is my sincere wish that the authority will make good use of the statutory functions assigned to it in this regard and we can look forward to a greater information base from which to draw in making policy proposals and implementing services. I have no reason to doubt that.
Senators O'Donovan and Costello were concerned about aspects of the scope and remit of the authority. The role of the authority is essentially proactive. It has a strong co-ordinating and developmental role, a research function, a standards body, a codes of practice role and a support and liaison remit. These kinds of functions can be best discharged through close co-operation and leadership. I am convinced an enforcement role fits badly with the central remit of the authority and overlaps with redress functions available elsewhere. For these and related reasons, I am slow to accept the Senators' proposals.
Senator Gibbons had similar concerns. I am sure Senators are aware the Office of the  Ombudsman has responsibility for ensuring the rights of all citizens are protected. The establishment group's report refers to the expressed willingness of that office to intervene in cases concerning people with disabilities. I can point fairly to the track record in that respect.
On Senator Costello's comments to the effect that a minister for justice should not introduce legislation such as this and that it is more appropriate to a department of equality and law reform, I remind him that I am not only a Minister with responsibility for justice, I am also a Minister with responsibility for equality and law reform. I am the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform. I pay a special tribute to the work of my friend and colleague the Minister of State, Deputy Mary Wallace, in the area of disability. She has made an enormous contribution. I reject the criticism levelled at the merging of the Department. Senator O'Donovan's statement is true. There was a considerable amount of hype by the Labour Party on the issue of disabilities, in particular in the run-up to the 1992 general election. It is also true that few of the commitments made were delivered on.
We are in office 18 months and have produced a National Disability Authority Bill which represents a genuine attempt to improve the lot of people with disabilities and create an inclusive society for them. In those circumstances, it ill behoves a Labour Member of the House to make the fallacious argument that the merger of the Department in some way lessened the service to people with disabilities. The evidence is to the contrary.
Other matters mentioned by Senator Costello did not have much to do with the issue of disabilities. I refute his statement that there was no attempt to ratify the convention on torture. I brought legislation dealing with torture before the Houses of the Oireachtas last week. We are introducing a Bill to form a human rights commission. He was also critical of that and of our treatment of asylum seekers. I met representatives of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees who told me, having studied our system, it was likely it could become a model for Europe and the world. It is extraordinary that people from outside this country tell us we are doing the job better than anybody else and we could become a model for the world, while people in Irish society insist on creating the opposite illusion at every opportunity and in every forum. It is not only politicians who have been involved in this.
The issue of sexual abuse of young people was also raised by Senator Costello. We have formulated the first report on sexual offences in the history of the State. We have received submissions from groups and individuals and are moving towards formulating legislation on foot of this. When completed, it will be the most radical overhaul of the criminal and sexual offences law in the history of the State.
 Again, in reply to ill-informed comments made by Senator Costello on the homeless, the amount of money provided in this year's Estimate for housing was one of the highest in many years. He stated disability is at the bottom of the pile. How could Senator Costello or anybody say that on the day we are introducing the National Disability Authority Bill in the Seanad. It is an extraordinary claim when one considers his party's record in this respect, irrespective of commitments they made.
He stated there was nothing for the handicapped. Never before has a Minister for Education and Science taken a greater interest in the education of handicapped people or provided more resources for them. Criticism was made in true combative style of the chairperson of the authority. The chairperson of the authority has considerable experience in this area. She is extremely well qualified for a difficult and sensitive role. I am proud she accepted my invitation to become the chairperson. I know her capacity and how much she has contributed in the past and how committed she is to contributing in the future.
 Senator Costello asked for clarification of the resourcing of the National Disability Authority. I have had included in the budgetary allocation to my Department for 1999 an additional amount of just over £2 million. I am confident this allocation will be sufficient to provide for the requirements of the authority in 1999. Part of this allocation will be derived from the existing budget allocation to the Department of Health and Children in respect of the National Rehabilitation Board.
|Last Updated: 20/05/2011 19:38:27||Page of 7|