Seanad Éireann

10/Dec/1998

Prelude

Order of Business.

Sellafield Operations: Statements.

Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Statements.

National Disability Authority Bill, 1998: Order for Second Stage.

National Disability Authority Bill, 1998: Second Stage.

[989]SEANAD ÉIREANN

Déardaoin, 10 Nollaig 1998.

Thursday, 10 December 1998.

Chuaigh an Cathaoirleach i gceannas ar 10.30 a.m.

Paidir.

Prayer.

Mr. Cassidy:  Today's Order of Business is items 1 and 2. On item 1, Statements on Sellafield, the contributions of spokespersons will not exceed 20 minutes and those of other Senators will not exceed 15 minutes. On item 2, National Disability Authority Bill, Order for Second Stage and Second Stage, the contributions of spokespersons not to exceed 20 minutes and those of other Senators not to exceed 15 minutes. Members may share time.

Mr. Manning:  The Order of Business is agreed.

Dr. Henry:  The Order of Business is agreed. I congratulate my fellow Independent Member, Senator Quinn, who highlighted the importance of the House by virtue of the changes he encouraged the Minister to include in the George Mitchell Scholarship Fund Bill. It was interesting that the Bill passed all Stages in the other House without anyone recognising that it would be invidious if people from America who wished to undertake research in Northern Ireland would not be able to do so because of the way the legislation was drafted. I thank and congratulate the Minister for readily accepting the Senator's amendments.

Mr. Costello:  I congratulate Senator Quinn on his sharpness and perspicacity in perceiving the obvious flaw in the George Mitchell Scholarship Fund Bill. As Senator Henry stated, that flaw was only observed when the Bill came to this House having been passed by the Lower House. I compliment the Minister on his alacrity in addressing the situation.

I am disappointed the Leader has not agreed to requests made yesterday by myself and other Members for a debate on human rights, particularly when one considers that today marks the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that Amnesty International has collected one million signatures in Ireland to mark the occasion, that General Pinochet [990] was yesterday served with extradition papers, that tomorrow the United States intends to mark Human Rights Day by executing its 500th prisoner since the reintroduction of the death penalty in 1976 and that John Hume and David Trimble will be conferred with the Nobel Peace Prize for their work on the Good Friday Agreement, human rights and reconciliation on this island. Yesterday the Leader made sympathetic noises with regard to making time available to discuss human rights and mark the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is a shame that arrangements have not been made for such a debate.

Mr. Ryan:  Will the Leader attempt to uncover — this relates to human rights and immigration — the circumstances under which the ex-President of Mexico was granted permission to live in Ireland for an indefinite period? People over whom lesser clouds of suspicion hang are being deported from the State regularly. This matter is an embarrassment to Ireland because two million people have sought the return of this man to Mexico to face charges for a variety of offences. It is not pleasant that he should find refuge in this country; his circumstances bear a resemblance to that of General Pinochet in London.

With unfortunate and monotonous regularity I must ask the Leader to make time available for a debate on overseas development aid. I will not move an amendment to the Order of Business in that regard, if only to prove that I can be agreeable on occasion. The House was, de facto, misled in respect of the situation regarding ODA in 1999.

An Cathaoirleach:  We have debated that matter on numerous occasions and the Senator's point was made during the recent debate on overseas development aid. Do I take it that he is requesting a further debate on that issue?

Mr. Ryan:  I am seeking a debate on the facts on ODA as distinct from the bluster. We already had a debate on the bluster, we now want a debate on the facts, which are that ODA for next year has been frozen and that humanitarian aid for next year will be reduced by 17 per cent. The latter is perhaps the most disgraceful provision a Government has ever made in this area.

Mr. Kett:  One of the key components in the inclusion of people with disabilities is the availability of accessible transport. Can one call a system which is not accessible to all the public, a public transport system? I ask this question in the light of information which has come to hand regarding the purchase of 150 buses by CIE. Not one of these buses is accessible to people with disabilities and I ask the Leader to send the strongest possible message to the company in this regard.

[991]An Cathaoirleach:  I ask the Leader, when replying, to say if it is intended to take item 2 at 2 o'clock.

Mr. Cassidy:  Following the request from Senator Costello, I will allow time from 1 p.m to 2 p.m. for statements on the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Contributions are not to exceed seven minutes. Item 2 will be taken at 2 p.m.

I agree with Senator Henry's sentiments regarding Senator Quinn's amendment to the George Mitchell Scholarship Fund Bill, 1998, and the co-operation of the Minister and civil servants. This amendment demonstrates the importance of a second House. It was very satisfying to be able to enhance legislation and very pleasing to all of us and to the Minister and his officials that this happened yesterday.

I will pass Senator Ryan's views on the person from Mexico to the Minister. As you have said, Sir, we have had many debates and statements on overseas aid. If the Senator feels as strongly after the Christmas recess as he does now, I will find time to facilitate him in expressing his concerns.

I will pass on the views of Senator Kett regarding public transport to the Minister. The National Disability Authority Bill, 1998, will be before the House this afternoon and I look forward to hearing the contributions on that legislation.

Order of Business agreed to.

Minister of State at the Department of Public Enterprise (Mr. Jacob):  This is the second time within 48 hours that I have been in the House. I fear Senators may be weary of listening to me speak on this subject, albeit a very important one.

An Cathaoirleach:  It is always a pleasure to welcome the Minister of State to the House.

Mr. Jacob:  I welcome this opportunity to debate British Nuclear Fuel's Sellafield operations. As the House knows, public and political opinion in Ireland is firmly opposed to nuclear energy and there is cross-party consensus on this issue.

Ireland's nuclear policy places a heavy emphasis on nuclear safety and on radiological protection. While recognising that certain European countries, including Britain, have retained nuclear energy as an option for nuclear power generation, Ireland has remained vehemently opposed to any expansion of the nuclear industry. A dominant factor in the opposition of the Irish people and Government to nuclear power is the risk, however remote, of a nuclear accident.

As far back as 1976, the UK Royal Commission on Environmental Protection recommended that, until it has been demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt, that a method exists to ensure the safe [992] containment of long lived radioactive waste for the indefinite future, there should be no commitment to a large programme of nuclear power. The Government considers it regrettable that, despite this sound recommendation which was made over 20 years ago, the UK has expanded its nuclear industry without solving the long-term nuclear waste problem.

Successive Governments have consistently opposed any expansion of the UK's nuclear facilities, in particular those located at Sellafield, because it sees such facilities as part of a potential threat to Ireland's public health and environment and vital commercial interests such as fishing, agriculture and tourism.

Ireland, like many other States, has rejected the nuclear power option because we believe that the claimed benefits of nuclear power are outweighed significantly by the risks. In our view, the potential hazard of a major nuclear accident combined with understandable public concerns about the effect of discharges on the environment and about the disposal of spent fuel and radioactive waste lead to the firm conclusion that the case for nuclear power is unsound. Consistent with this thinking, why should we tolerate nuclear power in a neighbouring country?

Ireland's concern about Sellafield relates particularly to the following: the accumulation of high levels of nuclear spent fuel at the site; the transport to the plant of spent nuclear fuel for reprocessing and the transport from the plant of plutonium and radioactive waste products; the continued use of Magnox reactors beyond their life design; the backlog of high level liquid nuclear waste in storage tanks on the site awaiting vitrification and the discharge of radioactive materials into the Irish Sea.

We believe the concentration of a range of nuclear activities on one site is not prudent and poses potential risks of accidents at the site with consequential implications for the health, safety and economic well being of the Irish people and for the Irish environment. The risk of a major accident would be greatly reduced by geographical dispersal of nuclear facilities rather than by concentration of so many nuclear activities on the Sellafield site.

The Government is committed to a campaign against the hazardous operations at Sellafield. It has spared no effort in making known to the UK authorities Ireland's concerns about the Sellafield operations and the potential risk which it poses for the Irish people. These concerns have also been highlighted by Ireland at every available opportunity in international fora such as the European Union, the International Atomic Energy Agency, the OECD and at meetings held under the umbrella of the Oslo/Paris (OSPAR) Convention relating to marine pollution.

Since assuming the portfolio for nuclear safety and radiological protection I have been in frequent contact with the relevant UK Ministers to highlight the concerns of the Government with [993] regard to the UK nuclear industry and particularly Sellafield.

In November 1997, I had a formal meeting with the UK Minister for the Environment, Mr. Michael Meacher, MP, in Dublin. At that meeting, I raised the whole range of nuclear safety issues of concern to Ireland. Since then I have had a number of contacts with Mr. Meacher and I have been in correspondence with him where I consider it appropriate. I have found him to be keenly aware of the sensitivity of these issues in Ireland. As a key Minister of a neighbouring country, I believe he accepts that these views must be weighed up carefully by the UK decision makers.

Clearly, the UK will pursue its own national interest but I believe there is a new maturity in our relations with the UK on nuclear matters. Both sides understand each other's strongly held positions. On the UK side, there has been an explicit acknowledgment of the legitimate interest of the Irish people as regards proposed developments at Sellafield. This was exemplified by the decision of the former Secretary of State, Mr. John Gummer, on Nirex.

In my experience, this recognition of our strong stance on Sellafield and the need to take account of our views, manifested itself in the statements made by the UK at the OSPAR meeting in July last relating to technetium discharges. I will refer to these later.

The issues which I raised with the British Minister, Mr. Meacher, were subsequently followed up by my officials at meetings of the UK-Ireland contact group on radioactivity and nuclear matters. This group comprises officials from the nuclear safety division of my Department, the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland and officials from the relevant UK Departments and Government agencies. It meets twice a year. Meetings of this group provide further opportunities for pursuing Ireland's concerns about Sellafield and other related matters.

I have also been in contact with the UK Minister of State for Science, Energy and Industry, Mr. John Battle, MP. My contacts with him have been about the high level liquid waste storage arrangements and my desire to see an acceleration of the waste vitrification process to ensure that the backlog of waste is cleared much earlier than the target date of 2015, which was set by the UK.

While the Minister, Mr. Battle, assured me of the safety aspects of the existing waste storage arrangements and of the UK policy to vitrify the waste as soon as practicable, I remain unconvinced about the safety of the storage of such waste in liquid form. I, therefore, asked Mr. Battle to urge BNFL to release technical information, including probability risk assessments, to the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland relating to the waste storage tanks to enable the institute to form its own measured judgment as to the risks involved.

[994] Contacts are ongoing between the institute and BNFL on this issue. I also received assurances from Mr. Battle about the safety of the older Magnox reactors. Again, however, I remain unconvinced. I want to see these reactors closed down and I reiterated this desire in the course of my contacts with the British Minister.

On the question of radiological discharges to the marine environment, the House will be aware of an important decision made in July last at the OSPAR ministerial meeting which was convened under the auspices of the OSPAR Convention.

Before dealing with OSPAR, I should refer to some crucial principles relating to discharges. Radioactive discharges policies and practices should take into account the manner in which they affect human health and the environment beyond national borders. Where there is uncertainty concerning serious risks, then appropriate precautions should be taken, i.e., the precautionary principle should be observed at all times.

The polluter pays principle is widely acknowledged and very relevant in the management of radioactive waste and marine discharges. It is so because exposure to radioactive contaminants arising from sources beyond Ireland's national boundaries is an imposed burden on our society and economy. Protection and defence against such actual and potential exposures are costs which should be paid by the polluter.

I believe some of the advances made at OSPAR are consistent with these principles. At the OSPAR meeting in Lisbon last July, a strategy on radioactive discharges was adopted which committed all OSPAR Ministers, including those of the UK, to the virtual elimination of such discharges into the maritime environment by the year 2020. This was a very positive development for Ireland in its campaign against Sellafield. The adoption of the strategy was a recognition by the OSPAR Ministers of the legitimate concerns raised by Ireland and certain other countries, particularly Denmark and Norway, about the effects of such discharges on public health and on the marine environment.

Indeed, Ireland was very much to the forefront during the drafting of the OSPAR strategy in the run up to the ministerial meeting. During the drafting phase, Ireland was vociferous in calling for a cessation of all such discharges and for the strategy to provide for such a cessation. I personally carried on this fight at the ministerial meeting and the outcome was a vindication of Ireland's efforts throughout the process. Significantly, when the OSPAR statements actually emerged, there was a recognition that they were a significant step forward. I have no apologies to make about my negotiating position at Lisbon. On the contrary, I consider that what was achieved at Lisbon was crucial and ground-breaking. Ireland's role was crucial in securing the adoption of these commitments.

It was with some regret that I heard in October of the proposed decision by the UK Environment

[995] Agency in respect of an application by British Nuclear Fuels Limited to the agency for a variation in the BNFL radioactive discharges authorisation limit for its Sellafield operation. The agency's proposed decision was referred by the agency to the relevant UK Ministers for consideration and final decision.

My Department had, in fact, earlier submitted a paper to the UK Environment Agency as part of the agency's public consultation process on the BNFL discharge authorisation application. My Department's paper had set out Ireland's concerns about radioactive discharges into the Irish Sea, particularly discharges of technetium-99, which have grown significantly since 1994, and called for an end to such discharges.

On learning of the agency's proposed decision, I immediately wrote to the relevant UK Ministers drawing their attention to the commitments given by the UK at the OSPAR ministerial meeting in regard to radioactive discharges. I pointed out that the agency's proposed decision was not in keeping with the OSPAR commitments. I was also adamant that the proposed decision contrasted with the UK's promise, given at the OSPAR Ministers meeting, to address concerns expressed by Ireland and other countries about technetium-99 discharges in their forthcoming decisions on the BNFL discharges authorisations.

The final decision rests with the UK Ministers and their decision is awaited. While the agency has proposed a reduction in the discharge levels for technetium-99, the reduction is just not enough. I expect the UK Ministers to honour their OSPAR commitments. They can do this by significantly reducing the discharge level for technetium-99 to the pre-1994 levels.

On the same day as it announced its proposed decision on Sellafield's radioactive discharge authorisation, the UK Environment Agency also announced its proposed decision in regard to BNFL's proposed MOX fuel fabrication plant for Sellafield. In summary, the agency's proposed decision, which has likewise been referred to the relevant UK Ministers for final decision, was to the effect that the commissioning and full operation of the plant was “justified”.

The Irish Government had previously lodged two submissions with the UK Environment Agency — one in April 1997 and the other earlier this year — expressing its concerns about, and total opposition to, the proposed MOX plant. MOX fuel is a mixture of plutonium and uranium and is used in conventional reactors. The bulk of the plutonium for the proposed plant is expected to come from the fuel reprocessed from the UK's Magnox reactors at Sellafield and from the THORP reprocessing plant.

The Government's submissions to the UK Environment Agency were in response to the agency's public consultation process into the proposed MOX project. In its submissions, Ireland pointed out that the commissioning of the MOX [996] plant will serve to perpetuate the nuclear fuel reprocessing industry in Britain; the commissioning and operation of the MOX plant will further add to the multiplicity of operations already located at Sellafield, thereby increasing the risk of an accident occurring there; BNFL's promotion of MOX fuel as a solution to the problem of increasing stockpiles of plutonium does not stand up to scrutiny and the use of MOX fuel in nuclear reactors will lead to more plutonium being produced through the further reprocessing of this fuel when spent.

The worldwide transport of MOX fuel will pose unacceptable security risks. The transport of plutonium materials serve only to increase the risk of plutonium diversion for clandestine purposes. The operation of the MOX plant will result in additional radioactive discharges into the Irish Sea. These discharges, however small they may be, are objectionable and unacceptable to the Irish Government. A waste management and disposal strategy for the plutonium contaminated material generated from the operation of the MOX plant has not been identified.

Ireland's submission also noted that the economic case for the MOX plant assumes both the continuation and justification of reprocessing at THORP which would provide the feedstock for the MOX plant. In other words, the economic justification for MOX depends on the existence of a reprocessing activity, THORP, which in itself is not justified. Ireland's submission, therefore, also called for a cessation of THORP's reprocessing activity.

On learning of the Environment Agency's proposed decision on the MOX plant, I immediately wrote to the relevant UK Ministers reiterating Ireland's opposition to the proposed plant and requesting that they rescind the agency's decision. In addition to voicing its concerns about Sellafield directly with the UK, the Irish Government has also carried its campaign against Sellafield into the international arena at every available opportunity.

Apart from the more recent positive development which emerged from OSPAR in relation to radioactive discharges, which I have already mentioned, there have been other positive developments in relation to nuclear safety generally, such as the coming into force of the Nuclear Safety Convention. In addition, there is a Joint Convention on the Safety of Spent Fuel Management and on the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management. Both conventions establish a peer review process. They also include provisions requiring member countries to consult neighbouring countries about installations which have a potential impact.

The House will be aware of the legal case being brought by four County Louth residents against BNFL. Although Ireland and the Attorney General are co-defendants in this case, the Government has earmarked £400,000 towards the cost of [997] the residents' research activities in connection with their case and a number of payments have been made to the residents on foot of this offer of assistance. The Irish Government continues to be committed to legal action against Sellafield, provided a legal case can be shown to exist. The Government will continue to draw upon the best scientific and legal advice before deciding on litigation.

Over recent years there has been a noticeable shift in public opinion in Europe against nuclear power. The UK Government and regulators are more sharply aware of the sensitivity of public opinion to nuclear power and have opened up their decision making and consultation processes.

In Germany, the new Government has announced a proposed phasing out of nuclear energy. In May of this year all shipments of nuclear waste from Germany to the reprocessing plants at Sellafield and La Hague were suspended at the direction of the then German Government following the discovery of contamination on the surface of the waste containers. This suspension remains in force.

Within recent days the Government in Belgium has announced the suspension of a contract for the reprocessing of Belgian spent fuel entered into with the La Hague reprocessing plant, which was due to come into effect in the year 2000 on the expiry of the existing contract. I understand the objective of the suspension is to provide the Belgian Government with a moratorium period of one year to make up its mind between the advantages of reprocessing on the one hand and conditioning and storage of waste on the other hand.

These positive developments, along with the adoption of the OSPAR strategy on radioactive waste discharges, are significant and represent a change in policy direction. This shift in Europe's thinking on nuclear energy will help Ireland's efforts in highlighting the dangers to public health, safety and the environment from nuclear related activities. This House can be assured that the Government will continue the campaign against Sellafield.

Mrs. A. Doyle:  I thank the Minister for his generosity in coming to the House twice this week. This issue continues to be of major concern to many people.

The majority of British nuclear installations, approximately 12, are located on its west coast facing Ireland. The west coast has one of Britain's lowest population concentrations while our east coast has the highest. A significant proportion of the Irish economy is based directly or indirectly on sectors which are dependent on our natural environment, such as agriculture, tourism, food, fishing and forestry. For this reason, I remain opposed to the continued operation of all the nuclear installations in western Britain, particularly to any proposed expansion such as the recently mooted MOX plant at Sellafield, which [998] the Environment Agency announced last October along with further details of technetium-99 discharges into the Irish Sea.

The further operations proposed at Sellafield will constitute a significant additional violation of the sovereignty of the Republic of Ireland by subjecting our citizens and environment to unnecessary risk. The risks associated with the development are avoidable and unnecessary. Accordingly, I contend that because the existing development and any proposed extensions on the Sellafield site violate the principles of international relations between sovereign states and the accepted principles of environmental prudence, they should not be permitted to proceed.

The first principle of the system of protection suggested by the International Committee on Radiological Protection states that no practice involving exposures to radiation should be adopted unless it produces a sufficient benefit to the exposed individuals or to society to offset the radiation detriment it causes. There should be no risk without benefit.

Ireland is exposed to the risk of radiation hazard by the transportation, processing and storage of all radioactive material at nuclear installations on the west coast of Britain. The MOX development will significantly increase this risk. There is no benefit to either the individuals or society exposed to this detrimental risk. Ireland has no nuclear generated power sources. Not only is this continuing exposure to risk without benefit, but it is without the consent or control of our citizens. This is a significant interference in the right to national self-determination and, as such, represents a violation of our national sovereignty.

If nuclear installations are safe, why are they all concentrated along the UK west coast? They should be evenly distributed throughout the UK, in places such as Manchester or London, and closer to centres of population and consumption, thus avoiding a disproportionate share of risk exposure to the people of Ireland and our environment.

Good environmental principles have been constantly flouted by BNFL at Sellafield. The precautionary principle holds that actions with unpredictable outcomes should not be undertaken. The commissioning of THORP in the face of this principle indicates that it is not matter of concern to either BNFL or the UK authorities. The recent announcements on the MOX plant further underline the lack of consideration by BNFL and the UK authorities of Irish sovereignty.

Two decades ago a UK royal commission, the Flowers Commission, considered the implications of a plutonium economy. It concluded that the implications must be examined through a systematic process that engages the public. The UK Government has not responded properly to this recommendation. Many aspects of Sellafield's operations, including its economics, remain shrouded in secrecy. There has not been a systematic [999] examination of alternative options for the site's operation, including a suspension of reprocessing.

On 4 December last, at the second annual meeting of the Irish and UK local authorities on nuclear hazards in Manchester town hall, Mr. Gordon Thompson of the Institute for Resource and Security Studies, the IRSS, which is based in Massachusetts, made an excellent case on democracy and decision making on nuclear issues. With his permission, I will make liberal use of his paper. He underlined the fact that UK and Irish authorities could play a key role in establishing an international regulatory structure that should govern the reprocessing of nuclear waste. He contends that this regulatory structure should also encompass the use of plutonium as a fuel and the disposition or disposal of plutonium that is surplus to military requirements.

Within such a regulatory structure, a set of criteria would be used to determine if a plutonium activity is permissible. These criteria would be linked to the impacts associated with the activity and to the availability of alternatives. He makes the point in his paper that the Irish Government is playing a leading role in the international disarmament area, that the German Government is taking new positions on reprocessing and nuclear disarmament, and that overall there is great potential for building coalitions that will yield policy changes and new international agreements. The Minister of State, Deputy Jacob, referred to a number of important international conventions that had been adopted over the past two years which will enhance nuclear safety worldwide. I quote from his contribution on the Radiological Protection (Amendment) Bill, 1998, on 8 December in this House:

The convention on nuclear safety to which Ireland was among the first signatories came into force in October 1996 and it will ensure that all land based civil nuclear installations are safe, well regulated and promote a high level of nuclear safety worldwide .. this convention also provides for the reporting to other contracting parties on the measures taken.

This is a very important point.

This convention will allow Ireland the responsibility to participate in a nuclear safety review process every few years, the first such review to take place under the auspices of the International Atomic Energy Agency — IAEA — in April next. This will provide an opportunity for Ireland to query the country reports of the UK and others regarding their compliance with the convention and apparently these country reports in respect of a number of the contracting parties to the convention have already been circulated by the IAEA.

The Minister of State contends that this convention is a major breakthrough in fostering a global [1000] nuclear safety culture and for providing for extensive information exchange on nuclear safety matters. He has my full support in doing whatever is necessary to ensure that this is so.

In September 1997 Ireland was among the first signatories of a new Joint Convention on the Safety of Spent Fuel Management and on the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management. This convention places new and extensive obligations on contracting parties including the peer review process similar to that applicable to the Convention on Nuclear Safety to which I have just referred. I understand from his contribution that this new joint convention will oblige neighbouring countries to consult countries in close proximity on the siting of proposed facilities. This is a most important point. These consultation obligations, according to him are relevant to Ireland's long standing objections to the siting of any new radioactive waste disposal facilities in Britain. I would like the Minister to indicate when this convention will enter into force because then, and only then, can the convention give backing to consultations by the UK with Ireland on such facilities. I hope he will respond to us. I know he has enough time and I plead with him to reply.

Then I believe we can see progress on our sustained objections for several decades now to the cavalier treatment by the UK authorities of Irish concerns in relation to all their nuclear installations on the west coast of the UK but particularly in relation to Sellafield and ongoing and increasing activities on this site. As Gordon Thompson stated in his paper in Manchester, in theory the western world is democratic when making decisions on nuclear issues; in practice, nuclear decision making in the UK and in some other countries falls short of democratic standards. Questionable decisions are made behind a wall of secrecy with adverse effects on the public interest.

As we all know democracy can be defined as a form of Government in which the supreme power is vested in the people collectively and is administered by them or by officers appointed by them. But who are the people in question? In the case of nuclear technology, decisions can affect future generations and people at great distances. The Sellafield site has impacts on present and future citizens of Ireland. Yet the site confers no benefit, as I have said, on our citizens and they have no direct influence on UK policy. Even if nuclear decision making were to become democratically accountable within the UK, the requisite level of democracy would not yet have been attained as the Irish view would be out of the loop.

If decisions are to be made democratically and if they are to be sound then they must be well informed. The inordinate secrecy surrounding the nuclear industry in the UK must be eliminated and there must be a systematic process for examining the implication of such decisions. For nuclear technology this process will involve the [1001] assessment of impacts on alternative options associated with a proposed course of action.

Nuclear related impacts fall into three categories; first, environmental impacts which include human health effects arising from exposure to radioactive material, second, socio-economic impacts which include changed economic behaviour arising from fear of exposure to radioactive material and, third, security impacts which could affect the security of individuals, states or the world community.

In all three categories impacts could arise from planned or unplanned events. For example, a routine release of radioactivity would be a planned event while an accidental release would be an unplanned event. Both events would generate environmental and socio-economic impacts. A diversion of plutonium to terrorists would be an unplanned event which would generate security impacts and in this regard there are ongoing fears that plutonium or highly enriched uranium will be diverted from facilities in Russia, but I do not have time to go into that today.

Could we not demand a retrospective environmental impact statement from our counterparts in the UK? The cost of preparing an EIS for the Sellafield site might be several million pounds sterling but as the operations on the Sellafield site involve annual expenditure of the order of £1 billion, an EIS could be easily justified. The Flowers Commission recommended in 1976 that environmental impact statements be prepared for nuclear power developments in the UK. This recommendation was never acted upon by the UK Government. Public inquiries have been held in connection with proposed nuclear facilities but none of these inquiries has been supported by a systematic assessment of impacts and alternative options.

There is best practice for assessing impacts on alternative options — there is an internationally accepted code of scientific practice in this area. I do not have time to go into it today but this is the road we should be pursuing and asking our UK colleagues to pursue immediately. The IRSS is currently conducting a research project that will help to show how best practice assessment of impacts and alternatives could be performed for the Sellafield site. The IRSS research is supported by our Government and relates to the case being brought by the Dundalk four against BNFL. Why can our Government not use this case to provide an opportunity to examine the impacts on alternatives associated with Sellafield?

Ministers over the years have talked about the difficult scientific and technical detail necessary to pursuing a legal case with the UK authorities on Sellafield. May I suggest it be done on the basis of a retrospective EIS and the best practice assessment of the impacts and alternatives in relation to Sellafield? Can we pursue that route with the UK authorities because the technical, legal and scientific detail would be readily available for such a course of action? This course of [1002] action would be extremely constructive and it would also be a great antidote to the shroud of secrecy that BNFL insists on wrapping around Sellafield's activities.

We can only guess at the extent which BNFL has assessed impacts and alternative options for Sellafield. It is a fact that BNFL submitted numerous documents to the UK nuclear installations inspectorate as part of the safety case for facilities on the site. At a meeting at the Sellafield site in June 1997, the BNFL official refused to make any of these documents available while conceding that the documents would become publicly available if the Sellafield site were licensed in the United States. There seems to be higher standards available to US citizens than there is for UK or Irish citizens. This is totally unacceptable. When pressed as to the company's reasons for not disclosing these documents the BNFL official stated that the company was not precluded from disclosure by any regulatory provision but chose non-disclosure because that policy served the company's business interests. There is room for the Minister of State to investigate what that is all about on behalf of the Irish people. Does it serve the interests of the UK citizens and the environment in the immediate proximity? It does not serve the interests of Irish citizens and our environment. It is an infringement on our sovereignty and right to self-determination on matters of health and environment for our people.

BNFL's policy of secrecy stands in contrast to some of its public statements. In June 1998 Members of both Houses were briefed about a recently completed IRSS study done again by Gordon Thompson from whom I have been quoting liberally. On that occasion BNFL released a statement which stated “BNFL would be grateful if accurate information was finally put into the public domain so that a more balanced and informed debate can take place on any issues which need to be addressed.” I now say, and I support Gordon Thompson's contention, that the public interest would be greatly served if BNFL were to act on its statement and publish information about Sellafield which, incidentally, would have to be published if the site were licensed in the United States.

In his paper, Gordon Thompson suggests three specific initiatives whereby the UK and Irish authorities could address the impacts associated with the nuclear industry and plutonium and could introduce more democratic and effective decision-making processes. First, there is an urgent need to establish a European legal framework for best practice assessment of impacts and alternatives. Our Government and the German Government would be sympathetic to that initiative. Second, we must challenge BNFL to debate Sellafield's impacts and alternatives. The Irish Government, together with our local authorities and the UK local authorities, could respond to this call by offering BNFL an opportunity to participate [1003] in an open structured debate. My colleague, Senator O'Dowd, stated on Tuesday, in the debate on the Radiological Protection (Amendment) Bill, that the Committee on Public Enterprise and Transport had agreed to invite BNFL to come before it. This would be an excellent forum for more accurate information about Sellafield to be put into the public domain and to respond to BNFL's request that this be done. We could then examine the impacts and alternative options associated with Sellafield. I understand the IRSS would be ready to engage in this debate. I suggest representatives from that organisation should also be invited to the meeting of the Committee on Public Enterprise and Transport. I ask the Minister to pursue this as an option and forum to remove the shroud of secrecy from BNFL's activities.

The third initiative would be to promote an international regulatory structure for commercial activities involving all fissile material. The two conventions to which I referred are a very important first step in this area. We should make cause with other sympathetic governments, such as the Germans, to pursue this initiative through European and international channels such as the International Atomic Energy Agency.

I wish to refer to one final, but critical matter. I plead with the Minister of State to respond to this point before he leaves the House. If ever my concerns and that of hundreds of other public representatives at local and national level and elsewhere needed validation, last Sunday's papers did just that. An article in The Sunday Business Post stated, “Government agencies should prepare to distribute emergency iodine tablet supplies to Irish children as protection against radioactive pollution according to the World Health Organisation, because of growing fears of a nuclear accident resulting from the Year 2000 Millennium Bug.”. The article goes on to say that the WHO believes there is a serious risk of a nuclear reactor accident associated with computer malfunction, and has issued guidelines to Governments, including the Irish Government, to put an emergency plan in place to provide for a rapid distribution of iodine tablets in case of Y2K computer malfunctions in Sellafield and other British nuclear installations. We are talking about 12 months' time. The Sunday Business Post could not establish what agency, if any, is taking responsibility for the distribution of the emergency supplies of potassium iodine tablets to children in Ireland. The article quotes Dr. Keith Baverstoc who heads the new European Nuclear Emergency Project for the WHO as saying that the level of risk of a nuclear reactor accident in the medium-term future is unacceptable. He attributed the high rate of risk much more to human error and computer failure due to the Y2K millennium bug than to failure of engineering components.

[1004] I do not need to reiterate our concerns about the accident rate at Sellafield down through the years. When the concern about a Y2K computer failure is added to that, there is cause for alarm at the lack of consultation between the Government and UK authorities. I urge the Minister of State to put on record exactly what preparedness there is among State agencies to respond to the WHO recommendations in this area. What State agency has stockpiled emergency provisions of potassium iodine? We need to know. I view with extreme alarm the siting of Sellafield and the other dozen or so UK nuclear installations on their west coast. This is an unacceptable infringement of our sovereignty and right to self-determination as a people and environment. If our proximity to Sellafield, which they conveniently located on their least populated west coast, places the population of the east coast and this country at risk, the very least the UK authorities and BNFL owe us is complete frankness, consultation and openness in terms of their programme and policy.

The instruction from the WHO to the Irish Government on this matter puts the issue into such sharp focus that no more needs to be said. I await the Minister of State's response and rest my case.

Mr. Walsh:  I join Senator Doyle in welcoming the Minister of State to the House. Since he assumed office and his current responsibilities he has shown vigilance and diligence in articulating the concerns of citizens with regard to the risks of nuclear industry. This is not surprising coming from a politician who represents an east coast constituency where there is a high awareness of the risks emanating from Sellafield and the other installations which are predominantly located on the west coast of Britain.

Listening to Senator Doyle's concerns regarding the veil of secrecy surrounding much of what happens at Sellafield, this secrecy can have a much more insidious outcome when one considers what happened in Britain with regard to BSE. In that instance the failure to alert the public to the risks involved escalated concerns in Britain and throughout Europe. A more open and honest approach to the matter would have reassured the public and not caused the serious implications that followed. A more cynical observer might say we are more concerned with duplicity than with secrecy.

On the health risks involved, there is irrefutable evidence that there have been pockets of leukaemia and cancer outbreaks in areas adjacent to nuclear installations. Statistics in this country show evidence of leukaemia outbreaks in County Louth and the Newcastle area in County Down. A major concern in counties Down and Antrim is their proximity to Sellafield and the various accidents that have occurred over the years. People in these counties are strongly of the view that there is a co-relationship between the nuclear industry and the outbreaks of leukaemia [1005] in the area. While that cannot be proved, there is international recognition that there is a direct co-relationship between leukaemia and radiation. Similar outbreaks have occurred in areas in Wales. Public concern is well founded in relation to this industry.

People in the industry often argue there is no proof and no connecting link between the industry and health risk. Perhaps the time has come to put the onus on the industry. This is a lucrative industry. Large sums of money are invested in it and there is significant State commitment to it throughout Europe. Maybe the time has come to put the onus on the industry to prove the converse, that it does not give rise to health risk. It is a highly lucrative industry, there is a huge amount of money invested in it and there is a great deal of state commitment to it across Europe.

It is similar to our discussions the other day on the construction of telephone masts where there is no direct proof of any health risk and experts differ on it. However, when push comes to shove and the telecommunications industry is asked to indemnify people against the health risk, they refused to do it. If they are so confident that there is no risk to health, then one wonders at their reluctance to undertake such indemnities.

I want to refer to one point which Senator Doyle addressed and which I had intended to address, that is the year 2000 issue and its implications for the nuclear industry. The nuclear industry, which would be highly computerised, would obviously be one of those at risk to the fall out from the non-compliance with year 2000 specifications. In the coming 12 months there is an increased risk factor because of this issue. I would add to Senator Doyle's suggestion about the distribution of iodine tablets that perhaps it would be timely to activate the national emergency plan for a full drill. We should ask the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland together with the county councils, to undertake such an emergency plan at this stage in order that any weaknesses in it could be clearly identified. I am led to believe that in the past when this was done on a more limited scale it identified weaknesses which could obviously be catastrophic in a real emergency where the plan had to be activated. Given the increased level of exposure arising from any failure of computer systems to comply with year 2000 specifications in any of the installations in Britain, it would be important that at least we would be in a position to respond properly in the unlikely event of a serious incident.

It concerns me that while the European Union is actively and influentially involved in regulation in many other areas, it is not so involved in this area. My town and many other towns across Ireland are awaiting decisions with regard to urban renewal. The scheme which was presented by Government to the European Union is now held up at Commission level while it makes [1006] decisions in this regard. It is important that the European Union would also involve itself in this obvious area, that is, the protection of the environment and the health of the community, but it appears to be impotent. Perhaps this is because many member states have a strong interest in the nuclear industry for economic and other reasons. It would be a pity if there was not a strong input at European Union level in controlling this particular industry. Perhaps it is time for an international regulatory control body which would have the necessary powers to regulate and oversee nuclear plants.

Recently we were reminded of the need for such a body. Last July at the OSPAR Convention in Lisbon Britain undertook to reduce marine discharges into the Irish Sea over the next 20 years. They have undertaken for the next meeting, which will take place in Dublin between 18 and 22 January, to present an action plan on how they hope to achieve those reductions. It was significant, and almost flying in the face of such a commitment, that at the same time there was an announcement of the construction of a mixed oxide fuel production plant at Sellafield — what is referred to as the MOX plant. That received the approval of the British environment agency at a cost of some £300 million. That raises interesting questions. First, nuclear plants in general are now perceived as being a bad investment and many of them are regarded as not being viable. That certainly raises questions about the construction of the MOX plant in the Sellafield nuclear debate.

A study is being undertaken on the economies of BNFL generally by KPMG as a preparatory step to examining the options for privatisation. There is a good argument that such a decision should be deferred pending the public debate and consideration of the KPMG report on the viability of the reprocessing and MOX plants. We should be pursuing the British Government to make that KPMG report available in the public domain. These reports have not been made available in the past and this one must be open to public scrutiny. If the report is fully debated and considered, the decision will be well founded at least on economic grounds. One shudders to think of the measures which could be taken if BNFL was privatised and the viability of the plant was in jeopardy. Cost cutting measures could be taken which could seriously increase the risk factor. We need to be vigilant in that area.

The second question it raises is non-proliferation. The royal society's report on plutonium recommended that the British Government review options for stabilising and reducing Britain's stockpile of civil plutonium. If the reprocessing continues at present levels, the report indicated the stockpile would reach 100 tonnes by 2010. That would represent 50 per cent of the world's civil plutonium. The global implications for nuclear weapons proliferation is fairly obvious if that is the route which is being pursued. Britain [1007] needs to clearly state its position with regard to the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Its actions need to match its stated policy in this regard.

Third, one must be concerned about the aerial release risk from pollution and particularly the high level of liquid waste stored in tanks at Sellafield. In addition, the failure of BNFL to meet its scheduled targets in regard to the vitrification of the fuel must be a matter of concern. Certainly it should be clarified before there is an increase in BNFL's activities in that regard. If it is brought into its solidified form, then its handling and storage becomes immeasurably safer. It is important that BNFL is actively pursued in that regard.

As regards storage at Sellafield, the measurement of one radioactive isotope, caesium 137, is used to measure radioactivity levels and the unit is referred to as TBQ. It is interesting to note that storage at Sellafield runs to 7,000,000 units. Releases at Chernobyl amounted to 89,000 units and this underlines the potential risk involved.

Caesium 137 has a half life of 30 years. It is relatively volatile and can be released comparatively easily in an accident. It adheres strongly to surfaces and is a strong source of gamma radiation. Most of the off-site exposure from the Chernobyl accident is attributable to caesium 137. Sellafield contamination is comparable to Chernobyl. The consequences of the fall out from Chernobyl and Adi Roche's attempts to ensure a better quality of life for the children affected in Belarus, are constant reminders of the necessity for vigilance, controls and regulations to be strictly implemented. Fields and mud flats at Newbiggan and Muncaster, which are adjacent to Sellafied, contain levels of radioactivity comparable to those in the Chernobyl exclusion zone. This must also be investigated before any decision is made.

Senator Doyle made copious references to Professor Gordon Thompson, one of the leading authorities in this area. My fourth question relates to the probabilistic risk assessment. I agree with Senator Doyle's call for an EIS but it should be recognised that a better and more important assessment would be the probabilistic risk assessment.

In the 1960s, as the commercial nuclear industry took shape, decision-makers sought information about the probability and consequences of potential accidents at nuclear facilities. Engineers recognised that new analytic techniques were needed if these parameters were to be estimated. Important early work on this subject was done in the UK by Farmer and others, but leadership later passed to the United States.

Beginning with the NRC's reactor safety study of 1975, practitioners in the USA and elsewhere have developed an engineering discipline known as probabilistic risk assessment, PRA. Nuclear facility PRAs are performed at three levels. At level 1, a PRA will estimate the probability of a specified type of accident, such as severe core [1008] damage at a reactor. At level 2, which builds upon level 1 findings, a PRA will estimate the nature of potential radioactive releases from the facility. In turn, the level 2 findings can be used in a level 3 exercise, which will estimate the off-site consequences, such as health effects, economic effects and so on, of radioactive releases. For all three levels, a PRA can be performed for internal accident-initiating events, such as equipment failure, operator error etc., and for external accident-initiating events, such as earthquakes and floods.

Most potential accidents at a nuclear facility will involve a chain of events that might, individually, cause limited concern. Mathematical techniques have been developed whereby PRA analysts can examine each link in a potential chain, estimate its probability and combine these estimates in an overall estimate for the probability of the resulting accident. These techniques are very helpful but the analyst must also exercise common sense, be aware of historical experience, and consider the potential for subtle interactions among a facility's systems.

Historical experience shows that accidents involving complex technologies can proceed in complex and surprising ways. Thus, application of PRA techniques requires more than the simplistic use of mathematical techniques. It also requires the consideration of a variety of complicating factors which may not all be susceptible to mathematical analysis. These factors, which can interact, include gross errors by plant personnel — errors beyond historical experience; gross defects in equipment and-or structures — defects that have been undetected and exceed historical experience; earthquakes; fires or explosions; acts of malice; unanticipated accident sequences; and dependencies among events.

Because of these factors and statistical effects, the findings of a PRA, even when performed to prevailing international standards, contain substantial uncertainties. A PRA which yields very low accident probabilities is unlikely to be credible. For example, analysts examining the credibility of PRA findings for nuclear reactors have stated that a core damage probability below one per 100,000 reactor years is very suspicious, and a probability below one per 1,000,000 reactoryears is clearly incredible.

Experience shows that the development of PRA techniques and the application of those techniques in a particular PRA demand a high level of openness and thorough peer review. By contrast, a climate of secrecy will have a stultifying effect on PRA practice. BNFL claims to have conducted PRA investigations for facilities at Sellafield, but this work remains secret and, thus, cannot have received thorough peer review. There is reason to doubt that BNFL's probabilistic studies are systematic or comprehensive. BNFL officials concede that, if Sellafield were overseen by the NRC, a PRA would have been [1009] prepared and published for the site's major facilities.

Most of the nuclear PRA experience worldwide is with reactors. Every commercial reactor in the USA has been subjected to a PRA or similar analysis. Surely it is time for this example to be followed in the EU? The Minister of State should actively and vigorously pursue the commissioning of a probabilistic risk assessment for Sellafield.

The Minister of State does not need such encouragement, but he should continue his efforts along with the Government to ensure the safety of current and future generations.

Mr. T. Fitzgerald:  Ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháil leis an Aire as ucht a bheith linn inniu agus as an méid oibre atá déanta aige maidir le Sellafield agus áiteanna eile mar sin ar fud an domhain.

I thank the Minister of State for coming into the House and I acknowledge the efforts of successive Ministers in objecting to the continuation of operations at Sellafied. It is amazing that in a civilised world, Britain continues to allow BNFL operations at Sellafield. There may be occasional scaremongering on the part of certain groups. However, when one looks at the devastation caused by the accident in Chernobyl, and the sight of children still affected by that accident, it is time to call a halt.

I am bitterly opposed to nuclear energy and the disregard governments show about this issue. They should set a timescale which would put the nail in the coffin of nuclear power. Until such time as we have developed better technology, no fuel should be used which cannot be controlled. It has been proved beyond doubt that nuclear energy cannot be controlled. Every few months we hear of accidents and leaks at power stations. Even though Ireland is separated from Britain by water, the distance between Dublin and Sellafield is very short; it is only half an hour away by plane, maybe less. If an accident happened in Sellafield we would probably by wiped out before the city of London. If such an accident happened we could say goodbye to the two islands. It would be the end of the story. It is a potential bomb waiting to go off. I have no love for Saddam Hussein but I consider it heavy handed that Britain is imposing sanctions on his country to get rid of a potential danger while it poses a danger thing to Ireland and does nothing about it.

The Minister stated that at the OSPAR meeting in Lisbon last July a strategy on radioactive discharges was adopted which committed all OSPAR Ministers, including those of the UK, to the virtual elimination of such discharges into the maritime environment by the year 2020. In effect, this means that there is no intention to close down these nuclear stations for at least another 22 years. We can talk all we like about the dangers of nuclear power but that is the stark reality.

[1010]Mr. Jacob:  It has to be a gradual process; the terminology is close to zero by 2020. As Senator Walsh stated earlier, they have to portray next year how they are going to effect that process over that period of years. It is not a question of procrastination.

Mr. T. Fitzgerald:  I thank the Minster of State for the clarification. He seems to be fighting alone on behalf of Ireland and humanity at many of these meetings. It appears he receives little help. Does the elimination of discharges into the environment by the year 2020 mean that even though there will be a gradual shutdown, in 2020 the nuclear station in Sellafield will be out of action? I believe it will not and we have to make our voices heard.

I talked about Chernobyl earlier and the effects of that disaster that were felt not only in Chernobyl but throughout the world. It has been proven beyond reasonable doubt that due to the cloud structures and wind direction at the time, some of the clouds came over Ireland and Scotland and the effects were felt there. I have no proof this happened but the experts have told us this.

The Irish Government continues to be committed to legal action but what legal action can we take? We have no laws on this, so they cannot be broken. Senators will remember the Harbours Bill as it came through the House. I was involved through the then Minister, Deputy Éamon Gilmore. For the first time in the history of the State a Bill imposed a total ban on nuclear powered ships, vessels, cars, rubbish, waste and other things from all harbours and ports in Ireland. At the time I wanted to go further, and I still want to do so through legislation. I am a firm believer in declaring our territorial waters a nuclear free zone in legislation. Then if our territorial waters are polluted by nuclear waste from Sellafield we can take those who polluted our waters to the courts. From my discussions on this, I feel this is the way to go. To my knowledge we do not have a law that is being broken. We need to enact such a law.

If someone drives through a town at 40 or 45 miles per hour and the town does not have a speed limit, then he or she is not breaking a law. However if a 30 mile per hour limit is in place, then a law is being broken. We must first put legislation in place. If we declare our territorial waters, that is the 12 mile limit, a nuclear free zone, we will have legislation in place so that if anybody interferes with or pollutes that water we will have the right to take them to court because they have broken our laws. I am not an expert on this; I am taking advice.

In relation to the Irish Sea, I would like to remind the House that after World War II the bird life of this country was almost wiped out and nobody could figure out what happened. It was very simple. We were a poor nation at the time and, as some Senators may remember, the health boards freely distributed DDT in schools and [1011] other places. Flies were being killed off. The amount of DDT that would kill a fly is very small. However a small bird eats about 500 flies every day. A bird that ate 500 flies took a lethal dose and was killed by the DDT. In Ireland we are famous for our Dublin Bay prawns. We are told the level of radioactivity in fish and prawns is so small that it will not affect us. However if one ate 15 or 20 prawns in a normal meal and each had a small amount of radioactivity, I wonder what the danger to the human being would be.

I appeal to the Minister to ask the Government to consider declaring the 12 mile territorial waters around our coast a nuclear free zone. I see nothing to prevent us doing this. It might only be gesture, but it would be one of goodwill and would show we mean action and that we want clean waters. It would ensure that the next generation, including all the children in the Public Gallery, can be assured that we did our best to ensure they take over a world that is a little better than the one we inherited.

I again thank the Minister of State for his hard work. I have listened to him countless times strenuously objecting to the nuclear power station in Sellafield. I congratulate him on everything he has done. If I have quoted something out of context, then I take it back. However it appears that the power station in Sellafield will be there for the next 20 years. We must renew our efforts and make our voices heard. We should introduce legislation to ensure we are protected.

Minister of State at the Department of Public Enterprise (Mr. Jacob):  It was indicated to me that there would not be a facility to reply. However, I am pleased I have been given an opportunity to reply to the excellent and sincere contributions on a subject which is very close to my heart and one which I have endeavoured to digest, absorb and live with over the past year because of the huge level of public opinion and aversion to and fear of this monster on the immediate periphery of our shores. I will endeavour to deal with as much as possible of what my officials and I have been able to note of what Senators said.

Senator Avril Doyle expressed her opposition to MOX and gave her strong reasons. She considers it a violation of our national sovereignty, with which I agree. I am similarly opposed to THORP. She quoted Gordon Thompson, whom I have met. I have also read his paper and one must be impressed with the work he has put into this subject. I am grateful for the support promised by Senator Doyle.

Senator Doyle and Senator Walsh referred to the inordinate secrecy of the UK nuclear industry. I agree with them. We have endeavoured to do something about this. The RPII has long sought environment risk assessment material and BNFL has repeatedly refused to give that information [1012] on the basis that it deems it breaches what it calls “commercial confidentiality”.

In recent months I asked the chief executive of RPII to try again and write to BNFL and seek that information. I simultaneously wrote to the appropriate UK Minister endorsing and substantiating that demand for information. I am glad to say that has produced some results. The UK has, for the first time, responded positively and made an offer as regards how that information can be gleaned and supplied. As we speak, the RPII and BNFL are interacting as regards that information. I do not know yet whether the information we get will be adequate. However, it is a start and the RPII, my Department and I are pleased. I will keep Senators informed on progress in this extremely important matter.

Senator Avril Doyle spoke about the Y2K bug and the possibility of future malfunction. This has been given our concentration and attention. This problem, in so far as it may impact on the nuclear sector, was recently discussed at the EU Atomic Questions Group. The EU Commissioner will prepare a paper for a future meeting of that group on what action the commission has taken and is taking as regards this problem. It is of vital importance that computer based systems essential to safety in nuclear plants in EU member states and elsewhere do not encounter problems associated with the Y2K bug.

The Y2K problem in central and eastern European countries and the states of the former Soviet Union is of particular concern. The safety of nuclear installations in those countries may be adversely affected. We have had the horrific experience of Chernobyl and reports of unstable plants in those countries of which we regularly hear and read. Ireland is anxious to seek community involvement with the regulatory authorities of the CECs and the NIS to identify and provide assistance with problem areas.

The expertise of the community as regards this problem would be most valuable to those countries. A community initiative involving those countries could also be linked with the initiative being undertaken by the International Atomic Energy Agency and the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency. The Taoiseach has taken a hands-on approach to the problem of the Y2K bug. State companies are under direct instruction from the Taoiseach to get their house in order in that context well in advance of the predetermined date. The RPII and other agencies under the auspices of my Department have already reported that they are on target. The point is well taken. We will continue to give due attention to that matter.

Mrs. A. Doyle:  Are we stockpiling potassium iodide?

Mr. Jacob:  I will deal with that in the context of the Senator's question about the national nuclear emergency plan. I cannot answer questions from [1013] the top of my head with a great degree of accuracy.

Mrs. A. Doyle:  I accept that.

Mr. Jacob:  To my knowledge, there may be no stockpiling. However, there has been an extensive review of the national nuclear emergency plan. It was recently sent to Government and the changes have been approved. The question asked by Senator Doyle about the tablets comes under the responsibility of the Department of Health and Children which will deal with the matter.

Senator Walsh referred to the weaknesses identified in the national nuclear emergency plan. A simulated exercise was carried out in 1996 which showed up substantial weaknesses. These have been addressed and a new plan has been put in place, submitted to Government and approved. I intend to have a full exercise of the new plan in 1999 involving county councils and the Civil Defence. I will brief Departments and others affected on the recent changes approved by Government. I am confident, given the work which has been done by many Departments and the expertise we have been able to call upon, that we will be able to provide an effective response, should we ever be called upon to do so. That would include Senator Doyle's question on the tablets.

Senator Doyle and Senator Walsh raised the question of the new inspection force. This is something for which we have been trying on a number of occasions and for which we have been pressing but there are different views among member states, some of which are strong pro-nuclear powers. Unanimity is called for in terms of changes here. In effect, we have not been able to make significant headway on the matter. I am satisfied with the innovation, that is, the peer review process I mentioned. That process under the new IAEA international conventions will go some way towards opening up member states and the nuclear industry generally to scrutiny. As Senators said, that is to be advocated and I am at one with them.

Senator Doyle talked about the joint convention and I thank her for her comments on the international conventions. The Government is working on ratification of the convention. Preparations are ongoing at international level for the coming into force of the convention and the format of the aforementioned peer review process. The Senator also expressed concern about the proliferation of weapon grade plutonium, as did Senator Walsh. Both Senators may be interested to know that in September this year Ireland signed an international protocol designed to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons and safeguard the use of nuclear materials. The objective of the new protocol is to strengthen the effectiveness and efficiency of the existing safeguards agreement entered into following on from the treaty on non-proliferation of nuclear weapons.

[1014] The existing agreement is implemented by the IAEA as part of an international effort to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons and to provide assurances about the peaceful use of nuclear materials. The new protocol extends the scope of the existing agreement to include specified equipment and non-nuclear materials of dual use capability, that is, civil or military. Under the protocol contracting parties will be obliged to furnish information to the IAEA on the manufacture and export of components and equipment used in the civil nuclear industry which could potentially be used to manufacture nuclear weapons.

I thank Senator Fitzgerald for his comments and his excellent contribution. He came up with some rather innovative suggestions. Like the good Senator, I do not have legal training but I will certainly see what legal advice has to say on his suggestion on the declaration of our territorial waters as a nuclear free zone. The question of taking a legal case is at all times under review by myself and the Government. We seek the scientific and legal information and confirmation on an ongoing basis as to what is available. When speaking publicly I always endeavour not to say something which will prejudice a case in the future. I would take a case in the morning with the full backing of Government as and when the necessary scientific and legal advice is available to me. Senators and the public would certainly agree with that and would like it to happen. I think I have covered everything but I will peruse the record and get back to Senators if I have left anything out. I thank them for the invaluable and genuine points they raised on this important subject and for the support they offered to me.

Mr. Walsh:  I thank the Minister for being so forthcoming and particularly for his reply. It is good he is taking a hands on approach. What is a major public concern is in extremely competent hands. His openness and co-operation with this House certainly contrasts with that displayed by BNFL.

Mrs. A. Doyle:  I concur with Senator Walsh. For some time now — my colleagues will realise this — I have been making the point on the Order of Business that statements as such without a response or a question and answer session with the Minister are really a sterile use of this House. I thank the Minister for his immediate response to questions without any prior notice. I understand that places some limitations on him but it is the only way we make sense of the statement procedure in this House. I hope his example will be continued and used as a precedent for other Ministers. Even ten minutes at the end of a long session of statements — they were not that long today — makes sense and ties ends together. I thank the Minister for that.

Sitting suspended at 12.20 p.m. and resumed at 1 p.m.

[1015]Mr. T. Fitzgerald:  Due to the short notice to take this debate, the Minister is unavailable to attend. He is on his way to England and sends his apologies.

Labhrás Ó Murchú:  Today we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the promulgation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which was initiated as a reaction to the Holocaust. To this day, in reality and folk memory, the horror of the Holocaust still haunts us. The lesson learned was that something had to be done which ensured that, based on a universal mandate, human dignity and life would be respected for all time.

Unfortunately, there is still a theory doing the rounds that human rights do not necessarily apply equally to each race and culture. However, the Secretary General of the United Nations, Mr. Kofi Annan, has made it clear that the declaration of human rights is intended to be universal. He said there is not an African mother who does not weep when her children, boys or girls, are tortured, maimed or killed, nor an African father who does not worry or who is not concerned when his son is arrested and imprisoned. Therefore, it does not matter in which part of the world human rights are abused, it is important that all nations which love freedom lend support to such rights.

The most basic of all human rights is the right to life. It is clear that is not respected in any country, and certainly not in Ireland. One has only to listen to the news on any day of any week to be saddened and outraged at the many terrible deaths. We have witnessed some of these in the past few days and there is a feeling of helplessness when this happens. One can cry for new legislation and ask for new draconian measures but they do not, of themselves, bring any help or relief to those suffering. Therefore, the attitude to life generally must be examined.

At the moment, people suggest euthanasia should be legalised and is centre stage in debates. We watch assisted suicides on television which shock many people, yet the argument grows. It must be asked if respect for human life is inherent in that development. There is also the life of the unborn. That debate has raged through society with many angry words being spoken. One must have an open heart and mind and compassion for all aspects of this subject. However, if human life is demeaned by suggesting the unborn are not entitled to life and to develop to the fullest potential, the sacredness of human life, the most basic of all human rights, is automatically weakened.

I recently read a statement by Pope John Paul II in which he said that, in human society, one's natural right gives rise to a corresponding duty to others of recognising and respecting that right. He further stated that to claim one's right and ignore one's duties or only half fulfil them is like [1016] building a house with one hand and tearing it down with the other. None of us can command life and death in that manner. However we can give moral guidance to the rest of the world in the matter of respecting all human life.

I am sure we all rejoice as John Hume and David Trimble receive their peace awards. In the background of that is human rights. Throughout the Northern troubles, we have all been horrified by the tragedies, excesses and brutalities which happened on our doorstep. I am sure many of us would be prepared to admit that, to some extent, we became immune to those reports on the news. However, that is not what happened. We closed our minds to the horror. In doing that, it allowed a fertile ground for those excesses and brutalities to develop. Each excess, in Ireland or abroad, brutalises us all and we must emphasise that fact.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights grew out of the abhorrence of the Holocaust and the desire to do something to ensure it would never happen again, but it has happened again and we have all witnessed it on television. The media, the medium of television especially, have brought home to us what has happened in other parts of the world. Again, we might have closed our minds to it but we still saw the results of the terrible tortures which took place. They happened because people held different opinions, and often no more than that. We see mothers and fathers on television every week crying for their lost sons; wives crying for their lost husbands, people they will never see again. In that context, it is right to refer to the debate here yesterday about the people missing as a result of the troubles in Northern Ireland. Parents are appealing for the return of the bodies of those people so they can give them a Christian burial and mourn them. That is part of human rights. We do not have to look elsewhere for excesses, they are available on our own doorstep.

What about the holocaust? What about world hunger? Is there anyone whose heart is not moved by the sight of defenseless babies dying in their mother's arms not because there is no food in the world — there is, it is stockpiled — but because it does not fit in with the international balance sheet. What do we do about that? If we are celebrating the promulgation of the UN Declaration of Human Rights we should respond to that need. Ireland should be to the fore in that regard.

We experienced that type of almost genocide during the famine. Human rights come in different forms as does their denial. We have always had the courage to tackle whatever came our way. We have always given international leadership. I hope this is not an empty celebration or commemoration of the promulgation of human rights universally, but that we commit ourselves once more to doing something definite and urgent in that regard.

[1017]Mr. D. Cregan:  I am conscious we are holding this debate on the 50th anniversary of the recognition of problems in the human rights field. We all remember what happened here more than 150 years ago during the famine. We must respect what the Irish, old as a people but young as a nation, have done in the human rights arena not just throughout Europe but throughout the world. We have sent people to many countries to protect the rights of individuals and we should take credit for that. At the same time, we must also consider what we have allowed happen on this island in the last 30 years. We have made a fine contribution by way of sending missionaries and dedicated men and women to Africa and elsewhere to assist people. We discussed the rights of individuals yesterday. We cannot stand over a situation whereby people are unable to locate members of their families. It reflects badly on us in a modern society.

There is a shortage of food in many parts of the world, while we are stockpiling it in Europe and paying people not to grow foodstuffs. The world has become a small place. We hold a strong position in the United Nations; our former President, Mary Robinson, is High Commissioner for Human Rights and Mr. Boland, an Irishman, was one of the first leaders of the United Nations. We should be conscious of that. We have always been to the fore and should not be afraid to seek further recognition of the rights of the individual.

We wonder about what people are prepared to do to each other in Bosnia. We must also consider what we have done to each other on this island. The rights of man, woman and child must always be to the fore. It is not good enough on this, the 50th anniversary of the signing of the declaration, to say we are on top of the problem. We have gained respect and recognition for it, but millions of people still depend on the few to provide for them.

There have been many horrific wars. Massive bombs have often been dropped to wipe out people. The lesson we learned from the 1940-5 war in Europe is that we should never allow it to happen again. Yet, we allow people who live on opposite streets to shoot each other. We should always be to the fore in saying that is unacceptable.

Senator Ó Murchú spoke about how easy it is to eliminate life, even in Irish society, and to take away the right of individuals to go where they want, when they want. We must watch our own house. People often believe they have divine rights, but they do not. It is our duty to ensure our house is in order before we speak about people of other nations or societies. During his visit, President Clinton said “If the people of Northern Ireland can get together, why is it that the Jews and Pakistanis cannot?” That is questionable and a sad reflection on us as a people.

I welcome the recognition Ireland has given, not just for the last 50 years but for more than 100 years, to human rights even when we had [1018] very few ourselves, but we can do a great deal more.

Mr. Costello:  I am delighted to have the opportunity to contribute to this debate. I am disappointed the Minister is not present.

This is the 50th anniversary of the UN Declaration of Human Rights and we should have had a full scale debate on it. I am disappointed we did not prepare properly to ensure such a debate. I am sure many other Members would have contributed if they had known it would be taken today, although it was not tabled on the Order Paper.

The year 1948 came after World War II and the Holocaust in Europe when genocide was perpetrated on the Jewish community throughout Europe. It must be noted that Ireland's track record in the way it treated Jews at that time was not exemplary. However, in 1948, the Communist states of the east and the democratic nations of the west took an important decision to establish a body called the United Nations — a more apt title could never be found — a major function of which would be to oversee human rights. As a result, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was promulgated at 3 p.m. on this day 50 years ago.

It is interesting that John Hume and David Trimble will receive the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo in a matter of moments. It is no accident that it was decided to confer the peace prize on those two Northern Irish leaders on 10 December 1998 because they have made an enormous contribution to the process of reconciliation and to the British-Irish Agreement which contains the basic principles, structure and framework to bring about lasting peace. The Agreement is based on the principles of democracy, solidarity, community and justice, which are enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is also interesting that yesterday we discussed the legacy of the events of 1798 which, to a large extent, were inspired by the principles of liberty, equality and fraternity and the ideas which Thomas eloquently espoused in The Rights of Man, which had also inspired American and French Revolutions. When seen in the context of these two events, it is clear that the issue of human rights is crucial to the proper, just and democratic order of societies throughout the world.

In recent months Amnesty International collected in excess of one million signatures to mark Human Rights Day and the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which is a remarkable achievement. I acknowledge Seán McBride, joint founder of Amnesty International, for his great work in this area. I applaud Amnesty International for the strides it has taken throughout the world, particularly in Ireland where it is more vibrant than in other countries and where it has focused people's minds on removing the death penalty.

[1019] That leads me to my next point, namely, that the 500th execution since the death penalty was reintroduced in the United States in 1976 will take place there tomorrow. It is perverse that the US portrays itself as the great defender of civil liberties and democracy throughout the world while many of its states retain the death penalty on their statute books and are using it far more than they did earlier in the century. It is terrible that such an example is being shown by a country which believes itself to be, and is seen by other states as being, the world leader in terms of upholding the basic principles we regard as appropriate in a just and humane society. A major campaign should be put in train, perhaps under the auspices of Amnesty International, to try to eliminate this grisly and inhumane form of sanction throughout the world.

I am pleased that the British Home Secretary, Jack Straw, yesterday decided to allow extradition proceedings against General Pinochet to begin. No one is prejudging General Pinochet but it is important that proceedings should be put in train him on foot of substantial allegations of his involvement in murder, torture and genocide. It is vital that the people who made those allegations will see General Pinochet appear in court to outline the activities in which he engaged when he was in power in Chile.

I acknowledge the role Ireland has played on human rights issues in the past. Our former President, Mary Robinson, is serving as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights while Amnesty International is extremely active in this country. Senator Norris is deeply involved in matters relating to East Timor, where human rights have been brutally suppressed, and there are many organisations operating in Ireland which defend human rights, such as Ireland Action for Bosnia. We must recognise that human rights are at risk in many European states at present.

I am pleased we have been given this opportunity to mark the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. I regret that human rights continue to be abused in many countries and I hope that by marking this anniversary we can renew our determination to eliminate the abuse of human rights throughout the world.

Mr. Norris:  I welcome the debate and the brief opportunity it provides to discuss human rights. This is an important day. This morning I addressed a meeting at St. Brendan's Hospital, Grangegorman, which was organised by some of the nursing staff who have taken courses in further education. The meeting focused on the human rights of patients in psychiatric hospitals, travellers, asylum seekers, etc. It is important that this kind of development is being initiated from within the community. Before coming to the House I attended a meeting of the subcommittee of the Joint Committee of Foreign Affairs which [1020] deals with human rights. Present was the head of the newly established human rights desk at the Department of Foreign Affairs.

We have a great deal of work to do in this area. It is all very well to mouth platitudes about human rights but we must ask if they exist objectively in a vacuum. In 1941, theoretically and academically, the Jews, the gypsies and the homosexuals who were obliterated in the Holocaust had human rights. What use were those rights? Human rights are of little use unless a moral contract exists which allows people to exercise those rights. We are beginning to move towards developing such a contract but, even in Ireland, we still have some way to go.

Ireland has not yet ratified a number of protocols, the principal ones being the Convention Against Torture and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. These conventions were signed but not ratified. At this morning's meeting, the head of the human rights desk at the Department of Foreign Affairs indicated that a timetable for signing them has been put in place but that a number of technical difficulties exist. For example, to sign the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, Ireland was obliged to pass two items of legislation, namely, the Employment Equality Act, which was passed in June, and the Equal Status Bill, which was initiated by Mervyn Taylor in this House but which ran into constitutional difficulties. However, I understand legislation is being prepared which will permit us to ratify this important convention.

There is another matter which must be addressed. I was involved in litigation at the European Court of Human Rights, which was called into being by the European Convention and our membership of the Council of Europe. In the first case which started in the High Court, one of determinations made by the judges was that no Irish citizen could rely on the provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights, even though we were a signatory to it, because it had not been incorporated into Irish domestic law. I understand this is being reviewed at the moment and I urge the Government body which is carrying out that review, urgently to incorporate this convention into Irish law. This is particularly important in terms of the Agreement signed on Good Friday last.

I am glad the question of East Timor has been raised. This matter has been raised in the House by Senator Ryan, by myself and by former Senator Mary Robinson. We can be extremely proud that a former Member of this House is now the United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights. I am sure the House supports her in her very difficult and onerous work.

Human rights are affected by finance and by the decisions of the International Monetary Fund. The structural adjustment programmes for the repayment of debt by poor marginalised countries often work to the detriment of the inhabitants [1021] of those countries. We need an international code of conduct for transnational corporations because even though countries are covered by certain conventions, huge multinational conglomerates are often the principal parties in initiating human rights abuses or collaborating with dictatorships in such abuses.

A briefing document from Trocaire which was presented this morning quotes Leedum Mitee of the movement for the survival of the Ogone people saying:

The absence of an effective international machinery and the reluctance to fashion one for sanctioning transnational corporations who operate in collusion with and provide the revenues to finance regimes which violently repress their indigenous populations tests the very basis of our commitment to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Dictatorships whose disregard and lack of respect for human rights and democracy mean that they choose to sacrifice the lives of their citizens and their countries' resources to keep themselves in power should not be tolerated. Neither should the actions of corporations which collude with them. As we have heard, this raises the question of the seriousness and credibility of the international community's commitment to human rights, especially where profitable economic resources are involved.

If a choice must be made between cash and morality, unfortunately cash always seems to win out.

I mention another psychological inhibition. There is a feeling that if we grant human rights to one group, perhaps one which does not profess our realities or which we do not particularly like, we diminish our own stockpile of human rights.

I paraphrase the noble sentiments of Daniel O'Connell who addressed this argument in the 1820s when he was fighting for Catholic emancipation. He made the point that human rights and dignity do not consist of a finite cake which is diminished every time a piece of it is distributed. Instead, the award of human rights and dignity to other citizens enhances the dignity of those who make it. By granting human rights we gain rather than lose.

Human rights abuses are found throughout the world. I received the most astonishing piece of rubbish in my post the other day from the Sudanese government. It gloated about the wonderful human rights effort of that government as though we do not know it is involved in cultural and religious genocide.

We must not become vain about our international stand on human rights. We must have regard to our own citizens, including travellers who are discriminated against, and prisoners. I learned this morning of a report which is going to the European Parliament and which shows that, although we have abolished the death penalty, we have the highest rate of prison suicide of any country in Europe. In a sense, we have found an [1022] Irish solution to an Irish problem. We have got rid of the death penalty officially but we have what amounts to a death penalty. People are brought into the prison system so depressed and in such difficult circumstances that they commit suicide.

We must look at the report of the UN development programme. We have the second highest concentration of poverty, after the United States, of the 17 nations surveyed. Levels of illiteracy and long-term unemployment are among the highest recorded and women are worse off, relative to men, than anywhere else. We could speak for the entire period of this debate about discrimination against women. This is a minority which is actually a majority.

We must examine the record of our friends such as the United States. This year marks the centenary of the independence of Cuba. The impact of US sanctions on Cuba has been very damaging and who was it but the CIA who installed Sadam Hussein in Iraq? The United States have established and supported dictatorships throughout Latin America. Both Britain and the United States supported the regime of General Pinochet. I am delighted General Pinochet is being extradited. This is a benchmark which shows that people such as he will be held accountable for their crimes and I hope the next extradition will be of Margaret Thatcher to Argentina to answer the charge of sinking the Belgrano when it was not in the exclusion zone established by the Royal Navy and was steaming away from the area of conflict. Two thousand children had been press-ganged into the Algerian navy by Mrs. Thatcher's erstwhile friend, General Galtieri, whom she had been supplying with arms until the very last minute before that war.

Let us see the clear establishment of an international court of justice where international criminals from all countries can be brought to book. While the small players are sometimes caught, others who take upon themselves the status of international statespeople get away with criminal acts. I hope the message will go out from this House that no one is above the consideration of human rights.

Mr. Ryan:  Tá sé tábhachtach go bhfuilimíd ag plé na ceiste seo ach, cé go dtuigim go bhfuil deacrachtaí ann, is trua nach bhfuil Aire Rialtais anseo chun an cheist a phlé. Is trua freisin nach bhfuil aon mholadh os ár gcomhair. Níl morán spéise agam i bheith ag ceiliúradh rudaí a tharla 50 bliain ó shoin gan féachaint éifeachtach a dhéanamh ar an dul chun cinn atá déanta againn agus ar chonas mar atá ag éirí linn.

We are not doing very well and we must be extremely vigilant. Only three European states have had a longer period of continuous democracy in this century than ourselves — Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. All other European states have had their democracy interrupted either by invasion or by civil war. We take [1023] democracy for granted in western Europe and assume it is part of our natural experience. Democracy is a limited and frail growth because it severely inhibits the exercise of power. So does a legislatively secure and enforcible charter of human rights. There is, therefore, an inevitable conflict between the exercise of power and the defence of human rights. Europe learned a difficult lesson this century. Even though it claims to be the centre of civilisation, the Continent engaged in two bouts of slaughter on an unparalleled scale.

We stood back with smug superiority and quite correctly condemned what happened in Rwanda. We correctly condemned what occurred in Kampuchea and Cambodia, and we also condemned Stalin. Let us remember, however, that civilised Christian Western Europe — which we claim as the source of enlightenment, the centre of the French Revolution with its vision of liberty, equality and fraternity — has still managed to slaughter more of its citizens per capita than anywhere else on the planet.

The construction of a regime of human rights is very fragile. That is why it is a pity that we have not ratified certain UN conventions, such as the Convention on Race Discrimination and the Convention on Torture, to mention two. There is no reason we should not ratify them and I know there is no political resistance towards doing so. I am not suggesting that the Government is in favour of torture, but a lack of political priority is being given to these matters. It shows up in the fact the Equal Status Bill seems to be on the back burner again. That is regrettable because it is an important matter of great concern.

We must also realise that one cannot build a human rights structure without understanding that there must be some base of fundamental social rights. You will not get the sort of human rights we believe in — all the things we take for granted, such as free speech and freedom of association — in a country that is built on injustice. It is easy to give lectures on free speech to people who cannot feed their children. It is absolutely ineffectual, however, when a billion people cannot read a book or sign their own names, when half that number go hungry and when millions of children are still dying from ailments, such as diarrhoea or chest infections, that we do not worry about because they are of such minor concern to us. The same ailments kill millions of children around the planet every year. We cannot build human rights on that sort of misery.

A particularly regrettable development occurred in recent years in this State, that was when the review body chaired by former Senator, Mr. Ken Whitaker, rejected the idea of incorporating into our Constitution basic social rights, such as the right to shelter and an income. The review body said these were not fundamental rights, but matters to be discussed politically. The tragedy is that that essentially undermined the [1024] one social right that is explicit in our Constitution, which is the right to primary education. If it was not for that fundamental right in the Constitution, children with severe profound mental handicap would have been refused such an education. It was not done out of generosity but because the Constitution said we had to.

When it comes to human rights we must always look forward while learning from the past. We should be glad of the degree of transnational jurisdiction concerning human rights, however inconvenient it may be for countries sometimes. We must remember, however, that human rights grow out of justice. If we are to have a world that is based on human rights it must be based on justice. It must be one in which people have a right to food, shelter, basic health provisions and education. Those are the sort of things which, if provided worldwide, can create a structure in which the more enlightened views of human rights can flourish.

Mr. T. Fitzgerald:  I would like to add my voice to the sentiments already expressed. Before contributing to the debate proper, I would like to explain to the House that, because of the short notice I received on today's Order of Business — although Senator Costello mentioned the matter to me yesterday — it has proved impossible for the Minister for Foreign Affairs to attend the House for this debate as he is on his way to London. I hope, however, that some time in the new year we can resume the debate on human rights. I apologise to the House but this is totally beyond my control.

Mr. Costello:  We are not blaming the Senator.

Mr. T. Fitzgerald:  The 1948 UN Declaration of Human Rights arose from the terrible Holocaust of the Second World War. Two years ago I was part of a delegation from this House to the former concentration camp at Auschwitz in Poland. It is a horrible place where educated people deliberately set out to exterminate a section of the human race.

History has never been my strong point, but when we visited Auschwitz the fact really sank in that this was a factory that had been specifically built to exterminate people. The present Cathaoirleach led the delegation. When leaving that place we agreed that we had witnessed a monument of man's inhumanity to man.

From Auschwitz we travelled to Lithuania, a lovely country with a population of approximately four million. Ordinary Lithuanians told us that since 1946 over half a million people had disappeared from the country. Educated people, including priests, teachers and doctors, were taken to Russia. We were informed that was part of a deliberate effort to keep the remaining population uneducated and suppressed. That was happening in Lithuania up to five years ago. We met some people there who had escaped from Russia. [1025] Three of them, whom we met over lunch one day, told us what was happening in Russia. We knew nothing about this, apart from rumours. They had escaped from work camps in Russia and lived in terrible conditions in order to make their way home to tell their story.

The issue of human rights embraces everything and one can start by discussing it in this House. Discrimination occurs for one reason or another. People are being oppressed in different countries and, to this day, efforts are being made by the powers that be to exterminate people.

During our visit to Auschwitz we learned that the parents of our guide had died in that terrible camp. Having finished our visit we reflected upon the camp. We told our guide how horrified we were to feel so close to death there. In a quiet voice, the guide said: “Gentlemen, the same or worse is happening today within a thousand miles of here”. Obviously, it must be true and we have seen it.

Senators Ryan, Norris, Costello and others have made great efforts by raising their voices almost continuously in the House concerning atrocities that are occurring all over the world. As Senator Norris said, everyone should accept responsibility. It is only right that heads of state are judged for what they have done, regardless of the country from which they come. Senator Norris was talking about General Pinochet, but no one, no matter who they are, is above the law. It was only right that the judges were judged on their actions at the Nuremberg trials.

Recent newspaper reports have branded the people as racist and discriminatory. There will always be one rotten apple in every barrel who will shout his or her mouth off about travellers, etc., but that does not happen generally.

I pay special tribute to a former Member of the House, Mrs. Mary Robinson, for the work she is doing as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. It is appropriate that today, on the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Human Rights, the Nobel Peace Prize is being presented to Mr. David Trimble and Mr. John Hume. I congratulate them and I hope they continue their good work.

Sitting suspended at 1.50 p.m. and resumed at 2 p.m.

Bill entitled an Act to provide for the establishment of a body to be known as the National Disability Authority and to define its functions, to provide for certain matters relating to the National Rehabilitation Board and to provide for connected matters.

Mr. O'Donovan:  I move: “That Second Stage be taken now.”

Question put and agreed to.

[1026] Question proposed: “That the Bill be now read a Second Time.”

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.

[1027] 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 [1028] 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 [1029] 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.

Section 2 is a definitions section. Disability is defined in this section for the purposes of the Bill as follows:

“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 [1030] 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 [1031] 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 [1032] 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 [1033] 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 [1034] 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.

[1035] 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 [1036] 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 [1037] 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 [1038] 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 [1039] 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 [1040] 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 [1041] 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 [1042] 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.

[1043] 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.

Section 14(1) states:

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:

(2) Where—

(a) a programme or service is required by law to be provided to persons with disabilities, or

(b) any other programme or service for persons with disabilities is directly or indirectly funded in whole or in part out of moneys provided by the Oireachtas—

and, in the opinion of the Authority, such programme or service—

(i) is being provided in an inadequate or unsatisfactory manner in any regard, or

(ii) is not being provided to persons with disabilities,

then, the Authority shall inform the person or body providing or failing to provide the programme or service concerned.

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 [1044] 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. Dardis:  What about the College of the Holy and Undivided Trinity of Queen Elizabeth near Dublin?

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. Dardis:  No, thank God.

Mr. Norris:  They are all workers. We are all working class now.

An Cathaoirleach:  The Senator should not invite interruption.

Mr. Norris:  I love them. They are so unintelligent.

Mr. Dardis:  Withdraw that remark.

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 Minister did not directly explain “mainstreaming” but which, I suppose, can be worked out reasonably well from the context. In his speech he said:

The impetus for the new infrastructural arrangements for disability envisaged by the [1045] 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 [1046] 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 Senator Norris back from his tour around the world with his Louis Armstrong friends and Joycean scholars and those who supply him with cookery recipes.

Mr. Norris:  Always the bitter word.

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 [1047] 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.

If we wished to stop this debate at this stage we could but in view of what has been happening in the past few days we will carry on in the absence of the Opposition.

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 Authority shall, subject to the provisions of this Act, be independent in the exercise of its functions.

The word “shall” relates to an imperative on the board rather than to what should be done at a future date. They are only minor points to a degree.

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 [1048] 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 [1049] 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.

[1050] 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:

Recognising the need for people with disabilities to move freely and comfortably in County Kildare;

Conscious of the difficulties disabled people have in gaining access to public and private buildings; Aware of the rights of disabled people to be treated equally;

Conscious of the findings of the Access Report prepared by the Kildare County Network of the Irish Council of People with Disabilities;

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 [1051] 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.

I commend the legislation to the House and support its acceptance on Second Stage.

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 [1052] 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 [1053] 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 wish to share my time with Senator Gibbons.

An Cathaoirleach:  Is that agreed? Agreed.

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.

An Cathaoirleach:  It is not in order for the Senator to refer to the presence of Members in the Chamber, or their absence from it.

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 [1054] 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.

I thank the Minister and I commend the Bill to the House.

[1055]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.

[1056] These people must be applauded for their magnificent work.

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 [1057] 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.

[1058] 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 [1059] 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 [1060] 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 [1061] 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 [1062] 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 [1063] 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 [1064] 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 [1065] 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 [1066] 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.

[1067] 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.

[1068] 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.

That is as comprehensive a reply as I can give to Members. I thank them for an informed debate and I look forward to Committee Stage.

Question put and agreed to.

Committee Stage ordered for Tuesday, 15 December 1998.

Acting Chairman (Mr. Farrell):  When is it proposed to sit again?

Mr. Kett:  At 2.30 p.m. next Tuesday.

The Seanad adjourned at 5 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 15 December 1998.