Wednesday, 16 February 2000
Seanad Eireann Debate
Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs (Mr. D. Ahern): I am pleased to present the Comhairle Bill to the House. The Bill provides for the establishment of a new organisation, Comhairle, to combine the National Social Services Board with certain disability support functions of the National Rehabilitation Board. The proposal is one of a series of measures being undertaken by the Government to mainstream the provision of services for people with disabilities.
The Government's Action Plan for the Millennium recognises disability as one of the most important social challenges facing us today. It includes as stated priorities implementation of  the commission's report and achieving greater equality for people with disabilities. My colleague, the Minister of State at the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, has specific responsibility for disability issues and is co-ordinating the Government's programme in implementing the commission's report across a range of Departments.
Since taking office the Government has taken a number of significant steps in promoting equal opportunities for people with disabilities. The establishment of the National Disability Authority on a statutory basis through the National Disability Authority Act and the setting up of an interim board represent a significant step forward. The Bill to establish Comhairle is a further significant measure in the mainstreaming process.
Comhairle will be the mainstream support agency for information services for all people, including those with disabilities. It is part of the overall Government programme aimed at ensuring that people with disabilities are treated equally by all service providers. The primary responsibility for this rests with the service providers themselves but the NDA will have a key role in developing standards, monitoring progress and promoting awareness at all levels. Comhairle's complementary role will relate specifically to information services as it seeks to ensure that all individuals, including those with disabilities, have access to information, advice and advocacy of a high standard.
I wish to review some of the more important initiatives in relation to people with disabilities. With regard to legislation, important advances have been made on two fronts. Last June, the Employment Equality Act, 1998, was enacted. This legislation outlaws discrimination on grounds of disability in gaining access to employment and advancing in employment. It also gives protection to employees in the public and private sectors as well as to applicants for employment and training.
The Equal Status Bill, 1999, which is currently going through its final stages in the Dáil, prohibits discrimination on a number of grounds, including disability, and deals with discrimination outside the employment area, including education, provision of goods and services, accommodation and disposal of property.
In addition, the Government has provided substantial funding during the past two years in developing services for those suffering from a mental or physical disability. In the review of the programme for Government, it is recognised that these services must now be developed at a faster rate and the Government has given a firm commitment to provide substantial additional funding to address this shortfall in services. Key priorities will include the development of services for people with physical and sensory disabilities and a comprehensive disability strategy.
The establishment of Comhairle follows from recommendations made by an establishment group set up by the Minister for Justice, Equality  and Law Reform in November 1997 and asked by Government to develop detailed proposals for a new infrastructure for disability issues and to consider the most appropriate future location of departmental responsibility for the functions of the National Rehabilitation Board. The group reported to Government in June last year. The Government adopted its report, Building a Future Together, and gave approval for the implementation of its recommendations.
People with disabilities wish to be treated the same as their fellow citizens by having services delivered to them by the mainstream agencies, that is to say, the same agency that provides the particular service to the rest of the community. This represents a significant change of approach. In the past the State addressed disability issues primarily from a medical perspective. Responsibility for services to people with disabilities was placed, therefore, with the Department of Health and Children which provided many of the services through the NRB. The mainstreaming approach now proposed is not intended to replace such measures but to operate in parallel with them. In line with this principle, the group also recommended a number of administrative measures which involves the relocation of the functions currently performed by the NRB.
One of the key elements in the proposed arrangements recommended by the establishment group was the setting up of the National Disability Authority. The authority will be the central focus of the Government's approach to the provision of services to people with disabilities. Its main function will be to develop standards in services provided to people with disabilities and to conduct independent monitoring of such services. It will not be a service providing agency but will work in close co-operation with service providers in the voluntary and statutory sectors. An interim board has been established and it is planned to have the new authority up and running within the next few months.
In line with this mainstreaming approach, the Government has decided that vocational training and employment services for people with disabilities will be provided by FÁS operating under the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment. This will represent a major step in integrating people with disabilities into the workforce and enabling them to achieve independence and choice. Similarly, the information services for those with disabilities currently provided by the NRB will, under the provisions of this Bill, be provided through Comhairle. A number of services will be attached to other Departments, such as the audiology service, which will be provided by the Department of Health and Children through the health boards.
The establishment group is continuing its work towards implementing the new administrative and institutional arrangements for the NDA and the mainstreaming of services. It is working closely with management and staff of the NRB and the relevant Departments and agencies. A  target date of the end of March next is now envisaged for full implementation of this series of measures which also involves a transfer of current NRB resources to the various Departments and agencies, including Comhairle.
The main purpose of the Bill is the setting up of the new organisation, Comhairle, to ensure that individuals have access to accurate, comprehensive and clear information, advice and advocacy services on the full range of social services. The provision of information is an essential element of the relationship between social service providers and the people who use their services. This particular aspect of the service may not have been given the attention it deserved in the past. However, I am pleased to say that administrators are now much more aware of the needs of their customers in this regard.
The development and delivery of social services is a complex task at the best of times. Schemes and supports are designed to meet the needs of people, individuals and families in a wide variety of circumstances and it is, therefore, necessary to ensure that the supports are broadly based and flexible enough to address their needs. The downside is that they can often be difficult to understand and perhaps even more difficult to access, particularly where the benefits required are administered by more than one Department or agency. In these circumstances, the challenge is to ensure that people have access to information and advice, at local level, which is clear, accurate and comprehensive. There is, of course, an onus on Departments to provide information and advice directly on their services and an expectation that this would be broad enough to guide people towards related services provided by other agencies. Senators will agree that we have seen significant improvements in this regard in recent times.
However, the ownership of information is not vested in the statutory services alone, nor should it ever be. Independent sources of information can invariably offer a far more flexible and comprehensive service than any single arm of Government. It is extremely important that people have a choice in this regard and it is clear that, in many cases, they prefer to deal with an independent organisation either as an alternative to the statutory services or in preparation for claiming their rights and entitlements.
For many years, the NSSB has provided resources to the independent information and advice giving sector as well as to the statutory sector. The NSSB transferred from the Department of Health and Children to my Department a few years ago. This was seen as a first step towards strengthening and developing the independent information sector. Since then the NSSB has embarked on a strategy of significantly upgrading the support it provides for independent and statutory information providers' centres. For example, it currently registers and supports a network of 85 independent Citizens Information Centres  throughout the country which provide a free, confidential and impartial information service to members of the public. This involves 35 key full-time centres which are supplemented by 50 part-time and outreach centres.
The NSSB has also developed a computerised database, citizens information database, which is a comprehensive, user-friendly source of information on social services. It has become one of the mainstays of many information giving organisations throughout the country. Many Senators will be familiar with the monthly information bulletin, Relate, which provides current information from a variety of sources in an easily readable form. In addition, the board has over the years, provided a wide range of services to the voluntary social service sector. Its strategy in this area includes the development of a range of services to support this sector in the areas of information, training management and organisational supports.
The National Rehabilitation Board currently operates 18 centres which provide, as part of their remit, information, advice and advocacy services to people with disabilities. These centres are located in the larger towns throughout the country and distribute a range of information on services in a variety of formats to people with disabilities. Some of the larger centres have a display range of technical aids for those with disabilities.
The Bill is divided into three parts. Part 1, comprising sections 1 to 5, contains standard and technical provisions. Part 2 provides for the functions of the new organisation and requirements relating to the members of the board, its chief executive and staff. Part 3 includes provisions arising from the dissolution of the National Social Services Board. I will explain some of the more important provisions.
Section 7 provides for the functions of Comhairle. The principal function will be to ensure that individuals have access to accurate, comprehensive and clear information, advice and advocacy on the full range of social services and are referred to such services. To date this function has been discharged by the NSSB and the NRB in a variety of ways. The first priority for Comhairle will be to ensure that there will be no disruption of services. An important responsibility for it will be to assist and support people, including those with disabilities, to understand their needs of the broad range of social services and to help them identify the most suitable options available to them. It will assist them in securing their entitlement to services by referring them to the appropriate agency or service provider.
In this context, I should mention that Comhairle will have responsibility for continuing the provision of information and advice on assistive technology for people with disabilities. This latter service is currently provided by the NRB through some of its main centres. This involves information and advice on technical aids and options for people with disabilities and providing up to  date information on new technological developments. Comhairle will also continue to perform a number of functions which are currently discharged by the NSSB. These include promoting access to information by working with other organisations in the voluntary and statutory sectors, contributing to the development of social policy through feedback from the users and providers of information and supporting voluntary organisations which deliver social services by providing a range of services on information, training and organisational development support.
The NSSB currently operates an effective training and development service which delivers a general training programme to the whole range of organisations in the social services sector, including community information centres and organisations dealing with people with disabilities. These include courses on basic information and interpersonal skills required for the delivery of a quality information service. In 1998 alone, 1,500 people working in the area of social services received training from the NSSB. I have no doubt this service will be further developed by the board of Comhairle.
Section 8 requires Comhairle to prepare and submit to the Minister strategic plans relating to its objectives and strategies. The first three year strategic plan will be completed within six months of establishment day and will lay the foundations for the medium-term development of the organisation and its services. The full integration of the various functions and operations of the NSSB and the NRB components of the organisation will be its initial goal. I will be asking the board to give particular attention in its initial stage to the issue of accessibility of its services and premises and the development of appropriate training for all staff and service providers in addressing the information needs of people with disabilities.
In the recent budget I provided an extra £750,000 towards the new organisation to allow it develop. Since I became Minister the NSSB budget has been dramatically increased in recognition of the fact that it would be taking on these additional responsibilities.
Section 9 provides for the membership of the board which will comprise 20 members including a chairperson. The board will include five members representative of people with disabilities nominated by the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, an elected member of staff and a representative from my Department.
Last November, I appointed a new board to the NSSB. In anticipation of the establishment of the new organisation I extended the membership of that board from 15 to 20 members and included five members representative of people with disabilities who were nominated by my colleague the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform. This board is acting as the interim board of Comhairle and is currently working closely with the establishment group and my Department on the practical arrangements involved in the pro posed merger of both agencies. On establishment day, the board will become the first board of Comhairle. The section also deals with the terms of office of the members of the board who shall be appointed for a maximum period of three years.
Section 13 provides for the appointment of a chief executive of Comhairle who shall be appointed by the board. The main functions of the chief executive will be to administer the affairs of Comhairle. Section 14 provides for the appointment of staff of Comhairle.
Sections 20 to 23 are standard provisions covering grants and the accounts and audit of the new organisation. Comhairle will be funded mainly by the Exchequer through an annual grant from my Department's Vote. The necessary resources will be drawn from those currently available to the NSSB and a transfer of funds from the Vote of the Department of Health and Children to my Department in relation to the current NRB services. The issue of additional resources will be examined in the context of the board's three year strategic plan to be prepared immediately following its establishment.
The Government is committed to achieving greater equality for people with disabilities. Under its new mainstreaming approach to service provision the Government aims to ensure that people with disabilities are treated equally, have access to all services, including employment and training, and to comprehensive and clear information on their entitlements on the same basis as provided to the rest of society.
I express my gratitude to the NSSB for the work it has carried out since 1984 in developing an independent information sector and to the NRB for its work over the last 30 years in providing a dedicated service to people with disabilities. I am confident that the staff from both organisations, who will transfer to Comhairle, will continue to provide excellent standards of service for all people, including those with disabilities.
Mrs. Ridge: I read the Dáil debate with great interest and noted its contents. I will approach this Bill in a positive manner and I hope the Minister will take my comments on board. In acknowledging the proposed new authority, which arises from the merger of the National Social Services Board and the transfer of certain functions of the National Rehabilitation Board, I pay tribute to the invaluable contributions of the two bodies. I  have no doubt the proud record of the staff of the NSSB and the NRB will be continued in the new authority which proposes to mainstream services for people with disability. I love the word “mainstreaming”– it conveys many positive ideas but I often wonder how it works.
The main service provided for the clients of Comhairle will be “to empower and enable people with disabilities to achieve and exercise their economic, social, political and civil rights”. These are noble proposals and excellent goals. One could not be opposed to them. Is this authority's remit broad enough to achieve equality and enhanced quality of life for our citizens who deserve the best but who, year after year, come out on the wrong side of the equation? In saying that I am conscious of the failure of us all until now to take on board our duty in a much more comprehensive manner.
In noting the advocacy and advice services for the disabled I suggest there should be a strong component of advice and information for the general public whose lack of knowledge about and, in some cases, total lack of interest in their disabled fellow citizens is all too obvious. I give as an example my experience as a former teacher in the service of the disabled. My duties were the same as those of any other teacher. I had special responsibility for the social education of teenage students with a mild to moderate learning disability, living at home and well able to access their place of work, training or learning. Our efforts to enhance their social skills and widen their experiences were difficult to achieve because of the attitude of the public. I enrolled the students in the local public library because their literacy levels were sufficient to enable them avail of the books in the library. We did supermarket shopping, clothing shopping, used public transport and went to the theatre and cinema. The rudeness and ignorance of a large number of the public was astounding. It is assumed that because people look different, they are different. They were stared at and commented upon.
One of Comhairle's objectives should be to educate the public to have respect for the difference, physical and mental, of the disabled and to realise how negative and frustrating their attitudes can be in these sensitive areas. Some walls have come down but the mental wall is still in place, particularly with some employers.
I have not had time to absorb the Minister's contribution today but I read his contribution in the other House. I am still anxious about the volunteer staff who previously manned the Citizens Information Centres. Will there be an ongoing role for them? Given that 10% of the population have some form of disability what is the position with regard to the accessibility of the buildings? I presume that before the service comes into operation all buildings used will be accessible.
I wish to inquire about telephone and Internet services. I appreciate the Minister referred to information technology training. However, what  I am concerned about – I am sure the Minister is sick of hearing this – is the intricacies of the social welfare system for those who do not have learning difficulties or are not disabled. One would need a PhD to work it out. I acknowledge there are experts in the social welfare field who are not very expert in other regards but who know their way around the system. Will people using the Comhairle services be given information by telephone? Will it be readily accessible? Will it be available on the Internet? How will rural people who cannot access a centre or use the telephone get the information? Information must be available within a reasonably short period after a written or telephone inquiry is made.
The service should advertise on radio and television because many people do not read leaflets that come through their door. In Dublin it is not uncommon to receive four advertising leaflets a day. Leaflets sent out in a mailshot could get lost. Radio advertising of Comhairle's services would be desirable, especially for the visually disabled. I presume there will be a Braille section for the visually impaired. The Minister can tell me about that in his response.
I also presume there will be one-stop-shops which will have the information required by the caller readily available, either immediately or within a reasonably short period, unlike the old system under which it sometimes took a month to get an answer via about ten Departments. I acknowledge the great improvement in the Minister's Department where there is now much greater ease of access at every level. However, I want the disabled to have perfect access, if possible.
Given that 60% of the disabled are employed, will suitably qualified disabled people be eligible to work in the new service? The Minister stated in the Dáil on 18 November 1999 that “for too long our fellow citizens with disabilities have had to suffer grave and outrageous inequalities”. It would be a grave and outrageous inequality if employment were not provided in this service for people with particular disabilities who would be suitably qualified and able to work.
While recognising the positive aspects of the Bill, I ask the Minister to reconsider worker participation on the board. There should be a representative on the board from the voluntary sector, which has worked so willingly for so many years with the NSSB and the citizens information centres. I would like the voluntary sector, which is such an invaluable resource to any community, to be retained. I presume those people can be retrained, if necessary, and their expertise and local knowledge used to the advantage of the new service. Ireland has had a very long and successful history of co-operation between the statutory and voluntary sectors. There is a workable interdependence between State and voluntary agencies and it is desirable that that should continue.
I hope Comhairle will work. The function of Comhairle will be to provide advice, information  and advocacy. I am very confused about the advocacy aspect in that it is not envisaged in the Bill that the service will include the provision of an advocate for a disabled person in a court case. Perhaps the Minister might clarify the advocacy remit.
I wish to refer to some aspects which this service will not provide. We still do not have proper wheelchair facilities on trains. I saw the Minister in the Distinguished Visitors' Gallery when that was mentioned on the Order of Business today. Only a very small number of buses have low floors. I welcome that 150 of these buses are on order, which I gather will all be allocated to Dublin. I cannot believe that in February 2000 the visually impaired must still travel in the dark on suburban DART trains and buses with no voice-over facilities.
The provision of advocacy, information and advice is most commendable. However, without action and funding, this new body could be in danger of just paying lip service. The full integration of the disabled is not just desirable, it is their right. I want to be extremely positive and welcome the Bill. I look forward to the first annual progress report of Comhairle. I look forward equally to what I hope will be the Minister's open-mindedness in taking on board amendments proposed because they will not be tabled to score points but to approach this in the best possible way from my experience.
Ms Leonard: I welcome the Minister to the debate on another important Bill, which is part of the Government's legislative programme to mainstream the services for people with disabilities. This Bill will set up the new statutory authority through the combination of the National Social Services Board and certain aspects of the National Rehabilitation Board. As the Minister said, this is another step in a series of measures by the Government to, first, mainstream the pro vision of services for people with disabilities and, second, make these services more user friendly and accessible. I pay tribute to the staff of the National Social Services Board and the National Rehabilitation Board who have provided an excellent service within their remit over the past 30 years.
It is important to outline the steps taken by the Government to improve the lot of people with disabilities. As the Minister said, the Government has already introduced legislation in this area. The Employment Equality Act, 1998, aims to eliminate discrimination against disabled people in terms of employment. The Equal Status Bill, which has already passed through this House and is now in the Dáil, aims to eliminate discrimination in all other aspects of life. One of the most important pieces of legislation was that setting up the National Disability Authority which will, through time, develop and monitor standards in the services provided to people with disabilities.
This Bill will act as a foundation stone upon which the rest of the equality legislation will be built. Legislation to protect people with disabilities has been long awaited. As the Minister said, the ultimate aim is to mainstream services for people with disabilities because unfortunately they have been dealt with in various different categories, including health, and generally along the margins of society. This brings them all together.
The recent National Disability Authority Act, 1999 states that a person with a disability has the right to achieve and to exercise their economic, social, political and civil rights. However, if people with disabilities do not have access to information on their entitlements and the services available, then we are immediately disabling them further and preventing them from achieving their full potential in society. This Bill aims to deal with accessibility of information. I listened to the Second Stage debate in the other House where a number of Deputies spoke about the lack of vision of the Bill. The Bill sets up a board, the vision and functions of which are clearly outlined. One establishes what can be achieved in the short term and develops vision through time. The functions of the board are very clearly outlined in the Bill as being to directly provide independent information, advice and advocacy services so as to ensure that individuals have access to accurate, comprehensive and clear information relating to social services and are referred to the relevant services. That speaks for itself.
Unfortunately, many people, including those with disabilities, are unaware or unsure of their entitlements. They try one avenue to access information and if they are unsuccessful they very often give up their search. This Bill states that it shall be one of the functions of the board to support individuals, in particular those with disabilities, in identifying and understanding their needs and options and in accessing their entitlements to social services. For an able-bodied individual, to be sent from one agency to another in search of advice or basic information can be a very frustrat ing and demeaning experience. People with disabilities also have their pride. To a disabled person who is sent from one agency to another in search of basic information, any obstacle which would be a molehill to an able-bodied person seems like a mountain. To have to go from one office to another in trying to access the various services may involve financial cost or physical inconvenience.
I am delighted to see regulations stating that all public buildings now being built are to be wheelchair accessible. If the NSSB and the NRB amalgamate and existing citizen information centres are to be used as part of their personalised one-to-one assistance service, action should be taken very quickly to make these offices more user friendly and more wheelchair accessible. Some of our citizens' information centres are not the most accommodating places, particularly for an individual who is disabled.
The amalgamation of any agencies generates a certain amount of uncertainty for those involved. There is some uncertainty among those involved in the citizens' information centres as to their role following the amalgamation of the NSSB and the NRB. On Committee Stage, there may be an opportunity to discuss their role following this amalgamation.
A number of these citizens' information centres depend largely on volunteers. To provide the information and advice services envisaged in this Bill, it will be necessary not only to recruit more volunteers but to provide special training facilities for them so that they can deal adequately with the needs of people with disabilities. Anyone who has ever dealt with people who are disabled knows it is important to be focused on their needs.
This Bill also states that one of the functions of the board is to promote public awareness of the social services. I agree with Senator Ridge that not only public awareness of the social services is needed but public awareness of people with disabilities. Unfortunately through the years, people with a disability have been, as Senator Ridge said, stared at or looked down upon. We have all witnessed someone talking over the head of someone in a wheelchair to whomever is accompanying them. Increasing public awareness, whether through literature or the national media, would contribute to changing the mindset of able-bodied people. When talking about disability, ignorance disables the thinking of those who are able-bodied.
I referred to the volunteers in the citizens' information centres. Centres in rural areas, in particular, are dependent on volunteers who are already giving out information required by people with disabilities. In line with this Bill, the volunteers must be kept fully informed on any changes and any entitlements which may become available from the Department. Information must be easy to read and understand.
I thank the Minister for his input to developing  the customer-friendly service provided by the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs. In the few years I have been a Member of the House, I have found it one of the most accommodating Departments in imparting information, returning calls and giving prompt replies. I acknowledge the customer-friendly service provided by the staff of the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs, who have been at all times extremely helpful and informative.
Five members representative of people with disabilities will be nominated to the board by the Minister. The individuals selected should represent different types of disability. The obstacles faced by an individual with, for example, impaired hearing do not compare with those faced by an individual who is wheelchair-bound. It is important that representatives of people with various disabilities should be included on this board. Very often those who are visually impaired, to whom Senator Ridge referred, or those with impaired hearing can feel much more isolated than an individual who is otherwise physically disabled. The knowledge and the expertise gained by these individuals over the years can have a huge influence on the development of social policy, which is one of the functions of this board.
I recently attended a seminar on equal employment opportunities for people with disabilities. I listened to one contributor who had impaired hearing. He had worked for the same company for 11 years but had hardly spoken to a colleague, not to mention his employers, during that time. Through an initiative funded by the EU, he was asked to join a project team and it was only then that he made contact with fellow-workers. It is amazing that something as simple as sign language can open a new world to a person with a disability. We tend to think of highly technological ways of tackling disability but very often something as simple as a rudimentary knowledge of sign language or even good manners can make a great difference to an individual's life.
I hope links between the board and the voluntary agencies will strengthen. The board can only be effective if it is aware and conscious of the experiences of people who are involved with disability. It is essential that the new body works in co-operation with the voluntary bodies and that there is a two-way line of communication. Not only should the board impart clear, concise and accurate information but the problems and difficulties of people with disabilities and anomalies in the system must be relayed to the board and the concerns of people using the services highlighted.
It is important that we refer to the report of the Commission on the Status of People with Disabilities. This report dealt with a wide range of topics and has been a catalyst for many changes. One of its recommendations was that a single network be set up to give information, advice and support. Information is the key to equality and  independence. It must be available to all people and co-ordinated so that it can be used by all.
The aim of the Bill is to mainstream the services for people with disabilities. We have moved a long way from the time when disability was seen as a health problem. Perhaps we must move further and change our mindset with regard to people with disabilities. Many people with disabilities still feel disadvantaged when trying to access information and their entitlements to social services. This Bill will empower those who feel powerless. It will ensure equality of access to information and we all know that the best way to empower people is to provide information which is accurate, comprehensive and easily accessible. This Bill will ensure that service providers are empowered with this knowledge so that they, in turn, can empower those who use the services.
I thank the Minister for bringing forward so much legislation. It will take some time to put all the wheels in motion but given time, this legislation will make a great difference to the lives of people with disabilities. Many people with disabilities have said that the Minster of State with special responsibility for people with disabilities, Deputy Mary Wallace, has worked extremely hard to highlight the issues associated with disability. It would be remiss not to acknowledge that fact.
Dr. Henry: I welcome the Minister to the House and I welcome the Bill, which is a splendid initiative. We have spoken of changing our mindset. I would be very grateful if Comhairle would begin by changing the mindset of the Department of Finance. I have had the gravest difficulty during the past few years regarding tax concessions for disabled drivers and passengers. If any people deserve advocates, they certainly do. I hope Comhairle will try to get something done about the serious difficulties they experience.
We are inclined to think of people in wheelchairs as the only people with disabilities. A large number of people have other sorts of disabilities and many are doing the best they can to get on with their lives and not have to use a wheelchair. The Minister has stressed the need to integrate people into vocational training and employment services, but it is essential that people are able to get to training centres and to take advantage of employment opportunities. Senator Leonard was quite right in stressing the difficulties of rural people. Some of the most tragic cases where tax concessions have been refused have involved rural people.
With any luck blind people do not have to use wheelchairs but they find it impossible to get tax concessions regarding transport, and lack of mobility keeps them from taking advantage of training schemes. The medical criteria for tax concessions are long out of date. They were established 30 years ago when disability was described on the basis of medical condition rather than on the degree of a person's mobility.
Probably because I am a doctor many people  have written to me about this topic. I had one of the most embarrassing experiences of my life when my medical colleagues on the National Rehabilitation Appeals Board asked some of the people making appeals if they would allow me to sit in on some of the cases which were being heard. Every one of them said they would be delighted for me to do so. I saw one after another severely disabled person being refused tax concessions for mobility because they did not fulfil the very narrow criteria. The Minister is well aware of these criteria. There are about six different categories, one of which is for people who have lost two legs and one arm. Would it not be a miracle for a person with such a disability to get out from under the blankets in the morning and try to tackle life at all, not to mention apply for a tax concession? What really distressed me was the presence of so many young people who were desperate to get training or access to jobs.
Let me give some examples. A man in his thirties, an engineer, had a stroke and the firm he worked for was prepared to continue to employ him because his was a desk job. However, it was not very well paid and he was not in a position to get tax concessions, which are extremely good, so that he could continue with his job. He was, therefore, forced to stay at home. A farmer who was about 60 years of age applied for a tax concession so that his wife could drive him. He was largely a stock farmer and he felt that if his wife could drive him he could continue farming and his son would not have to cut short his course at agricultural college and come home. A young woman with very severe rheumatoid arthritis was not in a position to get a tax concession. She was severely disabled, having arthritis in her hands, feet and spine, yet she wanted to continue working. The work was not highly paid enough for her to provide transport from where she lived and her only hope was to get a special car and good tax concessions to go with it. I could go on. I know of a couple who have a severely handicapped child who also has drop epilepsy. Their child did not need to be in a wheelchair but she had to wear a helmet to prevent her injuring her head when she would fall. She was not a suitable person to take on the DART or the bus. Even though the couple could not afford a car they were refused a tax concession. The general practitioner who was on the appeals board at that time told me that he did not know if he could continue because he found it distressing to refuse people like that. I hope that Comhairle would be in a position to see, if there is no money in the large kitty on Merrion Road, that we could have at least a graded allowance.
At long last parking permits are given more generously. Not all the disabled parking slots are taken up because permits are given more generously. People are responsible about using them and only do so when it is necessary. I live near one of the Departments on Mespil Road and every morning I see two people avail of designated car spaces and go into work within the  Department. Would they be able to continue with their lives if we did not have a scheme like that? No, they would not. It is not just the financial status this scheme gives them but the tremendous sense of social inclusion, which is what the Minister wants in this Bill. I hope the first letter Comhairle receives will be from me stating that I expect it to have done something about this matter as rapidly as possible. If the largesse does not extend to increasing the number of tax concessions it can give, surely it can have graded concessions. This would ensure that people in a serious position who want to continue their studies or at work could have someone to ask the Department of Finance to alter the position. The narrow medical criteria have been in existence for over 30 years but now there has been a total change in our views on mobility. It could ask for some leeway to be allowed so that people can go about their lives in the way in which I suggest this Bill wants and requires.
Blind people have no hope of qualifying and surely they are some of the most important people. However much we may think it at times when we are out on the roads, blind people are not supposed to drive. As the Minister's speech has suggested, the whole thrust of the new Comhairle should be to try to integrate the disabled into society. This is one of the most practical propositions and a way it could start.
Miss Quill: I welcome the Minister to the House. I also welcome this Bill, which gives all of us good grounds for optimism. It is another milestone on the road to creating equal opportunities and fair play for people with disabilities. In recent times a good deal of progress has been made, much of it by the Minister, through his Department, and by the Minister of State, Deputy Mary Wallace. That is widely acknowledged and it is only fair that credit be given.
This Bill is another piece in the jigsaw that will help to enable people who were in the past classified as disabled. A corpus of legislation is being put in place which will give disabled persons acknowledgement before the law. That is to be welcomed and is as it ought to be. However, those of us who work on the ground know from experience that having equal status in law is not enough. All sorts of provisions must be made to enable that equal status to be exercised in full. The setting up of Comhairle with the functions that are being assigned to it in the context of this Bill will be a major advance in helping people with disabilities to reach their full potential and to enjoy as much equality as they can in every facet of life. That is critically important and is the way it should be in any civilised Christian country.
While I wish the members of the incoming Comhairle good luck, I also acknowledge the work carried out by NRB members for 30 years and their advocacy at times when our thinking on disability was not as developed as it now is. Their  good work must be acknowledged. I also pay tribute to the work carried out by the National Social Services Board. Its work has not gone unnoticed.
The work we are doing here is critically important for a number of reasons. It brings a new kind of coherence into the delivery and development of the services. That is important because for far too long fragmentation has had a negative effect in the identification of initiatives that ought to be taken and in the development and delivery of services. Anything that reduces fragmentation and bureaucracy is welcome and can only bring a new energy and sense of direction in the provision and delivery of services. I welcome the bringing together, mainstreaming and coherence that will accrue from the establishment of Comhairle with its brief as set out in this Bill.
I am particularly impressed with and optimistic about the idea of making information fully available through an independent source no matter where the person seeking it lives, whether it is in urban or rural Ireland. There is no doubt knowledge is power. Knowledge on its own is an enabling factor. Making information available quickly and in accordance with the most up to date technology is a minimum provision. It is one that will be made in this Bill.
A good deal of emphasis has been placed on the provision of transport and the removal of obstacles to access, whether it is access to education, work or the health services. It ought to be our aim to adopt a uniform approach to public transport and the provision of parking permits and cars suitable for use by disabled drivers. We should be working to develop and to increase these provisions. One of the Minister's colleagues drew attention to the fact of someone in a wheelchair not being able to get access to a railway carriage other than the dining carriage. If that is crowded by hungry commuters where does that leave someone in a wheelchair? That is a minimum provision. It is unthinkable when new rolling stock is being ordered or when buses or other public service vehicles are being designed that comprehensive provision is not made for people who use wheelchairs or crutches or people with lesser forms of mobility. It is unthinkable that proper provision would not be made because that is the key to enabling many other things to happen.
I am glad reference has been made to the role that FÁS can play in skilling and upskilling people with disabilities. The fact that people have disabilities does not mean they do not have a range of intelligence and capacities which if properly nurtured could enable them to become part of the workforce. That is the ultimate form of independence. It has been said many times that the greatest weapon against poverty and disability is a job, the ability to earn a living and have a bob in one's pocket. With proper training and the provision of transport there are large numbers of people who could go out to work.
There is strong emphasis nowadays on the need  to conduct manpower surveys. In different areas there are manpower shortages. We should look to the disabled with their undeveloped capacities to become full and productive members of the economy. I think in particular of those who are deaf but who can communicate fully with one another through sign language. There is a need to put in place a cohort of interpreters to enable those who are deaf to communicate with the rest of us, to gain greater access to education and employment. This would make a difference and open doors by enabling them to perform to their full capacity at interviews and, if the need arises, to plead their case in court.
Education is the key. It is painful to read that in this the first year of the new millennium about 10% of children leave primary school every year without having mastered literacy skills. Although not classed as such, this is a form of disability in the context of the challenges that confront them. It is appalling and, although it does not fall directly within the ambit of the Bill, I cannot resist mentioning it. There are others who lack numeracy skills, who cannot read their bank statements or the small print on their insurance policies. They, too, are disabled in what is now a very complex world. These matters require urgent attention.
Education is the key to independent living and employment in particular. The required investment has to be made. I compliment the COPE Foundation in my home city on the extraordinary work it has done during the years, initially with limited funding although it is now well funded. The work that organisations under the umbrella of the National Rehabilitation Institute do for the disabled is extraordinarily valuable and ought to be valued, but there is scope for expansion. If the disabilities of younger people are identified early – we have enough knowledge to intervene early – they can be assisted to attain their full potential but, as Senator Henry said, there are many older people who have been involved in a car accident or who have suffered a stroke and for whom little is done. Comhairle, in which advocacy powers are being vested, should lobby to ensure they are not left out, particularly those living in small groups in rural areas. Better provision should be made for them and it is very important that they have access to education and employment.
Senator Henry made an excellent point which I had intended to make. The fox had only one trick but because he knew it so well he always managed to save his bacon. I had one key point to make but I was outfoxed by Senator Henry. It relates to the criteria for establishing entitlement. She made the point very effectively and gave a number of good examples. I endorse what she said and appeal to the Minister to bring the system kicking and screaming into the 21st century. The criteria being applied are notoriously out of date. They are Dickensian and seem to be designed to exclude at a time when we preach the philosophy of inclusion. If we are serious about  enabling people to attain their full potential we must get rid of this mindset and mentality. We must not erect roadblocks but open doors as a matter of urgency. The criteria must be brought into line with current thinking and the spirit, intent and objectives of the Bill.
Under the arts plan there should be greater access to the arts, not just as spectators but as participants. There is no doubt that exposure to the arts at every level is a powerful stimulant to exercise the imagination and emotions. The fact that one has a broken leg does not mean that one does not have good imagination. Those involved in the Arts Council and those who promote the arts at local authority level should be conscious of the need to open all the avenues it is possible to open for the disabled.
I am glad that Comhairle will issue an annual report which will give us an opportunity to establish if the aims and objectives of this fine legislation are being realised. By having an annual debate we can maintain the energy behind the realisation of its aims and objectives. This would be of great benefit to all concerned.
Mr. O'Toole: I welcome this legislation. It is very much in line with discussions in other places, with the Government's programme as outlined in the national plan, the programme for the millennium and the demands of many groups in society, including the social and voluntary community pillars as well as those of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions during recent discussions on the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness. This fits into that milieu and advances demands in this area that little bit further. It does not bring in huge resources, but it does a lot to try to change and mould attitudes and in that sense it is very welcome. The Minister referred to the Equal Status Bill. I have some problems with that Bill, but they are very minor problems and are confined to a number of the Bill's sections. In the main it is a welcome and important Bill and I will not go into my problems with it, as this is not the place to do so.
What I like about this Bill is that it sets about making a statement as a democracy. It sets about saying that this is how it should be and is better than all the talk about inclusion. It puts in place a structure to create a sense of inclusion, which is badly needed. It also deals with how to get people suffering from a handicap or disability – whichever is the politically correct term of the day – to access all the opportunities and experiences of life which are available to the rest of the community. More importantly, it supports those groups which are trying to ensure not only access but full participation, as access without participation is only half the journey. It aims to give full  life experience to people who would not otherwise have that opportunity.
One aspect of Government policy which has been ignored in the past few years is the policy requirement of the last few Governments that a certain percentage of those employed in the public service come from a background of disability. That policy should be pushed. In my area, teaching, there are many people coming through the special education system who could well develop into good teachers if certain obstacles were taken out of their way and encouragement given to them. We should have that as an objective, but it will not happen on its own. We need some positive discrimination. That positive discrimination should be available at all levels of education, but we must set our sights high. We must ensure that those who come through the special educational service, people from a background of disability, can make their contributions in a full, affirmed and recognised way. Teaching is one area in which they could do so.
In order to achieve this, certain obstacles must be removed. One crucial matter is access to and use of public transport, to which several speakers have referred. It is no longer acceptable to us as a society, particularly in the context of this Bill, to have a situation where access to the train service is restricted, confined or unavailable to less able persons. We have demanded access of taxis and buses and we should demand the same of trains, though not in a way where people must remain in their wheelchairs in the spaces between corridors, which is grossly uncomfortable. This reflects badly on us as a society. I do not want to sound pious about this – there are good reasons that this is the case, such as that we inherited it from less enlightened days – but it is important to set about the objective of sorting this out. Nothing is ever completely good enough, but at least if we were moving in the right direction and making sure that access to our trains is available to those suffering from disabilities, particularly those with mobility problems, that would be very welcome.
I was very taken with the representations made to me by the blind car owners association. One might argue against their points, but they made them logically. Obviously they can never be drivers, but nonetheless they may need cars and might purchase a car which someone else can drive. Under current legislation they are not entitled to the tax refund scheme available to others and this could be solved by including the blind in that scheme. One can see that when this was first considered in 1994 people did not think of blind people owning cars. However, it is perfectly logical that if a blind person lives in a remote area, needs car transport and can afford a car, that should be supported. It is a minor matter which costs pennies in terms of the national budget and should be put forward strongly at Cabinet. I presume it is a matter for the Minister for Finance, but it should have the enthusiastic  and energetic support of the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs.
One of the most important developments in computerisation has been that, extraordinarily, it can compensate for certain people's disabilities. We have all heard of the Christopher Nolans who could hardly communicate but suddenly found they could write books. I do not want to talk about those who emerged as geniuses – that is not what the Bill is about. I refer to ordinary people who have difficulties communicating, whether it is a matter of speech difficulty or problems with limb control. By adapting computers and electronic equipment these people can communicate successfully just like anyone else. Anybody who has ever had the extraordinarily enriching experience of watching someone in adulthood communicate for the first time or for the first time in years after an accident will recognise that it is priceless and something upon which one could not put a value. There are many examples from those in the medical profession of people in a coma for three or four years, but someone believed they could communicate, even if it was only by moving their pupils or eyelids. This in turn could be translated into electronic communication, thus allowing them to speak. This issue is hugely important and I want more research and support for it, particularly in rehabilitation centres.
In the primary education sector, the policy of this and previous Governments has been to have a more inclusive, integrated approach to the primary education system for children with various disabilities. Nobody could argue against that as a proper objective, but it only works if the resources are in the school to ensure the child gets the support he or she requires. That means the State must be prepared to say: “There is a child with a disability. What do we need to allow that person to have full access to the education system?” Maybe it is something as simple as widening the door jambs in the school building and changing the toilets so the child can bring a wheelchair to school. It could be that simple or something far more complicated. Either way, we should seek to ensure that this type of access is provided. This legislation will provide support to those trying to achieve these objectives. It gives recognition and affirmation to voluntary bodies which provide social services to people with disabilities, among others.
The importance of the provision of independent information, advice and advocacy cannot be overstated. This is a very heartening aspect of the Bill. It is wonderful that the State is seeking to ensure independent information and representation will be available to people and that they will receive the support to which they are entitled. That is an enlightened, 21st century approach which will be welcomed by all those working on behalf of people with disabilities.
Some of us will recall when Brian Crowley, MEP, was elected to this House some years ago. His election required immediate changes to be  made in the House. It was great in one way and sad in another that we waited to make those changes until one of our own Members required such facilities. It reminded me of a story told about one of the founders of the Irish Wheelchair Association who died ten years ago. He was a thorn in the side of architects and others in regard to the provision of adequate access to houses. The man, who was married, bought a new house into which he installed a ramp for his own use. He was only a few months in the house when he developed a disease and died shortly thereafter. The couple's elderly neighbours, who were lovely, helpful people, visited the house to offer their condolences to his wife and when they were leaving, one of them said, “I suppose you'll be taking the ramp out now”. That comment probably reflects a great deal about Irish life. Instead of providing access on the possibility that it might be required, we provide it only when it is required. We have all made changes in our offices and elsewhere. We cannot provide access all the time; there are some places in which it is not feasible to do so. We do not have to run ahead of politically correct people but we must do our best. That sometimes necessitates actions which may not be architecturally attractive. Ramps may not look particularly attractive but it is very important that they are provided.
This legislation, the new national programme and the new development plan reflect a change of attitude in the direction of a more inclusive society which will provide for full access, participation and life experience for people who suffer from a disability. This is modern, caring, inclusive and necessary legislation which I welcome and support.
Mr. Glynn: Cuirim fáilte roimh an tAire. This is very important and practical legislation which seeks to rationalise the provision of services by agencies such as the National Social Services Board and the National Rehabilitation Board. We do not want to see duplication of services and this Bill will ensure that does not occur.
I pay tribute to the NSSB and NRB staff who have provided excellent services over the years to people with disabilities. The NSSB was established in 1984. Its strategy to ensure citizens had access to the highest quality information, advice and advocacy on social services was to provide a large range of resources for the support and development of the independent information and statutory sectors. Its core resource is a citizens' information database which provides information on a range of social services such as social welfare, health, income tax, etc. The database is used by more than 400 organisations which provide information services. The NSSB also developed a network of independent information centres. It registers and supports a network of 85 citizens' information centres throughout the country which provide a free, confidential and impartial service.
The Commission on the Status of People with  Disabilities recommended the establishment of a disability support service which would operate one-stop-shops for information, advice and advocacy and which would assist people with disabilities to understand and identify their needs and help negotiate appropriate provision to meet those needs.
There are currently 18 disability resource centres operating under the aegis of the National Rehabilitation Board. In considering how a disability support service, as envisaged by the commission, might be provided, the establishment group adopted the following guiding principles: the disability support service should be mainstreamed as a matter of principle with no diminution in the level of services; there should not be any unnecessary duplication of services; the services should be visible and available on the high street – that is one of the most welcome provisions of this Bill; and the cost effectiveness of the support service should remain an essential prerequisite. The group, therefore, concluded that the most appropriate structure would be a new agency which would combine existing services while at the same time adequately meeting the needs of people with disabilities. In examining existing services, the establishment group considered the most appropriate merger could occur between the NRB network of information centres and the NSSB.
In 1998, the Government approved the establishment of a new organisation, Comhairle, under the aegis of the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs which would comprise a merger between the NSSB and the NRB disability support service as proposed in the report of the establishment group. The Government also approved the appointment by the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs of an interim board of Comhairle and the dissolution of the NRB.
It is important to point out Government commitments in this area. The Government's Action Programme for the Millennium prioritises the implementation of the recommendations of the report of the Commission on the Status of People with Disabilities and the achievement of greater equality for people with disabilities. The Government has also made significant steps through the establishment of the National Disability Authority, the setting up of an interim board of Comhairle, the Employment Equality Act, 1998, and the equal status legislation. Substantial funding has been provided by the NSSB over recent years. The figure has increased from under £3 million in 1997 to more than £5 million this year. This is a clear indication of the Government's commitment to ensuring citizens have access to the highest quality of information on a range of social services.
The Minister has provided some £750,000 this year to the NSSB and towards the establishment of Comhairle. The Department provides a comprehensive information service directly to its customers in the form of leaflets and application  forms through its countrywide network of offices, public libraries and centres operating under the aegis of ICTU and the Irish National Organisation for the Unemployed. A special information booklet was distributed last October to old age pensioners and widowed pensioners outlining their full range of entitlements to social services.
The benefits of Comhairle for people with disabilities will be that they will be treated the same way as their fellow citizens by having services delivered to them through mainstream agencies. They will now have access to a nationwide network of 85 citizen information centres, 11 NRB offices and over 300 other independent and voluntary information providers.
I wish to refer to an issue which has been mentioned by other Senators, including Senator Leonard – the thoughtless practice of motorists who park in disabled driver spaces. This has been raised at Westmeath County Council and I am sure in many other fora. It is time we stopped talking about it. Any able-bodied person who parks in a disabled driver space should be banned from driving and have their car impounded. It is the meanest and lowest activity among motorists.
As Senator O'Toole said, there are many public and health care bodies which do not have adequate facilities for disabled persons. It is also interesting to note that, as Senator Henry mentioned, people think a disabled person is someone with a white cane, in a wheelchair or on crutches. There are many forms of disability, all of which must be catered for adequately.
I have a great deal to say on this Bill. However, at this stage everything has been covered very well and repetition would be a waste of time. I am enthusiastic about this Bill because it will merge services which were provided by various agencies. The one-stop-shop concept will provide the optimum service to people with disabilities. The high street facility is a shining beacon of this Bill, which I welcome. I commend it to the House.
Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs (Mr. D. Ahern): I thank Senators for their excellent contributions, which I will take on board. Many Senators raised the issue of disabled drivers, which is not my direct responsibility. However, I share their frustration as I have experienced similar cases. There was a good discussion on the issue at a recent parliamentary party meeting. The Minister for Finance has set up a review of the criteria. It is surprising that they are so restrictive. They were changed a number of years ago to make it easier to qualify, or so we thought. However, it now seems to be harder to qualify. The issue is on the agenda of the Minister for Finance who has to take many factors into consideration as it is not simple.
I will deal with a number of issues raised by Senators. The monitoring of quality of service and promotion of awareness is the responsibility of the NDA which has overall responsibility in this area, although the primary responsibility  rests with the service providers. The NDA will monitor the issue. As regards my commitment to ensuring that the transition to the new body is as seamless as possible, all I can do is ensure the structures are in place and that the new board knows exactly what is required, as I am sure is the case, knowing the members. It is also my responsibility to provide adequate funding. In 1997, the funding for the NSSB was £2.97 million. In 2000, it will be £5.2 million, which represents a significant increase of almost 100%.
Senator Quill referred to making equality a reality, not just a legal provision. This is a responsibility not only of Comhairle but of all Departments and agencies. As I said, the NDA will monitor this. Senators Ridge and Quill referred to telecommunications and access to the Internet. A pilot freephone information service was launched in Cork last December. Depending on how that progresses, we hope to expand it nationwide. We will also endeavour to ensure that the new organisation will provide access to computerised information through the Internet in the not too distant future. One of the main reasons for the increase in funding is to expand the new computer information network throughout citizens' information centres. I assure Senators we will be using every form of technology to allow Comhairle achieve this.
Advocacy was also raised in the other House. It will not include legal representation, nor should it. A free legal aid service is available if there is a difficulty. I have some knowledge of CICs as I gave free legal advice to its forerunner in my area, which was the initiative of a number of newly qualified solicitors. At that time there were no free legal advice centres. If the CICs gave free legal advice and then provided advocacy in court, it would dilute their capacity to carry out general work. They will provide advice and advocacy as regards dealing with Government Departments, agencies and other providers of service but they will not give legal representation which is, in effect, the responsibility of the Legal Aid Board.
One of the main aims of the board's new strategic plan, when implemented, is to make physical access to buildings as easy as possible. We will be taking on 11 of the NRB offices which are accessible, more or less, to disabled people. Many of the 35 main CICs are accessible, although not many of the 50 others are at this stage. Obviously, this is one of the future tasks for the board. Physical access and access by telephone and technology is being looked at. The board and the Department are aware of their importance.
There is a large voluntary and community sector representation on the board. It is estimated that approximately eight people are involved in other areas of the voluntary sector. The whole idea of CICs has been based on voluntary input and obviously this will continue.
On Senator Ridge's point about worker representation on the board, I empathise with the request I received from the Senator and in the other House that there should be more worker  representatives. It is normal to have worker representatives on commercial bodies. In some instances there are no worker representatives on non-commercial bodies but I have written into the legislation that one of the board members should represent the various workers. If I were to go further and include two, three or four worker representatives, this would either require me to increase the number on the board, which stands at 20, or alternatively leave people off the board. Given that one must ensure there is gender balancing, which is well catered for in the Bill, geographic balancing, disability balancing and so on, it is difficult to keep all the various interests happy. In the end, the balance must come down in favour of retaining one worker representative.
Many Senators thanked and complimented the staff of the NSSB and NRB. I wish to echo those words and say that it is an exciting time for the people involved in this area. I appreciate this is a leap into the dark for many people. However, I assure Members that as far as my Department and I are concerned, we will do all in our power to ensure the transition is as smooth as possible so that the people who use the service will not notice any diminution but will in the future notice a betterment of the service. I thank Senators for their remarks.
Mrs. Ridge: I thank the Minister for his response. On a point of clarification, the Minister did not refer to the possibility of educating the wider public. Perhaps the Minister would consider this issue to which Senator Leonard and I referred.
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