Wednesday, 7 February 2007
Seanad Eireann Debate
Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Mr. Brennan): The Citizens Information Bill 2006 is a key element of the Government’s national disability strategy and is designed to ensure that people with disabilities are supported to enable them, as far as possible, to lead full and independent lives, to reach their full potential as individuals and to participate fully in society. The Bill provides for a number of important changes to the Comhairle Act 2000 to strengthen the functions of the statutory body in the provision of high quality information, advice, awareness and advocacy as part of the delivery of a new seamless and customer friendly national information service under one easily accessible and visible brand of citizens information.
With the Disability Act 2005, the accompanying sectoral plans and the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004, this Bill demonstrates clearly the Government’s intention to have an effective combination of legislation, policies, institutions and services in place to ensure equal access to services and full participation in everyday life for people with disabilities.
The primary purpose of the Bill is to amend the Comhairle Act 2000 to enhance the functions of the statutory body in supporting the development of advocacy services, particularly for people with disabilities. Most importantly, the Bill provides for the introduction of a personal advocacy service for certain people with disabilities who would otherwise have difficulty in getting access to the services available to assist them. The substance of the Bill provides for matters such as the qualifying conditions for eligibility for the assignment of a personal advocate, how the service is to be organised, the responsibility of the personal advocates, the application process, an independent appeals system and related matters to ensure that the new service is placed on a sound footing.
Under the provisions of the Bill, the name of Comhairle, which was established in 2000 with responsibility for the direct provision of independent information and advice services on social services to the public, will be changed to the Citizens Information Board or An Bord um Fhaisnéis do Shaoránaigh. Other provisions include a definition of social services in section 2 of the Comhairle Act 2000 to include a broad range of social and civil services provided to the public and the expansion of the definition of a voluntary body to include citizen information centres, a number of amendments to section 7 of the Comhairle Act to strengthen the board’s role in supporting and developing the provision of information on social services and the work of the citizen information centres and other voluntary bodies throughout the country and amendments to section 9 of the Comhairle Act to change the size and the term of office of the board in order to provide for improved operational efficiency and to allow for greater continuity in the leadership of the organisation to the benefit of local services relying on its support.
The information elements of the Bill are designed to deliver and meet the needs of a dramatically changing and evolving 21st century Irish society in which the delivery of independent, quality, accurate and integrated information is a priority, including meeting the challenge of immigration from new EU member states and elsewhere. The Citizens Information Bill, combined with the implementation plan set out in Comhairle’s 2006-09 strategic plan, represents a major overhaul and modernisation of the provision of information on social services and will deliver an integrated and seamless supply of high quality and independent information to the entire population and, in particular, those in society who are most vulnerable and in need of support.
The provision of independent, clear and accessible information has a central role in helping to break down barriers, easing anxieties, opening up opportunities and clearing the way for citizens, particularly those who are most vulnerable in society, to improve their situations and build better lives.
Before I outline the provisions of the Bill, I wish to acknowledge the significant increase in funding for disability support services provided by the Government in recent years. Under the national disability plan, some €19.2 million will be invested in providing quality services and opportunities for people with disabilities. In 2005, almost €3 billion was spent on addressing disability issues. This figure does not include the €2 billion plus spent by my Department in 2006 on income supports and entitlements for people with disabilities or illnesses and their carers. The significant real increases to social welfare rates in recent years underlines my Department’s position at the forefront in providing for the income support and other needs of people with disabilities.
There is an important link between the provision of information and advocacy in that access to information and a range of options flowing from that information are two key aspects of empowerment and citizenship. That is particularly relevant to the functions of the newly named citizens information board in the provision of enhanced services for people with disabilities.
The Citizens Information Bill 2006 envisages advocacy services as supporting people with disabilities in identifying and understanding their needs and options and in securing their entitlements to social services. In its broad sense, advocacy is a traditional concept linked to the notion of the citizen taking responsibility not only for him or herself but also for his or her neighbour. It is not to be confused with the giving of information or the offering of advice per se, although both functions are aspects of the advocate’s role. Advocacy is something that many people daily do for others. Parents advocate for their children and relatives and friends speak on behalf of vulnerable persons when necessary. Public representatives do it all the time and, indeed, those present in this House today can speak from personal experience in that regard. To put it simply, it is the act of supporting or speaking up for someone. To put it more formally, it is a dynamic process of negotiation conducted by or on behalf of an individual who is marginalised in some way.
The proposed service, as set out in the Bill, will provide for the assignment of a personal advocate to assist, support and represent a person with a disability in applying for and obtaining social services and in pursuing any right of review or appeal in connection with those services. It is envisaged that the arrangements for the new personal advocacy service will be completed without delay when the legislation is in place.
The board of Comhairle has undertaken a significant amount of work in preparation for the introduction of the new personal advocacy service. Two important studies have informed this work and provide the basis for the legislative provisions in the Citizens Information Bill.
In October 2005, Comhairle published guidelines to inform and guide the development of advocacy services by community and voluntary organisations. In tandem with the guidelines, I launched a programme of funding amounting to €2 million for advocacy projects in that sector. At the end of 2006, 31 projects were in place. Each project employs an advocate to work with people with disabilities in accessing a range of different services to help them achieve their personal objectives. Other work undertaken in preparation for the introduction of the advocacy service on a statutory basis includes the production of a resource pack for the new advocacy projects, training and networking days and support for a higher certificate course in advocacy studies accredited through Sligo Institute of Technology.
I will now outline for the House the contents of the Bill. Sections 1 and 2 provide for the usual definitions of the terms used in the Bill. The definition of disability is that used in the Disability Act 2005. Section 2 amends the definition of a voluntary body in the Comhairle Act to include citizens information services and citizens information centres. My purpose here is to provide statutory recognition for the citizens information centres which comprise the primary channel through which the citizens information board will provide information to the public. This section also includes the definition of social services, which will underpin the board’s work in the provision of information about entitlements and public services. Social services are broadly defined in the section and include health, social welfare, education, family support, housing, taxation, citizenship, employment and training, equality, asylum and immigration.
Section 3 provides for the change of name from Comhairle to Citizens Information Board or An Bord um Fhaisnéis do Shaoránaigh. My objective here is to have the citizens information board and the voluntary bodies providing information services, particularly the citizens information centres, readily identifiable by the public as part of one overall, coherent brand in the provision of State-funded information services in matters of civil rights and entitlements.
Section 4 amends section 7 of the Comhairle Act 2000. It provides for a number of changes to the functions of the statutory body, in particular, to provide greater support for people with disabilities. These include a function for the board to support the provision of advocacy services in the community and voluntary sector for people with disabilities; the introduction by the citizens information board of a personal advocacy service for people with disabilities who meet the criteria of qualifying persons for the service; a function for the board to support and develop greater accessibility and public awareness of the social services available to people; and a remit to promote the provision of integrated information about those services by voluntary and statutory bodies. The provisions state that the board, in providing the personal advocacy service for people with disabilities, shall have regard to the financial resources available to it and whether advocacy services are available to the person in the community or elsewhere.
In addition, section 4 inserts into section 7 of the Comhairle Act new provisions to enable the citizens information board to set terms and conditions for voluntary bodies seeking funding and to promote the development of high quality standards in the provision of information to the public. The effect of the provisions is that voluntary bodies that seek funding may be asked to demonstrate how they will pursue quality service objectives and funding may be refused if the body concerned fails to supply the board with the information requested.
Section 5 provides for the details of the personal advocacy service by inserting in section 7 of the Comhairle Act a number of new provisions — sections 7A to 7F. The new section 7A provides for the designation of persons as personal advocates by the chief executive officer of the citizens information board; that the qualifications, experience and competencies required to be a personal advocate of the personal advocacy service shall be set out by the board; for the appointment by the board of a director of the personal advocacy service who will manage the personal advocacy service; and for the qualifying criteria to be satisfied by a person to have a personal advocate assigned to him or her.
The legislation provides that a qualifying person, in the case of a person 18 years of age or older, is a person who, in the opinion of the director, is unable to obtain or has difficulty in obtaining a social service without the support of a personal advocate because of his or her disability. The director must also be of the view that there are reasonable grounds for believing that there is a risk to the person’s health, welfare or safety if he or she is not provided with the social service in question. A person under 18 years of age may qualify for a personal advocate if his or her sole parent or guardian is a qualifying person or if he or she has a disability and, in the circumstances of the case, it would be unreasonable to expect a parent or guardian to act on his or her behalf to obtain the social service without the assistance of a personal advocate. The new section 7A(4) also provides that a person will not be disqualified for the assignment of a personal advocate if he or she is already getting a social service.
Section 7A(5) sets out how the board will prioritise the assignment of personal advocates to people who qualify for the service. The process will take account of factors such as the needs of the person to have a personal advocate assigned to him or her, the benefits likely to accrue to him or her by the assignment of the personal advocate and any risk of harm to health or well-being that may arise if he or she cannot obtain the services sought.
Section 7A(10) provides that any person who has an interest in or who is involved in the welfare or well-being of a person with a disability and who is of the view that the person may be entitled to a personal advocate may approach the personal advocacy service and tell it about the individual concerned. It also provides that where the director or a member of the staff of the citizens information board involved in the personal advocacy service is informed about a person who may be entitled to a personal advocate, he or she shall arrange for information about the service to be provided to the person. The section also provides that the Minister may make regulations for incidental or supplementary matters that may arise to give effect to these provisions.
The new section 7B of the Comhairle Act details the arrangements for making application to the personal advocacy service for the assignment of a personal advocate and for the decision process relating to applications. It sets out that any person may apply to the director for the assignment of a personal advocate on behalf of a person with a disability. It states that an applicant may appeal against a decision of the director of the personal advocacy service if he or she is not satisfied with the decision about qualification for the service. It also provides for a reversal of a decision to refuse the assignment of a personal advocate in the light of new evidence or if a mistake is made about the facts.
The new section 7C of the Comhairle Act sets out the arrangements for a person to make an appeal against a decision that he or she is not qualified for the assignment of a personal advocate. The section provides, in effect, that the social welfare appeals rules and procedures which are detailed in the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005 will apply, in a modified form, to appeals involving the personal advocacy service. An appeal against a decision may be lodged with the chief appeals officer, either directly by the person concerned or by any other person on his or her behalf. My objective is to ensure that people who are dissatisfied with the decision on their qualification for the assignment of a personal advocate have access to an impartial and independent appeals system. The social welfare appeals office has a proven record in this regard and is ideally positioned to meet the needs of people who seek the assistance of an advocate.
The new section 7D of the Comhairle Act, sets out the duties and responsibilities of the personal advocate. These are to assist, support and represent the qualified person in applying for and obtaining a social service, including an application for an assessment of need or a service specified in a service statement under the Disability Act 2005; to pursue any right of review or appeal on behalf of the qualified person; and to provide support and training to the qualified person, to any member of his or her family, a carer or any other person who represents the interests of the person with a disability. This section empowers a personal advocate acting on behalf of the person with a disability to enter any place that provides day care, residential care or training for him or her and to represent his or her interests. It also provides that the personal advocate may, subject to data protection legislation, access information and attend meetings or consultations on behalf of the person concerned.
Section 7D(4) imposes an obligation on statutory or voluntary bodies to co-operate with a personal advocate in the performance of his or her functions on behalf of the person with a disability. Subsections (5), (6) and (7) of section 7D set out the offences to apply to persons who obstruct or hinder a personal advocate in that context.
Section 7E provides that where an offence under section 7D(5) is committed by a body corporate and where the offence is proved to have arisen because of the action or inaction of an individual connected with that body, the individual and the body corporate shall be guilty of the offence. The section further provides that where the body corporate is managed by its members and the offence is attributable to a member in a management role, he or she shall be guilty and liable to have proceedings taken against him or her.
The new section 7F of the Comhairle Act 2000 provides that the citizens information board may arrange for the functions of personal advocates to be performed by persons other than members of the staff of the board, as it considers appropriate. Such a move by the board would be subject to the approval of the Minister for Social and Family Affairs.
Sections 6 and 7 of the Citizens Information Bill provide for changes to the term of office and membership of the citizens information board. These changes are considered necessary in the light of operational experience since the board was first constituted in June 2000. Section 6 amends section 9 of the Comhairle Act so that the term of office of members of the board will be extended from three to five years and the number of members of the citizens information board will be reduced from 20 to 15. This approach is in keeping with a general trend towards smaller boards in respect of State agencies. Of the other agencies under my Department’s aegis, the Pensions Board and the Combat Poverty Agency each has 16 members on its board, while the Family Support Agency has a 12 member board. This section provides for a consequential adjustment to be made to the board arising from the reduction to 15 members. The number of members representing people with disabilities is being reduced from five to at least three and, having regard to the Government’s mainstreaming policy, the nominating role of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform in respect of these members is being removed. Section 7 of the Bill amends section 11 of the Comhairle Act and provides for a revised quorum for board meetings as a result of the reduction from 20 to 15 members. The quorum is being reduced from 11 members to a number between eight and five as may be considered appropriate by the board.
Section 8 amends section 23 of the Comhairle Act and pertains to the accountability of the chief executive before the Committee of Public Accounts. The section brings the legislation in line with current best practice by ensuring that the chief executive will be accountable to the committee in similar terms to secretaries general of Departments.
Section 9 provides for the insertion of a new section 24A in the Comhairle Act. It provides that the Minister for Social and Family Affairs may issue policy directions to the citizens information board, including directions to directly undertake information campaigns on specific social services.
Section 10 sets out the standard provisions relating to short title and collective citation. It also provides for the commencement arrangements for the implementation of the Bill’s provisions with different commencement dates applying to different sections of the Bill.
The introduction of the personal advocacy service by the citizens information board is an important priority in my Department’s programme of work to enhance the services available to people with disabilities. A lot of progress has been made since such a service was first mooted in 2001. The views and the experience of people with disabilities and of those who work with them have made a significant contribution to the development of the advocacy programme already underway and the proposals in this legislation. Officials of my Department will continue to consult with disability interests groups in the development of the services proposed and the implementation of my Department’s disability sectoral plan. The issue of resources is central to the successful implementation of any new service being introduced by the Government. I assure the House that the resources necessary to introduce the new personal advocacy service are being provided to the citizens information board. In 2006, Comhairle was allocated a total of €24.362 million, of which €2.012 million was provided for the development of advocacy services by the voluntary and community services, as well as €250,000 for preparatory work on the personal advocacy service. For 2007, my Department has allocated €28.422 million to Comhairle, with a total of €4.312 million allocated specifically for advocacy services.
People with disabilities face many barriers to full participation in society. The personal advocacy service provided for in the Citizens Information Bill 2006 has a significant contribution to make to ensure every person with a disability has access to appropriate assistance and support in securing their entitlements to social services. It represents an important step forward in delivering the Government’s commitments in the disability strategy to the full integration of people with disabilities in all aspects of society.
Mr. J. Phelan: I welcome to the House the Minister for Social and Family Affairs and his officials. I concur with the Minister’s remarks on the obstacles faced by people with disabilities. I broadly welcome the Bill as a step in the right direction, although I wish to raise a number of questions on its provisions. I also intend to raise issues on behalf of my colleague, Fine Gael’s Seanad spokesperson on social and family affairs and equality, Senator Terry, who is unavoidably absent.
The Citizens Information Bill 2006 is one of the major strands of the national disability strategy. It will establish a personal advocacy service to be operated by the citizens information board. The establishment of a personal advocacy service to assist people with disabilities in accessing health and personal social services and supports has been urgently sought by numerous disability groups, including in particular the National Disability Authority and Inclusion Ireland. The service aims to ensure equal access to services and supports for people with disabilities.
It is clear that advocacy services for people with disabilities are underdeveloped in Ireland. The 2004 report, Developing an Advocacy Service for People with Disabilities, stated that service providers, the community and voluntary sectors are increasingly aware of the need for these services. An independent advocacy service is essential if people with disabilities are to be fully included in the process of service provision. This will give many people with disabilities, who may be unable to seek services for themselves, the opportunity to put forward their requests and views on the range of services they receive.
Perhaps the Minister will address the following questions in his response. What will be the geographic remit of the personal advocacy service? Where will the personal advocates be based and will they be in Dublin only or around the country? Has the citizens information board determined the number of advocates to be employed, the office supports to be provided and where they will be located?
The Disability Federation of Ireland pointed out that advocacy services can be often passive in that a person must make an application to them. However, individuals may not know where or to whom they must apply, whether they are entitled to the service or even of its existence. How can the most marginalised and vulnerable in society be assisted in taking advantage of this service?
My colleague, Deputy Stanton, has noted that section 5 states that a person must be at “risk of harm to his or her health, welfare or safety if he or she is not provided with the social service or services that he or she is seeking to obtain”. These seem very negative grounds for availing of a service. An indication should be given that a person could avail of the service if he or she would benefit from it because, as it stands, individuals will qualify only if harm would come to them should they not receive the service. We should turn that around by stating that a person qualifies if he or she would derive benefit from the service. How does a person prove he or she will come to harm by not receiving a service? The Minister should re-examine this aspect of the Bill.
The issue of prioritising also arises. Subsection (5) of the proposed section 7A, to be inserted by section 5, states: “The board shall have regard to the following to determine the order of priority to be accorded to different qualifying persons in the assignment of personal advocates to such persons:”. It goes on to list five different grounds for qualifying. It does not make clear how this will work. It appears that only the most complex services will be dealt with by the personal advocacy service. This matter needs to be teased out further. Otherwise, the service may not be practicable.
Many people with disabilities are found not only in day and residential care and training places, but also in hospitals and places of detention. Under the proposed section 7C, to be inserted by section 5, the personal advocate can enter premises to attend and represent the person at any meeting, consultation or discussion. However, would he or she be able to enter a hospital or place of detention? The Disability Federation of Ireland maintains that the powers of the personal advocate must extend to any place where people with disabilities reside.
Many of those who will qualify for the personal advocacy service will not have the capacity to apply or have someone to apply on their behalf. The Bill appears to provide that a person with an intellectual disability may apply in writing under the proposed section 7B, to be inserted by section 5, or such other forms as specified by the Minister, to the director for the assignment of a personal advocate to him or her, and he or she shall specify in the application the social service or services he or she is seeking to obtain. It is important that the application process is made as simple as possible with the service being proactive instead or reactive. As the Bill stands, it will not reach out to the marginalised people who need this help.
What happens if a personal advocate giving advice and information, and acting for a person with a disability makes a mistake? Is there a review process? The advocates appear to work on their own; in other cases, it would be a team effort. Will the advocate work as part of a team? If the advocate gives incorrect advice, what recourse does the person have?
It is important that the service is independent, particularly of service providers. We must also avoid the establishment of a cartel between advocates and service providers; there should always be a distance between the two. An advocate should be fighting on behalf of a person with a disability. Advocates must also avoid downplaying the expectations of the person with the disability. While the advocate can attend and represent the person at any meeting, consultation or discussion, who decides when the meetings take place? If the person is not qualified, the meeting may not take place at all. Who notifies them of the meetings? Are they entitled to such notification?
The advocate can enter at any reasonable time any place where day care or residential care and training are provided for the person. That avoids mention of places of detention and hospitals. Who defines reasonable time? Is it the service provider? Must an appointment be made and notice given, and when the advocate attends, what can he or she do? These questions were put to Senator Terry by an advocate. I would like the Minister to respond to this point.
A statutory body or voluntary body that provides social services shall co-operate with the personal advocate in the performance of his or her duties. A person who, by act or omission, obstructs or hinders a personal advocate in the performance of his or her function shall be guilty of an offence and will be liable on summary conviction to punishment. Can a statutory or voluntary body be guilty of an offence? While other sections of the Bill state that statutory bodies shall co-operate, this section mentions a “person” who obstructs or hinders an advocate. Who lays that charge? In similar legislation, an advocate or inspector who enters premises needs identification and is required by law to produce it. Otherwise, anyone could claim to be acting as a personal advocate for someone. It is important that it is a requirement that a person demanding entry to premises must have such means of identification. That provision should be added to the Bill. Proceedings for an offence under this section may be brought and prosecuted by the Minister. What is the process for bringing the information to the Minister?
The sign language interpretation service for deaf people was covered by the original legislation, the Comhairle Act 2000. However, it is not included in the Bill and the Minister did not refer to it in his remarks. What are his intentions regarding this service? If it is not intended to establish it on a statutory basis, will it operate as another of the Department’s administrative schemes? The sign language interpretation service is essential for deaf people, many of whom cannot lip-read and suffer high levels of social exclusion that are intensified by poor literacy levels caused by a lack of communication with education providers and teachers. We have a major shortage of sign language interpreters for deaf people. I understand only 50 freelance interpreters serve approximately 5,000 deaf sign language users and many of these are based in the greater Dublin area. How many additional interpreters will be provided? Where will they be trained and how will they be distributed?
The Bill does not include a facility for the director of the personal advocacy service to appear before an Oireachtas committee, except in the case of accounting for funds. While an Oireachtas committee may be able to call the director before it, similar legislation on other bodies makes explicit provision for directors to appear before committees of the Houses at regular intervals to explain the operation of his or her service.
Ms Cox: I join Senator John Paul Phelan in welcoming the Bill. I welcome the concept of making life easier for people with disabilities. The Bill is intended to provide an enhancement of life for people with disabilities. In considering where we are in providing services for people with disabilities, we should take a step back and consider some philosophical questions. I have the following problem with the Bill. Why do we need advocates to give people the rights to which they are entitled? What is wrong with the system that it requires the establishment of an independent advocate-type body with appeals mechanisms, directors, staff, a budget of €2 million, etc.? Should our efforts not be directed towards correcting the system rather than finding mechanisms to make it better for the people who need to use it?
The key question is what we need to do with the system. While in the short term it might be appropriate to introduce a mechanism of advocacy and assistance, our real goal should be to devise a system that is sustainable into the future. We must ensure that the people who have rights in any system, including the health system, services for those with disabilities and education, which are guaranteed by the Constitution, should not need special steps or measures to give them that to which they are entitled.
The Minister spoke about spending on services for those with disabilities. It must be recognised that we have come a long way in working with people with disabilities to look after them, educate them, and provide them with facilities and carers. When we ask people with disabilities and their service providers whether things are substantially better now than they were ten years ago we are told that while they are better, there is a long way to go. I will give an example of a service provider in Galway city. A training centre was established to help people with disability who have completed second level education and provide life skills, etc. Fifteen people travel from Portumna to Galway city, spending six hours a day on a bus to access training and development services. That does not make sense and it is not acceptable. Will an advocacy service improve that situation or do we need to improve the system for those people? There is a group of parents called Voices for Galway which provides additional speech therapy for children with Down’s syndrome. We sang carols before Christmas to raise money and collected approximately €4,000. What of the €2 million being put into this advocacy service to help us win rights that we already have? Why are we fund-raising to provide basic human rights, in this case the right to be able to speak properly for people who have that ability but need assistance?
This is not a personal attack on the Minister because it is not his problem but it is time we took stock and asked what we are doing about disability. The Minister referred to mainstreaming. That is a joke. We are creating segregated groups of people within a mainstream environment. Anyone involved in education and training at any level would say this mainstreamed integration of people with disabilities is not happening. There are special teachers and assistants, and children who are made to feel different because they are in a classroom. That is not real mainstreaming. The general population does not accept what people with disabilities can give.
I attended a meeting recently to review someone who had entered a new service. This took place five months after the person joined the service. The incredible feature of that meeting was that throughout the meeting the service providers discussed what the person was able to achieve. It is to their credit that they did not talk about disability but ability. At the end of the meeting it was clear to all involved that while this 20 year old was able and achieving within the training setting provided, that did not extend to the wider setting of the community and the person could not go to the pubs or cinemas on Friday nights. The person did not have a social circle or the supports to live in our society.
I appeal to the Minister to create a review mechanism to see if we can eliminate the requirement for this advocacy service in five or ten years. The money provided to health services has increased significantly over the past ten years, yet despite that and the establishment of the Health Service Executive, the service is not as good as it used to be. People are waiting on trolleys in accident and emergency units and hospitals must close because of MRSA. Why are there so many problems in the health service. Where is all this money going? Why do we not get the type of improvements that we should get for the money spent on the service? Maybe this is because we have created levels of administration, advocacy, directors, appeals and people doing paper pushing jobs.
Ms Cox: An example is the Minister’s reference in an earlier version of his speech to the terms and conditions of funding and the new provisions in the Comhairle Act to enable the citizens information board to set terms and conditions for voluntary bodies in seeking funding and to promote the development of high quality standards in the provision of information to the public. The effect of the provisions is that voluntary bodies seeking funding may be asked to demonstrate how they will pursue quality service objectives, and funding may be refused. Show me a service provider in this country for people with disabilities who is not working his or her backside off trying to provide frontline services while being hindered time and again with the need for plans, strategies, quality statements and whatever. This pulls frontline staff away for planning days and service days while at the coalface, the people who need the service, such as social workers in their homes, visiting psychologists and speech therapists are losing this service. We are all too busy writing plans and strategic documents and putting them in language that ensures we do not lose funding or that we get the funding to which we are entitled.
That is the problem. We spend too much time writing bloody books to try to get funding instead of saying: “This is what we want to do, this is how we will deliver and if we do not deliver, you can take the money from us next year and we must find a different way to do it.” We need to start proofing legislation. We are creating more and more layers of bureaucracy through which people cannot wade, which is very worrying.
The Minister spoke about reducing the size of the boards. I agree in principle that we may not need 20 people on a board to run a service. I have serious difficulty, however, with his saying that we are to reduce the number of people representing those with disabilities from five to at least three. We should ensure a space is kept on the board for those who represent people with disabilities or for someone with a disability. If extra space is required to do that, it should be provided. Reducing the number on the board from 20 to 15 and reducing representatives of those with disabilities from five to three when we are trying to improve our services to people with disabilities is neither fair nor right. The Minister may have some reason for this but I am concerned about this suggestion.
The Minister defined advocacy as being the act of supporting or speaking up for somebody or, to put it more formally, as a dynamic process of negotiation conducted by or on behalf of an individual who is marginalised in some way. We do not need somebody to engage in this process if the education, health and social welfare systems have responsibility for delivering the services they should deliver without having somebody on the other side fighting for that person. If the Minister worked in a factory where he was expected to deliver 100 units of a product, he would find the manufacturing system simple because it would tell him as the operator that he is responsible for ensuring from start to finish the product would do what it was intended to do. That is how the education, health and social services should work. It should be the responsibility of those providing the service to ensure there is no need for advocates, appeal systems or reviews because people will receive their entitlements.
The real challenge and responsibility the Government and Secretaries General of Departments face is to create a system that does not contain barriers. Such a system would remove the need for advocates. People would be then able to access their entitlements and rights in the way originally intended and would not be obliged to depend on somebody fighting on their behalf to secure those entitlements and rights.
I thank the Minister for listening to my points. I welcome the Bill and commend it to the House. I look forward to seeing if any changes regarding a review mechanism to consider the future operation of the legislation will be introduced.
Mr. Quinn: I welcome the Minister. I also welcome the Bill, which I regard as a worthwhile step in the direction of treating, with the proper concern, the needs of those of our fellow citizens who have disabilities of one kind or another. I have got out of the habit of using the word “disability” and I almost swore that I would not use it anymore. I was very impressed by the efforts of those involved in the ability awards scheme, which highlights that people with disabilities are also people with abilities. I accept it is not possible to use the word “ability” in place of that of “disability” in every instance but trying to use it as much as possible sends a welcome message. The work done by organisations such as the Aisling Foundation to inform employers about the abilities of people who they might have otherwise regarded as being somewhat lacking because they have disabilities is to be commended. The foundation has done marvellous work and the Minister has supported it in many ways.
What impresses me about those who are in need of help is that, whereas in the past those experiencing difficulties formed groups and sent emissaries to Dublin to seek assistance, they now form such groups and then decide to take action themselves. They still seek support from the Government in Dublin but they tend to help themselves. The Minister has recognised such self-help initiatives in the legislation because it is now the intention to provide support.
The Bill recognises the need of the State to reach out to people with disabilities and to meet their needs more than halfway. Our history in dealing with these people has not been particularly happy and has been characterised by the less than pretty sight of very human needs coming into full frontal collision with the inflexible face of bureaucracy. Much of the heat that has been generated by the issue of disability has been caused by the lack of humanity that has been applied in approaching the question.
A key aspect of the Bill before us is the proposal to rename Comhairle as the citizens information board. This may appear to be a matter of cosmetics — the Minister outlined the facts very well in this regard — but it is not; it goes to the very heart of the need to reach out to the people on this matter and to speak to them in a language they understand. I share with many people an affection for having the names of State bodies in Irish but not when this gets in the way of communicating clearly the function and purpose of a body, as unfortunately happened in this case. There were many people who came within the remit of Comhairle who had no idea the organisation was intended to meet their needs. This is a valuable change.
I was involved with An Bord Phoist approximately 20 years ago. The first thing we decided to do was change the name. We arrived at a name “An Post”, which does not need to be translated. To a certain extent, I set a challenge to every Irish organisation establishing operations as to whether it is possible for it to have a name that can be read in both languages and in respect of which an English translation is not required.
I am also delighted to note that even in today’s Stalinist-like atmosphere created by the Official Languages Act, the Minister has found the courage to undo that mistake and make a fresh start. How we name things is important and it is a matter about which we should always think carefully. Another problem regarding Comhairle is its website, which brings together in one place all citizen-related information. This is an excellent idea, which I totally support, but the website was unduly hampered because it laboured under the obscure name of Oasis. I have no idea as to what that name was intended to convey and I hope we have seen the last of it.
Another pillar of the Bill is the concept of personal advocacy. I congratulate the Minister on this development, which I welcome. It is an attempt to redress the unfairness, which obtained for too long and under which people who did not have all their abilities were expected to jump through an impossible succession of hoops and obstacles in an attempt to have their needs properly met. The most unfair aspect was that, by reason of their disabilities, many people were unable to negotiate those hoops and obstacles, while the bureaucracy was able to sniffily observe its requirements had not been met. This led many people to press for a rights-based approach to disability legislation because they saw it as the only possible way to overcome the obstacles faced by people with disabilities. They may well be right. However, I have always felt there was nothing the situation needed that could not be provided by a modicum of reasonableness and a touch of humanity, helped along the way, of course, by a little more money. Now that we have the resources to do what until recently was impossible, some of these apparently immovable obstacles can be expected to disappear. Given that we have the money which we did not previously possess and which delayed progress for so long, it would be tragic if we could not also supply the degree of reasonableness and humanity that are also required.
There is a world of difference between, on one hand, putting obstacles in people’s way and, on the other, going out of one’s way to help and make matters easy for them. I was recently honoured to become patron of the Irish Association of Supported Employment, IASE. I am conscious of the difference of approach to which I refer, particularly when I discuss the question of supported employment with other employers. For some individuals, the idea of employing people with disabilities — which is the most pressing need for many people with such disabilities — is problematical and burdensome. It is a matter about which some people would rather not think. However, I and many other employers have discovered that people with disabilities also possess abilities. For example, people with bad hearing often possess good eyesight and vice versa. Employers must seek out people’s abilities and concentrate, strengthen and support these. The ability to allow them to do so is provided for in the Bill.
In contrast, however, those who have a more open approach and follow their instincts are invariably rewarded by an experience that enriches everyone affected by it. When an employer takes on a person who perhaps would not have been his or her first choice because of the existence of a disability, his or her initiative garners support from other employees. People feel good when working with those to whom I refer, particularly in terms of seeing them improve, gain, grow in stature and blossom. It also has a positive effect on customers. Customers, colleagues, other employees and suppliers often state that a company is worth supporting because it is doing good through employing those with disabilities. The really clever people in business are those who realise it makes very good business sense to develop employment opportunities for people with disabilities. In the end, the person who benefits most is the employer.
I wish the Bill every success and hope it will pass into law speedily. If any amendments are brought forward, I am sure the Minister will give them careful consideration because the objective behind them will be to improve what he is setting out to achieve in this legislation.
Mr. Brady: I, too, welcome the Minister and the introduction of the Bill. I have experience of what was then the Department of Social Welfare, now the Department of Social and Family Affairs, and this legislation will enhance the vital services that Department provides throughout the country. In the information society in which we now live, the provision of accurate and concise information in a speedy manner is more or less expected, especially when it comes to people’s rights and entitlements. People not being aware of their entitlements and rights has always been an issue and for many years the Department of Social and Family Affairs was accused of not giving enough information. My experience is that it is a Department which embraced technology at an early stage and attempted to provide as much accurate information as possible in as speedy a manner as possible. Employment exchanges, for instance, were the first organisations to computerise their systems and the changes suggested in this Bill, particularly from an information provision point of view, will enhance the existing service.
In a sense we have come full circle with the Department because this legislation is an attempt to make as much information as possible available to as many people as necessary, especially those with disabilities or people in vulnerable sections of society who may not have access to information to determine their rights. This legislation is welcome in that regard.
When we consider that more than 1.5 million people access welfare services every year and almost 1 million payments are made by the Department, in most cases to people in the most vulnerable sections of our society, the speedy provision of accurate information is crucial because it not only benefits the person receiving the information or a benefit but also the staff who provide that service whose lives are made much easier. I am aware from speaking to people working in the sector that they want to give as much information as possible and this legislation is an attempt to facilitate that.
The Bill does not just deal with welfare issues; it covers housing, employment, health and education. Successive Governments have placed much emphasis on consumer rights and we now have a range of services dealing specifically with consumer rights. This Bill is another brick in that wall and it will ensure that people get what they are entitled to in a speedy manner and that as much information as possible is provided.
The Bill will streamline the provision of information on a wide range of topics. Along with most public representatives, I have had experience of the citizens information centres. The 235 centres throughout the country play a major role and provide an excellent service in their communities. As public representatives, we have all had experience of people coming to our clinics seeking information, and in some cases we advise them to go to the citizens information centre, which is probably the quickest way to get the information they require. We can follow up the representation by writing a letter and so on but if they go to their local citizens information centre, they will get the information they need.
There is a very busy citizens information centre in the heart of the city which provides a wide range of services, including legal services, health services and information on the various offices where one can get relevant information. That centre plays a major role in the community. This Bill will streamline that service and pull together the three strands that existed previously, including the Oasis service, the telephone line and the citizens information service.
An examination of the figures in that regard reveal that in 2005, the Oasis website reached nearly 2.5 million people. The citizens information service dealt with almost 734,000 queries and the citizens information telephone service dealt with almost 88,000 queries. The need for this service has been proven and the changes suggested in this legislation will make access to information much easier for people.
The new communities being set up by those who come here from another country is an issue, particularly in respect of their rights and entitlements. This service will provide information on asylum and immigration but also on the requirements involved and what is expected of people coming to this country. From that point of view, the legislation will help deal with some of the issues being experienced in certain areas.
People with disabilities were mentioned. In my experience, many people with varying degrees of disability are quite capable of being their own advocate. The thrust of this Bill is to assist those who are not in a position to put their point of view. We have all had experience of people with disabilities who would have no contact with services, established groups or organisations, or any of the support groups and whose only support came from their immediate family. Those people will be given the opportunity to support their family members in a particular way and be an advocate for them. That is to be welcomed.
The provisions in the Bill will encourage full participation in society, which links in directly with the strategy on the provision of services for people with disabilities. I have had experience of groups such as the centres for independent living and Vantastic which provide services for people with disabilities 24 hours a day, seven days a week and ensure they can participate in life in general but especially in their own communities. Without that help, those people would be unable to do that. I have known individuals who had particular issues with which they could not get any help. When someone has a disability, it is much more difficult to get information or access a particular entitlement. This legislation will make life much easier for people at the centre of the services.
The personal advocacy service allows a family member, carer or helper from one of the groups or organisations assist a person in getting information or access to benefits. Not every disabled person is linked in to an organisation and this legislation will strengthen their position in that regard.
On section 4 and voluntary bodies that seek funding, I have had much experience of the funding administered by the Department. In some cases it might be a relatively small amount of money but it can make a significant difference to the group concerned. The more streamlined and accessible that funding, the better because the effects are immediately beneficial to the groups and organisations requiring it.
The provision of independent, clear and accessible information has a central role in helping to break down barriers and eases people’s anxieties. It can require great effort for an individual to go through his or her personal details with an adviser. It can be harder when the individual has a disability or cannot convey what he or she wants to express. The provision of information is crucial to allowing easier access to entitlements. Better still, it saves individuals from worry, heartache and effort. The more that can be done to streamline the service, the better. This legislation will benefit people in this regard.
A commitment has been made to increase funding for the new citizens information board and expand the services. Total funding of €55 million will be provided in 2006 and 2007, a sign of the Minister’s commitment to implementing an essential service. Citizens information centres play a large role in local communities, not just in urban areas but rural areas where people can be isolated. These centres allow people to walk in off the street, gain quick access to information or application forms.
A significant number of people do not know what services are provided by citizen information services. I am glad a nationwide high profile information and awareness campaign will be undertaken to ensure people are aware of the services and information available. With a service such as this, people have to be actively encouraged to take advantage of it. If not, then the accusation can be made that people are being prevented from applying for services.
I welcome the legislation as it will make matters concerning entitlements easier for people. The service will become user-friendly and enhance people’s opportunity to access their entitlements. Over the years the functions of employment exchanges have changed dramatically. I recall the time when the queues at exchanges would be out the door but these days they are used for a myriad of different benefits and entitlements. While it is welcome that we no longer have an unemployment problem, we must acknowledge the service has changed. It is in everyone’s interest if we can continue to provide a quality social welfare service with concise information. The Bill goes a long way in improving the excellent services provided by the Department of Social and Family Affairs.
Dr. Mansergh: I welcome the Minister for Social and Family Affairs to the House. The Bill is enlightened and progressive social legislation which will be welcomed by those who deal with people with disabilities. Comhairle and the citizens information service are important public services. The thrust of the Bill is to ensure that the service will be expanded and better resourced. Of course when informing people of their rights, nothing beats local radio discussions of points relating to particular categories of entitlements.
The concept of advocacy goes beyond the provision of information, which is necessary in cases of persons suffering a disability. The term “disability” covers a host of different circumstances and conditions. If this advocacy proves successful, will there be a case for extending the concept to other parts of the social welfare system? I can already hear the objection from colleagues in both Houses that politicians would be doing themselves out of a job. I do not believe that any more than the liberalisation of the taxi system in Dublin put existing licence holders out of a job. As many and as varied a range of workers in particular fields is required.
Some ask what is constituency work when a citizens information centre would do the job nicely? Public representatives do not just act as conveyors of information but as advocates with the system. There is a further distinction which even the advocacy role will not cover. Problems, not just individual ones, brought to the attention of legislators allow them to highlight some defect or gap in the system. Legislators also have more direct access than ordinary citizens to Ministers and Departments in their decision-making capacities.
I get very impatient with the conventional, metropolitan, editorial wisdom that legislators should just legislate and not make representations on behalf of individuals. If one thinks through the logic of this, under this notion public representatives would be cut off from their constituents. It is healthy to listen to people’s problems.
I speak for myself as well as my colleagues in saying that many of the issues we raise on the Order of Business are problems that are brought to our attention by constituents. It is rarely the case that they are issues that affect only the individuals in question and nobody else. In many cases, they are problems that affect a wide variety of people and which should be brought to our attention. In terms of legislation and the way in which any administrative system operates, there are always questions of judgment and margins of discretion. In that capacity, a public representative acts as an advocate.
It is easy for a correspondent to The Irish Times, living in the leafy suburb of Glenageary or Foxrock, to deplore clientilism and constituency representations and to insist that legislators should be in the Chamber from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Such persons live only six miles from the centre of power and may have civil servants as neighbours. Living in the capital, one has easier access to many facilities. There are many others, however, who live a long way from the capital and do not regularly encounter senior civil servants let alone Ministers. Such people may want help in communicating their needs and concerns to the places where decisions are made, which is mainly, though not exclusively, Dublin.
One of the positive aspects of our political system is the accessibility of public representatives, from the highest officeholder down, to the public. In some more heavily populated countries and under different political systems, the people who make decisions are impossibly remote. This is a positive feature rather than a deplorable one and something we should retain. A substantial bulk of the representations we receive come under the departmental responsibilities of the Minister for Social and Family Affairs and involve people who are in a relatively disadvantaged position.
I draw Members’ attention to a fine statement by the former Taoiseach, Seán Lemass, in 1963. It represents the very opposite of the philosophy often — wrongly, in my view — attributed to him in the context of his comments on a rising tide lifting all boats. The quotation is so eloquent that I have included it on the back of my visiting card:
Defending the rights and asserting the legitimate claims of the disadvantaged is what this legislation is all about. Criticising the “too ready assumption that social benefits would follow automatically economic achievements” is the diametric opposite of the notion that a rising tide lifts all boats.
Labhrás Ó Murchú: I join those who have welcomed this Bill. I avail of this opportunity to pay a well deserved tribute to the Minister, who is like a breath of fresh air in the area of rights and opportunities for people with disability. The hallmark of his ministry to date is his focus on consultation rather then controversy. This is exactly what is needed in this area. We have some well organised, well intentioned and professional lobby groups for people with disabilities. At times when such groups found it necessary to use the media to make a point, that was done more out of frustration than anger. The feeling was that there was no opportunity to present their cases.
I was taken by some of Senator Cox’s comments in the context of the difficulties that existed in the past in regard to mainstreaming for those with disabilities. One may theorise as much as one wants about an issue such as this but the people who know best what is required are those who themselves have disabilities. While one may sympathise with somebody who suffers a bereavement, one can never feel that person’s grief. The same is true of the challenges that face people with disabilities. Such challenges may consist of something as simple as access to a building or may relate to a wider issue, such as a generalised characterisation of people with disabilities or a patronising attitude towards them.
The growth in the network of citizen information centres was to some extent organic. There was no major plan and many of the centres had their own particular style. Taking up Senator Mansergh’s point about public representatives acting as advocates, many of these centres enjoyed the involvement of political activists because there was the possibility of growth without conformity. However, there were also weaknesses in the system. I say this without in any way taking from the work done by the centres. They carried out several important functions, such as avoiding over-familiarity and endeavouring to reduce offsetting bureaucracy. There was always the perception that one could walk into one of these centres and find someone with whom one could identify. I would not like to see that change.
However, society has changed and people are now presented with new opportunities. The economy, in particular, has changed for the better. We must ensure that people can avail of the new opportunities and resources. It is clear from this Bill that the Minister was not satisfied merely with producing legislation; he also produced the funding. There are issues other than funding, however. Our perception of people with disability is a particularly important issue. I have had experience in recent times of a FÁS scheme in an area where some people with disabilities joined the workforce. It was a wonderful experience. When the people with disability came in, they did not do so in some type of categorised fashion or to create a balance between the able-bodied and people with disability. There was a vacancy, they came in and they blended in in such a way that one could see development in their attitude and in that of other people to them. This is what I would regard as mainstreaming. There was equality, which was vital. I am sure that occurs in many schemes.
I have often said the reason FÁS has been so successful has been that the people who have run the schemes have been exceptionally pragmatic practitioners. Whatever their background, whether they are carpenters or otherwise, they have brought that attitude to the job so bureaucracy has been very much diluted. They have been able to deal and engage with people who have wanted to work with FÁS. They have always been ahead of the posse in deciding what is necessary and what should be done. I recommend FÁS as a model in terms of what it has achieved without, in some way, categorising and excessively highlighting people with disability. Since these schemes have provided training and those participating in them have not been part of the general labour force or in pursuit of jobs because their needs have not allowed them to take up jobs, I guarantee that virtually every FÁS scheme will demonstrate the point I make. That is being done without any fanfare. As a result, the situation is normalised and there is equality.
One cannot have 230 citizen information centres without developing a cohesive policy for them. This comes back to what I said about the availability of opportunities and resources. The only way to do this is by a single branding, which is what is intended here, as anything else will weaken the ability to avail of the opportunities which exist.
There are other aspects to this as well. There is a learning curve for each of the centres. If they always see themselves as isolated, stand-alone centres without having similar experiences to other centres, although we know that is not the case, they will miss out on those opportunities. This legislation, however, will supply that learning curve. I cannot see how one can have a new engine without fuel, or a director. The suggestion that there will be a director of staff makes so much common sense that one wonders why it was not done previously. That is why I paid tribute to the Minister and his officials in this regard. We have now identified an important element.
I noticed Senator Cox sounded a few notes of warning. She is exceptionally good at that and is generally very prophetic. She usually speaks from experience. I join her to this extent, namely, it is very important that the new advocacy structure does not, in some way, create a bureaucracy which should not exist. It should only be seen as complementary or supplementary to the new system being put in place. I do not know how one could do that but one way is for primacy to remain with the centres. The work of the centres should be acknowledged. They have often worked without great resources and in buildings and centres which have not been especially suited for the work they had to do. Nevertheless, they have given an important service so the primacy should remain with them. However, the real primacy must be the people with disability. That is why we must avoid any type of bureaucracy which prevents them from having a voice. From reading the Bill, it is quite clear there is no intention to create a structure which, in some way, becomes paramount.
At one stage, I was surprised by Senator Mansergh’s approach to the debate but he was 100% right. An issue arose recently, which I will not mention, relating to representation by a Member of the Oireachtas. The debate became very broad. I even heard a person for whom I have the greatest respect, Fr. McVerry, make a point about it on a political programme the other night. He was wrong to say there is a need to remove public representatives from the area of representation. That is all very well for people who understand the system and for people who know and have the confidence to look for their rights. I have made representations for hundreds of people who, despite the best will in the world, were not capable of doing so themselves.
I will give another example of this which might be slightly against Government policy but I will do so anyway. I always believed getting rid of the health boards was a retrograde step because somebody who could not get attention, etc. could knock on the door of an advocate, namely, a public representative, seven days per week. Public representatives should not only feel they have a mandate but that they have the confidence of the people. They are held accountable for whatever results they deliver. If that element of democracy is taken away, it is a weakness. I now understand why Senator Mansergh focused on that so much.
I very much welcome this Bill which is long overdue and so practical. A contest should not created between the system and the information centres. It should be seen as a partnership trying to deliver cohesion which, in the long run, will give people the opportunity to get their rights. That is what it is about. It is not about charity or something to which people are not entitled. If it does that, and it certainly can help towards doing so, this is among the best legislation I have seen in a long time. I wish the Minister and his Department well in pursuit of this.
Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Mr. S. Brennan): I thank Senators on all sides for their contributions on this proposed legislation. I listened very carefully to the points made. As the Bill goes through the different Stages in the House, I will try to respond to the points made.
Senator John Paul Phelan asked a number of questions. In the initial phase of the service, it is planned that the director of the personal advocacy service and four to six personal advocates and support staff will be recruited. He also asked about the location. The director of the personal advocacy service will be based in Dublin initially but on decentralisation of the citizens information board headquarters, he or she will move to Drogheda. As the service develops throughout the country, it is intended that trained advocates would be located in different parts of the country. This all depends on the demand for the service as it develops. Some advocates will be placed at local level, again depending on the requirement. There is a certain degree of useful flexibility.
On recruitment, the initial steps have been put in place without in any way pre-empting the legislation. However, formal recruitment will begin when the legislation goes through the House and is signed by the President.
Senator John Paul Phelan expressed concerns about the assignment of personal advocates and how people would know about the service. The board will continue to consult organisations throughout the country.
It is important to state this is a completely new service as the provision of public services have not been approached in this manner in Ireland previously. To some extent we will be obliged to learn as the service is rolled out, to remain flexible, to continue to consult and to make the requisite changes as we proceed. We will do so while keeping our eye on the ball and on the main objective, namely, as Senator Ó Murchú has just noted, to ensure that people receive the rights to which they are entitled.
In respect of how people will know about the service, it will be highly proactive. The legislation requires the citizen information board and the advocates to seek out and offer support, as well as targeting those who may need the service to bring it to their attention. Rather than adopting a reactive approach, I specifically included such a proactive approach in the legislation. The service will undertake a programme to promote awareness. For example, it will contact GPs, public service nurses, social workers, hospital and residential services, as well as day centres. In addition, public representatives will be given full information as the service is rolled out. It will also undertake a number of training and developmental initiatives as it develops.
I have also asked the board to establish a committee of the board to include representatives of disability groups. Its purpose is to advise me on further measures I can put in place at an administrative level as the service comes together. In response to Senator John Paul Phelan’s question as to how the public will know about the service, this will be achieved through the aforementioned proactive high-powered awareness campaign and programme, which will be undertaken as soon as the service gets moving.
As for the issue of sign language schemes for deaf people, some time ago I launched a plan for a language service for deaf people who use sign language in Ireland to ensure that members of the community have full access to public services. It sets out a phased approach to the development of services in the next few years and involves the establishment of a new entity, the Irish sign language interpretative centre to develop and deliver services while maximising the benefits of new technology, in order that people throughout the country may have access to such services. I launched this service regarding sign language for deaf people recently. It is amazing how technology has changed everyone’s life. Members can imagine the benefits that have been offered suddenly to those who face the difficulty of being deaf in modern society by the advent of text messaging. One can envisage the benefits of technology and how we need to support technological developments in support of people with different problems and issues. The Department will invest almost €3 million in this service during the next few years.
Senator John Paul Phelan also asked about mistakes made or wrong advice given by personal advocates. The citizens information board will have in place a fairly robust, highly transparent and public system of complaints. A customer who is dissatisfied with the services of a personal advocate will be able to complain in the first instance to the director mentioned in the legislation. Thereafter, complaints may be made to the board itself and there will be full access to an appeal system. Consequently, I am satisfied that any incorrect advice will be flushed out fairly rapidly by the system. The Senator also raised some other queries that I can deal with on a one to one basis, if necessary. Alternatively, I can revert to them at another time such as on Committee Stage.
In respect of Senator Cox’s comments, as usual Senator Ó Murchú has put his finger on it in the course of an excellent philosophical analysis of the need for such a service. Senator Cox was correct to raise this question. One could as well ask why a social welfare, health or any other service is required. The Senator is correct that in a perfect, ideal world, one would not require such a service and I would like to live in such a world.
Sometimes we all make the mistake of associating disability with those who are confined to wheelchairs. However, many people have other disabilities, including sensory and intellectual disabilities, some of whom will need advocates more than others. While some are more than capable of fighting the system themselves, others need someone to fight it for them. This resembles the need for the Combat Poverty Agency. Although such an agency should not be necessary, for as long as poverty exists, there should be an agency to attack it and sort it out, as well as campaigning for and championing those affected.
The citizens information agency is required similarly for as long as people need support to fight the system. While they should not be obliged to fight the system, that is the reality of life. The involvement of the European Union and other authorities, such as State boards and companies, central Departments and so on has made the system both vast and increasingly complex. The more complex it becomes, the greater the need for the vulnerable to have someone on their side. I was greatly taken by the comments made by Senators Mansergh and Ó Murchú regarding the role of public representatives who provide such an advocacy service.
Senators Cox and Brady also raised the question of funding. I can confirm that the total grant for 2007 is €28.4 million, of which €4.3 is earmarked for the advocacy service and I have already spoken in respect of the sign language centre.
I hope my contribution did not give Senator Cox the wrong impression regarding the possible refusal of funding to groups that did not measure up to some requirements. One reason for the name change is because the citizens information board will fund citizens information centres throughout the State. I wanted to ensure that both the public and, increasingly, immigrants would see a brand they could recognise and that this would be an organisation that does what it says on the tin. It is a brand that people can recognise and support.
The citizen information centres throughout the State perform excellent work, involving substantial number of volunteers, whom I salute in particular. However, I wished to ensure that such centres will continue to strive to reach a high standard that can be verified nationally and independently. I do not envisage many refusals. Instead I envisage that the central board will support all the centres nationwide in their continued efforts to maintain standards. Many fine organisations are involved in such work and I wish to join with Members in paying tribute to them. My words in no way reflected on them because I have nothing but the highest admiration for them.
Mr. S. Brennan: The Senator should not worry as this provides me with an opportunity to state clearly the admiration felt by all in these Houses and in Ireland for such marvellous organisations, including Inclusion Ireland, the Brothers of Charity in Limerick, the Bray Partnership, the County Monaghan Partnership, the Galway advocacy service, the Longford advocacy forum, the Mayo partnerships, the centres in Cork city, as well as those located in counties Clare, Donegal and Westmeath. I could go on as all counties contain an advocacy group or service, or a citizens information board, all of which perform excellent work. I am trying to ensure that together, we will pull together a national movement with plenty of local volunteers that provides a first class service with certain standards of quality and uniformity to deliver a quality service across the board. I join with Senator Cox and other Members in paying tribute to all those excellent groups.
I should explain a point raised by Senator Cox. The outgoing board of Comhairle had 20 members. I believe Members will concur with the advice I received, which was to reduce this number to 15. In so doing, the number of people to be appointed specifically to represent the disability sector will be reduced from 25% to 20%. However, if one reduces the numbers on a board from 20 to 15, all groups involved get squeezed and this is not the only group to be allocated a lower representation. Nevertheless, there is nothing to prevent me or future Ministers from appointing other members of the board to seek to ensure that the disability sector is fully represented. I gave a commitment to this effect in the Dáil. The only agenda arises from numerical necessity because of a reduction in numbers.
Apart from its disability role, the citizens information board also plays a major role in providing information through the citizens information centres to old and young people, teenagers and families, including those in crisis. It has a range of responsibilities. I appreciate the opportunity to explain this is purely a numbers situation. I am sure it can be dealt with.
I thank Senator Quinn who greatly supported the name change. I grew up as a supporter of doing as much as possible through Irish. It is with great reluctance I move away from the present title. As Senator Quinn put it, in a changing Ireland, having a website called oasis, an organisation called Comhairle and an organisation called the citizens information board in every town is too confusing, particularly for immigrants. One needs another organisation to figure how they all provide information.
I opted to change everything. The national organisation will be the citizens information board, the local organisations will be citizens information centres and the website will be www.citizensinformation.ie. If an organisation charged with providing information cannot provide information about itself we are off to a bad start. It needed to be streamlined and is no reflection on our use of the language.
Senator Mansergh quoted Seán Lemass. It is not the first time he has done so when I visited the House. He has done so on a number of occasions. It must be something I said. He is right that a rising tide does not lift all boats. A model civilised society must reach down and back and help certain boats and those who do not have boats. Helping the individuals and groups who get left behind is the mark of a modern civilised society.
Senator Mansergh spoke about the role of public representatives. As a Member of the Cabinet, I have regular opportunities to visit other countries and speak to my opposite numbers. Increasingly, I find they are not elected. In Belgium, France, Italy, the United States and sometimes in Spain, Cabinet Members are appointed. When I sit down for a cup of tea, or something heavier from time to time, we discuss these matters and I come away thinking how fortunate we are that we stay closer to the public.
Members of Government must be elected by the people. Public representatives meet the public week in week out. If we ever reach a stage where people who walk these corridors see themselves as only legislators and not representatives of the real people our democracy will be greatly demeaned. I support a great deal of what Senator Mansergh stated. We would lose something special if we suddenly found a Dáil and a Seanad remote and away from the problems of everyday life. It would be a sad day for the country.
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