All concerned with the disability sector will recall the lengthy discussions and negotiations which culminated in the publication by government in 2005 of the National Research Strategy. While falling short of the rights-based legislation which people with disability and their families had sought, the National Disability Strategy was, nonetheless, welcomed as an important initiative. Involving as it does the requirement by six government departments to publish Sectoral Plans, the enactment of two important pieces of legislation—The Education of Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004 and the Disability Act 2005—and critically a Multi-Annual Investment Programme for new services developments, the strategy was welcomed as an earnest effort by government to address the long-standing issue of the unmet needs of people with disabilities in Ireland and the vindication of their rights to play full and active roles in mainstream society as citizens of this state.
Since its publication, much good work has been done in implementing the strategy, not least in the putting in place by voluntary organisations of much needed services and supports. The requirement by the six government departments to publish annual sectoral plans is having the effect of ensuring that the needs of people with disabilities in mainstream society is receiving the priority attention which these issues require. The statutory entitlement to an independent assessment of needs under disability legislation, while still problematic, is nonetheless a welcome development. Critically the multi-annual investment programme has, for the first time, enabled the statutory and voluntary agencies to work together to put in place services and supports in a planned way over a multi-annual timeframe. While we would always argue that significantly more funding is required to break the back of the long-standing waiting lists issue and to develop person-centred services for people currently receiving supports in inappropriate settings, the ring-fencing of dedicated funding envelopes for disability services in successive budgets has been an important cornerstone of the National Disability Strategy.
It is against this backdrop, therefore, that serious concerns were expressed by the National Federation of Voluntary Bodies and others with regards to the delay in allocating the €50m which had been ring-fenced by government in Budget 2008 for new service developments this year. There were real fears that this funding was to be used by the HSE to offset overspending in other areas of the health services. As a Federation we were particularly concerned that we would not be in a position to put in place much needed day supports for young people with an intellectual disability who are graduating from schools this year or to respond to the needs of people who urgently require residential services. We highlighted our serious concerns on this issue at the highest political levels and mobilised all of our member organisations to bring to the attention of all elected TDs around the country the consequences of diverting this funding to other areas within the HSE. In particular, we highlighted our concerns relating to the unilateral overturning by the HSE of decisions of the democratically elected Oireachtas in relation to voted funding to implement the National Disability Strategy.
Thankfully, following on from our concerted campaign an announcement was made in the Dáil in early July 2008 by Mr John Maloney TD, Minister of State for Disability and Mental Health, that €50m announced in Budget 2008 in respect of Disability Services will be used for this and no other purpose in 2008. He also stated that arrangements will be made by the HSE and voluntary service providers to put in place the required new services and supports as a matter of urgency. This announcement came as a great relief to all concerned in the disability sector, not least people with disabilities themselves and their families who had expectations that their needs would be met following publications by Government of the National Disability Strategy.
This relief is, however, tempered by the realisation that the funding announced by the government to address the unmet needs of people with disabilities was under threat in 2008 and all concerned in the sector will be vigilant to ensure that no similar threat arises in 2009 and in future years.