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How the government took 10 years to bring in a new law

The government’s attitude towards disability rights seems to be ‘no rush, we’ll get there in the end’, writes Professor Robbie Gilligan.

WHEN IS A reform not a reform? One example is when a government makes a public commitment to change through legal reform – but then stalls on action to implement the reform once public attention has turned away. The area of disability rights reform provides a number of examples.

On the last day of 2015, as people got into party mood, the government quietly announced the activation that day of a new law enforcing disabled access to public buildings. This all seems very good – except that this step involved implementing Section 25 of the Disability Act 2005 – yes, 2005.

This means that it took the government (political and civil service) ten years to implement a change passed into law by the Oireachtas ten years earlier. Government has a fiendish device which allows it to delay the activation of new legislation, section by section. It can announce that new legislation has been passed.

It can claim the political kudos and the public can feel satisfied. But behind the scenes, the actual reality is that the different parts of the new law will only go ‘live’ when the relevant Minister signs a commencement order, section by section.

This is meant to give the system time to prepare for implementation, but, in reality, such a device allows government to take its foot off the pedal and kick for touch on the actual implementation.

Is this type of delay unusual? No. There is another current example also in disability rights. Ireland was among the first countries to sign the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Convention back in March 2007. This was an exciting step since the Convention provides powerful support to Ireland and other countries for modernising disability provision and putting disability rights on a whole new level.

Ireland, North Korea, Libya and Uzbekistan

United Nations Conventions are binding international treaties between the nations of the world aimed at making international advances on key issues. These conventions have been an important means of making progress in the implementation of human rights. There are two stages in a country’s legal commitment to a Convention.

The first is signing which represents an international declaration of intent – a commitment in principle – to adhere to key features of the Convention. Ireland did this on the disability convention in 2007. The second stage is ratification where the country commits to live fully by the conditions and standards of the treaty.

Nine years later, Ireland has not yet ratified. The government says it will do so, but the clock is still ticking. With 160 countries having by now ratified, Ireland now finds itself among a small, shrinking – and often quirky – set of non-ratifying countries, including North Korea, Libya and Uzbekistan.

A few months ago, the government suddenly unveiled a new ‘road map’ of legal changes needed before ratification – presumably the fruit of careful consideration over more than eight years. The road map (and its very late emergence) looks like another road block to real change.

The government attitude on disability rights on this evidence might be said to be ‘no rush, we’ll get there in the end’. But is this acceptable in a sensitive area as disability rights? After all, human rights delayed are, effectively, human rights denied.

‘Don’t hold your breath’

Are things likely to get better anytime soon on disability rights? Not it seems without a lot of vigilance on the part of disability activists and advocates. The long awaited and important Assisted Decision-Making (Capacity) Act 2015 was signed into law by President Higgins in the dying days of 2015.

This new law will grant much greater autonomy and freedom to people with disabilities and remove many forms of legal discrimination and restriction in the previous legal position. Or that is the intention, but again the government retains the lever on when to activate the new law.

Current estimates apparently are that this will not happen for at least six months to allow for background preparations for new systems planned in the new law. But on the basis of the two earlier examples, the message might be ‘don’t hold your breath’.

These examples highlight a tendency to slow movement on disability rights reform in Ireland, and there are others. It is only recently, for example, that the Health Information Quality Authority was finally given the powers to inspect facilities serving people with disabilities, long, long after such powers were in force for other groups.

And the revelations of abuse of residents in the Aras Attracta facility and elsewhere underline how urgent such reform actually was. It seems that urgency in legal reform has to be the watchword for the disability sector in 2016. Without renewed vigilance and pressure, we are likely to still see yet more long-fingering on urgently needed disability rights reform.

Robbie Gilligan is professor of social work and social policy at Trinity College Dublin, and co-editor with Edurne Garcia Iriarte and Roy McConkey of the book Disability and Human Rights – Global Perspectives recently published by Palgrave Macmillan.

Today was D-Day for all public buildings to be made accessible for those with disabilities >

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