Most people applaud when the business case for change coincides with human rights. Its good to do the right thing and even better when both individuals and the taxpayer benefits. Or at least one would have thought so until reading the distressing news that a mother was left with no option after cumulative cutbacks – including cutbacks to transport – to place her disabled daughter in residential care. The cost of such care is generally a multiple of the cost of supporting people to lead independent lives and be integrated in their communities. No one, it seems, is doing the sums. The result is that one arm (or multiple arms) of the State takes away and higher costs ensue. This is utterly irrational – a symptom of a system that lacks both critical intelligence as well as moral sensibility.
Few could have failed to notice the irony that Ireland is poised to ratify the UN convention on the rights of persons with disabilities. One of its core rights is the right to live independently and be included in the life of the community. Among other things, this requires a conscious shifting of resources away form institutions and toward supports to enable people live meaningful and productive lives in the community. Many of us have advocated strongly and publicly against corruption that seemingly allows institutions to flourish in Eastern Europe (and sometimes, to add insult to injury, with EU taxpayers money). No one is suggesting that corruption lies behind the awful news. But we certainly cannot assume the high ground to criticize others when we are complacent about our own seemingly dysfunctional system that produces the same result.
Many advocates have been arguing about the need to enshrine the right to community living in Irish law. I believe the time is right to do so. It is especially in times of austerity that we should be spending our money smartly and efficiently. Pouring money into institutions serves absolutely no one’s interests – least of all the taxpayer. Law on its own is never enough. The reflex in the administrative system tends toward dysfunction. This Government came into power on a promise of reforming how things were done in the public sector. The need for this change was brought sharply into focus with yesterday’s news. This can be done. The lethargy of the past should not keep us from transforming the future. In British Columbia, for example, policy makers have to spend a ‘professional empathy’ period living with the people whose lives will be affected by their policy choices. How many of our senior civil servants have done that? In Belgium, the social security system is moving toward a posture of ‘co-ownership’ of policy with the people affected. Far from amounting to an intrusion on the policy prerogatives of those in power this ensures the wise use of power. Spending money in institutions is simply crazy from a taxpayer’s point of view. I hope and trust every right thinking person in the country was disgusted at yesterday’s news and that this is a wake-up call to the Government. We need to get serious about how taxpayer’s money is spent and to honour the rights of those who elected them into office.
Prof Gerard Quinn. Centre for Disability Law & Policy, NUI Galway. 29 May, 2013.
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