Renewed vision of the Irish social model must be delivered

 

The next government will need to develop a coherent vision for those in need of support at various stages of their lives, write PAT DOLAN, TOM SCHARFand GERARD QUINN

THE NEXT government will have to stand back from the legacy of the past and develop a much more open and coherent conception of the Irish social model as it affects older people families, children and people with disabilities.

The most recent Social Partnership Agreement ( Towards 2016) acknowledged the drawbacks of the past and offered the prospect of a life-course perspective on our social model. This is still valuable – but it must now be made to deliver in the next few years.

A life-course approach helps embed a reflex of planning ahead and factoring in the potential impact of policy changes now for future generations. This was conspicuous by its absence in the past and the way in which policy – including social policy – is made in Ireland must be radically transformed.

What are the priorities of these fields and how do they connect in a coherent life-course approach?

In relation to disability, our antiquated legal capacity legislation needs a dramatic overhaul. The Heads of Bill published in 2008 by the outgoing government needs a fresh airing and must include explicit provisions on supported decision making which Canada shows need not be resource intensive.

Secondly, we have to finally de-institutionalise those who continue to live in congregated settings or group homes. International experience shows that this produces better outcomes and that the costs can be managed.

Thirdly, the way in which services are delivered must be utterly transformed. Where is the public interest in a system that does not require an independent evaluation of the views of service-users as an explicit precondition for renewing a contract? The move toward individualised budgets should be accelerated to ensure person-driven services.

Fourthly, the neglected field of enabling wealth accumulation for persons with disabilities must be fully explored here. Recent legislation such as the draft US Able Bill enables trust funds to be built up using targeted and cost-effective tax breaks which then allows an adult to purchase the services they need – as distinct from those that others think they need. Fifth, and not least, reductions in educational supports for children and students with disabilities must be reversed.

Finally, the new government should rapidly ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The Convention already allows States to “progressively achieve” rights that require resources, so scarcity of resources should not be an obstacle.

In relation to older people the next government has a unique opportunity to transform the lives of current and future generations of older people, building on the excellent groundwork undertaken by age sector organisations and the thousands of older people who support them. In particular, a draft National Positive Ageing Strategy has been gathering dust on government shelves.

Setting in motion a policy approach which challenges negative stereotypes of later life and offers new opportunities for people as they age is crucial in the face of demographic change, with the number of people over 65 set to rise from 500,000 to 750,000 in the next 10 years.

Meanwhile, poverty prevention is as important as ever, including securing the value of the State pension and safeguarding other financial supports. This, combined with adequate services for those with health and social care needs, including dementia, is crucial to allowing people to stay in their homes as their health declines.

The new government’s task will become much easier later in 2011 when it can implement a new national dementia strategy that is currently being developed by researchers at Trinity College and NUI Galway.

From the perspective of supporting vulnerable children and families our children’s right to protection and prioritisation for effective services has to be addressed within both the context of a referendum to the Constitution and an accompanying set of service delivery guarantees.

The urgent rethinking, revamping and renewal of children’s services has to include longer term investment in prevention and early intervention services, despite the downturn.

How do the social policy challenges in these three fields mesh into a life-course perspective?

First of all, we have to move away from the old binary opposition between the economy and the social sphere. It was this false opposition that made us think in the past of older people, people with disabilities and vulnerable families as “drains” on the economy. The positive potential of all our citizens – even positive economic potential – was systematically discounted.

Secondly, in order to maximize this positive potential one has to adopt a much longer timeframe in policy development, enabling social policy makers to be more attentive to social gains which ultimately translate into economic gains. For example, educational cutbacks not only destroy souls, they also sap the productive capacity of the economy into the future. And a lack of future planning robs vulnerable families of the support they need thus storing up predictable, and expensive, social problems.

Thirdly, the availability of services and radical service reform is necessary across the life-course.

A life-course approach also means tackling poverty. There are innovative ways of doing this as the draft Able legislation in the US shows.

It is clear that reforms in one field have repercussions/benefits for other fields. For example, giving a voice back to people with intellectual disabilities through modern legal capacity legislation will have positive effects for older people and should also force a rethink on legal capacity for children. Innovative poverty reduction methods in the field of disability should be tried across the board.

What is needed now more than ever is a renewed vision of our social model. If we cannot deliver it by the 100th anniversary of the 1916 Rising many will be asking if its promise – true social justice and equal citizenship – was realised.