Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 16 December 2021
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Disability Matters
Personal Transport for People with Disabilities: Office of the Ombudsman
Apologies have been received from Deputy Murnane O'Connor and Senator Seery Kearney. The purpose of today's meeting is to discuss the report, Grounded - Unequal access for people with disabilities to personal transport schemes. On behalf of the committee, I welcome Mr. Peter Tyndall, Ombudsman, and Ms Sarah Cooney, principal officer at the Office of the Ombudsman. I thank them for agreeing them to attend earlier than originally planned this morning.
I must remind members that they are only allowed to participate in the meeting if they are physically within the confines of Leinster House. In this regard, if members are joining the meeting remotely, I ask them to confirm they are on the grounds of Leinster House before they make a contribution to the meeting. For anybody who is watching the meeting online, the witnesses are joining us remotely, and due to the unprecedented circumstances, I ask everybody to bear with us should any technical issues arise.
Before we commence formal proceedings, witnesses are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. I advise witnesses giving evidence from a location outside the parliamentary precincts to note that constitutional protections afforded to witnesses attending to give evidence before the committee may not extend to them. Unfortunately, no clear guidance can be given on that issue and, of course, persons giving evidence from another jurisdiction should be mindful of the domestic statutory regime. If witnesses are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter, they should respect the direction of the committee.
Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person or persons outside the Houses or an official by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
I now call Mr. Tyndall to make his opening remarks.
Mr. Peter Tyndall:
I thank the Chairman and wish members of the committee a good morning. I am very glad to have the invitation to come here today to discuss the recently published commentary report, which we called Grounded: unequal access for people with disabilities to personal transport schemes.
I had the opportunity of meeting the committee in June this year to discuss the Wasted Lives report about the inappropriate placement of people aged under 65 in nursing homes. I was very pleased with the coverage that report received and particularly, as a consequence of the appearance before the committee, that progress is starting to be made on tackling that issue. I thought at the time it would be my final appearance before the committee, but members are intent on keeping me working until the day of my retirement, so here I am. I am very pleased to be here.
As members will know, the ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, UNCRPD, provided a legal basis for people with disabilities to have the right to live independently and participate fully in all aspects of life. Lack of access to transport is one of the key barriers to stopping the realisation of those fundamental rights and can lead to further economic, social, and personal isolation of people living with a disability. The opposite is also true, and access to transport can for many people be an equaliser. It can enable people to change their lives for the better.
Article 9 of the UNCRPD is focused on accessibility and puts an onus on signatories to provide equal access to transportation for people living with a disability. This is to enable them to participate fully in daily life, for example, to access further education, work, be involved in their community, have contact with their families and friends, shop and participate in social activities and hobbies.
As members will know, in Ireland, the National Disability Inclusion Strategy 2017-2021 sets the overall framework for the equal participation of people with disabilities in society. Under the strategy, the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, as it was then called, assumed responsibility for the continued development and availability of accessible public transport. I noted that the new order of DART carriages, for example, will allow access from the platform by wheelchair, which is clearly a step in the right direction and an improvement on the current situation. I warmly welcome all the work that is being done in this area.
For some people living with a disability, however, public transport is not the most appropriate mode. It is often put that this especially affects people in rural settings, and that is entirely true. If a person is living far away from public transport, then clearly it does not offer him or her the opportunity to engage in the life of his or her community. It equally affects people living in a town and city context because not all of them will be able to access public transport.
It is worth saying that, at the moment, public transport accessibility continues to be an issue. Not a day goes by without a long list of lifts being out of action in railway stations. Similarly, it is completely inappropriate that somebody wanting to use a train or a DART has actually to arrange for somebody to be there to enable him or her to get onto it. It is hoped these issues will be addressed in time, but the notion, as it is sometimes presented, that public transport will of itself solve the issue of access to transport for disabled people is quite false and will remain false. People need access to personal transport for the reasons I have outlined - to be able to do the things the rest of us take for granted. People cannot work without it. They quite often find it difficult to get to hospital appointments or medical appointments without it. This is a big and continuing issue.
When I started as Ombudsman, one thing I was embarrassed to discover at a meeting of ombudsmen in Europe was that we were one of only two countries present that had not actually signed up at that time to the United Nations convention. The other very striking thing was that Ms Emily O’Reilly, my predecessor, had produced reports about the two schemes, namely, the mobility allowance and motorised transport schemes, on the grounds that those schemes were not compliant with equality requirements. The Government decided at the time to close the schemes down and promised to provide replacements.
The reason I have spoken of this issue as unfinished business is that here we are at the end of my tenure and still those replacement schemes have not been put in place. During that time, there has been no access to mobility allowance and no access to the motorised transport schemes for new applicants. That clearly is entirely inappropriate and should have been addressed.
I pursued the matter in a number of occasions. On each occasion, I was given reassurances that work was in hand to develop new schemes. When it came down to it, however, it seemed to me that the resource issue always came in the way. Each time a proposal was developed, it was not brought forward because of cost. There reality is, however, the cost to our community of preventing access for so many people and preventing participation should have been taken into account when making decisions on resources.
The other scheme that did continue was that which enabled tax concessions for disabled people or people who were providing transport for them. As many members will know, that scheme has some very restrictive criteria. The criteria are about defined disabilities. They are not about mobility. The reason a person needs transport is because he or she is not mobile enough to access community facilities without it. Having to fit into this narrow definition excludes many people who are just as much in need of access to support through the scheme as the people it admits. I have consistently been highlighting that but, in fact, it was highlighted again before my time. Ultimately, the courts determined that the criteria for the scheme were not consistent with the legislation, so rather than change the criteria, they wrote the deficient criteria into the primary legislation. I was astonished, frankly, at how that matter was dealt with.
I know from my own contacts with the people who are charged with making the assessments that they are as frustrated by the criteria as my office is. It is not their frustration or my office's frustration, however. It is the enormous frustration of large numbers of disabled people who cannot understand why some people who are as disabled as them can access the scheme and they cannot. That is an issue that urgently needs to be addressed.
The most striking thing about this and one of the very good aspects of the way the Ombudsman's office works in Ireland is the number of people who are supported in bringing complaints to the office by their local elected representatives. There is scarcely an elected representative in the Oireachtas or in the Government, for that matter, who has not represented the cases of people to my office.
As I saw it, it was not maladministration but deficient legislation. The solution lay with the people bringing the complaints. This issue has run for a long time and, from my perspective, it is unfinished business. I hope the committee will now make sure it does not last through the life of my successor, Mr. Ger Deering, to whom I offer many congratulations on his nomination to the post. It is one of those things that we should be ashamed of and we need to do something about it.
On the previous occasion we met I wished Mr. Tyndall a happy retirement. I did not think I would be meeting him again. I wish him a happy retirement again. I thank him for the work he has done on bringing this forward as it is very important. It is an issue the committee has discussed on a number of occasions. The two grants that were suspended or finished in 2013 and not replaced are raised at any meeting I have with disabled people or carers. It is totally unfair there are no new applicants for those schemes or that a better scheme has not been put in place. This is unequal and makes it unfair to disabled people.
The criteria for the primary medical search are very strict. Many people whom we think should qualify do not. The scheme needs to be completely overhauled. I thought something positive would come of it when it was brought to court but unfortunately it did not happen and, as Mr. Tyndall said, the wrong decision was taken. Is Mr. Tyndall aware of any Government review of the scheme or any intention by the Government to introduce a new scheme to replace it? It is almost nine years since it was suspended and the Government did undertake to replace it with something else. If this does not happen will we be able to implement the UNCRPD with regard to transport? Mr. Tyndall knows more that I do that the UNCRPD covers every aspect of a person's life. Without addressing the issue of transport and the unavailability of suitable transport options for people, particularly in rural areas, we will not fulfil their rights. Is Mr. Tyndall aware of any review? Will we be able to ratify the UNCRPD?
Mr. Peter Tyndall:
I will let Ms Cooney speak about the details of the current position. On each occasion I have raised it, I was told reviews were under way and that proposals would be brought forward. It reached the point where proposals were ready to be brought to Cabinet and then they were withdrawn at the last minute. At that point I determined to produce this report because it was clear to me it was not a temporary halt. It was at that point the issue was effectively off the table. Now I believe further work may be under way and perhaps Ms Cooney will say something about this.
Ms Sarah Cooney:
Before we wrote the report we engaged with various Departments on it. Our understanding of the matter is the disability capacity review undertaken by the Department of Health and the recent cost of disability exercise done by the Department of Social Protection will be utilised to develop proposals on the various schemes and that there will be a whole-of-government approach and a scheme developed to encompass all of this. I am unsure of the details of the scheme or what it might look like. The disability inclusion strategy has various working groups. I understand there is a working group on transport and it will come before the committee and decisions will be made. I understand from speaking to other Departments that work is ongoing on how mobility may be assessed and what schemes may look like. Unfortunately there is no detail that I am aware of on what the scheme may look like at this stage.
There is no timescale either. This could drag out for many more years. We hope it will not. Yesterday there was a discussion when Deputy Wynne and I raised a Topical Issue on the Indecon report on the cost of disability. We were informed by the Minister there was a meeting that encompassed all Departments undertaking this work. I hope it will progress at a rapid pace. Many disabled people tell me they find it very difficult to book an accessible taxi. What seems to be happening is that the HSE is also contracting the accessible taxis. Individuals in their own homes who want to visit someone or go to the shops cannot get out. It is an issue that needs to be addressed.
I welcome Mr. Tyndall and it is a privilege to have him here on his final day in office. I wish him the very best of luck and I also wish his successor the very best of luck. I hope we will not need to have him before us to discuss another report on unmet needs. I hope we will use all of the reports to make the changes necessary to ensure we have full access for all of our citizens, friends and family to the services we have in this country.
Mr. Tyndall knows as well as all of us there is such inequity and it is heartbreaking to hear the stories. I see family members stopped in their tracks because of an inaccessible bus or train. It is so common. Deputy Tully asked what the Department is doing. Everyone on the committee is impatient. We were impatient with Ms Emily O'Reilly's report and we are still here waiting for the Department. I do not know whether the Department is waiting for the Indecon report or the structures to implement the UNCRPD. There is always procrastination as it waits for a next step to be done before taking a step that should have already been taken.
What does Mr. Tyndall think is the problem with this clear inability of the Department to push it down the road? It recognises there is a problem and perhaps a small pilot programme is done. What is the mindset in the Department that it does not see this as we see it, that it is unacceptable to block our family members, neighbours and communities from accessing what we take for granted? I am so infuriated by this. Mr. Tyndall's report is excellent and I learned a lot from it. What is his opinion on why things are so bad and why the can is kicked down the road repeatedly?
Mr. Peter Tyndall:
I should say my last day in office is 31 December. The committee is keeping me working until the end and I am happy to do so. The issue does not necessarily just lie with one Department. Much of it lies with the interaction between people controlling resources and people developing proposals. The only way the committee can be satisfied that progress is being made is to call people before it on a regular basis and have updates.
One issue I have with it is, if you want to kick something into the long grass then give it to yet another committee to look at. This stuff is not rocket science. People have developed proposals. What actually needs to happen is not that it should go through another round of discussions in endless inter-departmental committees, but that proposals should be brought preferably to this committee to be scrutinised and that we can move forward and implement a scheme. When you hear there will be discussions and that many Departments will be involved what I tend to hear is we do not intend doing anything about this in the near future but we will give an impression of activity in the hope that it will not continue to attract attention. That would be my view. It is necessary to hold people to account for delivery as opposed to holding people to account for having nice talks.
I thank the Ombudsman and welcome him back. We have taken on our previous engagement with him and we have been pressing in regard to the Wasted Lives report. I have had the opportunity to meet the next Ombudsman through the Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure Reform and Taoiseach. At that committee I was glad to see there was a commitment to follow through on all the recommendations that Mr. Tyndall has made. It will be important that all of the recommendations in his report as Ombudsman are followed through so that the sustained pressure that he describes as necessary is kept on.
A couple of points in this report struck me, as well as one that was not in the report but is an issue and I wonder has he thoughts on it. My former colleague, John Dolan, when he was a Member of my Civil Engagement Group in the Seanad, highlighted the disability accessibility dimension of transport contracts when they were being awarded, particularly in rural Ireland. In fact we had legislation on it. It is a useful point to look at, not just in terms of this issue but the knock-on effect which is that public duty on equality and human rights that public bodies have, that they also need to follow that through when they are contracting or procuring services. They need to make sure that any public service that the public receives is there on an equitable basis and is there for everybody. Does the witness think there has been learning from that embarrassment in the past? Have there been improvements in the practices? What should be learned from that for other areas of public service delivery which tend to work with private contractors in the way that transport does?
I am also very struck by the point on age. That point about you move to just being an older person and those additional supports you need become harder to access because the attitude is well, you have a bus pass that should do you. Will the witness talk about the importance of making sure that age does not become a barrier or be allowed to become a barrier to these specific schemes even though there are also many other barriers to these schemes? The idea of doing this audit of your hands, legs and arms must be quite distressing for people especially those who potentially may have rehabilitative aspirations in regard to their future mobility. They may need this in order to stay active and stay in the world and do the things that are important to them, and who may well hope to have some improvement along the line. They should not have this is a bar or threshold. Will the witness comment on those issues?
I think the same thing that Senator McGreehan touched on which is, why are these measures always incrementally rolled out, piloted, done to a small degree, rather than made to a large scale? When we give a support to a business sector for example, we do not give it to five companies out of 50, we give it to a sector. Yet, and this was in the Wasted Lives report, we have this incremental, slow roll-out of something we know is needed. Will the witness just comment on those points please?
Mr. Peter Tyndall:
There are many issues there. The first one I will address is the issue of older people and disability. When I did the Wasted Lives report one of the things that was pointed out is that there are quite a few older people in nursing homes who ought to be in the community as well, or who would want to be in the community. We focused on a particular tranche of people but that did not mean we took the view that others were properly there. I do not take that view. Part of that is that, to remain in the community you have to be able to have access. When Emily O'Reilly highlighted the fact that the schemes discriminated against older people, it was exactly that point. The requirements for older and disabled people can be just the same as for younger and disabled people so the notion that the scheme should have been closed at a particular age made no sense whatsoever. I endorse that point.
In regard to the point on transport in rural areas, I am not conscious of our having had many complaints about that, which makes it more difficult for me to comment on. We have a particular role under the disability legislation, particularly around access to public buildings, and I encourage members in dealing with constituents but also the organisations working with disabled people to encourage more people to bring complaints to my office. It is only when we have some evidence that we are in a position to move forward with issues. I am well aware of the issue and the fact that we were embarrassed into improvements but people were not complaining particularly, to my knowledge, to this office. In the future, if people are aware of it as an issue, help them to come. Have I covered all the points the Senator raised?
I want to echo all the comments mentioned so far this morning and welcome Mr. Tyndall and Ms Cooney for coming and presenting us with the Grounded - Unequal access for people with Disabilities to Personal Transport Schemes report. I am impressed that they managed to produce another necessary and important report before Mr. Tyndall's retirement. I wish him best wishes in his retirement. Access to transport is an issue I have been raising since elected and one the committee has been exploring since it was formed. For my constituency of County Clare which is very rural and public transport is patchy at best but even less practical for wheelchair users. It is interesting to hear that the Ombudsman has not had many complaints on access from rural areas. One Clare man in particular, Pádraic Hayes, has done Trojan work to highlight the lack of access to transport. He explains that for many transport is the key factor in accessing work, shopping for essentials and any kind of social and cultural life. It is the keystone for all these aspects of life. Without it a person is denied the right to participate. Without transport in County Clare, at the very least, there is a negative knock-on effect. Local Link, a regional route bus service in the county, only operates between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. which means it cannot assist anybody who is in full-time employment for a regular 9 to 5. That is just one example, there is a massive gap. Public transport is one thing, as the report shows, and having private means of transport is another.
The mobility allowance and the motorised transport grant were slashed in that cost-cutting austerity bust phase of governance. It has further disabled people with disabilities by removing the pathways to participating fully and meaningfully in society with still no alternatives. As Mr. Tyndall has reminded us, as Ombudsman, he has been flagging these issues since 2012. His concerns seem to have fallen on deaf ears.
My first question is: what response did he get from the Department when he, for example, recommended a review six months after that discontinuance, or when he raised his concerns with them? He has already mentioned the justifications, whereby they refer to lack of resources and the plan being withdrawn at the last minute. As he said, the cost for community and rights is so acute.
Second, it has been suggested that the previous schemes had their own disadvantages, including that they potentially breached the Equal Status Acts. What should we as a committee be advocating for moving forward? What does Mr. Tyndall see as the most effective and inclusive model for a private transport scheme, knowing, as he does, the inner workings of the previous ones? I would love to hear his thoughts. I would love to hear his opinions on how to move away from a medical model assessment based on impairment towards a human rights or social model-aligned assessment.
Mr. Peter Tyndall:
I thank the Deputy. There was a lot in that. I have always said that it is the proud boast of the Office of the Ombudsman that no recommendation has not been accepted. There are many ombudsman offices in countries that are less democratic, or that are newer to democracy than Ireland is, which struggle to get recommendations accepted. Generally, once the recommendations are accepted, they are implemented. However, this recommendation is a glaring example of a set of recommendations that were accepted but then were not implemented. I never got a refusal to engage. The Department was always able to give me an update on progress. Somebody in a newspaper article quoted me as saying, and I was in turn quoting a member of staff about something else, that it was the slowest slow bicycle race on record. It is not usually the case that people say, "No, we are not going to do that". However, it did reach a point where proposals, which had taken a very long time to draw up, were finally about to be brought forward to Cabinet and the plug was pulled because of resource issues. That was the turning point in all of this. Now we hear that the issue is being moved forward to a much broader process of developing proposals across the spectrum for disabled people. That is not enough. There needs to be more definitive proposals.
The deficiency in the previous schemes that was identified was principally the lack of access for older people. From an equality perspective, as I said in answer to an earlier question, there should not be, and cannot be, an upper age limit on the scheme. If people need to have transport to access the communities, that need will be there regardless of their age. That is an important point. We are always going to have to have some set of criteria as to who should access the scheme. However, it should be about people needing it because their mobility is in some way affected. It could equally be that they might not have a physical disability that affects movement, but, for instance, that they might have a severe condition that affects their stamina, their ability to walk or they may have a degenerative illness. That is a set of reasons people's mobility might be impaired. The issue is that this scheme has to be for people who cannot otherwise get around. The measure has to be their mobility. I think the Deputy can envisage quite a number of models. The tax breaks, for instance, within the current scheme are quite comprehensive. That is not a bad model. It is just the access issues that are the problem. Then you-----
Mr. Peter Tyndall:
I can, yes. I apologise that I was thrown out of the meeting for a moment. I love technology. It was so much better when we could all sit in a room and talk to each other, was it not?
Just coming back to the point, we are going to have some issues around adaptations, such as capital funding to enable people to have vehicles adapted. There are also other issues around the additional costs that people experience as a consequence of being disabled. The scheme must be able to reflect those issues. Between the two schemes, one helped people to get access to their own transport while the other helped them with the daily cost of transport. Any new scheme would have to retain those characteristics. Clearly, there has to be some measure of affordability. When rights are concerned, priorities come into it. Regarding access to resources, there needs to be prioritisation given to the rights of people with disabilities. That is what has troubled me. That priority has not been evident.
I thank both Ms Cooney and Mr. Tyndall for the strait-laced report. It sets out what the issues have been. The biggest message is that there is inequality. Some disabled people had the benefit of the schemes to help them. Then, because they were suspended, nothing else was put in place. Those who came after have been left without any support. That in itself is an inequality. Mr. Tyndall and Ms Cooney have fairly well set that out in the report. I thank them for that.
I believe that the logjam is in the fact that officials within the Departments of Public Expenditure and Reform and Finance are looking at the cost of such schemes. I live in a rural constituency in Galway and I know of people who are inside their homes seven days a week. They cannot get out, unless somebody such as a member of the family, comes and brings them some place, maybe to do the shopping or just to get out of the house. It is like a jail sentence. This is for the simple reason that they cannot drive. However, if they had a car, it could be adapted. If they were given money for mobility systems, they would be able to get a taxi more often and that type of thing.
Since I came into the Dáil I have served in a ministerial position. I understand from when I was in the previous Government how tricky it can be to convince officials to do what sometimes might be the right thing. The former Minister of State, Finian McGrath, tried his best to get a scheme in place when he was in office. I am sure that the current Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, will do her best to do something here as well. The difficulty is that we need to, like Mr. Tyndall and Ms Cooney have done in their report, set out what that is as clearly as possible.
On 1 December, I was working on a case for a constituent who had applied for the primary medical certificate. It had been refused. Last June, it went to appeal to the National Rehabilitation Hospital. Staff wrote in June to say that they had the application. They wrote again in October to say that because of everything that happened and being unable to hold their appeals, that there was delay. I contacted the chair of the appeals board to get a reply back on 1 December. The secretary of the Disabled Drivers Medical Board of Appeal who confirmed that the current members of the board had resigned in recent weeks.
However, the Departments of Health and Finance are working together to find members of a new board as quickly as possible. As soon as the new board is in place and operational, I will be contacting the constituent when we have a date for his appeal. I am very concerned about this. I do not know whether the was aware that the members of the board had resigned. Why they resigned is one thing, but if they were resigning because their term of office was done, one would imagine that a new board would have been ready to take over in order to ensure a seamless transition.
At present, there is no appeals mechanism and people are waiting more than a year to make appeals. To compound the problem even more, virtually all the appeals are being heard in Dún Laoghaire in Dublin and some are being heard in Cork. However, no appears are being heard anywhere else. A number of years ago, appeals were held in County Roscommon over a few days. We really and truly are only paying lip service to all of this. That is why I welcome the report. Was the aware that the members of the board of appeal had resigned? Does he know why, or what is going on there? The report, entitled Grounded: Unequal access for people with disabilities to personal transport schemes, is aptly named. I am seriously concerned. The report has shone a light that will perhaps be of help to the committee. We will need to get full political pull on this issue in order to ensure that we can put something in place that is meaningful and effective and will help the disabled person, rather than categorising them and requiring them to have a severe disability to access the scheme. I know many people who cannot access it. A person needs to be an amputee or a wheelchair user to access it. Even with that, I know one person who is a wheelchair user and has been refused it. I am annoyed and frustrated about it. While the and I feel frustrated, the people with disabilities must feel demoralised when they are refused it. Perhaps the can comment on the resignations of the members of the board.
Mr. Peter Tyndall:
It is difficult, is it not? I was aware that the members of the committee were very unhappy about people having to administer a scheme with the characteristics we have been discussing. The most diplomatic way of putting it is that I was not surprised to hear that they had resigned. The Deputy's assumption is that as no measures were put in place, these people were not leaving because their term of office was over. It is probably best to ask them directly, but my sense is that they were being asked to do a job and they were fully aware of how deficient the criteria they were being asked to implement were. I think they, like the Deputy, would have found it frustrating at having to turn down people who clearly needed to access the scheme but who were not entitled to do so because of the narrowly drawn nature of the criteria. The Deputy can draw his own conclusions as to why they resigned.
The criteria are clearly nonsensical. They have almost a 19th century feel to them. It is a very old-fashioned way of going about determining whether a person needs access to transport. When the court properly found that they were not consistent with the legislation, rather than changing the criteria, the Government changed the legislation. It is time now to change the criteria, and to change them urgently. There were to sets of reasons for delays. The first one, of course, was that when the decision of the court was made, it was no longer possible for the board to continue to make decisions because the criteria had been deemed to be inconsistent with the legislation. There was a period during which no decisions were made until the legislation was changed. Then, of course, we have the situation now that not long after the legislation was changed, the members of the board stepped down. The delays just add to the frustration.
I thank the witnesses for coming before the committee. More importantly, I thank them for all the work they do on disability matters and for highlighting the failures of the Government and the State. The discontinuation of the mobility allowance and motorised transport grant for new applicants in 2013 was disgraceful, but the fact that no adequate replacement has been developed in eight years is truly shocking. The situation is just another clear violation of individuals' rights under the UNCRPD, including their right to equal access to transport under Article 9 and also the right to live independently under Article 19. Disabled people who cannot drive depend on public transport or, more often, family to allow them to work, socialise and spend time outside of their home. It is particularly acute in rural areas, where, for example, people who are visually impaired rely on families and taxis, which are expensive. I was surprised to hear the say in response to Senator Higgins that he does not hear much from people in those situations. I will certainly encourage the many people who contact my office about that issue to get in touch with the 's office.
Schemes like the mobility allowance are targeted supports that involve relatively small amounts in the scale of national budgets, but they can make a massive difference to the lives of individuals. As the has pointed out, there an additional inequity because there are still people on the scheme, but new entrants are not allowed. It has been within the remit of the Government and those which preceded it to resolve the situation. I thank the and his staff for all their diligent work on and candour expressed in the report. I refer to a paragraph from the conclusion that I think is important to read out and highlight to the whole committee and anyone who is watching. It states:
The reports published by the since 2012 highlight the same issues over and over again. I am very concerned that the issues identified appear to have effectively been ignored and that nine years later, there is no evidence of any real progress that would serve to enhance the lives of those for whom these schemes were intended to assist with their daily lives. This is of huge concern to me.
It is really important to read that quotation out because it highlights the gravity of this report and the situation that we are in. We have these meetings every week, and every week we feel the same despair. I know I mention it often, but I must say that I always come back to the fact that Ireland has yet to ratify the optional protocol on the UNCRPD. We heard from a public representative in Australia last week and a family who has had experiences of living in Australia and in Ireland, and the differences in the disability support services they have accessed. It was truly shocking to hear. It took us ten years to ratify the UN convention in the first place. It is a disgrace that we still have not ratified the optional protocol. It is unbelievable. We have seen from other countries that that is how people realise their rights.
The report catalogues the various issues raised by the Ombudsman and his predecessors on this issue. From the Ombudsman's engagement with the HSE and successive Ministers for Health, how seriously does the he think the Government takes the invaluable work he is doing? I am interested in hearing how the State agencies and the Government respond to the Office of the Ombudsman. To help frame how the Government and the HSE address - or do not address - failures to protect the rights of disabled people, I ask the Ombudsman to elaborate on what has happened in respect of the Wasted Lives report into the inappropriate placement of people under the age of 65 in nursing homes, which we discussed back in June.
The report notes that the Ombudsman and his predecessors: "have highlighted the unfairness and inequity of these schemes, the response by Government has been to either discontinue the schemes without replacement, or in the case of the Disabled Drivers and Disabled Passengers scheme, to reinforce the inequitable eligibility criteria in primary legislation." This example is another in a very long list that this committee has heard about concerning repeated Government failures. What action on personal transport could the Government take to convince the Ombudsman that it is taking the rights of people with disabilities seriously?
Mr. Peter Tyndall:
The reason this report is with the committee is because our recommendations are generally accepted and then acted upon. We look across the work we do as an office and there are few areas where there are outstanding issues. Sometimes we get frustrated at the speed at which things are done but they generally are done.
I will choose a different example in the health field. We brought forward recommendations early on in my tenure about changes to the way complaints are handled within the HSE and the vast majority of those recommendations have been implemented. There has been constant engagement with the office on that. Action plans have been put in place and updated in how they have proceeded. We did it in the context of acute hospitals, for example, and the HSE extended the work to the community. There are good examples of engagement, although we do have areas of frustration in our work with the HSE. I will not talk about the treatment abroad scheme because I might get cross and there are areas of frustration but Departments and State agencies generally respond well to recommendations. This issue stands out in the sense of the length of time during which nothing has been done and that is why we highlighted it here.
Ms Cooney and I recently went to the National Rehabilitation Hospital to talk in the grand rounds about the Wasted Lives report. I will get Ms Cooney to say a little about the response we got but it was reassuring. Ms Cooney may also talk to the committee about some of the action that has been taken on Wasted Lives.
Ms Sarah Cooney:
On the Wasted Lives report, as Mr. Tyndall said both the Department of Health and the HSE have accepted all of the recommendations in it. On practical implementation, a steering group has been set up under the chief operations officer in the HSE, Ms Anne O’Connor, which is a key example of how seriously it takes this issue. The HSE has also got funding through the EU to develop the audit of services and people in the settings under 65 to set out their will and preference and to be able to develop and put in place the supports that are needed to allow them to move, if it is their will and preference, to a community setting. We are waiting for the agreement of the national service plan, NSP, for 2022 to get an exact sense of how the pilot that was put in place and that helped to move 18 people out of such settings this year, will be scaled up next year. Our hope is that it will be scaled up substantially in order to move this area on at the pace that is needed. There is movement and we are happy to work with the HSE’s steering group and the action plan it is developing to ensure it is monitored and to ensure that the recommendations are implemented as quickly as possible.
As Mr. Tyndall said, we were recently in the National Rehabilitation Hospital. It was important for us to get a sense of the impact the report had for people working on the ground and to hear of some of the frustrations that those people would have. The idea that this pilot might be scaled out and that there will be the supports put in place for people is important for people working in the field.
I have a quick follow-up question. It was quite disappointing that 18 people were initially decongregated. That was an incredibly low number given the incredibly high number of people who were inappropriately placed in those congregated settings. I know from different people we were dealing with in my office that it was not just in old persons’ homes but that people were also placed into psychiatric wards, which could not be more inappropriate. In many areas, particularly rural areas, there is an absence of any kind of independent supported living. One of the things this committee requested when we started up in this Dáil was that the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage would come before the committee and explain to us how many houses there would be in any builds for providing independent supported living. I have come to the conclusion that this must be considered in other policies. How can the HSE address a lack of independent supported living if the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage is not taking that into consideration from the outset when we are building houses? How hopeful are the witnesses that this will be scaled up to the extent they are hoping for? How can we get it from 18 up to over 1,500?
Mr. Peter Tyndall:
As Ms Cooney says, the test of that will be the NSP for the coming year. We would expect to see a substantial increase in the number of people being resettled next year. If 18 was a pilot programme then a major increase is needed. It will be past my time as Ombudsman but it is something that the office will be keeping a close eye on. I am glad that colleagues were reassured by my successor. I know he is determined to keep an eye on the recommendations that have been made, to make sure they are delivered upon and to highlight any failure to do so. I do not doubt he will do that. It is somewhat speculative at this stage. The intention is there and the programme for Government includes a commitment to stop people going in and a commitment to resettle people. The scale of that will become obvious when we see the NSP.
I thank Mr. Tyndall and Ms Cooney for their thought-provoking evidence. On the last point, the committee should write to the HSE and the Minister for Health in advance of the agreement of the NSP in order to put our weight behind the witnesses’ opinions, to ask for an urgent review of that and to ask that funding would be made available in the service plan. We should do that as early as we possibly can with the team to get that into the system.
I wish Mr. Tyndall the best as he goes on to his next stage. I thank him for the enormous contribution he has made in the Office of the Ombudsman and in previous roles. In the last 12 months we have heard a pile of evidence from people, families and representative groups of people with disabilities advancing the cause of people with disabilities. I will take the word “grounding” from Mr. Tyndall’s report. I reflected deeply on it and I reflect on it this morning as well. There is almost a paralysis within Governments and within Departments when it comes to dealing with this issue as a glaring omission in terms of people with disabilities and them having access to mobility in any way, shape or form. We could have 15 meetings with discussions on the primary medical certificates and the appeals board and the inadequacies in those, although I know they are not the subject of this morning’s meeting. I also mention the overall issue of people who are grounded because there is no proper system in place. I thank Mr. Tyndall for his honesty on it and for singling out the inability of both Governments and Departments to deal with this as an issue that he and his office have been following for some time. The committee needs to highlight that, be forceful behind the report, accept the report and demand answers from Departments and Government on what its plan is and on what is there to put an equitable, fair and easily accessible scheme in place for people with disabilities to ensure they have accessibility. Our committee should accept the report.
Without mincing our words, we should write to the Minister for Finance, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth and the Minister for Health to demand action on this. Otherwise, we are going to be skirting around it. It is very clear from the questions the frustration members have had over the years in trying to help. Some mornings, we hear very moving evidence from people and families about their disabilities. We are trying to bring a spotlight to the challenges that exist, but we are also trying to get results and movement, whether is on the optional protocol, access to funding or implementation. This is one thing we need to single out and try to get a result on as quickly as possible, and that is what we should do from here. If the witnesses have any comments, I would be happy to take them, but I believe that is what we should do as a committee. I understand Mr. Tyndall had a technical issue but perhaps he wants to comment now.
Mr. Peter Tyndall:
Adopting the report is a very welcome move and I am very pleased the committee is able to do that. Writing would also be helpful. I would be inclined to suggest the committee may want to call people in front of it to speak about what they are doing. It might want to bring people from more than one Department so all of the individuals have an opportunity to contribute to a successful outcome and can perhaps tell the committee how they are going to do that.
We will reflect on that and it is something we will certainly do. We are anxious to get movement on this. I wish Mr. Tyndall the very best in his onward journey. I thank him for his contribution to the Office of the Ombudsman and in the various roles he has had. No doubt, he will be an influencer in the various roles he has next because he has enormous capability and he has shown huge dedication to the job in hand up to now. I wish him the best of luck. I thank Ms Cooney for her contribution to the meeting.
As we draw to a close the 2021 season, I thank all members, both on and off the call this morning, for their contribution to the Committee on Disability Matters over the past 12 months. The strength of the committee is only the sum of its parts. All members have played an enormous role and have been extremely good at listening to very difficult evidence over the past while and in every way they can. Deputy Tully spoke earlier of the Topical Issue matter she raised on the Indecon report, and other committee members do so in the Seanad or the Dáil. That was just the most recent example and I know other members have raised issues and have been advancing what we have been discussing here at the committee. We will continue to do that in every forum we can because, collectively, I think we can make a change and, if it is just to the attitude alone, we can do that. I thank the members for their courtesy and, overall, for the work ethic they have shown over the past 12 months. We hope to start again in January 2022 and try to effect change for the people we are charged with representing.
I also thank our background team, in particular Mairead O’Donovan, who heads the team, and all of the Oireachtas team who are with us. They are excellent. I know some days they are probably tearing their hair out when I have some other hare-brained idea we might try to do, but they are very good, they have come forward with an awful lot of stuff and they work extremely diligently. It is great to have the team and the members. I wish everyone a very nice Christmas and I offer every good wish for 2022. Slán agus beannacht.