Thursday, 13 October 2005
I wish to raise the issue of the disabled persons' grant, the inequality in how it is provided nationally, and what I believe must happen to resolve that. It must be attached to the initiative that the Tánaiste announced last week, which is very welcome, regarding incentivising people to stay well at home instead of entering a nursing home.
One aspect is the provision of something like the disabled persons grant or the essential repairs grant, the two being interlinked. They are two thirds funded by the Exchequer, with one third coming from the local authority, which is really the Exchequer too. Meeting the demands sought very much depends on whether one's local authority can produce the missing third. I have produced a table per head of the population. The lowest amount paid per head is in Kildare, some €7.35 for every person in the county. That understates the situation since there has been very rapid population growth there and the figures do not include people who have not yet been counted in the census of population. At the other end of the spectrum is Leitrim which receives €100.72 per head for this scheme.
I know that one cannot take one fund in isolation and that one should consider the totality. However, if one telephones the local authorities at the bottom of the list, one typically hears that they have a problem in meeting the demands of people applying. That is certainly the case in Kildare where applications total €5.5 million, with €1.5 million necessary to meet them. That is having a real and definite impact on people. It is certainly having the opposite result to that which the Tánaiste sought in the home care programme that she launched last week. It is not only disproportionate. Some of the disability groups tell us that money is returned from some local authorities where it is not used.
If we can see a problem like that and the money is in a fund, we must consider the structural reason that the problem occurs in the first place, which is that the local authorities at the end of the funding stream find it impossible to produce the one third required of them tomeet the demands of people living in those counties.
I have encountered situations such as that of a couple where the man had retired to care for his wife who suffered from motor neurone disease, which is progressive. He was trying to keep her at home for as long as possible and maintain a high quality of life for her despite the degenerative illness. The disabled persons grant list was closed and even to install a ramp proved impossible for that couple. Such things should not happen in this day and age. People are not able to modify bathrooms to have a safer walk-in shower fitted. Those are typical of applications returned to people in Kildare who are told that they are not disabled enough and that they must be utterly disabled to qualify for funding.
It is really not fair that in one part of the country one can have that funded through a grant while in another one cannot because one's local authority cannot produce the missing third. The sorts of choices that must be made regarding the one third include not introducing traffic calming or augmenting water treatment systems. This scheme is competing with so many other necessary schemes that it should be nationally funded and locally administered. That is the only way to overcome the difficulty. The funding exists but is inappropriately dispersed throughout the country.
I thank the Deputy for raising this matter on the Adjournment. I wish to reply on behalf of my colleague, Deputy Noel Ahern, Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government with responsibility for housing and urban renewal.
The disabled persons and essential repairs grant schemes serve a very useful purpose in helping to meet the housing needs of disabled and older persons. The disabled persons grant is available for the provision of additional accommodation or the carrying out of works of adaptation which, in the opinion of the local authority in whose area a house is located, are reasonably necessary to make the house more suitable for a disabled member of the household.
The essential repairs grant enables people in houses that cannot be made habitable in all respects at a reasonable cost to have basic repairs carried out to them. The scheme is directed primarily at older persons living in poor housing conditions.
I wish to make clear the Government's commitment to those schemes. They assist some of the more vulnerable sectors of society in providing themselves with accommodation appropriate to their changing needs. We have not been found lacking regarding the schemes. Demand for assistance under the disabled persons grant scheme, in particular, has increased enormously, and that is due in no small part to the significant improvements the Government has made to the scheme in recent years. In particular, the increase of the maximum effective grant in 2001 to its present level of €20,320, and the increase in the percentage of cost payable to 90%, has led to significantly greater activity under the scheme. The position is similar regarding the essential repairs grant scheme. The effective maximum grant of €9,523 may cover up to 100% of the cost of the works.
To meet that increased demand, the capital provision for the schemes is €70 million this year. The number of disabled persons grants paid increased from 3,646 in 2000 to 5,222 last year. Expenditure in the same period totalled more than €218 million, with more than 25,400 grants paid. That means that 25,400 projects were completed, allowing that number of disabled persons to remain in their home and enjoy improved housing conditions that many of them would otherwise have been unable to afford. Expenditure on the essential repairs grant scheme totalled €53 million in the period from 2000 to 2004, with 11,400 grants paid.
Deputies will be aware that the management of both schemes is delegated to local authorities within the framework laid down in statutory regulations. As far as practicable, that is designed to give an appropriate degree of flexibility at local level. The fact that the current regulations are framed in a manner that allows authorities maximum flexibility is one of the strengths of the scheme, but it may also require more active management at local level. The majority of authorities have reviewed their schemes in recent years to streamline their operations and reduce as far as possible the bureaucracy that might arise where more than one statutory agency is involved. They have also introduced a variety of mechanisms to ensure that the available resources are targeted to those in most need, including prioritisation on medical grounds, financial ability to carry out the work and unit cost control.
It is a matter for the authorities to decide on the level of funding to be provided for the schemes in their areas from within the combined allocations notified to them for that purpose by the Department. As I said, a combined capital allocation of €70 million is being made available to local authorities for the payment of disabled persons and essential repairs grants in 2005. Individual allocations have been notified to local authorities based on their requirements as notified to the Department. It is a matter for authorities to decide on the level of funding to be provided for the two schemes from within that combined capital allocation.
While two thirds of all expenditure on the schemes is recouped by my Department, authorities are required to fund the remaining one third from their own revenue resources, with amounts provided for that purpose in their annual estimates. In an effort to make the scheme more manageable for authorities, the recoupment level was increased from 50% to two thirds with effect from 2001. I am aware that some local authorities appear to give these schemes greater priority than others in the framing of their estimates. In the case of authorities with a high level of demand for the schemes, the provision of a one-third contribution can be a challenge.
When notified of their combined capital allocation for the scheme in 2005, local authorities were advised that in any cases where they had not made provision in their 2005 budget for their net contribution to these grants, they should advise the Department without delay of their proposals for the funding of their contribution. Any such applications are being considered in the Department. While there are no proposals to remove the requirement to provide a contribution from their revenue resources, this aspect of the scheme is also being considered in the context of the review of the scheme which is being finalised in my Department.
The disabled persons and essential repairs grant schemes are intended, like a number of other housing grant schemes operated by my Department, to assist works which provide additional or adapted accommodation in private houses. However, they are not designed to cover the full cost of works for all applicants. Local authorities may provide reconstruction loans to qualified applicants who have difficulty in obtaining finance to meet the balance of the cost. The focussing of the scheme on real needs, both financial and in terms of accommodation, and its operation by local authorities in an efficient manner will be critical in ensuring that it achieves its aim. I hope the outcome of the review of the operation of the scheme which is under way in my Department will significantly contribute to this achievement.
I am aware of Deputy Catherine Murphy's interest in this issue. We have both been critical in the past of how this issue has been dealt with in Kildare. When comparing counties, such as Kildare and Leitrim, as Deputy Catherine Murphy did, in terms of the funding allocated, there are other considerations one must take on board, including the average age of the houses involved and the percentage of the population who seek assistance in this regard.