Wednesday, 29 March 2006
Adjournment Debate (Resumed).
Social Welfare Benefits.
One of my constituents, a young lady, was in receipt of a blind pension in this country until she went to study in Edinburgh University. She has problems with glaucoma and cataracts and has undergone a cornea transplant. As she failed to get into the course she wanted to do in this country, she enrolled in college in Edinburgh last September. Her blind pension has been stopped as she was told she is no longer resident in this country. However, she spends all her holidays here, including from late May to late September, and must also travel home at regular intervals for her appointments in Temple Street hospital. She is struggling to create the basis for her future financial independence.
The Minister will cite section 249(1)(b) of the Social Welfare Consolidation Act and its provision that "except where regulations otherwise provide, a person shall be disqualified from receiving any benefit for any period during which that person is absent from the State". The Department's leaflet, SW76, on the blind pension states that, inter alia, to qualify a potential recipient must "live in the State". It goes on to state: "if you are leaving the State you should tell the Department [and] when you return here to live you should re-apply immediately". I cite these interpretations of section 249(1)(b) of the Act in the Department's publications to draw attention to the fact that the meaning of "absent from the State" is ambiguous.
The Department considers the meaning of "absent from the State" to be identical to "living in another state", as is clear from the quotation I just cited. The person in question is "habitually resident" in Ireland under any European Court of Justice approved meaning of that term. However, because she is in Scotland reading for a degree she could not get in Ireland, she is habitually resident here, yet disqualified from receiving her blind pension. EU law justifies any deviation from the principle regardless of where one stays or resides in the EU on the basis that "payment of these benefits will be suspended if you transfer your residence to another state which will then grant you the corresponding benefit, even if you have never worked there". There is, however, no corresponding benefit which that person might receive in Scotland because she is not resident there, she is a student.
Section 22(1) of the Social Welfare Act 1995, which inserts a new section 211(2), gave the Minister the power to make regulations enabling the payment of any benefit or assistance to any person who is absent from the State. I call on the Minister to make such regulations or to help find an alternative to the blind pension, for example, a scholarship from the Department of Education and Science which might give her the difference between what she is due under the blind pension while she is absent from the State and what she is entitled to when she is present in the State, while here during the university vacation. While she is here she has to undergo tests and attend medical appointments so she is home in Ireland at different intervals throughout the year. If the Department interprets section 249(1)(a) of the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005 without any margin of appreciation, it is clear that she is entitled to her blind pension for every second she is not absent from the State either during university vacations or to attend medical appointments.
I call on the Minister to restore blind pension for the whole year for this person and if that cannot be done, to help her obtain equivalent money from some other Government source, to commit to facilitating her blind pension payments for every minute she is in the State and not, as has been done, to cut her off totally from the only source of financial independence this courageous young woman has while she battles against the odds to complete her university education and secure her future financial independence.
I am taking this Adjournment debate on behalf of my colleague the Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Brennan. To qualify for a blind pension from my Department, a claimant must satisfy a number of conditions. She or he must be aged 18 years of age or over and must be so blind that she or he either cannot perform any work for which eyesight is essential or cannot continue in his or her ordinary occupation. In addition, the claimant must satisfy a means test and must reside in the State while in receipt of the pension. However, if a person in this State receives a blind pension and he or she goes to reside in Northern Ireland, there is provision in legislation, section 249(7) of the Social Welfare (Consolidation) Act 2005, to allow the Department to continue to pay the blind pension for up to five years or until he or she receives an equivalent payment from the appropriate authority of Northern Ireland. This provision has been in our legislation for many years. It applies only to recipients of blind pension and old age non-contributory pensions.
The person concerned applied to my Department for a blind pension in September 2005. Her circumstances were investigated by a social welfare inspector who subsequently reported that she was a student at a third level college in Scotland where she was undertaking a four-year degree course. It was noted that she returns to the family home in Ireland during holiday periods and that she had to attend an eye specialist in Dublin every six weeks. Following careful examination of her case, a deciding officer of my Department determined that her application for pension had to be disallowed on the basis that she was not residing in the State on a full-time basis. She was notified of this decision by my Department and of her right of appeal against it to the independent social welfare appeals office. If the person's circumstances change, she may reapply for the blind person's pension at any time. Under social welfare legislation decisions on claims are made by deciding officers. These officers are statutorily appointed and I have no role in regard to making such decisions.