Dáil debates

Tuesday, 30 May 2006

8:00 pm

Photo of Seymour CrawfordSeymour Crawford (Cavan-Monaghan, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing me raise this important matter and the Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Deputy Gallagher, for taking it.

There is an urgent need to change the rules being applied to those in need of a primary medical certificate. In spite of their clear need, seriously disabled people who must use a car with automatic transmission with necessary alterations are being refused primary certificates because they still possess their legs and hands.

I raise this serious matter because last week I received another representation in this regard, on this occasion from a young lady aged 23. She was the victim of a serious hit-and-run accident ten years ago, the effects of which were virtually those of a stroke, and she has never fully recovered. This lady has been brought through the driving test system by the association for those with such handicap and she got through the test on her first attempt, only by using a car with automatic transmission and the necessary alternations.

Although it was clear this young lady could not drive an car which was not properly fitted to allow her use the limbs of which she has full use, the regulations deem her ineligible because she has not lost either a leg or an arm. The system has gone crazy and something needs to be done about it.

I spoke to this young lady's mother. This family has come through a traumatic time, to put it mildly. Now that the young girl has a job she desperately needs the car for her independence and to go to work, and the only type of car she can drive is one with automatic transmission, properly fitted. Yet when she goes in front of the doctors, who know all about her history and all about what she has come through, she is torn down on technicalities. It is just not funny.

Given that this city saw the launch by the Taoiseach and many Ministers of entirely new regulations in the area of disability, surely this is one of the typical instances where, in spite of the promise of much money, no changes have been made.

I beg the Minister of State to take this matter seriously. If this girl lacked the determination to go through rehabilitation and take up a job, what would she cost the State if she needed permanent residential care? While she is trying her best, needs to get the alternations made and wants her independence, she cannot get the support she needs. This is not an isolated case, but one that has come to my attention most recently.

I encountered another case of a middle-aged man who lives on the road from Emyvale to Monaghan which the Minister of State and I travel regularly. He has no power in one arm. Although he got a primary medical certificate while his wife was dying of cancer, the minute she died the certificate was revoked because it was issued to him on the basis of her inability to walk.

I encountered yet another case, where a man underwent surgery 24 times following a serious accident. While he still has some movement in his leg, he cannot drive without alterations to his car and yet his primary medical certificate application has been refused. What he cannot understand is that his friend who has a frozen leg is allowed a primary medical certificate. There is a need to apply some degree of common sense. This man's friend, who did not lose a leg but has a frozen leg, has a primary medical certificate and this man, who cannot use his leg because of the extent of his injuries, is ineligible.

While I appreciate the Minister of State will not have the answers I want tonight, our reasonably well-off economic climate should permit him the opportunity to re-examine this problem and ensure that those with a disability who want to work get the support they need.

Photo of Pat GallagherPat Gallagher (Minister of State, Department of Transport; Donegal South West, Fianna Fail)
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I thank Deputy Crawford for raising this important issue relating to the disabled drivers' and disabled passengers' tax concessions scheme. The Minister for Finance, Deputy Cowen, who had another engagement in the west tonight, asked me to convey his apologies.

The scheme dates back to 1968 when relief from road tax was made available, under legislation, for persons with a disability meeting specific medical criteria. Since then, the scheme has been extended and amended on many occasions.

The statutory basis for the current scheme is section 92 of the Finance Act 1989. The principal regulations are from 1994, with subsequent amendments. Access to the scheme is on the basis of six medical criteria which are set out in section 3 of the 1994 regulations.

A person who qualifies under the criteria set out in section 3 is issued with a primary medical certificate by the senior medical officer of the local Health Service Executive administrative area. Possession of this certificate qualifies the holder to claim the benefits of the scheme, either as a qualifying driver or a qualifying passenger. Where the medical certificate is not granted, the legislation provides for an appeal procedure operated by the Disabled Drivers Medical Board of Appeal, an independent body, whose decision is final. From my experience as a Deputy in my county, I am aware that it had a long waiting list until recently but I would hope it has shortened somewhat since. The board's members are appointed by the Minister for Finance on the advice of the Minister for Health and Children. The regulations also provide for inclusion in the scheme of non-profit organisations involved in the transport of persons with a disability.

The benefits of the scheme for qualifying persons are set out in the legislation. They consist of the following. First, there is full relief in the year of purchase of an adapted vehicle of VRT and VAT, subject to limits of €9,525 for a qualifying driver and €15,875 for a qualifying passenger or organisation. In the case of passengers, there is a requirement that the adaptation to the car must amount to at least 10% of the cost of the car. In the case of both drivers and passengers, the vehicle must be retained for at least two years. Second, there is relief from excise duty up to a maximum of 600 gallons per year, or 900 gallons in the case of an organisation. Third, there is exemption from road tax.

The average total annualised value of these benefits is estimated at approximately €5,500 per claimant. ln the year of purchase of a car a claimant receives benefits relating to the purchase of the car, fuel relief and road tax, and in the other years the benefits received are fuel relief and road tax.

ln terms of the overall scale and scope of the scheme, the most recent data available from the Revenue show that the total number of claimants in the system in 2005 is around 9,500, made up of approximately 3,750 drivers and 5,750 passengers. The total cost of the scheme excluding road tax in 2005 was €49.5 million. When road tax is included the total cost is estimated to be over €56 million. Given the generosity of the scheme, strict medical criteria are set down to qualify for it. The scheme is not open to all people with a disability, only to people with certain serious physical disabilities. The medical eligibility criteria for the scheme is set out in legislation. Time does not permit me to go into detail in this regard but Deputy Crawford can read the information in the written reply which I will make available.

It is a fundamental requirement for admission to the scheme that the applicant meets the specified medical criteria and is in possession of a primary medical certificate to that effect. As the Deputy may be aware, a special interdepartmental group reviewed the operation of the disabled drivers' scheme. The group's terms of reference were to examine the operation of the existing scheme, including the difficulties experienced by the various groups and individuals involved with it, and to consider the feasibility of alternative schemes with a view to assisting the Minister for Finance in determining the future direction of the scheme.

The group's report, which was published on the Department of Finance's website in July 2004, sets out in detail the genesis and development of the scheme. It examines the current benefits, the qualifying medical criteria, the Exchequer costs, the relationship with other schemes and similar schemes in other countries. The report also makes a number of recommendations, both immediate and long-term, referring, respectively, to the operation of the appeals process and options for the future development of the scheme.

In respect of the long-term recommendations, which included the qualifying disability criteria, given the scale and scope of the scheme, further changes can only be made after careful consideration. The issues raised in the interdepartmental review group report are complex. Fundamental questions were raised. The Government decided that the Minister for Finance would consider the recommendations contained in the report of the interdepartmental review group in the context of the annual budgetary process. I have taken note of the specific issues raised by Deputy Crawford and will bring them to the attention of the Minister.