Tuesday, 10 October 2006
Social Welfare Benefits.
Question 107: To ask the Minister for Social and Family Affairs if his attention has been drawn to the reply given to a parliamentary question in the European Parliament tabled to the European Commission by Proinsias De Rossa MEP; if his further attention has been drawn to the fact that the Commission rejected his proposal to extend the free travel scheme to those with Irish pensions and living abroad on the basis that it discriminated against Irish persons of pension age who did not have Irish pensions; his views on expanding the scheme to all Irish nationals of pensionable age living abroad, regardless of whether they have Irish pensions; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [31954/06]
The free travel scheme is available to all people living in the State aged 66 years or over. All carers in receipt of carer's allowance and carers of people in receipt of constant attendance or prescribed relative's allowance, regardless of their age, receive a free travel pass. It is also available to people under age 66 who are in receipt of certain disability type welfare payments, such as disability allowance, invalidity pension and blind person's pension. People resident in the State who are in receipt of a social security invalidity or disability payment from a country covered by EU regulations, or from a country with which Ireland has a bilateral social security agreement, and who have been in receipt of this payment for at least 12 months, are also eligible for free travel.
The scheme provides free travel on the main public and private transport services for those eligible under the scheme. These include road, rail and ferry services provided by companies such as Bus Átha Cliath, Bus Éireann and Iarnród Éireann, as well as Luas and services provided by more than 80 private transport operators. The free travel scheme applies to travel within the State and point to point cross-Border journeys between here and Northern Ireland. In line with the Government objective to put in place an all-Ireland free travel scheme for pensioners resident in all parts of this island, I am committed to significantly improving the North-South element of the current arrangements.
There have been a number of requests and enquiries regarding the extension of entitlement to free travel in Ireland to Irish-born people living outside Ireland, or to those in receipt of pensions from my Department, particularly in Britain, when they return to Ireland for a visit. I have examined the reply given by the European Commission to a parliamentary question from Proinsias De Rossa MEP in the European Parliament. The reply indicates that to extend the free travel scheme to people in receipt of an Irish pension and living abroad could be discriminatory under EU law. I have also been advised that it would not be possible to extend entitlement to free travel simply to Irish-born people living abroad as to do so would also be contrary to European legislation, which prohibits discrimination on the grounds of nationality.
However, I am determined to explore all options and I have raised the issue in meetings with the Commissioner for Employment and Social Affairs. Officials from my Department have met with European Commission officials on two occasions in an effort to clarify the legal issues involved. I am keeping this issue under close review and contacts with the European Commission are ongoing.
I thank the Minister for his reply and for his history lesson on free travel. I do not know why Ministers do not exclude that part of their answers. Obviously, members of the Opposition know just as much about free travel as the Department's officials. I do not know why it has to be read into the record every time.
I am asking the Minister to take his courage in his hands. Instead of running to Europe seeking a licence every time he wants to do something, he should do it and let Europe respond if it sees fit. If the Minister had done this in the first place, we would already have the free travel scheme for the Irish abroad.
In the response to Proinsias De Rossa, the Court of Justice's ruling effectively said that Irish nationals cannot be discriminated against on the basis that because someone does not have an Irish pension, one cannot get free travel when they come home to Ireland, whereas the Minister argues that he will only grant free travel to those with a pension. I do not know why the Minister interprets it differently, but the European Commission said that were the Government to introduce free travel for all Irish citizens of a certain age living abroad, that would be in order. The Court of Justice ruling quoted in the reply to Proinsias De Rossa fortified that argument.
Rather than going over and back to the EU and leaving files piled high without any decision or effective action being taken, the Minister should now introduce a free travel scheme for all Irish citizens whether they live in Ireland or elsewhere. I do not think he will have any difficulty from the Commission for doing so.
However, I do not have the luxury of ignoring what the Attorney General or the Commission say. I must take account of what both institutions say. As the Deputy is aware, I removed the peak time restrictions recently and in the coming period it will be possible to give full details on the expansion of the North-South travel. We will then have sorted those two problems.
I am as committed as the Deputy to trying to make progress on this issue. I have had a number of meetings with Commissioners. My officials have met their opposite numbers on many occasions. There has been much protracted and heavy discussion about it and it keeps coming up. I have a letter here from the Commission setting out the issue in black and white, including the European Court of Justice case. It states that any action I take that is based on nationality alone will be challenged. Free travel could be extended therefore to everybody in the European Union over the age of 66. That is something I was not planning to contemplate given the huge numbers involved. One answer to this question would have been for the European Community to proceed with its free travel pass many years ago. That would have been a good solution but various countries pulled that apart and it did not get anywhere, which is a pity.
I will continue to press every possible angle to ensure that our citizens in the United Kingdom are dealt with, not just those in receipt of pensions, although that would be a start. I specifically put that proposal regarding those in receipt of pensions. At one time I offered to change the legislation to make it a condition of an Irish pension that one would get free travel. I even pointed out that it would be discriminatory for me not to give free travel to someone in receipt of an Irish pension in the UK, but that proposal was not accepted. I then went back to the basics but if I put some measure in place for Irish citizens only, it will have no chance of standing the test of time so there is no point in going down that road.
I will continue to search for every possible angle to address this issue. I will take careful note of what the Deputy says to me today and promise him that within a couple of hours I will have it assessed by whatever legal brains are available.
I am afraid the Minister might be just playing with the issue rather than dealing with it. He tells us every time that he is pressing the buttons but there is nothing he can do about it. That, however, is no good to us. What we need is action from the Minister on this issue. He said he will raise another hare with the Commission and let the Commission chase it around for another six months before it comes to ground. That is no use to the people about whom we are talking.
It is important that the House realises the sort of people about whom we are talking. We are talking about Irish people who went abroad, worked extremely hard and sent back a great deal of money to the rest of us who were at home. They and their organisations believe there is a necessity for some recognition of that. It is not about monetary value because there is very little monetary value involved, and I believe the Minister appreciates that. It is a matter of recognising them and giving them somewhat of a salute for what they did for us.
I ask the Minister to stop running to the Commission every time he wants to do something. He should take a leaf out of the book of the French Government and Administration and do it. He can then talk to the Commission. I strongly suggest he should do that. He should not run to the Attorney General either because he will give the Minister the most careful possible answer. He should just do it and deal with the Commission subsequently. It will be ten years before it catches up with any one pensioner.