Tuesday, 6 March 2007
Finance Bill 2007: Report Stage
I move amendment No. 3:
In page 11, between lines 11 and 12, to insert the following:
TAXPAYERS' ADVOCATE OFFICE
1.—The Ombudsman shall include in her annual report a special report on the overpayment of tax by PAYE taxpayers, and on the take up of credits by such taxpayers, and the branch of her office dedicated to ensuring that the take up of credits is readily available to all taxpayers, and refunds made as rapidly as possible where this arises, shall be known as the taxpayers' advocate office.
This Labour Party amendment provides for the establishment of a taxpayers' advocate. The reason for such a role is the well-documented situation which has arisen over the past number of years whereby many taxpayers, and PAYE taxpayers in particular, fail to claim the reliefs and allowances available to them. I refer in particular to the failure to claim tax relief on medical expenses, refuse charges and several other payments. People who have professional expertise in preparing tax returns or who can take advantage of professional advice on availing of reliefs tend to claim the maximum to which they are entitled under law. With regard to pension relief, for example, we know from the debate we held on Committee Stage that the Revenue Commissioners are well-equipped to deliver tax reliefs rapidly to people who have elaborate private pension funds worth several tens of millions of euro once they produce the appropriate documentation. Even though the Minister for Finance last year curtailed pension reliefs to €5 million, Revenue was able to quickly issue significant numbers of exemption certificates to private pension schemes which exceeded the limits set by the Minister. However, ordinary PAYE taxpayers who do not have the advantage of expert advice are restricted to a four-year period when claiming reliefs to which they may have been entitled in the past.
While the Minister has denied that the structure of claiming is excessively burdensome, certain of his Report Stage amendments are proof of the validity of the argument put forward by the Labour Party. For the past several years, we have argued that the most notorious example of this issue was medical expenses. With a threshold in operation, people have to keep all their medical receipts. A young family may have visited the doctor at the beginning of the tax year and then incurred further medical bills in November or December. I will not speak for other areas, but the routine GP fee on the north side of Dublin is €50 per person. Many doctors have discontinued the former practice of charging a single fee when they saw a parent and child together. Everybody is now charged a separate fee and many GPs also charge a full fee for return visits, so the expenses add up quickly for families.
I am glad the Minister has proposed an amendment to section 9 which would further simplify payment procedures by removing both thresholds to relief for medical expenses. This reform is long overdue and has been brought on the eve of the general election but it is none the less welcome. The amendment has been brought because the attention of the Minister and the Revenue Commissioners has been drawn to the significant amounts of relief which have gone unclaimed, particularly in respect of PAYE taxpayers. Estimates of the amount have varied between €200 million and €400 million. The cumulative value of the unclaimed relief could easily be more than €500 million. We are seeking a change in the playing pitch in favour of the honest, compliant taxpayer who is unable to employ a battery of accountants and tax advisers to create elaborate schemes so that the Revenue can return money to them rapidly and efficiently but who must keep a shoe box full of receipts to qualify for tax relief or retain a record on his or her computer of his or her various expenses.
The Minister has repeatedly claimed it is easy for people to claim relief. However, when Committee Stage concluded the Minister must have done a little research because he swore on Committee Stage that an abolition of thresholds was entirely unnecessary and not something the Revenue would do. He even hinted the Revenue would find it very difficult to deal with all the claims that would result as a consequence of abandoning the thresholds. However, on the eve of an election he has accepted the Labour Party's argument and he has tabled an amendment to simplify the repayment procedures for relief on medical expenses by abandoning the threshold. Anybody who has medical expenses should make sure his or her doctor or practice has a computerised record of such expenses so that a summary can be provided of all the fees paid by an individual, similar to that provided by a chemist. Once computerised systems are installed in all doctors' surgeries, it will not be long before taxpayers will be able to claim this relief at source through an arrangement similar to that provided for mortgage interest relief.
I am glad the Minister has finally accepted the Opposition's argument. Why, therefore, will he not go the whole hog and provide for a taxpayer's advocate so that somebody independent of the Revenue can examine what it does and point out how to improve the scenario for the ordinary, compliant taxpayer by taking various initiatives and creating a structure that would recognise the excellent work done by the Revenue in recent years to modernise and upgrade its operations? Text calling is very good and the Revenue's on-line service has been a boon particularly to businesspeople. It will ultimately be a boon to PAYE taxpayers. Why not accept the need for an advocate for taxpayers who would have an oversight role? The Minister replied on Committee Stage that he examined the role of similar offices in other countries such as the US. However, the issue is the empowerment of taxpayers and citizens. While the Revenue has awesome legal powers to encourage and, ultimately, force people to pay their taxes, somebody must be in place to champion taxpayers, particularly PAYE workers, so that they receive their just desserts.
The Minister could make a mark in his legislative swan song. While he has ambitions to hold a higher office, I hope that will not happen in the next Dáil and that Opposition Members will be on the opposite side of the fence this time next year. It would be good if the Minister acknowledged the strength of the Labour Party's case. A positive development in modern democracies is to allow State offices such as the Revenue, which, properly, has awesome powers, to be overseen by officers who are determined to give individual compliant taxpayers their dues.
When we raised this issue first three years ago, the Minister was not even prepared to acknowledge the extent to which people failed to claim their full entitlements. The Revenue has been sitting on a tidy sum for the past ten years because individuals failed to avail of the relief and allowances to which they were entitled. The relatively low cost that would arise out of the advocate's function would be easily met by the funds not claimed by taxpayers. The other reason for the failure to claim relief is the changes in the economy. People are employed on atypical contracts and work atypical hours. Some people work two or three jobs on contract and otherwise while others are self-employed, although they could be considered to be employees in traditional terms, particularly those working in the construction, forestry and meat industries. Hundreds of thousands of people are employed in various circumstances and their tax affairs are complicated. Because they do not have easy access to an advocacy service, they sometimes ignore their tax affairs and end up with a business disaster or they are put on emergency tax, in which case the Revenue and the main contractor or employer are fine. Young workers in the construction industry do not pay into a pension fund and they have no savings but they pay plenty of tax.
A taxpayer's advocate would address this new feature of business life in Ireland and a better resolution to this problem would be achieved, which would serve these taxpayers well. The case for such an advocate is very strong. The Minister has acknowledged the issue in his amendment to section 9 by abolishing the threshold on medical expenses, which will make it much easier for taxpayers. I hope they will become aware that if they retain their medical bills they will be able to claim tax relief even after one visit to their doctor. The ordinary taxpayer will be in the same position as those involved in small pension funds who claim significant amounts from the Revenue. I hope by removing the thresholds, more people will claim what is due to them. However, there is an absolute case for the creation of an advocate's office. Hopefully, if the Labour Party is in Government next year, it will be in a position to proceed with that.
The strongest argument in favour of the establishment of an advocate system is the persistent refusal of the Revenue Commissioners to conduct an appraisal of the overpayment of tax by PAYE workers. The reality is the Revenue Commissioners have all the information at their finger tips. They know the amount of activity which occurs in doctors' surgeries, nursing homes and in these other areas and the amount of rent returned by landlords. They have the data that would allow them to make a well-informed judgment as the extent to which PAYE workers overpay, not some broad-based or speculative estimate, as the Minister indicated from the notes he received.
The Revenue Commissioners and the Department of Finance have never taken this seriously. It is a bit like the Central Bank beginning to cotton on to the needs of consumers as well as the needs of banks. The Revenue Commissioners and the Department of Finance are belatedly cottoning on to the fact that we need to be conscious of the people who compliantly pay their taxes all the time as well as those who deliberately seek to evade paying their taxes. The Revenue Commissioners need to recognise that their mandate is not only to pursue those miscreants who will not pay but to ensure that people who are entitled to refunds and who genuinely incur tax allowable expenses get them.
I cannot understand this argument coming repeatedly from the Revenue Commissioners and the Department of Finance that the numbers would be large, that they would be speculative in nature and that we should not do this. That is just sticking one's head in the sand and saying to ordinary compliant taxpayers that we are not particularly worried about their situation. If this money was outstanding from people who had some overseas scam, the Revenue Commissioners would rightly pursue the matter through the High Court to try to establish the scale of entitlement and the scale of tax which might be being concealed from them.
There is an imbalance here. However, the Minister has begun to recognise that because some of the changes he has made in trying to give more tax reliefs at source are clearly conscious of the fact that the way it had been done for generations was not delivering to ordinary compliant taxpayers.
Those on the Minister's side of the House and those in official circles who advise him need to recognise they cannot have it both ways. They cannot say we will not have a tax advocate, do any of the advocacy, dig out what might be overpayment tax, have accurate estimates or create effective vehicles through which people can get their money back.
As I said before, I calculated on the back of an envelope that over a four year period of entitlement, €1.5 billion is due to PAYE taxpayers. If Revenue said that was an accurate estimate, people would move mountains to ensure money got back to those who rightfully own it. We need to see that change in mindset. The more I hear people resist the notion of carrying out an accurate estimate, the more convinced I become that advocacy is the only route down which to go. It looks as if someone with the powers of the Ombudsman is required to take the initiative in this area.
Some 91,000 people claim the home carer's allowance. Are we to seriously believe there are only 91,000 stay-at-home spouses looking after children up to the end of full-time education, the time up to which they are entitled to claim the home carer's allowance? I do not believe that is the actual figure. Some people are not claiming that allowance. The number of people claiming rent relief is far lower than the number of rented properties, as the Central Statistics Office will indicate. Much rent relief remains unclaimed. DIRT is another area. The number of refunds of DIRT is derisory and it is clear people are not claiming it. Not everyone claims relief on trade union subscriptions. The Chairman of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Finance and the Public Service did a sum on the back of an envelope which showed that €45 million remains unclaimed in respect of relief on trade union subscriptions. That would not be major expenditure in comparison with some of the other areas. We need to make some high profile changes.
I warmly welcome the Minister's decision to accept the medical relief change which we debated at length on Committee Stage. Not only does it mean people will know that every time they spend money on medication or doctor appointments they can claim relief but it also means the Minister and the Revenue Commissioners can set up simplified schemes at source to ensure the deductions are made. This is significant not only because of what it will do as of today and for the rest of this year but it means the Minister can now work on developing schemes which will be much more effective. I know from replies to parliamentary questions that the Minister is moving in that direction. That concession the Minister has made is a good day's work and shows the hours we spend on Committee Stage are sometimes worthwhile.
I would like the Minister to ask the Revenue Commissioners to do a serious study on the extent of overpayment by PAYE workers. Let us work off the best objective information and then see if we can devise better policies. If that was done, perhaps it would remove the need for this tax advocate. However, for the time being, this amendment is very much needed.
As was said, we discussed the question of advocacy on the various Stages of Finance Bills. I outlined the fact the Ombudsman has been able to deal with systemic and policy issues. The advocates mentioned internationally deal only with administrative matters for individual taxpayers. That does not address systemic or policy issues, many of which are within the remit of the Ombudsman's office and are not independent of it. The proliferation of more ombudsmen for every specific problem which people perceive is not the way to go, particularly as the Ombudsman has shown efficacy in this area already in view of previous reports done and changes brought about as a result of those investigations into policy areas.
I am not satisfied adding a further layer in regard to the granting of reliefs and repayment of tax would add to the efficiency of the current system. We have not heard how duplicating the existing role and responsibility of the Ombudsman in this particular respect would result in benefits to anyone involved.
There has been much proactive work in this area which, for the purposes of Report Stage, I should put on the record. The Revenue Commissioners are active in advising taxpayers of their entitlements through various media. They have recently undertaken an extensive advertising campaign in regard to various reliefs to alert taxpayers to entitlements they may have overlooked claiming. As a result of that, there has been a big improvement.
Every year the tax credit certificate issued to each PAYE customer includes an insert setting out the main allowances and reliefs available. Apart from that insert, there is an easy to access and comprehensive range of material on allowances and reliefs available on the Revenue website, from Revenue offices and by telephone together with a range of claim forms obtainable by telephone or download for completion. New on-line and text messaging self-service channels have been rolled out which make it as easy as possible for PAYE customers to establish whether they are getting the reliefs to which they are entitled and to make any additional claims relevant to their circumstances.
For those who prefer person to person communication, it is important to point out that there are over 780 PAYE customer service staff available in the regional offices to deal with taxpayers' queries, amend tax credits, process repayments, etc. That is a considerable commitment of staff on a permanent basis. Additional staff are used at peak periods when required. Where Revenue is aware of circumstances which apply beyond one year, the necessary reliefs are carried forward automatically from one year to the next.
As announced in my Budget Statement, Revenue developments this year and next year will see the introduction of DIRT-free accounts for the over 65s and incapacitated persons. That deals with one of the areas cited by Deputy Bruton. All age-related credits and credits for trade union subscriptions will be given automatically as far as possible. There will be automatic repayments in respect of certain health expenses, such as drugs and hospital charges, and in respect of tuition fees.
It is also important to point out it is not a simple exercise to try to set about estimating what unclaimed amounts there might be. The Irish Taxation Institute tried to calculate some costings for unclaimed medical expenses during its session with the Joint Committee on Finance and the Public Service. However, it failed to take account of the 800,000 exempt PAYE cases, the fact that one third of the population is covered by medical cards, the overlap between the aforementioned categories, the degree of full reimbursement by medical insurers and the fact that some people are healthy and only have small or no medical expenses. A purely statistical basis for steering through such difficulties to a valid conclusion is not readily apparent. Instead, the only sound approach appears to be to undertake detailed sample surveys of a large number of taxpayers. This would probably involve lengthy face to face interviews in the kind of process followed by the ESRI in its sociological research. Even with such research, which is extremely time consuming and expensive, the results would not help to direct a single cent to the right person in the form of additional tax refunds.
If so doing would be of assistance in trying to assess the position, I can make inquiries into the matter.
However, it is not a simple matter to change to a system that operates at source. One requires a limited number of service providers to be able to so do. The fact there are thousands of GPs means it would not be as simple as, for example, doing so with the limited number of trade unions in respect of trade union subscriptions.
It is important to note that the relief is available at the marginal rate for the taxpayer and to consider giving relief at source would constitute a significant complication. Existing schemes of relief at source, such as mortgage interest relief and medical insurance relief, are given at the standard rate to all comers. Consequently, suggesting that relief at source for medical expenses would be a straightforward matter is not comparing like with like. The marginal rate of relief in respect of medical expenses is not available in respect of some of the other, larger, reliefs that are at the standard rate. The latter can be developed as tax relief at source because of the limited number of service providers relative to the total number of beneficiaries. However, there is a far greater number of service providers in respect of medical expenses.
Members can discuss the further amendment in respect of getting rid of the de minimis rule. I listened to Members' points in this regard and while it will provide for a greater workload etc., I am prepared to accept that we should move to a nil position rather than a €125 de minimis position, subject to the approval of the House.
In that case, one should not then suggest that moving to a tax relief at source is a simple, obvious or uncomplicated step. I have outlined the reasons this is not correct. Nevertheless, as Deputy Bruton noted, I regard it to be my job to listen to Members' opinions and when I can accommodate a point of view that, on balance, might be the right way to go, I have no problem in so doing.
The Minister is making a mistake by refusing to recognise that advocacy, particularly on behalf of the ordinary PAYE compliant taxpayer, is appropriate and necessary. In a manner that is typical of the modicum of arrogance that creeps in when one has been in Government for ten years, the Minister was somewhat tetchy when he stated, if I heard him correctly, that there is an increasing proliferation of ombudsmen. I am unaware of such a proliferation. I am only aware of the State Ombudsman, the Ombudsman for Children and of some attempts to introduce a form of inspectorate to the Garda. I am unsure whether the inspectors also can be called ombudsmen. Are there many more?
There has been. There is far more than one ombudsman. Moreover, the Ombudsman has a view on the wholesale division of the role, particularly when she already has a well-established competency in this regard.
There is no proliferation of ombudsmen. After ten years of debate, Members dragged out from the Government and its predecessor what I hope will be improved arrangements in respect of the Garda. The tragic case in Lucan over the weekend will demonstrate whether this proves to be the case. The Ombudsman for Children was established approximately two years ago and is quite active. It is interesting to compare the Ombudsman for Children with the office of the advocate because my understanding is that in a general sense, she is making attempts to be proactive on children's behalf. However, given the manner in which it is interpreted at present, as well as the significant capacity restrictions placed on it, the Office of the Ombudsman is obliged to wait until individual cases arise before examining them. Incidentally, to a great extent this office was established and was a concept developed by the Labour Party as a contribution to governmental practice in Ireland.
The Minister referred to systemic problems with the taxation system, which is exactly what is under discussion. I have provided him with new examples from the new economy, never mind issues such as rent allowances. In that regard, it may come as a surprise to the Minister that many tenants are highly nervous about claiming tax relief in respect of a landlord who lets a premises to them for personal accommodation, for fear that the landlord does not wish to be known to the Revenue Commissioners.
While this may not happen in the constituency the Minister represents, it is a common occurrence in Dublin. Tenants may consider themselves to be lucky to have accommodation and if the landlord is accommodating and does not wish to be known to the Minister's friends in the Revenue Commissioners, such tenants are actively dissuaded from seeking the tax relief. An advocate would change that power relationship, in that individuals would receive a higher level of empowerment from the State to get their just entitlements. This pertains to positive advocacy.
As I noted, no one decries the efforts made by the Revenue Commissioners. Some of the innovations they are road-testing at present will turn out to be excellent. However, they do not tell the entire story, particularly with regard to those who are working atypical hours, in atypical contracts, or who have multiple jobs. In addition, people in the construction industry who traditionally would have been employed are now treated as being self-employed and the main contractor has no interest in ensuring they receive all their entitlements. Why should the contractors do so?
Moreover, the Revenue Commissioners have no interest in so doing either. Such people have tax deducted at source at the standard rate and pay a great deal of tax. Why should the Revenue Commissioners be concerned if the affairs of such people are never regularised? Revenue has their money. However, it is most unlikely that those individuals who end up outside a regular tax position will, for instance, save for a pension or take other options available to them that would offer some tax relief and tax allowances. As far as many people are concerned, the Minister is not looking at how the economy operates at present. I hope when there is a change of Government and we are honoured by the people to occupy the place the Minister now occupies, a new Government will address this issue.
I move amendment No. 8:
In page 11, to delete lines 16 and 17 and substitute the following:
1.—In this Part—
"Principal Act" means the Taxes Consolidation Act 1997;
"special educational needs" has the meaning assigned to it by section 1 of the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004.".
To some degree, we have discussed amendments Nos. 10 to 12, inclusive, already in that those are the amendments which deal with the removal of the €125 threshold in medical expenses claims. As I stated previously, I welcome the Minister's decision in this respect, as it can make a significant difference to families who incur regular but perhaps small expenses and claim tax relief, the relief which the Oireachtas always intended them to claim.
I will address my remarks to the other section of the amendment, namely, the section on special educational needs which is a combination of amendments Nos. 8 and 11. Amendment No. 8 would provide a definition of special educational needs, while amendment No. 11 would provide that expenses incurred in seeking special education assistance should be tax allowable. We had a good debate on this issue on Committee Stage when it was recognised by all sides of the House that it was not ideal to provide education resources to meet special educational needs on the basis of tax relief. It is a mainstream responsibility of the Department of Education and Science and we ought to deliver this service. It was also recognised to some degree by both sides of the House that we were not anywhere close to this yet.
In many areas of special education provision parents must take the initiative. Examples include establishing schools run with small home tuition grants from the Department of Education and Science but with the bulk of the cost of the school borne directly by parents. I know of such primary schools for children on the autistic spectrum whose parents believe, rightly, that the applied behavioural analysis, ABA, approach is the best one to advance the needs of such children. While I do not have personal experience, people in my family involved in education recognise that the ABA approach makes a significant difference to some children. The Department of Education and Science has not got around to recognising it. As a result, many parents incur substantial costs in providing for what they believe is the best way for their children, in which they do not receive recognition or support from the State.
Many others who need intervention must meet the cost of special tuition through the fees they pay. In the case of many of the supports available, there are long waiting lists. The original approach of the Department of Education and Science was to provide psychological assessments. On the basis of these assessments a schedule of interventions for each child would be agreed. This proved impossible for the Department to deliver and it moved away from this individualised approach. Instead, each school must provide for certain special educational needs. This leaves many parents feeling that they do not receive the attention they require. That is the reality. The Department is slowly catching up in dealing with a need which was ignored for years. It hid behind legal interpretations. It was only following a series of legal cases that one broke through and gained recognition.
In advocating this measure I do not seek it to be a permanent or long-term feature of the tax code. However, I recognise that in other areas such as dyslexia where many associations have been established and parents come together in groups within the community to try to develop programmes which will have special resonance for children with their particular needs, these schemes must be funded entirely without recognition. We have scope to be somewhat creative in this respect. The Minister's predecessor recognised that speech and language therapy should be covered by tax relief. This has scope as an interim measure while the Department of Education and Science catches up in dealing with a major gap in the provision of special education.
It might have been getting close to closing time on the night we discussed this amendment on Committee Stage. We might have been exhausted when the Minister agreed to consider it and come back to us on Report Stage. I hope he had a chance to reflect on it and sees merit in it. If not this year, perhaps he could consider a temporary measure in conjunction with the Department of Education and Science to deal with the many parents who must incur substantial personal expense in delivering what they believe is the most appropriate educational support for their children.
I thank the Minister for introducing amendment No. 10. Will he now ask the Revenue Commissioners to arrange an information campaign to tell families, in particular, that it will be possible to claim tax relief on all medical expenses and that there is no threshold? Young families and single individuals who go to the doctor irregularly, perhaps only during the winter flu season, need to know this. They also need to know that they only have four years in which to claim. Those who pay €200 to €400 in medical GP bills for themselves and their children could receive €80, depending on their marginal rates of tax. I hope the Revenue Commissioners will make the information known.
Will the Minister agree to have the relief provided at source on a pilot basis by some medical practitioners? Quite a number of group medical practices are being established, particularly in developing areas such as Dublin West, and are computerised from day one. I know this is not the case with all general practitioners. However, a pilot scheme would facilitate the maximum level of claiming medical expenses by those entitled to claim. We must bear in mind that most chemists have well established systems having been part of the GMS payment schemes for medical expenses.
It would be worthwhile to take this measure a step further. Ultimately, the ideal would be to have tax relief provided at source in order that if one paid €50 to the doctor, one would have the value of the tax relief deducted from the payment and only pay the net amount to the doctor. It would certainly reduce the cost to families.
The Minister may be aware that his colleague, the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, was apparently very surprised at the low take-up of the doctor only medical card. Part of the reason is that the forms and conditions attached are extremely complicated. As a consequence, few medical cards were issued. Although the Minister stated previously relatively few families would benefit, the position is different. A number of families will be in a position to benefit. It is important that as many of them as possible are able to do so.
I support the amendments before us and the Minister's amendment No. 10, which would seek to remove the €125 threshold. It remains to be seen under the current system whether this will increase take-up. I support Deputy Burton's calls for examining mechanisms as regards how this tax relief can be deducted at source. As the Deputy has stated, the technology and databases exist for this to be done, if not on the widest possible level, then certainly on a pilot basis.
I worry about conflicting standards the removal of the €125 threshold might encourage, particularly with regard to the purchase of medicines. People pay up front and receive a small exemption for the money they pay initially on medicines. There should be a complete examination of how charges are levied in the health system, both through tax relief and direct charges, to bring about a degree of consistency.
The Minister probably was not thinking of that when he agreed to this amendment, but there are conflicting standards within the health system itself affecting people on low incomes, in particular, and those who do not qualify for the medical card. The threshold for medical cards has not been altered for four years and there is a growing sector of the population without medical cards or medical insurance who are being asked to meet a large portion of their medical expenses from their own resources despite their having very low incomes.
The time is now right for a more systematic review of tax relief and charges in this area. This might spring from the Minister's agreement to allow this concession on Report Stage.
I will speak to amendments Nos. 8 and 10 to 12, inclusive.
Two amendments are being proposed, the effect of which would be to remove the de minimis rule so that taxpayers could benefit from a full deduction in respect to their health expenses in the tax year and broaden out significantly the relief on health expenses to include expenses incurred in the provision of assistance to children with a wide range of special educational needs.
With regard to the de minimis amount, the amendment in my name achieves the same effect as that proposed by the Deputy. I presume he will not object to deferring to that amendment.
With the relief for special educational needs, the Deputy's proposal to provide tax relief for expenses incurred with regard to children with special educational needs was discussed in some detail in committee. As with that time, unfortunately I am not in a position to accept the amendments for the reasons I have given.
The Government has in recent years significantly increased support available to the direct expenditure system for children with disabilities. In 2005, approval was given for the Department of Education and Science to move from the individual allocation of resources for children with special needs on foot of a psychological assessment to an approach whereby all schools are allocated resources based on a general allocation model, without the need for individual psychological assessments for the high-incidence categories of needs. These would include dyslexia and mild or borderline mild general learning disability.
My understanding, from information received from the Department of Education and Science, is the new allocation system is working well and has been favourably received by schools. In all, it is projected that some €820 million of the 2007 Estimates allocation for the Department of Education and Science will be related to disability and special needs at primary and secondary schools.
The bulk of this expenditure is related to resource teaching posts and special needs assistance in schools. The current provision to support children with special educational needs in schools includes more than 1,000 teachers in special schools and more than 5,500 teachers at primary level dealing directly with children with special educational needs. This compares with fewer than 1,500 ten years ago.
At second level, more than 2,300 whole-time equivalent teachers are working with pupils with special educational needs compared to just 200 in place in 1998 for such pupils. There are more than 8,200 special needs assistants supporting pupils in primary and post-primary schools. There has been a very significant and needed improvement in the resources allocated with regard to teaching requirements for children with special needs.
As with many areas where State support may be required, the question arises as to whether such support may be more effectively provided through the direct expenditure route rather than the tax system. One advantage of the direct expenditure route is that the support may be better targeted at those in need, irrespective of family income. Support through the tax system can only benefit those whose incomes are high enough to benefit from tax relief.
It may be argued there is no reason, in principle, health expenses relief could not accommodate expenses of the type proposed by the Deputy, having regard to the fact that since 2001, the relief covers the expenses involved in obtaining educational and psychological assessments and speech and language therapy carried out by a speech and language therapist. However, further widening of the relief as proposed would broaden health expense relief considerably beyond its original intended focus. It would duplicate the provision through the current direct expenditure route.
Having regard to the existing support provided through the public expenditure system and the fact that such support is more equitable than support provided through the tax system, as well as the views of the Department of Education and Science that the new system of resource allocation in schools for children with special needs is working well and bedding down, the case for a change in legislation is not one I can accept.
With regard to the other contributions from Deputy Boyle, there has been a significant improvement in the drugs payment scheme, which came in during my time as Minister responsible for health. Before that, people had to wait three months, apply to the health board and wait for the administrative delays involved in that for any expenses over £90. That has now been turned around, with people paying up to a certain amount, after which they receive medicines free. That has been very helpful to working families, who did not then have to dispose of their income for three months before being able to get a refund. The situation has turned around for those who would require medicines beyond the existing threshold.
It would be very unusual to make tax relief available to some taxpayers but not others based on GPs being in a pilot scheme. Two factors go against the tax relief at source for GP fees. First, there would be a multiplicity of GP payees involved and second, the relief would be at a marginal rate, unlike the universal application of standard-rate relief for existing examples of tax relief at source. I made that point in an earlier contribution.
I thank the Minister. I welcome this provision and the €22 million being put into this will be a very good investment, broadly well-received. The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform would probably look for much more than that when he comes to see the Minister on occasion.
Has he? I see. He does not need relief for medical expenses, or I hope not anyhow.
I take the Minister's point that the ideal would be to deliver education provision in the education setting. In his comments, the Minister recognised that we have already broadened the concessions to include people who need to fund psychological assessments. We already recognise the need to fund speech and language therapy.
There is a certain logic in supporting parents, particularly those who group together, such as in the Dyslexia Association of Ireland, to put on programmes at their own expense. There is a case for giving a concession in that field. I acknowledge that will not get through this year, but I hope the Minister or his successor, whomever that might be, will keep this issue under consideration.
I support the suggestion by Deputy Boyle that we should consider the totality of relief with regard to health expenses and activities. For a number of years the Government has funded through tax reliefs the development of private nursing homes, hospitals and——