Thursday, 9 March 2017
Topical Issue Debate
Disabled Drivers Permits
I am grateful my topic was selected. I am not carrying a battering ram but actually ringing the doorbell to see if we can open a proper conversation on it. I want to see if there is any movement that can genuinely make a difference to the lives of some people, particularly older people, affected by this issue.
All Members will have occasional experience of this issue. I will not say there are queues outside constituency offices, but that makes it all the more important that we do not overlook it. I was dealing with the case of a constituent who was appealing a decision not to give her a disabled driver and passenger tax concession. Two years ago she appealed and did so again recently. She does not meet the strict criteria in place for the scheme from the medical board, which is acceptable. However, she has limited use of her limbs in being able to access her car. She does have some use of her, as she puts it, good right leg. Her left leg is only a balance, while her left hip to the knee is stiff at all times. The bottom line is that she is 83 years of age and her car is her lifeline to many activities in the community in which she is engaged. She cannot use public transport because of her inability to mount steps and high footpaths without the use of a stick. She cannot be the back seat passenger in a car because of the lowness and depth of the seats. She also has difficulties in negotiating the front passenger seat. At home, she has an electric stair lift, electronic bed and other aids. Maintaining her mobility and independence for as long as she can was her prime reason for her appeal which has been turned down on two occasions.
She appealed the decision to the Ombudsman, as she was advised to do when her first appeal was refused. I am raising the issue because her appeal was refused again in March 2015 and also because the Ombudsman’s advice is two years old. The Ombudsman effectively told her that there were criteria in place and that he could not help her. However, he is concerned that the scheme, as framed, is overly rigid and inflexible and may well be causing inequality. He has raised his concerns with the Department of Finance. While it has indicated that it does not propose to make further changes to the scheme in the immediate term, it has undertaken to consider the points raised by the Ombudsman. According to it, any possible change to the current eligibility criteria can only be made after careful consideration. That was two years ago. Where does it lie now? We were promised a review. The Ombudsman is concerned that the existing system is too rigid, not flexible and should be examined. The Department gave a commitment that it would be. Although it does not involve the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, will the Minister tell me at what point are we at and what message on policy I can bring back to my elderly constituent who very much relies on her car for independence in life?
I acknowledge the issue raised by the Deputy. While I obviously cannot comment on a specific case as I do not know the full details, I recognise the bona fides of what the Deputy has said and that there is a difficulty in the case. I am quite prepared to look at it in a different forum, in other words, not in a public forum, to see if anything can be done. What the Deputy is really saying is the criteria under the scheme are too strict such that it is impossible for some people who lack the necessary mobility to qualify to use disabled parking spaces.
The provisions on the use of the disabled parking permit scheme are set out in section 35 of the Road Traffic Act 1994 and the Road Traffic (Traffic and Parking) Regulations 1997 (Sl 182 of 1997), as amended. The scheme is administered by the Irish Wheelchair Association and the Disabled Drivers Association. The disabled parking permit is available to people living In Ireland whose mobility is severely and permanently restricted, whether they are drivers or passengers, and to people who are registered as being blind. The permit has been designed in accordance with EU legislation and is recognised in all EU member states. It is valid for two years from the date of issue.
In 2010 the Department conducted a review of the disabled parking scheme, in consultation with various stakeholders. One of the issues looked at was eligibility for the scheme. Disability groups, in particular, were unhappy at the fact that some people were being issued with disabled parking permits because they had a particular condition rather than a mobility impairment. For example, cardiac conditions which can severely limit mobility entitled people to a permit at the time but not all sufferers of the condition have a mobility impairment. As a result of the review, the scheme was revised in order that permits would be given based on the level of mobility impairment rather than diagnosis of a particular condition. It seems to be a fairly discretionary and subjective judgment. The medical criteria for issue of the permit are strict and only persons whose mobility is severely and permanently restricted qualify. The primary legislation for the purpose of issuing EU parking permits defines a disabled person as, “A person with a permanent condition or disability that severely restricts their ability to walk”. This definition was introduced into the Irish regulations by the Road Traffic (Traffic and Parking) (Amendment) Regulations 2011 (Sl 239 of 2011).
Primary medical certificate holders are considered to qualify having already met the criteria and are only required to submit a copy of their certificate with their application form. Similarly, those who are visually impaired are only required to submit confirmation that they are registered as being blind with their application form. For all other applicants, a medical practitioner must complete the medical section of the application, describing the applicant’s level of mobility and certifying the accuracy of same. If the discs are to be provided for a wider group of people without further action, I fear there would be increased demand placed on the already limited number of parking spaces available. To that end, I have been actively involved in raising awareness of the unfairness of using such spaces where it is not justified. I also strongly support a recent Garda campaign to crack down on the fraudulent use of these spaces and permits.
In response to the case raised by the Deputy, I will write to my colleague, the Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, Deputy Simon Coveney, to consider directing local authorities to make provision for more parking spaces for disabled people. If we receive a positive response, I hope we will be able to give serious consideration to having more serious criteria which might embrace people in the category which the Deputy addressed.
My Department remains in ongoing contact with the Irish Wheelchair Association and the Disabled Drivers Association. I remain open to considering any improvement to the scheme which may be needed in the future.
I thank the Minister for his reply. I initially said I was not coming with a battering ram precisely for the reasons the Minister has laid out, namely, that it is important to keep such schemes reasonably strict and confined so as not to have all and sundry seeking a disc or the scheme abused. While it was relatively liberal, there seems to have been a complete clawback.
What it does is exclude people like my 83 year old constituent who wrote to me in the most beautiful handwriting about how she manoeuvres herself on to the driver’s seat using the car door, steering wheel and inside roof grip. She uses her left hand and arm and her right leg and foot to lift her body into her driving position supported by a cushion for height and back support.
That is pretty challenging but rather than labour the issue here I wanted to raise it and to get an update from the Minister on the current position. He has given me an update and indicated he will take up the matter with his colleague, the Minister with responsibility for the environment. That would be a practical solution to examine but I might provide the details to the Minister separately. I would welcome some examination of this issue, particularly but not exclusively with respect to older people. It is about the people's quality of life when we consider this 83 year old, independent, single, widowed woman who depends on her car for her independence and to engage in her activities. Any slight flexibility in this scheme could provide a better quality of life for her and for other people in her position. I am grateful for the Minister's openness to address the issue and I will communicate with him further on the matter.
I have very little to add except to say it might be more appropriate to give this specific case to the man on my right than to me but I would be quite happy to pass it to whoever is the right person and have it looked at. The Minister of State has just passed me a note stating he is working on a new motor transport Bill for 4,700 people with disabilities and it might be appropriate to be included in that as well. The Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, is not one who is shy of taking on issues of this sort and applying new criteria to the sort of issues the Deputy has raised.
I do not know if this is indiscreet but I will say it anyway. The case the Deputy has made seems to be a case of lack of mobility and in several instances a lack of mobility has found not to be the case. Let us try to reconcile those but make sure that people who come into the category the Deputy mentioned, without being specific, are included in the future because if they are immobile, they should be entitled to park in these spaces. The idea of increasing the number of spaces will allow us to broaden the criteria.