Wednesday, 24 November 2021
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
In 2011 and 2012, the then Ombudsman, Ms Emily O'Reilly, found the eligibility criteria for the motorised transport grant and mobility allowance were in breach of the Equal Status Acts. What did the then Government do? Did it improve access to the schemes, as any compassionate Government would have done? Did it do all it could to ensure people with a disability would not be grounded in their homes? No, it callously discontinued both schemes for new applicants in 2013.
Yesterday morning, the outgoing Ombudsman, Mr. Peter Tyndall, published his final report, Grounded: Unequal access for people with disabilities to personal transport schemes. In it he claims that, despite appeals to success of Governments over the course of nine years to reintroduce the schemes, nothing was done. The report states:
I am very concerned that the issues identified appear to have effectively been ignored and that nine years later, there is no evidence of any real progress that would serve to enhance the lives of those for whom these schemes were intended to assist with their daily lives. This is of huge concern to me.
The problems Mr. Tyndall identifies are the problems I am sure every constituency office has received from people in need of supports through the schemes. He outlines the absolute injustice that is being experienced by people with disabilities owing to the inadequate transport supports that have been provided by previous Governments and that are being continued by the current one. It is a year and a half since the current Government was cobbled together, yet we are no further along. How many more damning indictments will be published before the Government does right by people with disabilities?
People with disabilities should be able to lead full and active lives within their communities but there remain many obstacles that work to prevent them from doing so. Access to personal transport is one of these. While improving access to public transport is an important issue in its own right, it is unreasonable to suggest it can address the transport needs of the many disabled people who may live in rural areas and who may struggle to get to bus stops or stations. Without access to personal transport, many disabled people cannot do what others take for granted – including working, visiting friends and family, and shopping – and engage in the many other areas of their lives where mobility is essential.
In the report published yesterday, entitled Grounded: Unequal access for people with disabilities to personal transport schemes, the Ombudsman focuses attention on the fact that personal transport supports for people with disabilities are inadequate, unfair and inequitable. The report points out that, in 2013, the Government decided to discontinue the mobility allowance and the motorised transport grant for new applicants. At that time, it said it would draw up an alternative scheme; however, almost nine years later, this has still not happened. The report also outlines that the remaining support available for those living with a disability is the disabled drivers and disabled passengers scheme, which provides a range of tax reliefs linked to the purchase and use of specially constructed or adapted vehicles by drivers and passengers with a disability. However, it goes on to highlight that this scheme is inadequate to meet the needs of many people living with a disability as the limited medical criteria for eligibility have been excessively restrictive. A recommendation that the Department of Finance introduce legislation to replace the existing medical criteria with an overall assessment of general mobility was never acted on. It is shameful that, in 2021, disabled people are still not able to participate equally and actively in their communities and at work. What plans does the Government have for personal transport supports for people with disabilities? Will they have to wait another nine years for progress?
I thank Deputies Martin Browne and Tully for raising this important issue for discussion today. The Ombudsman issued commentary on three transport support schemes for people living with disability. Those are now closed. I refer to the motor transport grant and mobility allowance schemes and the disabled drivers and disabled passengers tax concession scheme operated by the Revenue Commissioners. I can assure the House that the Government shares the concerns expressed by the Ombudsman regarding the transport challenges facing people with disabilities. As the Deputies have outlined, the Government decided to close the motorised transport grant and mobility allowance administrative grant schemes in 2013. That was on foot of the reports of the Ombudsman in 2011 and 2012 regarding the legal status of both schemes in the context of the Equal Status Acts. The Government also decided to continue payment of the monthly mobility allowance on an interim basis to the 4,700 people who were in receipt of the mobility allowance at the time that the scheme closed.
Under the current remit of the Minister of State with responsibility for disability, Deputy Rabbitte, work is ongoing on the policy proposals for the provision of transport supports for people with disabilities. The Minister for Health will then revert to the Government with proposals in due course.
I would like to make this House aware of other transport supports available to people with disabilities, which include the free travel scheme operated by the Department of Social Protection, the Revenue Commissioners' disabled drivers and disabled passengers tax concession scheme and measures funded under the Department of Rural and Community Development CLÁR programme to provide grants to voluntary organisations providing transport for people with significant mobility issues. I would also like to inform the House that there have been a number of recent developments which may impact on policy options for the provision of transport supports for people with disabilities. These include the ongoing progress by the Department of Transport in providing accessible public transport nationally and that Department's review of active travel and public transport policy, including accessible public transport. The Department of Social Protection has commissioned a cost of disability study that will inform policy direction for the provision of adequate supports to meet the needs of people with disabilities, including transport costs.
Under the national disability inclusion strategy, a working group was established to lead a review of all Government-funded transport and mobility schemes for people with disabilities. The Department of Finance is reviewing the disabled drivers and disabled passengers tax concession scheme. I can assure the House of the Government's continued commitment to finding a long-term equitable solution that meets the transport needs of those people with disabilities who face the most significant challenges.
The Minister of State can speak of as many strategies, reports, reviews and working groups as he likes but the fact remains that for nearly a decade, successive Governments have withheld these schemes from a considerable number of people. If, as he says he does, the Minister of State shares our concerns, I urge him to speed up the process. We do not need another review. It is now nine years since Emily O'Reilly gave her report. That is nine years of a review, as far as I am concerned. People with disabilities will tell the Minister of State that nine years is more than enough for any review or any process to be put through.
If my words will not do, perhaps the words of the Ombudsman might. He stated:
Living with a disability in Ireland in 2021 should never mean that a person is grounded in their home, unable to participate equally and actively in their community and in work. Another working group or action plan is not enough. Those people who are adversely affected by the current lack of access to transport supports require immediate and decisive action.
I urge the Minister of State not to let Mr. Tyndall's appeals to the Government be in vain. Action needs to be taken now.
We have obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, UNCRPD, to ensure that disabled people are treated equally in society. We ratified the UNCRPD in 2018 but from what I can see, no progress has been made on this issue since then in the area of transport. It is a vicious circle. The Minister of State mentioned the free travel scheme and access to public transport, which is all well and good and welcome, but if a disabled person does not live near a bus stop, how will he or she get to the bus? How can such people access the transport? People need personal transport supports and if disabled people do not have access to them, they cannot work. If they cannot work, they cannot afford to buy an adaptable car that is specially constructed to support their needs. It is a vicious circle.
I welcome the fact that there is a review of the disabled drivers and disabled passengers scheme but that needs to happen immediately. It needs to bring in real concessions. I do not know why publication of the Indecon report is taking so long. It is completed and should be produced.
It is clear that access to transport supports for people with disabilities can assist them to live independent lives of their choosing. Deputy Tully is right that they need to be able to travel to their place of work and to live independent lives of their choosing. I assure the House that continued efforts have been undertaken by the Department of Health to develop an equitable scheme which meets the need of people with disabilities who face the most significant challenges.
The range of policy developments I outlined earlier is an indication of the level of importance attributed to this matter across several Departments. I heard Deputy Browne's point that we need to speed up the process and I will take that on board.
As mentioned, the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, is working on policy proposals for the provision of transport supports for people with disabilities and the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, will then revert to the Government with proposals in due course. The Government is committed, as are the Deputies, to finding a long-term and equitable solution to this matter.