Seanad debates

Thursday, 21 October 2004

1:00 pm

Photo of Brendan KenneallyBrendan Kenneally (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Cathaoirleach for selecting this matter and the Minister of State, Deputy Noel Ahern, for his attendance.

The disabled person's grant scheme has been successful over the years and particularly helpful to some of the most vulnerable in society. Like all schemes, however, there comes a time for review and that time has arrived. There should be less bureaucracy in the operation of the scheme and more funding is required. I have encountered cases in both Waterford County Council and Waterford City Council where bureaucracy is being used to drag out the process until more funding becomes available the following year. I would welcome if additional funding were afforded to the many worthy projects in operation.

One of the more extreme cases of excessive bureaucracy I encountered was the situation of an 80 year old woman who applied to have certain changes made to her home. These changes were eventually carried out when she was 90 and she died a few weeks later before she could attain any benefit from them. This is an extreme case but these types of situations are occurring in the system.

An occupational therapist's report is sometimes impossible to get. In Waterford, for example, the South Eastern Health Board is no longer providing this service. I learned recently of a case where a person went to a private occupational therapist but the latter was unable to do the work. This person cannot proceed because of costs. There is a problem with builders because they are not prepared to quote for minor jobs. The onus in on the applicant to obtain quotes from builders and submit them to the local authority but, in many cases, they are unable to do so.

It is the elderly who have no contact with family, in particular, who suffer most because they generally do not know how to set about getting quotes from builders and drawing up designs. It is also difficult for people on low incomes and perhaps there is a case in certain areas for the introduction of a means test whereby those who cannot afford to pay the 10% contribution would be exempt. I do not advocate that applicants should either qualify or not qualify for the additional 10% but it should be tapered according to means. I understand some local authorities are already applying a means test to this scheme. People who have the means and the wherewithal know how to source architects and builders and so on. We must focus on helping the more vulnerable.

Under the operation of the scheme, the medical officer initially visits applicants and produces a report. An occupational therapist then visits, if one can be found, and, upon his or her approval, the applicant is told to produce drawings. Planning permission may occasionally be needed. Once the applicant has obtained quotations, the application is sent back to the local authority where the architect or equivalent will ascertain whether the prices are right. The work is then carried out and inspected and, upon approval, the money is finally paid out. This constitutes a significant layer of bureaucracy which is holding up the entire process.

A different system must be devised and I hope the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government can bring about an improvement. We should set down specific standards with regard to the requirements for varying degrees of disability. A general practitioner or medical officer might be able to do the work of the occupational therapist if such standards were set down. Perhaps a technician might be designated in each local authority to do the drawings. Such people would gain expertise over time because much of the work will be repetitive. This would help to reduce costs significantly and resources could be directed to areas where they are most needed. Perhaps a builder or panel of builders could also be appointed by local authorities to reduce costs in a similar manner. These are only suggestions and there may be a better way to improve the operation of the scheme. I ask the Minister of State to consider how best the changes can be achieved.

Photo of Noel AhernNoel Ahern (Minister of State, Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs; Dublin North West, Fianna Fail)
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I thank Senator Kenneally for the opportunity to speak about the disabled person's grant scheme. A review of the scheme is being finalised in the Department. On its completion, it will be possible to determine the changes, if any, required to the regulations governing the scheme to ensure the funding available is directed at those in greatest need of such assistance. This is the fundamental objective of the scheme. The Government is aware of the importance of this grant in helping to meet the accommodation needs of disabled persons. As a consequence of significant improvements to the scheme in recent years, there has been a major increase in demand for assistance. Some €65 million was allocated under the scheme at the beginning of the year and more recent allocations have brought the figure to €71 million for the current year.

Many of the issues Senator Kenneally mentioned are part of the review, although matters such as bureaucracy are not. The Department operates the overall legal framework and I do not envisage the involvement of the local authorities in providing, for example, drawings or builders. If they wanted to do so informally, such action would operate at local level without departmental involvement.

The Department is concerned with those most in need, means testing, needs testing and so on. Some local authorities get over the problem of the lack of availability of occupational therapists. In many cases, it is the local authority which sets down the rule that an occupational therapist is required. Some local authorities hire an occupational therapist for a day or two a week and manage to avoid the delays associated with the health boards.

The maximum grant was doubled from €10,158 in 1997 to €20,320 now and there has been a significant increase in the number of applications. The recoupment rate from the Department to local authorities in respect of grants paid has increased from 50% to two thirds. The value of grants allocated and the increased number of recipients are an indication of the Government's commitment to the disabled person's grant scheme.

I should make it clear that the operation of the scheme at local level is the responsibility of the local authority and I have no direct control in the matter. Authorities operate within the framework laid down in statutory regulations as devised by the Department. This is designed as far as is practicable to give authorities an appropriate degree of flexibility in administering the scheme. It is for them to decide the level of funding to be provided for the scheme in their areas from within the combination allocation for the disabled person's extension grant scheme and the essential repair grant scheme. It is the local authority which decides the division of resources between these two schemes. My Department's involvement in the scheme relates to the recoupment to authorities of two thirds of the expenditure. The balance of one third of the cost is funded from the authorities' own resources, for which they must provide in their annual estimates. This balance will be maintained. In some cases we might like to give a higher than 90% grant, but there are equally a number of cases where people have substantial means and do not need a 90% grant. Needs testing, based on medical and income needs, is required.

The Senator mentioned resources, which are important. We allocated approximately €65 million to the scheme at the beginning of this year. Many local authorities have sought extra resources and in recent weeks we have allocated just under €6 million extra funding. If the Senator's local authority has a problem or wants more resources, it should send in a formal request. I will consider that favourably.

The amount allocated to the scheme, €65 million, is up approximately €10 million on last year. During the year we allocated a further €6 million, bringing the total to €71 million. In September we wrote to the local authorities and asked them how matters stood and whether they needed extra money. It was at that stage that we allocated the further €6 million. Some authorities said they did not need more. However, Members come to me and tell me their constituents cannot get their applications or grants processed in those same areas. Much depends on the priority given to projects by individual local authorities.

Cork County Council, which was recently allocated over €7 million, did not reply in September when asked whether further funds were required. Now, late in the year, that council has told us that it does not require more money. Not alone does it not want more, it cannot spend what it was given. It was allocated €7.3 million for its three administrative areas, but of that it will not spend more than €3 million. This is appalling. The council should have told us this earlier. We want to know what resources are available and whether the resources committed are being spent. On the one hand we have Members saying their local authorities could do with extra resources and, on the other, I find out at the end of October that a Cork authority with an allocation of €7.3 million thinks it will not even spend €3 million of that. However, we still get representations from people saying they cannot get a disabled person's grant allocation.

Waterford received an extra allocation in early September. However, if it wants more, I will consider that request favourably. A fundamental part of the scheme is that local authorities must provide for a third of the grant in their estimates. Some local authorities have made changes and prioritised this.

Some of the items mentioned by the Senator will be considered in the review. Some local authorities use the requirement of an occupational therapist report to drag out the application process. This does not have to be the case. There are ways of fast-tracking the process where this report is required. Fundamentally, these grants are for work on private houses and the people involved would be in touch with the district nurse or health board agency. Therefore, there should be a system in place which will provide them with help.

There is also a direct health board scheme, housing aid for the elderly, to which we allocated over €4 million extra this week. The Senator's health board got approximately €500,000 of that figure. Money is available for this work to be done. I wish local authorities could cut out the bureaucracy, streamline the process and get the work done. They also need to become more efficient. They need to inform people early in the year that their applications have been approved and they can get on with the work. There is no point in writing to people early in November telling them to go ahead with an extension because they will not get it done in the time. However, as I already mentioned, extra resources have been provided.

The review will touch on some of the items mentioned by the Senator. We are trying to get best value for the funds available. We also want standardised costings as we have found that not alone do we get different prices from different builders, but we get different prices from different counties for standard products. Bureaucracy should be cut from the process. It is up to each local authority to provide one third of the money. However, if the Senator's county wants extra funds, that can be considered.

It is annoying that local authorities such as Cork, to which moneys were allocated early in the year, do not inform the Department that they cannot use half of it. This does not make sense.