Wednesday, 13 April 2005
I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Noel Ahern, to the House. I would like to raise a simple and clear-cut matter. I ask the Government to review the operation by the various local authorities of the disabled persons grant scheme. I do not refer to Carlow County Council in particular, because it operates a very good scheme under which category A cases are generally dealt with in less than a year. I understand from my colleagues that schemes in other parts of the country are not organised as well.
If an elderly person who has had a stroke, for example, or is suffering from another illness needs to install a downstairs toilet, shower or bedroom, he or she has to apply to his or her local authority to be considered under the disabled persons grant scheme. The matter is then referred to the person's doctor and the local section of the Health Service Executive, before being considered again by the local authority, which refers it to an occupational therapist. If the person's application is successful, having been considered by the local authority for the final time, he or she is asked to identify what needs to be done. The matter is then referred to the local authority's clerk of works to be costed. If the person succeeds at that stage, his or her application is finally approved.
The procedure I have outlined is followed quite quickly in Carlow County Council. I commend the staff of the council for reducing the waiting time for the report of the occupational therapist to approximately one month. My colleagues in other local authority areas have informed me that people in some areas have to wait for up to a year for a report. The service provided by Carlow County Council has been greatly enhanced by its decision to avail of the newly privatised occupational therapy service. I am not sure whether other local authorities adopt a similar approach.
The delays in the grant scheme are causing concern for many people. I am aware of a case in a county other than County Carlow that has taken almost two years to progress. The people in question have been waiting for almost five months for the local section of the Health Service Executive to get back to them.
I have raised this matter to try to focus the Minister of State's mind on the grant scheme in question. I ask him to organise a review of the scheme. He should try to improve it further by learning from the success of the Carlow experience. We need to facilitate those whose houses need to be renovated so that they can enjoy a decent quality of life.
Why does the funding provided by the Department of Health and Children to local authorities meet just two thirds of the cost of the renovations? As far as I know, local authorities have to meet the shortfall in central funding by paying for one third of the cost of the renovations. Would it not make more sense for the Department to provide a full grant and allow the local authority to do the rest of the work? I understand that some local authorities, including one in Cork, are not spending the money they have been allocated because of the requirement to meet the shortfall.
The operation of the disabled persons grant scheme needs to be examined. Perhaps the manner in which it is being operated in Carlow can be used as an example of best practice, to avoid some of the problems I have mentioned. It is totally unsatisfactory for all concerned that people should have to crawl upstairs on their hands and knees because the necessary renovation works have not been done.
I thank Senator Browne for giving me the opportunity to speak about the disabled persons grant scheme. He will be glad to learn that a review of the scheme is well advanced in my Department. The grant scheme serves a useful purpose in helping to meet the housing needs of disabled persons. The grant is available for the provision of additional accommodation or the carrying out of adaptation works which, in the opinion of the local authority where the house is located, are reasonably necessary to make the house more suitable for a disabled member of the household.
The operation of the grant scheme at local level is a matter for the local authorities. I accept the Senator's point that some local authorities are more efficient than others in their operation of the scheme. Part of the problem is that some authorities will not meet one third of the cost of renovation works as they are obliged to do. It is most unfair on those who need renovated facilities that some local authorities are prepared to drag out the scheme.
The framework for the operation of the scheme is laid down in regulations. It is designed, as far as practicable, to give an appropriate degree of flexibility to local authorities. One of the strengths of the scheme is that the regulations are framed in a manner that gives maximum flexibility to local authorities. That also makes it more difficult to manage, however, and I accept that it leads to variations in performance standards among local authorities. The Department would receive complaints if it were to make all the rules, thereby telling local authorities what they can do, how they can do it and when they can do it. It believes in giving as much power as possible to local authorities, which have housing as one of their main functions.
Demand for assistance under the scheme has increased enormously in recent years, mainly as a consequence of the significant improvements the Government has made to it. The increase in the grant to its present level of €20,320 in 2001 led to significantly increased activity under the scheme, as did the increase to 90% of the percentage of the cost payable. I listened with interest to Senator Browne's suggestion that the Department should pay 100% of the cost of renovation works, but I do not agree with such a proposal because it would lead to demand going through the roof. The rate of recoupment to local authorities has increased from half of the cost before 2001 to two thirds of the cost now. A disabled persons new house grant of up to a maximum of €12,700 has also been introduced.
The number of grants paid increased significantly over five years, from 2,455 in 1998 to 5,739 in 2003. Expenditure on the grants in that period totalled over €200 million and over 25,000 grants were paid. That over 25,000 projects were completed means that a large number of disabled persons and their families were able to remain in their homes, which is important. Such people now enjoy improved housing conditions which many of them would not otherwise have been able to afford.
I am aware that the unexpected increase in applications in recent years has posed problems for the local authorities which are administering the scheme. This has led to delays in approval and payment, not always related to the level of funding available. The majority of authorities have reviewed their schemes in recent years to streamline their operation. The introduction of systems of medical prioritisation, standardisation of costs and improved arrangements for the use of occupational therapists have enabled the authorities to manage the schemes more efficiently and to tackle the backlog of applications.
The Department does not insist on an occupational therapist's report, although it is recommended if major renovations are being undertaken and it can be worthwhile if someone has an illness that may get worse. Delays can occur while waiting for reports for genuine reasons but sometimes a report is demanded when it is not necessary to delay people. A number of local authorities hire an occupational therapist rather than waiting for the health board. There is nothing wrong with that as it is more efficient and keeps the system moving instead of fobbing it off to a health board in the hope that it will take nine months to come back. Some applicants have been delayed unnecessarily this way over the years.
A combined capital allocation of €70 million is being made to local authorities for the payment of the disabled person's and essential repair grant schemes this year. Individual allocations, which will notify to local authorities soon, will be based on their requirements as notified to my Department. Last year, Cork County Council requested €8 million and we allocated 90% of that figure. In November, however, the council told us it only needs €2.75 million because it had not provided its own third. It deprived other counties of that money. There is no point in telling someone in November to go ahead with the disabled person's scheme. Local authorities must give approval early in the year so clients can get the builder in.
Another local authority divided up its allocation by the number of applications it would approve and each quarter authorised a certain number of jobs. What is he point of telling someone in October that he or she can do a job when it will not be completed by the end of the year? I hope Cork County Council has budgeted for its third this year. That is the only way to do it. Last year that local authority told us it wanted €8 million and we gave it 90% of the figure. However, in November it told us it could not use it. It is ridiculous.
It is a matter for authorities to decide on the level that will be provided for the disabled person's grant scheme from within the combined total. One or two counties do not bother with the essential repairs grant scheme, although it is valuable. It is up to the local authorities, however, to decide how they divide the funding.
While two thirds of expenditure on the scheme is recouped from the Department, authorities are required to fund the remaining one third from their own revenue sources with amounts provided for that purpose in their annual estimates.
The Government is aware of the importance of the disabled person's grant scheme in meeting the accommodation needs of disabled persons in the community. The focussing of the scheme on real needs, both financial and accommodation-related, and its operation by local authorities in an efficient manner, will be critical in ensuring it achieves its aim. The outcome of the review of the operation of the scheme that is under way will significantly contribute to this achievement. Local authorities will, however, have to provide one third of the grant.
We are looking at standard costing, occupational therapists, speeding matters up and deciding if the grant should be related to means or medical need. We are introducing those measures that efficient local authorities have already put in place to standardise the operation of the scheme. We have reviewed the scheme and it has probably worked to the benefit of some but not others. We have all heard the urban legend about a lady who sold her house for €700,000 and moved in with her solicitor's son, who then applied for a grant to build an extension for the mother or the grandmother and qualified for it under the present scheme. If a person is poor and on a pension or has sold an existing property and moved in with a family member, he or she still qualifies under the existing scheme. In some cases they build very fancy extensions to their homes. That is fine if the house remains in the family for years to come but if the house is sold within three years because the grandmother has died, it is arguable that there should be a claw back. It is all taxpayers' money. It is a case of helping those in genuine need while not allowing the scheme to be milked. We are looking at this issue and hope to come to a conclusion soon.
When will the review be completed? In future we will not need these grants because modern buildings include downstairs toilets and similar facilities. The problems with the houses built in the 1950s and 1960s are coming back to haunt us. It is not a long-term problem. I thank the Minister of State for his comprehensive reply and urge the Department to focus on this for the next few years to clear the backlog. In 20 years this will be irrelevant as a result of modern building standards.
I hope the Senator is right. There are building regulations in place but they may not cover every case. There are regulations for door width and fewer steps but higher density housing could cause difficulties for disabled people in future. Even higher density developments, however, are built with full life living in mind.
The review is more or less complete, it must be approved by certain people and sometimes that can take time. Most of the work is done and we will make the allocations soon. We may combine the two.