Tuesday, 19 February 2008
I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, to the House. I propose to raise a number of issues concerning the new grant system introduced by the Minister of State's Department, which I wholeheartedly welcome.
In 2007, the Minister of State completed a review of the disabled person's grant, essential repair grant, and special housing aid for the elderly schemes operated by the Health Service Executive. A revised grant framework has been introduced with the objective of providing a more seamless set of responses to the housing needs of older people and people with disabilities. In effect, the disabled person's grant has been replaced by the housing adaptation grant for people with disabilities. Grants of up to €30,000 are available under this scheme, which has been welcomed by elderly people and their representative organisations. The mobility aid grant of up to €6,000 covers up to 100% of the costs of work done. The essential repair grant and special housing aid for the elderly schemes, which were previously administered by the Health Service Executive, have been amalgamated in the housing aid for older people scheme, which provides grants of up to €10,500 towards the costs of works. All the revised schemes, which came into effect on 1 November 2007, are administered by local authorities which assumed responsibility for the special housing aid for the elderly scheme from the HSE, although the scheme will continue until 31 March 2008.
I welcome the Minister of State's proactive approach to simplifying the housing grant schemes and making them more user friendly. Notwithstanding this, I ask him to consider simplifying the application forms for the schemes because I am receiving many queries from elderly people who have received letters from their local authorities seeking additional information or clarification because certain information was not provided when the application forms were submitted. Owing to the complexity of the new scheme and the administrative work associated with it, some elderly people do not furnish the additional information and, unfortunately, are denied the grant. Despite this, I praise the Minister of State's proactive approach to these welcome schemes which will benefit many people.
I strongly impress on the Minister of State the vital importance of not terminating the special housing aid for the elderly scheme, which has delivered major benefits to many elderly people in recent decades. The scheme allows individuals to have emergency repairs carried out on their homes under flexible terms and work carried out under it offered value for money and allowed many elderly people to stay in their own homes for longer than otherwise would have been the case. I appeal to the Minister of State not to terminate the scheme. To give an example of its benefits, 250 elderly people in County Donegal availed of it in 2007 and I am informed that all the work carried out provided value for money and represented a good deal for the taxpayer and the elderly people in question. In some cases, they were able to get contractors who were not C2 registered to carry out the work on a short-term basis.
I ask the Minister of State to comment on the possibility of simplifying the application forms for housing grants and on whether he will decline to terminate the special housing aid for the elderly scheme.
Batt O'Keeffe (Minister of State with special responsibility for Housing, Urban Renewal and Developing Areas, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Cork North West, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Senator for giving me this opportunity to discuss the new framework of housing adaptation grant schemes, which my Department introduced on 1 November 2007, and the issue of the transfer of the special housing aid for the elderly scheme from the HSE to my Department.
As the Senator will be aware, to facilitate the continued independent occupancy of their homes by older people and people with a disability my Department recently completed a review of the disabled persons and essential repairs grant schemes. A primary aim of the review was to streamline the administrative and operational procedures governing the schemes to facilitate easier and quicker access by applicants to the grants available.
In introducing the new framework of grant schemes I have been very much aware of the needs of some of the more vulnerable members of our community. In this context, I have introduced standardised schemes across all local authority areas. This has resulted in the removal of the inconsistencies and inequities which had existed in the application and approval process. I have streamlined the application process, including through the introduction of standardised application forms which all local authorities are required to use, the introduction of panels of contractors to assist applicants in sourcing quotes and the standardisation of costs to ensure transparency for all applicants. Furthermore, to ensure applicants are not subject to undue delays in accessing occupational therapy assessment, revised and simplified arrangements have been established.
Applicants who are experiencing difficulties with grant applications can access the customer care support offered by individual local authorities, including through lo-call customer care telephone services and customer care desks. I assure the Deputy that my Department will continue to monitor the new schemes in consultation with local authorities to ensure the application process is as simple and user friendly as possible.
As regards the transfer of the special housing aid for the elderly scheme to my Department, the Senator will be aware that, following a recommendation which arose from the core functions of the health service report, the Government decided in February 2006 that a more integrated service would be achieved by transferring responsibility for the special housing aid for the elderly scheme from the HSE to my Department. It has been always understood that the transfer of the special housing aid for the elderly scheme from the HSE to the local authority sector would pose significant challenges. In recognition of this and to ensure the satisfactory resolution of all outstanding issues, including staffing arrangements and the practical operation of the scheme on the ground, it has been agreed with the HSE that the special housing aid for the elderly scheme will continue to operate and be administered by the HSE until such time as all outstanding issues arising from the transfer are fully and satisfactorily resolved. In the meantime, my Department continues to work closely with the HSE and local authorities to achieve a smooth and seamless transfer of the scheme.
I am particularly aware that the integrity and the holistic and flexible nature of the scheme must be maintained under the new regime and, in this context, specific mechanisms will be implemented in order that the needs of the more vulnerable members of our older community, such as those suffering from illiteracy, social exclusion and isolation are addressed. I am confident the new arrangements will provide a more integrated and comprehensive response to the needs of older people.