Thursday, 29 January 2015
Disabled Drivers and Passengers Scheme
I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Finance, Deputy Simon Harris, and thank him for coming to the House to address this issue. It is often the case that Ministers who do not have direct responsibility for the particular areas under discussion come to the House to deliver the good or bad news. It is nice, therefore, to have a Minister before us who has direct responsibility for the issue being raised.
A scheme that has been in place for many years provides that mobility impaired persons may secure an exemption from the payment of value added tax, VAT, and vehicle registration tax, VRT, on vehicles that are purchased and need to be adapted for wheelchair users and others. It is a worthwhile and appropriate scheme in that it provides an incentive for people with a mobility impairment to become more independent and facilitates greater equality by creating a level playing pitch. The problem with the scheme is that it does not apply to other people who also have significant disabilities, specifically blind or visually impaired persons who may not legally drive. I refer to people whose eyesight is such that they are defined as being legally blind and who will, therefore, never be able to drive. Such persons have the same mobility and equality requirements as everyone else.
To give an example, if the husband of a blind or visually impaired woman purchases a car to be used to support his wife, the couple is not entitled to a VAT refund or an exemption from VRT, which is unfair. There is a strong case for extending the exemption on the basis that it would create a more equal society by affording to visually impaired and blind people the same benefits as are available to wheelchair users and others with mobility impairments.
One might expect that I would have been aware of this anomaly but it was only recently brought to my attention by a lady with a visual impairment who did not receive a discount when she bought a car, whereas one of her friends, who is a wheelchair user, received a significant discount when purchasing a car. There is a compelling case for extending the scheme to blind and visually impaired people in the next budget. This step towards equality should be taken in the lifetime of this Government.
I thank Senator Conway for raising this matter. I am speaking on behalf of the Minister for Finance who regrets that he is unable to be present due to other business. The Minister very much appreciates the importance of the issue the Senator raises.
As a tax concession, the disabled drivers and disabled passengers scheme falls within the remit of the Department of Finance. I will first provide a brief description of the scheme as it currently stands. The scheme provides relief from vehicle registration tax and VAT on the purchase of a specially adapted vehicle, assistance with fuel costs in respect of the running costs of the vehicle and an exemption from motor tax to drivers and passengers with disabilities who fulfil the medical criteria required to qualify for the scheme. The primary legislation authorising the Minister for Finance to make regulations providing for tax concessions to disabled drivers and passengers is contained in section 92 of the Finance Act 1989 and the regulations introduced subsequently to govern the scheme, including the eligibility criteria, are contained in the Disabled Drivers and Disabled Passengers (Tax Concessions) Regulations 1994.
Currently, to qualify for the scheme an applicant must have a permanent and severe physical disability within the terms of the regulations and satisfy one of the six qualifying criteria outlined in the regulations. The senior medical officer for the relevant local Health Service Executive administrative area makes a professional clinical determination as to whether an individual applicant satisfies the medical criteria. A successful applicant is provided with a primary medical certificate, which is required under the regulations to claim the reliefs provided for under the scheme. An unsuccessful applicant can appeal the decision of the senior medical officer to the disabled drivers medical board of appeal, which makes a new clinical determination in respect of the individual. The regulations mandate that the medical board of appeal is independent in the exercise of its functions to ensure the integrity of its clinical determinations. After six months, a citizen can reapply if there is a deterioration in his or her condition.
The six qualifying criteria, which are necessarily strict and precise, require the following: that the applicant be wholly or almost wholly without the use of both legs; be wholly without the use of one leg and almost wholly without the use of the other leg such that the applicant is severely restricted as to movement of the lower limbs; be without both hands or without both arms; be without one or both legs; be wholly or almost wholly without the use of both hands or arms and wholly or almost wholly without the use of one leg; or have the medical condition of dwarfism and have serious difficulties of movement of the lower limbs.
The scheme and qualifying criteria were designed specifically for those with severe physical disabilities. The Minister for Finance frequently receives correspondence from applicants who do not meet the qualifying criteria but feel that they could benefit from the scheme. Senator Conway has made a compelling case this morning for people with visual impairment. While the Minister is sympathetic to those who do not qualify, given the scale and scope of the scheme he cannot expand it further within the current context of constrained resources.
The scheme represents a significant tax expenditure. Between the vehicle registration tax and VAT foregone, and the assistance with fuel costs for members of the scheme, based on provisional figures the scheme represented a cost of €48.6 million to the Exchequer in 2014, an increase of €5.1 million on the 2013 cost. This figure does not include the revenue foregone to the Local Government Fund in respect of the relief from motor tax provided to members of the scheme. In terms of the numbers of claims to the scheme in 2014, there were 4,936 claims for vehicle registration tax and VAT relief, and 12,338 claims in respect of the repayment of excise on the fuel element of the scheme.
The Minister for Finance recognises that this scheme plays an important role in expanding the mobility of citizens with disabilities, and as a consequence the relief has been maintained at current levels throughout the difficult economic crisis, despite the requirement for significant fiscal consolidation. Accordingly, while the Minister is sympathetic to the compelling argument made by Senator Conway, in the still challenging fiscal environment there are no plans to expand the medical criteria beyond the six currently provided for in the Disabled Drivers and Disabled Passengers Regulations 1994.
However, in light of the case made by Senator Conway, I will pass on his serious views and a transcript of this debate to the Minister, Deputy Noonan, and ask that he keep the matter under review.
I thank the Minister of State. I am not unduly surprised by the reply. The reason I tabled this matter is to flag it for the future. As our economy becomes more buoyant we have a responsibility to ensure that all citizens are treated equally. Certainly, it is appropriate that the scheme be available to the six categories outlined, but a seventh category should be included. Hopefully, in the not to distant future and with our economy improving we might be in a position to facilitate that.
Senator Conway is correct. As we enter a period of economic recovery and as that recovery takes hold, even though it is still fragile, it is appropriate that we begin a debate about what one does with economic recovery, and I welcome the fact that the Senator has raised the issue. However, this is a matter that the Department of Finance keeps under constant review but the Senator will appreciate the costs of the scheme, which I outlined, and that we do not wish to make unrealistic promises to people. This Government does not do that.
The Government has made a number of welcome reforms in respect of people with disabilities, for example, the assisted decision making legislation published by the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Fitzgerald, and the first review of special needs education to take place since 1993. With regard to the issue of the mobility allowance and motorised transport grant, while these are matters for the Minister for Health, the Department of Health is seeking a solution which would best meet the aim of supporting people with severe disabilities who require additional income to contribute towards the cost of their mobility needs while remaining within the available budget and satisfying all legal and equality concerns.
I am conscious of the reports of the Ombudsman regarding the legal status of the motorised transport grant and mobility allowance scheme in the context of the Equal Status Act. The Government decided to close both schemes on 26 February 2013 and in November 2013 it decided that the preparatory work required for a new travel subsidy scheme and associated statutory provisions should be progressed by the Minister for Health. Work is ongoing on the policy proposals to be brought to the Government for the drafting of primary legislation for a new scheme. The challenge is to provide these benefits to a wider cohort of people while continuing to cater for the 4,700 people already in receipt of a monthly payment within a limited budget. When the policy proposals have been finalised by the Minister for Health and approved by the Government, the timeframe for the introduction of a new scheme will become clearer.
There are clearly a number of areas relating to disability on which we continue to work.