Seanad debates

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Commencement Matters

Disability Services Provision

2:30 pm

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Social Protection, Deputy Kevin Humphreys.

Photo of Fidelma Healy EamesFidelma Healy Eames (Fine Gael)
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Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. I ask that the Minister of State at the Department of Health with special responsibility for disability, mental health and older people, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, make a statement on when the long-promised mobility allowance scheme will be made available for people with disabilities. I propose to outline some of the hardships being suffered by people with disabilities who are socially excluded and hurt as a result of Government inaction on the new scheme. The scheme has been promised since November 2013 - in other words, for two and a half years. How long does it take to devise a new scheme?

I have a copy of a letter dated 13 January 2015 from Mr. Adrian McLaughlin, private secretary to the Minister of State, in which he assured me that the new scheme is in process. Four months later, the scheme has still not been introduced. In his letter, Mr. McLaughlin states that work is ongoing on the policy proposals to be brought to government for the drafting of primary legislation for a new scheme. Where is the legislation?

This issue affects some of the most severely disadvantaged and socially excluded people in the country. I will outline the circumstances of a couple who did not avail of the previous mobility scheme.In this case the wife is in a motorised wheelchair due to hip and back problems and the husband has severe epilepsy with severe memory effects. Sometimes they have to go to the neurology department in Beaumont Hospital for procedures involving a nerve stimulator for the husband. They do not even have an allowance to get a taxi from the train station to Beaumont Hospital. That is what they want the mobility allowance for. As it happens, when they are in Galway, if they have an emergency they can call the ambulance and get straight to Galway University Hospital or into ICU, but they have no support for the regular appointments. They must get two buses to go to Galway University Hospital or call the Galway Centre for Independent Living, which obviously has to be paid. It is a €10 trip. They say they cannot afford the taxi and the wife cannot sit into an ordinary car because she needs a hoist. They are looking for a basic allowance for essential transport costs to cover essential hospital and medical needs. Where is the dignity in not providing that?

From what has been said by the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Howlin, and the Minister for Finance, Deputy Noonan, we know there is extra money in the Exchequer. Everyone will get extra pay. We are talking about basic essentials in this case. The couple have a carer who comes in occasionally, but sometimes they cannot go out due to the nature of their disabilities. One person cannot go out while the carer is looking after the other. The cost implications are being examined. Disabled people are being further disadvantaged and kept dependent because the Government has not approved the promised mobility allowance. The goal for people who are dependent is to make them independent in so far as they can be. When the weather gets bad the people in question cannot travel by bus because they cannot get out to the gate. It is just too dangerous and too risky, and at such times they need the personal attention of someone with an appropriate taxi. The mobility allowance would service that need.

As the Minister of State is aware, the mobility allowance is closed to new applicants. In effect, the treatment of people with disabilities is divisive and unequal because those who were previously awarded the mobility allowance are, thankfully, still getting it. That makes it difficult for disability organisations to advocate for the people who are not on the scheme, because they are afraid it could affect those who are benefitting from the scheme. The Government's treatment of people with disabilities amounts to apartheid. When will the Government treat all disabled people equally? When will the new mobility scheme start? Could the Minister of State please provide a date? I am sick and tired of the number of calls I have received from people with disabilities in Galway who feel that I am ignoring them. I put on record that I have raised this issue on many occasions. It is absolutely appalling that people with disabilities are being excluded from the scheme. Essentially, they are being kept prisoner in their own home, and they cannot even get a basic allowance to meet their regular medical and social appointments.

Photo of Kevin HumphreysKevin Humphreys (Dublin South East, Labour)
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I am responding to this matter today on behalf of my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, who sends her apologies. The motorised transport grant and mobility allowance were established some decades ago on an administrative basis, in good faith and with the intention of contributing towards mobility and transport needs for a group of people with severe physical difficulties.

At the time of their establishment, transport infrastructure was very different from the more accessible facilities available today. Conscious of the reports of the Ombudsman regarding the legal status of both the mobility allowance and the motorised transport grant scheme, in the context of the Equal Status Acts, the Government decided to close both administrative schemes in February 2013. It is important to emphasise that the Government accepts the position taken by the Ombudsman. However, the Ombudsman's recommendations have raised significant issues of a legal, financial and practical nature, particularly as regards extending eligibility to a wider cohort.

The Government came to the conclusion that such an extension of either scheme would create serious financial pressure on the health budget and would be unsustainable. This consideration is therefore at the centre of the Government's efforts to find a solution which is financially affordable and legally sound. Since the schemes were closed, a significant amount of work has been undertaken. A review group on transport supports for people with disabilities was established which involves a range of representatives of people with disabilities and a public consultation process.Following receipt of the review group's recommendation, the Government established an interdepartmental group to consider further the complex issues involved in developing an appropriate scheme, including how it should be administered. In November 2013, the Government decided that the preparation work required for a new transport support scheme and associated statutory provisions should be progressed by the Minister for Health. Work is ongoing on a policy process to be brought to the Government for the drafting of primary legislation for a new transport scheme. Once policy proposals have been finalised and approved by the Government, the timeframe for the introduction of a new scheme will become clearer. The health (transport support) Bill is included in the Government's legislative programme for 2050. Aware of the needs of people with disabilities who have relied on individual payments, the HSE has continued to make monthly payments to 4,700 people who were in receipt of the mobility allowance at the time the scheme was closed. This has prevented hardship and has alleviated stress, anxiety and uncertainty among a vulnerable group in society. There undoubtedly are legal and financial challenges involved in establishing a new scheme that takes cognisance of the needs and expectations of the aforementioned 4,700 people currently in receipt of payment. The Government has committed that whatever new scheme is developed will be affordable and legally robust and will take account of the findings of the Ombudsman's report. I assure the Senator that the Government will take all this into consideration when making the decision on future arrangements.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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Does the Senator have a question?

Photo of Fidelma Healy EamesFidelma Healy Eames (Fine Gael)
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While I think the Minister of State for his reply, it was no better than the answer I received from the private secretary last January. The Minister of State really is putting it on record here that four and a half months later there has been no movement. That is not good enough. The Minister of State now is telling me that the health (transport support) Bill will come to the House some time, but actually he did not say when. He stated it was in the Government's legislative programme for 2015, but when? That does not mean it will happen in 2015. I believe the Minister of State's Department and the Government are using the Ombudsman's careful reply as a means of slowing this down. The Minister of State is obviously concerned about the 4,700 people who are currently with the scheme.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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A question, Senator.

Photo of Fidelma Healy EamesFidelma Healy Eames (Fine Gael)
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That is great, but has he concern for those who are not in receipt of payments under any scheme? I seek the exact date and wish to ascertain what concern the Minister of State has for those people who are not in any scheme. I am cross about this issue because I am fed up with it.

Photo of Kevin HumphreysKevin Humphreys (Dublin South East, Labour)
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As the Senator is aware, I am taking this matter on behalf of the Minister, to whom I will bring her points. The Senator is quite correct that the Bill is in the legislative programme for 2015, and there is a commitment to the 4,700 people who are there, but I certainly will bring the Senator's concern-----

Photo of Fidelma Healy EamesFidelma Healy Eames (Fine Gael)
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They are getting something. What about those people who are not getting anything?

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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The Minister of State without interruption.

Photo of Kevin HumphreysKevin Humphreys (Dublin South East, Labour)
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I will bring the Senator's comments and concerns to the Minister with responsibility for the area.

Photo of Fidelma Healy EamesFidelma Healy Eames (Fine Gael)
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It is a bit late. That was my question.