Thursday, 29 September 2016
Motorised Transport Grant
I thank the Cathaoirleach for choosing this debate and the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, for being present to hear it. Since I entered politics in the other House, the Minister of State has been a strong advocate for the disability sector. Therefore, I know I will get a good hearing. I appreciate that very much. I congratulate the Minister of State on his advocacy for the disabled over many years.
Let me outline the background to the motorised transport grant for those who might not understand. The payment was suspended in 2013. It was for people with disabilities who need to buy a car to retain employment or, in exceptional circumstances, people over 17 with severe disabilities who live in isolated locations and who cannot use public transport. I wish to concentrate on the latter.
I can best illustrate the point I wish to make by referring to extracts from a letter I received from one of my constituents, a woman who cares for her husband. I will refer to the important points and leave out names so no one will be identified. The woman states her husband contracted viral inflammation of the brain in 1995 and has considerable brain damage, epileptic and non-epileptic seizures, depression, word-finding problems, and problems with comprehension and memory. She states he had a heart attack in 1999 and has had 16 stents put in his heart. She has been caring for him 24-7, and he gets many seizures during the night. I am very much aware of the circumstances. The woman states her husband must be driven to attend appointments in Galway and Dublin. She has to get him out of the house every day for tea and take him to Sunday lunch as part of his therapy, as ordered by his consultants.
She contends she desperately needs to have a sturdy car because her husband is 19 stone, over six feet in height and has had seizures in the car requiring him to be stretchered out on numerous occasions. She has a 2009 car that really needs to be updated to a 2012 car. The Disabled Drivers Association of Ireland advised her she should change car every two years, but it is four years since she has changed hers. She called to the Castlebar clinic 18 months ago to ask for forms to apply for the motorised transport grant and was told it was stopped and to be replaced.She says she has been telephoning every few months but still there is no replacement scheme. The car is now beginning to give trouble and she is extremely worried that it is going to break down when she is out with her husband and that this could trigger a seizure. His seizures are caused by stress, worry and anxiety. She says she gets the VRT and VAT back on the car but even with the motorised transport grant, she still has to go to the credit union for a loan to pay for the shortfall on the car. The older her current car gets, the more it depreciates. This means she will have to get a bigger loan from the credit union. She desperately needs the motorised transport grant to be reinstated because if it is not, she does not know how she will manage. I know this case. I have been working with this family for the past number of years. It really is a lifeline and I would like to get a response from the Minister of State.
I thank the Senator for his contribution, as well as for his earlier congratulations on my new portfolio. I give a commitment to push strongly on many of the issues I have been advocating. The letter the Senator read from the carer is emotional and heartbreaking. I hope that in some of the responses this morning, we can progress this issue.
I thank the Senator for raising this matter and I welcome the opportunity to outline the current position in respect of it. As he will already be aware, conscious of the reports of the Ombudsman regarding the legal status of both the mobility allowance and the motorised transport grant in the context of the Equal Status Acts, the Government decided to close both schemes. As a result, the motorised transport grant referred to by the Senator has not been in place for over three years. There are no plans for its restoration on the basis on which it was previously operated. That is the first important part. The next part is more important, however. The Government is aware of the continuing needs of people with a disability who rely on individual payments that support choice and independence. In this regard, monthly payments of up to €208.50 have continued to be made by the Health Service Executive to 4,700 people who were in receipt of the mobility allowance. The Government has decided that the detailed preparatory work required for a new transport support scheme and associated statutory provisions should be progressed by the Department of Health. I confirm that work is at an advanced stage on policy proposals for the drafting of primary legislation for the new scheme and anticipate that it will be brought to Government shortly. In that regard, a health (transport support) Bill is included in the Government's legislative programme.
The programme for a partnership Government acknowledges the ongoing drafting of primary legislation for a new transport support scheme and that both and the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, and I are committed to its progression as soon as possible. We are on the issue of a transport support scheme. The proposals will seek to ensure that there is a firm statutory basis to the scheme's operation, that there is transparency and equity in the eligibility criteria attaching to the scheme, that resources are targeted at those with the greatest needs and that the scheme is capable of being costed and is affordable when introduced and on an ongoing basis. The Department of Health is seeking a solution which will best meet the aim of supporting people with severe disabilities who require additional income to contribute towards the costs of their mobility needs while keeping within the available budget and satisfying all legal and equality concerns. The challenge is to develop a new scheme on a statutory basis within a limited budget, targeted towards those with the greatest need.
I assure the Senator that the matter will be brought to Government for consideration and decision as soon as possible. I look forward to what I am sure will be a valuable and constructive debate when the Bill comes before the House in due course.
I thank the Minister of State for the latter part of the reply in which he set out the position on the promised legislation. I know the history of this issue. I note the point the Minister of State made to the effect that the scheme will be targeted at those in greatest need. In reality, if this is not restored quickly, the costs to the State in respect of the person I am talking about - and there are many others - will end up being a great deal more. The letter I read was from someone who has won a national award as carer of the year. The person is a saint on this earth. We can talk about equality all we like but if the scheme that is implemented fails to meet the needs she has, it will cost the State multiples of what it would otherwise have to pay. Without divulging anything about the person, some people who were in similar circumstances sued in respect of similar hospital treatment but the family to which I refer refused to do so on condition that they would be supported to care for their father and husband at home. It is vital that this case is pursued to a positive conclusion at the earliest opportunity.
I thank the Senator. Of course, I share his concerns about this particular individual. It is an emotional and heartbreaking letter. There are many people in the same situation. I can give a commitment on two things. The first is more support for carers in society because I acknowledge the fantastic unpaid work they do. The Senator mentioned that the particular woman could have taken a legal case but did not. There are a lot of good, civic-minded people in our broader society who act like that and they need our support. I accept the Senator's argument there. Second, I will be saying to the Minister that the legislation to help these 4,700 individuals, who make a massive contribution by looking after our disabled and sick people, must address their needs. It will reduce the cost to the State in the long term, which is a reality I accept. I will bring those key messages back to the Minister, Deputy Harris.
It is important that carers in Irish society are not only acknowledged and commended for their work but supported. The Senator mentioned that the woman in question won a carer-of-the-year award. There are many people like her out there and there are times when society and the State does not provide them with enough support. My job over the next two or three years is to do my best to increase the support they get, increase investment in services, implement the carer's strategy as set out in the programme for Government, and, in this particular case, do something about transport support schemes for people with disabilities.