Tuesday, 1 October 2019
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
Rehabilitative Training Allowance Payments
The country was a bit taken aback and none more so than those with disability, their families, carers and supporters, and those working within the disability sector. The rehabilitative training, RT, allowance facilitates independence and recognises those who are working hard to better themselves. In turn our economy and community benefits from them. We get new workers, new skills and new talents. It is certainly not charity. We benefit the most from when people with disabilities like the rest of us are accommodated into the workforce and into society.
The training allowance has been debated in the lower House. I have done my homework and I hope the Minister of State has also. I do not wish to sit here and read the same script I could read on kildarestreet.com. I hope the Minister of State will progress the debate and answer the questions I pose here today.
Sinn Féin launched our alternative budget this morning. We make ten pledges for disability all of which are costed. Out of those ten we are proposing €3.7 million for the reinstatement of RT allowance.
The first rationale the Minister of State gave in the Dáil for phasing out this payment was to bring equity and consistency between people with a disability attending HSE-funded training programmes who receive the payment and those attending similar HSE-funded day services or other State schemes such as further education and training. Surely another option is to extend the payment to similar HSE schemes.
In a similar vein, he said the redirected funding, amounting to €3.7 million over four years, will be ring-fenced to facilitate 140 full day placements or 370 enhanced day places nationally based on priority of need. This pits one person against another when they are affected by the policy. I can think of several less worthy waste-of-money projects, including the mismanagement of the national children's hospital, the money for which could have been used to retain the training allowance and provide new day placements. It is unfair and quite underhanded to pit these two against each other - divide and conquer is the old adage.
Before the Minister of State says that we are in opposition and the Government has to take tough decisions and uses other spin, I point out that in our alternative budget we have stated that we will reinstate the allowance. He might say that it is an extra. It is true that some families will be able to replace the €31 to allow their young adults to get late-night transport, meet friends and ultimately develop their lives so that they are independent, but many more families are stretched and will not be able to pick up this slack for the Department.
In these cases, the Government has taken away their only resource to gain independence, socialise and practice life skills needed for the workforce. They will lose out and so will we. We constantly talk about equality and inclusion and yet here we are battening down the hatches and taking a badly needed allowance away from individuals who need it and who are among the most vulnerable in society. I urge the Minister of State to reconsider.
I thank the Senator for raising this important issue and for the opportunity to outline the position on the rehabilitative training bonus payment and to clear up some of the misleading information that was unfortunately put out during the summer period when the Seanad and Dáil were closed.
The Government's priority is to provide access to high-quality day services to as many people with disabilities as possible. The HSE currently funds day services for more than 27,000 people with disabilities, including day services and RT programmes. Placements in day services are invaluable as they provide people with disabilities with a range of supports to allow them to make the types of choices available to other adults, enabling them to live independent lives of their choosing.
The HSE's New Directions policy seeks to reconfigure and personalise HSE-funded adult day services and offers a flexible and individualised set of supports to enable each person to live a life of their choosing in accordance with their own wishes and needs.
The RT programmes are designed to equip participants with basic personal, social and work-related skills. Approximately 2,300 people attend RT programmes and since the start of September, approximately 400 school leavers have commenced their RT programme.The rehabilitative training bonus payment is currently payable at a rate of €31.80 per week to attendees of these programmes, who can attend for a period of up to four years. The rehabilitative training bonus was introduced in 2001, aligned with a similar FÁS training bonus that later became the SOLAS vocational training programme payment. It is important to note that this payment was reduced in 2011 and discontinued in 2012.
Over the next four years, from September 2019, the rehabilitative training bonus will not apply to new attendees. Rather, the money that would have been spent on the bonus, estimated at approximately €3.7 million over four years, will be redirected to address unmet need in day service provision for people with disabilities. The redirected funding, which the HSE has confirmed will be ring-fenced, which is a word often used by colleagues, will create approximately 148 additional full day placements, or 370 additional enhanced day places nationally, for those with a reduced service or no service based on priority need. These new day services will be of great support to those with a disability and their families.
Each community healthcare organisation area will have the flexibility to redirect its own savings to address local service requirements, of which there are many, and the HSE has confirmed it will be reporting regularly to the Department of Health on the additional placements realised. I emphasise the 3,200 current participants in rehabilitative training programmes will not be affected and will retain their allowance, and their payments will continue until they complete their four-year programme.
It is important to note that while the majority of attendees of HSE day services qualify for disability allowance, paid at a rate of €203 per week, which was increased in the three most recent budgets, they also qualify for a free travel pass. The additional rehabilitative training bonus payment is only payable to attendees of rehabilitative training programmes. This decision will maximise the use of finite resources and, crucially, will ensure that all attendees of HSE-funded day services have the same level of support.
There is no cut to the payment of the rehabilitative training bonus and there is no cut to the number of rehabilitative training places available. Since 2 September, approximately 400 school leavers who opted for a rehabilitative training placement have commenced attending their programmes.
The Minister of State started by saying this misinformation was during the summer when the Seanad and Dáil were not in session. The Minister of State can spin it whatever way he wants but I call them cuts and they occurred when the Seanad and Dáil were not available. Last week, Senator Dolan spoke passionately about this. He has a finger on the pulse of the disability sector. There is extreme disappointment that the Minister of State has not acknowledged this will damage a very vulnerable section of society, which he has worked very hard to bring up and make more visible and protect their demands and rights. This does not do anything in this regard and just puts more people in the poverty trap. We know disability is linked to the highest rate of poverty in this country. It pits one section against another. Expansion is needed and not contraction, which is what this is viewed as. Voices in the sector have tried to influence the budget due next week to reverse the cuts and I hope the Minister of State has also done so.
I thank Senator Devine for her interest in this issue. Of course I always listen to the voices in the sector. I reassure those with disabilities attending the rehabilitative training programmes and their families that the phasing out of the bonus will not affect anyone currently attending the rehabilitative training programme. I emphasise there is no cut in the payment of the rehabilitative training bonus. Those receiving it will continue to do so for the remainder of the rehabilitative training programme. There is no cut in the number of rehabilitative training places available. All rehabilitative training participants continue to be eligible for the disability allowance of €300 per week and they receive a free travel pass. No expectation of the rehabilitative training bonus payment has been created by the HSE for the 2019 participants of rehabilitative training programmes.
The Senator has raised very valid arguments with regard to poverty. Of course I accept that many people with disabilities have extra costs.We are considering that matter. A group within the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection is examining a proposal to increase the amount for disability services. However, I cannot discriminate by giving 400 people an allowance and not giving it to the other 26,000. Were I to extend it - I would love to if I won the lotto - it would cost in the region of €30 million. I would rather put the money into day services and emergency residential places, given the current crisis therein.