Tuesday, 5 November 2019
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
Disability Support Services Provision
Good afternoon. This important issue involves several Departments, but it should most be heard by the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection, which I hope will resolve it using joined-up thinking.
In my county of Carlow, a number of services provide day and residential supports for those living with disabilities. Many offer supports to people in local authority or private homes who need day services. All of those using day services in some way qualify for free travel, but they cannot access it. If they lived in Dublin, Galway, Cork or Limerick there would be no problem. In rural Carlow, however, they fall victim to the postcode disadvantage. The free travel scheme, which was introduced by the former Taoiseach, Charles Haughey, in 1967, has been a lifeline for many in urban areas but is increasingly not of benefit to those in rural Ireland who must travel just to avail of it, meaning it is not free at all. There is no public transport link around County Carlow. There are public bus and train services to major cities, but there is nothing internal. A new public scheme has not even been put out to tender yet, and it may well be 2021 before there is any movement in that regard.
In the meantime, and due to the limited amount of residential places available, individuals are being allocated local authority homes via social housing agencies in partnership with service providers and the HSE on the understanding that they can receive day care services. Despite this, no provision has been made to get them to those services. Many living in their own homes or supported living residential settings require support to travel to the services on a daily basis.All of the main organisations in the Carlow area delivering day services provide limited transport to families from within existing resources, which is an ongoing struggle for them and all agree it is not sustainable and fails to meet the needs of all of the individuals who require transport support. While these providers sometimes receive partial funding from the HSE, it is not enough and they have to stretch budgets elsewhere in to provide dignity and services to these very vulnerable people.
All of the service providers in the Carlow area that offer services to people with disabilities strive to do so in line with the national policy, New Directions so that a standardised, person-centred, quality approach to service provision to individuals with disabilities can be delivered throughout the county. Access to transport to day services is an ongoing challenge for service users, parents and service providers and is far from a standardised and appropriate response to individual needs.
In the absence of a national policy to support individuals to travel to their chosen day service, we have an inadequate and unfair system in terms of how people are supported to travel to their respective day services throughout the country. A clear direction nationally regarding how people with disabilities can be supported to access services, particularly in rural areas, is required and a mechanism to fund such a policy needs to be agreed and implemented as soon as possible. This is vital to those with disabilities. A future policy decision could consider the option of a service that is providing transport to an individual entitled to free travel being able to reclaim that cost from the appropriate Department. People on the Aran Islands and Tory Island can use their free travel pass, yet people living on the hills of Carlow cannot.
This Government refuses to replace the mobility allowance, a payment previously made to people with severe disabilities in respect of public transport costs for taxis and so on to enable them to get around for social and health reasons. A memorandum on proposals for a new transport support scheme was brought to Cabinet but was later withdrawn in favour of revised proposals. I was disappointed to hear this. I would like to know what is happening in this regard and what the Department is doing to ensure those people who need to access transport to a therapy service can get that access. These people have free travel passes issued by the Department. This is incredibly unfair. It is unfair of this Government to expect service providers to lose out in respect of service provision that is essential to persons living with a disability. Many of our local stations are not wheelchair accessible and they have no toilet facilities. When will people living with disabilities be treated with the respect they need and deserve?
I acknowledge that this is a matter for the HSE and the Departments of Transport, Tourism and Sport and the Employment Affairs and Social Protection. Someone somewhere in they system needs to examine it with a view to identifying what can be done to get these people the service to which they are entitled. The ethos of these service providers is equality, dignity, privacy, safety and respect for their service users. We need to find a way to support them in whatever way we can so that users can enjoy the opportunity to be the very best.
I thank the Senator for raising this important issue, in respect of which she has put forward many valid arguments.
Before dealing with the specific issue in Carlow, I would like to point out that the free travel scheme is available to all people aged over 66, including carers and people in receipt of certain disability payments. There are currently 952,000 customers in the scheme, with an annual allocation of €95 million. The scheme permits travel for free on most CIÉ and public transport services, the Luas and some 80 private operators. Free travel is also available on cross-Border journeys and within Northern Ireland if the person is aged over 66.
As rightly stated by the Senator, the scheme was introduced to promote social inclusion and to prevent isolation of our elderly and disabled people by taking advantage of the free space on public transport services. In general, access to a free travel pass for those aged under 66 is linked to a person being in receipt of certain primary social protection payments such as disability allowance, invalidity pension, carer's allowance, blind pension and partial capacity benefit. In 1997, the scheme was extended to all registered blind people, regardless of whether they qualified for the blind person's pension or any other social protection payment.Blind people remain one of the few cohorts of people under the age of 66 who can qualify for a free travel pass while not in receipt of a qualifying social protection payment. The free travel scheme was never intended as a targeted support for people with severe mobility issues. The provision of transport services in rural areas is a matter for the National Transport Authority, which operates under the aegis of the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport. The rural transport programme, which operates under the brand name Local Link, provides a nationwide bus service in rural areas around Ireland. The aim of Local Link, which is managed out of 15 local offices, is to address rural social exclusion and, where possible, to integrate bus services with Bus Éireann and Iarnród Éireann networks. The Department provides €1.5 million in funding towards the rural transport programme to enable the development of better links between local rural transport and scheduled bus and rail services. I am pleased to note that efforts to enhance the provision of this service are continuing. I note that Local Link has introduced a number of new and expanded services during 2019, including services in Cork, Tipperary and Laois. In budget 2018, a further provision of €10 million was made to the free travel scheme to help more private commercial operators to join the free travel scheme for the first time, to enable existing participants to add more routes and to facilitate operators in returning to the scheme where they had previously withdrawn.
The Senator should note that under the supplementary welfare allowance scheme, the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection may separately award a travel supplement if this is warranted by the circumstances of the case. This supplement is intended to assist with ongoing or recurring travel costs that cannot be met from the client's own resources and are deemed to be necessary. Every decision is based on consideration of the particular circumstances of the case, taking account of the nature and extent of the need and resources of the person concerned. I can bring the valid point the Senator has raised about specific issues relating to Carlow to the attention of the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport. Transport is an important part of the national disability inclusion strategy, which I chair. If places like Carlow are not getting an adequate service, and if Senators from other counties feel that people with disabilities are similarly excluded, this is something that I will personally drive.
I welcome the Minister of State's response. It is so important. We have great service providers in Carlow, but people cannot access them. It is huge. It is a matter for all the different Departments. It is all about everyone working together from the same pot to ensure this happens. I will follow this up with the Minister of State.
The Senator is absolutely right when she says we must all work together. That is the whole idea behind the national disability inclusion strategy. I agree with the Senator's earlier comment that a clear direction is needed. It is important to ensure all Departments work together. In this case, the Departments of Transport, Tourism and Sport and Employment Affairs and Social Protection must work with the HSE and the Department of Health. The Senator also mentioned the transport support Bill. I have two drafts of two Bills on the issue of transport for people with disabilities. The Senator also mentioned accessibility in train stations in County Carlow, which I will raise with the authorities.
Absolutely. These issues are very important. Having ratified the UN convention, we must make it meaningful for people with disabilities. I will follow up on the issues that have been raised by the Senator and I will come back to her with a response.