Wednesday, 13 November 2019
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
Disabled Drivers and Passengers Scheme
I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I have asked him to come to the House today to discuss the need to expand the qualifying criteria for a primary medical certificate for the disabled drivers and disabled passengers scheme to persons with severe cases of autism spectrum disorder and severe sensory disabilities.
This issue is close to my heart. As a GP, I come across it frequently in my practice and I believe that this scheme needs to be altered. This issue was brought to my attention by Councillor James O'Connor who I welcome to the House today. A constituent of Councillor O'Connor who would have had to spend a small fortune on a vehicle which would be suitable for a child with autism spectrum disorder, ASD, expressed dismay that due to the lack of a severe physical disability her child, who requires constant care and attention, would not be considered eligible for a primary medical certificate. There is a clear and obvious need for the legislation to be updated to account for those with cognitive as well as physical disabilities.
The Disabled Drivers and Disabled Passengers (Tax Concessions) (Amendment) Regulations provide a tax relief to those in receipt of a primary medical certificate when purchasing a new vehicle. This was incredibly important legislation when it was instigated. It provides financial aid to families and individuals who are required to make significant monetary outlays to provide transportation or else be significantly constrained. The regulations were intended to help reduce the financial cost of transporting oneself or another when compelled to attend medical appointments, hospital appointments, etc.
A family with a child with severe ASD and sensory issues cannot be expected to use public transport. A child with that condition simply would not cope in those circumstances. The daily emotional stress and anxiety that both child and his or her family are being expected to deal with are unacceptable. In some cases, it is unsafe for the driver of the car if the child is exposed to that amount of tension and stress.
Persons with ASD tend to have problems with social interaction and communication. Children and young people with ASD frequently experience a range of cognitive, learning, emotional and behavioural problems. If one forces those who are predisposed to sensory overload to use public transport, it is cruel to them and, I believe, cruel to their families.
I would ask the Minister to seriously consider what it must take for this mother to transport her children around, one of whom could have a serious emotional episode or so-called "meltdown" on public transport because the child is so overwhelmed by strange people, strange environments, strange smells, strange sights and strange sounds. This is a traumatic experience. I believe that the current scheme is too restrictive and needs to be adapted.
Being a full-time carer to a child with ASD is not an easy role. When parents need to be constantly responding to the needs of others with whom it can be difficult to interact, it can affect their own emotional and physical health and their physical energy. Sometimes their own physical well-being is put on the back-burner.A simple act such as waiving the, value-added tax, VAT, or vehicle registration tax, VRT, on a car used to transport children could be a real bonus. It is a small and achievable ask. There is a clear oversight in the legislation. I ask the Minister of State to put forward proposals to extend the qualifying criteria for a primary medical certificate. There is no logical reason that the disabled drivers and disabled passengers scheme covering people with physical impediments could not be expanded to those with cognitive impairments. I ask the Minister of State to seriously consider this and to be sympathetic to my cause.
I thank the Senator for raising the matter. I wish to recognise my constituency colleague, Councillor James O'Connor, and welcome him to the House. I apologise on behalf of the Minister for Finance, who cannot be here this morning.
The disabled drivers and disabled passengers tax concession scheme provides relief from VAT and VRT up to certain limits, an exemption on motor tax and a grant in respect of fuel and the purchase of an adapted car for the transport of a person with specific, severe and permanent physical disabilities. To qualify for the scheme an applicant must be in possession of a primary medical certificate. To qualify for a primary medical certificate, an applicant must be permanently and severely disabled within the terms of the Disabled Drivers and Disabled Passengers (Tax Concessions) Regulations 1994 and must satisfy one of the following conditions. An applicant must be wholly or almost wholly without use of both legs; 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 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; have the medical condition of dwarfism; or have serious difficulties with the movement of the lower limbs.
The senior medical officer of the relevant local HSE administrative area makes a provisional clinical determination of whether the individual applicant satisfies the medical criteria. A successful applicant is provided with a primary medical certificate, which is required to claim the reliefs provided by the regulations. 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 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 has been a deterioration of his or her condition.
The scheme represents a significant tax expenditure. Between the VRT and VAT foregone and the fuel grant, the scheme's cost rose from €50 million in 2013 to €65 million in 2016 and 2017, increasing further to €70 million in 2018. This figure does not include the revenue foregone in respect of the motor tax relief provided to members of the scheme. The disability criteria for the tax concessions available under the scheme have changed over time. When the scheme was first introduced in 1968, the legislation only allowed for one medical ground. In 1989, four new medical grounds were added and one new medical ground was added in 1994. I remind the House that the scheme was examined in 2015 in order to target available resources at those most in need. This resulted in the creation of a new category of adapted vehicle called the extensively adapted vehicle, allowing claims of up to €22,000 where the cost of modification exceeds the cost of the vehicle itself. Furthermore, access to the scheme for charitable organisations was significantly broadened in 2018 by the removal of the requirement for 50% of the people availing of the services to hold primary medical certificates.
I understand and sympathise with any person who suffers from a serious disability and cannot access the scheme under the current criteria. However, given the scope and scale of the scheme, any possible changes can only be made after very careful consideration, taking into account the existing and prospective costs of the scheme, the availability of other schemes which seek to help with the mobility of disabled persons and the interaction between each of the schemes. The Minister for Finance tells me he has no plans to change the current criteria or make any other changes to the scheme.
I thank the Minister of State for his reply but I cannot accept it. I think it is disgraceful. I am sure the Minister of State will agree that this scheme is antiquated. It is antiquated in the qualifying criteria requiring people to be wholly without the use of one or both limbs etc. I deal with this every day of the week in my surgery. Not only are the qualifying criteria antiquated, the appeals process is antiquated as well. If somebody is refused a primary care certificate, where can he or she go for an appeal? Disabled people are expected to go to the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Dún Laoghaire for an appeal. They must travel from all over the country, making a trip of four or five hours duration from north-west Mayo or Cork, to sit in front of somebody and be refused again. That is one antiquated element of the scheme.
If we are serious about being an inclusive society we need to include people with cognitive impairments, as highlighted by councillor O'Connor. Small changes would save this country a lot of money and make our society a lot more inclusive. We are not asking for a lot. We are asking for people with serious diagnosed cognitive impairment to be considered for this. I do not accept that the Minister of Finance has no plans to change the scheme. I will work with Councillor O'Connor to introduce legislation in this regard. The appeals scheme needs to change and we need to include people with cognitive impairment.
I thank the Senator. I appreciate his passion in respect of this matter. As stated, I understand and fully sympathise with any person who suffers from a serious disability and who cannot access the scheme. However the scheme and qualifying criteria were designed specifically for those with severe physical disabilities and are therefore necessarily precise. As the Senator, who is also a GP, will recognise, they have to be precise. The Senator appears to be suggesting a new and altogether different scheme for people with cognitive disabilities. Perhaps the way to go is to implement a totally new scheme-----
-----rather than the current scheme, which is for people with severe physical disabilities. The Minister has no plans to change the medical criteria for accessing the disabled drivers and disabled passengers tax concession scheme. However, the Department of Health is working on revised proposals for a transport support payments scheme, which will make individual payments as a contribution towards the transport costs of people with severe disabilities who are on low income and cannot access public transport. There is some ongoing work in this area which might be of help. This scheme would replace the motorised transport grant, which was closed to applicants in 2013.
-----after the first supplementary question. I am sorry about that. However, the Senator and the Minister of State can have a chat about it on the margins. I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Andrew Doyle. He is making a grand entrance.