Wednesday, 7 October 2020
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
Disabled Drivers and Passengers Scheme
I thank the Minister of State for taking the time to attend the House today. I wish to raise with her the disabled person's parking card, the primary medical certificate and the regulations governing the eligibility for them. Both of them come under the remit of her Department. When I addressed the House on this subject on Make Way Day, I spoke about the experiences of a constituent who is well known to me and the hardship experienced by that person. Much to my surprise, and perhaps horror, I have been contacted since then by many people who are experiencing the same problems and are in a similar position.
I am asking for a review of the eligibility criteria on the basis that if one holds a primary medical certificate, one is entitled to the disabled person's parking card but must still automatically apply for it. More importantly, from that card flows an exemption from the payment of VAT, motor tax and vehicle registration fees, as well as various reliefs that assist in the purchase or adaptation of a car for people who are drivers with disabilities, or who have a passenger with a disability.
The eligibility criteria, as they stand, are based on the medical grounds of disability for people who are severely or permanently disabled. Assessment is made with reference to a particular set of criteria, including the loss of both legs, restricted use of lower limbs or the loss of both hands or arms. Those who are not taken into account include people who have lost one upper limb or have a severe debilitating or life-changing disability and are falling short of meeting the criteria. The constituent to whom I previously referred had an appalling accident when she was in her 20s. She is now a number of decades older. She did not receive any compensation at the time, in the circumstances arising from the accident, but she has lost one arm. This affects her washing, dressing, typing, managing her phone, toileting and driving. She has to pay for all the adaptations made to the car herself. She gets no relief from the State in this regard because she does not fit any of the criteria. Every minute of every day, she is reminded of her disability in an ambidextrous world.
The qualifying criteria, as currently prescribed in legislation, are far too stringent. They require a level of disability that appears to be deliberately designed to ensure exclusion. Where is the compassion for those who have lost one arm? In this particular constituent's case, it was the result of an accident, but in subsequent representations made to me by others, the disabilities have arisen from cancer and the treatment of same. Therefore, there is a wide group of people included in this cohort.
Since I submitted this Commencement matter, I have done some research. It appears that this issue has been raised frequently in the Seanad and in parliamentary questions, especially over the last decade. I note that a review was last undertaken in 2011. The response is always that to widen the criteria would open the floodgates to payments. As the Minister of State is smiling, I anticipate that I am about to get the same response.
I ask for consideration to be given to the introduction of a graduated relief system, which would provide for differing degrees of disability that entitle claimants to differing levels of relief. This would demonstrate compassion, without opening prohibitive floodgates. The situation as it stands at the moment is far too stark and is devoid of empathy. It is not supportive or cognisant of the very real and genuine impairments that are experienced.
I thank Senator Seery Kearney for her question. She has made her points very well in relation to this issue, which has been raised on many occasions in both Houses. I am responding on behalf of my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Hildegarde Naughton, who is unavailable this morning.
The disabled parking scheme operates by segregating a proportion of public parking bays for the use of disabled parking permit holders. These permits, which are also known as European parking cards or disabled parking badges, are available to people living in Ireland whose mobility is severely and permanently restricted, whether they are drivers or passengers.The intention of the permit, and of the disabled parking scheme more generally, is to provide access to parking bays of sufficient size in close proximity to important services such as post offices, banks, pharmacies and shops for people for whom access to such services would be denied if they could not park and disembark, either because of the size of a parking bay or because they could not park within a short distance of a service due to their limited mobility.
An automatic entitlement to a disabled parking permit is extended to holders of the primary medical certificate, including those who are affected by dwarfism or restricted growth, those without the use of one or both legs, and those without both hands or both arms. The Senator has raised the case of her constituent who has lost one limb. The criteria there are quite clear and stark that the entitlement applies to those without the use of one or both legs and those without both hands or both arms. This entitlement is granted on the grounds that each of the disabilities encompassed by the primary medical certificate clearly involves a severe impairment of the ability to walk as a result of compromised or absent lower limbs in some cases, or severely disrupted balance in the case of those missing both arms. The permit is also available to applicants who are registered as blind with the National Council for the Blind in Ireland, so as to minimise their interaction with motor traffic and maximise their safety in navigating from a parking space to the entrance of their destination.
In 2010, the Department of Transport conducted a review of the disabled parking scheme, in consultation with various stakeholders. One of the central issues examined in the course of this review was eligibility for the scheme. Disability groups, in particular, were unhappy at the fact that some people were being issued with disabled parking permits because they had particular medical conditions rather than an actual mobility impairment. As a result of the review, the scheme was revised so that permits are now given on the basis of mobility impairment rather than the diagnosis of a particular condition or illness. This is in line with the original intention of the scheme and prioritises accessible parking for those who need it the most.
The possibility of extending the eligibility criteria for the scheme to include people with non-mobility-related physical disabilities, or those with certain forms of intellectual or cognitive impairment, has been raised with the Department of Transport on a number of occasions. Officials from the Department have consulted extensively with the joint issuing authorities of the scheme, the Disabled Drivers Association of Ireland and the Irish Wheelchair Association, on the matter. In light of this consultation, there are no plans at present to change the current criteria or to carry out a fresh review to that end.
I take on board what the Senator has said about graduated or different stages of relief for different degrees of disability and I will bring that point back to the Minister, as well as her point about people missing one limb. She made the point very well and it is an issue I have come across in my own constituency.
I appreciate and hear that the Minister of State recognises the challenge. What we are really honing in on are the qualifying criteria for the primary medical certificate. I accept the need to confine the parking permit to people with genuine mobility issues. I get that link and the point was very well made. However, the parking permit is inextricably linked to the adaptation of cars for driving purposes and the grant aid for that. Consequently, if a person is missing one upper limb he or she still has to adapt a car. Such people may be able to walk the distance to shopping or work but they still have to incur the expenditure and we need to address that element more so than the criteria. We need to decouple those aspects from each other and circle that in red. I had considered that this might be a matter for the Minister of State with responsibility for disability, Deputy Rabbitte. I will pursue it with her as well but I appreciate the Minister of State's response.
I assure the Senator that the Department of Transport is very aware of the complex challenges facing the various groups she mentioned today, whether people with physical disabilities that do not directly affect mobility or people with autism or intellectual disabilities and their parents and carers. I take on board the Senator's point, which she made very well, that the primary medical certificate sets out the criteria, which are quite stringent given that the person applying must have lost two upper limbs as opposed to one. I will take on board the Senator's comments and pass them back to the Minister.