Seanad debates

Thursday, 25 November 2021

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Disability Services

10:30 am

Photo of Tim LombardTim Lombard (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State to the Chamber. I tabled this matter looking for the Minister of State with responsibility for disability to make a statement on the lack of access and supports for personalised transportation for disability drivers. This scheme was effectively abandoned in 2013, but it is a very worthwhile scheme that gave great access to people with disabilities. It is a big issue that we need to revisit.

The discontinuation of the scheme has been highlighted by many people. I received a phone call from a former Senator, John O'Mahony, about it last week. He was campaigning on it the past few years and said it needs to be raised again. I have a 34-year-old constituent with motor neurone disease. His wife is his full-time carer, he has two young kids and he is living in a rural part. He is abandoned and has no ability to go anywhere. The only scheme that is applicable to him to get transportation because of his disease is this scheme, which has been discontinued since 2013. When it was discontinued, it was stated that a new scheme, the transportation support scheme, would be introduced in its place. It is nine years later and that scheme still has not emerged. We have been waiting nine years for the Government to bring forward a scheme in order that people with disabilities will have the opportunity to have some kind of quality of life. At the moment, this man is effectively trapped in his own house with no ability to go anywhere, seven days a week. That is unfortunate and it is an issue for us as a society.

The Ombudsman made a critical and damning complaint in this regard in the past few weeks. He published a report on the issue, which stated that since 2016, 335 complaints have been received by the Ombudsman on this issue alone. In the recommendations he said that the lack of personalised transportation for people with disabilities is unfair and entirely unacceptable.Those are strong words from the Ombudsman on this issue.

For the last nine years we have talked about this issue but there has been no movement by the Department of Health and we need movement now. I have talked to the people who are affected because of their circumstances and they have no hope that we will do something. If the Minister of State looked at the website tomorrow morning he will see that the scheme has been discontinued since 2013. That is a failing by the Government and the Department. An urgent scheme must be brought forward in the near future and in the next few months otherwise the people for whom I advocate, such as the 34-year-old man in Bandon who has motor neurone disease, will literally be prisoners in their homes. We need urgent action otherwise, unfortunately, we will have failed the most vulnerable in society and that would be not just a stain on these Houses but a stain on democracy itself.

Photo of Ossian SmythOssian Smyth (Dún Laoghaire, Green Party)
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I thank the Senator for raising this important issue. I am here to answer on behalf of my colleague, the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Rabbitte.

The Government decided to close the motorised transport grant and mobility allowance administrative grant schemes in 2013. That was on foot of the reports of the Ombudsman in 2011 and 2012 regarding the legal status of both schemes in the context of the Equal Status Acts. The Government also decided to continue payment of the monthly mobility allowance on an interim basis to the 4,700 people who were in receipt of a mobility allowance at the time the scheme closed.

I would like to make this House aware of other transport supports available to people with disabilities. The Revenue Commissioners operate the disabled drivers and disabled passengers tax concession scheme that provides relief from vehicle registration tax and value added tax on the purchase and use of an adapted car, as well as an exemption from motor tax and an annual fuel grant. The scheme is open to severely and permanently disabled persons as a driver or as a passenger and also to certain organisations. In order to qualify for relief, the applicant must satisfy certain medical criteria and hold a primary medical certificate issued by the relevant HSE senior area medical officer or hold a board medical certificate issued by the disabled drivers medical board of appeal.

The Minister for Finance has given a commitment to undertake a comprehensive review of this scheme to include a broader review of mobility supports for persons with disabilities. Other transport supports available to people with disabilities include the free travel scheme operated by the Department of Social Protection and measures funded by the Department of Rural and Community Development, under the Ceantair Laga Árd-Riachtanais, CLÁR programme, to provide grants to voluntary organisations that provide transport for people with significant mobility issues.

Under the National Disability Inclusion Strategy 2017 to 2021, the Department of Transport has responsibility for the continued development of the availability of accessible public transport. The Department is committed to this in recognition of the importance of such services to the lives of people with disabilities.

I would like to inform the House that work is ongoing on the policy proposals for the provision of transport services for people with disabilities. There have been a number of recent developments that may impact on these policy proposals including: the Department of Transport's review of active travel and public transport policy, including accessible public transport; the Department of Social Protection has commissioned a cost of disability study, which will inform policy direction on the provision of adequate supports to meet the needs of people with disabilities, including transport costs; and

under the national disability inclusion strategy, a working group was established to lead a review of all Government-funded transport and mobility schemes for people with disabilities.

I can assure the House of the Government's continued commitment to find a long-term equitable solution, which meets the transport needs of those people with disabilities with the most significant challenges.

Photo of Tim LombardTim Lombard (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister of State for his response. I do not think that the people in Bandon who are watching this debate will get much joy from the statement. There is a need for urgency regarding this issue. The Ombudsman's report was published in the last few weeks and criticised the Government on the lack of action. It has been nine years since we have looked at this review and we have talked about it but nothing has happened. The people whom I represent are prisoners in their own homes at present. I totally understand that the Minister of State present is not the Minister for Health or the Minister of State at the Department of Health who has responsibility for disabilities. This issue is not about politics but trying to ensure that we give quality of life to these people who live in vulnerable circumstances. I remind the Minister of State and the Government that we have had an awful lot of talk but no action and do not need any more reviews and strategies. We must acknowledge that the Ombudsman who received complaints is right and that the public are right that the scheme needs to be reinstated. If not, then the Minister of State and I will have failed our constituents. I passionately believe that we must do something about this issue.

Photo of Ossian SmythOssian Smyth (Dún Laoghaire, Green Party)
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The work we all do in speaking to constituents and members of the public who suffer as a result of their situation or policies is vitally important. I accept that one can understand an issue better after speaking to a 34-year-old man with motor neurone disease who lives in Bandon than from just reading a report.

I closely work with the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, and I will convey the comments expressed by the Senator. I will also speak to the Minister for Finance, as my office is located on the same corridor as his, on the basis of the review that he has undertaken to carry out into the Revenue scheme for improving mobility for people with disabilities. That review has committed to broadening the categories that are acceptable. I, again, thank the Senator for rasing this important issue.

Photo of Joe O'ReillyJoe O'Reilly (Fine Gael)
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I thank Senator Lombard for raising the matter.