Wednesday, 22 November 2023
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Carroll McNeill, to the House. It is great when somebody from the relevant Department is in a position to take a Commencement matter. This concerns the Department of Finance. Many colleagues will understand the sometime frustration and difficulties in acquiring primary medical certificates. A primary medical certificate eases the cost of acquiring transport for people with disabilities and their loved ones. Coming from rural Ireland I know the difficulties when it comes to transport. As somebody who does not drive I rely on family and friends, and a public transport network, to get me from A to B. People with complex disabilities are in many cases not entitled to, or do not secure, a primary medical certificate when common sense and logic would suggest they should. The thousands of people who have primary medical certificates have them for good medical reasons. In most cases they are put to good use, where either they or their loved ones are able to acquire cars to give them independence. However, thousands more are falling between the cracks. Those are the people I am concerned about. I am also concerned that the primary medical certificate system is cumbersome, complex, difficult and challenging. People who have acquired disabilities find it frustrating. It is certainly not facilitating equal access to transport, which would then facilitate the potential to obtain meaningful employment.
This needs to be reviewed. A motion was passed recently at Clare County Council.On that occasion, a number of councillors experienced the same frustration that I would say every public representatives feels when somebody comes to him or her, and the representative knows in his or her heart and soul that the person deserves and should get a primary medical certificate but because of the convoluted, archaic and dated procedures and processes, falls between the cracks and does not succeed in acquiring the certificate. The system needs to be streamlined and opened up a little. Common sense needs to prevail. When it is the right, fair and proper thing to do, as a society, we should be doing it.
We want to see more people with disabilities in meaningful employment because when people are in meaningful employment, they are contributing to the system, paying taxes and feel more a part of society. This is what we want to strive for. The recent census showed a significant increase in the number of people in this country who have a declared disability or declare a disability. With that needs to come State structures to support those people to have a level playing pitch and to feel equal and included. I appeal to the Minister of State and the Minister for Finance to review and update the system for acquiring a primary certificate.
I thank the Senator for raising this issue and for his consistent advocacy on this matter and other matters around genuine inclusion for people with declared disabilities. As he highlighted, far too many people are not in a position to work because we have not put the correct structures in place. The Senator has been a consistent advocate for making sure there is better and proper inclusion.
The disabled drivers and disabled passengers tax concessions scheme provides relief from VAT and vehicle registration tax up to certain limits, an exemption from motor tax and a grant in respect of fuel for an adapted car for transport of a person with specific severe and permanent physical disabilities. In order to qualify for the scheme, the applicant must hold a primary medical certificate issued by the relevant senior area medical officer or a board medical certificate issued by the disabled driver medical board of appeal. To qualify for a primary medical certificate, an applicant must be permanently and severely disabled and satisfy at least one of the six medical criteria set out in the Finance Act 2020. However, we must improve on that. The national disability inclusion strategy transport working group, NDIS TWG, comprising members from a range of Departments, agencies and disabled persons' organisations, was tasked with reviewing all Government-funded transport and mobility supports for those with a disability, including the disabled drivers and disabled passengers scheme. Officials from the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth led the work of the group.
As part of its engagement in this process, the Department of Finance established an information-gathering criteria subgroup at the start of 2022. Its membership comprised former members of the disabled drivers medical board of appeal and principal medical officers in the HSE. Its purpose was to capture their experiences, expertise and perspectives regarding the practical operational and administrative challenges of the disabled drivers and disabled passengers scheme as well as to explore what alternative vehicular arrangements were available for those with mobility issues based on an international review of what is possible. The work of the criteria subgroup led to the production of five papers and a technical annex submitted to the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth in July 2022. The main conclusion of the criteria subgroup was that the disabled drivers and disabled passengers scheme needs to be replaced with a fit-for-purpose, needs-based vehicular adaptation scheme in line with best international practice. This is what the Senator is calling for here today.
The NDIS TWG final report was published on 24 February 2023. It welcomed the proposal put forward by the Department of Finance and the criteria subgroup that the disabled drivers and disabled passengers scheme should be replaced with a needs-based, grant-aided vehicular adaptation scheme and indicated that the proposal was a clear deliverable on which work could begin in the relatively near future. The NDIS TWG final report also noted in its conclusion that the disabled drivers and disabled passengers scheme is outdated and needs to be addressed as a matter of priority. However, the final report did not set out next steps. Subsequently, it was decided that the implementation of the NDIS TWG report needed to be considered. As a result, under the aegis of the Department of Taoiseach, which shows the importance of the issue, officials from relevant Departments and agencies are meeting to discuss the best way forward. Department of Finance officials are proactively engaging with the work of this group of this senior officials as an important step in considering ways to replace the disabled drivers and disabled passengers scheme in the context of broader Government consideration of integrated transport and mobility supports for those with a disability. Two meetings have been held - the first in July and the second more recently at the beginning of November. There are proposals with the Department of Taoiseach and Department officials are currently considering material supplied after these meetings.
This is very much a live issue. The Senator's Commencement matter could not be more timely and important. His perspectives on how this should work are welcome here this morning. I will certainly bring them to Department of Finance officials on his behalf.
That is a very positive reply. It is great to know that work has already been done in this regard and that meetings have taken place. I would be very confident that we will see a new system that is more in line with modern Ireland and the complex needs of people with disabilities along with their ambitions to live normal and equal lives and contribute to society. This is the second time in the 12 years since I was elected to the Seanad that I received a script from a Minister that I could read. The last Minister to do it was the Minister of State and the next one was the Minister of State. No other Minister has ever thought enough to produce a script that I was in a position to read so I acknowledge the Minister of State's commitment to equality in a practical and sensible way.
It is the least we can do to walk the walk. I will never forget the Senator's contribution to the Oireachtas event held by Ceann Comhairle on gender, inclusion and a range of different matters. He correctly pointed out that as the only Member of the Oireachtas with a declared disability, nothing had been provided to him in a way that was respectful of his needs. I always bring a copy for him in that format regardless of whether he is here because it is important to be consistent and practical. I thank the Senator for acknowledging it.
The way we adapt this scheme has to be flexible and thoughtful. We cannot include everything and we do not necessarily want to include everything but we need to recognise that disabilities are different and that many people have invisible disabilities. It is important to see a collective understanding of that on the part of the Government. I see that the Minister for Social Protection has reflected on that in respect of epilepsy, the impact of a seizure ruling somebody out of driving potentially for a year and what that means in terms of the availability of public transport supports.
Disabilities are complex, different and very individual and they affect people differently at different stages of their lives irrespective of the status of the disability overall. What we would love to see coming out of this scheme is a scheme that has the flexibility and the intelligence to reflect this variety and the fact that these are changing needs over time while making sure we are getting the right supports to people who need them when they need them.
I acknowledge that, as the Senator is right to highlight, the existing scheme is completely out of date. I thank him for raising the matter and I assure him that this work will continue apace in the Department of Finance.