Ceisteanna–Questions. Priority Questions. - Social Welfare Benefits.

Jim O'Keeffe

Question:

1 Mr. J. O'Keeffe asked the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs his views on the proposal in the 1999 senior euro card report of the Joint Committee on Social, Community and Family Affairs that a scheme should be established to provide for reciprocal travel arrangements for the elderly throughout Ireland; and the steps, if any, he proposes to implement this recommendation. [1851/00]

The Deputy's report to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Family, Community and Social Affairs is based on the report Towards a Senior Euro Pass which was commissioned by the Social Affairs Directorate of the European Commission and was undertaken and published by Age Concern, England, at the end of 1997. It recommends that EU states should establish a senior euro pass which would entitle older people to concessions on various services, including travel, cultural and social activities.

The role of my Department in matters relating to the senior euro pass is to submit observations in conjunction with other Departments and statutory and non-statutory bodies on any action taken to implement the proposals in this report, in so far as they affect the business of this Department. The administration of the euro pass is outside the remit of my Department.

The Deputy has suggested, in advance of EU measures, that the cross-Border free travel scheme should be extended to allow free travel for all pensioners throughout the island of Ireland. The current scheme applies only to cross-Border journeys and not travel exclusively within each jurisdiction. The Deputy should note that my Department is responsible for the entire funding of this scheme. The Department of Rural Development, formerly the Department of Environment, Northern Ireland, contributes only 50% of the cost of bus journeys to the Border for Northern Ireland concession cardholders, a concession which was already in existence before the establishment of the cross-Border scheme. In contrast, my Department funds: 100% of the cost of the journey in the Republic for both free travel passholders and Northern Ireland concession cardholders; the balance, that is 50%, of the cost of cross-Border journeys in Northern Ireland for Northern Ireland concession cardholders and 100% of the cost of cross-Border journeys on trains for both Northern and Southern cardholders.

The cost to my Department of the cross-Border free travel scheme in 1998 was in excess of £1.9 million. I note that the euro card equalisation fund mentioned by the Deputy in his report would not be in place to assist with the cost of operating this extension to the free travel scheme.

This measure, which would have to be considered both on a bilateral basis and in the context of possible national discrimination under EU legislation, would involve significant additional expenditure.

The Minister has pointed out some of the difficulties in implementing my proposal. Does he think it is a good idea to have free travel for pensioners throughout the island of Ireland? It has much to commend it, not just because it is my proposal. Will he accept it is something we should aim for and try to implement? Will he accept that if there is a will there is a way and we can overcome any EU restrictions or regulations if we really want to put that system in place? Will the Minister give a commitment to the House that he has explored every possibility of achieving this very laudable aim and objective?

In the context of recent political developments over recent months, this will be taken up in the discussions I will have with my counterparts on the northern side of the Border. We have already requested a meeting with my counterpart on this and other issues which would be of relevance. There are some EU difficulties in that we cannot discriminate by bringing forward a scheme which would perhaps discriminate in favour of other nationalities, but any Member of this House would want to give older people free travel concessions throughout the island of Ireland. As the Deputy knows, this side of the Border instigated the original proposal relating to cross-Border travel and as he can see from the figures indicated already, we are more than paying our way in that respect. We are paying more than would be normal in the case of a reciprocal arrangement. This is an issue which will be part of my agenda in the future relating to discussions with my counterparts on the north side of the Border.

The 1995 arrangement was put in place by Deputy De Rossa when he was a Minister in the rainbow Government, but that just covered North to South and South to North travel. Does the Minister's reply indicate that he accepts this proposal and will do everything possible to promote it? Will he include it in his agenda for his first discussion with his Northern counterpart and investigate it to ensure that any EU restrictions can be overcome? If necessary will he have discussions in Brussels to ensure that this will happen? Do I have the Minister's commitment that he will do everything possible to put this proposal into effect at the earliest possible date?

I do not want to be parochial about this but the Deputy has not held all the wisdom concerning this matter. This issue has already been discussed within my Department and by me as one of the issues which could be considered for the mutual benefit of people north and south of the Border. This will be explored but, as I said, not only are there financial restraints, which could be overcome, there are also EU legislation constraints. There are legal issues involved in this. This issue must be considered not only on a bilateral basis but also taking into account the EU legislation, which to a certain extent could prohibit this concession if we were to give it to other nationalities.

That obstacle can be overcome.