Written Answers. - Free Schemes.

Richard Bruton

Question:

752 Mr. R. Bruton asked the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs if he will make amendments to the free travel scheme to provide vouchers for use in taxis to persons confined to wheelchairs in view of the fact so little of the public bus service is wheelchair accessible; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [19722/00]

Brendan Kenneally

Question:

760 Mr. Kenneally asked the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs the plans, if any, to charge a rent on the instrument to new applicants in relation to the free telephone rental allowance scheme; the plans he has to treat those currently in receipt of the allowance similarly if they seek to improve the instrument they currently have; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [19960/00]

Noel Ahern

Question:

766 Mr. N. Ahern asked the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs his views on the existing free schemes as operated by his Department; the way in which this compares with that applying in our EU partners; the number of countries which equal or exceed the benefits offered here; if any country has additional benefits or schemes for the elderly which he could introduce; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [20024/00]

Jim O'Keeffe

Question:

784 Mr. J. O'Keeffe asked the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs if he will support the proposal to establish a senior euro card which would provide for the elderly, reciprocal travel arrangements throughout Ireland, and between Ireland and the UK, and concessionary travel throughout the European Union. [20425/00]

P. J. Sheehan

Question:

806 Mr. Sheehan asked the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs if he will extend the free travel scheme to cover the cost of hackney service for the benefit of recipients of the free travel scheme in isolated rural areas where no public transport exists. [20724/00]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 752, 760, 766, 784 and 806 together.

The free travel scheme provides free travel on the main public and private transport services. These include road, rail and ferry services provided by semi-State companies such as Bus Átha

Cliath, Bus Éireann and Iarnrod Éireann, as well as services provided by some 75 private transport operators.

A review of the free schemes was published in April this year by the Policy Institute, Trinity College Dublin. The review considered the difficulties involved in access to public transport services and noted that there are two main groups affected: those who have a disability which prevents them using the service and those for whom a service does not exist, which mainly affects those living in rural areas. This problem, which is unrelated to the free travel scheme, is part of a wider social and infrastructure problem, affecting all those who are disadvantaged and who can neither afford their own transport or avail of access to public transport.
The review examined a number of alternatives to the existing system including the use of vouchers. It considered that a voucher type system, which would be open to a wide range of transport providers including taxis and hackneys, would be complicated and less feasible than the current system. Voucher schemes, by their nature, can introduce stigma to a scheme.
The use of vouchers is not in keeping with a fundamental aspect of the scheme as originally envisaged; that of using existing spare capacity on public transport as it covers the country. It would do little to facilitate the provision of public transport services where none exist nor would it facilitate the provision of accessible public transport.
However, the review of the free schemes does recommend that a ‘Social Transport Fund' be supported and made available to voluntary and community based organisations for the provision of local transport initiatives that would be unlikely to operate without a subsidy. Such a fund would be mainly social in nature and could facilitate the provision of wheelchair accessible vehicles. The review considered it appropriate that such a fund could be managed locally, perhaps by the local authorities, in view of their knowledge of local services and to maintain community autonomy.
The free telephone rental allowance covers the line rental and instrument rental for a standard telephone and up to 20 call units in each two-monthly billing period. The allowance also covers the cost of a second telephone socket and, for those with a hearing or vision disability, a special telephone and wall mounted bell. My Department has no function in the matter of instrument rental and any proposals in relation to this are a matter for the privately-owned telephone company concerned. However, my Department will monitor any measures that may affect recipients of the allowance.
The review of the free schemes considered that the schemes have a number of benefits, most importantly from a social inclusion and participation standpoint: basically they facilitate older people and people with disabilities living alone to participate more fully in society. The schemes are inflation-proof, as they are based on a unit allowance rather than a cash equivalent. In addition, they finance items of expenditure that are difficult to budget for on a weekly income. The schemes also perform an income maintenance function in that they provide goods and services in kind which would otherwise have to be purchased or foregone. Overall, however, the main benefit of the schemes results from their role in supporting and encouraging the recipients to be active and participate in the community.
Information on the type of schemes operated in other EU countries is not readily available in my Department. However, the review examined a number of demands to extend the free schemes to include other socially worthy goods and services. The schemes as currently constituted, provide a basic package of necessary household benefits that ensure a limited standard of comfort or well being to a particular targeted group. This group is not targeted solely on income need and the findings indicate that some recipients do not have the same income needs as others. It is considered that the most appropriate way of alleviating poverty is through the provision of adequate social welfare payments. Therefore, the review recommended that no extension of the free schemes take place unless it can be shown that there are increased social benefits that are over and above those which can be purchased by increased income.
The role of my Department in matters relating to the senior euro pass is to submit observations in conjunction with other Departments, 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 itself is outside the remit of my Department.
The review of the free schemes examined the issue of extending the free travel scheme to non-resident pensioners and concluded that such an extension of the scheme would not be in keeping with the primary objective of the free travel scheme which is to encourage older people and people with disabilities to remain independent and active within the community.
The recommendations made in the review will be examined in the context of future budgets and available resources.
Question No. 753 taken with Question No. 129.