I support Deputy Mitchell's motion. I am aware of cases throughout the country where elderly people are being threatened with eviction from nursing homes because of the failure of health boards to make decisions regarding enhanced subventions. Families have to come up with €300 to €400 per week to make up the difference between the nursing home charge and a combination of the person's pension and subvention. The health board in my constituency, the Southern Health Board, has 560 people waiting for decisions on enhanced subventions. That board is dealing with the crisis cases in that where a threat of eviction exists, a decision is made. The subvention is rationed in that awful manner. It is unpardonable that following many years of prosperity and economic expansion, the elderly and those who are impaired are bearing the brunt of cutbacks and inefficiencies in these services, and the lack of political courage on the part of the Minister to make a decision.
Last week we saw examples of power in the health services. When the consultants bear their teeth, the Minister does his U-turn. We saw that in the indemnity insurance case when he decided to succumb to the powerful blocs in the health services. However, Deputy Olivia Mitchell dealt with that aspect of the motion more than adequately.
This year, 2003, is supposed to be the European Year of People with Disabilities. The Irish people pride themselves on being great Europeans. This is also the year we host the Special Olympics, which are organised for people with intellectual disabilities. Before, during and after the Special Olympics, Ministers and the leaders of society will be anxious to be seen to support and attend this great event. Having attended the event in the United States some years ago, as Minister for Sport, I can say it was a memorable occasion. This should be a milestone year for disabled persons but, shamefully, official Ireland is treating disabled persons in a different way.
The provisions of the 2003 budget were devastating for people with disabilities, their families and advocates. There is no money this year for additional services. Services planned in anticipation of funding have been scrapped, as have the hopes of many for day care, personal assistance, home help, respite care and adaptable housing.
One aspect of the motion before the House tonight concerns the disabled person's grant. Ongoing funding shortfalls in the grant scheme have left people with disabilities and their families in an intolerable position. By June 2002, there were 11,200 applications for DPG, more than 6,700 of which were still to be processed at that time. I am aware that figure has since increased.
Despite the fact that demand is increasing and construction inflation is high, the 2003 Estimates show that more than €0.25 million has been cut from the budget. Over recent years, many local authorities have run into funding constraints which meant they were unable to meet commitments to the DPG scheme. Local authorities must fund one-third of the total cost of the scheme from their own resources but because of funding cutbacks, DPG applicants have had their grant applications deferred by their local councils to the following year's budget. This practice has resulted in building delays, increased costs to disabled persons and their families and major disruption in people's lives.
During the closing months of 2002, many local authorities had begun to further erode the social and financial value of the DPG scheme by agreeing to the introduction of a review process of the administration of the scheme. We are all aware there is a crisis in local authority funding and that many local authorities are being forced to increase local taxation to make up for the shortfall in funding from the Government. However, what is now of serious concern to disabled people and their representative organisations is that some local authorities are beginning to review their administration of the scheme. These reviews are resulting in the introduction of measures which effectively erode the value of a housing adaptation grant scheme that was hard won by disabled campaigners and disability representative organisations. These measures include establishing priority systems, introducing means testing and reducing the amount of the grant available to individual applicants and others.
I thank the Irish Wheelchair Association which, through its chief executive, has briefed Deputies, Senators and councillors on the threat facing people with disabilities. The association has confirmed that the Irish housing stock is largely inaccessible to people with a mobility impairment. The disabled person's grant scheme was introduced 35 years ago to part fund house alterations as required by people with mobility impairment. At that time, many disabled people were living in intolerable circumstances, often without access to running water and toilet facilities. During the early years of the scheme the Irish Wheelchair Association and other voluntary groups and service providers invested considerable resources both in terms of professional advisory staff and financially in terms of personal loans and grants to support its members in making best use of the scheme.
As the disabled person's grant scheme became established, health boards took over the advisory role and the Irish Wheelchair Association continued to lobby the Department of the Environment and Local Government regarding desired changes to the administration of the scheme. The terms and conditions of the scheme have for several years been a campaign item for the Irish Wheelchair Association and other disability organisations.
The availability of suitable housing for a disabled person is an absolute basic requirement that directly contributes to a person's ability to lead an active and fulfilled life. House alteration for a disabled person is not a lifestyle choice but a basic necessity. Until now the grant available under the scheme for housing alteration, since the 2000 budget, has been 90% of the approved cost of the work up to a maximum payment of €20,000. Each local authority recoups 60% of this money from central Government.
The ceiling of €20,000 under the scheme has meant that a disabled person undertaking any major house alterations experiences a considerable shortfall, often as much as €20,000, especially if a bathroom-bedroom extension or another major renovation is the advised option. Many disabled people are without personal financial resources and are therefore unable to make up this shortfall. The adaptation work is often undertaken at a crisis point in people's lives, when future work and personal income options are uncertain. Many such applicants are among the 120,000 people with disabilities who are dependent on social welfare payments or unemployed. Unemployment among disabled people is at 70%.
In recognising both the disadvantaged situation of so many people with disabilities and that accessible accommodation is a basic necessity, many disability representative organisations and the Commission on the Status of People with Disability have repeatedly called on the Government to increase the disabled person's grant to cover 100% of the cost of the approved building work. The review measures being introduced are a cover for cutbacks because the end result of these measures will translate into people being stuck in hospital, people going on to housing lists and people being unable to live independent and fulfilling lives. It will cause immeasurable strain for the individuals concerned and for their family members and friends.
Tonight I support the Irish Wheelchair Association's demands that these so-called review measures be terminated by local authorities and I support the demand to introduce 100% recoupable funding rather than 60%, as is the current situation. The reality is that the scheme is now supporting a far wider range of people than previously, for example, people with varying medical conditions certified by occupational therapists, elderly people, people with intellectual impairment and people with mobility impairment.
The important thing is that it permits these people to continue living in the community, either independently or with their family. It must also be noted that a major proportion of these people are existing on social welfare payments or are working in low paid jobs. It is absolutely certain that if the existing level of support provided by the scheme is not increased and broadened, rather than being eroded, many who qualify for it will be forced into residential care and social housing that will require community supports, resulting in astronomical costs to the Exchequer. As we all know, the cost of residential care is now approximately €2,500 per person per month, as Deputy Mitchell said.
The disabled person's grant scheme is being slowly but surely dismantled and the fact that local authorities are reviewing the procedures will mean that the scheme will descend into a shambles and will no longer be a uniform national scheme. Health boards are no longer supporting the scheme by the provision of professional advice from their occupational therapy staff. The disintegration and the dismantling of the scheme cannot be allowed to continue. The Government must direct local authorities to ensure uniformity in the application of the scheme. There must be no cutbacks or erosion of it.
To show how useless the scheme is in its present form I will cite a case study. A young man in his mid-30s, a self-employed mechanic, crashes his sister's car in which he is uninsured. He sustains head injuries and is in a coma for several weeks and he is in hospital for over a year. He comes home, a wheelchair user and with impaired intellectual function, to a small two storey family house, where his elderly parents live. There are no ground floor facilities, he sleeps in the sitting room and he uses a commode for a toilet in the sitting room. A bedroom-bathroom extension is advised. His parents are old age pensioners and the young man is on disability allowance, with no insurance or employment prospects. The cost of the extension is €38,500 and he gets the maximum grant, €20,000, but there is a balance of €18,565. A loan is out of the question and he has no funds available. What is he to do? I could cite other tragic cases.
The availability of suitably adapted and designed housing for disabled people is an absolutely basic requirement which directly contributes to a person's ability to lead an active and fulfilled life. An individual's requirement for suitable housing is so basic that the entitlement to and the level of payment of the disabled person's grant scheme, which for over 30 years has supported and facilitated the adaptation of an inaccessible Irish housing stock, should not be negotiable. Any supposed review of this scheme, which would result in an eradication of the value of the scheme or in any way impact on the prompt availability of the scheme to people who require housing adaptation, should be repudiated in the strongest terms. Any so-called review measures which result in devaluing the scheme would be short-sighted and would eventually translate into people being stuck in hospital, people going on to housing lists and people being unable to live independent and fulfilling lives, and will cause immeasurable strain for the individuals concerned and their families.
I call on the Government to terminate the dismantling and downgrading of the scheme which will make home alteration more difficult, more costly and more prolonged for people with mobility impairment. In addition, I call on the Government to come clean about its real intentions towards people with disabilities. Away from the cameras and the photocalls, the reality is that they have abandoned people with disabilities. They have broken their promises and there will be no newly adapted homes for many in the foreseeable future. People will continue to live in inaccessible and unacceptable surroundings because the Government has denied personal assistance, day care, respite care and training facilities. In the European year of people with disabilities, the Government continues to leave people with disabilities literally locked out. While the Government is locking people out, the Minister for Health and Children is taking care of himself. He is refurbishing his offices and looking after his own personal comforts and to hell with those who need help and support in the community.