I thank the Chairman and wish members of the committee a good morning. I am very glad to have the invitation to come here today to discuss the recently published commentary report, which we called Grounded: unequal access for people with disabilities to personal transport schemes.
I had the opportunity of meeting the committee in June this year to discuss the Wasted Lives report about the inappropriate placement of people aged under 65 in nursing homes. I was very pleased with the coverage that report received and particularly, as a consequence of the appearance before the committee, that progress is starting to be made on tackling that issue. I thought at the time it would be my final appearance before the committee, but members are intent on keeping me working until the day of my retirement, so here I am. I am very pleased to be here.
As members will know, the ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, UNCRPD, provided a legal basis for people with disabilities to have the right to live independently and participate fully in all aspects of life. Lack of access to transport is one of the key barriers to stopping the realisation of those fundamental rights and can lead to further economic, social, and personal isolation of people living with a disability. The opposite is also true, and access to transport can for many people be an equaliser. It can enable people to change their lives for the better.
Article 9 of the UNCRPD is focused on accessibility and puts an onus on signatories to provide equal access to transportation for people living with a disability. This is to enable them to participate fully in daily life, for example, to access further education, work, be involved in their community, have contact with their families and friends, shop and participate in social activities and hobbies.
As members will know, in Ireland, the National Disability Inclusion Strategy 2017-2021 sets the overall framework for the equal participation of people with disabilities in society. Under the strategy, the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, as it was then called, assumed responsibility for the continued development and availability of accessible public transport. I noted that the new order of DART carriages, for example, will allow access from the platform by wheelchair, which is clearly a step in the right direction and an improvement on the current situation. I warmly welcome all the work that is being done in this area.
For some people living with a disability, however, public transport is not the most appropriate mode. It is often put that this especially affects people in rural settings, and that is entirely true. If a person is living far away from public transport, then clearly it does not offer him or her the opportunity to engage in the life of his or her community. It equally affects people living in a town and city context because not all of them will be able to access public transport.
It is worth saying that, at the moment, public transport accessibility continues to be an issue. Not a day goes by without a long list of lifts being out of action in railway stations. Similarly, it is completely inappropriate that somebody wanting to use a train or a DART has actually to arrange for somebody to be there to enable him or her to get onto it. It is hoped these issues will be addressed in time, but the notion, as it is sometimes presented, that public transport will of itself solve the issue of access to transport for disabled people is quite false and will remain false. People need access to personal transport for the reasons I have outlined - to be able to do the things the rest of us take for granted. People cannot work without it. They quite often find it difficult to get to hospital appointments or medical appointments without it. This is a big and continuing issue.
When I started as Ombudsman, one thing I was embarrassed to discover at a meeting of ombudsmen in Europe was that we were one of only two countries present that had not actually signed up at that time to the United Nations convention. The other very striking thing was that Ms Emily O’Reilly, my predecessor, had produced reports about the two schemes, namely, the mobility allowance and motorised transport schemes, on the grounds that those schemes were not compliant with equality requirements. The Government decided at the time to close the schemes down and promised to provide replacements.
The reason I have spoken of this issue as unfinished business is that here we are at the end of my tenure and still those replacement schemes have not been put in place. During that time, there has been no access to mobility allowance and no access to the motorised transport schemes for new applicants. That clearly is entirely inappropriate and should have been addressed.
I pursued the matter in a number of occasions. On each occasion, I was given reassurances that work was in hand to develop new schemes. When it came down to it, however, it seemed to me that the resource issue always came in the way. Each time a proposal was developed, it was not brought forward because of cost. There reality is, however, the cost to our community of preventing access for so many people and preventing participation should have been taken into account when making decisions on resources.
The other scheme that did continue was that which enabled tax concessions for disabled people or people who were providing transport for them. As many members will know, that scheme has some very restrictive criteria. The criteria are about defined disabilities. They are not about mobility. The reason a person needs transport is because he or she is not mobile enough to access community facilities without it. Having to fit into this narrow definition excludes many people who are just as much in need of access to support through the scheme as the people it admits. I have consistently been highlighting that but, in fact, it was highlighted again before my time. Ultimately, the courts determined that the criteria for the scheme were not consistent with the legislation, so rather than change the criteria, they wrote the deficient criteria into the primary legislation. I was astonished, frankly, at how that matter was dealt with.
I know from my own contacts with the people who are charged with making the assessments that they are as frustrated by the criteria as my office is. It is not their frustration or my office's frustration, however. It is the enormous frustration of large numbers of disabled people who cannot understand why some people who are as disabled as them can access the scheme and they cannot. That is an issue that urgently needs to be addressed.
The most striking thing about this and one of the very good aspects of the way the Ombudsman's office works in Ireland is the number of people who are supported in bringing complaints to the office by their local elected representatives. There is scarcely an elected representative in the Oireachtas or in the Government, for that matter, who has not represented the cases of people to my office.
As I saw it, it was not maladministration but deficient legislation. The solution lay with the people bringing the complaints. This issue has run for a long time and, from my perspective, it is unfinished business. I hope the committee will now make sure it does not last through the life of my successor, Mr. Ger Deering, to whom I offer many congratulations on his nomination to the post. It is one of those things that we should be ashamed of and we need to do something about it.