Item No. 7 is engagement on financial inclusion issues in the disabled drivers and disabled passengers scheme. I welcome members and viewers who may be watching the proceedings of the committee on Oireachtas TV. The purpose of today's meeting, in two separate sessions, is to discuss financial inclusion issues, including the disabled drivers and disabled passengers scheme. We are joined in the first session by the Ombudsman and Information Commissioner, Mr. Ger Deering, and Ms Sarah Cooney, Office of the Ombudsman, and in the second session we will be joined by representatives of the Money Advice & Budgeting Service. I welcome Mr. Deering and Ms Cooney. The format of the meeting is that Mr. Deering will make some brief opening remarks, which will be followed by a questions and answers session. If Ms Cooney wishes to make some opening remarks, she is more than welcome to do so.
Disabled Drivers and Disabled Passengers Scheme: Discussion
Mr. Ger Deering
I thank the committee for the invitation to attend today's meeting to discuss this very important matter. As members may recall, I attended a meeting of the committee a few weeks ago in December as part of the nomination process for my appointment as Ombudsman. At that time, I spoke of my intention to use the power vested in me as Ombudsman in a targeted and effective manner with a view to ensuring that the voices of those who are more vulnerable in our society, who might otherwise be missed, are heard and responded to. I also outlined my commitment to continuing to shine a spotlight on the issue of access to transport supports for people living with a disability. This is an issue which has been of ongoing concern to the Office of the Ombudsman for many years, and which was championed by my predecessors in this office, both Ms Emily O’Reilly and Mr. Peter Tyndall. Therefore, I am very pleased to have the opportunity to be here with my colleague, Ms Sarah Cooney, to discuss the disabled drivers and disabled passengers scheme. It is good to be here in person on this occasion.
I will start by recalling our commitments as a country in respect of access to personal transport supports. In 2017, Ireland ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, UNCRPD, which commits all signatories to promoting, protecting and ensuring the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms by all persons with disabilities. Persons with disabilities, as defined in the convention, include those who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments, which in their interactions with various barriers may hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others. Lack of access to transport is one of the key barriers stopping the realisation of these fundamental rights and can lead to the economic, social and personal isolation of people living with a disability. By contrast, access to transport for many people can be an extremely important equaliser and enabler, providing independence, and can change the lives of people living with a disability in a positive way.
It is within this context that in November 2021, my predecessor, Mr. Peter Tyndall, published a report entitled “Grounded: unequal access for people with disabilities to personal transport schemes”. This report was the culmination of a number of investigations over a number of years into the following transport schemes: the motorised transport grant; the mobility allowance; and the disabled drivers and disabled passengers scheme. It is the latter scheme that the committee has invited me here today to discuss, but I wish to briefly mention the other schemes. The motorised transport grant was put in place in 1979 and the mobility allowance was put in place as far back as 1968. They were operated by the Health Service Executive and its predecessors, to support people living with a disability to access personal transport. The motorised transport grant was a means-tested grant to assist persons with severe disabilities with the purchase or adaptation of a car, where that car was essential to retain employment. The mobility allowance was a payment to people living with a disability who are unable to walk or use public transport and who would benefit from being mobile by, for example, using the services of a taxi occasionally.
In 2012, my predecessor, Ms Emily O’Reilly, published separate investigations into the motorised transport scheme and the mobility allowance scheme. The investigation into the motorised transport scheme found that the manner in which the HSE interpreted the medical criteria for eligibility was unacceptably restrictive and contrary to the equal status legislation. The investigation into the mobility allowance scheme found that this scheme was in breach of the Equal Status Act 2000 because it included an upper age limit. In both cases the Department of Health and HSE accepted the recommendations of the investigations and committed to reviewing both schemes in light of their findings. However, in 2013, following these investigations, the then Government decided to close both schemes to new applicants. At the time, this was announced as an interim measure and a replacement scheme was promised. However, nearly nine years later, a replacement scheme is still awaited and has not been delivered. I raise this matter in the context of our discussion today to highlight the length of time successive governments have been looking at this issue.
The closure of these schemes is also significant for our discussion today as without such schemes in place since 2013, the disabled drivers and passengers scheme has taken on more significance for people living with a disability because it is the only potential support available to them.
Before moving onto the disabled drivers and disabled passengers scheme itself, I want to deal briefly with access to public transport for people living with a disability. I very much welcome all the work undertaken under the auspices of the National Disability Inclusion Strategy 2017-2021 designed to improve accessibility of public transport. However, for some people living with a disability, public transport may not be the most appropriate or even a possible mode of daily transport. For example, the inadequacy of access to some public transport facilities, such as the DART, is a matter of great concern to people with disabilities who endeavour to use the service. Many journeys on public transport also require the use of other transport services, which means that any problem occurring with one of the services makes the whole journey impossible. For example, if it is not possible to get to a train station or bus stop, then clearly such train or bus services are not accessible. Therefore, while improving access to public transport is an important issue in its own right, I believe it is unreasonable to suggest that simply improving public transport can address the transport needs of all people with disabilities. I am thinking particularly of people who live in rural areas, or of those who cannot get to bus stops or train stations. In such circumstances, a car provides optimum, and often the only, mobility for many people living with a disability for whom it is the key to their quality of life. However, often they may need to be supported to acquire or access their own personal transport whether that be through a vehicle adapted for them to drive themselves or utilise as a passenger.
While access to a car can be life changing for many people living with a disability, adapting a car can be very costly. The disabled drivers and disabled passengers scheme provides a range of tax reliefs linked to the purchase and adaptation of vehicles by drivers and passengers with a disability. They include reliefs in relation to VRT and VAT as well as exemptions from motor tax and tolls and refunds on duty paid on fuel. In order to qualify for tax relief under the scheme, the person with a disability must have a primary medical certificate from the HSE. A person must meet one of six medical criteria to be eligible for a primary medical certificate. Since as far back as 2001 the Office of the Ombudsman has been receiving complaints about the excessively restrictive nature of these six criteria. The medical criteria are that a person must: be wholly or almost wholly without the use of both legs; or be wholly without the use of one of their legs and almost wholly without the use of the other leg such that they are severely restricted as to movement of their lower limbs; or be without both hands or without both arms; or be without one or both legs; or be wholly or almost wholly without the use of both hands or arms and wholly or almost wholly without the use of one leg; or have the medical condition of "dwarfism" and serious difficulties of movement of the lower limbs. There is no doubt in my mind that these criteria are excessively restrictive. It is clear that, the administration of this scheme, based on these restrictive criteria, has resulted in people who do not meet the criteria, but who are equally as immobile as those who do, being excluded from the scheme.
The complaints my office receives are against the Disabled Drivers Medical Board of Appeal, DDMBA, an independent body set up on a statutory basis by the Department of Finance in 1990 to review applications from individuals who were unsuccessful in applying for the primary medical certificate at local HSE level. Since 2016, 335 complaints have been received by my office against the appeal board. My office investigated each of these complaints. However, in most cases, we were unable to uphold the complaint against the appeal board as it had acted in accordance with the very restrictive legislation governing its activities. However, my office clearly communicated our concern at the overly restrictive nature of the criteria by which the appeal board is bound to make a decision.
In 2020 the Supreme Court quashed a refusal of the appeal board to grant primary medical certificates allowing the parents of two disabled children to avail of tax relief under this scheme and noted in its judgment that the problem was with the “under inclusive nature” of the regulations. In essence, this meant that the HSE and appeal board could not continue with their work for a time. The Government, in response to this judgment, introduced an amendment to the Finance Act 2020 to enshrine the existing very restrictive medical criteria in primary legislation. This was most disappointing. I believe a far more appropriate response would have been to revise the criteria for the scheme to take into account an individual’s level of mobility. I understand from officials in the Department of Finance that this was intended to be an interim measure. However, past experience has shown that such interim measures often remain in place for far too long. I have already cited one interim measure that has lasted for almost nine years. I was very concerned about this and the negative impact that this has on the daily lives of people with disabilities and their families. I note the recent resignation of the members of the appeal board and that their concerns mirror some of the concerns I have expressed here today.
It very worrying that each time a problem is identified with a scheme designed to assist people with disabilities, the response by Government has been to either discontinue the scheme without replacement, or in the case of the scheme we are discussing today, to enshrine the inequitable eligibility criteria in primary legislation.
I was pleased to see from the recent announcement in January 2022 by the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, that she intends to chair an interdepartmental group to examine the issues of accessible transport for persons with disabilities and to progress a review of the disabled drivers and disabled passengers scheme as a matter of priority. However, what we need now is action. We need to see real progress and a system of access to personal transport supports put in place that is fair and inclusive to all people living with a disability. Another working group or action plan is not sufficient. People who are adversely affected by this lack of access to transport need and deserve immediate and decisive action. It is simply not acceptable that a person is confined to their home, unable to participate equally and actively in their community or at work because they are unable to access transport.
I can assure the Chair and members of the committee that I will continue to highlight this unfair and inequitable situation. I would also ask this committee to continue to raise this issue with the Department of Finance, and across the Government, to ensure that action is taken as a priority to resolve this very serious and unfair situation.
We thank the committee for the invitation to be here and for its time. Ms Cooney and myself will be happy to deal with any questions or comments.
I thank Mr. Deeling. Before we proceed further, I wish to advise that the evidence of witnesses physically present or who give evidence from the parliamentary precincts is protected pursuant to both the Constitution and statute by absolute privilege. Witnesses are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not criticise nor make charges against any person or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable or otherwise engage in speech that might be regarded as damaging to the good name of the person or entity. If statements are potentially defamatory in relation to an identifiable person or entity, they will be directed by the Chair to discontinue such remarks. It is imperative that this be complied with. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not criticise nor make charges against any person or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable
Members who are attending remotely are reminded of the constitutional requirements that they must be physically present in the confines of the place which Parliament has chosen to sit, namely, Leinster House, in order to participate in public meetings.
I will call Deputies Jim O'Callaghan and Doherty and Senator Higgins first.
I thank Mr. Deering and Ms Cooney for coming before the committee. The Oireachtas spends a lot of time trying to think of methods by which we can encourage people out of the car onto public transport. However, Mr. Deering is telling the committee that the most effective method of transport for people with disabilities appears to be the car. Is that correct?
Mr. Ger Deering
Certainly, that is the case in the short term. If our public transport system was what we might want it to be then it might suit their needs. For example, if I needed a ramp at a particular DART station today, I would have to know what time I was leaving Leinster House and book it in advance, or the problem could be the last mile I had to travel. It might not seem much to somebody that a person's house is a mile from a train station or in a rural area, or that it is ten miles from a train station. It is the last link that is the difficulty. Until we have fully accessible public transport, and we are quite a distance from that, then people need personal assistance to manage their own affairs and be able to travel in a manner that is accessible to them and at a time that suits them too.
Footpaths are very important and essential for someone wishing to avail of public transport who has a disability. How would Mr. Deering judge the quality and effectiveness of footpaths for those trying to avail of public transport?
Mr. Ger Deering
Like most things they vary.
Many local authorities have done a lot of work in recent years to try to make footpaths more accessible by dishing footpaths and putting markings at crossings. Another issue that has arisen is where we see that sometimes people insensitively put out things like sandwich boards, signs or other things in the way of people. People do not think and they need to think more carefully, whether that is personally or on the part of officials or people working in those areas. They always need to think of universal access and design.
Can we avail of any statistics that give us an indication of the percentage of people with disabilities who are able to drive? Is that something Mr. Deering thinks would be important for us to be aware of?
Mr. Ger Deering
It would be useful and it is something that those designing the schemes will need to know. I am not sure we would have that information.
Ms Sarah Cooney
We do not have exact details of that. These schemes also covered people living with a disability who may have been passengers in cars, which is equally important for them in letting them move around in society in an accessible and equal way to everyone else.
I am thinking of somebody who has a disability and I would have thought it would be quite difficult to get driving lessons or become acquainted with the method by which one drives a car if one has a disability.
Ms Sarah Cooney
It depends on when a person acquired his or her disability and it also depends on his or her mobility. It can also be a personal choice around people wanting to adapt a car to be able to move around freely in that way. There can be various different ways in which people can have access.
Mr. Ger Deering
It is all about personal choice. Everybody should have the same choice whether they have disabilities or not; they should be able to make the same choices as anyone else.
One of the criticisms in Mr. Deering's statement was in respect of the six criteria set out for a primary medical certificate. Mr. Deering regarded them as being too restrictive. How would he like to see those criteria changed or amended to make them broader?
Mr. Ger Deering
I would like to see that in some way they measure the person’s ability or need to be mobile. Those particular criteria apply to a certain group of people and they exclude an entire group of people who may be similarly mobile and who may have the same need for access to the grant. The application is a tick-box exercise so one either ticks one of those boxes or not. However, a significant number of people are equally immobile but do not tick those boxes. I would like the measure to look at what a person’s mobility is and what their level of need is, rather than-----
Would Mr. Deering like to see more of a qualitative assessment as opposed to a strict box-ticking exercise? When you have criteria they necessarily exclude people.
Mr. Ger Deering
I agree that it should be a more holistic assessment of the person’s mobility and that can be measured. This is done all of the time in rehabilitation centres, hospitals and various places and they are able to measure the level of somebody’s mobility. In this case, somebody has decided that only people with those really restrictive criteria can avail-----
Is Mr. Deering saying that in order for that to change we need legislative change because of the provisions of the Finance Act 2021?
Mr. Ger Deering
Yes. We have a strange situation where almost everybody is agreed that the conditions are too restrictive. What we ended up doing is enshrining those restrictive conditions in legislation. We often criticise what happened in the past but as far back as 1968 there was a better scheme and the next scheme came in during 1979. Those schemes were better. There were flaws in them but they were simple flaws. They were important flaws but it would have been easy to resolve them. One of them excluded people over a certain age so all they had to do to rectify that was include those people. Instead they withdrew the scheme. There is now a double inequity in that some people who are on those schemes rightly continue to benefit from them but they were closed to any new applicants.
One thing Members of the Oireachtas can do is change the law. Mr. Deering is telling us we need to amend the Finance Act 2021 by taking out the six strict criteria. I am trying to think about what we can put in their place. Mr. Deering does not believe we should put in another extensive list of criteria but that there should be some method whereby the holistic view of somebody’s disability can be appraised by somebody who makes that decision.
Mr. Ger Deering
Exactly. I am not sure legislation is the best place to try to make an assessment of somebody’s mobility.
I agree. It is not the best place. It is something that requires an assessment and putting that into legislation necessarily excludes a lot of people. I know the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, will be interested to hear what Mr. Deering has said and I know Mr. Deering does not doubt her commitment to it. Mr. Deering is saying we do not need another talking shop and that he wants to see legislative change.
Mr. Ger Deering
We need to see movement, change and action being taken.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Fhear an Phobail chuig an choiste agus roimh Sarah fosta. I welcome Mr. Deering to the committee for the first time in his official capacity and I welcome Ms Cooney as well. It is fitting that Mr. Deering is picking up where his predecessor left off and one of his last official duties was that report, which makes for difficult reading. Peter Tyndall published Grounded in November 2021 and one line that stuck out for me in it was: “Living with a disability in Ireland in 2021 should never mean that a person is grounded in their home”. Unfortunately that is where far too many people are. Unfortunately, as he was preparing to publish that report we found out that the whole Disabled Drivers Medical Board of Appeal had resigned en masse, something that has not been seen in this State. They did so after they repeatedly raised concerns with the Minister. I have said before at this committee that I am deeply disturbed by what has happened with that scheme, why those concerns were not listened to, why we have no board of appeal and why individuals felt they were forced into this type of action. Listening to Mr. Deering’s opening remarks and looking at Mr. Tyndall’s extensive work on this, it is clear this is not the first time that concerns have been falling on deaf ears. Mr. Deering’s predecessor wrote to the Minister for Finance in December 2014 and again in June 2017. He also wrote to the Secretary General in January 2020 and we are still not getting the changes. Mr. Deering said there are questions and we will hopefully raise questions with the Minister for Finance on his inaction on this. Mr. Deering said that the restrictive criteria for this scheme have resulted in people who do not meet the criteria but who are equally immobile to those who do being excluded from the scheme. Would this amount to discrimination under the operation of the scheme?
Mr. Ger Deering
It is discrimination. Sometimes discrimination can be justifiable if it is being said that a person has other means or reasons if there is a means test, for example. However, it is unreasonable discrimination in that if two people have the same need and the same level of disability for a different reason, it seems reasonable that they should be treated the same.
I am conscious that Mr. Deering is new to the role but does he have any understanding of why this has fallen on deaf ears, despite all of the appeals? I referenced direct communications with the Minister and the Department but it has been in every report published by the Ombudsman since Emily O’Reilly’s period in office. Why has all of that fallen on deaf ears?
Mr. Ger Deering
It is possibly because there are too many people involved in the process, including different Departments and different Ministers. I welcome the fact that we have an interdepartmental group but my experience is that if one Department takes responsibility to deliver something there is a much better chance of it being delivered. When something involves a number of Departments it gets way too complex. The scheme we are talking about today might have a level of complexity within it but some of the other schemes were simple. They were administered locally and they were relatively successful, albeit there were problems with them but the problems with those schemes should have been solved. It would have been far better if the interim solution had been to fix the schemes that were there, at least the problems this office saw in them, while a new scheme was being devised. It was not reasonable to stop the schemes and stop anybody from applying for them while they were being perfected. We might never have perfection but we can do an awful lot better. Some of this has been made unnecessarily complex but it is not that complex. Certain people have certain needs and those needs should be met. We need to find the criteria and a fair, reasonable and equitable way of deciding who is entitled to these schemes but we are a long way from that.
I cannot give a definitive answer as to the reason for that. It is surprising that something so fundamental and so important to people with disabilities in this era would be ongoing for nine years. It is, to say the least, surprising and disappointing.
When the Minister for Finance was before the committee we asked him what actions he had taken in regard to the concerns raised by the appeal board, all of whom resigned approximately six or seven months after raising those concerns because they felt there had been no action from Government. We had an announcement in January. The story breaks that the appeal board has resigned, blaming the Minister for a lack of action, and that is followed by an announcement in regard to the establishment of an interdepartmental group to look at the issue of transport for people with disabilities, which will be chaired by the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte. I am sometimes suspicious of these types of announcements but Mr. Deering has welcomed it.
At the time Mr. Deering's predecessor wrote to the Secretary General of the Department, the matter was before a special Cabinet committee. It is not possible to have it dealt with any higher than a special Cabinet committee. That was over two years ago and nothing happened. Four years ago, a memo was brought to Cabinet in regard to a scheme and it was withdrawn. Four years on, nothing has happened. One would hope that something would come out of it now, but if past experience is anything to go by it does not appear there is any energy, speed or direction in regard to this.
Mr. Ger Deering
As the Deputy said, we live in hope. We have to have hope. We have to give the Minister the opportunity to deliver. I mentioned in my opening statement that we can only judge the group by its actions and not further plans or statements. It is urgently needed. I have no reason to doubt the Minister's resolve or determination, but we will be only about to judge it by the actions. I welcome that all of the players are at least sitting around the table. That has to be of some benefit.
Has Mr. Deering or his office been given any indication as to the timeframe for this process? That is a crucial. What came across very strongly from Mr. Deering's opening statement and his predecessor's report was that politicians cannot delay this any longer, that there needs to be speed and urgency. As we speak, those mentioned in the report, including Tadhg, a young person in his 20s who has Down's syndrome, severe and profound autism and is non-verbal, needs this support yet he is not getting it. He will not be approved for a primary medical certificate. His issues were exasperated during the pandemic. Going for a drive in the car helped him to relax and calm down but on one occasion he put his arms around the driver's neck forcing the car to come to a sudden halt. That family needs this support to be able to adapt their car to Tadhg's needs. The report also mentions Jack who states that just because he does not have limbs does not mean he is not disabled. This person is in excruciating pain 24-7. He uses a walking aid and a mobility scooter and has adapted the extension of his house to get around. He cannot get support because he needs to have limbs yet he has the same issue as many who have limbs.
Has the Minister of State given Mr. Deering any indication of the timeframe within which a report with recommendations will be available. I am conscious that the Minister of State does not sit at the Cabinet table.
Mr. Ger Deering
We do not have any indication. Again, I would hope that it would be done quickly. In regard to the case studies mentioned by the Deputy, our staff hear those stories on a daily basis. We have had more than 300 complaints about these schemes and very little positive outcome for the people who complain to us because if the scheme does not permit them to benefit from it, there is nothing much we can do in that regard. If people were hearing those stories first-hand and if they met these people maybe then they would understand the urgency. Nine years is a very long time if you have no access to participate in life. There is very considerable hardship being suffered by the individuals and their families.
At the time some of these schemes were closed to new applicants there were approximately 4,500 people in receipt of the benefit. I note that 4,500 has reduced to 3,500, which means 1,000 people are no longer benefiting from the scheme. There are people coming close to the end of their lives who need this scheme. This all started because somebody over the age of 66 was not eligible to be in the scheme. Where is the notion that one has to stop living and participating in society at 66 years of age? There is a very real need. When I met with this committee last December I made the point that we often look back and talk about the awful things that were done in the past. I would be concerned that in the future people will look back and question how on our watch we allowed this to happen to people with a disability. The time has come for action. I do not, unfortunately, have a timescale in that regard.
I appreciate that. Sometimes, the action is very small but it is life-changing for individuals. In some cases, people are prisoners in their own homes, in particular those living in rural Ireland who do not have a car. While this scheme provides VAT rebates and VRT rebates, the person still has to have the money to purchase the vehicle in the first instance.
Mr. Deering mentioned in his opening statement that many of the concerns raised by the appeal board, which resigned en masse, mirror some of the concerns he has expressed today. Has he had any interaction with the former appeal board in regard to their concerns? The Office of the Ombudsman has received hundreds of complaints in regard to this scheme. As bad as things were previously - and we know things were not good - people had an option to appeal. They no longer have an option to appeal. The Minister was informed in October that the board was resigning en masse. Has the Ombudsman's office had any indication of when that board will be reinstated such that, as bad and as the restrictive the scheme is, there is a next step for families.
Mr. Ger Deering
No. I understand there are approximately 300 appeals in the system. I do not think we have had any interaction directly with the board.
Ms Sarah Cooney
Previously, when looking at any of these complaints, we would have been dealing directly with the Disabled Drivers Medical Board of Appeal. We would have had a lot of engagement with the chair of that board, who had mirrored our concerns around the restrictive nature of the eligibility criteria. I do not want to speak for the board members but I think they were frustrated that they had to work within the confines of the legislation and, as I understand it, they had communicated that to the Department of Finance and others. We would have had a constructive relationship with the board in the sense that we both understood that it was the restrictive nature of the eligibility criteria that was hampering this. The board and others can speak for themselves. There are many other countries and jurisdictions that would have different systems in place and different assessments of mobility. They were the experts in the field.
Mr. Ger Deering
It is important to acknowledge that the former appeal board co-operated fully when we had an investigation of an appeal but it was very hamstrung in terms of what it could do.
I thank the witnesses. I wish Mr. Deering good luck in his new role as Ombudsman. We enjoyed all of the engagements we had with him in his previous role. I wish him all the best and I commend him on the strong position he has taken today and the obligation he has placed on Oireachtas Members, Government and those who have to make the decision to act speedily and to ensure that individuals with disabilities have the mobility they should have in the year of 2022.
I welcome the Ombudsman. It is great to see the work already kicking in. I am also a member of the Joint Committee on Disability Matters and the Joint Committee on Climate Action, where this is also an area of concern. A few of my questions are around the intersection of those areas.
Mr. Deering pointed to the distance that needs to be travelled in terms of public transport reform. Part of that is that question of the last mile and the issue of storage options for transport for that last mile. We need a really radical overhaul of our public transport system. We need initiatives, such as "stop on request", that other countries have to address these issues.
I was also struck during the extensive discussion on electric vehicles by one other aspect of which there was no mention. Many things have changed in these nine years since the motorised transport scheme was suspended and been in somewhat of a limbo. One of those changes is this focus on electric vehicles. It does not seem, however, that prioritising or supporting electrified vehicles, and those could be cars or other types of electrified vehicles for people with disabilities, has been a central part of this debate. I would like to hear some comments on this point.
The other important thing that has happened in the last nine years is that Ireland has now ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, UNCRPD. Under the UNCRPD, it is very much the case that each individual has rights in respect of his or her needs. I ask for a comment on whether this development also points towards the approach of the individual needs assessment which Mr. Deering has been suggesting as a new approach for the disabled drivers and passengers scheme. Again, one of the aspects of the UNCRPD is that there cannot simply be blanket measures. Each person is entitled to realise his or her rights.
When people press for their rights and to improve things, it is sad that the reaction of the State is to shut things down or to go into retreat. It is bad in respect of the context of public trust in their voice and ability to influence the system. Therefore, it is concerning, and not only for the individuals affected. For example, if people point to a legitimate gap in the system, the response is to roll back further. In that regard, I ask Mr. Deering to comment on the suspension of the motorised transport scheme for nine years. One aspect I am particularly interested in is inequality and inconsistency regarding age. This is an issue across many of our systems for people with disabilities. For example, we have problems in our social protection system whereby people at a certain point, namely, pension age, are just described as being "older". In reality, their disability and related needs could then be made invisible by the system. Does Mr. Deering believe that might have been one of the reasons, because it pointed to a wider flaw, for there having been a roll-back from addressing this issue? I ask that because it is a clear issue. Connected to that as well is the issue of employment. There used to be an employment requirement, but I do not think it was often used in practice. Should it be removed from any new scheme?
Regarding the primary medical certificate backlog, which is an issue, we get letters every week about this matter at the Joint Committee on Disability Matters. It is a major issue. One suggestion made is that GP certification should be enough of an interim measure. Should we, instead, be uncoupling the disabled drivers and passengers scheme from the primary medical certificate system, given the backlog and the flaws in it?
Mr. Ger Deering
Taking the Senator's last point regarding the primary medical certificate first, that whole process is based on a flawed system anyway. What must happen is that there must be a new way of assessing people's mobility and a new certification method must be introduced. On the backlog, it has been created, as the Senator knows, by the assessment board resigning, and, before that, by the hiatus in the context of the court. The problem here is that even if that process were to get up and running again, most of the people applying would not qualify in any event for the scheme. I am not sure that trying to fix that-----
That is because it is not based on individual need. I apologise that I was not clear. What was I asking was should GP certification be used as an interim measure, given this situation with the primary medical certification? My first question was on this exact point, concerning the replacement of this method with an individual assessment mechanism. Would such an approach be more in line with the UNCRPD?
Mr. Ger Deering
There should definitely be some kind of individual mechanism. We should not forget that the vast majority of these people, by virtue of finding themselves in this situation, will be interacting with the medical system, and probably at a very sophisticated level. They will most likely be dealing with consultants and other people well capable of certifying their need in this respect. Whether that could reach to the GP level is another matter. An entirely different assessment system, however, is required to decide people's level of mobility. There are systems and trusted measures of people's mobility that can be deployed more successfully than what we have now.
Moving to the point about linking to employment, it is fantastic that people can be in meaningful employment and have transport. They need it for that context. Transport, though, should not be linked to employment, because people are entitled to participate fully in society, whether that entails visiting relatives, working, volunteering or going for medical appointments. The concept of there having to be almost some kind of economic benefit accruing from providing or assisting people with their mobility needs is an outdated one.
Turning to Senator Higgins's broader question on the human rights-based approach, the UNCRPD should, of course, look at the needs of the individual. We operate on a human rights-based approach in our office in respect of examining how people have been dealt with by public bodies. This is something we want to roll out more to public bodies. In turn, then, we want to be asking them if they have considered particular issues in light of the UNCRPD and whether they took a human rights-based approach to how they dealt with an individual and made a decision. I refer to this issue across the board and not just in the context of this scheme. The question to be asked is if an individual and human rights-based approach is being taken. I acknowledge that very often people in the public sector want or need rules surrounding everything. Officials can sometimes experience disadvantage or negative comment when they apply their discretion, and perhaps apply it in a humane way. Therefore, we must build into these schemes some level of discretion which officials can exercise when they are adhering to human rights-based principles and looking at individual's circumstances.
There is a little bit of competition or contention between the concept of looking at the individual and then designing some sort of universal scheme. I have heard people use the expression that "we like to have the harp on something" to make things easier. It is used to mean that people want something official and they want a document. If we take this scheme, one of the reasons it does not work is that it involves ticking boxes. That is no way to assess whether a person is mobile. Therefore, I very much agree that we need to take a human rights-based approach and an individual-based one. I acknowledge as well that there are challenges to be faced in doing that, but there are also methods by which people's mobility can be measured.
On the subject of electric cars, I agree. I do not know why this topic has not featured in this discussion. Sometimes I think the argument from an environmental point of view was made from the perspective that people should be using public transport. If other methods of transport are available to people that complement the environment, however, then we should be encouraging them. I am no expert on electric cars or cars and vehicles generally, but if the argument is that there are better vehicles than a standard petrol- or diesel-fuelled car, then that aspect can be taken into account in the context of any scheme and funding made available.
On the age issue, I agree with Mr. Deering regarding the employment aspect. My other query concerned people being disqualified at a certain age from the scheme. As I understand it, that was one of the key findings regarding where the motorised transport scheme was in conflict with the Equal Status Acts. Again, the concern here is that this might be a wider issue in respect of the intersection of age and disability. I gave the example regarding the social protection system, where people at a certain age are simply treated as being older and their disability needs are no longer recognised by the system. I would welcome a comment from Mr. Deering on this point, if he has one. I refer to what the response should have been when that conflict was identified and should wider consideration be given to other places where this is occurring. Does Mr. Deering think that, instead, this context contributed to the retreat from addressing this problem?
Mr. Ger Deering
First, as someone fast approaching the age we are talking about, I completely disagree with any discrimination in this area and with anyone being withdrawn from any scheme because of age. I do not know, but I guess that it was not part of some bigger process at all. I would say that somebody thought or felt that people aged over 66 do not need to go to work, to go places or to socialise. I would like to think that we live in a different society now, where we accept that we facilitate people who want to participate in whatever part of society they want to participate in for as long as they want to do so.
I do not know but I have no evidence that it was part of a broader process of getting people of that age off certain schemes. I believe, however, that somebody in their wisdom thought that people over a certain age did not need to participate in society, and I fundamentally disagree with that approach.
I thank Mr. Deering. Social protection might be an interesting area to explore in that regard, as I believe some of the same assumptions are still present there, unfortunately.
We now move on to Deputy Tully, in substitution for Deputy Mairéad Farrell.
Go raibh maith agat. It is great to be here. I am a member of the Joint Committee on Disability Matters, so I do not normally attend the Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, and Taoiseach. My colleague, Deputy Farrell, indicated that this issue was being discussed today. It is also being discussed at the Joint Committee on Disability Matters. Mr. Deering's predecessor, Mr. Peter Tyndall, was in with us - I believe it was one of his last days in office - to discuss this and the work he had done in his report, which was excellent.
It is alarming that the mobility allowance and the motorised grant scheme were abolished almost nine years ago. There was something wrong with the scheme, as was highlighted in a previous report. It was suggested to me by a Minister that it was being abused. I do not know if that was the case or not but my feeling is that if there were issues around the scheme, they should have been sorted there and then. At every meeting I go to with people with disabilities or their representative organisations, the issue of transport supports comes up. The primary medical certificate criteria are far too stringent. We know that. Instead of the Minister for Finance dealing with that issue, he has amended a Finance Bill to slot in with the stringent criteria, which is terrible. A review was promised a year ago, in 2021, but this still has not happened.
On Friday I shall accompany a person to a hearing for a primary medical certificate. This is his third time to apply. The person has all of his limbs but he does not have the use of all of the limbs. Yet, he keeps being refused. There is no way that he can use public transport because he does not have stability when he walks, and he will not be able to get onto a bus or whatever. He needs personalised transport supports to help him get from A to B. He had relied on his parents to do so but his mother has passed away, and his father had a severe illness and cannot do it anymore. This is what we are seeing more and more.
We discussed this matter earlier in the Dáil Chamber during a Private Members' motion put forward by the Regional Group. The Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, indicated it is under review as part of the national disability strategy but does the Ombudsman have any indication where that is or how long it will take before they put some of the schemes back in place or adjust them so that the primary medical certificate criteria will change? Does Mr. Deering believe it is purely based on a financial reason rather than on need? I am very conscious that the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was ratified by Ireland four years ago. We must implement it. The optional protocol has not been ratified yet. Is this one of the reasons? This is not the only issue people with disabilities have to fight for. They spend their lives fighting for the supports they need and they should not have to do that. Is this a reason the optional protocol has not been ratified? Does the Government know that people will take them to the EU over the issues such as the transport supports?
Mr. Ger Deering
It is difficult know why. I suggested earlier that one of the reasons this has not been progressed is that it seems to be the responsibility of a number of Departments, and when that happens sometimes these things fall through. I do not doubt the Minister's intent to resolve this, but as I said in my statement, and I will hold to it, we really need action. People will not be able to wait for another action plan. They must consult with the people with disabilities, but equally, those voices have been expressing themselves for a long time at this stage, as the Deputy said. It needs a very quick consultation and a quick process but we do not have any indication as to when that will happen. As to why the convention is not fully operational, we do not know the reason for that. As we discussed earlier, people have individual rights. They have these rights under the convention, but they have them in any event. There just seems to be a lack of willingness for all of the actors to get together. I appreciate that this is what the Minister is trying to do now, and we can only hope that it delivers. We need it to be delivered quickly for those who need the service.
There is no subject I have been more frustrated by when dealing with it over at least 25 or 30 years. Again and again it has come up. Mr. Deering mentioned in his introduction, what I would call inconsistencies, in the determination of whether a person qualified or not. I could never understand it. The reference to partly or wholly the loss of one or both arms. What does that mean? I could never understand what it meant, and nobody else could understand it either. It was either one or the other. The question that would arise was: if the two were gone, would that qualify? The answer was not necessarily, but if one was gone maybe it would. I know people who, unfortunately, were disqualified at least 30 years ago and have never qualified. It becomes a question of rubber stamping after the appeal, and then a further appeal is just refused automatically. It may be unfair to say that, but that is the way it was, and it is.
The late Mr. Martin Naughton did a lot of work for people with disabilities. He and I had discussions that far back on this particular issue. It is without doubt shameful that it took this long. There is no reason in this wide earthly world one person who has a similar disability to another person, who is equally disabled, qualifies for the primary medical certificate and the other does not. It is absolutely shameful as far as I am concerned. I do not know whether it is a financial thing, but it sounds like a financial matter. If it is a financial matter then it needs to be attended to on the basis that it is grossly unfair to the people who are the victims. People with such difficulties have enough problems without further imposing more difficulty upon them.
Let us consider two people who have a disability, whatever that disability is. They may not be identical. One person might be quite upfront and anxious to take up a full place in the workplace, and be able to do that. Another person with a similar disability may not. They may have psychological problems or problems around confidence in their own ability, all of which must be taken into account. It is time to put an end to the practice of disqualifying a person arbitrarily on the basis that he or she does not tick a box. I will certainly bring this up at our parliamentary party meeting again, and hopefully as a result of the Ombudsman's deliberations and discussions, and his important intervention, it will be dealt with. I hope so.
I thank members for attending and for taking a particular interest in this very important and sensitive subject. I thank our guests or witnesses - I am not sure of the right term - for their fundamental contributions which hopefully will have the desired results.
In this session we will continue our engagement on financial and inclusion issues. Our guests are Dr. Amie Lajoie and Mr. Gerard O'Brien. Dr. Lajoie is social policy and research executive at the Money Advice & Budgeting Service, MABS, and Mr. O'Brien is business manager with the same organisation.
The evidence of witnesses physically present or those giving evidence from within the parliamentary precincts is protected pursuant to both the Constitution and statute by absolute privilege. Witness are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not criticise or make charges against any person or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable, or otherwise engage in speech that may be regarded as damaging to the good name of the person or entity. Therefore, if their statements are potentially defamatory in relation to an identifiable person or entity, they will be directed to discontinue their remarks and it is imperative that they comply with such direction.
Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. I remind members who are attending remotely of the constitutional requirement that members must be physically present within the confines of the place the Parliament has chosen to sit, namely, Leinster House, in order to participate in a public meeting, of which this is one.
I invite Dr. Lajoie to make her opening remarks.
Dr. Amie Lajoie
I thank the Vice Chairman and committee members. The Money Advice & Budgeting Service very much welcomes the opportunity to contribute to the committee’s deliberations on this important topic.
The disabled drivers and disabled passengers, DDDP, scheme operated by the Office of the Revenue Commissioners provides a range of supports towards the purchase and operation of specially constructed and adapted vehicles by disabled drivers and passengers, including tax relief on vehicle registration tax, VRT, and VAT, an exemption from motor tax and an annual fuel grant. We flag that direct commentary on the logistics and tax implications of the scheme is not in the MABS area of expertise. However, as an essential front-line service with a holistic approach to assisting clients with their immediate debt problems and supporting them to become financially independent in the long term, we can offer in-depth insight into the ways this scheme and related welfare supports work on the ground. In addition, after 30 years of promoting financial inclusion for Ireland’s most marginalised communities, MABS is in a unique position to comment on the ongoing challenges faced by persons with disabilities who access our services. It is through this context that we position our statement and engagement with the committee today.
In preparation for the meeting, MABS support issued a comprehensive survey to all MABS staff and money advisers around the country, and consulted with our funder, the Citizens Information Board, CIB. The CIB social policy team sent us collated data arising from transport and disability queries to local citizens information services, CIS, to which we also refer.
To start, we will list the five primary issues highlighted by local MABS services and-or CIS regarding the DDDP scheme as it currently operates. We include examples of our clients’ lived experiences to illustrate these points. The first issue relates to the medical criteria for the scheme. The DDDP scheme is inaccessible for many due to the restrictive medical criteria for accessing the primary medical certificate, PMC, necessary for approval. If an initial PMC application is rejected, an appeal may be lodged to the disabled drivers medical board of appeal. To qualify, an applicant must satisfy at least one of six medical criteria that focus predominantly on physical disabilities, particularly a lack of limb function. This criterion is exclusionary for persons with other disability types, including chronic illnesses, brain or neurological conditions, cardiovascular diseases and so on. For example, a money adviser from north Dublin spoke of a client with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, COPD, who uses a wheelchair and is on oxygen. She is unable to walk unaided or more than a few steps at once. Her application for a PMC and subsequent appeal were denied as she was deemed to have use of her legs.
The second issue we wish to raise is the appeals process. When operational, the primary medical certificate, PMC, appeals process requires persons to travel to Dublin for an in-person assessment. This can often be extremely challenging, if not impossible, and costly for those clients who live far away. A client in a local citizens information service, CIS, office lost her appeal after she was unable to travel the five-hour journey from her home to attend an assessment in Dublin. The client lives alone and had no means of personal transport.
The third issue we want to flag is the scheme being exclusionary due to cost. Even if their clients satisfy the physical requirements, money advisers highlighted the majority of their clients cannot access the scheme as they cannot afford the purchase of a vehicle, let alone maintenance, even with tax reliefs and rebates. Many MABS clients with disabilities rely solely on social welfare payments to live, and face increased living costs already, in particular, for transport. This was highlighted in the most recent report on the increased costs for persons living with disabilities in Ireland published in November last year by the Department of Social Protection. A money adviser in Cork discussed how her clients who are wheelchair users must take taxis to medical appointments as public transport is unavailable and inaccessible. While they can get their taxi fare reimbursed by the local community welfare office this could take up to two weeks to process. In the interim, she has seen clients opt to go without food in order to cover these costs.
The fourth issue we want to raise is the inflexibility of the scheme. Citizens information services identified how the disabled drivers and disabled passengers scheme can also be restrictive, for instance, when there is a sudden change of familial circumstances. Family members of disabled passengers can be eligible for the scheme if they are living with, and responsible for, their transport, and own a vehicle for that reason. However, problems arose for one CIS client with disabilities when her husband died. He had been the driver of her specially adapted vehicle with the vehicle registration tax and VAT rebates attached. The client’s son-in-law was available to take over driving responsibilities but in this case the client had to explore transferring ownership of the vehicle to her son-in-law, which was not what she had wanted.
The fifth and final issue we raise is the scheme's applicability to replacing previous grants offered by the Government. In 2013, the Government closed the mobility allowance and motorised transport grant schemes to new applicants. The DDDP scheme, therefore, took on an increasing importance for people with disabilities. However, the scheme, in its current guise, is not effective to provide relief to those who truly need it, in particular low-income persons. MABS money advisers called for the return and-or replacement of the prior grants and the mobility allowance, in particular, arguing it contributed greatly to their clients’ overall health and well-being, easing financial burdens for transport and providing increased opportunities for participation and social engagement. Since 2013, citizens information services have also repeatedly highlighted this issue and the Citizens Information Board raised this in successive pre-budget submissions.
It is important to draw connections between these points and underlying issues of financial inclusion faced by persons with disabilities. Research from the European Disability Forum found that 38.1% of persons with disabilities in Ireland are at risk of poverty and social exclusion, a number that has grown since 2010 and is worryingly higher than the EU average of 28.7%. MABS services work to help alleviate financial pressures for those who are struggling and we find that, particularly for clients with disabilities, there are a number of barriers to accessing available social welfare supports, including but not limited to the DDDP scheme. This includes a lack of knowledge of rights and entitlements. Most clients are not aware of what they are entitled to until they come to MABS and-or citizens Information services and that they have the right to appeal a decision to reject their applications for social welfare. Also, clients with disabilities face increased difficulties with the required online applications due to digital exclusion, not owning or able to afford the necessary smart devices, lack of home broadband access, which is particularly the case in rural areas, and lower than average levels of digital literacy.
Persons with disabilities also face increased household expenses, for instance, people may have to keep warm when they are not mobile and-or they might be homebound and require continuous electricity, lighting and so on, and, therefore, are even more sensitive to rises in energy prices than the general population. Lack of accessible public transport, in particular in rural areas, leads to the reliance on taxis and personal transport options that, for many, are simply too expensive. Unfortunately, we would posit that challenges have exacerbated in recent months due to Covid-19 and the spike in the cost of living. Individual actions from our clients in terms of budgeting and entitlement maximisation are becoming insufficient in the face of insurmountable structural barriers.
We would list a number of direct actions to support the increased financial inclusion of persons with disabilities and, in turn, importantly, combat exclusion. They include the following. The extension of employment supports and awareness of supports to enable those with a disability to find meaningful employment if they so choose. This involves allowing retention of the medical card solely for medical need if working and regardless of income level. There is a need to provide a savings incentive scheme for all on social welfare, including those with disabilities; to support the training of front-line staff to assist those with disabilities with specialised needs, including post offices, banks, credit unions and public services; to enhance educational and financial literacy incentives, for example, fully funded third level courses with extra supports that have occupational outcomes; the provision and long-term accessibility of non-fee and basic bank accounts with preferential overdraft and loan rates; and available interest-free loans for capital spends such as housing adaptation, equipment purchases, vehicle adaptation, disability aids and so on.
We strongly support the efforts of this committee to examine the DDDP scheme and further promote the full participation and financial inclusion of persons with disabilities. We look forward to discussing these matters further.
I thank Dr. Lajoie for that presentation. Does Mr. O'Brien wish to make an comment at this stage?
Mr. Gerard O'Brien
No, thank you.
I call Deputy Tully.
I welcome both witnesses and thank Dr. Lajoie for that comprehensive presentation. It spells out many of the challenges people in society face every day but people with disabilities face those challenges at a higher rate.
Dr. Lajoie mentioned that the qualifying criteria for the primary medical certificate, as has been discussed many times, are extremely stringent. That is why the medical appeals board resigned. The criteria do not include people who suffer chronic illness or pain or people with neurological diseases. It needs to be completely reviewed and the criteria changed to reflect where we are now. We passed the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and we need to implement it.
Transport is important for people with disabilities to be able to access work, visit family, go shopping and to do everything everybody else in society is able to do. People with disabilities should be able to do that without having to fight all the time for their rights. Would a large number of MABS clients be disabled? Of those, how many would cite transport costs as being a major problem? From talking to people, I know people who live in rural areas, in particular, have no access to public transport and even if they have, sometimes it is not accessible for them depending on the nature of the disability.
People have told me that when they telephone to book a wheelchair accessible taxi they cannot get one in many areas. Many of them are contracted to the HSE and while there are some available, and they are usually dearer to book than the regular taxi most of us can use, people find it difficult to access them. Is that an issue raised regularly with MABS? We have one of the highest rates of poverty among our disabled population in Europe and also one of the highest rates of unemployment. Obviously, the two are directly connected. While accessible transport may not only be needed for people with disabilities to be able to get to and from work, the lack of it may be an impediment to them taking up work. Has MABS any hopes these schemes will be reviewed, that the criteria will be addressed and the other schemes suspended in 2013 will be brought back into line?
Which of the witnesses wishes to go first?
Mr. Gerard O'Brien
Dr. Amie Lajoie
The Deputy has hit the nail on the head. In the responses to the survey we issued to the local services I was struck by the number of people working in rural areas such as Sligo, Donegal and Mayo who highlighted over and over again the importance of these types of supports to allow their clients with disabilities to access meaningful transport. One of the issues for clients is they must have some money up front in order to access the service. They must be able to afford a car in the first instance to get access to this specific scheme, which is a marked difference from the prior mobility allowance, which was a monthly payment.
There are still a number of people participating in that scheme. The Government closed that scheme to new applications in 2013 but we now have a two-tier system. A number of MABS clients would still be participating in the former scheme and a number who would have been eligible under former circumstances have been denied access to that scheme for a number of years. I know citizens information services have faced the same issues we have faced.
It is very important, when tackling it from that perspective, to consider whether the onus is on the individual to have access to disposable income in order to purchase a vehicle in the first instance or if we can do more to help that person from the other side of things. Would a one-off set payment, such as a mobility allowance, allow for that?
In respect of the data on our clients, we do not specifically track data on the number of persons with disabilities we have, which is why it was very important for us, in preparation for this meeting, to speak to money advisers and those on the coalface regarding this engagement with the committee in order to understand their experiences. One of the things that came back was that the clients with disabilities we work with are overwhelmingly reliant on the disability allowance and related supports as their number one source of income. If they are in employment, it is only for a few hours a week to supplement that income. As we know, the disability allowance is a very important measure. However, if someone is relying just on that to live, his or her income is very tight when it comes to access to additional disposable income for many things, such as participating in public life, social engagements and all of that. That is something we see.
Mr. Gerard O'Brien
In my previous role at MABS, I worked directly with clients as an adviser on the ground. The kinds of issues that come up all the time, especially in rural areas, are access to transport and the additional costs of transport, even to get to MABS appointments. MABS has outreach services in many counties, which is great. We are bringing the service to the client as opposed to bringing the client to the service, but people with disabilities, in particular, still have additional costs, especially as regards transport and communications, which Dr. Lajoie outlined. Due to the lack of rural public transport, the cost of taxis is coming up as an issue in our research and, as the Deputy said, the additional cost of taxis for disabled people.
The representatives talked about people not being knowledgeable about their rights. That is a major problem right across society but especially for parents when they realise their child has an additional need - where do they go for help and how do they get it? It goes right on through. People are not told of their rights. Citizens Information does wonderful work in informing people, but not everybody thinks of going to that body to get information. They should not have to go looking for it. Information should be provided to people on what their rights are in respect of different services, payments and so forth. Much work needs to be done to assist people with disabilities instead of them having to fight for their rights on a constant basis, which they are tired of doing at this stage.
Dr. Amie Lajoie
We agree. Something that again struck us as we were preparing for this meeting was the number of money advisers we spoke with who told us that people are not aware they can appeal decisions when they are initially rejected. We found some statistics from the Department of Social Protection on the number of initial applicants for disability allowance. The Department rejects more than half of first applicants; those are the statistics from 2021. Some 13,989 applications for disability allowance were turned down, while 13,298 of processed claims were granted last year. Many people are not aware they have the right to challenge or appeal those decisions. They will take that notice, or put that letter in the bin, forget about it and go back on jobseeker's, for example. Those numbers are also conflated so we might not get an accurate picture of the social welfare supports and who needs what.
In cases where decisions are appealed, for more than half there is a change in that decision. When people have access to an appeals system, they can get the supports. That is something our advisers flagged over and over; helping people to know and understand they have the right of appeal when a decision comes in. They might not get on the provisional allowance from the get-go, but they can appeal that decision and take it further. It is pretty significant they have to do that in the first place, but it is great they are coming to our services and we can provide that support.
I know of that because of the number of disability allowance and carer's allowance applications refused first time that come through my constituency office. Generally, when we assist a person to appeal, that individual wins the appeal. It is unfortunate people are not just granted what they deserve at the outset.
I welcome the representatives. I commend MABS on the crucial work it does in assisting individuals in particularly difficult times during the pandemic and as we deal with the cost-of-living crisis. Today, we are focusing on those with disabilities and the additional financial burdens that can be placed on individuals as a result of the discontinuation of a number of schemes. Most of us argue that the disabled drivers and passengers scheme is not fit for purpose and excludes many individuals. We know that six criteria apply to that scheme, where someone has to tick a box. It is really asking disabled people to fit into this little square box and if they do not they are grounded. In some cases, it means people cannot leave their homes to go to the shops or the cinema, or cannot visit a neighbour, because that is not possible for those living in a rural community.
Even if the criteria were changed to look at the issues, and to be more flexible in respect of mobility issues, what is the MABS view on how that would address the problem? I raise this because MABS representatives have previously raised the point that even if more people are eligible for the scheme, they still would have to be able to purchase a car. I am sure many of the individuals MABS deals with are not in that position. I would like to hear the representatives' views on that because while it would be absolutely fantastic if the criteria were changed and we had the medical appeals board up and running, there is a danger we are likely to still have a large number of people with disabilities excluded from mobility because those concerned cannot afford the €10,000, €20,000 or €30,000 to purchase a vehicle.
I was thinking as I came to today's meeting of the perverseness of this year in that people who have money are being given €5,000 of taxpayers' money. People who have disabilities and cannot leave their houses are paying taxes while that €5,000 is going to people who have money and can afford a €30,000 or €40,000 electric vehicle. Yet, €5,000 is not being made available to those people with a disability who are not looking for flashy new cars, but just want to be able to get out of the house to go to church or visit a neighbour or whatever. I would welcome the views of MABS on that.
Mr. Gerard O'Brien
The way we see it, it is about flicking that on its head. As the Deputy said, fairly clearly, it is about making those kind of incentives available to people with disabilities to avail of grants to purchase these kind of vehicles. Dr. Lajoie also has some figures on the number of people with disabilities who are not in the workforce, which are pretty stark. Lack of transport is one reason they are not in the workforce, and lack of affordability is the reason for the lack of transport. It is certainly a challenge for policymakers and legislators to invert that and try to incentivise people with disabilities to get into the workforce, if they can. We are well behind the rest of Europe in trying to help people with disabilities to improve their circumstances, financially and socially. We all know people, some of whom are very well known, with disabilities who make a significant contribution to their communities.
They are just great role models. I am sure there are others who could make equally good contributions were they incentivised to do so.
I am not sure if Mr. O'Brien was able to follow the earlier session. I was very taken with what Mr. Deering said. I completely agree with this. If people knew their names and faces and if it was humanised as opposed to being a matter of dealing with schemes that have complicated names, statutory instruments and all the rest, it would be better. This is about Jack who is sitting at home and Mary who has mobility issues. Yes, she has two legs but she is in a wheelchair and, therefore, cannot avail of this support. It is a case of what that means for Mary, Jack and thousands of people like them. MABS carried out a survey relating to its experience regarding its clients. How would it characterise the impact of not having these supports based on its survey?
Dr. Amie Lajoie
It is quite bleak. The pandemic was an incredibly difficult time for all of us to be isolated at home but it was particularly difficult for certain people who could not even get out for a walk which we were all trying to do. Part of the difficulty with the State's approach to people with disabilities is that one-dimensional lens. It is about not understanding that this is a diverse group of people with many different needs. The issue is quite nuanced. The requirements for inclusion in the disabled drivers and disabled passengers scheme and the focus on the primary medical certificate only focus on really restricted physical disabilities so it is a really outdated model. With the introduction of the human rights legislation and the work of advocacy and support groups for people with disabilities in Ireland, we must combat that. It is something we talk about within our services. It includes proper language for discussing people with disabilities, making sure we using the right terminology and being sensitive to all of these things. There is no reason not to do it. All of us could be doing better.
Mr. Gerard O'Brien
What MABS does in particular is personalise and take the label from a disabled person. The person becomes a client like any other client of MABS because he or she is getting a face-to-face service. I am sure the Deputy knows there are three MABS services in his county of Donegal. In larger counties like Kerry, there are two but there are outreach services in family resource centres. We like to think this face-to-face service complements what our funder Citizens Information provides via citizensinformation.ie or citizens information centres. They are rooted in communities. We think we provide a good offering to our communities because we are rooted and a have presence in them. To go off on a slight tangent, you could make the claim that anybody who comes to MABS is disabled in some form because he or she is financially stressed. They were previously people of huge capacity in some cases and a lot of capacity in others. They have been disabled so to speak by their circumstances. We saw it after the crash and we see it in mortgage arrears and unsecured debt. People are effectively disabled when they come to MABS and our job is to work with them on income maximisation and to try to make them financially independent again. In respect of financial inclusion for people with disabilities, the fact that we are present and rooted in communities is a great help in that regard.
How does MABS deal with individuals who cannot make it to a MABS office - those who do not have cars, are wheelchair-bound or have been unable to avail of this because they cannot get the primary medical certificate - because we are talking about mobility? How does MABS meet that need or can it meet it?
Mr. Gerard O'Brien
Primarily it involves collaborating with various community organisations rather than bringing the client into our main centre. Family resource centres are hugely important in that respect. They would probably be the main ones. Credit unions have made their premises available. We will also do home visits, particularly in the case of people with disabilities.
In her opening statement, Dr. Lajoie spoke about an applicant having to qualify and meet six very restrictive criteria and gave the example of a client with COPD who used a wheelchair, was on oxygen and unable to walk unaided and was denied a primary medical certificate with her appeal denied on the grounds that she had use of her legs. That woman would not even be able to make an appeal today because the board has resigned en masse because of the inaction of the Minister and Government. It is a shocking exclusion. I do not think I have ever met anybody who is not generous or does not believe we need to do more for people with disabilities yet governments have allowed nine years to pass without any new scheme being brought forward to replace the one that was suspended. An entire board has now resigned, which I assume is not a simple decision, because it believes the Minister has not done enough or is not speedy enough. Based on the Money Advice & Budgeting Service's understanding of its clients, are we seeing people like this individual, who is in a wheelchair and does not have access to transport? I assume some people will make cuts elsewhere because it is such an important thing. If there is a family there, people will rally round because the public and families are good. How can anybody live with this situation where you cannot go outside your home because you do not have a car that is wheelchair-equipped? Are people in this situation in 2022? Are they grounded? Are they prisoners in their own homes to a certain degree because they cannot afford to do these modifications themselves and do not have the grants that used to be there in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s? I find it bizarre.
Dr. Amie Lajoie
I had to shorten the study in order to include it in my opening statement. The case involved a couple. The man's wife was getting older and he could no longer lift her in her wheelchair into his vehicle because he was elderly, which is why they were looking for increased support. That was what he had been doing previously - trying to find ways to use his current vehicle. The primary medical certificate and those six requirements are not just for this scheme and other schemes. I believe they also apply to the disabled parking permit. I spoke to another adviser who has several clients waiting. I think there are more than 450 appeals waiting to be processed that are not being processed because the board is no longer functioning. These people are just waiting to get access to disabled parking spaces near their homes so that when their carers arrive, they have a place to park in what is quite a busy estate. Right now, they must double park just so the carers can get into the home.
There are many things going on now and our fear was that the situation would continue to get worse as long as there continued to be no action on this really important matter. It is a group that is already facing extreme challenges and increased costs of living. It is further exacerbating those challenges for a really marginalised part of the population, which is quite concerning.
We have heard different commitments at different times from this Government and the previous Government. There were reviews and a Cabinet subcommittee set up two years ago. The Minister for Finance was doing a review last January; I do not know if it is still going on or whatever. A year on from that, in January, there is another review and a group being pulled together by the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Anne Rabbitte. In 2013 we were told this would be reviewed and there would be a solution. That was said to us numerous times as parliamentarians across the political divide who were putting these questions. A memo went to the Cabinet about a new scheme four years ago but it was pulled and there is nothing there now.
Do the witnesses have any insight into what is actually happening? Is MABS involved with any of the discussions on what is happening here and now? If we get another big news story we will get another review, which would not be good. It is appalling. We have to put a face on this and know the person down the road who cannot leave the house without that type of support. We must put a face and name on it. Sometimes politics can be too unemotional but this should not be; there should be outrage and this should not go on any longer.
Do the witnesses have any insight into what is happening and the length of the review that was announced last month? Is MABS involved or being consulted at all? I thank the witnesses for their time.
Mr. Gerard O'Brien
We are not to the best of my knowledge. Having said that, Dr. Lajoie and I work for MABS Support and there are ten MABS companies. There is our company, National Traveller MABS and eight regional companies. They take in north and south Leinster, north and south Munster, south Connacht, north Connacht and Ulster and then Dublin, which unlike the GAA is split in half along north and south. I am not sure if regional managers have been approached but I suppose it has only been recently announced. That may be the case and I am just not aware of it. It is certainly something I am sure is relevant to MABS and the Citizens Information Board because we have a social policy function.
Dr. Lajoie has only just joined us and we are delighted about it because we now have a specialist on social policy working with us in MABS Support. Dr. Lajoie's providing of social policy is a dedicated function in MABS Support for the whole of the MABS service. We also have a new financial inclusion executive and this role was in a previous iteration of MABS Support called MABS National Development. Anyway, it is the same crew and we have a guy called Mr. Joe Nevin who worked as a money adviser in Sligo MABS for approximately 13 years before he was paroled to us. Mr. Nevin and Dr. Lajoie started in November.
As I said, we have the MABS services in regional companies and the National Traveller MABS, and these are rooted in communities. We have issues that are coming up there and Dr. Lajoie has mentioned some of these, including the COPD case. We also have a "macro" view, for want of a better word, and we can channel those matters coming up through this funnel beside me. I've insulted her before and that is just another example of it. We are in a very good position now and if we are asked, we would like to contribute.
I thank the witnesses for their time.
Mr. Gerard O'Brien
That is if we have not been asked already.
I was very struck by many aspects of the testimony we heard but particularly the client who was unable to travel. There is the wider issue where no appeals are possible currently because of the inappropriateness of the assessment system. I was also struck that a client in a local Citizens Information Services office lost an appeal because the person was unable to travel the five hours to attend the assessment in Dublin. The lack of funding and transport upfront is getting in the way of people being able to appeal or seek that access.
I was also struck by Dr. Lajoie's comment about the number of people who do not take appeals. We know many appeals are successful when they take them. I sit on the disability matters committee as well and there is a frustrated sense sometimes that refusals were happening at an early point almost to wear down people with bureaucracy, with people feeling daunted by a delay in access. They say that justice delayed is justice denied and there seems to be an element of that in people with a disability accessing entitlements.
In that regard I also pick up on the comment made about the importance of the local centres. In addition to the really good information on the Citizens Information website, will the witnesses speak to having local offices? There was mention of the two offices in Kerry and the different offices in different counties. People can access these offices in order to help them to navigate what can sometimes seem like quite a hostile and forbidding bureaucratic system. Will they comment on that local support?
There are one or two other issues. We have talked about the interim period in which there is no appeals mechanism or individualised service. There have been two developments in the past couple of years. One is the ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, UNCRPD, and the effect on rights of people with a disability, and the fact that people have individual rights to participation in society, for example. There is a little bit more of a robust legal right now that the convention has been ratified. Will the witnesses comment on the extent to which people are becoming aware of that and how they think those new or strengthened rights tools might be used?
I was really struck by the number of areas where the need for greater financial inclusion was identified for people with a disability. Perhaps adding to that we could consider the case of the woman who was asked to transfer the vehicle and financial independence. Will the witnesses comment on that matter of financial independence as well as financial support and inclusion?
There was also the cost of disability report that has finally been published. Is that something MABS has engaged with? Are some of the proposals in today's presentation related to the issues that arose in that cost of disability report from Indecon? I thank the witnesses.
Dr. Amie Lajoie
There were many good questions but I will start with the UNCRPD. Unfortunately, even if we look at the ratification process of the UNCRPD, Ireland was the last EU member state to do that ratification, which says a lot. It took until 2018 for it to be done when it was originally proposed in 2006. I hope it has at least given those who work on the ground with people in communities a different and specific language of engagement in how to categorise what is going on in terms of a rights-based approach, which is very useful.
Even when we were having the preliminary discussions for our statement to the committee we heard some of that. There was acknowledgement and recognition that there is now this international framework. There is now a national framework because there was a strategy - I think it was last year - that has a specific provision in it focused on mobility and transport. It is hopefully going to be able to allow those of us working in this space to better articulate what is going on and to better push for the kind of normative, legislative and policy change needed to allocate further resources in this area and better support this community.
I might comment on the Indecon report because it was something we highlighted and looked at. While our statement centred the personal experiences and testimonies of the advisers and the CIS that engaged with us, it very much echoed what was found in this report, especially about the cost of transport and where persons with disabilities are not getting State support. That was something interesting that was in the Indecon report. For example, most are getting State support for something like public transport costs, if you are somebody who lives in an area where you have access to public transport. Of those who took the Indecon survey, 51% said that is where State help was given to them but of course that is in and of itself exclusionary of everyone else not in an area where they can access public transport. However, the extra costs incurred by the participants in that survey were only 15%. That is a very small amount versus the 39% extra cost for private transport whereas the only State help given for private transport costs was 16%. There are, therefore, significant gaps. That further augments what we found in our preparations for this and what the money advisers are seeing with respect to the additional costs and burdens placed on persons with disabilities. Mr. O'Brien mentioned in particular the cost of taxis and how if you are on disability allowance you can get that. A lot of the time it is medical appointments. That is what came up over and over again. It is multiple medical appointments and some of them are very time-sensitive. If you have chronic pain and live somewhere where you cannot access public transport, a taxi is your mode of transport. You can collect a receipt and get that reimbursed in time but in that time period people might make choices to cover that cost. For example, one adviser said people might opt to go without food or cut back on their food budget in order to cover that taxi cost to their medical appointment. It is quite stark that people are making those decisions. Mr. O'Brien might want to tackle the financial independence piece.
Mr. Gerard O'Brien
We hear much about the exceptional needs payment, ENP, that is available via the community welfare officers. It is there. It is in use. It is a very good assistance to people on the ground, including obviously people with disabilities who need it, and that is what is funding the transport costs. We hear about it in times of somewhat crisis. It would obviously be well-known to MABS because, as I said earlier, part of our remit is to maximise our clients' income, so if they are not getting the social welfare entitlements they are entitled to, we would be steering them in that direction. In many areas of the country, there has traditionally been a strong relationship between MABS and the community welfare officers. I have a sense that maybe the whole area of ENPs could do with a bit of highlighting to people with disabilities and other clients of MABS. We have had very successful collaborations with the community welfare service in the past, I am sure we do at present and, hopefully, we will have into the future. It is certainly something we tell our clients about.
To go back to what was mentioned earlier to stress it again, we have very strong ties in the communities. We have the outreach services. We can meet people, especially people with disabilities, in their homes. We have very good relations with other, we will say, NGOs such as St. Vincent de Paul as well, in order to help people maximise income and avail of services that are there to help them improve their financial situation. MABS, in having such a presence on the ground, has been successful and I am sure we will continue to be successful in that regard.
Just to follow up, Mr. O'Brien mentioned the emergency needs payment. I was just so struck by that woman who clearly needs support with transport as she could not even fund transport to her appeal. The emergency needs payment is one mechanism. Dr. Lajoie also mentioned the idea of interest-free loans. Will she expand a little on that as an idea? There is that concern Deputy Doherty raised that it is almost a wealth transfer. Those who are most in need do not have the capital to access schemes and adaptation supports. Within that, I am thinking of vehicle adaptation but also housing adaptation.
There are two other issues that have come up a lot and I wonder if MABS is finding them as a pattern in its work. One is the idea around appropriate, adapted electric vehicles and recognising disability needs within those schemes, or even retrofitting and building adaptation needs into retrofitting schemes. Are enough of these new green schemes that are coming on stream being designed in a way that is going to support people with a disability to avail of, and fully engage with, them rather than us having to go back and almost retrofit those schemes, so they work for people with a disability in the future? Is that something MABS has found to be an issue? Does that fit in with the interest-free loan issue as well?
Dr. Amie Lajoie
Our recommendation on the interest-free loans was rooted in the kind of approach MABS would take to financial inclusion itself and understanding financial inclusion as having to do with access to sufficient income, levels of financial literacy, that level of community engagement and, really importantly, access to appropriate financial services that suit the needs of our clients and people who tend to be lower-income or are struggling.
On interest-free loans, much work has been done in the past by MABS. It was before my time but something I looked at before joining. It included looking at the likes of community banking schemes or saving initiatives rooted in the community to give people an opportunity to access, or to become familiar with different skills within the remit of financial literacy that are suitable to them, versus trying to get people into the services that currently exist. There initiatives out there. For example, members may have heard of the It Makes Sense loan scheme with credit unions or the personal micro credit scheme. That is an affordable credit option that was rolled out I think around seven years and that is still being incorporated in different areas of the country. That is a low-level interest rate of about 12.5% for people who are on social welfare, so they can access that. However, there are a number of problems. On the way credit works in general, as Deputy Doherty and Senator Higgins said, our whole financial system is set up in a way that banks do not offer the type of credit or loans people on low incomes need. They would be short-term, low-level loans for amounts that are usually for not very high amounts that people can access immediately and that are inexpensive. It tends to be that the less you borrow, the more you must pay back in interest, compound interest and all that. That is where that recommendation comes from, that is, when we see a spend like this. These services are not elective for many people. It is very much a necessity that the person adapts his or her home to better meet his or her needs as a person with disabilities who has specific needs.
It would be quite helpful if those types of loans were available. Something like that, which could be backed up by a broader public initiative and local authorities, would be useful, particularly for the more marginalised groups.
On that, it strikes me that refundable tax credits is another measure that has been talked about before. So many of the schemes we have are delivered through tax reliefs. If people are under a certain threshold, they are not really benefiting from them.
My last question concerns an issue I raised with the Ombudsman, namely, the intersection on age and disability. A concern raised in the past, when I was a member of the then Joint Oireachtas Committee on Employment Affairs and Social Protection, was that once people are in that older age group when they reach pension age their disability needs and some of their access to disability supports and schemes seem to be curtailed. As we heard, that was one of the reasons the mobility allowance scheme was found to be out of sync with the Equal Status Act. Is that a frustration or an issue that has been raised with the witnesses through their offices? Is it the case that people who are over the age 65 or 66 and who are trying to access disability supports are finding themselves instead rooted into general age-related supports that do not address disabilities? Is that an issue that has been raised?
Mr. Gerard O'Brien
That exclusion was not directly raised with us.
On the last point, in terms of finance for people with disabilities, it would be worthwhile for policymakers and legislators to look at something like a loan guarantee scheme. When people with disabilities come to MABS, we will look at their complete budget, including income versus expenditure, etc. Their capacity to afford a loan will be laid out in front of them. They may have the capacity to afford a loan. Of course, I would advocate interest-free loans for those people. Why should people pay a poverty premium? I hate using that phrase. Even the 12.5% interest rate on the It Makes Sense loans could certainly be looked at in terms of a subsidy. Lenders look at risk; that is their job. Certainly, just to make the point again, some form of loan guarantee scheme or a central fund for people with disabilities who need transport could be looked at. If they come to MABS, they know that they will get a good heads-up on what their affordability is. For those who can afford it, something like an interest-free loan scheme, coupled with a guarantee would be-----
It strikes me that like the UK, we should look at the Vimes Boots Index. I do not know if the witnesses have been following it. As Mr. O'Brien said, the idea is that there is an extra cost. For example, the good boots might cost €50 and last a lifetime, but everybody is buying €10 boots because they cannot afford that €50. It is the idea of not having capital carrying a financial penalty. They have been looking at the Vimes Boots Index in the UK. It is something we should be looking at, whether it is through a loan guarantee scheme, microcredit or capital grants that are more strategically targeted.
We are coming to the end of time and we must bring matters to a conclusion. I thank the witnesses for appearing before the committee and the members for attending in person and online. The witnesses mentioned exceptional needs payments and the importance of them. They could be utilised to a greater extent than they have been in the past. There is a tendency for us all to presume that because we spent a lot of money on Covid, we can continue to do that. That is not going to happen, unless we want to go back to where we were in 2007: bankrupt. That would not be to the advantage of anybody. Therefore, we must proceed cautiously, carefully and prudently. We have to address the issues of people with disabilities and recognise people with disabilities. Again, the late Martin Naughton comes to mind. On the question of isolation, we all learned a bit about isolation in the course of the pandemic. It came home to us all. It applies to people with disabilities on an ongoing and daily basis, 365 days a year. It affects them in different ways. It is a terrible position to be in to be dependent on all around you for the simple things that other people take for granted.
I note, for instance, what we call the housing adaptation grant. There was also a disabled person's grant. Invariably, there is a shortfall. I cannot understand why there is a shortfall. I have been dealing with a case for the last six months where a certain amount of money was awarded. How they came to that amount of money, I do not know. The case has been appealed and appealed. The point is that since the decision was made, prices have gone up immeasurably, so it automatically follows that there needs to be a re-evaluation of the award. I am not saying that we have the answer. We have the answer to some things that need to be addressed. We should take the steps required. I thank the witnesses for appearing before the committee and for making their feelings and responses known. We greatly appreciate that.