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Tuesday, 21 Sep 2004

Disability Federation of Ireland: Presentation.

I am pleased to welcome Mr. Allen Dunne and Ms Joanne McCarthy of the Disability Federation of Ireland who have come here today to make a presentation to the joint committee. I must attend to the formalities prior to the representatives making their presentation.

Members are reminded of the parliamentary practice 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. Members who wish to make a declaration on any matter being discussed may do so now or at the beginning of their contribution. Members are also reminded that if there is a possibility of a conflict of interest, they should make a declaration of interest now or at the start of their contribution.

I draw witnesses' attention to the fact that while members of this committee have absolute privilege, this same privilege does not apply to witnesses appearing before the committee. While it is generally accepted that witnesses have qualified privilege, the committee is not in a position to guarantee any level of privilege to witnesses appearing before it, although I do not anticipate any matters to arise from the Disability Federation of Ireland presentation other than the issues with which we are very familiar. We look forward to a further comprehensive briefing from the representatives.

Mr. Allen Dunne

I am grateful for the opportunity to talk to the committee. It is an unusual day because the Disability Bill is published today. I have left my colleagues in the office standing over the fax machine, reading pages of the Bill.

The Disability Federation of Ireland is an umbrella body for disability organisations. It has links with approximately 150 disability organisations of every make, shape and size. They deal with all sorts of disabilities, ranging from intellectual to physical to sensory. In our daily work we help these organisations to provide better services and they come to us with their problems and so forth. As the federation has been in existence for 40 years, it is a well-established organisation.

The focus of today's work is on the cost of disability payment and disability allowance. I do not need to over-emphasise to the committee the link between disability and poverty in Ireland. It is an inextricable link. Any studies that have been carried out over the years, such as those by Combat Poverty and the ESRI, on people living in poverty show that people with disabilities are a core group. An interesting study carried out last year by the Department of Social and Family Affairs into payments given to people with disabilities and long-term illness payments, showed that households headed by a person with a disability are at the highest risk of living in consistent poverty. One is four times more likely to live in consistent poverty if one has a disability. One need not question, therefore, the justification for us being before the committee today or the issues surrounding disability and poverty.

This year the ESRI published a study on why, given the changes in the economy and society in Ireland over the last ten years, these people continue to live in consistent poverty and why they have not progressed. The institute identified the lack of investment over the years in groups of people, such as those with disabilities, that is causing the poverty to continue. My submission to the committee outlines one comparison between Ireland and Denmark with regard to the level of investment in social protection. If we do not invest in people with disabilities, they will continue to live in poverty.

Many people have a difficulty understanding what the cost of disability payment involves. The expression, "cost of disability payment", has been around for some time and there is a simple way of explaining it. Let us take two households living in adjoining houses. One household is headed by a person who is unemployed and the other is headed by somebody who is disabled. At present, there are similar State inputs going into those households but the outgoings are different. The outgoings from the household headed by a disabled person will be related to and compensating for the disability. There is, therefore, no equity in that situation.

From a policy point of view, the concept of a cost of disability payment dates from 1996 and the report of the Commission on the Status of People with Disabilities. The report covered a wide range of issues, including education, training and so forth. One of the commission's key recommendations was a cost of disability payment. The commission gave a broad definition of that payment. It included equipment, that is, an aid, appliance, wheelchair or an adapted bathroom and so forth; mobility and communications, such as reliance on taxis for transport; living costs, including heating, food and clothing, which is a distinct strand of the cost of disability; and medical costs, such as drugs, speech therapy, occupational therapy and care assistants.

The commission offered a broad definition in 1996. In 1999, an official Government review was carried out on the commission's work. What emerged was a question about the scope of this payment, where it would end and how it would be administered. In 2000, as part of the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness, there was an agreement to carry out a feasibility study on the cost of disability payment. How would one do it and what would it be? A working group was established by the Department of Social and Family Affairs, the Department of Health and Children and the Department of Finance to carry out the study. The group has met over the last four years and, as part of its deliberations, it commissioned an extensive amount of research which was carried out by the National Disability Authority, with Indecon. That study, Disability and the Cost of Living, looks at what other countries do, how to address the payment and how to administer it. It found that in Ireland the extra cost of living amounted to approximately €40 per week. That is an average figure, although it is linked somewhat to severity of disability, to address the issue of the additional cost.

The research firmly justified the need for the payment. A household where a person has a disability would need to have extra income to alleviate and meet the extra living costs. It saw things such as transport, medical costs, aids and appliances and significant one-off expenditures on getting the house extended or the bathroom converted, as separate issues. It was the daily living costs that would have to be addressed and the best way to address them was through a social welfare payment.

That covers the period from 1996 to the study carried out by the NDA and the working group. The DFI is a member of social partnership and, as part of that, the community and voluntary pillar had an opportunity to meet with the working group on the cost of disability. At the meeting last week, it was recognised that many individual payments currently exist, such as the disabled driver's grant, the mobility allowance and so forth. It was felt that the group would now focus on these payments and what needs to be done in terms of tightening them up. However, the working group was silent on how to progress in introducing the cost of disability payment. That is worrying. We see a clear distinction, as the NDA saw in its study, between issues such as one's eligibility for the medical card, changing the criteria and so forth and responding to the extra but ordinary daily living costs which the cost of disability allowance payment would help to meet.

In its budget submission to be launched in October, the DFI will call for the payment of €40 to be introduced, initially for people in receipt of a means-tested social welfare payment. People in receipt of, for example, disability allowance or blind pension would receive the payment first and it would later be rolled out to all people with disabilities over the subsequent two budgets.

Members of the DFI found the NDA study interesting. Over the last four years we have promoted this issue in our pre-budget submissions and last year we decided to push the boat out and put a figure on it. We did not have a research grant. The approach we took was to look at when the State last intervened like this. The only comparison we could make was with the children's allowance. Last year, we called for the introduction of a payment, similar to the children's allowance, of €130 per month. The State had already made that step; it did not choose some children but made the payment for every child. We see a similarity with the payment of cost of disability. We were not far off the mark with regard to €40 per week and the current payment of children's allowance. It was nice to have one's estimates vindicated.

With regard to disability allowance, one stark fact serves as a reminder of the reliance of people with disabilities on disability allowance. A total of 4.2% of the population are unemployed while 70% of people with disabilities are unemployed. As considerable numbers of people with disabilities are unemployed, there is significant reliance on the disability allowance payment. The disability allowance payment is linked to the national anti-poverty strategy targets with which I am sure the committee is familiar. To meet those targets, we ask that the payment be increased by €14 in the forthcoming budget and that over the next three budgets, the payment be increased by €47.90. Again, that is just to meet the agreed NAPS targets.

A separate point I would like to emphasise and an issue we have brought up for many years, as have other organisations, is the lack of payment of the disability allowance to those who entered institutional care pre-1999. I am sure the committee is familiar with this issue as well. If one entered institutional care prior to 1999, one is not entitled to receive disability allowance. Obviously, this is an issue of equity. One can imagine that people living in institutional care for that length of time have already lost their sense of individuality. We are exacerbating that by not recognising that they should receive the payment. In last year's budget, there was movement in regard to streamlining the pocket-money payments in terms of how they were paid and to even them out throughout the country. However, that is really not the issue. The issue is that there should be equity for people living in institutions since pre-1999.

A final point, which is topical today given the publication of the Disability Bill, mainstreaming and all the issues we hope will be in that Bill, is the need for cross-departmental work. The issue we have been promoting through the disability legislation consultative group, DCLG, in our work on the Disability Bill and the equal citizen document, is that need for cross-departmental work. The disability issue can really only be tackled by cross-departmental work. The Department of Health and Children cannot solve it nor can the Departments of Social and Family Affairs or Transport. It can only be solved by working together. I know it is a long-standing issue in Irish administration but the disability issue brings it to the fore. It is only by working together that the issue can be addressed.

There is a need the Department of Social and Family Affairs to have a key working relationship with the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment. How does one move that number of people from being reliant on the disability allowance? People remain on disability allowance for key reasons, including fear of losing their allowance, losing their medical cards and so on. It is only by working with the Department which offers the training, employment and supports that will we see a movement from that reliance on disability allowance.

On the issue of mainstreaming — today is a topical day to talk about it — we are looking for payments currently under the Department of Health and Children to be moved to the Department of Social and Family Affairs. The payments include the domiciliary care allowance and the mobility allowance. We do not believe they belong under the Department of Health and Children. It has more to do with the agenda of de-medicalising disability. People with disability are often seen as being sick. They are not sick but are just living with a disability. We have seen that movement already with the successful move of the disability allowance. We would like to see those other two payments move across as well.

We are looking for the disability proofing of the actions of the Department of Social and Family Affairs and all Departments, especially around budget time but also during the year. It is sometimes an oversight but actions and decisions taken at budget time can negatively affect people with disability. I know we are used the concepts of gender and poverty proofing. Decisions should be looked at from the point of view of people with disability and how they will affect their payments and lifestyle.

It is important to thank the Department of Social and Family Affairs and to show our appreciation of it. It has a disability forum which meets approximately four to five times a year. We have found it excellent. Given the publication of the Disability Bill today and the sectoral plans coming from six of the key Departments, we will tell them to look at the work the Department of Social and Family Affairs is doing with the disability sector. Through that work, we gain an understanding of its thinking and it gains an understanding of ours. We are able to give it feedback from members of our organisation about how different changes have come about. I compliment the Department on its work.

We are asking for a costed disability payment to be introduced. That costed disability payment would address the everyday living costs — the extra, but ordinary costs of living which people with disability experience. We are asking for a payment of €40 per week to be introduced initially just for those in receipt of a means-tested payment. We are asking for that to be pushed out further in the next two budgets to those who are working or otherwise. For the disability allowance to meet the NAPS targets, we are asking for a €40 increase in this budget, for the overall payment to be increased to €182.70 over the next two budgets and for that payment to be given to all those in residential care. In regard to mainstreaming, we are asking that those payments move from the Department of Health and Children to the Department of Social and Family Affairs and for that Department to disability proof the decision making process.

I thank Mr. Dunne for an excellent presentation. He has outlined his position in regard to disability. I am pleased with today's publication of the Disability Bill but I hope we will see action. I believe eight Ministers attended the publication today along with the Taoiseach. This Bill was promised many years ago and it is one for which people with disabilities have waited anxiously over the years. I hope we will see action by the Government and by the Ministers who attended the publication today and who will have responsibility. I am glad the Bill is published but I want to see it before the Dáil and implemented and for the people who have pushed and fought for it over the years to be rewarded in terms of what is contained in it. Today, we heard the words but what I want to see in the future is action by the Government in regard to this Bill.

I thoroughly agree with Mr. Dunne in regard to the mobility allowance. The health boards deal with it but it is not satisfactory nor is the way people must wait to be dealt with. I support Mr. Dunne's call. The Department of Social and Family Affairs should take responsibility for the allowance because it would deal with it more speedily than the way in which it is being dealt with by the health boards. It is an issue I was going to raise in the Dáil when it returned. I have come across a number of cases where people are waiting for health boards, doctors or for someone to visit. We cannot get a response from the health boards. If one puts down a parliamentary question to the Minister for Social and Family Affairs, one will at least get a response and will know when someone will be dealt with and what is happening.

Mr. Dunne said people in full-time care should be paid the disability allowance. Is he asking that they get the full payment even though they are in full-time care?

Mr. Dunne

At the moment, if one goes into full-time care, one will receive the payment as do those who went in in 2000. The reality is that part of that payment will be taken. An organisation providing care will deduct a fee and that is fine. It is more a matter of equity. Why does someone who goes to live in, let us say, a mental hospital for the next five years receive the payment? There will be deductions from the payment to cover administration and the running of the service in which he or she is living. However, if one went in pre-1999, one is not entitled to it. It is quite a black and white issue.

I wanted clarification. I came across a case recently of somebody who was going into full-time care. She had many relations but none wanted to make a decision on anything but, by God, when they found out that she had a second pension which the State was taking off her, many of the relatives knew everything about it and did not want the State to take the money from them. When a serious decision had to be made, the relatives were not around. Politicians like myself and doctors had to help the person to make the decision. However, when it came to the cheque book and the two pensions — a State pension and an English pension — the relatives knew all about it and the fact that the State should not take them. That is the reason I was interested. I thoroughly agree with Mr. Dunne on the payment.

I refer to the commission which has been meeting for the past number of years. Is it not a long time to be meeting? Is it not time it came up with a report and some definite ideas on payments?

Mr. Dunne

I have a copy of the NDA study, Disability and the Cost of Living. The NDA was asked to do that on behalf of the cost of disability working group. It employed Indecon to do it and it made its own recommendations from that study.

We were disappointed last week when we met the working group with the community and voluntary pillar of social partnership. It was fine to hear they need to do more research into the different individual payments and to look at eligibility criteria, but it was disappointing that they did not comment on the introduction of this payment, having had this extensive amount of work done and seeing as the figure has been identified. Our estimate last year was based on very little research. Merely looking at children's allowance, we stated what was recognised there and the fact that this may be a comparative matter. We are disappointed we have not seen movement.

I want to separate the issues because it can be quite complex and one can make it more complex. We pull out the medical issues. We say matters such as one's personal assistant and home help should not be included in the cost of disability payment. They are better administered through the structures that already exists. Whether one needs an aid or appliance is a matter for one's occupational therapist and the health board. There already are structures for those matters, if they are run properly.

What we are talking about are those ordinary, everyday living costs that people experience. The obvious ones that come to mind are those of heating and lighting incurred by a wheelchair user with limited mobility who is in the home for longer periods of the day than we are. Such people might go through clothes very quickly and may have specific dietary needs. These are everyday costs. These costs are not to do with equipment and medical appliances, which should be dealt with by the systems which currently exist for dealing with them. We are looking to see movement on the issue.

In this year's budget submission the DFI is looking for a €14 increase. That is a reasonable increase.

The federation outlined a €40 a week payment for people with disabilities. Over the years people have realised this is necessary and they made the case well. There is no doubt that people with disabilities incur extra costs. If such a person is in a wheelchair, he or she must travel everywhere by taxi. Such people have extra heating costs. Everything involves an extra cost because they are not mobile.

The comparison with child benefit was well made. The federation is being reasonable. It is not saying it wants this done the first year. It is talking about providing it over two or three budgets. If the Government would even make a commitment on the basis of starting off with a €10 payment, it would set the precedent. I would like to see that happening because every member of this committee would have to accept that people with disabilities incur major extra costs and that should be taken into consideration. I support that proposal.

The issue of poverty proofing within the Department is important. Many people on disability, in wheelchairs and in difficult circumstances have no way of saving money or earning money. Perhaps people on unemployment assistance might get a day's work here and there. They are not supposed to do so but it is possible. That is not the case with people with disabilities. They have to accept what they get from the State and it is important that we protect them, particular at a time when the economy is going so well.

The €14 increase is a reasonable request. I hope the Government will deal with that in the forthcoming budget. With the new soft, caring Government, I hope that will happen.

It has been there for a while.

Not for too long.

Deputy Ring mentioned a number of issues on which I wish to comment. On this €40 payment that NAPS has recommended for the additional cost of living, one of the issues I thought they might have referred to was the degree of disability of each particular recipient. Disability does not exist at one level across the board and I would have thought that there might have been some form of scaled payment. What level of thought has the DFI given to that? Is the DFI opting for one payment only?

Mr. Dunne

The DFI is suggesting that because the issue has been around so long and, for instance, in the 1999 review of the commission study there was the fear of where it will end and how one will administer it, the Government should decide on the one payment for everybody but allow for movement on it.

I know that the NDA study did link that. There was a link between severity of disability and the payment but it was not far off the €40 figure. The thinking is that some people may get an overpayment but it will not be that far over. In other countries that payment has gone from €40 to €160. The €40 payment is very much a conservative figure. When one balances out the swings and roundabouts, nobody will be overpaid too much.

I would not like the severity of disability lost in the whole equation. We should keep our eye on the ball.

Much of the payments to people who come into institutions afterwards are retrieved by the health board or the service provider. I wonder about the cost of giving it and taking it back, or whether one should decide to make a straightforward payment to somebody who has spent in excess of 90 days in an institution. Is Mr. Dunne writing off the people who have been in institutions prior to 1999? They should be brought back in. We will compound the inequalities that they have experienced over the years if we do not go back. We should go back and look at the cases of those people.

I was present in the Alexander Hotel at the publication of the Disability Bill. I heard figures from 1997 mentioned. They indicated that €670 million was spent in 1997 and €1.9 billion is being spent now. With the cost of living and the cost of services, such an increase from one year to the next would be significant but, over a seven or eight-year period, are we giving more service to those in need?

Mr. Dunne

Moving slightly away from our social welfare work, the DFI is on each of the co-ordinating committees in each of the health boards. Coming to service planning time at the end of the year, we put in service bids. In the past two years we have found that the health boards have been running to stand still because there has been no development. It is very much a case of it being a significant achievement if the health board has been able to keep things going at the level of two years ago. The last two years, in particular, have been very tough and there have been no new developments. The emphasis is on keeping the ship ticking over at the current level of service.

I welcome that illness and disability are being dissociated from each other. That will be a welcome advance. I can only agree with the transfer of some of the payments from the health board.

I welcome the visitors to the committee. I am sorry for being a few minutes late but I think I heard most of the briefing. The issue of disability is very close to my heart because my next door neighbour's child has cerebral palsy and I was involved in that and many other such cases in a big way.

Deputy Connolly asked whether we are better off now than before 1997. It is hard to see that we are, despite all the funding that is supposed to be about. I dealt with two cases recently, one of which was of an 87 year old mother of two disabled adults. She literally lies awake every night wondering what will happen to them when she goes to her eternal rest. This is an enormous problem. She could not even get two weeks' respite care for them other than in a mental hospital. If she wanted respite care, that was the only place she could get for them so that she could take a holiday to her only other daughter in England. There are still enormous problems. While I obviously have not yet seen the Bill, I am looking forward to looking through it and seeing what guarantees there are for people.

Another issue which has not been covered but which is still relevant as far as disability is concerned, is the position of carers. We discussed this issue at this committee. We achieved unanimous agreement across the political parties that there is a need for people such as widows and others who are already in receipt of social welfare payments, to get something extra in recognition of the fact that they are looking after a disabled loved one.

A woman arrived at my office yesterday in possession of a glossy magazine which indicated all the great things that had been done for the disabled in recent years, particularly in the most recent budget. There was a picture of a lovely woman on the front cover. However, when one considered the various items in the magazine, it was apparent that there was absolutely nothing on offer for the woman who had brought it to my office. The individual in question is a widow and obliged to care for a child of over 30 years. There is no question about the fact that she is caring for this person. If a stranger was responsible for the person's care, he or she would automatically be entitled to an €850 respite care payment each year. However, the woman to whom I refer, who is a mother and a widow, is not entitled to anything. There is no recognition given for the fact that she has not taken a single day's holiday in 31 years. Perhaps our guests would consider that aspect.

I agree wholeheartedly about the need for an extra payment for disabled people. In current circumstances there should not be a problem in that regard, particularly if there was a willingness to take action.

Mr. Dunne

There is no shortage of issues for those who work in the area of disability. I am sure the position is the same for politicians in their clinics. In preparation for today's meeting we tried to focus on a couple of matters. We did not raise the carers' issue out of respect for the Carers Association, of which association Enda Egan will be involved in work in the pre-budget period as it is his area of expertise. My brief was to focus on the issues we have raised. However, I take the Deputy's points on board because they are also of concern to us. The families of our members come up against those difficulties all the time.

As regards mobility allowances, when the woman to whom I referred visited my office, I made some telephone calls to see if she would be entitled to any other payments. I had to ring a number of offices but could not obtain any information because the individuals responsible for dealing with the various areas were not available and other members of staff did not know the position. That shows how difficult it is for an ordinary person, not to mention a person with a disability, to obtain that to which they are entitled. I would support any measures that could be taken to streamline the situation.

Mr. Dunne

We are calling for that transfer of payments. The infrastructure for administering payments is situated in the Department of Social and Family Affairs. I do not intend to be negative towards the Department of Health and Children but we recognise that the infrastructure in the Department of Social and Family Affairs is better suited to administering those payments. In addition, we have also stated we want to de-medicalise the payments because we believe responsibility for making them should lie with the Department of Social and Family Affairs.

I also welcome Mr. Dunne and Ms McCarthy. They made a good presentation which covered many matters. I am amazed by the number of organisations in place to care for the disabled. It is great that our guests were able to present a comprehensive picture for us in that regard. In respect of the lack of entitlement to payment under the pre-1999 clause, are many affected?

Mr. Dunne

I do not have the figure in my possession but it is well documented. The Department of Social and Family Affairs has done a significant amount of work in respect of this matter which has been on the agenda of the Disability Forum in recent years.

I agree with Deputy Ring as regards the mobility allowance. It is difficult for ordinary people to go to the health boards in order to see doctors, etc. This is always a problem from the point of view of a Deputy's constituent. I strongly support the suggestion that the allowance be brought back into the Department in order that matters can be dealt with as a whole.

What is the view of our guests on disabled persons' grants for which two thirds of the funding comes from the Government and the other third is provided by local authorities? There have been significant delays in the provision of such grants. Some local authorities have had to take drastic action such as curtailing reviews of the grants received after October 2003. An 86 year old person with whom I am familiar who wanted to have a small downstairs toilet put in place discovered that an evaluation had not been carried out. Would our guests prefer to see 100% funding from the Government, rather than people being obliged to depend on local authorities with limited means of raising the necessary finance in their budgets? What do they perceive as the best way forward in the provision of disabled persons' grants which serve an important role in ensuring people's desire to remain in their own homes is continually met? The grant is the very essence of ensuring inclusiveness in our society. Some of the projects necessary to allow people to remain in their homes might only cost between €6,000 and €8,000. It is essential that we should be in a position to provide them with grants which will enable them to do so. There is a logjam across the board in the local authorities' system.

As regards the cost of disability payments, our guests referred to people currently in receipt of means-tested social welfare payments. I know that it will be extended to all people with disabilities over a three year period but why did they start at that particular point? People who have paid contributions during their working lives and who, as a result of an accident or whatever, have sustained a disability will ask why they cannot also be included at the outset. I accept, however, that one must start somewhere. When the committee was compiling the carers' report, we found that we wanted to do a multitude of things in a number of disparate areas. Unfortunately, one must focus on the main objectives. What is Mr. Dunne's thinking on this matter?

Mr. Dunne

As regards the last question, we decided to opt for payments already means-tested by the Government. I refer to disability allowance and blind pension. We have been campaigning for the past four years on the same seven issues, including community employment; the cost of disability; disability allowance; the matter of those who are called "young chronic sick" or "adults with significant disabilities" who live long term in institutional care; and the children of carers. We have been doing the best we can in progressing these issues. This year — looking at the term of office of the Government — we are seeking to attach figures to our issues and break down the costs over the next couple of budgets. Our thinking was just to have the payment instigated. We feel that part of the difficulty lies in making that leap of faith in responding to the issue.

There are great comparisons between disability and women's equality issues. At times people stated certain changes could never be made because society would crumble and the country would go bankrupt. However, those changes were made, society did not crumble and we moved on. The position as regards disability issues is quite similar. What we want to do is push to have the payment instigated. We felt that having this done for people already on means-tested payments might ease and encourage the start of the process.

I would like to add one point. The payment is supposed to address two issues: first, it is supposed to alleviate poverty, and, second, it is supposed to offer equity to everybody. The latter would mean that two people who live next door to each other, one of whom is disabled, would earn the same income. The person with the disability would be compensated for the extra cost of his or her disability. Calls for this payment have been made since 1996 but it has not yet been forthcoming. It is most important to address the issue of poverty. That is why we are calling for the payment to be instigated for those in receipt of means-tested payments because they are feeling the pinch of the extra costs of their disabilities. Once that is initiated as a leap of faith, as Mr. Dunne said, we can begin to address the equity issues at a secondary level. It must be done in stages, the first of which is to give funding to those in receipt of means-tested payments.

Is it likely that those in receipt of means-tested payments could receive more than the statutory social welfare entitlement?

Mr. Dunne

The phrase "means tested" is causing confusion. Those in receipt of disability allowance, blind pension and recognised disability payments should receive €40 per week extra initially.

Because they have been means tested and do not have sufficient independent income.

What is the position regarding grants?

Mr. Dunne

Members will have a good knowledge of grants. The disabled person's grant is contentious and receiving greater attention because it has been in existence for 35 years but it does not address the issues. More than 60% of grants are awarded to people aged over 65 years. The title of the grant does not relate to those who apply for it. The grant is intended to address the adaptation of houses and assist people who have limited mobility in their homes. It is a basic right to be able to move around one's own home. The new thinking behind the health strategy, for example, is prevention of illness. By adopting the smoking ban and so on people will avoid illness.

The DPG helps people to avoid illness and prevents accidents in the home such as slipping in the bath or shower. It is a key basic requirement. People with disabilities usually contact voluntary organisations for information on how to apply for a grant. The difficulty organisations have with the DPG is that every local authority administers it differently. They must find out, therefore, how each council does so. A number of councils spend their budget allocation by the end of January. This presents a significant difficulty. Local authorities say that even if they were allocated more money by the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, they could not issue more grants because they would not be able to meet the 33% payment they are required to make. The Minister may announce an allocation of X million for the DPG but the scheme cannot be administered on the ground because the local authorities cannot meet their requirements. That will not solve the problem which is much greater.

We have a problem with the grant because 70% of persons with disabilities are unemployed while the national unemployment rate runs at 4.3%. Grants are awarded to people in receipt of social welfare payments. How can the increase in building costs in recent years be matched? Different local authorities have become restrictive in the amounts they grant, in some cases only giving 40% or 50%. The maximum grant they can award is 90% but few do so. The overall limit is €21,000 which, if one needed to have significant work done on a house, would go nowhere near meeting the construction costs.

Different work is done under the scheme. An applicant may wish to install a downstairs toilet or a shower instead of a bath, which are small jobs. A mish mash of work is done under the scheme which needs to be clarified further. The administration of the grant is restrictive and time consuming.

We are seeking 100% of the cost of works to be met and the allocation of 100% funding to local authorities for the grant.

Has the federation had discussions with the Department about the grant? It carried out a review of the scheme.

Mr. Dunne

We wrote to the Minister earlier this week seeking the publication of the review which is with the Department. We are seeking its publication to progress the debate. Different opinions will be offered on how to administer the scheme, make changes and instigate uniformity throughout the State. We need movement on the review. The National Council for Ageing and Older People made a sizeable submission to the Department which raised similar issues to those we have raised at this meeting. Different agencies are raising the same issues.

A review should not result in fewer people being eligible for the grant and that is what I am afraid of. Deputy Carty and I were members of a local authority and we made a major mistake when making changes to the scheme. We tried to reduce it to give more people an opportunity but that has not worked. It must be reviewed. Mr. Dunne is correct that people who apply for the grant are on low incomes or in receipt of social welfare. Even if their application for a grant is successful, they face three problems. First, the Department is not allocating enough funding; second, local authorities do not have enough funding to match it and, third, the applicant does not have enough money to meet the shortfall in the construction costs. People cannot draw down the money because they do not have the expertise to do the work. The DPG and the housing aid for the elderly scheme should be reviewed together. Perhaps another agency should be established to administer them instead of local authorities.

I agree with Deputy Ring. People are also frustrated by health boards as well as local authorities because applicants are sent from one to the other and do not know whether they are coming or going.

They are passing the buck. The unfortunates who are desperately in need are then caught between two stools.

When I was a member of Monaghan County Council, we conducted a review of the scheme and addressed the health board issue by accepting a doctor's letter. Some had used the grant to build an extra room that was not necessarily needed and council members had to be conscious of this because resources were scarce. Other local authorities could examine the significant change made by Monaghan County Council.

The committee may invite the delegation to appear again to discuss this matter.

It is appropriate that the committee should have this discussion with the federation, given that the Disability Bill 2004 was published earlier, which I welcome. The federation delegation will return to the committee to discuss it in greater detail.

Top-ups by health boards have been abolished. It had been possible for them to provide a supplementary allowance if somebody was in dire straits and could not do the necessary work but that has been torpedoed which is another setback.

I refer to primary certificates for disabled drivers, for which we are responsible. It is virtually impossible to obtain a primary certificate but ten years ago they were issued liberally. When I was a Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children in the late 1980s, a review was conducted. Nowadays, one must have lost a limb to obtain a certificate. I am aware of people who are fully disabled in wheelchairs who should be entitled to a primary certificate but the general medical director will not issue one because it is specified that one must have lost a limb. The appeals system involves a trip to Dublin. Perhaps the Disability Bill will address this issue which must be reviewed.

I agree with Deputy Crawford's comments regarding the widow who looks after a disabled person. I am aware of similar cases. Recognition of the extra work they do would be worthwhile. This is a recognition issue as well as everything else. Such a person may compare with a neighbour who is a widow but does not have that responsibility. The point should be addressed in the Bill.

The point is well made by Senator Leyden and I am sure we will return to it. The level of interest in this debate shows that much work remains to be done. We are glad to have representatives of the Disability Federation of Ireland here today to deal with the various issues. I thank them for their contribution to the debate and their answers to the various queries raised by my colleagues. We have had a valuable meeting with a significant degree of interaction on very complex issues. We have also heard other issues alluded to. I hope the Disability Bill and other legislative measures combined with a common-sense approach will overcome some of the difficulties experienced.

We may call the organisation back to discuss the disabled person's grant which exercises the minds of our colleagues who have served on local authorities and various other bodies which have dealt with this matter. Sometimes our desire to adopt a common-sense approach to matters is not met, particularly when there is a strict literal interpretation of some of the regulations. Senator Leyden says an applicant must have lost a limb to qualify for the grant whereas anyone can see that his or her limbs do not function and he or she is totally disabled.

We thank the representatives for coming at reasonably short notice. These are the principal issues which they will raise in their budget submission. As I will not be present on 6 October, I hope they will tell my good friend, Ms Fox, that I heard their submission today and have taken cognisance of it, as have my colleagues. I thank them for coming.

Mr. Dunne

Thank you, Chairman. I thank the committee for its time.

The joint committee will now meet in private session.

The joint committee went into private session at 3.45 p.m. and adjourned at 3.55 p.m. until 11.30 a.m. on Tuesday, 5 October 2004.