Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Traveller Education

I raise the matter of reduced hours timetables imposed by schools on Traveller children and young people. This approach is not new, but national Traveller organisations such as the Irish Traveller Movement report that managing behavioural problems is being used as a reason for the practice and that it is becoming more prevalent. The extent to which the practice occurs is unrecorded and undocumented and that is the nub of this Commencement matter. Anecdotally, it is common in both primary and secondary schools across Ireland. It has been indicated to me that it is evident in almost every school in Clondalkin and Tallaght. In my city of Cork two schools are reported to have reduced hours timetables for Traveller students. I guess that what has been reported is only the tip of the iceberg, with many more cases unreported and unheard of. The Minister of State's Department stated it should only be used in exceptional circumstances, never as a behavioural management tool and only with parents' consent. Traveller pupils are being removed owing to behavioural and mental health issues, sometimes without parental consent.

While the level and extent of reduced hours for Traveller children and young people in both primary and secondary schools is not officially documented, we have some evidence from County Donegal in a study conducted by Ann Irwin. She documented that Traveller pupils in first year in secondary school who presented with defined and specific needs were, based on their Traveller identity, encouraged to accept a part-time school week. They often miss specific subjects in which they have a strong aptitude, thus increasing the cycle of exclusion and deepening the impact of reduced learning. These data are not recorded. Instead, the onus is placed on the parents who encounter the problem to make a complaint under section 29 of the Act. Tusla's report, Developing the Statement of Strategy for School Attendance: Guidelines for Schools, asks if the school attempts to minimise reduced timetables, suspensions and expulsions. In 2006 the Traveller education strategy recommended that data were needed to monitor transfer, attendance, attainment and retention, stating they should be monitored by parents; schools; the Visiting Teacher Service for Traveller Education; the National Educational Welfare Board; the Department of Education and Skills and others. Traveller parents report to Traveller organisations which, in turn, bring the information to the attention of various Ministers and officials, most recently the Minister for Justice and Equality.

There has to be urgency to address and root out this practice, but there is no official documentation or remedy in sight. When many Traveller pupils leave secondary school unable to read or write, something is very wrong with the system. If Tusla or the Minister's Department do not have a duty towards Traveller pupils in that regard, who does? I am aware of the commitments in the action plan for education 2016 to 2019 to increase the number of Travellers in higher education, proposing a target of 80 full-time and part-time undergraduate new entrants in 2019. This is linked with the national Traveller and Roma inclusion strategy and I welcome this focus. However, when Travellers experience these hidden barriers which impede their progress in education, surely the practice of reduced hours timetables contradicts the aim of the Minister of State's Department.

The Department's Traveller education strategy states that during a five-year period "the proportion of Traveller children transferring to post-primary education should increase from 85 to 100 per cent". A social portrait of Travellers indicates that they were more than 50 times more likely to leave before their leaving certificate examinations. Another commitment in the strategy is that all Traveller pupils should remain in school to complete the junior cycle programme. In 2017 only 9% of Travellers aged between 25 and 34 years had completed second level education, compared with a figure of 86% nationally. That is very poor. Reduced hours timetables that are not documented contribute to these low levels of school completion. Some 50% of those who complete the junior cycle programme should complete the senior cycle, in the words of the Minister of State's Department. Full parity with the settled community should be the target in the next phase. Only 8% of working age Travellers, compared with a figure of 73% for non-Travellers, had reached the leaving certificate examinations.

How do the Minister of State and her Department propose to address this very serious problem of reduced hours timetables for Travellers? Will she set up a system of monitoring and reporting? Will she ensure such practices are only used, in the words of her Department, in "exceptional circumstances" and never as a behavioural management tool? Reduced hours timetables have a serious impact on a child's educational attainment and development which lasts for a person's lifetime, affecting his or her ability to participate in third level education.

As the Minister of State will be aware, Central Statistics Office data from 2016 show only 167 Travellers, or 0.5%, have a third level qualification. There is a knock-on from reduced-hours timetables, low school completion rates and the off-the-scale unemployment rates among Travellers - the figure is 80.2%. We are at almost full employment and yet rates for Travellers are at 80%. I am keen to hear from the Minister of State on how she proposes to tackle this matter.

I thank Senator Kelleher and I know her heart is really in addressing this difficulty. I thank the Senator for raising the issue. It is really important. I am answering the question on behalf of the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy McHugh, who could not be here this morning. I will make certain that I talk to the Minister in person and raise the figures Senator Kelleher has put out today.

The position of the Department of Education and Skills on the use of reduced timetables is that each child has a right to education to enable him or her to live a full life as a child and to realise his or her potential as a unique individual. All pupils who are enrolled in a school should attend school for the full day unless exempted from doing so for exceptional circumstances, such as medical reasons. Reduced timetables - I am saying this strongly - should not be used as a behavioural management technique or as a de facto suspension or expulsion, nor does any provision exist for the use of reduced timetables for particular pupils or groups of pupils.

Where schools apply a shorter school day for a child, such arrangements should only be put in place in exceptional circumstances, as Senator Kelleher noted earlier, to assist a pupil to return to a school. This might arise where a pupil has been experiencing an absence due to a medical or behaviour-related condition. Any such arrangement should be a transitional arrangement designed to assist the reintegration of a pupil to a school environment. In making any such arrangements, school authorities should be mindful of the best interests of the child and of the right of the child to a full day in school. Schools should seek the advice of the National Educational Psychological Service which provides training and guidance to schools around the management of behaviours that challenge, before implementing such arrangements.

The Department of Education and Skills is engaged with the Department of Children and Youth Affairs and the Tusla educational welfare service on the matter of reduced timetables with a view to examining options that can be taken to address the issues raised.

In addition, I wish to emphasise to the Senator that the Department of Education and Skills, through a whole-of-Government approach, is committed to implementing initiatives to improve Traveller retention, participation and achievement in the education system. I heard the figures supplied by Senator Kelleher on higher education. As the Senator is aware, the Higher Education Authority published a report today. I will take on board exactly what she has said. I am committed to access in our higher education institutions. In particular I was struck by the figure cited by Senator Kelleher of 0.5% of Travellers attending HEA institutions. I will come back to the Senator on that point.

The Government approach is reflected in a number of key policies and initiatives, including the national Traveller and Roma inclusion strategy launched by the Department of Justice and Equality in June 2017. To try to address the gaps in education participation, retention and achievement for Traveller and Roma pupils, the Department of Education and Skills, along with Tusla and the Department of Justice and Equality, has been engaging with Traveller representative groups to pilot a cross-departmental initiative for a two-year period. This pilot will inform the development of a sustainable programme to address the gap in educational outcomes for children and young people from the Traveller and Roma communities.

In addition, the delivering equality of opportunity in education plan for 2017 has specific actions relating to promoting improvements in school attendance and completion to improve educational outcomes and overall life chances for all pupils, including Traveller and Roma children and young people. I assure the Senator of the commitment to ensuring that Traveller pupils are given every opportunity to participate fully in education. I will bring this up with the ministerial management board in the Department of Education and Skills as well.

I wish to remind the Senator and the Minister of State that we are already three minutes over time. I know it is an important issue but please be brief.

I am encouraged by the commitment of the Minister of State. It is important to state that every child in the country, from whatever background, has a right to education. Reduced timetables must not be used as a behavioural management tool. It is important to reiterate this as it should apply to Traveller children or any other children. It should only arise in exceptional circumstances. I am drawing the attention of the Minister of State to the fact that this is not the case and that it is becoming the normal standard, but it is not being recorded or documented. I want the Department to look at documenting its prevalence.

The best interests of children are served if they go to school, stay in school and go on to third level education. Only 167 Travellers have ever done this according to the CSO. This is a shocking statistic and it is related to what has come before where a person is unable to finish school. I would like to hear from the Minister of State about what she is proposing along with the Department of Education and Skills, the Department of Children and Youth Affairs and Tusla. I would appreciate it if the Minister of State could write to me on the matter with information on the results of the pilot. This is about the life chances of children and their ability to get on in the world.

I will do that. I thank Senator Kelleher.

Primary Medical Certificates

I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Justice and Equality, Deputy Stanton, to the House.

I am glad to have the opportunity to raise this issue. I am raising it on behalf of my colleague and friend, Councillor Ciaran Brogan, in Donegal, who has brought to my attention concerns from constituents in Letterkenny and other parts of the county around the primary medical certificate. I have also received queries from people from various parts of the country in recent weeks on this issue.

The problem relates to the primary medical certificate issuing. Effectively, the primary medical certificate is required for tax reliefs that are available for the purchase and use of specifically-constructed or adapted vehicles by drivers and passengers with a disability. Traditionally, the certificate was also used for the motorised transport grant, but that grant is gone now and I call on the Government to reinstate it as quickly as possible.

The qualifying criteria for the primary medical certificate are so stringent as to make it almost prohibitive for anyone to qualify unless he or she has a very severe disability, which is unfair to people who have genuine life-limiting disabilities. The criteria comprise six elements and effectively a person must be without both arms, without a leg, and confined to a wheelchair. The criteria are much too stringent and prohibitive.

The initial application is submitted to the HSE at a local level. If the application for a primary medical certificate is refused, the applicant can lodge an appeal with the Disabled Drivers Medical Board of Appeal, which is based in a hospital in Dún Laoghaire. I have dealt with a number of cases on behalf of individuals who have gone through the appeals process having initially been refused. I have spoken to the medical professionals involved with the appeals board in Dún Laoghaire as well and they have told me that the criteria are far too strict. They have also said that they have the deepest sympathy for the individuals who come through the doors of the hospital to lodge an appeal, but the hands of the medical professionals are tied because of the criteria, which are very unfair.

I will give three examples of individuals who have contacted me about these cases. The first one is a young blind lady in Donegal who is a constituent of Councillor Ciaran Brogan. Recently she underwent a kidney transplant and her mobility is severely affected. She requires a car or transportation to get to college and study and also to work. She went through the process but she was refused in Dún Laoghaire at the appeal level. Again, the situation is very unfair. I know of a young man in his 30s living in Letterkenny, County Donegal, who lost one arm due to a severe form of cancer. He is severely disabled yet he has been refused a primary medical certificate. Again, that is wrong. I know of a young mother in County Meath who lost an arm due to a rare form of cancer. Again, she was refused the primary medical certificate. I am speaking about genuine people who qualify under any other criteria in terms of having a disability and certainly their mobility is severely affected.

I call for the scheme to be reviewed and for it to take into consideration a proposal to have a tiered system so that the criteria would allow individuals who have lost one arm or who have a less severe disability to qualify for a tiered approach to grant aid or tax exemption under the scheme. Both of these things are required and I hope that the Minister of State will have some news about the scheme.

I thank the Senator for raising this matter in the House today. The Minister for Finance sends his apologies. He is answering oral questions in the Dáil so he cannot be here.

The Minister for Finance has asked me to let the House know the following. The disabled drivers and disabled passengers (tax concessions) scheme provides relief from VAT and vehicle registration tax, VRT, up to certain limits, an exemption from motor tax, and a grant in respect of fuel on the purchase of an adapted car for the transport of a person with specific, severe and permanent physical disabilities.

To qualify for the scheme an applicant must be in possession of a primary medical certificate. To qualify for a primary medical certificate an applicant must be permanently and severely disabled within the terms of the Disabled Drivers and Disabled Passengers (Tax Concessions) Regulations 1994 and satisfy one of the following conditions as mentioned by the Senator: be wholly or almost wholly without the use of both legs; be wholly without the use of one leg and almost wholly without the use of the other leg such that the applicant is severely restricted as to movement of the lower limbs; be without both hands or without both arms; be without one or both legs; 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 have serious difficulties of movement of the lower limbs.

The senior medical officer for the relevant local HSE administrative area makes a professional clinical determination as to whether an individual applicant satisfies the medical criteria. A successful applicant is provided with a primary medical certificate which is required to claim the benefits provided for in the regulations. An unsuccessful applicant can appeal the decision of the senior medical officer to the Disabled Drivers Medical Board of Appeal, DDMBA, which makes a new clinical determination in respect of the individual. The regulations mandate that the DDMBA is independent in the exercise of its functions to ensure the integrity of its clinical determinations. After six months, a citizen can reapply if there is a deterioration in his or her condition.

The scheme represents significant tax expenditure. Between VRT and VAT forgone and the fuel grant the scheme, cost has risen from €50 million in 2013 to €65 million in both 2016 and 2017, increasing further to €70 million in 2018. This figure does not include the revenue forgone in respect of the relief from motor tax provided to members of the scheme.

The disability criteria for the tax concessions available under the scheme have changed over time. When the scheme was first introduced in 1968, the legislation only allowed for one medical ground. In 1989, four new medical grounds were added, and in 1994, one new medical ground was added.

The Minister for Finance also reminds the House that the scheme was examined in 2015 to target the available resources at those most in need of the scheme. This resulted in the creation of a new category of vehicle called the "extensively adapted vehicle", allowing claims of up to €22,000 where cost of modifications exceed the cost of the vehicle itself. Further in 2018, access to the scheme for charitable organisations was significantly broadened by removing the requirement for 50% of the people availing of the scheme to hold primary medical certificates. The Minister has no plans to change the current criteria for the scheme or to make any further changes to the scheme.

That is not the answer that the Senator was looking for. We are against the clock-----

Quite right, a Chathaoirligh.

-----so I will allow a brief supplementary.

Exactly, and I appreciate the opportunity, a Chathaoirligh. The reply is very disappointing. It is unacceptable that we treat our disabled people in this way. In fact the answer that an unsuccessful applicant can appeal the decision to the Disabled Drivers Medical Board of Appeal, which is based in Dún Laoghaire, is crazy stuff because applicants would be wasting their time. People with a disability are being asked to travel from Cork or Donegal, which is an eight-hour or ten-hour round journey, for a futile exercise, and the professional medical people in Dún Laoghaire will say the same. Those to whom I have spoken have informed me that they have contacted and lobbied Government themselves over the past three or four years to have the criteria relaxed so that they can do their job better, and yet we get this response today. I am bitterly disappointed with the response as it does nothing to help disabled people to live a more independent and exclusive life within their areas, particularly in rural areas like Donegal where, without the use of transportation, their lives are very limited indeed. The concerns have not been considered.

While I know that the Minister of State is not in the Department, I emphasise that this matter needs to be dealt with. A response like this coming from the Department of Health is flippant and does not take into consideration the concerns of these vulnerable people in society.

Do not shoot the messenger. The Minister of State is only giving a response supplied by the Minister for Finance.

I appreciate that. The Minister understands and fully sympathises with any person who suffers from a serious physical disability and cannot access the scheme under the current criteria. Given the scope and scale of the scheme, however, any possible changes to it could only be made after very careful consideration and taking into account the existing prospective cost of the scheme, the availability of other schemes which seek to help with the mobility of disabled persons, and the interaction between each of these schemes. In this regard, the Department of Health is working on revised proposals for a transport support payments scheme to make individual payments as a contribution towards transport costs to people with severe disabilities who are on a low income and who cannot access public transport. This scheme will replace the motorised transport grant which was closed to new applicants in 2013. That is some bit of news.

I repeat that the Minister for Finance has no current plans to change the medical criteria for accessing the disabled drivers and disabled passengers (tax concessions) scheme. I note the following. In 2018, the total number of vehicle claims paid out was 6,422, the total number of fuel grant claims paid was 17,640, and the total monetary value of these claims was €70 million. Again, there are no plans to change but there will be some changes due to the transport support payments scheme being considered.

I thank the Minister of State and Senator Ó Domhnaill.

Property Tax Review

Senator Boyhan has the next Commencement matter. He has four minutes to outline his case.

I will make my case pretty short and snappy. I asked that the Minister outline the position regarding the issue of the local property tax. We know there was to be a review of the local property tax last year but we are now long past that point. I have seen some circulars from the Minister of State's colleagues and party on the issue. I am conscious local elections will be held in 2019 and that local communities want to retain as much taxes, income and revenue as possible in their own areas, which is only right and proper. I am also conscious that I live in south County Dublin, one of the counties with the highest compliance with respect to the local property tax.

The local property tax is an exorbitant tax and I reiterate my opposition to it. It is not a correct or fair tax. I will cite again the case of a neighbour, a widow, who pays the same amount in property tax as I do. That is ridiculous. She has no income other than her pension. She sought to have some changes made in that respect but did not get support. We have a tax on people in their homes. This is a woman who has lived in her home for nearly 40 years. She is being told it is too big for her, that she has an empty nest and that she should get out. It is grossly offensive. People should be allowed to stay in their communities. They have worked hard, paid their taxes, built their homes and they are entitled to stay in them.

I recognise the need for local government finance and for local authorities to have funding over and above commercial rates. However, for far too long this issue has been put on the back-burner. We were promised a review. I hope the Minister of State will be able to read into the record what the Minister has said. There is no point in drip-feeding this for another month or two because it might be more appropriate in the context of an election. The people want to know the Government's intention regarding the property tax and, at a minimum in terms of certainty, they want to know if the local property tax will be the same in 2019, 2020, 2021 and 2022 as it is today. They need certainty about this. I would appreciate the Minister of State's assistance in this matter.

I thank the Senator on behalf of the Minister for Finance for raising this matter. The Minister sends his apologies. He is in the Dáil taking parliamentary questions as we speak and, therefore, cannot be here.

In 2018, the Minister for Finance announced a review of the local property tax, which is looking in particular at the impact on local property tax liabilities of property price developments. In that regard, the review is informed by the desirability of achieving relative stability, both over the short and longer term, in local property tax payments of those liable for the tax and the need to provide clear direction on the likely payments faced by households in 2020.

I understand the Minister expects to receive the review report very shortly. He will then consider the report carefully before making recommendations to the Government on the local property tax. The Minister is conscious of the need to make the future position on local property tax clear so that households will know in advance of November 2019 what the Government's plans are for the tax.

The local property tax, as the Senator said, is an annually recurring tax applying to most residential properties owned on a specific liability date. The tax is currently linked to the market value of the property as at 1 May 2013. The legislative basis for the local property tax is the Finance (Local Property Tax) Act 2012, as amended. The Revenue Commissioners have operational responsibility for the administration of the local property tax. It has been collected by the Revenue Commissioners since it commenced and this continues to be the case.

The local property tax has broadened the domestic tax base and provided a new source of revenue for local authorities to replace some of the revenue from transaction-based taxes with an annual recurring property tax. Our dependence in the past on transaction-based taxes proved to be an unstable foundation for Government revenue. In contrast, the experience internationally has been that taxes on property provide a steady and secure source of funding.

The local property tax is producing a stable revenue yield for local authorities, although both yields and tax rates are modest by international standards. The charging structure for the local property tax is progressive. The basic rate of 0.18% applies to property values of up to €1 million, with a higher rate of 0.25% applying on the portion of value above the €1 million threshold. At the end of 2018 and since its inception the local property tax has contributed €2.7 billion to the funding of local authorities.

Since 1 January 2015, elected members of local authorities have had discretion to vary the local property tax rates up or down by 15%. Where a local authority decides to reduce the local property tax rate, it forgoes the equivalent amount of the reduced local property tax yield from its allocation. If a local authority votes to increase the local property tax rate above the basic rate, it receives the full amount of the increased yield. We understand that five local authorities voted to increase their local property tax above the basic rate in 2019 and four decided on a reduced rate.

The introduction of the local property tax in 2013 was the largest extension of self-assessment in the history of the State, with more than 1.3 million taxpayers obliged to file local property tax returns and pay the tax in respect of approximately 1.9 million properties. The first valuation date was 1 May 2013. The valuations declared for that date determined tax liabilities for 2013, half year, 2014, 2015 and 2016. The Finance (Local Property Tax) (Amendment) Act 2015 gave effect to the postponement of the revaluation date of residential property for local property tax purposes to November 2019. The postponement to November 2019 of the revaluation date for local property tax means that homeowners were not faced with significant increases in their local property tax for 2017, 2018 and 2019 as a result of increased property values.

The Revenue Commissioners publish comprehensive local property tax statistics on a quarterly and annual basis, which includes information regarding collection and compliance, exemptions and deferrals, and payment types, and some of this is broken down by local authority. The compliance rate for 2018 was 97%, which is line with rates in previous years.

The report on the review of local property tax will be with the Minister shortly and he will then be a position to make recommendations to Government about the tax.

I thank the Minister of State for his response. I do not want him to take this personally but, effectively, that is a cut and paste exercise. I asked all of this last year and this response is identical to the reply I got then. I did not even have to read it. The final line sums it up. Rather than waste the Department's paper and print and our time, the essential point is that "the report on the review of the local property tax will be with the Minister shortly". We were told that six months ago. I have it in writing and I would be happy to send it to the Minister. That sentence concludes that the Minister "will then be in a position to make recommendations to Government". Notwithstanding that this report was completed last year, the Minister has not seen a copy. That is the message I am taking from the Minister of State's response and one I will circulate to local elected members around the country within the next hour. Despite not having seen this report, the Minister continues to trot out the line that this is a priority for him and the Government. He says he is not in a position to make any recommendations but he will consider the matter in due course and let us know.

The Minister of State is an excellent Minister who is always willing to come to this House to explain matters. Sometimes he is put in the difficult position of having to read into the record replies that he does not necessarily buy into. I respect and understand that. I ask him to convey to the Department that it is urgent that we have clarity on this. Time and again we have been told by Government Ministers that they want clarity on this. They can bring clarity to the issue of the local property tax. I would be very keen to hear it sooner rather than later, as would Fine Gael Party county councillors who are knocking on doors seeking to be re-elected.