Thursday, 26 September 2019

Questions (6, 11)

Thomas Pringle


6. Deputy Thomas Pringle asked the Minister for Finance if he has considered the ruling of the Ombudsman regarding primary medical certificates (details supplied); the reason his Department has not made relevant amendments after the intervention of the Ombudsman; when he plans to bring the necessary legislative amendments to the Houses of the Oireachtas; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [38452/19]

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Róisín Shortall


11. Deputy Róisín Shortall asked the Minister for Finance his views on concerns raised by the Ombudsman about persons being denied access to the disabled drivers and disabled passengers scheme on the basis that they have been refused primary medical certificates; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [38308/19]

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Oral answers (10 contributions) (Question to Finance)

My question relates to the primary medical certificate and its operation within the Department of Finance. In particular, the Ombudsman's office has asked the Department to review and amend the scheme to make it more workable. The scheme is very restrictive and very difficult for people and there is an onus on the Department to respond to the Ombudsman and amend it.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 6 and 11 together.

The disabled drivers and disabled passengers (tax concessions) scheme provides relief from VAT and vehicle registration tax, VRT, up to a certain limit, on the purchase of an adapted car for transport of a person with specific severe and permanent physical disabilities, payment of a fuel grant and an exemption from motor tax. 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 satisfy one of the following conditions: 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 or have the medical condition of dwarfism and have serious difficulties of movement of the lower limbs.

The scheme represents a significant tax expenditure, which is justified in terms of responding to the needs of applicants with this level of challenge in their daily lives. Between the VRT and VAT foregone and the fuel grant, the scheme cost €65 million in 2016 and 2017, rising to €70 million in 2018. These figures do not include the revenue foregone in respect of the relief from motor tax provided to members of the scheme.

I understand and fully sympathise with any person who suffers from a serious physical disability and who cannot access the scheme under the current criteria. However, given the scope and scale of the scheme, any possible changes to it can only be made after careful consideration, taking into account the existing and prospective cost of the scheme, as well as the availability of other schemes that seek to help with the mobility of disabled persons and the interaction between each of these schemes. Therefore, at this point, I have no plans to amend the qualifying medical criteria further but if either Deputy believes that particular areas merit revision, I would be interested in hearing their views on same.

The Minister's outline of the scheme's criteria shows clearly that it needs to be reviewed. It is not realistic, in the current climate, for this situation to persist. I deal with people every day who need this scheme and who would avail of it but they cannot satisfy the crazy and restrictive criteria that were probably set out in the early 1970s.

It is similar to why the Minister will not review the conditions for the medical card scheme, which were named in legislation in 1971 or so, which keeps it under control as far as the Minister is concerned. More has to be done than just keep it under control. It has to address reality and people who have very difficult lives. This would not enable people to avail of something spectacular that they should not be getting but it would make their lives possible, especially for people who live in rural areas who depend on having transport but who cannot get public transport. There are people with conditions which are not as restrictive as these who would and should avail of it, and it should be possible to do so.

To appeal a decision or refusal for access to this scheme, one has to travel to Dún Laoghaire to have one's appeal heard. That applies to people who cannot access transport in Donegal and yet must travel to Dún Laoghaire which is six or seven hours away. They cannot travel there and back in one day. It is nonsensical and unfair.

I do not want the Deputy to think in any way that I am saying that the scheme is not merited. I absolutely think it is and believe it plays an important role in dealing with and supporting applicants who, as the Deputy says, are grappling with severe disabilities. The scheme has been looked at a number of times, including in 2016 and again in 2018. At each point, a number of changes were made to try to deal with issues that were being raised at that time. The Deputy made a point about the need to travel to Dún Laoghaire to instigate an appeal. I was not aware of that and I will certainly inquire into that. Given that those who are appealing have a high level of need and restricted mobility in the first place, I take the logic of the Deputy's point that there should be some convenient way in which that can be done.

My question relates to issues raised by the Ombudsman about persons being denied access to the disabled drivers and passengers scheme. Is the Minister not embarrassed to read out the details in the first part of his reply to Deputy Pringle? As far as I know, there is not actually a condition which that describes. The level of disability which is required to qualify is so rare that vast numbers of people with significant disability problems are being denied access to this programme.

In 2018, 6,422 claims were paid out with regard to the VRT. Moreover, 17,640 fuel grant claims were made. I was describing the scheme, as I made clear, with a consideration to those citizens who find themselves having to deal with that level of need. I therefore completely understand why a scheme like this needs to continue. It is availed of by many and I want to ensure that a programme like this continues to be in place to help people with their cost of living and to help those who have such difficulty with mobility. We should help them with the taxes and charges associated with that.

I will explain the situation of some people who I deal with who cannot avail of this scheme. There are patients with severe Parkinson's disease, bowel cancer, arthritis or permanent nerve damage from alcoholism. There is one woman who is unable to walk unaided and can only use a wheelchair occasionally due to a lack of strength in her arms and legs. She lives in the middle of nowhere with no family to transport her. There is another woman who can only walk using a walking aid and has severe weakness in her legs despite doing physiotherapy. She is a pensioner and as she cannot live on her own due to the steps up to her house, she lives in her daughter's rented accommodation in a downstairs bedroom. It would make a real difference to these people's lives if they had that transport. It is incumbent on the Department to review this and make the scheme workable for the conditions of the present day. Will the Minister make the reviews carried out in 2016 and 2018 available to me so that I can look at them?

We know that more than 13% of the population in this country have disabilities. Many of those have mobility difficulties. It is a false economy to deny people the opportunity to live some kind of independent life and to be able to travel, get out of their homes, be active insofar as they can, to visit, to do jobs and to go to work in many cases. Requiring a person to be without two limbs is a pretty high bar to set. I say it is a false economy because many people could live much fuller lives, including being financially independent, if they had the ability to travel in a car. This scheme would be required in order to enable them to do that. The bar is set far too high. It is way overdue to have it reduced. The Minister needs to take a measure to improve the lives of people with mobility problems.

I support the two Deputies on this question. My experience is that the conditions and criteria of the scheme are rigid. There is no discretion whatsoever. I accept that when there is discretion, interpreting that can be difficult but we have all met people who, by any reasonable test, should qualify for the benefits of the scheme. The scheme is valuable for those who can benefit from it and that should be acknowledged. It is overly rigid, however, and the criteria the Minister read out made for uncomfortable listening. There has to be a way to involve the disabilities sector to allow a redesign of the criteria that would enable people who pass a reasonable test to avail of the benefits of the scheme. I suggest that the Minister does that. The Ombudsman's criticisms have been sustained over a long period and the issue needs to be reviewed again.

To correct Deputy Shortall on what she said a moment ago, the answer that I provided to the House stated that, to qualify for this scheme, an applicant has to satisfy one of a range of conditions which are laid out. It is an important scheme that is made available by the State to support those who need additional help due to the level of need in their lives. In response to the points made by Deputies, I note the Minister for Health has started work on looking at a new transport support scheme and what kind of legal provisions would need to be in place to support that. This is looking at the fact that there is a broader range of needs and disabilities beyond those that I have outlined that make it difficult for applicants and citizens to commute and conduct their daily lives. Work on that is under way and the Minister for Health is looking at legislation that might play a role in that area. We have to ensure, if we are going to put in place a new scheme such as this, that not only does it meet needs that we know to be genuine but that it is also transparent and one in which the resources available from the taxpayer are targeted in a way that can make a real difference.