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Dáil Éireann Debate, Thursday - 25 November 2021

Thursday, 25 November 2021

Questions (8)

Aindrias Moynihan


8. Deputy Aindrias Moynihan asked the Minister for Social Protection if consideration will be given to providing free travel passes to persons with epilepsy who are not in receipt of a social welfare payment; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [57991/21]

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Oral answers (7 contributions) (Question to Social)

There are up to 40,000 people around the country affected by epilepsy each day. If we leave aside briefly the medical impacts of it, one of the restrictions on people with epilepsy is that they are not allowed to drive. Their licence is restricted. As the Minister can imagine, that is a huge impediment on people in ordinary, everyday life, whether they are going to or from work, going about social life and in so many other ways. Is there a way of giving them access to the free travel pass, while they are restricted from driving?

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. The free travel scheme provides free travel on the main public and private transport services for those eligible under the scheme. There are currently approximately 1,012,000 customers with direct eligibility. The estimated expenditure on free travel in 2021 is €95 million. It is important to note that, in general, access to free travel passes for those aged under 66 is linked to a person being in receipt of a certain primary social protection payment, such as disability allowance, invalidity pension, carer’s allowance, blind pension and partial capacity benefit. Importantly, as many illnesses or physical conditions have an impact across a spectrum, from mild to severe, entitlement to these schemes is not provided on the basis of a simple diagnosis, but on the basis of the impact of that diagnosis on the individual concerned. In this way, resources can be targeted to people with most need. Therefore, while a diagnosis of a particular medical condition will be required to establish if a person may be eligible for certain social welfare schemes, evidence of impact is also required before entitlement to the scheme, or the related free travel scheme, is established. The sole exception to this general approach is in respect of people who are blind. My Department may award a travel supplement under the supplementary welfare allowance scheme, where the circumstances of the particular case so warrant.

The supplement is intended to assist with ongoing or recurring travel costs that cannot be met from the client’s own resources and are deemed to be necessary. I hope this brings some clarity for the Deputy.

I thank the Minister for the overview of the scheme. The costs associated with medication and so on are acknowledged by the State with the long-term illness scheme and the yellow book. This is another big restriction on people and it is not at all being acknowledged. I appreciate the point on the supplement and it being on a case-by-case basis but we know people who have epilepsy are put off the road. They are restricted from work. The State should acknowledge that and look towards giving them mobility and access. Some people will perhaps already have a disability payment and have access to it that way but for people who are maintaining their employment and are already struggling, because they are having to change around their work to try to get public transport and so on, there should be a way to access it. Is there any way of reviewing it or any review under way on whether it could be included?

I appreciate the point the Deputy is making. I have a friend with epilepsy. They are off the road at the minute. As the Deputy said, if someone loses their licence due to a seizure caused by epilepsy, it really is awful for them and I understand that. The problem I have, which the Department officials have clearly pointed out to me, is that the free travel pass is very much based on the social welfare payment a person is in receipt of. It is not based on a person's condition or illness. As the Deputy knows, the social welfare system is based on income and contributions. The change Epilepsy Ireland is proposing would move the scheme away from a person being in receipt of a qualifying payment to it being based on his or her condition regardless of income. That would be a fundamental change to how the scheme is run. I imagine it would give rise to calls from other groups. Like everything, if it was easy, it would have been done long ago.

To return to my original question, is there an opportunity for a review so this could be teased out further because there is a very real need for that? The Minister should not worry about setting a precedent. That has already been done with the long-term illness scheme and the yellow book. People who have epilepsy are already have their condition acknowledged irrespective of income purely on the basis of the condition and getting a benefit there. Thus, a precedent has already been set. There are already a mix of ways where people in employment have social welfare payments, whether they are lone parents, receiving the working family payment or even on pensions. There is already a mix and match in there. Some people who have epilepsy are on the disability payment and have access to it. As such, there is a chequerboard of situations. We are looking at a small number of people who remain excluded because they are in employment and they do not have a social welfare payment. Is there an opportunity for a review? Has the Minister looked at the number of people involved? A large number of people are already on the travel pass and we are only looking at a very small additional cost.

The number is 5,575. It is not all 40,000 people with epilepsy. The impact of the diagnosis is the that State says you cannot drive for a year. If there is a breakthrough seizure, you cannot drive for a year. There are many people who have controlled epilepsy and are on the long-term illness scheme already but those whose illness is uncontrolled, about 30% of people with epilepsy, will never drive. Many of them are on other schemes but many are not and they continue to work. However, they need access to this scheme. There are only 5,000 of them. In her response the Minister referred to the impact of diagnosis. The impact of diagnosis if you have epilepsy is you cannot drive because the State tells you so. There is an exemption, as she said, for blind people and the reason for providing them with access to the free travel scheme is obvious. Epilepsy is very similar and there is an argument in particular for provision in a formalised way that decouples the free travel pass from the other schemes. Many people with epilepsy who are working and paying tax in the State do not want to be on these schemes and do not need to be on them. However, they may need the additional support of free travel, perhaps for a year or two. I urge the Minister's officials to think about it again.

I thank the Deputies. I fully appreciate what they are saying. They make a good case and I understand it. I intend to meet with Epilepsy Ireland to discuss its proposal in detail. The group wrote to me about much of what the Deputies are saying. I am not going to make any promises because it would be wrong of me to do that but I will meet Epilepsy Ireland and hear what it has to say. We need to discuss this with the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, and his Department to get its views on the matter. I am also going to ask my officials to examine it. The Deputies have made the case that this is only a small number of people. However, the social welfare scheme is based on income that is means-tested or contributions. Those are the two prongs with which the social welfare scheme works. The Deputies are talking about going outside that and looking at a medical condition. I am happy to look at it because, as I said, the Deputies have made the case. I thank them for raising it. I will talk to Epilepsy Ireland.