Adjournment Debate.

Disabled Drivers.

There are clear inconsistencies in the regulations for disabled drivers and passengers tax concessions and the way they are applied.

To qualify for a concession under these regulations, a person must have lost the use of one or both limbs. I do not understand this, having studied the regulations for some time. I have met people who have lost the use of an arm or leg and neither of them have qualified under the rules. I have also seen people who do not appear to qualify at all who are in receipt of the concession.

One of the people I am referring to has lost a hand. A person either has a hand or does not. However, those wise people who make determinations in this area have come to the conclusion that he has not lost his entire arm so he is not disabled. When it comes to operating a motor vehicle, the man has lost the use of a limb and should qualify under the regulations for the concession.

The last straw must be the length of time adjudication takes. It can be up to a year before a person hears back from those making the decision. The notice then comes back from the HSE that a person was not eligible under any of the categories outlined for a medical certificate for a disabled driver and that he or she should appeal. God help such people when they go through the appeals system, because they will be sent back around the same course and will be told the same thing at the end of that process.

Will the Minister get hold of whomever is responsible for screwing up that system and remind him or her that the scheme is supposed to assist people who, for work or leisure, wish to drive a motor vehicle? The concessions are in respect of a modification to the motor vehicle. They should be awarded that concession and a special effort should be made to ensure the applications of those who are refused would be reviewed in the shortest possible time with a view to awarding them their necessary entitlements.

The Minister has not received the reply yet so the Deputy will have another minute and 20 seconds.

I have never been in this situation before.

Some strange things have been happening here in recent days.

It goes to show that no matter how long a person has been around, one can learn something every day. I thank the Ceann Comhairle.

It is not like the Deputy to be caught short.

The one sacrifice makes a stone of the heart.

This is a case of bureaucracy gone mad. There is a need for fairness, transparency and accountability in this area. Members of this House should not be regularly in receipt of daft replies such as those to which I have referred and which the Minister has probably received on numerous occasions. One of the people concerned approached me recently and asked me why he did not qualify, considering he had lost his hand and he maintained that under the regulations he should qualify. He stated he knew of people in a less serious situation who had qualified. I refer to a case of a person who had suffered a severe stroke and had lost the power on one side. I do not understand the stringent interpretation of the regulations in a negative fashion but I will leave it to the Minister to come to my rescue.

I apologise for the absence of my colleague, the Minister for Finance, but I am pleased to clarify matters relating to the disabled drivers and disabled passengers tax concession scheme which dates back to 1968, when relief from road tax was made available under section 43 of the Finance Act 1968 for persons with a disability meeting specific medical criteria. Since then, the scheme has been extended and amended on several occasions.

The benefits of the scheme for qualifying persons are set out in the legislation. They consist of full relief in the year of purchase of an adapted vehicle of vehicle registration tax and VAT, subject to limits of €9,525 for a qualifying driver and €15,875 for a qualifying passenger or organisation. In the case of passengers, there is a requirement that the adaptation to the car must amount to at least 10% of the cost of the car. In the case of both drivers and passengers, the vehicle must be retained for at least two years; relief from excise duty up to a maximum of 600 gallons per year; 900 gallons in the case of an organisation; exemption from road tax.

The average total annualised value of these benefits is estimated at around €5,500 per claimant. In the year of purchase of a car, a claimant receives benefits relating to the purchase of the car, fuel relief and road tax. In the other years, the benefits received are fuel relief and road tax. The regulations also provide for the inclusion in the scheme of non-profit organisations involved in the transport of persons with a disability.

In terms of the overall scale and scope of the scheme, the most recent data available from the Revenue Commissioners shows that the total number of claimants in the system in 2006 was around 11,000. This was made up of approximately 4,500 drivers and 6,500 passengers. In 2006, the total cost of the scheme, excluding road tax, was €59 million, an increase of some €9 million on 2005. When road tax is included, the total cost in 2006 is estimated at more than €67 million.

The statutory basis for the current scheme is section 92 of the Finance Act 1989. The 1994 Disabled Drivers and Disabled Passengers (Tax Concessions) Regulations, made under the 1989 Act, set out the medical criteria, certification procedures, reliefs available to eligible persons, appeal procedures, and other matters.

Given the generosity of the scheme, there are strict medical criteria set down for qualification. The scheme is not open to all people with a disability and was never intended to be. It is only available to people with certain serious permanent physical disabilities which result in considerable mobility difficulty.

The medical eligibility criteria for the scheme, as set out in the legislation, are as follows: the applicant is wholly or almost wholly without the use of both legs; the applicant is 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; the applicant is without both hands or without both arms; the applicant is without one or both legs; the applicant is wholly or almost wholly without the use of both hands or arms and wholly or almost wholly without the use of one leg; the applicant has the medical condition of dwarfism and has serious difficulties of movement of the lower limbs. It is a fundamental requirement for admission to the scheme that the applicant meets the specified medical criteria and is in possession of a primary medical certificate to that effect.

Considerable efforts have been made in recent years to improve the level of service in relation to appeals. There is still some work needed in this regard, but I note that following a period of difficulty in organising sufficient meetings of the medical board of appeal, the Tánaiste reconstituted the board in early 2005. Since that date, the panel of doctors has been incrementally expanded from three to 17 members. This has facilitated more frequent meetings of the board, thus enabling progress to be made in reducing the backlog of appeals that had arisen.

A person who is deemed to satisfy the criteria is issued with a primary medical certificate by the senior medical officer of the local Health Service Executive administrative area. Possession of this certificate qualifies the holder to claim the benefits of the scheme.

In some cases the persons concerned do not appear to the senior medical officer to meet the criteria and so the relevant certificate is refused. As the Deputy might expect, where the medical certificate is not granted, the legislation provides for an appeal procedure operated by the Disabled Drivers Medical Board of Appeal. The board is an independent body, whose decision is final. The board's members are appointed by the Minister for Finance, on the nomination of the Minister for Health and Children. A special interdepartmental review group has reviewed the operation of the disabled drivers scheme. It examined the current benefits, the qualifying medical criteria, the Exchequer costs, relationship with other schemes and similar schemes in other countries. The report also made a number of recommendations, both immediate and long-term, referring respectively to the operation of the appeals process and to options for the future development of the scheme.

Health Services.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for the opportunity to speak on the urgent need to develop health and disability services on the north side of Dublin. This was an important element of my recent agreement with the Taoiseach which was about delivery of services to people and creating an opportunity for those who have been left behind. It is an agreement built on equality and social justice. I did not seek nor ask for mercs and perks; all I asked for was services.

Today I make myself accountable to the 30th Dáil and also to the people of Coolock, Marino, Drumcondra, Donnycarney, Clontarf, Raheny, Artane, Fairview and Beaumont. I make no apology for trying to deliver services to these people who put me into the Dáil. I am standing by the people of Dublin North-Central. My mandate is to look after the vulnerable, the sick, the disabled, the elderly and the very young. This is my agreement with the Taoiseach. The real challenge is to deliver services, particularly to those people who have been left behind. Society is people and without people there is no society. My agreement is about redeveloping respect and trust and an insistence on people-centred policies that can be implemented. This is not rocket science but rather about helping the weaker sections of society to receive their rights as citizens of this nation. This is also an excellent investment opportunity and relates to delivery on important issues such as health, education, disabilities, housing, foreign policy matters and important environmental issues such as Dublin Bay.

An agreement has been made on a number of important local priorities. I will be accountable and I will inform the constituents and the Dáil as these are rolled out. These will include the following: increased funding for the Stardust inquiry of €400,000-€100,000 has already been delivered; funding for Kilmore West community centre, Coolock, which supports elderly and youth services; the retention of Greendale community school for educational use and to ensure that no part of it is sold; extra funding for services for children and adults with a disability living on the north side; funding for the Central Remedial Clinic in Clontarf; €1.7 million for the upgrade of the Tolka river flood programme; assistance for the residents of Richmond Road; capital moneys must be allocated to the orthopaedic hospital in Clontarf to upgrade its facilities; support and funding for a new PE hall at Rosmini School in Drumcondra; extra funding for services at St. Michael's House; improved facilities for the visually impaired; and extra community gardaí on the beat in Dublin North-Central. Those are just some of the local priorities, and I will announce more later.

The Taoiseach and I share a vision of an Ireland where people with disabilities have the greatest possible opportunity to live full lives with their families and as part of their local communities without discrimination. I am strongly pushing for implementation of the national disability strategy, which would cost €900 million over the next three years, that is €300 million per year. In real terms, that means more residential places, respite places, speech therapists and services on the ground for everyone with a disability.

I look forward to seeing extra teachers reducing class sizes, improvements in special education, more support for children with autism and the tackling of educational disadvantage, and more services for citizens. People will be informed as they are rolled out.

I remind the Deputy that his Adjournment motion relates to the need to improve disability services on the north side of Dublin, interesting as these other aspects may be.

We have also dealt with health matters, and over the next five years, I look forward to extra hospital beds, including long-stay beds, and primary care teams, better services for cystic fibrosis patients, and improved cancer services. I stress that we need action on cystic fibrosis and cancer services as quickly as possible.

On foreign affairs, I have also supported the anti-war movement and have major human rights concerns regarding US policy. In the negotiations, I did my best to push that agenda, especially regarding the aid target of 0.5% of GNP in 2007, more support for the UN, and our being more progressive, taking an all-Ireland view of the economy, health, education, agriculture and the environment. Under the agreement, transit through Shannon and other Irish airports of foreign troops participating in military operations will be permitted where such an operation has been authorised by the UN. In the absence of such authorisation, it will be for the Government to consider the merits of each situation on a case-by-case basis and decide whether to grant permission, which shall be given only following a motion passed by Dáil Éireann.

We will have to call a truce, since the Deputy' time has expired.

My agreement with the Taoiseach is about the sensible spending of taxpayers' money. It has the potential to build and develop a better future for everyone. As the Independent Deputy for Dublin North-Central, all that I ask for is people's support.

Rather than follow that, all that the Minister can do is applaud.

I am unsure whether I can talk to the Deputy about Shannon. Having negotiated the programme for Government with the Green Party and the Progressive Democrats——

The Minister should confine himself to health and disability services.

I am at something of a loss, since there was so much of everything else.

I know Deputy Finian McGrath has an interest in disability services and education for persons with special needs, since he was opposite me when I was Minister for Education and Science and we put the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004 on the Statute Book. I acknowledge that and remind the Deputy of the Government's record on disability services over recent years. The commitment is shared by all Ministers.

Between 1997 and 2006, additional revenue and capital funding of €851 million was invested in health-funded support services for people with disabilities, of which €549 million was provided for persons with an intellectual disability and those with autism. An additional sum of €75 million for revenue purposes was provided for disability services in the 2007 budget. That sum incorporates the 2007 element of the Government's multi-annual investment programme for the national disability strategy, under which it is committed to providing some €900 million capital and revenue funding over the period 2005-09. We will honour that commitment.

With specific regard to Dublin north, as part of such funding, €9.36 million was provided for intellectual disability services, resulting in 68 new residential places, 138 new day places and 18 new respite places. Some €2.8 million went on physical disability services, resulting in 19 new residential places and almost 63,000 additional hours of home support service being provided. As part of the multi-annual investment programme, over 40 additional posts, including physiotherapists, senior occupational therapists, senior speech and language therapists, senior psychologists, senior social workers and early intervention team managers, were approved for disability services in the Dublin north area in 2006 and 2007. That will continue over the Government's lifetime.

Outside the multi-annual investment package funding, the HSE provides ongoing funding for disability services in the Dublin north area as follows: €163 million in 2006 to 43 agencies providing services and support to persons with disabilities; and €4.35 million in 2006 for home care supports to allow persons with disabilities to remain in the community. Some €5.66 million was provided in 2006 to fund the residential care of persons with physical or sensory disabilities who could no longer be cared for in the community, and a specific amount of €459,150 is provided annually to provide aids and appliances to persons with physical and sensory disabilities.

The Deputy should also note that building work has just begun on the development of a 60-bed bungalow complex at St. Joseph's Disability Services, Portrane. The estimated cost of that project is €17 million.

The Deputy will be aware that people with physical and sensory disabilities also avail themselves of general primary care services such as general practitioner, dental, ophthalmic, physiotherapy, occupational therapy, speech and language therapy, public health nursing, area medical officers, financial allowances and so on. Expenditure on those services is included in the general community services provision.

The Deputy also raised concerns regarding HSE plans for older persons' services in the north Dublin area. Services will continue to be rolled out, particularly the delivery of home care packages that allow older people to remain at home for a longer period, as well as to facilitate earlier discharges from an acute hospital setting. The intent over the coming years is to continue to increase the number of packages in the area, which rose from 563 in December 2005 to 1,480 in May 2007.

Funding has also been provided for additional places and extended opening at day-care facilities, additional respite care beds, and for organisations providing meals on wheels.

Light Rail Project.

May I share two minutes of my time with Deputy Costello?

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I thank the Minister for staying on after Question Time. It is not usual for Ministers to take Adjournment debates, and I am glad he has stayed for this.

The Minister made several points in his reply, including that one of the problems was that the RPA could not contact a resident or a residents' group. In reality, within the last week the RPA arbitrarily cancelled a consultative meeting with the residents' group. Nothing could be more incorrect than the information given to the Minister on that point.

On the issue of funding independent expertise for the residents, they have been told that it has not been approved, yet the Minister told the House that there is no such issue. There is no doubt in my mind, having attended packed public meetings in the Drumcondra area with at least 700 or 800 people present, that there will be massive unrest if the confidence and trust of residents is not re-established. It is this type of deception and subterfuge by the Railway Procurement Agency that is threatening this major infrastructural project for the northside of Dublin. The Minister gave two examples of that deception in the House which can be easily verified.

There is a view among residents in the Drumcondra area that the hidden agenda is that the development and speculative potential value of open space in the area is being given a higher priority than the residents' homes and that the route has been changed from the publicised one which went under open space to one which goes under the most residential part of the Drumcondra area almost in its entirety.

All public representatives in the area have been involved in this and despite assurances from the RPA that it is reviewing this and considering reverting to an open space route, it persists in concentrating all its preparatory work on its own preferred route through the housing area. Again, the evidence contradicts everything its says and that is causing huge unrest.

I thank Deputy Gregory for sharing his time. This is an important issue. Everybody in the Drumcondra area is in favour of and has welcomed metro north. However, they were appalled when they saw from another map circulated to them that the original route which had been distributed when the decision was taken had been changed. The RPA now says the original route was only an indicative one and that the new route which goes almost entirely under houses and which is totally different from the original one that went almost exclusively under open space is the preferred one. Naturally enough everybody in the area is more than concerned. People are also concerned about the issues raised in Marino in regard to the Dublin Port tunnel, particularly as the new route goes under so many houses. Some 660 houses will be affected.

There have already been half a dozen meetings, a couple of meetings with the Taoiseach and two to four meetings with the RPA. There has also been a meeting with the Minister's predecessor, Deputy Martin Cullen. There was a protest last week and a meeting cancelled by the RPA and there will be a protest this evening. It is a huge issue in the area and, as Deputy Gregory said, approximately 600 to 800 people have attended the meetings, one of which was attended by the Taoiseach. Can we not get back to the original route which maximises the use of open space and minimises the use of residential homes? That is what is sought. The only way we can do that is for the Minister to direct the RPA to do what it originally showed on the maps.

Deputy Joe Costello will know I have no authority to direct the RPA. Whatever route is finally chosen will be subject to the normal statutory procedures of An Bord Pleanála. In case anybody is trying to make a political point about this, it is not within the remit of the Minister to direct the RPA to choose a particular route.

Will the Minister not direct it to consult the residents?

I thank both Deputies for raising this matter. They are right that it is an important one which would benefit from everybody taking a step back to allow a bit of space. I appreciate the manner in which it has been raised by both Deputies and the way they have addressed it in the House. As they said, this is one of the flagship projects of Transport 21. It is extremely important for the northside of the city and much further afield. It will carry an estimated 34 million passengers per year when it is operating. Trains will operate every five minutes and the estimated journey time from the city centre to Dublin Airport will be 17 minutes.

The RPA has been mandated by the Government to procure and implement the project. As the Deputies rightly acknowledge, there was extensive public consultation to determine the route for metro north which commenced in February 2006. There were a number of open days that provided opportunities for public engagement. The consultation process continued right up to the end of June 2006. Following the consultation process, the RPA board then decided on the preferred route. I understand that a number of indicative routes were shown, the consultation took place and it chose a particular route. That is normal in such situations.

I will not bore the Deputies with the obvious benefits because they have both acknowledged them. I wish to mention a number of stops. The proposed Drumcondra metro stop will be located to the rear of St. Vincent's Centre for the Deaf at Drumcondra Road. Other options examined would have had significant negative impacts. In particular, they would have required road closures for up to three years. I understand that between the Drumcondra and Griffith Avenue stops an emergency access and ventilation shaft easily accessible to emergency services is required. The south west corner of the St. Patrick's College playing fields has been identified as a suitable location. The location of the shaft influences the route onward to the Griffith Avenue stop.

Work is under way on the preparation of an environmental impact statement and the documentation required to support an application to An Bord Pleanála for a railway order, which is the legal permission needed to build and operate the metro north. The authority to make a final decision on the alignment of metro north rests with An Bord Pleanála through the railway order process. The terms of that statutory planning process allow considerable opportunity for the public to comment on and object to the detailed plan for the project.

I have met the RPA and I assure the Deputies that I have asked it to engage extensively with the residents in the area in exploring mechanisms. I do not doubt what the Deputies said about the cancellation of a meeting last week. I was informed that a particular individual whose name was given as a contact for the residents' organisation could not be contacted by the RPA despite several efforts over the past week or ten days. There is clearly a problem of communication.

It is a one-sided problem.

I try to be fair. I will not take sides in this.

I did not either.

If the three of us and everybody else involved keep the overall objective in mind, we can try to restore faith in the processes.

Will the Minister meet the residents?

The RPA has received many, and sometimes irreconcilable, requests which will always be a difficulty in these projects.

The Minister's time has expired.

I will send the rest of the reply to the Deputies.