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.