I thank Senator Conway for raising this matter. I am speaking on behalf of the Minister for Finance who regrets that he is unable to be present due to other business. The Minister very much appreciates the importance of the issue the Senator raises.
As a tax concession, the disabled drivers and disabled passengers scheme falls within the remit of the Department of Finance. I will first provide a brief description of the scheme as it currently stands. The scheme provides relief from vehicle registration tax and VAT on the purchase of a specially adapted vehicle, assistance with fuel costs in respect of the running costs of the vehicle and an exemption from motor tax to drivers and passengers with disabilities who fulfil the medical criteria required to qualify for the scheme. The primary legislation authorising the Minister for Finance to make regulations providing for tax concessions to disabled drivers and passengers is contained in section 92 of the Finance Act 1989 and the regulations introduced subsequently to govern the scheme, including the eligibility criteria, are contained in the Disabled Drivers and Disabled Passengers (Tax Concessions) Regulations 1994.
Currently, to qualify for the scheme an applicant must have a permanent and severe physical disability within the terms of the regulations and satisfy one of the six qualifying criteria outlined in the regulations. The senior medical officer for the relevant local Health Service Executive 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 under the regulations to claim the reliefs provided for under the scheme. An unsuccessful applicant can appeal the decision of the senior medical officer to the disabled drivers medical board of appeal, which makes a new clinical determination in respect of the individual. The regulations mandate that the medical board of appeal 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 six qualifying criteria, which are necessarily strict and precise, require the following: that the applicant 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 scheme and qualifying criteria were designed specifically for those with severe physical disabilities. The Minister for Finance frequently receives correspondence from applicants who do not meet the qualifying criteria but feel that they could benefit from the scheme. Senator Conway has made a compelling case this morning for people with visual impairment. While the Minister is sympathetic to those who do not qualify, given the scale and scope of the scheme he cannot expand it further within the current context of constrained resources.
The scheme represents a significant tax expenditure. Between the vehicle registration tax and VAT foregone, and the assistance with fuel costs for members of the scheme, based on provisional figures the scheme represented a cost of €48.6 million to the Exchequer in 2014, an increase of €5.1 million on the 2013 cost. This figure does not include the revenue foregone to the Local Government Fund in respect of the relief from motor tax provided to members of the scheme. In terms of the numbers of claims to the scheme in 2014, there were 4,936 claims for vehicle registration tax and VAT relief, and 12,338 claims in respect of the repayment of excise on the fuel element of the scheme.
The Minister for Finance recognises that this scheme plays an important role in expanding the mobility of citizens with disabilities, and as a consequence the relief has been maintained at current levels throughout the difficult economic crisis, despite the requirement for significant fiscal consolidation. Accordingly, while the Minister is sympathetic to the compelling argument made by Senator Conway, in the still challenging fiscal environment there are no plans to expand the medical criteria beyond the six currently provided for in the Disabled Drivers and Disabled Passengers Regulations 1994.
However, in light of the case made by Senator Conway, I will pass on his serious views and a transcript of this debate to the Minister, Deputy Noonan, and ask that he keep the matter under review.