People with Down's syndrome are now living well into their 70s, and almost 80. That is a good thing and is probably because of the advances in medicine. Our understanding, acceptance and tolerance are a significant part of it. If I had a wish for the next Government, it would be for a Department that covers everything concerning disability because it is so scattered now. That is why I am taking this Commencement matter on behalf of the Minister for Finance. The issue does not fall under the Department of Health at all.
I thank the Senator for raising this matter this morning. The Minister for Finance regrets that he is unable to be present due to other business. This Commencement matter relates to the disabled drivers and disabled passengers scheme, which is a tax concession scheme. It is for that reason that I am answering on behalf of the Minister for Finance.
I will first provide a brief description of the scheme as it currently stands. It provides relief from vehicle registration tax and VAT on the purchase of a specially adapted vehicle, a fuel grant related to 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 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 for a primary medical certificate if there is a deterioration in their condition. The six qualifying criteria are necessarily both strict and precise. They are that an applicant must 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 the qualifying criteria were designed specifically for those with severe physical disabilities, in recognition of the significant costs associated with adapting a vehicle for the transport of persons with certain disabilities.
The Minister for Finance frequently receives correspondence from applicants who do not meet the qualifying criteria but feel that they would benefit from the scheme. While the Minister is sympathetic to those who do not qualify for the scheme, he cannot, given the scale and scope of the scheme, extend it further within the current context of constrained resources, which is the point that Senator Sheahan made.
The scheme represents a significant tax expenditure. Between the vehicle registration tax and VAT forgone, and the assistance with fuel costs used by members of the scheme, 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 forgone 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 payment 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 crisis, despite the requirement for significant fiscal consolidation. Accordingly, while the Minister is sympathetic to the Senator, in the still constrained fiscal environment, there are no plans at this time to expand the medical criteria beyond the six currently provided for in the Disabled Drivers and Disabled Passengers (Tax Concessions) Regulations 1994. I am sorry that I do not have better news for the Senator but nevertheless I am sure that the Senator will continue to pursue it.