Wednesday, 10 March 2004

Ceisteanna (42, 43, 44, 45, 46)

Eamon Ryan

Ceist:

106 Mr. Eamon Ryan asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs if time restrictions on the use of free travel passes in Dublin and Cork can and are being addressed. [7928/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Pádraic McCormack

Ceist:

111 Mr. McCormack asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the estimates for allowing a widow or widower under 60 years of age to qualify for free schemes on the death of their spouse. [7874/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Bernard J. Durkan

Ceist:

229 Mr. Durkan asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs if she will undertake a review of the free schemes with a view to extending the availability of free travel; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [8034/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Bernard J. Durkan

Ceist:

234 Mr. Durkan asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs if she has proposals to provide the equivalent of free travel to areas or regions currently deficient in public transport; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [8039/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Bernard J. Durkan

Ceist:

235 Mr. Durkan asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs if she will consider reducing the age for qualification for free schemes; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [8040/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Minister for Family)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 106, 111, 229, 234 and 235 together.

The free travel scheme is available to all people living in the State aged 66 years or over, to all carers in receipt of carer's allowance and to carers of people in receipt of constant attendance or prescribed relative's allowance. It is also available to certain people with disabilities and people who are in receipt of certain welfare type payments. The scheme provides free travel on the main public and private transport services for those eligible under the scheme. These include road, rail and ferry services provided by companies such as Bus Átha Cliath, Bus Éireann and Iarnród Éireann, as well as services provided by over 80 private transport operators. The vast majority of these private contractors operate in rural areas. The underlying feature of the scheme is the use of spare capacity on these transport services.

I am always willing to consider applications from licensed private transport operators who may wish to participate in the free travel scheme. However, while my Department pays transport providers to operate the free travel scheme, it is not in a position to provide transport services where none exist. The issue of access to public transport in rural areas is being addressed at present through the rural transport initiative, which is being managed by Area Development Management, ADM, on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Transport. Time restrictions have been a feature of the free travel scheme since its inception. The central issue in regard to time restrictions is that of capacity constraints and the pressure on the transport system from commuters travelling to and from work and school in the morning and evening.

Time restrictions, however, do not apply in the case of people with learning disabilities, people attending long-term rehabilitation courses or certain work experience programmes and certain other disabled or blind people. These people are issued with an unrestricted free travel pass which enables them to travel during the normally restricted travel times. Also, there are no peak time travel restrictions on DART, suburban rail services and on services provided by private transport operators in other parts of the country. A general lifting of the time restrictions could cause capacity problems for transport operators. In exceptional or extenuating circumstances, however, where hospital appointments cannot be arranged out of peak travel time, my Department can issue a temporary unrestricted free travel pass. Requests for such passes can, however, only be considered on a case by case basis and passes are only granted in exceptional circumstances.

With regard to the household benefits package, which comprises the electricity/gas allowance, telephone allowance and television licence schemes, this is generally available to people living permanently in the State, aged 66 years or over, who are in receipt of a social welfare type payment or who fulfil a means test. The package is also available to carers and people with disabilities under the age of 66 years who are in receipt of certain welfare type payments. People aged over 70 years of age can qualify regardless of their income or household composition. Widows and widowers aged from 60 to 65 years whose late spouses had been in receipt of the household benefit package retain that entitlement to ensure that households do not suffer a loss of entitlements following the death of a spouse.

The free schemes share a common set of objectives in the area of social inclusion as follows: to provide assistance to those living alone by targeting them with specific benefits providing both income and social inclusion gains; to support older people and people with disabilities in their wish to remain in the community as opposed to institutional care; to support Government policy which seeks to acknowledge the value of older people in society. Data from census 2002 indicate that there are 27,600 widows and widowers under 60 years of age. The full year cost of extending the free schemes to this group would be in the region of €23 million. This estimate assumes that all of this group would qualify, which may not be the case, but does not take account of the additional cost in respect of widowed people in the 60-65 year age group, some of whom would not be currently in receipt of the free schemes.

A range of proposals have been made to extend the free schemes to other groups, including widows and widowers. These are kept under review in the context of the objectives set out above and budgetary resources.

Question No. 107 answered with QuestionNo. 99.