Published on 16 February 2022
Cathaoirleach and members of the Committee, thank you for the invitation to come here today to discuss this very important matter.
As you may recall I attended this Committee, just a few weeks ago in December as part of the nomination process for my appointment as Ombudsman. At that time, I spoke of my intention to use the power vested in me, as Ombudsman, in a targeted and effective manner with a view to ensuring that the voices of those who are more vulnerable in our society, who might otherwise be missed, are heard and responded to.
I also outlined my commitment to continuing to shine a spotlight on the issue of access to transport supports for people living with a disability. This is an issue which has been of ongoing concern to the Office of the Ombudsman for many years, and which was championed by my predecessors in this Office, both Emily O’Reilly and Peter Tyndall. Therefore, I am very pleased to have the opportunity to be here with you in person to discuss the Disabled Drivers and Disabled Passengers Scheme.
I would like to start by recapping on our commitments as a country in relation to access to personal transport supports. In 2017, Ireland ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD), which commits all signatories to promoting, protecting and ensuring the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms by all persons with disabilities. Persons with disabilities, as defined in the Convention, include those who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments, which in interaction with various barriers may hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others.
Lack of access to transport is one of the key barriers stopping the realisation of these fundamental rights and can lead to the economic, social, and personal isolation of people living with a disability. By contrast, access to transport for many people can be an extremely important equaliser and enabler, providing independence and can change the lives of people living with a disability in a positive way.
It is within this context that in November 2021, my predecessor, Peter Tyndall, published a report entitled “Grounded: unequal access for people with disabilities to personal transport schemes”. This report was the culmination of a number of investigations over a number of years into the following transport schemes - the Motorised Transport Grant, Mobility Allowance and the Disabled Drivers and Disabled Passengers Scheme. It is the latter scheme that you have invited me here today to discuss. However, I would also like to briefly mention the other schemes.
The Motorised Transport Grant was put in place in 1979 and Mobility Allowance was put in place as far back as 1968. They were operated by the Health Service Executive (HSE), and its predecessors, to support people living with a disability to access their own personal transport needs. The Motorised Transport Grant was a means-tested grant to assist persons with severe disabilities with the purchase or adaptation of a car, where that car was essential to retain employment. The Mobility Allowance was a payment to people living with a disability who are unable to walk or use public transport and who would benefit from being mobile by for example, using the services of a taxi occasionally.
In 2012 my predecessor Emily O’Reilly, published separate investigations into the Motorised Transport Scheme and Mobility Allowance Scheme. The investigation into the Motorised Transport Scheme found that the manner in which the HSE interpreted the medical criteria for eligibility was unacceptably restrictive and contrary to the Equal Status legislation. The investigation into the Mobility Allowance Scheme found that this scheme was in breach of the Equal Status Act 2000 because it included an upper age limit. In both cases the Department of Health and HSE accepted the recommendations of the investigations and committed to reviewing both schemes in light of their findings.
However, in 2013, following these investigations the then Government decided to close both of these schemes to new applicants. At the time, this was announced as an interim measure and a replacement scheme was promised. However, nearly nine years later, a replacement scheme is still awaited. I raise this matter within this context of our discussion today to highlight the length of time successive Governments have been looking at this issue.
The closure of these schemes is also significant for our discussion today as without such schemes in place since 2013, the Disabled Drivers and Passengers Scheme has taken on more significance for people living with a disability because it is the only potential support available to them.
Before moving onto the Disabled Drivers and Disabled Passengers scheme itself, I want to deal briefly with access to public transport for people living with a disability. I very much welcome all of the work undertaken under the auspices of the National Disability Inclusion Strategy 2017-2021 designed to improve accessibility of public transport. However, for some people living with a disability, public transport may not be the most appropriate or even a possible mode of daily transport. For example, the inadequacy of access to some public transport facilities such as the DART, is a matter of great concern to people with disabilities who endeavour to use the service. Many journeys on public transport also require the use of other transport services, which means that any problem occurring with one of the services makes the whole journey impossible. For example, if it is not possible to get to a train station or bus stop, then clearly such train or bus services are not accessible.
Therefore, while improving access to public transport is an important issue in its own right, I believe it is unreasonable to suggest that simply improving public transport can address the transport needs of all people with disabilities. I am thinking particularly of people who live in rural areas, or those who cannot get to bus stops or train stations. In such circumstances, a car provides optimum, and often the only, mobility for many people living with a disability for whom it is the key to their quality of life. However, often they may need to be supported to acquire or access their own personal transport whether that be through a vehicle adapted for them to drive themselves or utilise as a passenger.
While access to a car can be life changing for many people living with a disability, adapting a car can be very costly. The Disabled Drivers and Disabled Passengers scheme provides a range of tax reliefs linked to the purchase and adaptation of vehicles by drivers and passengers with a disability. They include reliefs in relation to VRT and VAT as well as exemptions from motor tax and tolls and refunds on duty paid on fuel. In order to qualify for tax relief under the scheme, the person with a disability must have a Primary Medical Certificate from the HSE.
A person must meet one of six medical criteria to be eligible for a Primary Medical Certificate. Since as far back as 2001 the Office of the Ombudsman has been receiving complaints about the excessively restrictive nature of these six criteria. The medical criteria are that a person must:
There is no doubt in my mind that these criteria are excessively restrictive. It is clear that, the administration of this scheme, based on these restrictive criteria, has resulted in people who do not meet the criteria, but who are equally as immobile as those who do, being excluded from the scheme.
The complaints my Office receives are against the Disabled Drivers Medical Board of Appeal (DDMBA), an independent body set up on a statutory basis by the Department of Finance in 1990 to review applications from individuals who were unsuccessful in applying for the Primary Medical Certificate at local HSE level. Since 2016, 335 complaints have been received by my Office against the DDMBA.
My Office investigated each of these complaints. However, in most cases, we were unable to uphold the complaint against the DDMBA as it had acted in accordance with the very restrictive legislation governing its activities. However, my Office clearly communicated our concern at the overly restrictive nature of the criteria by which the DDMBA are bound to make a decision
In 2020 the Supreme Court quashed a refusal of the DDMBA to grant primary medical certificates allowing the parents of two disabled children to avail of tax relief under this scheme and noted in its judgement that the problem was with the “under inclusive nature” of the regulations. In essence, this meant that the HSE and DDMBA could not continue with their work for a time.
The Government, in response to this judgement, introduced an amendment to the Finance Act 2020 to enshrine the existing very restrictive medical criteria in primary legislation. This was most disappointing. I believe a far more appropriate response would have been to revise the criteria for the scheme to take into account an individual’s level of mobility.
I understand from officials in the Department of Finance that this was intended to be an interim measure. However, past experience has shown that such “interim” measures often remain in place for far too long. I have already cited one interim measure that has lasted for almost nine years. I am very concerned about this and the negative impact that this has on the daily lives of people with disabilities and their families. I note the recent resignation of the members of the DDMBA and that their concerns mirror some of the concerns I have expressed here today.
It very worrying that each time a problem is identified with a scheme designed to assist people with disabilities, the response by Government has been to either discontinue the scheme without replacement, or in the case of the scheme we are discussing today to enshrine the inequitable eligibility criteria in primary legislation.
I was pleased to see from the recent announcement in January 2022 by Minister Rabbitte that she intends to Chair an inter-departmental group to examine the issues of accessible transport for persons with disabilities and to progress a review of the Disabled Drivers and Disabled Passengers Scheme as a matter of priority.
However, what we need now is action. We need to see real progress and a system of access to personal transport supports put in place that is fair and inclusive to all people living with a disability. Another working group or action plan is not sufficient. People who are adversely affected by this lack of access to transport need and deserve immediate and decisive action.
It is simply not acceptable that a person is confined to their home, unable to participate equally and actively in their community or at work because they are unable to access transport.
I can assure you Chair and Members that I will continue to highlight this unfair and inequitable situation. I would also ask this Committee to continue to raise this issue with the Department of Finance, and across Government, to ensure that action is taken as a priority to resolve this very serious and unfair situation.