Thursday, 4 March 1999
Dáil Éireann Debate
35. Mr. Penrose asked the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs if a voucher system will be provided to enable those who are otherwise eligible for free transport but who live in rural areas to have that service provided by private transport. [6419/99]
Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs (Mr. D. Ahern): The free travel scheme is available to all people living in the State aged 66 years, or over, and to all carers in receipt of carer's allowance. It is also available to certain people with disabilities and people under that age who are in receipt of certain welfare type payments. From April 1999, the scheme will be available to carers of people in receipt of constant attendance or prescribed relative's allowance.
The scheme provides free travel on a range of services provided by the CIE group of companies as well as on the services provided by 73 private transport operators. The vast majority of these private contractors operate in rural areas. At the end of December 1998, over 530,000 free travel passes had been issued at an annual cost of over £32.6 million. My Department is always willing to consider further applications from licensed private transport operators who may wish to participate in the free travel scheme.
The free schemes were originally designed to benefit mainly older people in receipt of a social welfare type payment who were living alone and required additional assistance. However, over the years, additional categories of people have been included. A fundamental review of the free schemes has commenced, including the free travel scheme, in order to assess whether the objectives of these schemes are being achieved in the most effective and efficient manner and the issue raised by the Deputy will be examined as part of the review process.
36. Ms Shortall asked the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs the cost of child benefit to the Exchequer in 1998 and 1999; the estimated cost if child benefit was increased to £20 per week per child; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [6457/99]
Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs (Mr. D. Ahern): The estimated cost to the Exchequer of child benefit in 1998 was £418.7 million and the cost for 1999 is estimated at £447.5 million. An increase in child benefit to £20 per week for each child would cost approximately £661 million in a full year.
The 1999 budget provides for increases in child benefit of £3 per month for the first two children and £4 per month for the third and subsequent children, which will bring the rates payable from September 1999 up to £34.50 per month and £46 per month respectively. Some 520,000 families with a total of 1.2 million children will benefit from these increases.
This substantial investment in child benefit, involving a full-year cost of over £40 million, was influenced primarily by the fact that the Government considers child benefit to be one of the more effective mechanisms available for the provision of child income support. It is effective in tackling poverty as it channels resources directly to the main carers of children and is of particular importance to families on low incomes. As it is not taxable, and is not withdrawn when an unemployed parent takes up employment or assessed as means for other secondary benefits such as differential rents, medical cards, etc. it does not act as a disincentive to taking up employment or improving wages.
37. Mr. Bell asked the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs the steps, if any, taken or envisaged by him to fulfil the commitment made in An Action Programme for the Millennium to overhaul the means by which the State supports the incomes of people with disabilities; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [6452/99]
Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs (Mr. D. Ahern): The Government is committed in its action programme to radical change to ensure that the needs and aspirations of people with disabilities, their families, carers and advocates are comprehensively addressed. Specifically, the Government is committed to overhauling the means by which the State supports the incomes of people with disabilities and to implementing the Report of the Commission on the Status of People with Disabilities, CSPD.
 In this regard, the CSPD recommended in relation to income support that the rates of payment as advocated by the Commission on Social Welfare, CSW, be achieved as a matter of priority. As a result of the improvements which have been provided by this Government, all payments to people with disabilities are now above the rates recommended by the CSW. Following implementation of the recent budget increases in June, payments for people with disabilities will range between 102 per cent and 124 per cent of the CSW's target rate.
The CSPD also identified a number of shortcomings in the system of income support for people with disabilities and recommended the establishment of two types of payment: a non-means tested disability pension to be administered by my Department to cover loss of income due to an incapacity for full-time work, or to work to full potential; and a graduated costs of disability payment to be administered by the Department of Health and Children to cover additional costs associated with a disability. Underpinning the introduction of this payment would be the establishment of an assessment of needs procedure which would identify the full spectrum of services required by the person concerned from a range of agencies. These recommendations are currently being examined by the interdepartmental task force, which is preparing the Government's plan of action in response to the report.
A number of the commission's principal criticisms related to the operation of the former disabled person's maintenance allowance scheme, now disability allowance, which in turn led it to recommend the establishment of a unified disability pension scheme. However, many of these criticisms have been addressed since the takeover of that scheme by my Department in October 1996. For instance, the commission found that the health boards differed widely in their application of eligibility and means testing criteria, while there was no appeals system. These problems have been addressed since the takeover of the scheme.
Another area where the CSPD expressed concern was in relation to the perceived low level of take up. The improved administration, together with a number of improvements which have been introduced in the scheme since its takeover, have led to a significant increase in the numbers entitled to payment, up 37 per cent from 34,500 in October 1996 to 47,243 in January 1999.
Other concerns expressed by the commission related to the disincentives to participate in education, training or work because of the lack of flexibility of the income support system and the withdrawal of allowances when people spend time in hospital or go into residential care.
A significant amount of progress has been made by my Department in recent years in  relation to the employment and educational supports which are provided for people with disabilities. For instance, the back-to-work allowance and back to education programme have been extended to people with disabilities. In addition, the amount a person can earn from rehabilitative employment without affecting their entitlement to disability allowance and blind person's pension has been increased to £50 per week.
In relation to hospitalisation and residential care, a number of improvements have been introduced in recent years in this area which allow disability allowance to continue to be paid for up to 13 weeks where the recipient goes into hospital and for the payment of disability allowance at half rate for those in part-time residential care. In addition, the 1999 budget provides that, with effect from August 1999, existing recipients of disability allowance will be able to retain the allowance where they go into hospital or residential care.
While many improvements have been introduced for people with disabilities in recent years, it is nevertheless recognised that much more needs to be done. In this regard, the potential for further enhancements to the system will continue to be examined in the light of the commitments in the Action Programme for the Millennium and the recommendations contained in the report of the Commission on the Status of People with Disabilities and having regard to the available resources.
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