Wednesday, 22 March 2006
Seanad Eireann Debate
Mr. Mooney: I thank the Cathaoirleach for allowing me to raise this matter on the Adjournment. I also thank the Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Seamus Brennan, for coming to the House to respond.
I wish to put on record not only my deep appreciation but that of Irish communities, with whom I am in regular contact in the UK and the United States, for the commitment the Minister has shown to the Irish diaspora since he was given this important brief. I received an e-mail today from Mr. Kieran O’Sullivan, who is a leading activist in the Boston Irish community, extolling the virtues of the Minister following his recent visit to Boston. When I told him I was raising an issue concerning the Irish in Britain he asked me to pass on to the Minister the good wishes of the Irish community in Boston and to thank him for the work he is doing. Ministers are criticised on occasion and Members on all sides of both Houses were unfairly criticised recently for travelling abroad to represent their country on St. Patrick’s Day so it is important to put on record the appreciation of the Irish community for the work he is doing.
I will not go into details because I have already established dialogue with the Minister on the issue. It is important, however, to emphasise the importance attached by the Irish community in Britain to the extension of free travel to Irish pensioners living there. As the Minister will be aware from his frequent visits to the United Kingdom, free travel, alongside the transmission of RTE television programmes, is the main issue that arises on a regular basis at any gathering of Irish community activists throughout the United Kingdom and was on the agenda of the Federation of Irish Societies at its annual congress last summer.
I am fully aware of the difficulties the Minister has faced in trying to resolve this issue, not only in terms of the financial commitments the Government would need to embark upon but also our Treaty of Rome obligations. It would be difficult to single out a section of people in another member state of the EU purely on grounds of their nationality without extending the benefit across the Union. However, the Minister has been making significant progress in this area over the past 12 months. Notably, he established a dialogue with his opposite number in Northern Ireland under the direct rule Administration and, according to media reports and the excellent press service of his Department, there is an indication that the Minister is close to reaching an agreement on extending the existing free travel arrangements enjoyed by pensioners living in the Republic of Ireland to those living on the entire island. If that is the case, I am sure the Minister will agree that it opens the door, albeit to a small degree, to extend a similar benefit to Irish pensioners living elsewhere in the United Kingdom.
It is on this core issue that I want the Minister to address this Adjournment matter. It has been suggested that the Minister’s legal advisers have indicated that the Minister may be able to add free travel as a benefit to existing benefits enjoyed by pensioners without contravening our Treaty of Rome obligations. Will the Minister inform the House on current developments in the extension of free travel to Irish citizens in the United Kingdom and take one of the issues exercising the minds of the Irish diaspora therein off the agenda?
Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Mr. S. Brennan): I will open with a formal reply but wish to add a personal comment at the end. The free travel scheme is available to all people living in the State aged 66 years or over. All carers in receipt of carer’s allowance and carers of people in receipt of constant attendance or prescribed relative’s allowance receive a free travel pass regardless of their age. It is also available to people aged under 66 years who are in receipt of certain disability-type welfare payments such as disability allowance, invalidity pension and blind person’s pension. People resident in the State who have been in receipt of a social security invalidity or disability payment for at least 12 months from a country covered by EU regulations or with which Ireland has a bilateral social security agreement are also eligible for free travel.
The scheme provides free travel on the main public and private transport services. These include road, rail and ferry services provided by companies such as Bus Éireann, Bus Átha Cliath, Iarnród Éireann, Luas and more than 80 private transport operators. The free travel scheme applies to travel within the State and point-to-point cross-Border journeys between here and Northern Ireland. In line with the Government’s objective to put in place an all-Ireland free travel scheme for pensioners resident in all parts of the island, I am committed to significantly improving the North-South element of the current arrangements and hope to be in a position to make an announcement about this soon.
There have been a number of requests and inquiries on the extension of the entitlement to free travel in Ireland to Irish born people living outside Ireland or those in receipt of pensions from my Department, particularly in the UK, when they return to Ireland for a visit. The legal advice available to me is that such proposals would be contrary to the EC treaty, which prohibits discrimination on the grounds of nationality. However, I am continuing to explore all aspects of a possible approach. Recognition of the contribution of emigrants to the growth of this country is a priority of the Government and access for them to free travel arrangements here would be one such gesture of recognition.
I acknowledge the number of times Senator Mooney has formally and informally raised this matter with me in his role as a representative. He has brought to my attention how important this matter is for Irish emigrants, particularly those in the UK with whom he is very close. The Senator is right in that we have almost reached a conclusion on the Northern Ireland issue, that is, to allow citizens in the Republic to travel around the North for free and vice versa. We are within weeks of pinning it down. It will be a significant step forward as it will give us an all-Ireland travel zone.
The east-west issue, particularly in respect of the UK, is not a financial matter in my view, rather a legal one. It is manageable from a financial point of view. It is the Government’s policy to do this, as we wish to extend to our emigrants in the UK the right of free travel here. In an ideal world it would be possible to extend this provision to all Irish citizens in Britain but, realistically, that would be difficult, as one would need to extend it to all citizens of the European Union over 66 years of age. However, 31,000 people living in the UK are paid contributory pensions directly by my Department. While the advice from the Attorney General’s office is that such provision would not be possible, I am continuing to explore whether we can attach a condition to pensions here which would also attach to pensions wherever the people in question reside to allow this.
I have not given up on this issue. Senator Mooney and others have impressed on me the importance of this matter many times. I am determined to pursue the legal difficulties to determine whether I can find a solution. We owe so much to our emigrants that we should try to do this for them.
Mr. Mooney: I thank the Minister. I am sure that his remarks, particularly those made after his official reply, as he put it, will bring some comfort to those in the UK who have been addressing this issue.
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