On Monday evening the Fine Gael and Labour government announced that it was scrapping the Mobility Allowance Scheme and the Motorised Transport Grant Scheme. There was no prior notice given to the various disability groups, which the government claims to be regularly meeting, or to the Dáil. The Ombudsman described it as a ‘bolt out of the blue.’
The two schemes have been in operation for some years and it has been known for at least 13 years that they have been operating illegally under the Equal Status Act. They discriminate against a sizeable number of citizens who have been denied access to them.
The Ombudsman raised the Mobility Allowance Scheme with the Department of Health in February 2009 and pointed out that the upper age limit applied by the scheme was illegal. The Department would have known this from as long ago as 2000 when the Equal Status Act was enacted.
Last October the Ombudsman told the Dáil and Seanad that the two schemes were “operating on the basis of eligibility conditions which are in breach of the Equal Status Acts. The mobility allowance operates with an upper age limit which excludes applicants who are over 66 years; the motorised transport grant operates on the basis of a very narrow definition of disability which discriminates unfairly within the category of people with disabilities”.
In the same month the Tánaiste, in response to a question by Sinn Féin Deputy Leaders Mary Lou McDonald on this issue, said: ‘It is not the government’s wish to withdraw the Mobility Allowance from those who currently have it’. But that’s exactly what the government announced on Monday.
So, instead of tackling this discrimination head on and bringing it to an end the government chose to end the schemes and discriminate against all of those with disability.
The government has tried to disguise its move by hiding behind the argument that the schemes are illegal and that its decision has nothing to do with cost. Nonsense.
The Ombudsman had already recorded that the Department of Health; “said that it was unable to accept the Ombudsman's recommendations that each of these schemes should be brought into compliance with the law. The Department said that the costs of bringing the schemes into compliance with the law could not be borne in present circumstances.”Cost therefore has had everything to do with this decision. The government won’t extend the two schemes because it will cost more. According to Kathleen Lynch the Labour Minister of State at Health the state would have to spend between €170 million and €300 million extra. The choice therefore for the government was between spending that or €10 million.
For Minister Lynch and later the Taoiseach the choice was easy. They took the cheaper option. The government’s claim that it was going to ring-fence the €10 million for this year simply adds insult to injury to all of those disabled citizens who continue to be discriminated against by the government.
The result of the government’s manoeuvrings is that those currently in receipt of Mobility Allowance and the Motorised Transport Grant Scheme will lose it in four months’ time, and many thousands of other citizens who should be receiving some form of disability support will continue to be denied their entitlements.
The various political parties that have been in government over the last 13 years have all known of this problem. The fact is that Fianna Fáil, which was in government for most of that time, was actively discriminating against citizens with disabilities. So too has this government.
Fine Gael and Labour have had two years to fix this problem. The way to do this is to bring these schemes into compliance with the law and to give citizens with disabilities, where appropriate, their entitlement to access to these schemes.
That would be fair and legal. This is what the Ombudsman recommended. But the Department of Health has said these costs cannot be borne. So, the government chooses to scrap the schemes.
Once again Fine Gael and Labour, in pursuit of their austerity policies, are targeting citizens who are least able to defend themselves. Having attacked the incomes of frontline workers they have now turned its attention to the disabled and elderly.
This Government and its Fianna Fáil predecessor have failed people with disabilities.
The government should lift this threat from the thousands of disabled citizens. It should apply the law equally and fairly for all disabled citizens and abandon a policy decision that is mean spirited and will impose severe hardship on more than 5,000 people with disabilities.
The government needs to go back to the drawing board. Its starting point has to be the fact that discrimination is wrong. It also has a responsibility to provide for disabled citizens. It should reflect on the decision it has taken, rescind it; wait until the current review is completed, and consult with those representing disabled citizens before taking any decisions on this matter.