Imagination needed to replace mobility allowance scheme fairly
By Fergus Finlay
I DON’T understand how Government departments can act this way and get away with it.
Months ago, the Department of Health was presented with a choice by Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly. You’re doing something illegal, she said, and you’ve got to put it right. According to itself — or at least according to its Junior Minister Kathleen Lynch — the department then agonised for months over the illegal thing it was doing.
But rather than fix the illegality, they decided instead to punish a small group of people with very considerable disabilities, by making life much harder for them and by plunging them into uncertainty. It’s hard to imagine a response more lacking in imagination — or compassion, for that matter.
It’s even worse than that. This is a disrespectful decision, because it takes away independence from people at the stroke of a pen. And they are people for whom the kind of independence that the rest of us can take for granted is a priceless commodity.
The people concerned are that small group of people who qualify for a mobility allowance. They have now been told that the allowance they have been getting, in some cases for many years, will end in four months. It will be replaced by something else — but nobody seems to have a clue what that is or might be.
Who are these people who are about to lose an essential support for their mobility? There are less than 5,000 of them, and according to the citizen’s information website they all meet the following criteria:
* They can’t walk safely, even with the use of artificial limbs or other suitable aids;
* They have been unable to walk for more than a year;
* They’re not medically forbidden to move;
* They need to change their surroundings from time to time to improve their quality of life;
* They must be living at home or in a long-term institution;
* They must pass a means test (the means test is complicated, but only people with very modest incomes indeed will pass it).
There is one other criterion — and this is essentially the one the Ombudsman found illegal. In order to qualify for the mobility allowance, they must be over 15 and under 65. It is possible to qualify for the allowance at, say, age 64, and if you do, you’ll retain the allowance once you pass the 65 mark. But you can’t qualify if you’re over 65 the first time you apply.
The Ombudsman, rightly, said that confining the allowance to people under the age of 65 was discriminatory. In confining it in this way, the Government was acting illegally.
Back in 2008 there was another finding of discrimination in relation to a similar grant — the Motorised Transport Grant, which is paid to around 300 people. They dealt with that back then by removing the upper age limit.
And no floodgates opened when they did it. In a press release the other day the department said that removing the upper age limit from the Motorised Transport Scheme could increase the cost of the scheme to hundreds of millions. But they removed the upper age limit five years ago and the scheme costs the grand total of €1.3m.
The Equal Status Act makes it illegal to discriminate on a variety of grounds — disability and age are among them. The simple and easy solution to the discrimination would be to remove the upper age limit, but the department appear to be afraid that they would have to go further. The mobility allowance scheme is largely confined to people with physical disabilities, but the department appears to think they may have to extend the scheme to cover other disabilities — especially intellectual disabilities. Oddly, however, the majority of adults with intellectual disabilities already qualify for free travel, and very few are physically constrained from using such travel.
Notwithstanding all that, the department has decided that this one small group of people who are eligible for the mobility allowance scheme should be punished now, because the department can’t, it seems, think of any way to fix the illegality they’ve known about for years.
What the department has said is that they’re going to keep the scheme alive for another four months, and then replace it with something else. They’ve asked a former secretary general, Sylda Langford, to come up with a new scheme that won’t cost any more.
Now, Sylda Langford is a strong and able woman, who has been responsible for a great many progressive measures over the years. But the essence of the Mobility Allowance is that it puts a very modest amount of money into the hands of the person with a disability, and enables them to buy a service that’s essential to quality of life. It seems clear already that the department’s preferred approach will be to put the money involved into the hands of service providers and ask them to deal with the transport needs involved.
That will not lead to a result that enhances or protects the independence of the individual. Instead it will make them dependent on even more bureaucracy.
It’s particularly ironic that this approach is being taken at a time when all Government policy towards people with disabilities is beginning to focus on what is known as individualised funding. I’ve written before about the Expert Group on Disability Policy, whose report into better services (and value for money) has been warmly welcomed by the Government.
AS LONG ago as 2011, Kathleen Lynch referred to this report as “proposing what would be a very significant reframing of disability services with the introduction of an individualised budget for people with disabilities in order to put more choice and control directly in their hands … A number of mechanisms are proposed, including direct payments, where the person manages the budget and purchases the supports themselves, or a broker system, where the person still has the choice and control, but the broker administers the budget and contracts for supports and services on their behalf.”
The fundamental problem is that the mobility allowance scheme is a good scheme, but it runs foul of the Equal Status Act.
If they really want to fix it, they’d have done what was done in another case, where elderly people were wrongly charged for their stays in nursing homes. In that case, the Fair Deal Scheme was eventually introduced, with an annual cap on the amount that could be spent. Despite the cap, it’s a scheme that works — and provides dignity.
Putting a financial cap of, let’s say €20m (don’t tell me we couldn’t afford that) on the mobility allowance scheme, while at the same time removing the upper age limit, would almost certainly solve the problem. If it didn’t, it would buy time to develop an alternative without frightening people unnecessarily. But that would require a tiny bit of imagination, wouldn’t it?
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