Dáil Éireann - Volume 490 - 29 April, 1998

Written Answers. - Social Welfare Benefits.

15. Mr. Durkan asked the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs whether he will give favourable consideration to the introduction of free schemes for widows under 66 years of age who are at a financial disadvantage and who, quite often, have serious family commitments; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [10111/98]

25. Mr. Penrose asked the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs if he will extend the entitlements of free travel to children whose parents are in receipt of invalidity pension; the cost of extending the scheme to cover the children; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [10104/98]

28. Dr. Upton asked the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs if he will provide free telephone rental allowance, free electricity allowance and free fuel allowance to all incapacitated persons who require full-time care; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [10109/98]

33. Ms Clune asked the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs the reason only a spouse can travel without paying when accompanying a person in receipt of a free travel pass in view of the fact that this restriction discriminates against those who are single or widowed; the plans, if any, his Department has to extend this facility to enable those who have free travel nominate a person other than a spouse to travel with them; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [10035/98]

39. Ms Clune asked the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs if he will widen the eligibility for a companion free travel pass in view of the fact that the conditions exclude many people who are too ill to travel alone but do not qualify because they are not blind or wheelchair bound; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [10034/98]

41. Mr. McGrath asked the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs if his attention has been drawn to the fact that many people with free travel passes are unable to avail of this facility due to a physical disability; the actions, if any, since taking office to improve free travel facilities for physically impaired people; and the initiatives, if any, he plans in this area. [10049/98]

Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs (Mr. D. Ahern): I propose to take Questions Nos. 15, 25, 28, 33, 39 and 41 together.

The free schemes such as free electricity allowance, free telephone rental allowance and free TV licence are available to people, living in the State, aged 66 or over, who are in receipt of a [566] welfare type payment, and who are living alone or with specified excepted people. They are also available to certain people with disabilities under that age who are in receipt of certain welfare type pensions. In addition, widows or widowers between the ages of 60 and 65, whose late spouses had been in receipt of the free schemes, retain that entitlement.

The free travel scheme is available to all people living in the State, aged 66 years or over, as well as to certain people with disabilities under that age who are in receipt of certain welfare type pensions. In addition, widows or widowers, between the ages of 60 to 65, whose late spouses had entitlement to free travel retain that entitlement.

The national fuel scheme is available to assist householders who are on long-term social welfare or health board payments, who are unable to provide for their own heating needs. This includes those who are in receipt of blind pension, disability allowance, invalidity pension, and infectious diseases maintenance allowance.

Free travel companion passes have been available since 1990 to persons who qualify for free travel and who, because of their disability, are unable to travel alone. The free travel companion pass enables a person 16 years of age, or over, to accompany the pass holder free of charge.

Currently, the companion passes are available to the following main groups: recipients of blind person's pension and all blind people who are registered with the National Council for the Blind of Ireland or with the National League of the Blind of Ireland; recipients of disability allowance who are medically certified that they are unfit to travel alone; recipients of invalidity pension who are medically certified that they are permanently wheelchair bound; and persons receiving care from a carer in receipt of a carer's allowance.

The last budget provides for two major extensions to the free travel scheme. The first provides for a free companion travel pass for everyone aged 75 years or over who is medically certified as being unfit to travel alone. The second change entitles all carers in receipt of a carer's allowance to a free travel pass in their own right. These measures will come into effect in September.

An additional change announced in the budget allows for people who are in receipt of invalidity pension, disability allowance and blind person's pension who transfer to certain other social welfare pensions (for example, widow's and widower's contributory pensions) to retain their entitlement to the free schemes. This measure extends the current arrangement which allows only for invalidity pensioners who transfer either to retirement pension at age 65 or to widow's or widower's contributory pension at age 60 or over, to retain their free schemes. The free schemes are reviewed each year in a budgetary context and the proposals raised by the Deputies, all of which have expenditure implications, will be examined in that regard.

[567] The free schemes were originally designed to benefit mainly older people who were living alone. However, over the years, these schemes have been developed and extended and this has led to increasing pressure for further extensions. As a result, the qualifying conditions are becoming increasingly complex which makes them difficult to understand and to administer. It is proposed to undertake a fundamental review of the free schemes, commencing in early 1999, to assess whether the objectives of these schemes are being achieved in the most efficient and effective manner. The review will be carried out by the Department in co-operation with The Policy Institute, Trinity College, Dublin.