Seanad Éireann - Volume 160 - 01 July, 1999

Adjournment Matter. - Centre for Independent Living.

Mrs. Ridge: I hope the Acting Chairman will show some latitude in the time permitted to me given that I have been very patient for the last hour and a half.

I am surprised that the Minister of State at the Department of Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands is dealing with this matter. I am conscious of developments on this matter since yesterday but I want to ensure that we never find ourselves in such a disgraceful position again with regard to people who have difficulty accessing transport, particularly those who are wheelchair bound.

I am aware that there was no lack of goodwill on the part of Ministers or Departments but yesterday four Departments could not provide a solution to a problem which required emergency funding. The problems faced by those who are wheelchair bound points to the need for a Minister at Cabinet with responsibility for those with disabilities and yesterday's experience bears that out. No one could make a decision. I was sent from the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform to the Department of Health and [272] Children to the Department of Public Enterprise. No one could give me information on what to do about the lack of emergency funding.

Funding has been made available but I am concerned about the future of the Vantastic service. It provides integrated transport for those with mobility problems to get to work and back home. However, it is not just transport, it is part of a way of life. The case showed that the State cannot guarantee its citizens the right to work on a statutory basis.

The Minister of State may tell me that there is an arrangement for a review, that the vehicles suffer from depreciation and that insurance costs are enormous. Dublin Bus purchased 150 non-wheelchair accessible buses and we let the disabled people wait until their service was discontinued on 9 June. We are all guilty but it is Ministers who are supposed to provide solutions. What started as a well-funded good idea in 1995 was not given enough attention. I hope to hear that there will be a contingency plan in such cases in future.

The lobby group for those with disabilities does not have the same power as farmers or gardaí – it cannot withdraw its services and it has to hope that we listen. The voting power of the group is limited. The Government is showing itself to be uncaring.

What happened yesterday was a disgrace. I hope not to see its like again. The disabled groups have had to lobby three times for what has been promised to them under equality legislation. The budget for this service is tiny compared to some projects which the Government funds. This is meaningful for people who are equal citizens but who are not treated as such.

Mr. Costello: One can only describe it as an outrage that people with severe disabilities should have to come to the gates of Leinster House to protest and should have to stay there until they could eke a concession from the Government on a matter of basic human rights – that they be provided with facilities which would enable them to be mobile. It was a scandal to see people outside the House on successive days, determined to get what their entitlement, without an adequate response being offered. Senator Ridge raised the matter yesterday but it transpired that no Minister had responsibility for it. How can it arise that no Minister is responsible when people are in grave need of State assistance?

We still do not know whether there is a Minister responsible for this area. There has been a suggestion that the Taoiseach will assign a Minister but no Minister was prepared to take on the duty of answering on the Adjournment. It is an issue which involves justice and equality, but other aspects are also involved. We need to have a specific ministerial brief for it so we know where to look for a response.

[273] The Centre for Independent Living was looking for modest funding. It sought immediate funding of £105,000 to keep the service going and an annual grant of £350,000. The Government has agreed to provide the £105,000 but has made it clear that there is no commitment to long-term finance for the project. That is not good enough and I hope the Minister of State will not confirm that is not the case. In the absence of a commitment to long-term finance, there will be further protests outside the Dáil. That is hardly humane in an economy which is generating surpluses of billions of pounds and we are talking about a fraction of that on an annual basis to provide the service.

The introduction of 150 non-wheelchair accessible buses, funded by EU money, is an outrage. The Minister of State will argue that they were the only buses available immediately. There was no reason the buses should not have been introduced on a phased basis. After all, they have not arrived yet. The Minister of Public Enterprise told us that it was allowed because otherwise a contract would have to be tendered years in advance. That is an insult to anybody trying to live an independent life and gain access to meaningful mobility. Over the past couple of years since the function was returned to them, Dublin Corporation and the other local authorities in Dublin have decreed that all vehicles which get a taxi plate should be wheelchair accessible. We, as locally elected councillors, have taken an initiative but the Government is not prepared to do the same. Funding for Vantastic is a very desirable proposal. It is a service which began five years ago but which had to be discontinued because the Government did not provide the necessary funding. We need a solid commitment on permanent funding and on the appointment of a Minister responsible for this sector.

Minister of State at the Department of Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands (Éamon Ó Cuív): Ba mhaith liom buíochas leis na Seanadóirí leas ucht a cheist seo a thógáil agus leithscéal a gabháil go raibh ar na Seanadóirí fanacht tamaill. Vantastic was started by the Centre for Independent Living, CIL, in November 1994 as a research project to examine how the transport needs of people with disabilities could be met by an accessible dial-a-ride service. The service commenced with one van and FÁS approved CIL for a community employment scheme to facilitate the running of the service. In 1995 the Department of Health and Children provided lottery funding of £50,000 to ensure the continuation of the service. Some funding subsequently came from the European Union for the purchase of more vans.

The Vantastic service currently consists of eight vans and, as a result of research carried out last year, three of the vans have been franchised out. These franchises operate as local travel clubs in the Baldoyle, Bray and Blanchardstown areas. [274] There is a high demand for the service and Vantastic endeavours to meet the needs of all its clients with the vans completing approximately 85 journeys per day.

Vantastic covers all areas of Dublin city. Currently it transports students to St. Benedict's in Kilbarrack, Roslyn Park, the Irish Wheelchair Association, Lucan Youth Centre, St. John of God services, FÁS and Muscular Dystrophy Ireland.

Staff costs and other administration related costs are covered by FÁS through community employment funding. Income from membership subscriptions is used to pay the costs of diesel, radio control, booking support and some of the costs associated with the leasing of the office.

I understand that expansion of the Vantastic service throughout the greater Dublin area by means of locally based travel clubs is one of the key recommendations arising out of a development plan prepared by consultants. The development plan envisages these clubs as having the potential to establish a quality service with an expanded number of users. Such clubs would franchise a specially adapted vehicle from a central Vantastic company and its members would be entitled to a number of free journeys.

The Vantastic company would seek a number of strategic partners such as Dublin Bus, Rehab, Irish Wheelchair Association or Area Development Management Limited to help fund and expand the core service. The company would offer central booking, fleet maintenance and insurance services to the franchise groups. Staffing of these groups would be through the full-time jobs initiative with the assistance of local development agencies. The service would seek to integrate its service with the expansion of mainstream accessible buses and seek to develop in tandem with developing transport policy.

Preliminary work has already been done around putting the development plan into action and I believe that Dublin Bus has expressed a keen interest in the proposal. Two pilot projects are currently operating and, at a recent seminar for interested groups, interest was expressed by disability groups in Clondalkin/Tallaght, Blanchardstown and Ballymun.

On 9 June the service was suspended as Vantastic could not continue because it had incurred an overdraft of £75,000 with the bank and was faced with a bill of £30,000 for insurance. In recent days we have witnessed clients demonstrating outside the Houses of Oireachtas seeking immediate funding from the State of £105,000 together with annual core funding of £350,000.

Last Tuesday my colleagues, the Minister for the Marine and Natural Resources, Deputy Woods, the Minister of State, Deputy Mary Wallace, and the Minister of State, Deputy Moffatt, met a deputation from the group in the House. The delegation explained the funding difficulties [275] currently facing Vantastic and sought an immediate commitment that £105,000 would be provided by the State.

The Government has agreed to the provision of £105,000 to address the current financial problems of Vantastic and the necessary arrangement [276] are being put in place to furnish Vantastic with the agreed funding. Accordingly, the situation envisaged by Senators Costello and Ridge does not arise.

The Seanad adjourned at 7.10 p.m. until 10.30 a.m on Friday, 2 July 1999.