A SECRET clampdown on grants that allow elderly and disabled people to remain in their homes has been ordered by the Government.
The series of cruel cuts -- which includes the prospect of people being forced to repay grants if their home is sold -- is spelled out in a memo sent to all local authorities on New Year's Eve, but never officially announced.
Families who receive State funding to help purchase items like stairlifts and ramps or carry out vital home renovations will be hit.
An estimated 10,000 families receive funding from three State schemes each year in order to make their houses more accessible, safer and warmer.
But new rules drawn up by the Department of the Environment and seen by the Irish Independent not only reduce the amount paid to people for work on their homes, they also make it harder for many people to qualify.
And the memo states that the department is also considering the introduction of a "claw-back" -- where the homeowner will have to repay the State if they sell their house.
As part of this rule, those receiving grants of over €15,000 may be forced to repay the entire amount on a "sliding scale" over five years if the house is sold.
"Although there may be an administrative burden associated with this measure, there needs to be safeguards against the grants being used for purposes other than those which were intended," the memo states.
The raft of changes came into effect on January 1 -- after being signed off by Housing Minister Jan O'Sullivan -- but were not publicised at the time.
They include cuts of more than 40pc to certain payments, significant reductions in thresholds and changes to eligibility rules that will see some elderly people lose their grants entirely.
For the first time, officials will assess the incomes of all members of a household before determining the size of a grant.
This means that money earned by a recipient's child or sibling will be considered during the assessment process, along with the incomes of spouses.
The clampdown also includes:
* The slashing of grants by up to €2,500 per year for elderly and disabled people in need of home improvements.
* A reduction in the maximum qualifying income threshold from €65,000 to €60,000.
* Increasing the age limit for eligibility for older persons' grants from 60 years to 66 years.
* A major tightening of rules which will see grants to the elderly paid out for "essential" home repairs only.
* The requirement for homeowners to prove that they are compliant with the property tax before the grant is approved.
* The requirement that an occupational therapist finds that works requested are "fit for purpose" and represent the "most economic means".
Not everybody who qualifies under the means test automatically gets the grant.
Councils have a limited allocation of funding, so the grants go to those in greatest medical and financial need -- and the rest are left on a waiting list.
The numbers applying for the grant, and qualifying under the means test, always exceeds the numbers of grants given out.
Unlike the medical card, passing the means test alone does not result in an automatic entitlement to the grant.
The department last year ordered a review of the three schemes involved -- the Housing Adaptation Grant for People with a Disability, the Housing Aid for Older People and the Mobility Aids Grant.
A review group was asked to examine the rules governing the grants and recommend how they could become "more focused and targeted to those in need".
Ms O'Sullivan sanctioned the measures shortly before Christmas.
However, local authorities were only told on New Year's Eve about the changes, which came into effect on January 1.
While the Government recently announced an additional €10m for housing adaptation grants in Budget 2014, the number of grants given out dropped by a dramatic 25pc between 2010 and 2012.
Groups representing the elderly were furious and said that the changes will hurt the most vulnerable in society.
Head of Advocacy at Age Action Ireland, Eamon Timmins, said: "While the intention of the review was to make the schemes more focused and targeted at those most in need, the impact is that changes to (the) schemes mean that funds will be spread more thinly.
"The poorest of older people (are) now receiving a reduced maximum grant while also being expected for the first time to pay for a percentage of the work."
Mr Timmins added that the decision to cut the eligibility threshold for older people will cause major upset.
"This will result in people who previously could have applied for Housing Aid for Older People now being faced with waits of up to six years to be eligible for grant aid towards making their homes habitable, for example the replacing of heating systems, windows and doors."
A spokesman for the department defended the changes, saying that they were necessary to ensure the money "goes to those who need it".
"It isn't a case of savings. It's about ensuring that we maximise the value of the resources we have available to us.
"It's about ensuring that as many people as possible can avail of these schemes," he said.
The department accepted that recipients would be excluded as a result of the new rules but insisted that it was operating with "shrinking resources".
"We are still paying out on last year's schemes," he said.
"The review is necessary to ensure that the schemes are operating efficiently and ensuring that the money goes to those who need it," the spokesman added.
Niall O'Connor Political Correspondent