Thursday 25 December 2014

John Downing: Saving money on backs of society's vulnerable will end up costing more

Published 10/01/2014 | 02:30

Jan O'Sullivan, Minister  for Housing and Planning. Photo: Tom Burke
Jan O'Sullivan, Minister for Housing and Planning. Photo: Tom Burke

ENDA Kenny is right about one thing: Housing Minister Jan O'Sullivan is a decent and caring person. The danger for the Labour TD is that she and her colleagues have been left trying to explain changes to three home improvement or adaption grant schemes for elderly and disabled people, schemes that appear to have been victims of their own success.

Dublin City Council closed off applications for these schemes this past summer and there are anecdotal reports of long waiting times from other local authorities.

There is a need to stretch budgets, which are under pressure just like many areas of public services right now. In the end of it all these changes amount to cuts by any other name and this has all the hallmarks of another political hit for Labour.

The Housing Minister insists that the overall budget has been increased from €35m in 2012 to €38m in 2013. And the overall thrust of the changes is to ensure more older and disabled people can get these grants. That line of argument is confusing at best.

Let's go back through the Environment Department circular issued on New Year's Eve. This spells out the three schemes involved: housing adaptation grants for people with disability; housing aid for older people; and mobility aids grants.

For all three schemes the government instruction is that all income coming into the house concerned has to be taken into account. Previously it was the spouse's income which counted -- now income from everyone aged over 18 and earning is to be counted.

The age-limit is extended to 23 for people in full-time education. "There should also be a disregard for Carers' Allowance in calculating the household income," the circular states.

All applications must also be accompanied by proof that they have paid or otherwise complied with the rules on the local property tax.

The circular then went on to spell out specific changes to the rules on the three schemes. On the house adaptation, disability and the older people grants, there is 'a scaling back' of the percentage grants allowed for various income brackets.

The two most important points to note here are that any household on an income of €30,000 or less per year now has to find 5pc of the cost as the maximum grant is 95pc. For a household on that kind of income, finding 5pc of the cost of a job could be tough stuff indeed.

The other point is that the overall income threshold for grant qualification goes from €65,000 per household down to €60,000 -- a reduction of €100 per week.

In the case of the older people grant the maximum amount has been reduced by €2,500 per year from €10,500 to €8,000. The qualification age has also been extended from 60 years to 66.

In summary, the 'changes' again are: 1) The incomes of everybody in the house are now counted; 2) The level of grants are to be 'scaled back' in line with income; 3) Any household on less than €30,000 per year still has to find 5pc of the job; 4) The maximum qualification income has been reduced from €65,000 to €60,000; 5) The maximum grant for one scheme has been cut by €2,500.

Any reasonable person looking at points 1 to 5 above would have to conclude that these changes are, in practice, 'cuts'.

A number of the other arguments have been advanced by the Environment Department. Officials say that some €3m extra provided in the past year has to be seen in the context of repeated cuts over the previous years.

Officials say the cutting of €2,500 from the old people's grant is not important. They say the average amount paid under such schemes in 2013 was just under €4,000.

But let us beware of averages. If this upper threshold is so unimportant, why can't it be left alone?

Ms O'Sullivan and her officials insist that anyone in difficult circumstances disadvantaged by these changes can always make a case on 'hardship grounds'. But why push people into that position?

Finally, we cannot let the timing and manner of this announcement pass without comment. Why issue a circular on New Year's Eve?

Any political realist would have known there could not have been hopes that all of this would pass un-noticed in the following days.

Overall, it is clear that these cuts come at a time when more general health cuts make it more difficult for disabled and elderly people to get support and care. Ironically, the general trend risks driving more and more vulnerable people toward hospital and nursing home care. These 'savings' could prove costly in the medium term.

Irish Independent

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