This motion is about protecting the rights of older citizens and solidarity between the generations. I do not see any sign of solidarity when the Minister is removing a large number of medical cards, estimated to be 35,000, from people who are over the age of 70 years. They are being removed not only from the elderly, but from people who are sick, people on the breadline and people with disabilities as a result of this budget.
The abolition of the telephone allowance in particular is a mean-spirited cut. This cutback will have serious consequences because, as was said, many older people have their personal security alarms and house alarms linked to their landline. If people are forced to give up their landlines, they will be hit in other ways. I raised the issue of alarm systems last year when the telephone allowance was reduced. Some families told me that their elderly relatives were going into nursing homes and when they went to remove the landline, they learned that the alarm was linked to it. A constituent told me recently, following the recent announcement, that it would cost €111 to disconnect a landline because the telephone company claims it is within the contract period even though there was never a written contract, only a verbal agreement. Irrespective of whether a person keeps the landline or gets rid of it, it will involve a cost and the loss of benefit will hurt an elderly person who had that allowance.
I was interested in what Deputy Joe O’Reilly said, namely, that some people were able to get a better telephone package for their landline. I think that is correct but why did the Government did not refer to this or did it know what could be purchased as regards these packages? If we are going to help older people to live independently and with dignity, I hope the full telephone allowance will be restored. Isolation in rural Ireland, to which Deputy Nolan referred, is a particular issue in this context as is illness. Medical cards are important when one is coping with an illness. Having a telephone is important when people live in an isolated area. The provision of rural transport is also very important. When I hear talk of a review of the rural transport scheme, I get very worried. I hope that services will be maintained for older citizens in a fair and progressive manner. I hear that point being raised all the time and it was even raised today by the Tuam Active Retirement Association who meet every Wednesday. They met today and raised the issues of the increase in prescription charges, the loss of medical cards for the over 70s and the abolition of the telephone allowance. These active retirement groups have been having meetings, their members protested outside the House yesterday and they talked about the difficult situations they find themselves in having worked hard all their lives and made great contributions to society.
Energy costs are also an important factor. Increasing energy costs are putting a good deal of pressure on families and on elderly people who live alone. It is ironic that meetings are currently being held in Galway about increasing restrictions being imposed on turf-cutting. The humble sod of turf is now to the forefront of many people’s minds. Turf is the main fuel in many houses, whether it is used for heating or cooking. More areas of bog are being put out of bounds for turf-cutting. The restriction used to apply to special areas of conservation and now it applies to natural heritage areas.
I hope that all these issues, including in particular the budget measures that will impact on health insurance costs, will be examined. Those measures are likely to worsen the position for elderly people. It is estimated that more than 1 million will face a tax hike with this charge. It will not only affect the gold-plated polices. More and more people over 60 years of age are taking up private health insurance. I understand the number of people over the age of 60 with private health insurance rose by 22,000 between 2011 and 2012. I hope that these measures will be resisted and the Government will reverse them and do so as soon as possible.