A fortnight ago hundreds of families from across the country protested here in Dublin and in Cork City against one of this most underhanded and vicious of the cuts implemented by this government. They were protesting on behalf of the most vulnerable children in Irish society, children who are unable to speak for themselves. The covert cutbacks to a payment that these children are utterly reliant upon, exposes the cold strategy of the government to mask their own failures with a devastating series of below the radar cuts.

I welcome the Technical Group’s motion this evening as an opportunity for us to raise the plight of the families who gathered outside here two weeks ago. Their profound difficulties with the escalating series of cuts, straining their already stretched resources and undermining their ability to care for severely disabled children, is the human side of insidious cutbacks.  For parents with severely autistic children the DCA is used for vital services such as speech and language therapists, occupational therapy and other special needs therapy. These types of key treatments are absolutely essential if these children are to be in a position to get the most out of their lives.

At €309.50 per month, the payment represents the difference between making ends meet and things falling apart for families trying to provide a good upbringing for their vulnerable children. Given the severe financial pressure that these families are now under this evening’s motion is a timely chance for the government to reflect upon their policy. On behalf of the Fianna Fáil party I am calling on the government to completely reverse their policy on the Domiciliary Care Allowance review process.

Cuts to DCA

On the same day that these familes took to the streets to voice their anger, Deputy Micheál Martin took the opportunity to press the Taoiseach on this issue at leader’s questions. He outlined to the Taoiseach the grim nature of the cuts that have been insidiously introduced. Nearly 50% of children with Autism and special needs have had their payments taken from them. He cited the letter sent out by the department to parents of an autistic child with serious challenges that “The needs of your child are no different than that of any 6 year old”.

The increasingly draconian restrictions on the Domiciliary Carers Allowance are further compounded by hits to the Family Income Supplement and Carers Allowance. Families who face major challenges in raising their special needs children now must face further hurdles put in their way by the government.

The DCA is now paid to 26,000 children across 24,000 familes, with spending on the scheme and the Respite Care Grant, which is automatically paid to all recipients, reaching €145 million in 2011. This money is an integral part of the budget of the families of those 26,000 children who need this payment.

The Department of Social Protection took over responsibility for the scheme from the Health Service Executive in April 2009 and under this government it has ramped up efforts to reduce payments under the DCA. The government review announced over a year ago has prompted a drastic cutback in the DCA. Eligibility for the DCA is not based primarily on the medical or psychological condition, but on the resulting lack of function of body or mind necessitating the degree of extra care and attention required that parents provide.  Each application is assessed on an individual basis. The government is utilising this process to reduce the number of recipients and lower spending.

For example, In January 2012, following a review of their claims, 57 customers were notified that they no longer qualified for the payment. A savings figure of €326,239 relating to these 57 DCA claims and associated respite care grants has been recorded.  This figure will further increase when the savings figure relating to any associated carers allowance is finalised. It is this money that these families need to pay for the therapies and services that are integral to ensuring these children have the opportunity to get the most out of their lives.

Last year the Government reviewed the 402 cases last year and cut the Domiciliary Care Allowance for almost half of these children. The families of 193 of these children were suddenly been told that they will no longer receive the payment.  Most of these are children with autism over the age of 4. These are children with profound learning and intellectual challenges. The DCA was used by their families as a payment to fund vital services. The process did not include any face-to-face assessment of the children affected, so officials had no first-hand knowledge of the care they required. The review also ignored medical evidence of the children’s conditions, and the evidence from parents about the level of care and attention the children need.  People are justifiably wondering how the decisions on cuts were made.

Where payment is stopped as a result of a review, the customer is invited to submit any further information they may wish to have considered and that information will be further examined and/or they may appeal the decision to the Social Welfare Appeals office.

Yet the difficulties do not stop at the subtle elimination of the DCA for hundreds of families. Appealing the decision takes weeks. According to information from the department based on figures for the first quarter of 2012, the average waiting time for appeals dealt with by summary decisions was 22.4 weeks, and 40.9 weeks for those that required an oral hearing. Familes unfairly hit by an inadequate review process are left for months with no recourse and grave uncertainty about their financial future.

In short, the reviews put in place by this government lack transparency, appear to have taken no face to face assessment of the child in question and have all the appearances of the worst aspects of bureaucracy. Most pointedly, they have hit vulnerable, autistic children the hardest. A review process that leaves hundreds of vulnerable families who use a payment to provide a better quality of life for their children bereft of support is a flawed review. The government must change this compromised review process.

Government Cutbacks in Context

The steady reduction in the Domiciliary Care Allowance reflects a broader approach by this government towards covert cuts. The Government has made hay out of defending headline efforts like not reducing social welfare rates but in truth the axe has fallen hard on those least able to bear it. The government policy is to bring cuts in through the back door on the parts of society least able to protest.  Behind a slick spin operation the government has systematically introduced a raft of cutbacks that place a hefty burden upon the shoulders of those struggling to make ends meet and makes a complete mockery out of claims to defend the most vulnerable.

In areas such as Fuel Allowance, Family Income Supplement, Community Employment Schemes, Job Seekers Benefit, Child Benefit, Farm Assist the government has slashed with Newspaper Headlines in mind rather than the actual impact the cuts will have upon the most vulnerable sections of society. Only a strong public backlash against callous cuts to the Disability Allowance forced them to backtrack. Further public dismay at the inevitably impact of CE schemes cuts prompted another “pause” by the Minister which is quickly becoming her trademark. 

These incidents represent moments when the mask of a benign Minister who has avoided significant cuts, slipped and was desperately put back on. In reality while the slow, covert cuts to Domiciliary Care Allowance have taken time to work their way through the system they are having a devastating impact upon hard pressed families. In a similar vein, Carers allowance is now calculated as income for the purposes of the Family Income Supplement (FIS). This will have a major impact on hundreds of families across the country who rely on FIS to make ends meet and will fin themselves ineligible.

The devastating impact of these measures across various exposed sections of Irish society show up the fiction of government social protection policy. Last month’s calculated effort to deflect attention away from a cut to the One Parent Family Allowance is part of that policy of spin. The government strategy is to appear to be avoiding cuts while in fact bringing them in covertly.

The recent Social Welfare and Pensions Bill is a testament to that strategy. But its impact upon ordinary families and its potential in condemning a generation of One Parent Families to the poverty trap will be felt for years to come. The insidious nature of the cuts, shrouded by government spin belies the devastating impact that they have. The Domiciliary Carers Allowance cuts are a strong example of that.

The Regressive impact of Government Policy

However the government cannot hide from the facts. 

This government has abandoned the progressive budgetary strategy developed over the past few years and pursued a regressive policy.

The ERSI has studied in detail the impact of the budgets over these past few difficult, financially challenging years. They found that Budget 2012 imposed greater percentage losses on those with low incomes, the austerity measures since the start of the financial crisis have mostly been borne by high income groups.

Callan, Keane, Savage and Walshe as detailed in the ESRI special articles, concluded that Budget 2012 involved greater proportionate losses for those on low incomes, reductions of about 2% to 2.5% for those with the lowest incomes, as against losses of about 0.75% for those on the highest incomes.

This regressive policy by the government is a stark contrast to the budgetary policy pursued under Fianna Fáil. The paper found that since October 2008, losses imposed by tax and welfare policies have been greatest for those on high incomes, with a lesser impact on middle income groups and the least impact on those with low incomes. It found the same pattern prevailed in public sector pay cuts, with the higher paid bearing the brunt.

A comparative study undertaken by the Commission of austerity measures in six EU states – Spain, Greece, Portugal, Estonia, Ireland and the UK – showed Ireland to be among the most progressive in its policy response, pointing out that in Greece pension cuts were a major feature of the austerity programme, and that the elderly were hardest hit.

The government has failed miserably to emulate this tough but fair approach. Instead they have relied upon spin to mask their covert, insidious cuts that have had a regressive impact upon Irish society placing the burden of fiscal adjustment upon those least able to bear it. Those families affected by the underhand cuts to the Domiciliary Care Alliance know what a regressive policy is all too well.

In conclusion I would like to take this opportunity to once more call upon the government to change its Domiciliary Care Allowance policy.

The impact upon ordinary families who are trying to make the most of life for their children is too deep.

The review process is too flawed and utterly impersonal.

The affect on vulnerable children will be too devastating. 

Tonight motion is a chance for the Minister to come out behind the wall of spin, acknowledge a mistake and change course. Fianna Fáil will support this motion and stand beside the most vulnerable members of Irish society.