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FactCheck: Is Fine Gael right to say it has “maintained disability spending”?

TheJournal.ie’s GE16 FactCheck wades into the middle of a row between Fine Gael and a high-profile Dáil candidate.

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AS PART OF our GE16 FactCheck series, we’re testing the truth of claims made by candidates and parties on the campaign trail.

If you hear something that doesn’t sound quite right, or see a claim that looks great, but you want to confirm it, email factcheck@thejournal.ie.

Chris Lowe in Kildare North saw an interesting tete-a-tete between Fine Gael and a high-profile Dáil candidate on Twitter, and wanted to know what the truth is. So did we, so we did some digging.

CLAIM: Fine Gael has “maintained disability spending” – Fine Gael
Verdict: Mostly FALSE

What was said:

On page 32 of its Long Term Economic Plan, Fine Gael states:

Despite the economic crisis faced by the country in recent years, Fine Gael has maintained disability spending and sought to progress critical policy changes that will benefit people with disabilities.

Earlier this month, Senator and Independent candidate in Dublin South West, Katherine Zappone, called this “fundamentally untrue” and “dishonest spin.”

The facts

When Fine Gael says “Fine Gael” has maintained disability spending, clearly what that actually means is that the government has maintained disability spending.

However, it’s worth noting that both Health Ministers since 2011 – James Reilly and Leo Varadkar – have been Fine Gael TDs, while the Minister for Public Expenditure, Brendan Howlin, comes from the Labour cohort in coalition.

Fine Gael confirmed to TheJournal.ie that the basis of their claim is expenditure from 2012-2015 on Illness, Disability and Carers in the Social Protection section of the public services estimates.

The source of the data can be found here.

It’s this line:

2015estimatesdisability

This spending includes disability allowance, the blind pension, carer’s allowance, domiciliary care allowance, and the respite care grant.

Their starting point was 2012 because that’s the first year for which Fine Gael and Labour set the budget.

While that is true, actual spending can (and frequently does) vary from projections and allocations in the public estimates.

Quick technical point: In gathering these figures, we used “provisional out-turn” in the revised estimates for the year after each year in question, to make sure we were measuring actual spending, after the fact, rather than estimates, ahead of time.

While bearing in mind that the budget for Fine Gael and Labour’s first year was set by the previous Fianna Fáil-led government, let’s see how the trend looks from 2011-2015:

disabilityDSP

Spending was €3.44 million in 2011, falling to €3.28 million in 2013, and climbing again to €3.53 million last year.

Over the course of Fine Gael and Labour’s time in government, there has been a net increase of €87,386 in disability-related benefits, or 2.61%, despite a dip in spending halfway through.

If we bear in mind that the incoming government didn’t set the budget for 2011, the trend from 2012-2015 is a €185,880 increase in spending, or 5.56%.

So this would, in itself, certainly appear to vindicate the party’s claim that they had “maintained disability spending.” In fact, they increased it.

Crucially, however, those figures only address benefits – a relatively small part of the story.

90402744 Senator Katherine Zappone Source: RollingNews.ie

Senator Zappone told TheJournal.ie her contention that Fine Gael’s claim was “fundamentally untrue” is based on overall health and HSE spending in the area of disability services.

She added that benefits were “part of” the picture, but were a “narrow” measure of overall disability spending.

HSE spending on disability services covers the vast bulk of care provided to persons with physical and intellectual disabilities in Ireland.

It includes residential and community care, various therapies, rehabilitation, the provision of medical cards and medication, and so on.

These figures were provided by the Department of Health’s Disability Unit.

disabilityHealth

As you can see, the trend for overall HSE spending is very different.

From 2011 to 2015, there has been a decrease of €50 million in spending, or 3.1%, although it should be noted that the figure for last year is the allocated budget, as actual expenditure is not available yet.

The last year for which a definitive total is available is 2014, when €1.429 billion was spent on disability services – a drop of €147 million, or 9.3%.

And if we bring forward the start point to 2012, recognising that this was the first year for which Fine Gael and Labour set the budget, the comparison looks like this:

  • 2012-2015: Drop of €25 million, or 1.8%
  • 2012-2014: Drop of €125 million, or 8%

So by all four permutations, there was a drop in disability services spending of between €25 million and €147 million, or between 1.8% and 9.3%.

90393725 Enda Kenny speaks with Donal Toolan, during a protest against cuts to disability services. Source: RollingNews.ie

The Disability Federation of Ireland told TheJournal.ie that alongside significant spending cuts since 2008, there had also been a rise in need for disability services.

…We know that needs have been increasing, and that there is a considerable number of people with disabilities with an unmet need for services, for example Personal Assistance services, for speech and language assessments and interventions, and for assessments for occupational therapy, and physiotherapy.
In addition to this existing unmet need, there is no evidence of provision for demographic changes that will see a steady increase of people with disabilities, and older people with disabilities in the coming years.

So to conclude, there has indeed been an increase in spending on disability benefits during the tenure of the outgoing government.

However, annual spending on disability services is on average 450 times greater than benefits.

This means that the impact of the increase in benefits spending is far outweighed by the fall in disability services expenditure, which constitutes the overwhelming bulk of care, therapy and support provided to those with disabilities in Ireland.

Senator Zappone is right to say that benefits are only a narrow component of overall disability spending, and Fine Gael’s claim that they have “maintained disability spending” is therefore Mostly FALSE.

Send your FactCheck requests to factcheck@thejournal.ie

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