Dáil debates

Wednesday, 21 February 2007

Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2007: Second Stage (Resumed)


4:00 pm

Joe Callanan (Galway East, Fianna Fail)

I am delighted to get the opportunity to say a few words on the Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2007. I compliment the Minister on the excellent work he is doing as Minister for Social and Family Affairs. I am proud to be a member of the Oireachtas Committee on Social and Family Affairs at which we have many constructive meetings with the Minister.

The Minister has made great changes in the system in order to get people out of the poverty trap. He has allowed people earn more in the workplace without losing social welfare entitlements. Lone parents can now earn up to €400 per week before losing the full entitlement. Widows and State pensioners over the age of 66 can also have some earnings. Many of these people are able and willing to continue some part-time employment. They can now earn up to €200 per week and still get their full pension. This is welcome.

The provision with regard to non-contributory pensions is also welcome. Previously, a young widow lucky enough to get a contributory widow's pension could earn as much as she liked and still get her pension. However, a widow on a non-contributory means tested pension lost out. For every €1 she earned, she lost €1 of her pension which left her in a poverty trap. The Minister has changed this and these widows can now earn up to €200 without affecting their pension. I welcome the Minister's decision to increase the qualified adult allowance by €22.70 in the budget. I welcome too the fact that an adult dependant can now get an allowance on her own behalf. The increase in children's allowance is also welcome as many families depend on it.

I welcome the increase in unemployment benefit and in the farm assist payment. As a farmer, I welcome the rural social scheme under the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Ó Cuív, which is linked to the farm assist scheme. The rural social scheme does vital work in the country, for example, village enhancement or work with the elderly. In the future, we hope it will operate a nitelink bus service in rural areas. The increase in payments resulting from these schemes is welcome. The schemes encourage people to do work that needs to be done and help create opportunities for people to get back into employment.

I congratulate the Minister on his commitment to carers as this is an area to which I too am committed. Support for carers has always been a priority for Fianna Fáil. Our policy is strongly in favour of supporting care in the community and of enabling people to remain in their homes for as long as possible. This is being achieved through our proposals. Benefits and supports for carers will continue to be expanded and increased. Carer's allowance, carer's benefit and respite grants were introduced by Fianna Fáil in Government. Since 1997, weekly payment rates to carers have been greatly increased, qualifying conditions for payment have been eased, coverage of schemes has been extended and new schemes such as carer's benefit and the respite grant have been introduced. Numbers in receipt of carer's allowance are up from 1,600 in 2000 to 27,000 today.

The budget introduced for the first time an entitlement for carers to retain a full social welfare payment and receive in addition up to half rate carer's allowance. This will boost the income of an estimated 18,000 carers by €109 per week. This is particularly welcome as the Oireachtas committee had been campaigning for this for some time. The Minister listened to us and said he would bring the proposal to Government and he has done that.

The introduction of the new dual payment system demonstrates we now recognise that the carer's allowance is less of a welfare payment and more of a direct support for carer's duties. This gives recognition to carers, especially widows. The situation had been very unfair. Some carers with reasonable income were getting the allowance but some widows were not entitled to the allowance because they were on a widow's pension. It is estimated that some 14,000 currently in receipt of carer's allowance are also entitled to another welfare payment. A further 4,000 people in receipt of other welfare payments are also carers.

Annual respite grants have increased by €300 to €1,500. This will benefit almost 40,000 carers. The increase represents an increase of 490% in the level of grants since the introduction of the grant in 1999. Increases of €18 and €20 in the rate of carer's allowance and carer's benefit will directly benefit 28,500 carers. Means tests for carer's allowance will increase the income disregard by €30 to €320 for a single person and by €60 to €640 for a couple. This means a couple with two children can earn up to €36,240 and still receive the maximum rate of carer's allowance as well as be entitled to free travel and household benefits. In addition, easing the means test will allow an additional 1,200 carers to qualify for payment and 2,500 existing carers will receive an increase in weekly payments. The earnings threshold for carer's benefit increased €30 to €330 per week.

A few years ago when this carer's allowance was introduced we had people coming to our clinics inquiring about it. If they had any earnings, we had to send them home disappointed — if we were being honest with them — because they would not get it but now a married couple earning a reasonable income of €640 per week can qualify for carer's allowance. We are delighted that most people who come to us now can qualify and we hope the threshold will increase in time.

There have been many calls for the scrapping of the means test. In line with other social welfare schemes, a means test is applied to carer's allowance to ensure that limited resources are directed to those in greatest need. The means test has been eased significantly over the years, most notably with the introduction of the spouse's earning disregard. Following budget 2006, since April last the earnings disregard for a couple has been set at €580, which is equivalent to gross average industrial earnings. As a result of the further improvements announced in budget 2007, the disregard will be increased to €640 per week for a couple from April 2007. With these increases in place, a couple with two children will be able to earn almost €37,000 and still quality for the maximum rate of carer's allowance, as well as the free travel and household benefits. This measure surpasses the commitment in Towards 2016 to ensure that all those on average industrial earnings continue to qualify for a full carer's allowance.

Complete abolition of the means test would cost an estimated €140 million in a full year. The Government has an open mind on this issue, but it is debatable whether such a proposal could be considered to be the best use of resources. The view of some support organisations is that such money, were it available, would be more beneficial to carers if it were invested in community care services supporting them in their caring role such as additional respite care facilities, home helps and public health nurses.

In 2005 the respite care grant was also extended to all carers who are providing full-time care to a person in such need subject to employment related conditions. In this regard, there is a need for us to look at the case of farmers where this seems to pose a slight problem. A person who is minding an elderly person and also looking after the farm can be ruled out for the carer's allowance if he or she is not careful because the scheme provides that one may work outside the home for only 15 hours per week. As everybody knows, farming is an unusual occupation in that it could involve 15 hours one week and 20 hours the next. I ask the Minister to allow flexibility in this regard because it is causing a problem in some areas. When we ask the Minister, Deputy Brennan, to do something he always looks at it and finds a way around the criteria to ensure people get their entitlements.

Another improvement to the respite grant is that a carer who is providing care for more than two persons will receive a grant in respect of each person for whom she or he is caring. Previously, a maximum of two grants was paid.

The new social partnership agreement Towards 2016 sets out as a priority the drawing up of a comprehensive national carers strategy that would fully address the provisions of service support entitlements for carers. The Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment has extended the care leave scheme, which allows for the protection of carers' employment, to two years. Also care sharing situations can now be accommodated on the carer's allowance support scheme. This allows two carers who are providing full-time care in an established pattern, for example, every second week, to share carer's allowance income and the annual respite grant. Both carers will also receive the household benefit package of free schemes. We have also moved to accommodate carers providing care on, for example, alternative weeks where a care recipient attends a residential institution on the other week. The increased flexibility in the carer's allowance scheme allows carers to combine the valuable provision of care to a person who requires full-time care and attention and to also participate in work if they so wish. In September 2006 the Minister launched a major nationwide awareness campaign to promote an increase in take-up of the welfare supports and entitlements available to carers. From June 2006 the number of hours a carer may work and still receive a carer's allowance or benefit has been increased from ten to 15. I welcome the Bill and compliment the Minister, a Galwayman doing a good job.


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