Wednesday, 25 June 2008
National Carers' Strategy.
Question 72: To ask the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the progress made to date on the development of a national carers' strategy, which was due to be completed by the end of 2007; when this strategy will be completed; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [24899/08]
The development of a national carers' strategy is a key Government commitment in both the national partnership agreement, Towards 2016, and the programme for Government. The focus of the strategy is on supporting informal and family carers in the community. While social welfare supports for carers are a key issue in the strategy, other issues such as access to respite and other health services, education, training and employment are also important.
Co-operation between relevant Departments and agencies is essential if the provision of services, supports and entitlements for carers is to be fully addressed. For that reason, an interdepartmental working group, chaired by the Department of the Taoiseach, was established to develop the strategy. Developing the strategy involves consultation with Departments and bodies not represented on the working group. The Department of Social and Family Affairs, on behalf of the working group, has met with a wide range of organisations including the Equality Authority, Combat Poverty Agency and the Citizens Information Board.
A request for submissions from the public was published in regional newspapers in early March. The closing date for submissions was 18 April 2008. There was a good response from individuals and organisations and the submissions received are currently being examined.
Towards 2016 commits the Department to hosting an annual consultation meeting of carer representative groups and relevant Departments and agencies. Such a meeting was held on 23 January 2008. The theme was the national carers' strategy and groups were given an opportunity to comment on the draft terms of reference and to raise other issues considered relevant in the context of the strategy. It is intended to hold a second meeting with carer groups.
The commitment to the development of a national carers' strategy also includes a commitment to appropriate consultation with the social partners. The first of two consultation meetings with the social partners was held on 8 May 2008. Key issues raised were recognition for carers and their work, access to suitable health services, income support, training, gender issues and balancing employment and care.
It is intended to publish the strategy later this year. In the meantime, substantial improvements have been made to supports for carers as weekly payment rates have greatly increased to €214 per week for carers aged under 66 and €232 for carers aged over 66. The level of the respite care grant has been in creased to €1,700 per year. Qualifying conditions for carer's allowance have been eased, notably with the increased earnings disregards which now stand at €332.50 for a single person and €665 for a couple, thus exceeding the Towards 2016 commitments in this regard.
At the meeting of 23 January to which the Minister referred, the impression was given to those present that work would commence as soon as possible on the strategy and that it would be completed by mid-2008. Next Tuesday, 1 July, is mid-2008. The initial deadline was the end of 2007. What is the Department's policy on deadlines? Does it follow the Government's lead on issues such as decentralisation in respect of which the Taoiseach told us yesterday that while a three-year commitment has not been delivered six years later, it does not matter and we must move on. The commitment to finalise a national carers' strategy is six months overdue and it remains a work in progress.
Will the Minister offer a firm deadline as to when the strategy will be completed? Will she provide more detail on the depth of the consultation that is taking place? There is concern among carers that they will be presented with something which does not meet their needs. There was some discussion at the meeting of 23 January and a position paper was presented at the last meeting with the social partners. The three agencies to which the Minister referred are State agencies or at least related to her Department. Carers and their representative bodies are concerned that the issues of most concern to them may not be addressed in the strategy. They do not even know whether it will include short-term, medium-term or long-term aims and what they will entail.
I appreciate that various Departments and agencies are involved in the process but, as the Minister acknowledged, her Department is providing the secretariat. While the Department of the Taoiseach may be the lead Department, much of the work falls to the Department of Social and Family Affairs. Will the Minister provide a clear timeframe for the publication of the strategy and for its delivery?
It was not possible to meet the deadline of the end of 2007 because the section of the Department dealing with this issue was also working on the Green Paper on pensions, which involved a broad range of consultation, as well as the development of new arrangements for payments to nursing home. However, since this process began, there has been a significant level of positive consultation. The request for submissions has produced submission from 50 organisations, 100 from individuals and some 360 which came through questionnaires.
The Carers Association of Ireland held a series of regional seminars at the end of last year which allowed individuals to put forward their views on the strategy. The association has compiled those contributions into a report which I will launch next week. In the last fortnight I have met representatives of the Carers Association of Ireland and Care Alliance Ireland, the former representing individuals and the latter voluntary organisations. Both groups had an opportunity to put forward their views. All these consultations are feeding into the development of the strategy.
Many of the issues being raised by carers are more relevant to the Department of Health and Children than to my Department. At the same time, because they have such wide-reaching terms of reference, they would impact directly on my Department. The work is ongoing under the Department of the Taoiseach and the target is to complete it by the end of the year.
The association was consulting its own members. In addition, it is always available to consult with the Government with a view to achieving progress. The Minister has told me what I already know. What I seek is a firm deadline. I appreciate that the pensions issue had to be dealt with, but I am not sure what role the Department had in the nursing homes issue. These matters have been on the agenda for some years and to point to them as reasons for the delay in the national carers' strategy is a lame excuse. Will the Minister provide a definitive timeframe for final publication of the strategy?
My Department is not the lead Department on this. The intention is to publish it later this year but there are other Departments involved. It is being led by the Department of the Taoiseach.