Dáil debates

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Adjournment Debate

Social Welfare Benefits.

5:00 pm

Photo of Andrew DoyleAndrew Doyle (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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Against a background of budgetary constraints and challenges to all sectors of public spending, we must first look for value for money. It is calculated that there are approximately 161,000 carers who provide 3.7 million hours of home care a week and probably no more than 30,000 to 35,000 of those qualify for carer's allowance in the first instance. This represents a saving to the State of €2.1 billion if alternative residential care was to be paid for, and we must bear this in mind as a backdrop in any evaluation.

The Carers Association understands more than anyone the current economic challenges and accepts the need for the Government to make difficult policy and budgetary decisions. The association noted the value of the work it does, as we all understand and value it. All it calls for is that the Government would recognise the contribution of carers and protect what has already been achieved in terms of some modest financial assistance. The fear of the association is that there may be a risk to the continuation of the half-rate carer's allowance on foot of the McCarthy report, which recommended phasing it out.

The half-rate carer's payment is used by carers to cover additional costs associated with caring. The payment, which is worth up to €110 per week, is received by carers who are providing full-time care, which, experience has shown, is often in excess of 60 hours per week. Indeed, when we meet deputations locally, some people cannot get away to meet us because they cannot arrange for somebody else to take care of the person they are caring for. This allowance can often make the difference between the person being cared for in the home or not, which in itself creates a substantial saving for the State. In March, the Minister, Deputy Mary Hanafin, stated that the economic situation makes it difficult to commit to major advances in services for carers. It is understandable, as I have said, and the Carers Association recognises this. This is what lead it to produce a set of cost-neutral proposals, the aim of which is to go in some way towards addressing the lack of essential support services available for family carers.

Many carers feel their role is totally undervalued. Carers are a vital element in keeping people at home. However, the association would foresee the need to form a whole new relationship interface with the State and relevant support services to maintain carers in their caring role. The dual approach of putting appropriate community and home services in place, thereby looking after the well-being of the carers themselves, is essential in the development of an effective strategy for all involved.

I have met the Carers Association in Bray. Over 4,000 carers provide care to members of their family and informally to non-members of the family in Wicklow. I find it very difficult given that Towards 2016 promised to develop a carers' strategy as one of its elements. For many reasons, I believe Towards 2016 was flawed but, in recognition of the role carers play, it seems a dreadful tragedy that the Minister could not see her way to producing that carers' strategy. I plead with the Minister's office to ensure that due recognition is given to carers in her approach to the budget. Specifically, I urge continuation of the half-rate carer's allowance. I would appreciate feedback on the issue.

Photo of John CurranJohn Curran (Minister of State, Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs; Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Minister of State with special responsibility for Integration and Community, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Dublin Mid West, Fianna Fail)
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I thank Deputy Doyle for raising the matter, which I am replying to on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Social and Family Affairs. Budget 2007 provided for new arrangements whereby people in receipt of a social welfare payment, other than carer's allowance or benefit, who are also providing someone with full-time care and attention, can retain their main welfare payment and receive a half-rate carer's allowance. Similarly, people currently in receipt of a carer's allowance, who may have an underlying eligibility for another social welfare payment, can transfer to that other payment and continue to receive up to a half-rate carer's allowance.

The report of the special group on public service numbers and expenditure programmes made a range of recommendations relating to the Department of Social and Family Affairs, including recommendations relating to the half-rate carer's allowance. The Department will consider the report's recommendations as part of the Estimates and budgetary process for 2010. Decisions on all of the issues arising will be a matter for Government. No decisions have been made in regard to the implementation of any of the McCarthy proposals relevant to the Department of Social and Family Affairs. Full consideration will, of course, be given to the impact of all the proposals on the recipients involved. The House should be aware, however, that the purpose of the carer's allowance and the half-rate carer's allowance is to provide income support for carers, not to provide for additional medical support for the care recipient.

The Government is acutely aware and appreciative of the contribution made by carers to people needing ongoing care and support. In recognition of this, considerable improvements have been made in recent years in services and supports for carers. The payment rates for the carer's allowance were increased further in the 2009 budget by €7 to €239 per week for those aged 66 or over and by €6.50 to €220.50 per week for those aged under 66. Recipients of carer's allowance are also eligible for household benefits, free travel and the respite care grant.

The means test for carer's allowance has been significantly eased over the years and is now one of the most generous means tests in the social welfare system, most notably with regard to spouses' earnings. Since April 2008, the income disregard has been €332.50 per week for a single person and €665 per week for a couple. This means that a couple with two children can earn in the region of €37,200 and qualify for the maximum rate of carer's allowance, as well as the associated free travel and household benefits package. A couple with an income in the region of €60,400 can still qualify for a minimum payment, as well as free travel and household benefits. These levels surpass the Towards 2016 commitment to ensure those on average industrial earnings continue to qualify for a full carer's allowance.

From June 2005, the annual respite care grant was extended to all carers who are providing full time care to a person who needs such care, regardless of income. The rate of the respite care grant was also increased to €1,700 per year in respect of each care recipient from June 2008.

During 2008 an interdepartmental group chaired by the Department of the Taoiseach, with secretariat support provided by my Department, undertook work, including a public consultation process, to develop a national carers' strategy. However, it was not possible to set targets or timelines which could be achieved because of the prevailing economic position. In that context, rather than publishing a document which did not include any significant plans for the future, the Government decided not to publish a strategy. This position remains unchanged.

However, supports for carers provided by the Department are continuing and have not diminished in any way. It is estimated that the combined expenditure on carer's allowance, carer's benefit, the respite care grant and half-rate carer's allowance will be €650 million in 2009.

The proposals made by the Carers Association covered a range of Departments, including the Department of Health and Children, the Department of Social and Family Affairs and the Department of Education and Science. Officials from the Department of Social and Family Affairs met with representatives from the Carers Association to discuss the proposals made by the association which fall within the responsibility of the Department. There was agreement that the Department would promote the information that the carer's allowance can be shared by two carers providing care on a part-time basis and the Department's website was changed to reflect this.

The other proposals, however, were not cost-neutral and a number of them had considerable costs. For example, one of the suggestions was the development of a needs assessment model and the creation of a website. It would not be appropriate for me to comment further on budgetary proposals at this stage pending the outcome of these deliberative processes.

The Dáil adjourned at 5.25 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 1 December 2009.