Thursday, 25 November 2021
Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions
Social Welfare Schemes
68. To ask the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection the changes made in budget 2022 to the eligibility for the carer’s allowance; the estimated number of persons who will benefit from this change; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [57202/21]
98. To ask the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection the status of and the position regarding the changes to the carer’s allowance and the domiciliary care allowance announced in budget 2022. [57830/21]
101. To ask the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection if she will provide an update on the changes to the carer’s allowance and domiciliary care allowance announced as part of budget 2022; the efforts being made to ensure they take effect as planned; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [57701/21]
We touched on the changes to the means test for carer's allowance earlier and I wish to probe those further. How many extra will qualify and how many extra existing carers will qualify for the increased payment the Minister referred to earlier? Given the crisis in caring at present with regard to getting people into caring, has the Department any plans to promote these changes?
I propose to takes Questions Nos. 11, 68, 98 and 101 together.
My Department provides a comprehensive set of income supports for carers. These include carer's allowance, carer's benefit, domiciliary care allowance and the carer's support grant. Through these schemes over 135,000 carers are supported by regular income payments. Spending in 2021 on these payments is expected to be approximately €1.5 billion.
I announced a number of measures in budget 2022 which will enable carers to have a higher weekly household income and a higher amount of savings while still qualifying for a carer’s allowance payment. From June 2022, the income disregarded in the means test for carer’s allowance will increase from €332.50 to €350 for a single person and from €665 to €750 for a couple. The amount of capital disregarded in the carer's allowance means test will be increased from €20,000 to €50,000 from June 2022. From January, the domiciliary care allowance will now be available for up to six months in respect of children who enter hospital. Carer’s allowance will also be paid during this extended period where applicable. The Social Welfare Bill 2021 will be published and brought through the Houses of the Oireachtas in the coming weeks.
The Government recognises the important role that family carers play in Irish society and is fully committed to their support through a range of supports and services. The main income supports for carers provided by my Department include carer's allowance, carer's benefit, domiciliary care allowance and the carer's support grant. Carer's allowance is the primary income support provided by the Department for those who cannot earn an income due to their caring responsibilities. The two principal conditions for receipt of carer's allowance are that full-time care and attention are required and are being provided and that the means test that applies is satisfied. Where carers are providing care for more than one person an increase of 50% is applied to carer's allowance. Carers may also qualify, subject to certain conditions, for the household benefits package and a free travel pass.
Carer's allowance acts as an income support for those who cannot earn an income due to their caring responsibilities. The application of the means test not only ensures that the recipient has a verifiable income need but also that resources are targeted to those with the greatest need. The existing income disregard and means test for carer's allowance are the most generous in the social welfare system and the amount of weekly earnings disregarded has been increased in the budget for next year. A more generous means assessment for carer's allowance has been sought over successive budgets by organisations representing carers and Deputies and the measure recognises the role of carers and the contribution they make to society. Deputy Calleary has been promoting and advocating for this.
The increase in the general weekly income disregard will enable more carers with modest incomes to become eligible for carer's allowance and therefore provide an income support to carers whose earning capacity is significantly constrained as a consequence of their caring responsibilities. Increasing the capital disregard will allow carers who have accumulated relatively modest savings, often to provide sufficient moneys to care for a loved one, to retain these savings without it impacting on their carer's payments. That is an important measure. The change to domiciliary care allowance will go some way to address the issue of the small number of children who are in receipt of domiciliary care allowance and are admitted to hospital for an extended period of time.
In October 2021, there were 90,478 people in receipt of carer's allowance. Projected expenditure in 2021 is estimated at €953 million. In the period 2010 to 2020, the number of people in receipt of carer's allowance increased by 76% while expenditure over that period increased by 84%. In terms of carer's benefit, in October 2021 there were 3,344 people in receipt of carer's benefit. Projected expenditure in 2021 is estimated at €47.6 million. In the period between 2010 and 2020, the number of people in receipt of carer's benefit increased by 125% while expenditure over that period increased by 88%. It is fair to say that this indicates a strong commitment by the Government to improving the supports for carers.
The carer's support grant is an annual payment and it was increased in last year's budget to the highest ever level. It is now €1,850 and anybody who has a caring role will get that payment. It is not means tested. In 2014, there were 75,000 receiving carer's grants and in 2020 there were 116,000 people receiving that grant as well.
There was a great deal of information in that. I acknowledge that substantial changes have been made for carers, particularly with the carer's allowance. I welcome those but to quote a phrase that was previously used in these premises, "A lot done. More to do.". The work that carers are doing is extraordinary, particularly at present when it is very difficult for people to get carers even when home help hours are allocated. Family carers, in particular, are being leaned on more. First, what are the Minister's plans to promote these changes?
Second, there are a number of anomalies affecting carers, particularly family carers. I have a case where a family carer lost the fuel allowance because an adult who had been staying in a care centre moved home when the care centre closed as a consequence of Covid. The fuel allowance was taken from the carer. There are anomalies affecting carers that need to be ironed out.
Finally, does the Minister have information on the current turnaround time for carer's allowance and carer's benefit applications?
I acknowledge the Minister's great work on this, particularly her work to change the income disregard and expand it. That will bring in people who are already caring and doing massive work for their families, work that otherwise might have to be done in other contexts. What efforts has the Department made to let people know about the change, in particular people who may have applied previously and been refused based on the old arrangements? Is the Department preparing to contact those people proactively, that is, those it believes may still be caring and might now be brought into the net, or will it be up to families to find out about it and apply?
I welcome the changes. Many of the questions I had intended to ask have already been answered by the Minister. We deal with carers as a group a great deal and they do phenomenal work, much of it hidden. I would love to see empirical work done on what they are saving the State in terms of healthcare. I do not know if that is being done, but it should be done. I welcome the increase in the income thresholds and the increase in the amounts. As a slight aside when speaking about groups, the living alone allowance has been increased over a number of years. The cohabiting group arises repeatedly, where there is a couple who are living and are in receipt of the pension, either as a qualifying adult or a pension in a person's own right.
Suddenly one of them passes away, expenses remain the same and the other gets caught. The Minister should always keep that matter under review. I ask for her observations on that.
I concur with my colleagues in the Chamber. The measures in budget 2022 will bring about positive change to the carer's allowance. Family carers are truly the forgotten front line of this pandemic. This reform to the means test for carer's allowance is a significant step forward. I commend the Minister on introducing this change which will potentially see thousands of family carers qualifying for the payment for the first time. Those in receipt of a reduced rate of carer's allowance due to means should also see their payments increase. We always need to point out and recognise the contribution that carers make and the important role they play in alleviating the pressures on our health service. Can we do more to reduce the financial hardship on family carers?
I thank the Deputies for highlighting the issue. The average time to award carer's allowance after receipt of application in 2021 is four weeks, as compared with seven weeks in 2020 and 12 weeks in 2019. The average time to award carer's benefit after receipt of application in 2021 is four weeks, as compared with five weeks in 2020 and 12 weeks in 2019. Therefore, we are making good inroads and we want to continue to turn around those applications promptly. I know some people find themselves in very difficult circumstances, particularly if a family member is diagnosed with cancer. They need that support because they may need to give up their job.
Deputy Carroll MacNeill asked about domiciliary care allowance changes. She brought this important matter to my attention and I am glad we were able to do that. We are extending the period from 13 weeks to 16 weeks. A parent who was in receipt of carer's allowance will also continue to be paid for those six months while a child is in hospital. Therefore, it will continue and will not be cut off. I know that is a difficult time for parents who may have additional financial burdens. We want to encourage people to apply for it and we can use this House to highlight it. We will certainly get that information out to people that they do not need to worry about their carer's allowance being cut off.
I take the point Deputy O'Donnell made regarding the living alone allowance. I am very conscious of that. It has been highlighted in many reports to me. Every year, we have continued to increase the living alone allowance. The Deputy is right that a couple living together have a joint income and when one of them goes, all of a sudden the other finds a serious drop in income because it is more expensive for somebody living alone. We increased that both last year and again this year. I am very mindful of the issue which comes up every year when we get these reports. We must be conscious of people who are living alone. I was delighted we could increase it again in this year's budget.