Wednesday, 14 September 2022
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
Social Welfare Eligibility
This is a bit of a tricky issue. I will give some brief background with a synopsis of this lady's situation. Her name is Margaret. She wrote to me to say she is the mother to her daughter of 36 years. Her daughter has Fraser syndrome and to date is the only one in Ireland with that syndrome. She is deaf, dumb, registered blind and is autistic. She explains how she does the hardest job in the world rearing her disabled daughter, which is extremely demanding and a thankless job. Her day starts at 5.30 a.m., showering dressing, brushing her daughter's hair and tying her shoes. Margaret's daughter is 36 years and she has spent those 36 years as her sole carer. Margaret fractured her pelvis in 2016 and had to give up work. She ended up riding a bike for a year so that she could take her daughter on her very important routine daily walks. In February, Margaret had an operation but had to discharge herself the same day to care for her daughter. If her daughter was in residential care, it would cost the State around €1,000 to €1,500 a week to care for her. However, because of Margaret's position in life, the State has awarded her €4.50 of a weekly allowance to care for her daughter. Margaret wrote that she actually thought she was a good mother but the State had made her feel worthless. She says it is an insult to her and to others who give up their lives and freedom to look after their disabled children.
The letter came from the Department about the allowance being means tested. I am well aware there are many convenience marriages in the country and, after Covid, there are many more. The couple are living two separate lives but they are being means tested as if they were together. That means that poor mother has literally nothing. Her sole job is to care for her daughter. To get that news from the Department would break your soul. I know the woman personally. I see her anytime, and it does not matter what time of year it is, she has to take her daughter out for a walk. It is one of the simplest things. She feels so worthless. She said she did not want to come to me and she did not want to complain but it was such a measly amount. She tried to explain to the Department that the husband, or ex-husband, despite being at the same address, only supports the daily household bills. That lady does not have the opportunity to earn money. She is entitled to a carer's allowance, but because it is means tested including the husband's income, the State has decided to give her €4.50.
I raise this issue in the House because I raised it a good few weeks ago directly with the Minister through the pigeon hole, as it were, but I have had no response or acknowledgement. It does not look good for me when I am trying to do my job to help people, and that is why I raise it here tonight. There has to be a mechanism where a person can, first of all, talk to a human being in any Department, where he or she has an opportunity to come in front of a board or somebody to explain his or her real-life story, to prove it, and to ask that it be looked on with empathy in order that the assessor can see he or she did not realise the situation. That happens. My biggest problem is that I raised it with the Minister directly and I have not had any response - I am very disappointed with that - and I have nowhere for this woman to turn to fight her case for herself and her child. That is why I raise it tonight. I do not expect a magic answer from the Minister of State tonight, but at least once it is on the record we can come back and revisit it.
I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. It is a very challenging situation. Unfortunately, in matters like this nothing is clear-cut. The Government recognises the crucial role that family carers play in Irish society and is fully committed to their support through a range of supports and services. This commitment is recognised in both the programme for Government and the national carers strategy.
Carer's allowance is a means-tested payment primarily aimed at carers on low incomes who look after certain people who are in need of full-time care and attention. At the end of July 2022, there were a total of 91,093 recipients of carer's allowance caring for 102,330 people. The projected expenditure on the scheme in 2022 is approximately €990 million.
The system of social assistance supports provides payments based on an income need, with the means test playing the critical role in determining whether an income need arises as a consequence of a particular contingency, be that illness, disability, unemployment or caring. This ensures that the recipient has a verifiable income need and scarce resources are targeted to those who need them most.
The specific means-test conditionality for the carer's allowance scheme is consistent with the overall rules applying to the range of social assistance payments. It should, however, be noted that the income disregards available for carer's allowance are the most generous in the social welfare system and have been recently increased as part of budget 2022.
For social assistance schemes, the total household income is assessed as part of the means test. In the circumstances where a couple has separated but continue to live in the same home, the Department provides that a social welfare inspector may investigate the case and report on the living and financial circumstances of the couple. This report will assist the deciding officer in finalising the decision on the means criteria and whether they should be assessed separately or as a couple. All decisions may be appealed. I am not sure if this has taken place in the case the Deputy has raised.
The carer's support grant is automatically paid to people in receipt of carer's allowance, carer's benefit and domiciliary care allowance in June of each year. Other carers not in receipt of a carer's payment may also be eligible for the grant. The objective of the carer's support grant is to support carers in their caring role and carers may use the grant in a manner that is appropriate to their needs. The grant is paid in respect of each person being cared for to take account of the additional cost of providing care and to recognise the particular challenges faced by these carers. As part of the 2021 budget measures, the rate of the grant was increased by €150. The new rate of €1,850 came into effect from June 2021. This is the highest rate of the grant since its introduction.
On Thursday, 2 June, the grant was paid to 121,000 carers and their families. The overall cost of the grant in 2022 is expected to be over €262 million. I know these statistics are of no use to the mother the Deputy mentioned. I can raise this matter with the Minister on the Deputy's behalf. It was important that he raised it this evening on behalf of his constituent.
I thank the Minister of State for the answer. There is hope and light in his response. The Department provides the social welfare inspector, so at least there is an avenue there. When the information comes back from the Department, it outlines the deadline for appeal but does not state that the person has opportunities if his or her circumstances are different. I welcome that. I got more than I expected because, I suppose, I am a realist.
This woman wanted to stand up because she suspected that there were other affected parents around the country. She told me that at her age, she should not be worrying about it but that a measly bloody €4.50 a week was an absolute insult. She asked how many more people this was happening to and said she wanted to stand up and fight, not only for her child but also for other families to set a precedent. At least I can ring that woman tomorrow and say we can possibly set up a meeting with the social welfare inspector.
These are individual cases and they can be very difficult. They are obviously also private. I do not feel good about bringing the details of somebody else's private life into a public chamber. As I was asked and given permission to do it and this is the last chance saloon for the person, it needs to be done. I thank the Minister of State for his response. I will follow it up with the lady and also with the Department of Social Protection.
This is the correct Chamber to raise such a situation. It is important for the Deputy's constituent to be aware of that. There is a broader issue about making this information clearer to families in that situation. The information should be made clear on the forms and at point of contact, such as websites, etc. Perhaps the Deputy's constituent was not aware of it. I hope he can bring it to her attention. Many people find themselves in a situation of marriage breakdown or whatever and because of those circumstances are denied benefits to which they should be entitled. I hope the response will provide an avenue for the lady in question and her family. I again thank the Deputy for raising the matter this evening.