Monday, 5 July 2021
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
Social Welfare Payments
I am delighted to see Senator Flynn in the Chair and wish her all the best in her role. I thank the Minister of State for coming this morning. I call for an examination of the earnings of carers, whether family carers, informal carers or carers in general, and social protection for them. Carers have prevailed in the most difficult circumstances during the Covid-19 pandemic. We all have to compliment and acknowledge the work they have done during the pandemic. The Government has referred to carers as the backbone of care provision. The national carers strategy from 2012 states that we must consider carers as key care partners.
Social protection payments for carers fall into five categories. The carer's allowance is means-tested and is for people on low incomes who are caring for an incapacitated person. Half-rate carer's allowance is payable with other social welfare payments. Carer's benefit is a social insurance payment made to someone who gives up work to care for somebody who needs it. The carer's support grant is a cash payment to carers. It used to be called the respite grant. Domiciliary care allowance is a monthly payment.
I pay tribute to Family Carers Ireland, which is based in Limerick, where I am from, because it has provided so much support for carers' health, well-being and quality of life over the years. One of its findings was that 70% of carers find it hard to make ends meet. It found that 21% of carers struggle financially and have cut back on essentials such as groceries and heating to make ends meet; 29% of carers live in households with a total income of less than €20,000 per year; 57% of carers have experienced or are likely to experience debt as a result of caring; and 39% of the respondents said their financial situation had deteriorated over the last year. Compared with the general population, family carers were more likely to report themselves as living in households with a gross income of less than €20,000. The highest rate of carer's allowance for an individual is €385. That applies where someone caring for two people, which equates to a rate of €9.64 per hour. There are various other rates. They are all below the national minimum wage, which is €10.20 per hour. Carer's benefit for caring for more than one person is €330 which, in a 44.6-hour week, equates to €8.25 per hour.
The reality is that carers, especially home carers, provide 24-7 care for 365 days of the year. It is believed they help to keep people out of hospital. There are approximately 500,000 carers in Ireland. It is reckoned that, including home carers, the State saves €20 billion, which is a huge amount of money. In addition, 19 million unpaid hours a week are provided to people who need care. Before Covid, thousands of family carers across Ireland were experiencing financial difficulty. The pandemic has made an already difficult situation much worse. We must begin to give carers the respect and recognition they deserve. We must examine their rates of pay and the benefits they are entitled to, because they are providing the State with substantial savings. The fact that they are caring for loved ones at home is beneficial and helps the longevity of people who are being cared for. Carers must be paid for the work they do.
I thank Senator Byrne for raising this important issue. The Government acknowledges and I personally acknowledge the important role that family carers play. We are fully committed to supporting carers in that role. This commitment is recognised in both the programme for Government and the national carers strategy. My Department provides a range of income supports to financially assist family carers whose caring responsibilities limit their ability to work. The main income supports provided include carer's allowance, carer's benefit, domiciliary care allowance and the carer's support grant. Over 135,000 carers benefit from regular income supports and spending on these payments in 2021 is expected to be in the region of €1.5 billion.
The value of income transfers to family carers has increased by over 50% since 2015. Carer's allowance is the main scheme by which the Department provides income support to carers in the community. Carer's allowance is a means-tested social assistance payment awarded to those carers who are caring for certain people who need full-time care and attention. Carer's allowance is intended to provide an income support for the carer and does not depend on individual care requirements. Where carers are providing care to more than one person, an increase of 50% is applicable. Carers may also, subject to certain conditions, qualify for the household benefits package and the free travel scheme. In some circumstances, carer's allowance can also be paid at a half rate with other social welfare payments such as pensions and disability payments.
The number of hours that a carer can work while still being considered to be providing full-time care and attention was increased from 15 to 18.5 per week in January 2020. As the Senator is aware, in responding to Covid-19, my Department has made special provisions for those who have lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic. A carer whose work ceases as a result of Covid-19 and whose situation qualifies him or her for the pandemic unemployment payment will get the payment along with their current carer income support, whether carer's allowance or carer's benefit. The means test for carer's allowance is one of the most generous in the social protection system. Currently, €332.50 of gross weekly income is disregarded in the calculation of means for a single person. The equivalent for someone who is married, in a civil partnership or cohabiting is €665 of combined gross weekly income. In comparison, the income disregard applied to disability allowance is €140 per week. It is €20 per day for jobseeker's allowance up to a maximum of €60 and the balance is assessed at 60%. The weekly income disregard for jobseeker's transitional payment with 50% of the balance assessed as means.
Changes to schemes are considered in an overall expenditure and policy context and from an evidence-based perspective. Increases to the disregard would result in the provision of additional payments to people who may have significant sources of income while reducing the scope to provide income supports to lower income households. Those existing carers whose sole income is the carer's allowance would not benefit in this circumstance. Any further improvements or additions to the current income supports, including the earnings threshold for carer's allowance, can only be considered in a budgetary context, taking into account other pressures in the Department of Social Protection and other Departments and the available financial resources.
I thank the Minister of State for his response. He has to acknowledge that carers work many hours that are not accounted for. Many of the people who provide care at home for a loved one never apply for carer's allowance. They save the State so much money. This needs to be reviewed. People need to be asked to work with the Department by informing it of how many hours they provide care for. The payments sound great but when one works out how many hours people provide care for, it is below the minimum wage. I would like this issue to be reviewed. Will the Department consider it in the budget in October?
The Minister, Deputy Humphreys, met with organisations representing carers and listened to them outline the scenarios the Senator described. We have the pre-budget forum next week, which I will attend with the Minister. I expect we will hear more about the organisations' views on this area. It is worth noting that despite the substantial extra financial demands due to the pandemic, and in recognition of the vital role that carers provide in our society, my Department announced that the carer's support grant, which the Senator described as the respite grant, would be increased by €150 to a rate of €1,850. The estimated cost of the carer's support grant in 2021 is over €265 million. The new rate is the highest ever rate of the payment since its introduction. I look forward to hearing the views of the carers' organisations next week at the pre-budget forum.I will bring the Senator's point to the attention of the Minister, Deputy Humphreys.