Seanad debates

Thursday, 7 October 2021

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Care Services

10:30 am

Photo of Victor BoyhanVictor Boyhan (Independent)
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I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy O'Donovan, to the House for the next Commencement matter on carers in the healthcare system.

Photo of Garret AhearnGarret Ahearn (Fine Gael)
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I, too, welcome the Minister of State to the Chamber. I appreciate his presence. I welcome the announcement yesterday by the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Humphreys, of €308,000 to fund digital training for carers to assist them in gaining employment, the appointment of a new well-being manager and investment under the Dormant Accounts Fund to make European carers day. In fairness, this investment by the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, is very welcome.

Over the last number of weeks, I have had a number of meetings with family carers, including Clare Duffy and Catherine Cox of Family Carers Ireland and also Councillor Richie Molloy from Tipperary who the Acting Chairman would know very well. He does incredible work in south Tipperary in terms of supporting carers on the ground. Carers have faced huge challenges over the last two years with Covid. We sometimes forget how many people are carers and how much they do for people. Approximately 13% of the Irish population over the age of 15 provide care. Family carers provide an average of 38.7 hours care per week, which means that collectively carers provide 19 million hours of unpaid care each week. The annual replacement cost of the care provided by family carers is approximately €20 billion. Carers provide this State with a significant amount of time. Nobody wants to be a carer; it just happens. As a Government, there is much we can do to support them. The carer's guarantee is one initiative. Carers have been asking for this for a long time. Rather than coming to Government every year with their hands out and asking for particular amounts of money, a guaranteed amount for, say, three or five years, and guidelines around how it is to be spent would make a huge difference. In fairness to family carers, they have shown how through this initiative we can end the postcode lottery system of carers. Currently, whether you get a carer or not is dependent on where you live.Someone could be in County Tipperary and need a carer for a number of hours a week but not be able to get one because they are just not available but a person in County Meath, for instance, could be inundated with options of carers. Carers say they have a structure in place to solve that problem and if the money the Government is providing for a carer's guarantee is ring-fenced directly for family carers rather than the HSE, it would go to better use. That is something we should do.

Last year, they said they needed €5 million in the carer's guarantee. The €2 million that was put through the budget was welcomed, but it was not enough. The key is that it is not even spent yet. It is 11 months since that budget and the €2 million that was given to the HSE to spend on the carer's guarantee was not even spent. What they need is certainty in the annual funding of carer's guarantee.

There are many other things we can do as a Government to recognise the contribution that carers make. They are only on €216 a week. That is €13 more than standard social welfare payments. It is not something people would race to do. There is need for recognition in the form of an increase. In fairness, last year we gave an extra €150 for the carer's payment grant, bringing it to €1,850. If we did that again, bringing it to €2,000, it would show the commitment of the Government to family carers. I look forward to the Minister of State's response.

Photo of Patrick O'DonovanPatrick O'Donovan (Limerick County, Fine Gael)
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I am taking the Commencement debate on behalf of the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Feighan, who sends his apologies. I thank the Senator for raising this important issue.

Family carers are the backbone of care provision across the country. Whether caring for a child or a parent with a disability or illness or an elderly family member, carers, through their selfless hard work, knowledge and compassion, enhance the quality of life of the most vulnerable in our society on a daily basis.

The programme for Government aims to prioritise policy actions that protect the most vulnerable, including both those in caring roles and those they care for, as our economy returns to growth in the aftermath of the pandemic. The Department of Health is committed to improving supports for family carers. The national carers' strategy is a cross-departmental strategy, designed around a core vision which recognises and respects carers as key care partners who are supported to maintain their own health and well-being, care with confidence and who are empowered to participate as fully as possible in economic and social life.

Under the strategy, a range of measures have been introduced or extended by the Department to support family carers in recent years. Since September 2018, free GP visit cards have been extended for persons in receipt of the carer's allowance, and the Government commits to further extending this service to those in receipt of the carer’s support grant.

On respite care, the HSE has agreed to fund 27,000 hours of emergency respite through Family Carers Ireland to ensure that immediate care needs of care recipients will be met in the event that a carer is unable to continue in his or her caring role due to Covid-19 or other reasons.

In addition, a carer's needs assessment will be piloted in community healthcare organisation, CHO, 2 this year, which will increase our knowledge of carers' needs. Having a better awareness and understanding of the needs of family carers is crucial to ensure that we develop appropriate services to support carers both within and outside of their caring role.

The programme for Government commits to delivering a carer's guarantee proposal, to which the Senator Ahearn referred, that will provide a core basket of services to carers across the country, regardless of where they live. This commitment is consistent with the national carers' strategy, which seeks to support family carers to care with confidence through the provision of adequate information, training, services and supports.

In budget 2021, €2 million was allocated as a first step towards delivering a carer's guarantee, providing a more standard package of supports to family carers in every region, in tandem with the community and voluntary sector. The Department of Health is actively engaging with the HSE and with representative groups on this matter to ensure the funding will improve equity of access to carer supports across the country.

As the Senator will appreciate, however, I cannot comment at this stage on the outcome of the Estimates process or matters which will be the subject of national service planning in 2022. However, I will bring the matters to which the Senator refers to the Minister of State, Deputy Feighan's attention. He committed, because of his absence today, to meet the Senator Ahearn following the debate to discuss any relevant matters he raised, which I will make note of.

Photo of Garret AhearnGarret Ahearn (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister of State for what he stated regarding the Minister of State, Deputy Feighan. In fairness, Deputy Feighan was in County Tipperary only a couple of weeks ago and he met a dementia group regarding the work it does and the support it needs. He is well aware of it.

Most of the requests I am talking about are essentially in the programme for Government and all I ask is that we implement the programme for Government over the next number of years. That is a genuine request from Family Carers Ireland and we should do what we say we will do. As the Minister of State said, €2 million was ring-fenced last year. That is welcome, but how we fund and spend that is the significant issue.

In the past two weeks we have been talking about a new bank holiday and whether it will be in November or February. For a carer, a family holiday does not exist. They are working every day. They do not choose to do it; they fall into it. Any one of us in this room could be a carer tomorrow and it is only then one will realise the support one needs from Government.

I appreciate the Minister of State's comments and his contribution and I look forward to meeting the Minister of State, Deputy Feighan.

Photo of Patrick O'DonovanPatrick O'Donovan (Limerick County, Fine Gael)
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The Government is committed to improving the supports for carers. Nobody disputes the Senator's bone fides in this. We all deal with these in our constituencies on a weekly basis. The Government is committed to improving services for family carers to enable them to continue caring in confidence and the continued implementation of the cross-departmental national carers' strategy.

The programme for Government commits to providing a carer’s guarantee, ensuring a core basket of services is available to carers across the country, in tandem with the community and voluntary sector. The Department of Health is engaging with the HSE and representative groups.

Promoting better awareness and understanding of the needs of family carers is also crucial to ensuring we develop appropriate services for carers. Officials in the Department of Health actively engage with carers' representative groups and with family carers through the annual carers’ forum.

Our commitment to family carers is laid out in an ambitious programme for Government. Both my colleagues, the Ministers of State, Deputies Rabbitte and Butler, have devolved responsibilities in these areas as well. The points the Senator raised cross the remits of all three Ministers of State, Deputies Feighan, Butler and Rabbitte. I will bring the points that the Senator has raised to the attention of all three of them.

Sitting suspended at 11.17 a.m. and resumed at 11.30 a.m.