Written Answers. - Social Welfare Benefits.

Enda Kenny

Question:

458 Mr. Kenny asked the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs if it is intended to abolish the means test in respect of the carer's allowance; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7512/01]

Trevor Sargent

Question:

471 Mr. Sargent asked the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs if he will recognise in a practical way, the contribution of carers to providing a service which otherwise would have to be paid for by the State; if he will abolish the means test for the carer's allowance and make a carer's payment available to all carers irrespective of their means or any other social welfare payment; if he will announce a timescale for the implementation of any such plans; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [8040/01]

It is proposed to take Questions Nos. 458 and 471 together.

The carer's allowance is a social assistance payment which provides income support to carers on low incomes who look after people, including children, who need full time care and attention.

Based on the research carried out in the review of the carer's allowance, which was published in October 1998, the current number of full-time carers is estimated to be around 50,000 people, covering carers of older people and adults and children with disabilities.

At the end of February 2001, there were 16,748 carers in receipt of carer's allowance. These figures show that 34% of full-time carers are in receipt of a carer's allowance payment which is an increase of 82% in the number of carers in receipt of the allowance since this Government took office. This large increase is reflected in the expenditure on carer's allowance, which was £36.5 million in 1997 and is projected to be £108.4 million this year, representing an increase of almost 200%.

As with all other social assistance schemes, a means test in which the income of both the applicant and his-her partner is assessable is applied to the carer's allowance to ensure that limited resources are directed to those in greatest need.

The means test has been eased significantly in the past few years, most notably with the introduction of disregards of income from employment and other sources.

In budget 2001, in addition to substantial rate increases, I also announced a number of other measures to support carers. In particular, I made provision for a substantial increase from April 2001 in the income disregards in the carer's allowance means test from £75 to £125 for a single person and from £150 to £250 for a couple. It is estimated that this will enable more than 5,000 new carers to qualify for carer's allowance and increase the payment of almost 3,000 existing carers.

The effect of this increase will ensure that a couple with two children, earning a joint income in the region of £15,100, will qualify for the maximum rate of carer's allowance while a couple in receipt of £26,000 will qualify for the minimum carer's allowance, plus the free schemes and respite care grant.
This represents another move towards what I consider to be the optimum situation, which is that all carers, whose joint family income is at average industrial earnings, will qualify for carer's allowance at the maximum rate.
The means test applied to the carer's allowance is one of the more flexible tests in terms of the assessment of household incomes. The income disregards I have introduced already exceed the income limits for the minimum wage rate for joint income households and ensure that carers receive a maximum allowance. It is estimated that almost £180 million would be required per annum to abolish the means test and pay the basic maximum rate carer's allowance to the estimated 33,000 carers who are not in receipt of a carer's allowance. In view of the many supports required by carers, particularly in the community care and respite care areas, I do not consider the abolition of the means test to be the best way to support carers or the best use of resources but, of course, I will keep the issue under review.
The review of the carer's allowance proposed the introduction of a non-means tested continual care payment to recognise carers providing the highest levels of care and to promote care in the community. It envisaged that this payment would be made, irrespective of income or social welfare entitlement, to carers caring for those who are in the highest category of dependency.
In order to differentiate between the levels of care and care needs, the review considered that a needs assessment encompassing both the needs of the care recipient and the carer should be introduced, and that the continual care payment could be introduced following the introduction of such an assessment. It was considered that a needs assessment would separate care needs from income support needs and could be used by all State organisations which provide reliefs or grants to those in need of care.
Establishing a pilot system of needs assessment for carers and people needing care was identified as a priority in the Government's review of its action programme. This area is the responsibility of my colleague the Minister for Health and Children.
The question of further improvements to the carer's allowance and for carers generally will be considered in a budgetary context, taking account of our key priorities in the care area, as set out in the review of our action programme.