Other Questions.

Social Welfare Code.

Arthur Morgan

Question:

69 Mr. Morgan asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the progress that she has made on her commitment to have a review carried out of the overall social welfare code regarding the requirements of the Equal Status Act 2000. [11949/04]

Eamon Ryan

Question:

100 Mr. Eamon Ryan asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs her position on the views of the chief executive of the Equality Authority that aspects of the Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act may be discriminatory. [12097/04]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 69 and 100 together.

In the social welfare code, same-sex couples are treated as individuals, which, in the majority of cases, is to the couple's advantage. For example, where each person of an opposite-sex couple has an entitlement in his or her own right to unemployment assistance, the weekly rate of payment comprises a full rate payment and a qualified adult allowance. A same-sex couple in the same situation is treated as two individuals, and each receives a full rate payment.

The case taken last year by the Equality Authority was on behalf of a same-sex couple where one of the couple had an entitlement to a free travel pass but was refused a "married-type" pass in respect of his partner, in keeping with the definition of a couple used by the Department.

Legal advice received by my Department indicated that, as the Equal Status Act 2000 applies to all non-statutory schemes, including free travel, the failure to award the "married-type" pass would be in breach of that Act, as an opposite-sex cohabiting couple in the same situation would have been awarded the "married-type" pass.

The application of different rules as regards statutory and non-statutory social welfare arrangements would not be sustainable in practice. The amendment included in the Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2004 represents an interim solution which restores the position prior to the free travel equality case, which is that for all social welfare arrangements, "a couple" means a married couple or a pair cohabiting as husband and wife.

When I introduced this amendment, I gave a commitment to a fundamental review of the overall social welfare code as regards the requirements of the Equal Status Act 2000, and I regard this as a positive step. The Equality Authority has welcomed this review which will be done in consultation with all interested parties. The review will aim to ensure that difference of treatment on any of the discriminatory grounds set out in the Equal Status Act 2000 can be justified by a legitimate social policy aim and that the means of achieving that are appropriate and necessary.

As the review will examine complex issues, with possible knock-on effects to areas outside the social welfare area, and will involve a number of Departments, it will take some time to complete. The review will be based on a framework to be agreed with the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. Its scope and terms of reference and the necessary arrangements for undertaking it will be decided in the coming months.

When does the Minister expect the report to be completed? Has the review begun, as of yet? What level of priority does it have? Is she including NGOs among the lobby groups to be reviewed? I wonder whether the report is not just a way of long-fingering the issue because the Government does not want to deal with the issue of same-sex relationships.

The review has not taken place as yet. We have to set up the terms of reference in consultation with the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform and perhaps, the Department of Finance. I offered a number of NGOs the opportunity to participate in the review and that will take place. I gave a commitment to them. I intend to set up this committee to pursue this as quickly as possible. As I indicated heretofore there is currently a consultation document put forward by the Law Reform Commission and I intend to respond to it on the basis of the issues being raised. It is not intended to long-finger the issue. It must be dealt with as quickly as possible. These are issues that need to be addressed without delay. I will address the issue of the social welfare code, but I would prefer to do it in an overall context because there are other issues, as regards taxation, inheritance etc. Those issues equally need to be addressed. As the Deputy knows, my Department has taken a different view, perhaps, to the Revenue Commissioners, on a number of these issues.

The Minister has already referred to some of the aspects about which I wanted to ask. I would like, if possible, more detail in the light of yesterday's report from the Law Reform Commission on co-habiting couples and the fact that there are at least 1,300 couples in same-sex relationships. In view of the reported comments of the chief executive of the Equality Authority and the authority itself, does the Minister accept that what this House has decided as regards the Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2004 and the Civil Registration Act 2004 represents an overly cautious approach that runs against many other initiatives the Minister seems to be promoting with regard to defining and promoting what the family means in the Irish society of the 21st century? Will she accept that what we really need to do is revisit the legislation only recently enacted in respect of both those Acts and put forward measures that really reflect what Irish society is now, and how we should progress into the future?

I have not had an opportunity to read all of the document. However, I understand that one of its recommendations is the definition of co-habitation in social welfare legislation to include same-sex couples in relationships. I intend to study the review in detail and to consider it in the light of the Department's work. As I indicated on the Committee and Report Stages of the Social Welfare Bill, this is an interim solution. On the basis of that interim solution I decided to set up a committee to recommend what changes needed to take place. As regards the Civil Registration Act 2004, I do not know whether we are there yet.

There are 1,300 couples. It is an anomalous situation.

There are enormous issues involved. I for one will be cautious on that issue until such time as the people have said to me that this is the way they wish to go. However, there are other issues with regard to the civil registration Act, on co-habiting per se, which may arise from this evaluation. The Law Reform Commission publication will facilitate much of the discussion that will take place here. It will feed into much of the information. Heretofore, we would have had to start off on a blank page. We need to deal with this issue as expeditiously as possible, particularly on the basis of the social welfare code, taxation and some of the justice and equality issues.

I gave a commitment that this would be expedited without delay. There will be enormous complexities and decisions will have to be made but we cannot continue in a vacuum of policy direction. It is on this basis that I decided to facilitate these discussions. As I indicated, the NGOs will be asked to put forward their views as well.

What kind of timeframe does the Minister have in mind?

Between the Presidency and all sorts of matters such as carers and carers' allowances, I have only a certain number of officials to work with. However, it is my intention that during the summer we will have an opportunity to think about the make-up of the committee and the terms of reference.

Social Welfare Benefits.

Joe Costello

Question:

70 Mr. Costello asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs when the promised consultation document on the benefit design, delivery, cost and financing of long term care will be published; when the subsequent consultation process is expected to commence; when it is likely to be concluded; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [12040/04]

Trevor Sargent

Question:

89 Mr. Sargent asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs if consideration has been given to the analysis of the recent CSO statistics on caring by Age Action Ireland. [12098/04]

Paul Kehoe

Question:

122 Mr. Kehoe asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs if she has given consideration to establishing a national carer’s database with the aid of the Central Statistics Office. [12170/04]

Willie Penrose

Question:

125 Mr. Penrose asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the progress that has been made in her consideration of the 15 recommendations contained in the report, “The Position of Full-Time Carers”, of November 2003 from the Joint Committee on Social and Family Affairs, specifically, the recommendation for the abolition of the means test for the carer’s allowance; if her consideration of the report will be expedited, especially in view of the recent census figures showing that unpaid help for a family member or friend was being provided by nearly 150,000 carers; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [12036/04]

Paul McGrath

Question:

136 Mr. P. McGrath asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the proposals she has to change the eligibility criteria for carer’s allowance, particularly for persons in receipt of a social welfare payment prior to making application for carer’s allowance; if consideration will be given to the need for introduction of an income disregard for those in receipt of a social welfare payment who subsequently qualify for carer’s allowance; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [12169/04]

Bernard J. Durkan

Question:

139 Mr. Durkan asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs if she will relax the means test for carer’s allowance; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [12106/04]

Bernard J. Durkan

Question:

210 Mr. Durkan asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs if she will extend the carer’s allowance with particular reference to the need to alleviate hardship to the wider group of carers who provide the service; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [12324/04]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 70, 89, 122, 125, 136, 139 and 210 together.

The provision of support to carers has been a priority objective of Government since 1997. Over that period we have significantly improved the position of carers through improvements each year in the scheme and this will continue to be a priority.

The report of the Joint Committee on Social and Family Affairs makes a range of recommendations, many of which relate to my Department and a number of which concern the Department of Health and Children. I am always prepared to consider changes in existing arrangements where these are for the benefit of recipients and financially sustainable within the resources available to me. In this regard, the abolition of the means test for carer's allowance could cost in the region of €180 million. This is not feasible in present circumstances and, in any event, it is questionable whether it would be the best use of such resources in the light of other demands.

The committee also made recommendations on other policy and administrative matters which my officials are examining. As regards paying carer's allowance concurrently with another social welfare payment or introducing a "disregard" in respect of that payment, the primary objective of the system is to provide income support and, as a general rule, only one social welfare payment is payable to an individual. Persons qualifying for two social welfare payments always receive the higher payment to which they are entitled.

With regard to a national carers' database, the Central Statistics Office included a question in the 2002 census to identify the number of persons providing unpaid personal care for a friend or family member with a long term illness, health problem or disability. In March this year, the CSO published volume 10 of the census results pertaining to data on people with disabilities and carers. This is a comprehensive document with more than 40 tables of data relating to carers. I have no plans at present to compile further data on carers.

The analysis of this portion of the census found that some 40,500 people provide 43 hours or more unpaid personal help per week, or more than six hours per day; some 23,400 people provide 15-42 hours unpaid personal help per week, or between two and six hours per day; some 84,900 people provide between one and 14 hours unpaid personal help per week, or up to two hours per day.

There are currently approximately 22,000 carers in receipt of carer's allowance or carer's benefit. This means that more than 50 per cent of the 40,500 carers, as estimated by the CSO to be caring for more than six hours per day, are in receipt of a specific carer's payment from the Department of Social and Family Affairs. People providing lower levels of care in terms of time would not necessarily meet all the qualifying conditions for receipt of a carer's allowance.

Deputies will be aware that I launched a study last year on the future financing of long-term care. My Department is finalising the consultation document which aims to focus interested parties on the complex issues we need to address which include benefit, design, delivery, cost and financing which are discussed at length in the report. I intend to have the consultation document issued to all interested parties within a few weeks. A consultation process on the financing of long-term care will follow, the feedback from which will be the starting point for meeting the commitment in Sustaining Progress to examine the strategic policy cost and service delivery issues associated with the care of older people. I hope to establish a working group to conduct this examination in the middle of this year.

I thank the Minister for a comprehensive reply. It is five months since the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Social and Family Affairs issued a unanimous carer's report. Should we not be ashamed of ourselves that in our society 148,754 carers are giving unpaid help throughout the State? Many of these people are over 50 years of age and care in the home for a family member or friend with a long-term illness, health problem or disability. Without that help the health system would collapse. Why can we not provide €180 million for people who provide health care on the cheap for their loved ones and save us many billions of euro? The Minister might say it is not the best use of resources but these people are not in their role for the money. Carers of all kinds want recognition. I recently met a woman caring for a young boy and I confess I would not be able to do her work. However, she is denied a carer's allowance. In a compassionate Christian society surely we can support people like her. We can find €180 million for anything. In her heart the Minister is willing to give it but the Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy, should realise there will be a revolution very soon if he does not stop this hard man hatchet approach to financial policy. People who have given their hearts and souls to looking after people want some recognition, not charity.

The respite care grant should be given to everybody. I acknowledge the Minister increased the grant and she has a limited pool of money. If she had more she might distribute it in some of the ways we suggest. We must stop putting this on the long finger. This issue is going to erupt because the carers' patience is being tried. The 15 recommendations in the carers' report are not the be all and end all.

I remind the Deputy that supplementary questions are limited to two minutes.

This matter is so important I could go on for two hours. Will the Minister ensure the committee to advance the consultation process does so within a defined timescale? The Carers Association and the carers who are depending on us to bring them some measure of relief are closely focused on this.

I intend it will work within a short timeframe. I appreciate people have been waiting for this consultation to take place and it should be finalised within the next two or three weeks. Caring is the greatest priority among all the issues about which the Opposition roars.

Contrary to what the Deputy may think I have taken into consideration the views of the committee, which are very succinct. We implemented one of its recommendations by providing an information pack through the Carers Association. I have met the association which is considering a caring strategy which will link into our process. We will make further improvements in the carer's allowance scheme. It is not so long since this and carer's benefit were introduced, likewise the respite grant, the free schemes and several other facilities that are to the fore in supporting families. This is particularly true for the elderly but includes young people and those who are disabled. I intend to continue to build on the significant progress that has taken place this year, such as the major increase in the income disregard. I appreciate that people believe it should not be a means-tested scheme. There are priorities and it may come to the stage where we identify one and look at other things later. I appreciate the sincerity of all Members on this issue. It is not an income support, it as income recognition of what people are doing.

Hear, hear.

Does the Minister not accept the irony that the CSO figures on the number of carers represent many of those to whom the State offers a duty of care, as many are over 65 years of age? This goes back to the principle we raised in previous questions. It is not a question of the income of the household. The State should make clear statements to the effect that care is best in an environment where there is a strong personal relationship between the carer and the one receiving care and in a place that is familiar to the person in need of care. It is not a matter of comparing the household income of the carer and the person in need of care. The comparison should be what the cost would be otherwise to the State. On every comparison the State allows its citizens to be cared for at little cost. We must challenge this and put aside the principle of only one social welfare payment. So many need the type of assistance that recognises the role they play within their household settings, personal relationships and on behalf of society.

Many of us on this side of the House are annoyed because our society is ageing and the replacement birth rate is declining, yet the white elephants of political issues are brought into debate, such as who of those born here should be a citizen when we need more births and young people to balance our average age profile between those who give and receive care in the future. When we can address those issues we will have an honest and coherent political system. Until then we will continue to raise these questions regularly with this Minister and her successors.

I look forward to the day when the Deputy will be responding to himself. He has raised several issues, specifically citizenship and replacement and it is true that in the next 20 years we will have a large elderly population. There will be problems with pensions and with caring. We must also be prepared to pay to finance long-term care and provide care for older people, and consider what type of financial incentives to introduce to support people in preparing for that day. I met a group today which is very anxious to pursue the issue of pension policy. Its statistics on our attitude to saving are frightening. Unless we change our attitude to saving for the rainy day and investing in pensions or care plans there will be very serious repercussions and people's expectations will not be met.

The Deputy is right. When I looked at the CSO figures about 50% of those in the caring system are receiving the carer's allowance but the statistics also indicate that there are many people over 65 caring for others. This is one of Deputy Crawford's points. There are older people who, while they do not need to be in care, find themselves in that caring situation. That statistic was invisible until the CSO asked the question. One of the problems we had two years ago was the absence of a database of carers or people involved in caring. It is important that we consider policy initiatives on that basis. This is a live issue, many changes are taking place and more must take place. Priorities must be considered. One would not need to be good at economics to compare the cost of paying a carer's allowance and the cost of institutional care.

I have come across two problems in regard to carer's allowance which could be examined by the working group. The first matter is a simple one. A lady who was getting carer's allowance became ill and was no longer fit to fulfil the role of carer. In fairness to the Department, it did not take the money from her straight away. She wanted to get somebody to take over as carer on a short-term basis until her health improved but it was not possible for her to make provision in this regard. The Minister should examine this matter.

Is there interdepartmental contact between the Departments of Health and Children, Social and Family Affairs and others in regard to the elderly? Will the Minister speak to the Minister for Health and Children on this matter? People who are not getting carer's allowance are not receiving any recognition for their work. That does not make sense. In addition to doing the job for nothing, these people can be told by a health board official that the six hours of home help is being reduced to three hours. That is the worst thing that can happen. As a consequence, people are put into homes which cost €1,100 per week. Is it not preferable to give them an extra two or three hours of home help?

I urge the Minister to examine the possibility of allowing for temporary carers in cases when full-time carers fall ill. This matter should be examined when a review takes place.

The Minister said the scheme is relatively new. However, it has been in existence during most of my time in the House and a great deal of change has been made to it. I am especially concerned that farmers and the self-employed, in particular, are being denied access to the carer's allowance by social welfare officers on the basis of the number of stock they own and so forth. This issue has gone haywire. The Minister referred to an attitudinal problem. There appears to be a problem with the attitude of some social welfare officials. There was no problem some years ago. If it was accepted that a son or daughter was giving full-time care to a parent there was no argument the number of hours or the number of cows on the farm. However, some current cases are causing extraordinary difficulties for families. I ask that the matter be examined as a matter of urgency.

There is no question but that there are many people in full-time employment looking after sizeable holdings. We now have a situation where these people are in the yard one minute and may be called back into the house the next. They are doing what is necessary to provide care for an elderly relative yet some social welfare officers appear to have a hang-up about this and go out of their way to prove that they cannot give full-time care because they are doing more than ten hours work on the farm. The situation is crazy.

I can highlight individual cases to the Minister when times were much tougher. No questions were asked of an individual milking 20 or 25 cows. Such people were granted carer's allowances. Now a person with ten suckler cows in the barn at the back of the house is not supposed to have time to look after a loved one. It is ridiculous.

The Minister pointed out one of the problems we have. I acknowledge some of the improvements she has made. We should be clear about that, although there has always been ballyragging from this side of the House. Many of the people involved in caring are elderly. The person being cared for often ends up in a better situation than the carer. We are denying carers respite and all those things that would give them some help. That is why they feel so aggrieved and angry, especially in view of the denial of a carer's allowance, which is small but salutary in the context of the recognition it provides.

I am aware of a case where a husband and wife were looking after a disabled person. The wife got the carer's allowance. However, on becoming a widow she was no longer entitled to this allowance. This serious anomaly in the system should be rectified. I urge the Minister to rectify the matter so that the carer's allowance would continue to be paid so this woman can look after her disabled relative at home.

We have discussed this issue at length. In those circumstances, a single payment would apply. On that basis, it would be determined if the widow would be better off on the carer's allowance or on a widow's pension. If she is a young widow, the former would be the case. Such a decision would have to be made. That issue has been under consideration. The recommendation is that a half-rate carer's allowance would be paid to widows and widowers.

The issue concerning farmers has been brought to my attention on a number of occasions. We will look at the determination of farming practices.

It is extremely serious.

I accept that. I intend to examine the matter. I promised I would do something in regard to the farm assist scheme a couple of years ago; I did that and I will also examine this issue.

That is good.

The farmers' friend.

That is Deputy Crawford.

The Minister's pet.

No, that is not the case. Wait until I am in Monaghan on Saturday morning. It will not be a case of the Minister's pet after that.

I accept that this is an issue. It has been raised on every parliamentary Question Time. We are examining the matter and hope to draw up a policy initiative in the near future. We are working with the Department of Health and Children on what I — we all — consider to be the best option, the home care subvention scheme.

Written Answers follow Adjournment Debate.