I will be happy to find a mechanism to report on this to the House and the social affairs committee. I acknowledge the work of the committee in this area. Its members have put much work into it.
The budget allocated approximately €40 million extra for carers. There are 23,700 carers in receipt of carer's allowance and carer's benefit. The cost of the scheme in 1997 was €46.36 million and it was €190 million at the end of 2003. That figure has been increased this year by approximately €40 million. A new rate increase of €14 per week for recipients of carer's allowance and carer's benefit was also announced in the budget. That is a substantial across-the-board increase.
I have made provision for an increase, from April 2005, in the income disregard in the carer's allowance means test from €250 to €270 and from €500 to €540 for a couple. This will enable an additional 1,000 new carers to qualify for carer's allowance and 2,400 existing carers to receive an increased payment. It will ensure that a couple with two children earning a joint annual income in the region of €30,700 will qualify for the maximum rate of carer's allowance. If the same couple had an income of €49,200, they would qualify for the minimum carer's allowance as well as the free schemes and the respite care grant.
Most Deputies spoke about removing the means test. I estimate it would cost approximately €160 million to abolish the means test, pay the maximum rate of carer's allowance, the respite care grant and the free schemes to the approximately 9,170 people who are estimated to be providing full-time care and are not currently receiving carer's allowance or benefit. I am acutely aware that there are differing views on whether the best use of the €160 million is to remove the means test or to target it in a more focused way at a time when there are competing demands for funds.
Deputy Seán Ryan referred to 150,000 carers. I dealt with this on Committee Stage but will do so again. According to the Central Statistics Office, there are 84,000 carers providing up to two hours' unpaid help; 15,000 carers providing care for over two hours but less than four hours; 8,000 are providing care for over four hours but less than six hours per day; and 40,000 are providing care for over six hours per day. The total number involved is approximately 150,000. The oft-quoted figure of 150,000, therefore, is broken down by the Central Statistics Office to show that 40,000 are providing care for over six hours per day. I am not saying the other caring is not useful and valuable, but in terms of the caring being substantially full time, the relevant figure is 40,000.
This year we focused on the respite grant, which was increased from €835 to €1,000. It was extended to all carers who are providing full-time care to a person who needs such care. By extending that grant to all carers, I hope to meet, to some degree, the requirement that widows get an additional 50% rate, which is what the committee sought. They will now get the €1,000. It does not quite meet the 50% sought by the committee but I reserve the right to continue to examine that issue to see what we can do in that area. I believed it would be more appropriate this year to give them an immediate lump sum for respite care. This acknowledges the fact that they do the work even though they do not get the allowance. Providing the respite care grant is, perhaps, a show of our appreciation for what they do.
A number of categories will receive the respite care grant. The recipients of carer's allowance and carer's benefit will continue to receive their respite care grant, as will recipients of other social welfare payments, for example, widow's pension, old-age pension, one-parent payment, who are also carers, and carers who are not currently receiving payment from the Department but who are providing full-time care. These improvements mean an additional 9,200 full-time carers will receive this grant for the first time. There are criteria relating to employment. The carer must be providing full-time care to a person in need of such care for a period of time and, as in the case of recipients of carer's allowance, a full-time carer must not be engaged in employment for more than ten hours per week.
A total of almost 33,000 full-time carers, therefore, will receive the respite care grant of €1,000 per year. Another change that has been made is that a separate grant is paid in respect of each person for whom the carer is caring.
I thank Deputies for their comments on these amendments.