Supporting carers in our society has been a priority of the Government since 1997. Over that period, weekly payment rates for carer's allowance have been greatly increased, qualifying conditions have been significantly eased and coverage of the scheme has been extended. In addition, new schemes such as carer's benefit and the respite care grant have been introduced.
I announced several improvements for carers in the last budget which will benefit existing recipients of carer's payments and will extend supports to carers who have not previously been eligible for those payments. Regarding the means test for carer's allowance, I have increased the weekly income disregards to €270 for a single person and to €540 for a couple, with effect from this month. That means that a couple with two children can earn up to €30,700 and receive the maximum rate of carer's allowance, while the same couple can earn up to €49,200 and receive the minimum rate of carer's allowance, free travel, the household benefits package and the respite care grant.
It is estimated that those changes will result in an additional 1,000 new carers qualifying for a carer's allowance, free travel, the household benefits package and the respite care grant. In addition, 2,400 existing carers who are currently in receipt of reduced carer's allowance will receive an increase in their weekly payment over and above the general rate increase that they would receive in the normal way.
In response to the Joint Committee on Social and Family Affairs, which stated that the greatest need identified by family carers is the need for a break from caring, I made provision in budget 2005 for major improvements to the respite care grant. That includes the increase of the grant to €1,000 and its extension to all persons providing full-time care and attention, regardless of their means.
Those persons in receipt of other social welfare payments, excluding unemployment assistance and benefit, will be entitled to the payment, subject to meeting the full-time care condition. That arrangement is being introduced to acknowledge the needs of carers, especially regarding respite, and it is estimated that overall almost 33,000 carers will receive a respite care grant from June.
With regard to carer's benefit, one of the conditions of the scheme was that while the carer might work for up to ten hours per week, he or she could not earn more than €150 per week. I improved that aspect of the scheme by increasing that income ceiling from €150 to €270 per week. That measure, which took effect from April, allows those carers who are in a position to work for up to ten hours per week to earn extra income and, equally importantly, it may keep the carer in touch with his or her workplace.
Another condition of that scheme was that the applicant must have been engaged in full-time paid employment as an employed contributor for the three-month period immediately prior to claiming carer's benefit. I have eased that condition with effect from April to make it easier for carers with an atypical work pattern to qualify.
Additional information not given on the floor of the House.
Government policy is strongly in favour of supporting care in the community and enabling people to remain in their own homes for as long as possible. The types of services which recognise the value of the caring ethos and which provide real support and practical assistance to the people involved will continue to be developed, and all allowances and systems of support will be kept under regular review.