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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 22 Mar 2006

Vol. 616 No. 5

Other Questions.

Social Welfare Benefits.

Billy Timmins


56 Mr. Timmins asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the efforts he is making to inform all eligible carers of their entitlement to the respite grant; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [10942/06]

All carers in receipt of carer's allowance, carer's benefit, prescribed relative allowance or constant attendance allowance will automatically receive the respite care grant from my Department next June without having to apply for it. Similarly, carers who get domiciliary care allowance from the Health Service Executive will automatically receive the respite care grant from the HSE.

The respite care grant was extended in 2005 to carers other than those in receipt of a carer's allowance, carer's benefit, prescribed relative allowance, constant attendance allowance and domiciliary care allowance. Carers who do not qualify for a grant under one of these schemes may now obtain a grant if they and the person for whom they care satisfy certain conditions. In 2005 my Department ran a press campaign advertising the scheme in national newspapers and the local press. Posters were put up in various centres and offices. The Department operated a freefone service to advise customers of potential entitlement and assistance in matters relating to the scheme.

For the coming year, all customers who received a grant in 2005 will be contacted individually to inform them of their entitlement and to verify that their circumstances have not changed since last year. Following that, the Department will again advertise the scheme nationally through national and local newspapers. We will also provide a freefone service to outline scheme improvements to customers and to assist them with their applications. Supplies of information booklets and application forms will be available in local social welfare offices as well as on request from the respite care grant section in Dublin.

In addition, the Department will review, case by case, claims that failed to qualify last year because the carer was working outside the home for more than ten hours per week. People in these circumstances may now qualify as the maximum number of hours has recently been extended to 15 hours per week.

My Department will also write to customers who apply for carer's allowance and who do not qualify for payment on means grounds requesting that they apply for the respite care grant payment. They may qualify for that payment as it is not subject to a means test. I extended eligibility for the grant to this new category of applicants in the budget for 2005 to ensure that people who do not qualify for any of the payments I mentioned earlier and who look after people who are not capable of looking after themselves get some recognition from the State for their efforts.

In addition to the 2006 scheme, applications will be accepted for the 2005 scheme up to 31 December 2006. To date, almost 7,000 people have benefited from the 2005 scheme at a cost of just under €7 million. I am satisfied that these arrangements will be successful in ensuring that as many eligible carers as possible are made aware of their entitlement to the respite care grant.

A number of groups who made presentations to the Joint Committee on Social and Family Affairs, even those dealing with social welfare issues day to day, were amazed by the number of people attending a recent conference of some of these organisations who did not know this respite grant existed. The scheme to provide a respite grant to people who had previously applied for the carer's allowance but did not qualify on the grounds of means is excellent. We saw from the census the number of carers who are debarred from getting grants on the basis of their means. Thousands are involved.

It is time we and the Department of Social and Family Affairs started selling this good news scheme. I made some statements on the matter in a radio interview and a significant number of people came to my office as a result. I got application forms for them to apply for the grant and some of them have already received their money. People should be informed of this scheme because thousands of them care for a loved one at home without any help from the State. This respite grant exists but they do not know about it. We and the Department should sell it to them.

I complimented the Minister recently on the family income supplement, FIS. Thousands of people were entitled to that payment but many of them did not avail of it because they did not know about it. The Department launched a media campaign to inform them of it, which I welcomed. I hope it will do the same to promote this respite scheme to the thousands of people who do not know about it. People often have a fear that when they apply for a scheme, there will be a sting in the tail and they will find they do not qualify. There is no means test involved in the respite care grant. Therefore people should apply for it if they do not qualify for any of the other grants. They are entitled to it and I urge the Minister to continue to promote it.

We must compliment the Minister on this innovative and worthwhile scheme. He has done well in the application and implementation of this grant by extending it beyond the recipients of carer's allowance. Undoubtedly, thousands of people entitled to this grant have not applied for it. Will the Department facilitate applications from people who would have qualified last year but who did not apply for it because of their lack of knowledge on the operation and applicability of the scheme?

Will the Department embark on a sustained advertisement campaign, similar to that for the FIS which has reaped dividends, to inform people of this grant? The respite care grant is the only avenue of hope for assistance for many carers who provide essential care to loved ones in their homes. The Minister must ensure the availability of the grant is advertised in every social welfare office, community welfare office, health centre and public area where notice of such schemes is posted. This is a progressive measure on which I compliment the Minister unequivocally. It is greatly appreciated.

At a recent conference in Kerry, carers from the Carers Alliance said that many people did not know about their entitlements. It is a matter of grave concern that people who provide care 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year do not know their entitlements. I know it is only a drop in the ocean, but it provides a small relief to people.

The feedback from the family income supplement campaign, based on initial figures I received this morning, is quite good. I wanted to see to what extent the television and radio advertising was effective and we received an immediate extra 1,000 applications for the family income supplement. I will have more comprehensive figures in a week or two and will supply them to Deputies.

There is no doubt that when one promotes a scheme to which people are entitled, it works. I intend to carry on with further campaigns, perhaps on a scheme by scheme basis, with particular reference to schemes for which people must apply as opposed to those involving automatic entitlement. Perhaps the next appropriate scheme would be for carers and I will examine that possibility.

Up to the end of December 2005, 5,883 claims were allowed and the Department paid almost €7 million between the beginning of 2005 and March 2006. There are approximately 30,000 people in receipt of carer's allowance, all of whom receive payment automatically. On top of that, approximately 7,000 additional people have now claimed it, over and above those already on carer's allowance. We had a rough estimate that between 9,000 and 10,000 additional people would be entitled to the allowance. In that context, an advertising campaign might encourage the remainder to apply and I will consider that option.

The Department will also write directly to the 7,000 people I have just mentioned seeking confirmation that their circumstances are the same. On receipt of such confirmation, we will be able to pay the allowance to them. We have also brought the allowance to the attention of carers associations and all our offices have been asked to promote it. It is referred to in all the magazines and leaflets that carers associations such as Caring for Carers produce. Such organisations do great work and are heavily promoting the allowance. We are receiving a steady trickle of extra applications every week so awareness is beginning to pick up and we will continue to promote it.

Mary Upton


57 Dr. Upton asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs when he expects to introduce the revised diet supplement payment he promised when he launched the recent report on the cost of healthy eating and the cost of special diets; the way in which the revised payment will differ from the current one; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [11002/06]

The report referred to by the Deputy is on a study of the cost of healthy eating and specialised diets undertaken on behalf of the Department by the Irish Nutrition and Dietetic Institute, the findings of which were published on 23 January 2006.

The report is the most comprehensive review of specialised diets and food costs carried out in Ireland in the past decade. It has brought an up-to-date focus on the varying costs of healthy foods and contains modernisation proposals based on the latest medical views on special diets. The report also examined the special diets prescribed in legislation for which assistance is available through the existing diet supplement scheme and considered the appropriate level of assistance required to cater for additional costs incurred in providing for necessary special diets, relative to the cost of a normal healthy-eating diet.

In welcoming the report, I undertook to introduce a revised system of diet supplement payments and I still intend to do so. However before doing that, I considered it essential to have officials of my Department undertake a comprehensive examination of the findings of the report to determine how a revised diet supplement scheme should be developed, taking on board the recommendations contained in the report. That examination is now complete and I expect to introduce new arrangements in April.

People receiving a social welfare or Health Service Executive payment, who have been prescribed a special diet as a result of a specified medical condition and who are unable to provide for their food needs from within their own resources, may qualify for a diet supplement under the supplementary welfare allowance scheme.

Diet supplements are subject to a means test. The amount of supplement payable in individual cases depends on which of two categories of diet, low cost or high cost, has been prescribed by the applicant's medical adviser and the income of the individual and his or her dependants.

The basis for calculating the amount of diet supplement remained unchanged between 1996 and 2004. Increases in social welfare rates and the cost of special diets since 1996 were not taken into account in assessing entitlement in individual cases. However, because increases in the social welfare payment rates were higher than food price inflation since 1996, the shortfall to be met by the diet supplement is less than what it was in the past.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House.

With effect from 1 January 2004 the diet supplement scheme was restructured to take account of increases in social welfare payment rates and the rate of food inflation since 1996. People in receipt of a diet supplement prior to the introduction of the revised regulations continued to receive their existing rate of supplement and the rate will not change until such time as there is a change in their circumstances that would warrant a review of their cases.

In the case of new applicants for diet supplement, the amount payable is based on increased up-to-date diet costs of €44 for low cost diets or €57 for high cost diets, less one third of the applicant's income or one sixth of the joint income in the case of a couple.

The test of affordability under the existing scheme is whether the cost of a special diet is more than one third of a person's income. When it is, a diet supplement is paid to make up the difference. I intend to maintain that approach in the new scheme.

One of the findings of the study undertaken by the Irish Nutrition and Dietetic Institute was that people on the lowest social welfare payment could meet the full cost of the most expensive prescribed diet for less than one third of their income if they shopped in one of the large low-cost stores. However I recognise that not everybody, because of age or location, or for some other reason, is in a position to do their shopping at the cheapest stores. It is my intention that the revised scheme will provide a level of supplement coverage and payment rates to enable people on low incomes to meet the identified extra cost of medically-recommended special diets based on food costs at convenience stores, where prices are invariably higher.

The study also recommended a new framework for categorising the various diets in which all of the prescribed diets would fall and I intend to reflect this in the new scheme. Consequently, the scheme will be simpler. I am also mindful of the importance of ensuring that people on low incomes generally can afford a healthy-eating diet even where they have not been prescribed a specialised diet. The record increases in weekly social welfare payment rates which I introduced in January of this year help towards achieving that objective.

I thank the Minister for his comprehensive reply. The study carried out by Dr. Muireann Cullen of the Irish Nutrition and Dietetic Institute and commissioned by the Department of Social and Family Affairs, through the Health Service Executive, examined the position regarding the purchase of special foods in convenience stores and the large, low-cost stores. Obviously there was a significant difference in price. It is important that any revised scheme for the diet supplement recognises that not everybody can shop in the cheapest shops due to mobility problems, location or other factors. Often elderly people cannot travel to such shops, but they still require special foods. It is important that the Minister does not opt for a supplement based on prices in the low-cost stores, thus leaving those who are forced to shop in convenience stores at a disadvantage.

Coeliacs pay approximately two and a half times more for a loaf of bread than those of us who are not coeliacs. People who must adhere to gluten-free, high-protein, high-calorie, liquid, altered consistency, low-lactose or milk-free diets pay two to two and a half times more for their food and it is important that such people, particularly those on low income and in receipt of social welfare, should not spend more than one third of their income on their specialised diets.

When will the revised diet supplement payment scheme be introduced? It was a foolhardy move that, as part of the savage 16 cuts, the diet supplement was emasculated to save pennies and ensure that the rich man's table would have all the pounds.

I thank Dr. Muireann Cullen of the Irish Nutrition and Dietetic Institute, who did a superb job with the study, modernising it and bringing the information up to date. We are talking here about special diets, the typical additional cost of which, according to the report, is between €3 and €8 per week, depending on the type of diet concerned. At the end of 2005, there were 11,723 people in receipt of a supplement. The cost of the scheme in 2005 was €6.3 million. I am in no way seeking to reduce expenditure here. Rather, I am trying to ensure that the diet is a modern one and Dr. Cullen's study dealt with that issue very professionally.

The study found that a person on the lowest social welfare income could meet the full cost of the most expensive prescribed special diet for less than one third of weekly income, provided he or she shopped at the large, low-cost stores. The report was critical of prices for special diets in a number of other outlets and in a number of locations.

The revised supplement will help a considerable number of people. I hope to sign the necessary documentation in April so we will try to kick off the new scheme from then. The total will be approximately €6.3 million and the scheme will start in April. Again, I thank the institute for an excellent study. The revised supplement will help people with different conditions who are unable to meet their special diet costs in any other way.

I am anxious the Minister makes his announcement quickly and informs us of the guidelines for those on special diets. While I welcome the report, I wish to point out what is typical of Dublin thinking with regard to reports in general.

It is well to advise people to shop at major retail food outlets for value for money. That is typical of Dublin thinking. While there are major food retail outlets in every corner of Dublin city, people in Belmullet, Achill, Ballinrobe or Kiltimagh, particularly those on low incomes, do not have the same access to these outlets or no public transport exists.

The Minister must introduce a scheme to tackle this. The cut in the diet supplement was one of the savage 16 cuts to save some €1 million. Last summer, social welfare officers, whether through a misunderstanding or an instruction, began cutting the diet supplement. I tabled a question on the matter and was glad the Minister and the Department rectified it quickly. The people in question need the assistance of community welfare officers as the specialised foods they require are costly and difficult to locate. I hope the Minister will introduce a new scheme as quickly as possible.

I note the Deputy's comments. The study showed convenience stores are the most expensive places to purchase specialised foods while the large low-cost stores offer the best prices. It also highlighted that a person on the lowest social welfare income can meet the costs. I understand the difficulty for people in remote areas not having access to large convenience stores. The estimated extra cost for a specialised diet is between €3 and €8. The supplement will help towards covering that. I will monitor the scheme as it progresses.

People on low income do not have a choice of retailers or cannot buy foodstuffs in bulk. Some families who have a coeliac child can have many difficulties weaning the child back on to food. In such cases, many parents entice their children with desserts, biscuits and other sweets but these are not covered by the diet supplement payment. Has the Minister information on this? Will the supplement only apply to diets that cover basic foodstuffs?

There is much detailed information on diets prescribed for the purpose of diet supplement. These include diets for diabetics, low-fat, low-cholesterol, high-fibre, gluten-free, low-lactose and milk-free diets. For people under 18 years, it includes high-fibre, diabetic, high-protein, gluten-free, low-protein and low-lactose, modified-protein, high-calorie diets. The revised scheme is not for an ordinary diet but for the extra cost of a special diet. It has been broken down into four categories, gluten-free, low-lactose, milk-free, high-protein, high-calorie and liquidised, altered-consistency diets. I will pass the information on to the Deputy. It is very expert and I am happy that it is targeted. I want to relaunch the scheme because it was somewhat out-of-date.

Departmental Appointments.

Paul McGrath


58 Mr. P. McGrath asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs, since he took office, the number of persons appointed to boards, working groups, committees and any other body comprising nominees from organisations under the aegis of his Department; the number of such appointees who were women; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [10929/06]

The five statutory agencies operating under the aegis of the Department of Social and Family Affairs are the Pensions Board, the Combat Poverty Agency, Comhairle, the Family Support Agency and the Social Welfare Tribunal. In addition the Pensions Ombudsman comes under the remit of the Department.

Since my appointment as Minister for Social and Family Affairs, I have appointed 17 persons to the Pensions Board, of whom eight are women; two to the board of the Combat Poverty Agency, both of whom are women; six to the board of Comhairle, of whom two are women; eight to the board of the Family Support Agency, of whom six are women. I have not yet made any appointments to the Social Welfare Tribunal.

When making appointments to the various agencies I take into consideration the experience, skills and suitability of the individuals concerned having regard to the functions of the board or agency. I also consider the requirements of Government policy on gender balance for membership of State boards.

Although other State agencies are not tackling the gender balance issue, I am pleased the Minister is taking it into consideration in his departmental appointments. Women have a major contribution to make to all State boards. I am delighted the Minister is living up to his responsibility.

National Economic and Social Forum Report.

Thomas P. Broughan


59 Mr. Broughan asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs his response to the recent National Economic and Social Forum report on creating a more inclusive labour market in so far as it relates to areas for which his Department has responsibility; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [10999/06]

The National Economic and Social Forum, NESF, report covers the full breadth of issues involved in creating a more inclusive labour market. The recommendations underlying the report extend beyond the social welfare system, to include local partnership-based strategies, labour market and social inclusion measures and structures, make-work-pay policies, the national employment services, workplace strategies and progression of low-skilled workers.

The Government noted the contents of the report and agreed that it would be considered by all relevant Departments and agencies. It will also be considered by the senior officials group on social inclusion, chaired by the Department of the Taoiseach, in the context of wider labour market issues and process under way. The specific implications of the report for the Department of Social and Family Affairs will be assessed as part of the process.

The report notes that more than €1 billion of State funding is spent annually on measures aimed at helping people into work and tackling problems associated with labour market vulnerability. This encompasses the work of several Departments, including the Departments of Enterprise, Trade and Employment and Education and Science. To improve ways in which this spending addresses its objective, the report recommends that a national strategic framework should be developed to provide better opportunities for vulnerable people to get into and stay at work. This would ensure coherence and integration in a co-ordinated response to improve access to employment, training and education and to finding better quality jobs on the labour market. A more integrated strategic framework would provide better opportunities for vulnerable people to access and remain in employment and facilitate an increased participation in employment for vulnerable groups.

Such a framework could make a significant contribution toward this end as it would build upon a considerable degree of co-operation and co-ordination between Departments and agencies in the administration of the various programmes. An example of this is the roll-out of the national employment action plan, NEAP, between the Department of Social and Family Affairs and FÁS, in which people on the live register are referred to FÁS and find a progression path such as training, education or employment most suited to their individual circumstances.

There is always room for improvement and scope for increasing the value and coherence of expenditure by improving the policies, institutions and measures in place. Given the rapidly growing demand for labour in our economy, a strong business case exists for an inclusive labour market approach, as this leads to a more productive, higher skilled work force. Through the NEAP and a range of other supports, the Department of Social and Family Affairs has already made considerable progress in this regard.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House.

The report makes several specific recommendations with regard to the future direction and administration of social welfare employment supports and the family income supplement scheme. The Department of Social and Family Affairs is considering these as part of the overall Government response to the report but also bearing in mind the context of expected work in this area by the National Economic and Social Council.

In this context, several issues highlighted in the report are already being addressed, including the removal of disincentives to taking up employment or to participating in training courses and to assisting in the transition from welfare to work. These measures include the introduction of special means disregards and tapered withdrawal of benefits as earnings increase, and the provision of employment support schemes such as the back to work programme.

The specific recommendations in the report and others which come within the responsibility of the Department of Social and Family Affairs will be considered, as agreed by Government, in providing incentives for job seekers and other disadvantaged people to become financially independent.

The NESF report demonstrates how unequal society and how fragile the domestic labour market have become. The report was a significant rebuff to how the State spends moneys on welfare services for the long-term unemployed. Government policy continues to facilitate a growing gap between rich and poor. The welfare system does not encourage those out of work for long periods to return to the workforce. Low levels of lifelong learning and the failure to address illiteracy levels means many people, normally available to work, do not receive the training or education to be enabled to do so.

The NESF report identified that society, while wealthier, is more unequal. The richest 20% of the working age population earn 12 times as much as the poorest 20%, the highest level of market income inequality among OECD states. There is less equality of opportunity than in many other European states, despite the large expansion in education and the economy. Some 14% of households in poverty are headed by people with a job, a rise from 7% since 1994. This is a contradiction to the mantra we have all been singing; an indication that employment does not always provide a route out of poverty.

I compliment the Minister on appointing women to State boards; at least he practises what the Government preaches. Ireland is ranked 51 out 56 countries in economic opportunity for women. Ireland has the highest penalties in pay reduction associated with motherhood, with working mothers having lower earnings than women without children. Over 40% of the male working population aged between 15 and 64 are low skilled compared with 20% in Germany. What are we going to do about those factors which indicate that society was never more unequal than it is now and that the labour market was never more fragile? We cannot continue to ignore those sections of society that have not benefited from the prosperity or recent years. The report is a timely reminder of what needs to be done to make Ireland more equal and to ensure that everybody outside the golden circle — not just the select few who bear the insignia of investiture — can play a full part in creating a better society.

That is a major debate and one that we have already had once or twice.

Once or twice, yes.

We could spend a few hours at it so I will not wander down that road too much apart from saying that the report notes that more than €1 billion of State funding is now being spent annually on measures aimed at helping people to get back to work, as well as tackling problems associated with labour market vulnerability. We have agreed many times that the way out of poverty is through employment. That is the target so we try to help people to obtain more education and training to that end. That is the road to better quality employment. We are investing substantially in that area, which helps greatly.

Social Welfare Benefits.

David Stanton


60 Mr. Stanton asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the percentage of carers who currently receive the carer’s allowance; the number of carers; the cost of abolishing the means test; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [10940/06]

Brian O'Shea


76 Mr. O’Shea asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the progress made to date with regard to the recommendations contained in the report of the Joint Committee on Social and Family Affairs, the position of full-time carers; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [11014/06]

Joan Burton


113 Ms Burton asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the progress made to date in his consideration of those recommendations of the NESF report on care for older people for which his Department has responsibility and in particular the recommendation of a broadly based group to develop a national strategy for carers; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [11001/06]

Bernard J. Durkan


188 Mr. Durkan asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the number of relatives currently caring for elderly family members; the number caring for family members with special needs; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [11336/06]

Bernard J. Durkan


189 Mr. Durkan asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the number of carers in receipt of carer’s allowance; the number of persons caring for relatives; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [11337/06]

Bernard J. Durkan


190 Mr. Durkan asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs when he expects to acknowledge the existence of all carers by way of payment; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [11338/06]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 60, 76, 113 and 188 to 190, inclusive, together.

According to the census for 2002, there are 48,500 people providing personal care for more than four hours per day. More than 26,200 of these are in receipt of either carer's allowance or carer's benefit. This means that 54% of carers are in receipt of a specific carer's payment from my Department. The information requested by the Deputy pertaining to the care recipient is not readily available either from Central Statistics Office data or the records of my Department.

Supporting and recognising carers in our society is and has been a priority of the Government since 1997. Over that period, weekly payment rates to carers have been greatly increased, qualifying conditions for carer's allowance have been significantly eased, coverage of the scheme has been extended and new schemes such as carer's benefit and the respite care grant have been introduced and extended.

In line with other social assistance schemes, a means test is applied to the carer's allowance to ensure that limited resources are directed to those in greatest need. This means test has been eased significantly over the years, most notably with the introduction of the disregards of spouses' earnings. Following the budget, from April 2006, a couple with two children can earn up to €32,925 per annum and still receive the maximum rate of carer's allowance. The same couple will be able to earn up to €54,400 and receive the minimum rate of carer's allowance as well as free travel, the household benefits package and respite care grant.

Complete abolition of the means test would cost an estimated €140 million in a full year. I continue to keep an open mind on this issue but I think it is debatable whether such a proposal could be considered to be the best use of resources. The view of some support organisations is that if this level of resources were available, it would be more beneficial to carers if it were invested in further increases to carers allowance and in the type of community care services which would support them in their caring role, such as additional respite care facilities, more home helps, public health nurses and other such services.

I have examined closely the Oireachtas joint committee's report, entitled The Position of Full-Time Carers, which was published in November 2003. This valuable report makes a range of recommendations, many of which relate to my Department and a number of which concern the Department of Health and Children.

In response to the committee, which stated that the greatest need identified by family carers is the need for a break from caring, I have improved and extended the respite care grant in the following ways. Provision was made in 2005 for the extension of the grant to all carers who provide full-time care to a person who needs such care regardless of their means. The grant is now being paid in respect of each person receiving care. Most recently, in the budget, provision was made to increase the amount of the respite care grant from €1,000 to €1,200 from June 2006. To date, more than 34,000 respite care grants have been paid in respect of 2005 and applications for the grant continue to be received.

The Oireachtas joint committee's report also recommends the development of a national strategy for family carers, as does the report of the National Economic and Social Forum, entitled Care for Older People. The Carers Association published a strategy document entitled Towards a Family Carer's Strategy. This is a focused document with clear objectives and actions covering a range of areas and Departments. The issues raised in the NESF's report and in the Carers Association's strategy were included in the deliberations of the long-term care working group.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House.

The report of this working group, which was chaired by the Department of the Taoiseach, is being considered fully by the Government. However, work has already commenced in implementing the recommendations of this report with the announcement in the budget for 2006 by the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children of €150 million in funding for 2006-07 for home support packages and other community-based services.

The report also influenced the social welfare budget package, in which I announced significant improvements in supports for carers. These improvements include the largest ever increases in the rates of payment to carers. The rate of carer's allowance increased by €26.40 to €180 per week for a carer under age 66. The rate for carers over 66 increased by €30.20 to €200 per week, making it the largest single welfare support payment. The rate of carer's benefit increased by €17 to €180.70 per week. These represent increases of over 17% for recipients of the carer's allowance and serve to acknowledge and support the invaluable work of our family carers.

In addition, from June this year, I am increasing the number of hours that a carer may work and still receive a carer's allowance, carer's benefit or respite care grant from ten to 15 hours per week. I am also extending the duration of the carer's benefit scheme from 15 months to two years. The duration of the associated carer's leave scheme will also be extended to two years.

I am always prepared to consider changes to existing arrangements where these are for the benefit of recipients and financially sustainable within the resources available to me. I will continue to review the issues raised by the Oireachtas joint committee and other bodies representing carers and I will continue to strive to bring forward proposals that recognise the valued and valuable contribution of carers in a tangible way.

Written Answers follow Adjournment Debate.