I propose to take Questions Nos. 51, 57, 58, 86, 87, 93 and 185 together.
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.
The Joint Oireachtas Committee on Social and Family Affairs "Report on the Position of Full Time Carers" which was published in 2003 makes fifteen recommendations. Some of these relate specifically to my Department and others relate specifically to the Department of Health and Children. The report recommended abolition of the means test for carer's allowance. In line with other social assistance schemes, a means test is applied to the carer's allowance so as 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 disregard of spouse's earnings.
Following Budget 2007, from this month the income disregard for a couple has been set at €640 per week. This ensures that a couple can earn in the region of €36,000 per annum and still receive the maximum rate of carer's allowance and the associated free travel and household benefits. This measure surpasses the "Towards 2016" commitment to ensure that those on average industrial earnings continue to qualify for a full carer's allowance. In addition, I have increased the rates of carer's allowance to €200 per week for those aged under 66 and to €218 per week for those aged over 66.
Another of the recommendations was that where a person is in receipt of a widow or widower's pension and providing someone with full time care and attention, that person should be paid a half rate carer's allowance in addition to his or her pension. In Budget 2007 I was very pleased to introduce fundamental structural reforms in this area which go beyond this recommendation. From September 2007, people in receipt of certain other social welfare payments, who are also providing full time care and attention to a person, will be able to retain t heir main welfare payment and receive another payment, depending on their means, the maximum of which will be the equivalent of a half rate carer's allowance. It is estimated that this measure will benefit approximately 18,000 carers by up to €100 per week at cost of €56.72 million in a full year.
These new arrangements will apply to almost all weekly social welfare payments and to people in receipt of qualified adult allowances. Recipients of jobseeker's allowance or benefit or signing for credits will not be eligible for the new arrangements, given the nature of these payments. This is in line with the arrangements which currently apply to receipt of the respite care grant. The recommended extension of the respite care grant to people in receipt of a social welfare payment other than carer's allowance or benefit and who are providing someone with full time care and attention was implemented in Budget 2005. That improvement went beyond the report's recommendation in that the respite care grant was extended to all full time carers, regardless of means.
One of the fundamental qualifying conditions for carer's allowance, carer's benefit and the respite care grant is that the person be providing full time care and attention to a person who needs such care. However, a person may engage in employment, self employment, training or education outside the home for up to 15 hours per week and still be considered to be providing full time care and attention. Prior to June 2006 this threshold was 10 hours per week. In Budget 2006 I extended the duration of carer's benefit from 15 to 24 months. This is in line with the Joint Committee's recommendation that the 15 month restriction be waived where the person continues to provide care.
The report also recommended the development of a national strategy for carers. I am delighted that one of the key Government commitments in the national partnership agreement "Towards 2016" is the development of a national carer's strategy. This strategy, which will focus on supporting informal and family carers in the community, will be developed by the end of 2007. All relevant departments and agencies will be involved and there will be appropriate consultation with the social partners. Departments are currently in discussions regarding the best way to advance the process.
I am well aware of the particular difficulties faced by young carers especially in trying to juggle school and caring. I know that the Combat Poverty Agency has funded a study of young carers in Cork under its poverty research initiative. I understand that the study involved interviews with five young carers and four former young carers. However, I have not yet seen the report of those interviews and I understand that it has not yet been published.
The improvements for carers, which I announced in Budget 2007, are further evidence of my commitment to working for, and with, carers to deliver increased benefits, supports, and services for them and their families. In that regard and in line with commitments in "Towards 2016" I will continue to keep the supports for carers available from my Department under review.