I move amendment No. 1:
(a) To insert the following after "with less support or respite":
"— despite promises from previous Governments to find a solution, many carers fall between the cracks in the Irish State Pension system and face a retirement characterised by financial uncertainty;
— the Programme for Government commits to finding a 'pension solution' for carers;
— there is a need to ensure that no carer is denied a pension, or receives a reduced-rate pension, due to significant periods spent in caregiving;
— there is no economic or social argument that should deny people who spend significant portions of their working lives in caring roles financial security in their old age; and
— whatever the cost of the benefit to the Exchequer, it could never equal the economic and social benefit to the State from the work of long-term carers;"
(b) To insert the following after "timeframe to ensure the implementation of all actions":
"— implement a pension solution for carers that ensures people who spend the majority of their working lives in caring roles can look forward to some element of financial security from the State;
— remove the 20-year limit on credited Pay Related Social Insurance (PRSI) contributions for carers;
— disregard the need for 520 paid PRSI contributions for carers who have spent in excess of 25 years in a caring role, and treat credited contributions the same as paid contributions for the purpose of calculating State Pension benefits; and
— make a statement of its commitment to caring for carers by the institution of a dedicated long-term carer’s pension scheme to ensure the removal of other anomalies in the PRSI and social welfare system which leave many people (the majority of whom are women) without access to financial security in retirement as a result of spending the majority of their working lives in caring roles — this would involve a pension payable at the same rate as the maximum State Pension (Contributory) which would not be means tested."
I thank Sinn Féin for tabling this motion. The Social Democrats will fully support it. Family Carers Ireland estimates that family carers save the State €20 billion a year. This is an astronomical figure. Despite the indisputable value and worth that family carers provide the State, they have never been afforded proper respect, dignity or remuneration for their work. How we treat carers directly reflects and affects how we value those who need care.
People with disabilities and illness who are outside the workforce are consistently the most at risk of poverty. This motion has many merits and is actively trying to undo some of the long-term damage of family carers' work being taken for granted, ignored and significantly undervalued by our State, as well as more recent issues arising from the pandemic and the recent scandal involving the Department of Health compiling and storing private and intimate information on children and families.
I have stated many times that Covid has exacerbated pre-existing inequalities and made visible inequalities that we should never be allowed to unsee. To go back to "normal" would be a failure of the State. Let us remember what normality means. For many family carers, it means fighting tooth and nail for basic rights to education and services for their children. Earlier this week, I am sure we all heard of seven-year-old Lexi Forde, whose family was told she would not be seen by the HSE school-age support services until late 2026. Though this seems to have been a mistake, we have all heard and made representations for children and families in similar situations across the country. Normality for these families also means potentially having their privacy invaded by the State when fighting to keep these rights, as we learned from the courageous action by Shane Corr. Normality for carers means greater financial hardships and instability, and poorer mental health, with carers more likely to report a form of depression than non-carers, according to the Irish health survey of 2019.
I take this opportunity to read some quotes from carers who responded to Family Carers Ireland’s survey, Caring Through Covid. One respondent said: “I was already burnt out from caring 24/7 but now doing it without school, respite, home support and night nurses I’m totally exhausted and since we can’t see any other family I feel forgotten.” Another said: “My mental health is suffering, I have always been strong and a solid ‘coper’. I have navigated many challenges in life but this is by far the most difficult.” Another said: “Having no break or support is affecting my own well-being which affects the level of care I can give.” These experiences of family carers were gathered between 14 April and 5 May 2020. Burnt out, exhausted and forgotten: nearly a year on, these feelings are only amplified.
I want to particularly mention the urgent need for the emergency talk therapy fund, referenced in the motion, which would provide family carers access to sessions with accredited counsellors and therapists, as well as the need for increased respite capacity and full resumption of day services. I also reiterate a call to reconvene the NPHET vulnerable people subgroup, a point I raised with the Tánaiste back in late January but which is still to be acted upon. Members of this group have been calling for family carers to be included in the vaccine roll-out for some time and their expertise and insight was invaluable prior to it being disbanded in August 2020.
Despite the merits of this motion, of which there are many, I want to discuss two amendments which the Social Democrats have put forward with the aim of addressing the pension gap for carers. The result of this gap is that thousands of carers neither qualify for a contributor State pension due to significant periods out of the workforce while they are providing care, nor a not-contributory State pension due to it being means-tested. As we can all appreciate, there can be a stark difference between what one qualifies for and what one deserves. Currently, these carers who slip between the cracks do so because they do not qualify for a State pension payment, not because they do not deserve or have not earned such a benefit. It means financial insecurity for many family carers in later life and the only reason for this is that they have dedicated significant portions of their working lives to their caring role.
I would like to include the voice of family carers and will read in to the Dáil record statements from family carers about this very issue, sourced from the State of Caring 2020 by Family Carers Ireland. One said: “If I wasn’t caring, I would be working full time and eligible for a pension when I get older. But because I’m an unrecognised carer my entitlement to a State Pension may be at risk.” Another said: “I had to give up my career to care for my son full-time. It’s been years now. No career. No income. No pension. Nothing left.” Another said: “I will have no pension due to years of caring. I’m worried to the point of anxiety/panic about my future years.” All of these statements from family careers are harrowing. It should not be the case that carers are literally losing sleep because they may not be able to qualify for a pension later in life due to them performing necessary and valued caring work to the benefit of the State.
Not only are we guilty of not supporting carers in their present-day situation, we are also guilty of putting their future at risk by not committing to a State pension for carers. We must care for carers both now and in the future, when they reach old age. This is what the amendments put forward by the Social Democrats are trying to ensure through the institution of a dedicated long-term carer's pension scheme.
Family carers who are the parent of a child with a disability or illness can be particularly vulnerable and disadvantaged when it comes to the arbitrary rules relating to qualifying for State pension benefits. The awarding of 20 years of credit for periods of caregiving as opposed to having that time disregarded is welcome and very helpful for many carers. However, it is practically useless if the carer does not have a minimum of 520 paid contributions, the equivalent of ten years in the workforce. In cases where a parent may not have worked for ten years prior to caring for a child, this can be incredibly difficult to make up. We must remove this bizarre 20-year limit so we can acknowledge the contribution of people who have spent sometimes twice as long caring, and disregard the need for 520 paid PRSI contributions.
Family carers who are the parent of a child with a disability or illness can also be disadvantaged when applying for the non-contributory State pension due to their partner’s income or in some cases, land owned by their partner. I will use a fictional case study to illustrate how arbitrary and unfair the State pension scheme can be. Mary is 69 years old. She entered employment at the age of 17 in 1969. Nine years later, she gave birth to her first child who was born with a disability which resulted in him needing full-time care. Mary did not return to her previous employment but instead became a carer for her son. When Mary reached the age of 66 in 2018 she was advised by the Department of Social Protection that, as she had only 460 paid contributions, she would not qualify for the contributory State pension. Despite having contributed so much to the State by caring for her son, Mary was rendered at risk of poverty in her later years. Mary’s husband was employed as a civil servant and paid a class B stamp prior to 1995 so his Civil Service pension was fully assessable in the means test for the non-contributory State pension. Therefore, Mary did not qualify for the non-contributory State Pension, was unable to receive an increase for a qualified adult and could not make voluntary contributions. Despite caring full-time for her son for 43 years and making a significant contribution to the State, Mary was not entitled to any State pension. This situation is replicated in families all over this country. Being able to guarantee a pension for all family careers, regardless of how long they have spent in the workforce or other PRSI and social welfare anomalies which are complex and nuanced, is not such an insurmountable task. It could be done through a dedicated, long-term carer's pension scheme which we are calling for in our amendment. This would go a long way to respecting the worth and value of all family carers.
Given the value of the care provided by family carers, estimated at €20 billion per annum, no carer should be denied a pension or receive a reduced rate pension for dedicating part of his or her life to providing much-needed care for another. Previous Governments have promised to find a solution for these cracks in the pension system for family carers and there is a commitment to finding pension solutions for carers in the current programme for Government. It is past time these promises were fulfilled. There is no economic, social or moral argument for denying carers financial security in their old age. Whatever the cost to the Exchequer, it could never equal the economic and social benefit to the State from the work of carers.
I commend our amendment.