Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

Covid-19 Pandemic Unemployment Payment

Steven Matthews

Question:

6. Deputy Steven Matthews asked the Minister for Social Protection the number of persons in County Wicklow who were in receipt of the pandemic unemployment payment but who have since returned to work in some capacity and are no longer in receipt of this payment or the jobseeker's allowance; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [57935/21]

This morning, I wish to ask the Minister about the number of persons in County Wicklow who were in receipt of the PUP but who have since returned to work in some capacity and are no longer in receipt of the payment or the jobseeker's allowance. I ask that she please provide me with the figures in that regard.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. As the Deputy will be aware, this country faced an unprecedented shock to the labour market because of the pandemic, with more than 1.7 million claims for support and 871,500 people claiming at least one pandemic unemployment payment since the payment was introduced in March 2020. The equivalent figure for those who claimed at least one PUP payment residing in County Wicklow is 25,730.

Following the easing of public health restrictions in recent months, our economy has witnessed a dramatic recovery, with strong outflows from the PUP as persons returned to work. This week, just over 57,000 persons remain in receipt of the PUP with 1,730 persons on the PUP in County Wicklow.

To respond specifically to the Deputy's question, recent preliminary analysis published by my Department from mid-September 2021, identified that 553,000 persons returned to work since the start of July 2021, after having received their last PUP payment. In County Wicklow, between March 2020 and September 2021, 16,100 persons exited the PUP and returned to work, representing 62.6% of all individuals in that county who claimed the PUP since the introduction of the payment. This proportion of PUP recipients returning to work in County Wicklow is broadly in line with the national average of 63.5%.

Since this analysis was conducted in September, a further 467 PUP recipients in County Wicklow reported returning to work as their reason for exiting the PUP, which is also broadly in line with trends in PUP recipients returning to employment nationwide.

It is important to be aware that a labour market shock such as that caused by Covid-19 can be expected to have disruptive effects not just in terms of the number of people in employment but also in terms of changes in employment. I can provide the Deputy with the details of those former PUP recipients in County Wicklow.

It is positive that the figures are going in the right direction. That is good to see. I always try to take the opportunity to acknowledge the work that goes on in the Department of Social Protection, the Department of Finance and the Revenue Commissioners. The local employment offices were of great assistance to people in the past 18 months. It is positive when people go back to work and full-time employment but, in general, the people we hear from are the ones who are struggling and who do not get full-time employment. I hear especially from people in the music and entertainment industry. I have spoken to the Minister about this before, and to the Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, Deputy Catherine Martin. I know both Ministers are working on solutions in that regard. The difficulty is the uncertainty and the stop-start nature of the work that is causing problems. How does the Department support people who do not fully lose their job but whose rate of employment is uncertain?

We did have a number of measures. Self-employed people on the PUP can earn up to €960 every eight weeks and it will not affect their payment. I acknowledge what the Deputy said regarding those in the music industry. It has been a very difficult time for them but, thankfully, weddings are still taking place. One venue I heard about has a wedding every single day for the month of November and well into December. That is good for musicians because weddings can have two or three different genres of band or musicians at events, which means there is work for them. The Minister, Deputy Catherine Martin, has worked very closely with the sector to bring in a number of sector-specific supports for the entertainment sector. She also has the €25 million live performance support scheme.

As the Minister knows, I engage regularly with the music and entertainment industry and I will continue to engage with the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Humphreys, and the Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, Deputy Catherine Martin, on that.

The Minister mentioned the pathways to work scheme. We must look at how we can encourage or assist people into mature apprenticeships. I refer to people who have been in different jobs. It is a big decision for someone who is slightly older with a family to return to do an apprenticeship, but it is something we urgently need. We must increase the number of craftspeople we have in this country to address the rate of construction we need in electrifying transport and retrofitting housing stock. I would like to work further with the Minister on how to encourage people in that direction. I come from an apprenticeship background myself, so I know what is involved in it and I know that measures are needed to support people to choose the apprenticeship option.

I agree with Deputy Matthews that we need to do that. We have the pathways to work strategy and we are working on it. The Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Harris, is committed to providing 50,000 additional education and training places, supporting the delivery of actions set out in the apprenticeship action plan and supporting 50,000 long-term unemployed into further education and training by 2025.

My Department is expanding the capacity of public employment services. We have established a new work placement and experience programme for those out of work for at least six months, regardless of age. We have a number of other supports. We work with employers and the unemployed and we try to match them. If there is a need for further skills, we will offer people those skills through the further education system to upskill or reskill them.

As the Deputy is aware, there is currently a shortage in the labour market and the intention is to help people find jobs that they want to do and that they enjoy doing.

Community Employment Schemes

Claire Kerrane

Question:

7. Deputy Claire Kerrane asked the Minister for Social Protection the way she intends to fill the current gaps left as a result of those departing community employment positions, particularly with regard to community employment referrals and in circumstances in which there is difficulty replacing persons in these important roles; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [57828/21]

I wish to ask the Minister about community employment places. The six-year rule means people must leave community employment schemes because they have no choice. In some cases, a person who leaves is not replaced and the important service that community employment provides in a community can then be lost.

I thank the Deputy for the question. As the Deputy is aware, the community employment, CE, scheme is an active labour market programme designed to provide eligible long-term unemployed people and other disadvantaged persons with an opportunity to engage in useful work within their communities on a temporary, fixed-term basis, to improve their prospect of returning to employment. Scheme participants also of course support vital community services across the country. Since restrictions have eased, I have made a point of visiting CE schemes and participants working on the ground for their community to show how much we value their work. I visited schemes in Mayo, Cork, Wexford, Tallaght, Dublin Fingal, Leitrim, Sligo and Louth so far this year. I plan to continue to visit other schemes into next year.

I am very aware of the challenges resulting from the Covid-19 emergency and the related public health restrictions, including the impact on CE schemes in recruiting new participants. My Department has continued to support CE schemes throughout the period and introduce a number of contingency measures, including the extension of CE participants’ contracts on a number of occasions. This has reduced significantly the number of persons departing CE.

Last month the Minister, Deputy Humphries, and I announced a further extension of contracts report CE and Tús participants. All of these participants’ contracts are now extended up to February 2022. Crucially - this is the key message I would like to get out this morning - after that date, participants whose contracts were extended will only start to leave schemes in a phased and planned manner. This will take place over quite a prolonged period of time up until January 2023. That is different to what we proposed before. We are essentially giving a year for recovery of placements. The date of January 2023 should provide sufficient time for the referral of replacement candidates to CE schemes and to ensure potential disruption to the valuable local services provided by schemes is minimised.

Currently, in the main, people leaving CE schemes should only be those reaching retirement age and those who decide to leave, for example, on finding employment or moving on to further training. My priority and the priority of Department is to continue to support CE schemes in providing services to local communities while providing valuable work experience to their long-term unemployed participants.

I hear what the Minister of State is saying. I welcome that he has obviously had a lot of engagement with CE schemes. That is really welcome. However, there is clearly a problem here. The last time I raised this issue, there were 1,400 vacancies in jobs available in CE. Before that, there were 1,200. Now there are over 2,500 CE vacancies with people looking for people to join them on CE. Something is definitely wrong here. I met with a disability group in Roscommon - I have raised this before - and they cannot get people to fill places. They cannot fill their CE places. I have met other groups as well that have CE vacancies. They are not getting referrals. There definitely is problem. I have never seen over 2,500 CE vacancies advertised online before. There is a problem and it needs to be addressed. I agree, people perhaps in their 50s or 60s want to be on that scheme. It means a lot to them to be there in the community doing something. They may have nothing else and the six-year rule should be looked at.

Well, what is wrong is Covid-19. I think that is the simple, immediate answer. We are still recovering from it. The referral process is still recovering from it, but it is recovering. In September and October, we had 613 or 614 new starters. Comparably, when you look at October 2019, the figure was 726. We are therefore getting back to a monthly starter rate that is getting closer to normal times. However, on referrals, there are between 1,200 and 1,500 per month in recent months. It is going in the right direction. The activation services are up to speed in capacity now. That was not the case previously. However, since the economy has re-opened that has been the case. Some 100 new job coaches have been appointed as well, since the pathways to work strategy. We are in a recovery phase. It is going in the right direction, but we have some distance to go yet.

No, I think there has been an issue with referral since before Covid-19. I believe that there have been a number of vacancies in many cases. I will check with that disability group, but I am nearly sure it has been a number of years without referrals. I will certainly check that because I do not buy that it is Covid-19-related.

On the six-year rule, people who may be coming to the end of their CE scheme and who may be in their mid- or late-50s do not want to be going around looking for jobs with a CV. I am asking about that cohort. Whether they live alone, that job could be just as beneficial for them for social reasons as for financial reasons. There is a cohort of people that may have other issues or just want to be within their community. They do not want at that age, in their late 50s, to have to go looking for work. Could anything be done about the six-year rule?

I was not intending to come in on this question, but I get really frustrated at the narrow view of the Department that CE is an active labour market programme. It is much bigger than that.

Those on the scheme may not participate in what the Department defines as the active labour market, but they are providing a service to their community and they have a purpose in their life. In that context, we need to look at the six-year rule. We need to look at the services being provided. If there is that level of vacancies within CE at the moment, that means that services are not being provided in communities. Also the relationship between JobPath and CEs and the cutting off of referrals to CE schemes needs to looked at. I heard the Minister of State use the phrase “active labour market programme”. CE is much broader than that. It needs to be looked at in a much broader prism than that in the context of the opportunities given to participants and the services they provide to communities.

I will take Deputy Calleary’s point first. He may have missed my opening statement. When I talk about CE, I always talk about two halves, the activation side and the service side. I clearly stated that this morning as well. I always acknowledge it.

There have been challenges in CE prior to Covid-19 about referral rates. There were issues prior to my time, because of the low unemployment rate or the high employment rate. That did impact referrals to CE. I am not pretending that there were not issues prior to that. That is to be acknowledged. My figure for vacancies at the moment is 1,938. That is about 9% of places vacant. I do accept that there will be some projects that are down on the 60% level of vacancies. We have 79 community development officers, CDOs, around the country who should be and are engaging with their local sponsors about targeted actions to fill those projects that are under more pressure than average.

Public Transport

Aindrias Moynihan

Question:

8. Deputy Aindrias Moynihan asked the Minister for Social Protection if consideration will be given to providing free travel passes to persons with epilepsy who are not in receipt of a social welfare payment; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [57991/21]

There are up to 40,000 people around the country affected by epilepsy each day. If we leave aside briefly the medical impacts of it, one of the restrictions on people with epilepsy is that they are not allowed to drive. Their licence is restricted. As the Minister can imagine, that is a huge impediment on people in ordinary, everyday life, whether they are going to or from work, going about social life and in so many other ways. Is there a way of giving them access to the free travel pass, while they are restricted from driving?

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. The free travel scheme provides free travel on the main public and private transport services for those eligible under the scheme. There are currently approximately 1,012,000 customers with direct eligibility. The estimated expenditure on free travel in 2021 is €95 million. It is important to note that, in general, access to free travel passes for those aged under 66 is linked to a person being in receipt of a certain primary social protection payment, such as disability allowance, invalidity pension, carer’s allowance, blind pension and partial capacity benefit. Importantly, as many illnesses or physical conditions have an impact across a spectrum, from mild to severe, entitlement to these schemes is not provided on the basis of a simple diagnosis, but on the basis of the impact of that diagnosis on the individual concerned. In this way, resources can be targeted to people with most need. Therefore, while a diagnosis of a particular medical condition will be required to establish if a person may be eligible for certain social welfare schemes, evidence of impact is also required before entitlement to the scheme, or the related free travel scheme, is established. The sole exception to this general approach is in respect of people who are blind. My Department may award a travel supplement under the supplementary welfare allowance scheme, where the circumstances of the particular case so warrant.

The supplement is intended to assist with ongoing or recurring travel costs that cannot be met from the client’s own resources and are deemed to be necessary. I hope this brings some clarity for the Deputy.

I thank the Minister for the overview of the scheme. The costs associated with medication and so on are acknowledged by the State with the long-term illness scheme and the yellow book. This is another big restriction on people and it is not at all being acknowledged. I appreciate the point on the supplement and it being on a case-by-case basis but we know people who have epilepsy are put off the road. They are restricted from work. The State should acknowledge that and look towards giving them mobility and access. Some people will perhaps already have a disability payment and have access to it that way but for people who are maintaining their employment and are already struggling, because they are having to change around their work to try to get public transport and so on, there should be a way to access it. Is there any way of reviewing it or any review under way on whether it could be included?

I appreciate the point the Deputy is making. I have a friend with epilepsy. They are off the road at the minute. As the Deputy said, if someone loses their licence due to a seizure caused by epilepsy, it really is awful for them and I understand that. The problem I have, which the Department officials have clearly pointed out to me, is that the free travel pass is very much based on the social welfare payment a person is in receipt of. It is not based on a person's condition or illness. As the Deputy knows, the social welfare system is based on income and contributions. The change Epilepsy Ireland is proposing would move the scheme away from a person being in receipt of a qualifying payment to it being based on his or her condition regardless of income. That would be a fundamental change to how the scheme is run. I imagine it would give rise to calls from other groups. Like everything, if it was easy, it would have been done long ago.

To return to my original question, is there an opportunity for a review so this could be teased out further because there is a very real need for that? The Minister should not worry about setting a precedent. That has already been done with the long-term illness scheme and the yellow book. People who have epilepsy are already have their condition acknowledged irrespective of income purely on the basis of the condition and getting a benefit there. Thus, a precedent has already been set. There are already a mix of ways where people in employment have social welfare payments, whether they are lone parents, receiving the working family payment or even on pensions. There is already a mix and match in there. Some people who have epilepsy are on the disability payment and have access to it. As such, there is a chequerboard of situations. We are looking at a small number of people who remain excluded because they are in employment and they do not have a social welfare payment. Is there an opportunity for a review? Has the Minister looked at the number of people involved? A large number of people are already on the travel pass and we are only looking at a very small additional cost.

The number is 5,575. It is not all 40,000 people with epilepsy. The impact of the diagnosis is the that State says you cannot drive for a year. If there is a breakthrough seizure, you cannot drive for a year. There are many people who have controlled epilepsy and are on the long-term illness scheme already but those whose illness is uncontrolled, about 30% of people with epilepsy, will never drive. Many of them are on other schemes but many are not and they continue to work. However, they need access to this scheme. There are only 5,000 of them. In her response the Minister referred to the impact of diagnosis. The impact of diagnosis if you have epilepsy is you cannot drive because the State tells you so. There is an exemption, as she said, for blind people and the reason for providing them with access to the free travel scheme is obvious. Epilepsy is very similar and there is an argument in particular for provision in a formalised way that decouples the free travel pass from the other schemes. Many people with epilepsy who are working and paying tax in the State do not want to be on these schemes and do not need to be on them. However, they may need the additional support of free travel, perhaps for a year or two. I urge the Minister's officials to think about it again.

I thank the Deputies. I fully appreciate what they are saying. They make a good case and I understand it. I intend to meet with Epilepsy Ireland to discuss its proposal in detail. The group wrote to me about much of what the Deputies are saying. I am not going to make any promises because it would be wrong of me to do that but I will meet Epilepsy Ireland and hear what it has to say. We need to discuss this with the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, and his Department to get its views on the matter. I am also going to ask my officials to examine it. The Deputies have made the case that this is only a small number of people. However, the social welfare scheme is based on income that is means-tested or contributions. Those are the two prongs with which the social welfare scheme works. The Deputies are talking about going outside that and looking at a medical condition. I am happy to look at it because, as I said, the Deputies have made the case. I thank them for raising it. I will talk to Epilepsy Ireland.

Social Welfare Eligibility

John Paul Phelan

Question:

9. Deputy John Paul Phelan asked the Minister for Social Protection if she will report on changes to the carer’s allowance announced in budget 2022; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [57544/21]

Ciaran Cannon

Question:

16. Deputy Ciarán Cannon asked the Minister for Social Protection the status of changes to the carer’s allowance announced in budget 2022. [57708/21]

Colm Burke

Question:

53. Deputy Colm Burke asked the Minister for Social Protection the status of the changes to the carer’s allowance and domiciliary care allowance announced in budget 2022; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [57475/21]

This question concerns changes in the carer's allowance, which I welcome. What happens in the case of someone who provides care for a period of seven or eight years and who is then disqualified from many other schemes? This person took time off work to be a full-time carer for both parents, who have now died. He looked after them for eight years and now finds he does not qualify for a whole range of social welfare schemes. Unfortunately, he is now not able to work and is not entitled to any benefit.

I propose to take Question Nos. 9, 16 and 53 together.

The carer income supports provided by my Department include carer's allowance, carer's benefit, domiciliary care allowance, and the carer's support grant. More than 135,000 carers are supported by regular income payments and spending on these in 2021 is expected to be in the region of €1.5 billion.

As part of budget 2022, I announced significant changes to the means test for carer's allowance that will allow carers to have a higher weekly household income and a higher level of savings and still qualify for a carer's allowance payment. From next June, the income disregarded in the means test for carer's allowance will increase from €332.50 to €350 for a single person, and from €665 to €750 for a couple. In addition, the amount of capital or savings disregarded in the means test will be increased from €20,000 to €50,000. These are the first changes to the carer's allowance means test in some 14 years and will ensure thousands more people will now qualify for the payment. In addition, many carers who are currently on a reduced payment rate due to means will move to a higher payment.

From January, the domiciliary care allowance, which currently continues to be paid for children who enter hospital for up to three months, will now be available up to six months. Importantly, carer's allowance will also be paid during this period where applicable. This measure will ensure parents are supported at what is a very difficult time when a child is in hospital for a prolonged period of time.

All of these measures will be included in the Social Welfare Bill 2021 which will be brought through the Houses of the Oireachtas in the coming weeks.

I thank the Minister. I very much welcome the changes because anyone who is providing care to his or her elderly parents is saving the State a huge amount of money in real terms.

This is about cases where caring stops after a parent has passed away and carers are coming back into the system. I ask the Minister to examine this so that people can come back into the system and not be penalised. They are penalised in respect of pensions, disability benefits and a range of other social welfare benefits. If one spouse is working, the other is disqualified from any allowance.

I am dealing with a couple where the wife's income is €320 per week and the husband is now not entitled to one cent in social welfare. He is no longer able to work because he has a genuine disability. He has had serious back operations, yet is not entitled to any allowances. That is why I am saying we should not penalise people because they have looked after their parents for eight or ten years.

One of my priorities since I became Minister for Social Protection is to do whatever I can to support our carers. I know very well the huge work they do and the contribution they make to our society. As I said, in last year's budget I increased the carers support grant to €1,850, the highest level ever. This year, there is an increase of €5 in the carers allowance, as well as all of the other measures I outlined.

The Deputy referred to a specific case. The person concerned has the right to apply for social welfare payments and possibly an allowance. Again, that is means tested. I take the point he has made. We have done a lot for carers, but that does not stop here. I will consider other things we can do. As I said, we have increased the carers support grant and the weekly payment. We have reformed the means test. We now need to make sure that we can provide our carers with a pension. The Deputy mentioned that. It is something we are going to examine and it is a recommendation in the report of the Pensions Commission.

Once a person finishes providing care, he or she should not be penalised further. I thank the Minister.

There are have been huge advances in the carers' allowance, including the means test for the carers allowance, and I want to thank the Minister and congratulate her on that work. It is transformative to have changed the means test and the disregard in the way she has. I am sorry if I came in early. There are a series of linked questions.

I thought you were coming in on this question.

I want to thank Deputies. Many have raised issues with me and I have been able to make changes in the budget this year. It is important that we support carers. We have been doing that and will continue to do so. Family carers and the Care Alliance have warmly welcomed the changes we announced in budget 2022. I accept that there is more work to be done. I will continue to work with Deputies and examine other issues that need to be addressed. I thank them for the suggestions that have been brought to me.

Medical Aids and Appliances

Emer Higgins

Question:

10. Deputy Emer Higgins asked the Minister for Social Protection her plans to introduce supports for persons who experience hair loss due to alopecia, cancer treatment or other similar illnesses. [57539/21]

I would like to ask the Minister about her Department's plans to introduce support for people who experience hair loss due to alopecia, illness or cancer treatment. Hair loss can be an extremely traumatic side-effect of illness or treatment and I would welcome any move to support those suffering from hair loss as a result of illness.

I thank Deputy Higgins for raising this issue. The treatment benefit scheme is available to insured workers, the self-employed and retired people who have the required number of PRSI contributions. It is also available to their dependent spouse or partner, if applicable. Those who are eligible can avail of dental, optical and hearing services under the scheme. As part of budget 2022, I announced an expansion of the range of services provided under the treatment benefit scheme to provide for a new grant towards the cost of wigs and hairpieces for people who suffer from hair loss due to disease.

Hair loss is a common issue that can be caused by a variety of medical conditions, including autoimmune diseases, such as alopecia, or systemic conditions like cancer. I recognise the physical impact, but also the psychological impact, that sudden hair loss can have on a person’s life and I hope the new grant I am introducing will contribute to improving the quality of life of those who need it.

Under the new scheme, a grant of up to €500 will be available once every calendar year to support people to purchase a wig or hairpiece. The grant will be available from the end of May 2022. The grant will only be available for hair loss in respect of a disease and not due to aging or other natural causes. It will be subject to the normal conditions of the treatment benefit scheme in terms of the required number of PRSI contributions. Legislative provisions for this measure will be set out in the social welfare Bill 2021, which will be published and brought through the Houses of the Oireachtas in the coming weeks.

I thank the Minister. That is welcome news. I welcome the extension of the treatment benefit scheme to cover grants towards things like wigs and hairpieces. It is good news for people who suffer from alopecia or who have experienced hair loss due to cancer treatment. Some people might think it is a trivial issue, but many men and women take pride in and confidence from their hair. As is said in adverts, people's hair is often their crown. When that is taken away, whether it involves hair falling out or having to be shaved, that can add further to the trauma people are experiencing through illness.

Providing a grant that would cover half or a third of the cost of wigs will be hugely beneficial, given that many wigs cost between €1,000 and €1,500. As the Minister said, it will improve people's quality of life. I am particularly pleased to hear the Minister say it will be an annual grant that can be drawn down once a year. Obviously, wigs have to be replaced quite regularly. When the Minister said that the payment will be available from May, does that mean May of next year onwards? Will it apply to any wigs purchased next year?

As I said, this is an issue that has been raised with me. It is something that is particularly hard for women. Some people who lose their hair due to chemotherapy may be able to get support for the cost of a wig if they have a medical card. People with alopecia have no automatic entitlement to a medical card. Alopecia can often be a lifelong condition and at present there is no support to help people. I wanted to change that.

Some of these wigs are, as the Deputy said, very expensive, in particular if people are wearing them every day while going to work. It is important that we support the people who need them because alopecia is something that can affect people of all ages right across the board. Hair loss can sometimes be taboo to talk about and women sometimes feel they have to hide it or cannot talk about it. It is not just physical; it can have significant consequences for a person's confidence and mental health.

I thank the Minister. I fully agree with everything she said. It is a huge mark of her respect for people to put this on the Government's agenda. I would like to raise the scope of eligibility for the grant. I would welcome the grant being extended to those who suffer hair loss due not just to physical but also mental illness. I am thinking, in particular, of anorexia which, unfortunately, is quite prevalent in Ireland. A lack of nutrients can lead to hair loss. I would support the grant being extended to those who suffer hair loss for reasons other than those outlined. I hope that might be something the Minister may consider.

I acknowledge the great work carried out by the volunteers in Alopecia Ireland. This is something they have called for, in particular, for people in alopecia. They do much good work to support people. Some people may decide, for whatever reason, that they do not want or need a wig. For those who need one, I want to help them. That is what the grant is about. It is a support for working people. Those who do not qualify for a medical card will have to have the necessary PRSI contributions in order to qualify.

The Deputy mentioned people who have anorexia. It is something I will consider. I do not know to what extent people with anorexia may qualify for a medical card. This is an important measure.

It is a signal that the Government, particularly the Department of Social Protection, is here to help and support people at difficult times in their lives.

Social Welfare Schemes

John Lahart

Question:

11. Deputy John Lahart asked the Minister for Social Protection the details of the changes to the carer’s allowance means test; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [58004/21]

Jennifer Carroll MacNeill

Question:

68. Deputy Jennifer Carroll MacNeill asked the Minister for Social Protection the changes made in budget 2022 to the eligibility for the carer’s allowance; the estimated number of persons who will benefit from this change; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [57202/21]

Kieran O'Donnell

Question:

98. Deputy Kieran O'Donnell asked the Minister for Social Protection the status of and the position regarding the changes to the carer’s allowance and the domiciliary care allowance announced in budget 2022. [57830/21]

Alan Dillon

Question:

101. Deputy Alan Dillon asked the Minister for Social Protection if she will provide an update on the changes to the carer’s allowance and domiciliary care allowance announced as part of budget 2022; the efforts being made to ensure they take effect as planned; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [57701/21]

We touched on the changes to the means test for carer's allowance earlier and I wish to probe those further. How many extra will qualify and how many extra existing carers will qualify for the increased payment the Minister referred to earlier? Given the crisis in caring at present with regard to getting people into caring, has the Department any plans to promote these changes?

I propose to takes Questions Nos. 11, 68, 98 and 101 together.

My Department provides a comprehensive set of income supports for carers. These include carer's allowance, carer's benefit, domiciliary care allowance and the carer's support grant. Through these schemes over 135,000 carers are supported by regular income payments. Spending in 2021 on these payments is expected to be approximately €1.5 billion.

I announced a number of measures in budget 2022 which will enable carers to have a higher weekly household income and a higher amount of savings while still qualifying for a carer’s allowance payment. From June 2022, the income disregarded in the means test for carer’s allowance will increase from €332.50 to €350 for a single person and from €665 to €750 for a couple. The amount of capital disregarded in the carer's allowance means test will be increased from €20,000 to €50,000 from June 2022. From January, the domiciliary care allowance will now be available for up to six months in respect of children who enter hospital. Carer’s allowance will also be paid during this extended period where applicable. The Social Welfare Bill 2021 will be published and brought through the Houses of the Oireachtas in the coming weeks.

The Government recognises the important role that family carers play in Irish society and is fully committed to their support through a range of supports and services. The main income supports for carers provided by my Department include carer's allowance, carer's benefit, domiciliary care allowance and the carer's support grant. Carer's allowance is the primary income support provided by the Department for those who cannot earn an income due to their caring responsibilities. The two principal conditions for receipt of carer's allowance are that full-time care and attention are required and are being provided and that the means test that applies is satisfied. Where carers are providing care for more than one person an increase of 50% is applied to carer's allowance. Carers may also qualify, subject to certain conditions, for the household benefits package and a free travel pass.

Carer's allowance acts as an income support for those who cannot earn an income due to their caring responsibilities. The application of the means test not only ensures that the recipient has a verifiable income need but also that resources are targeted to those with the greatest need. The existing income disregard and means test for carer's allowance are the most generous in the social welfare system and the amount of weekly earnings disregarded has been increased in the budget for next year. A more generous means assessment for carer's allowance has been sought over successive budgets by organisations representing carers and Deputies and the measure recognises the role of carers and the contribution they make to society. Deputy Calleary has been promoting and advocating for this.

The increase in the general weekly income disregard will enable more carers with modest incomes to become eligible for carer's allowance and therefore provide an income support to carers whose earning capacity is significantly constrained as a consequence of their caring responsibilities. Increasing the capital disregard will allow carers who have accumulated relatively modest savings, often to provide sufficient moneys to care for a loved one, to retain these savings without it impacting on their carer's payments. That is an important measure. The change to domiciliary care allowance will go some way to address the issue of the small number of children who are in receipt of domiciliary care allowance and are admitted to hospital for an extended period of time.

In October 2021, there were 90,478 people in receipt of carer's allowance. Projected expenditure in 2021 is estimated at €953 million. In the period 2010 to 2020, the number of people in receipt of carer's allowance increased by 76% while expenditure over that period increased by 84%. In terms of carer's benefit, in October 2021 there were 3,344 people in receipt of carer's benefit. Projected expenditure in 2021 is estimated at €47.6 million. In the period between 2010 and 2020, the number of people in receipt of carer's benefit increased by 125% while expenditure over that period increased by 88%. It is fair to say that this indicates a strong commitment by the Government to improving the supports for carers.

The carer's support grant is an annual payment and it was increased in last year's budget to the highest ever level. It is now €1,850 and anybody who has a caring role will get that payment. It is not means tested. In 2014, there were 75,000 receiving carer's grants and in 2020 there were 116,000 people receiving that grant as well.

There was a great deal of information in that. I acknowledge that substantial changes have been made for carers, particularly with the carer's allowance. I welcome those but to quote a phrase that was previously used in these premises, "A lot done. More to do.". The work that carers are doing is extraordinary, particularly at present when it is very difficult for people to get carers even when home help hours are allocated. Family carers, in particular, are being leaned on more. First, what are the Minister's plans to promote these changes?

Second, there are a number of anomalies affecting carers, particularly family carers. I have a case where a family carer lost the fuel allowance because an adult who had been staying in a care centre moved home when the care centre closed as a consequence of Covid. The fuel allowance was taken from the carer. There are anomalies affecting carers that need to be ironed out.

Finally, does the Minister have information on the current turnaround time for carer's allowance and carer's benefit applications?

I acknowledge the Minister's great work on this, particularly her work to change the income disregard and expand it. That will bring in people who are already caring and doing massive work for their families, work that otherwise might have to be done in other contexts. What efforts has the Department made to let people know about the change, in particular people who may have applied previously and been refused based on the old arrangements? Is the Department preparing to contact those people proactively, that is, those it believes may still be caring and might now be brought into the net, or will it be up to families to find out about it and apply?

I welcome the changes. Many of the questions I had intended to ask have already been answered by the Minister. We deal with carers as a group a great deal and they do phenomenal work, much of it hidden. I would love to see empirical work done on what they are saving the State in terms of healthcare. I do not know if that is being done, but it should be done. I welcome the increase in the income thresholds and the increase in the amounts. As a slight aside when speaking about groups, the living alone allowance has been increased over a number of years. The cohabiting group arises repeatedly, where there is a couple who are living and are in receipt of the pension, either as a qualifying adult or a pension in a person's own right.

Suddenly one of them passes away, expenses remain the same and the other gets caught. The Minister should always keep that matter under review. I ask for her observations on that.

I concur with my colleagues in the Chamber. The measures in budget 2022 will bring about positive change to the carer's allowance. Family carers are truly the forgotten front line of this pandemic. This reform to the means test for carer's allowance is a significant step forward. I commend the Minister on introducing this change which will potentially see thousands of family carers qualifying for the payment for the first time. Those in receipt of a reduced rate of carer's allowance due to means should also see their payments increase. We always need to point out and recognise the contribution that carers make and the important role they play in alleviating the pressures on our health service. Can we do more to reduce the financial hardship on family carers?

I thank the Deputies for highlighting the issue. The average time to award carer's allowance after receipt of application in 2021 is four weeks, as compared with seven weeks in 2020 and 12 weeks in 2019. The average time to award carer's benefit after receipt of application in 2021 is four weeks, as compared with five weeks in 2020 and 12 weeks in 2019. Therefore, we are making good inroads and we want to continue to turn around those applications promptly. I know some people find themselves in very difficult circumstances, particularly if a family member is diagnosed with cancer. They need that support because they may need to give up their job.

Deputy Carroll MacNeill asked about domiciliary care allowance changes. She brought this important matter to my attention and I am glad we were able to do that. We are extending the period from 13 weeks to 16 weeks. A parent who was in receipt of carer's allowance will also continue to be paid for those six months while a child is in hospital. Therefore, it will continue and will not be cut off. I know that is a difficult time for parents who may have additional financial burdens. We want to encourage people to apply for it and we can use this House to highlight it. We will certainly get that information out to people that they do not need to worry about their carer's allowance being cut off.

I take the point Deputy O'Donnell made regarding the living alone allowance. I am very conscious of that. It has been highlighted in many reports to me. Every year, we have continued to increase the living alone allowance. The Deputy is right that a couple living together have a joint income and when one of them goes, all of a sudden the other finds a serious drop in income because it is more expensive for somebody living alone. We increased that both last year and again this year. I am very mindful of the issue which comes up every year when we get these reports. We must be conscious of people who are living alone. I was delighted we could increase it again in this year's budget.

Social Insurance

Michael Creed

Question:

12. Deputy Michael Creed asked the Minister for Social Protection the approach of her Department to facilitating those pensioners without full social insurance records to increase their retirement provision by enabling them to continue to make PRSI contributions past the State pension age as per commitments in the programme for Government; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [57407/21]

Brendan Smith

Question:

67. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Minister for Social Protection if persons who have reached pension age can continue to make PRSI payments to improve their pension entitlements; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [57996/21]

The programme for Government makes a welcome commitment to help people improve their social insurance contributions beyond pension age. What strategy has the Minister put in place to enable that much-needed reform to be implemented?

I propose to take Questions Nos. 12 and 67 together.

The current position is that any paid employment after a person’s 66th birthday is not reckonable for contributory State pension purposes, nor is the employment liable to any PRSI contributions. The Government established the Commission on Pensions in November 2020 to examine the sustainability of the State pension system and the Social Insurance Fund. The commission's report, published on 7 October 2021, sets out a wide range of recommendations, including allowing a person to continue paying PRSI contributions past State pension age to improve their social insurance record for contributory State pension purposes.

The report has been referred to the Joint Committee on Social Protection, Community and Rural Development and the Islands, and to the Commission on Taxation and Welfare for their views. I understand that both the chair of the commission, Ms Josephine Feehily, and the chair of its technical sub-committee, Ms Roma Burke, appeared before the joint committee on 17 November 2021. Officials from my Department also attended that meeting.

In the interests of older people, including future generations of older people, the Government intends to consider the comprehensive and far-reaching recommendations in the commission’s report very carefully and holistically. My officials will work over the coming months to examine each of the recommendations. They will consult across government through the Cabinet committee system. It is important to complete that work before reaching conclusions. I intend to bring a recommended response and implementation plan to Government by the end of March 2022. I hope this brings some clarity to the matter.

I welcome that this important issue has been covered by the Commission on Pensions and referred to the Joint Committee on Social Protection, Community and Rural Development and the Islands. As we all know, people's insurance contributions can be interrupted for a myriad of reasons. A person may take time off to rear a family or care for a family member. In some instances, a person may have had no opportunity to take up employment. Sometimes people emigrated and their insurance contributions were interrupted. Thankfully, in more recent years people have come back to education and learned new skills to take up employment and resume their insurance contributions.

We need flexibility within the social welfare code to ensure that new and emerging trends are catered for. If people wish to work beyond pension age and make a contribution, they should be able to enhance their record to ensure their pension is improved when they finally decide to stop working. We need to move on these types of issues. I have come across many people whose insurance contribution record was interrupted. They had never relied on the State for assistance and were often hard-working people who did not have the opportunity to remain in employment.

The issues the Deputy mentioned are among those the Commission on Pensions considered. It has set out comprehensive and far-reaching recommendations. All the recommendations were unanimously agreed by the commission, with the exception of the increase in the State pension age. The member nominated by ICTU disagreed with this. The recommendations can be broken into three broad interrelated groupings, covering many of the issues the Deputy has raised. The recommendations to make the system fairer include linking employment contractual retirement age to the State pension age; enhanced pension provision for long-term carers in excess of 20 years, a matter we discussed earlier; the option to retire at 65 for those with 45 years of PRSI contributions; and the option to defer retirement to receive actuarial increased pension rates. As the Deputy said, some of them may be able to work on and pay their contributions or to continue paying PRSI to improve their social insurance record.

I welcome the Minister's commitment to advance these necessary reforms, which are generally for people who have contributed to society and want to ensure they have a decent pension when they decide to cease employment. I sincerely hope these new measures and reforms can be introduced in a realistic timeframe.

The Government is committed to bringing the recommendations in the report of the Commission on Pensions to the Government. I will bring a response and recommended implementation plan to government by the end of March 2022. I am also progressing the issue of auto-enrolment, another aspect we have committed to introducing during the term of this Government. Much work can be done to improve the situation for people when they retire. I thank the Deputy for raising the matter with me.