I propose to take Questions Nos. 171, 175 and 176 together.
The primary objective of the carer's allowance is to provide income support to low income carers. In line with other social assistance schemes, the means test is applied to the carer's allowance so as to ensure that limited resources are directed to those in greatest need. The means test applied to the allowance has been eased significantly in the past few years, most notably with the introduction of disregards of spouse's earnings. In April 2004 the weekly income disregards increased to €250 for a single carer and to €500 for a couple. The effect of this increase, for example, ensures that a couple with two children, earning a joint annual income of up to €29,328, can qualify for the maximum rate of carer's allowance, while the same couple, if they had an income of €46,384 could still qualify for the minimum carer's allowance, the free schemes and the respite care grant.
The complete abolition of the means test would have substantial cost implications. It is estimated, based on available data, that abolition of the means test could cost in the region of €160 million per annum. This estimate should be taken as an order of magnitude given the difficulties in costing such a proposal. The views of some support and health organisations is that if resources of this scale were available, it would be more beneficial to carers to invest in the type of community care services which would support them in their caring role, such as additional respite care facilities. My officials are carrying out a review of the carer's allowance and carer's benefit schemes within the Department. The issues and recommendations raised by the Joint Committee on Social and Family Affairs in its report, The Position of Full-time Carers, are being considered in the context of this review. The review is at an advanced stage and measures will be finalised as soon as possible in the new year.