Thursday, 30 May 2019

Questions (3)

Willie O'Dea


3. Deputy Willie O'Dea asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection if consideration will be given to changing the rules for carer's allowance to increase the hours a person is entitled to work from the current level of 15 hours to 18.5 hours; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [22983/19]

View answer

Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Employment)

There are approximately 375,000 carers in the country and only one in five of them qualify for carer's allowance. All the studies show that the number of carers is going to grow. This question relates to a proposal from Family Carers Ireland to assist carers to make ends meet by slightly relaxing the rules for qualification for carer's allowance.

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. Spending on these payments in 2019 is expected to exceed €1.2 billion.

Carer’s allowance is a means-tested payment for people living in Ireland who are looking after somebody who needs support because of age, physical or learning disability or illness, including mental illness. It is a condition for receipt of carer’s allowance that the carer must be providing full-time care and attention for a person who requires such full-time care and attention because of a specified illness or disability. This condition is moderated by legislation allowing the carer to work or engage in training outside the home for an aggregate total of 15 hours per week.

In setting the relevant working hours thresholds, it is appropriate to balance the needs of the carer and the person to whom care is being provided.  The current limit of 15 hours, when it was set, was considered to represent a reasonable balance between meeting the care recipient's requirement for full-time care and the carer's need to maintain contact with the workforce. The threshold was also set taking account of the generous income disregard available under the carer's allowance scheme. The level of the income disregard at €332.50 is such that a person could, if an hours limit was not applied, qualify for the full carer's payment while working up to about 35 hours per week. This would create obvious difficulties in ensuring that full-time care and attention were being provided.

The question of increasing the limit to 18.5 hours has recently been raised with my Department by carers' representative groups. Any change to qualifying criteria would have to be considered in the context of the issues just outlined and also in an overall budgetary context.

The rate of carer's allowance for a single person is approximately €16 per week above what the person would get if he or she was in receipt of jobseeker's allowance. I accept one should add the carer's support grant as well, but it is poor recompense for what is often a 24/7 job. Many carers have approached me, presumably with the consent of the people for whom they are caring, and made the point that they could work for an extra couple of hours a week in the current gig economy and still perform their caring duties. The Minister mentioned 35 hours but nobody is suggesting it. I am simply suggesting an extra three and a half hours. If there is a difficulty with that, perhaps the Minister could amend the legislation to enable it case by case if circumstances warrant it and if the carer can establish that he or she can still care adequately for the person for whom he or she is caring. The Department would have discretion to allow the person to work for more than 15 hours. The Minister said that €1.2 billion is being spent on caring, but in a reply to a parliamentary question on 2 April last the Minister said the net cost of this is approximately €1 million per annum. That will hardly bring the country's finances crashing down.

One of principal conditions for receipt of carer's allowance is that full-time care is being provided. In addition, the carer must comply with the means test. The conditions attached to the payment of carer's allowance are consistent with the overall conditions that apply to all social welfare assistance payments. The system of social assistance supports provides payments based on the income needs. It is not about paying the person for the care. The Deputy and I are at odds as he is asking the question on the basis of the provision of the care and I am answering it on the basis of it being an income assistance support. They are not quite the same. Everyone in the country values and depends on the care being provided by hundreds of thousands of people who are either receiving an income assistance or are not. Many thousands are not. That does not discount the value to the State of the care being provided. This is an income support which requires adherence to a means threshold. It also must be considered in the budget context.

If somebody can care for a person full-time and work for 15 hours per week, there are many instances where somebody could care for a person full-time and work up to 18.5 hours per week.

I have two brief supplementary questions. Does the Minister have plans to review the Carer's Leave Act 2001 with a view to introducing more flexible working hours? Second, when the national carers' strategy was published in 2012 there was a commitment to revisit it when the country's finances and economy improved. Are there plans to do that now that the finances have improved?

I know that I have a reputation of sticking my nose into stuff that has nothing to do with me but neither of the Deputy's questions falls within the remit of my Department.

The Carer's Leave Act is the responsibility of the Minister for Justice and Equality and responsibility for the national carers' strategy rests with the Minister for Health. A couple of weeks ago, I stated we needed to have a proper conversation about care but I got my nose chopped off. The latter could be done by a review under the carers' strategy. My Department provides income supports and, while it sounds cold and callous to say this, it is only money. Some people offer genuine support and put in hundreds of hours but get no pay for it. I am sometimes portrayed as a cold person but I am not a cold person. We need to discuss the value of care, both in the home and in the extended community.